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Space Nazis

I’m tired, I’ve had a long day. And I’m reading the news, and some days reading the news leaves you unable to finish your silly rant essay about a silly mobile game where you make karps flop around. So let’s talk about Star Wars.

It’s hard to not read the original trilogy as a product of the Cold War, especially given the way contemporary language describes it. The USSR was described as being an unstoppable bear the United States was only outpacing through sheer tenacity and ingenuity. The Death Star, with its ability to obliterate entire planets, is nuclear weapons In Space.

But then, fiction is seldom so clear. Though the Cold War may have been the current war, Star Wars exists in the shadow of the Second World War. The soldiers of the Empire are termed Stormtroopers, which though a general term for shocktroopers, was also a rank and detachment of the Nazi SS. Befitting Germany’s response to WW2, the rank is no longer in use; though in the 60s it surfaced as the title for a magazine for the American Nazi Party. When you combine that with Star Wars’ Imperial Officer aesthetic, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the influences for the famous villains.  For those keeping track at home, the Empire is essentially Nazis In Space with nukes In Space.

Of course, Star Wars is not an allegory, the Empire is fictitious and, for all its villainy, is pretty cool (as the fleet of different TIE models around my shelves will testify). But within the story, they are pretty much the ultimate evil. One that the heroes rally against and overcome.

Now, science fiction, and stories in general, is a safe space to explore ideas. And sometimes, it’s a really simple idea, like that space Nazis are bad, but also that they can be defeated. That heroes don’t stay on the farm, heroes stand up to fascism and xenophobia, but heroes also believe that people can still be redeemed.

In light of this, it’s understandable that The Force Awakens can be read as undoing the eucastrophe of Return of The Jedi, but I disagree. Rather, The Force Awakens builds on the themes of the original trilogy. The villainous First Order, built on the remnants of the old Empire, is described as being like “if the Nazis all went to Argentina but then started working together again”. It’s led by young men who idolize the old regime and fashion themselves as its inheritors. The political climate is far more complex this time around. The New Republic officially ignores the First Order, but a ragtag Resistance fights back. So maybe the space Nazis came back decades after they were defeated, but it turns out there are always heroes who will fight back. 

And now there’s Rogue One, a movie set back during the Galactic Civil War, where the Empire was in full swing, when it seemed like there was no weakness to the ultimate evil. The tenor of Rogue One is different, more dire, it’s all or nothing.

Yet, it turns out, it can be defeated. A band of heroes rise up and find a way to bring down the Empire, find a way to stop the unstoppable.

But remember the themes. It is a diverse group who defeats the space Nazis. Not just white dudes, but a woman and people of color. Turns out, an ideology of exclusion and hate could be beaten by inclusion and hope. Who knew.

Maybe there’s a lesson buried in there. Sure, space Nazis may be a little extreme, but maybe there’s the lesson that fascism, xenophobia, and hate aren’t good things. Maybe there’s the lesson that standing up to evil is an ideal to strive for. Maybe fighting space Nazis is a good thing.

Maybe they’re just stories.

But then again, maybe there’s something to them.

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Xenophobia, Science Fiction, and, eventually, Hope

I didn’t learn the term ‘xenophobia’ from the news, the radio, or a textbook. Didn’t come up in class or any place you’d expect. Rather, I learnt the word ‘xenophobia’ from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books.

Was in the context of various political factions being distinctly anti-alien. Now, the xenophobia usually stemmed from the Empire and their staunch humans-first attitude and view of anyone who wasn’t as being intrinsically lesser, but some players in the New Republic also held xenophobic beliefs which made working together harder. Key thing was, these people were either villains or antagonists and their belief that someone who looked and thought differently was worth less than a person was wrong. The heroes, Luke, Leia, and even Han, weren’t about that; it was Emperor Palpatine and his ilk who pushed a xenophobic agenda. For a kid in his early teens recently immigrated to the US, it was a pretty clear distinction: good guys aren’t afraid of or mean to people because they’re different.

Now we all know that aliens and hyperdrives and Jedi are fictitious. But, xenophobia, as I would find out later, is a real term used by real people to describe real issues. The idea behind it, though — treating different people differently and meanly — was something I knew was unquestionably wrong because, well, Star Wars books. That and I was, y’know, a half-Singaporen cultural immigrant to South Carolina. But you get the idea.

I’m loathe to call Star Wars and science fiction in general ‘morality plays.’ Heck, I’m loathe to call any good fiction a ‘morality play’ because good fiction doesn’t preach at you. What science fiction does particularly well is, well, it says something without saying something. Diego Luna, in an interview with Vanity Fair,  said that the wonderful thing about setting Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away was “…whenever you get too personal, you can say, “No, I’m not talking about you. This is a galaxy far, far away.” But with this tool, you can actually make the most effective comments on the reality in which you’re living.”* Learning that species isn’t a demarcation for the capacity to do good is good practice for knowing that skin color and country of origin don’t have any bearing on whether someone is ‘good.’

And that’s the thing about stories: they’re practice. See, folks smarter than me have been trying to figure out why humanity does this whole storytelling thing. One theory is that stories are practice for interactions, a sort of simulation. When we read, we experience it ourselves. It’s science, since there are studies that “…suggest when we experience fiction are neurons are firing much as they would if we were actually faced with Sophie’s choice or if we were taking a relaxing shower and a killer suddenly tore down the curtain” (pg 63 of The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, if you’re wondering). Stories are practice. They’re parables, where you can learn something by living something in a different way. As Gottschall says, “if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story” (118).

Back to science fiction. Reading stories about the real world can be tough, because seeing the crap we know exists in real life existing again isn’t always the funnest thing. Science fiction (and fantasy, etc) are reality adjacent, and so have more leeway. Ursula K. LeGuin can explore classism and sexual identity without pointing a finger at anyone for being a bigot. It becomes a safe space to discuss complex topics and live experiences you wouldn’t ordinarily. Stories can change you, can impact you because, well, the nature of fiction is that it strives to put you in that place. A good book has you working with the writer to empathize and live the narrative first hand. You can’t read a good book and come out entirely unchanged.

And the fantasy of science fiction means that there is a quick gratification to that hope. You don’t have to wait years and years on the edge to know that good will triumph over evil, that diversity beats xenophobia; you just gotta reach the end of the book.

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AMERICA

If you follow this blog you’ve probably realized that my mostest favoritest trope is the rag-tag multicultural team. It’s why I’ll always hold Disney’s Atlantis in high esteem, it’s why I have such a huge soft spot for the Magnificent Seven remake and Rogue One. Pacific Rim, Halo: Reach, X-COM, you give me a multicultural/national team, you make me happy

Really happy.

So you can understand my hesitance when the follow-up to Al Ewing’s very enjoyable New Avengers comics was U.S.Avengers. Here’s what could well be a rah-rah jingoistic comic, while New Avengers (volume 4, if you’re wondering) was this idiosyncratic book with giant mecha, a squirrel convincing a rat army to stop fighting for the bad guys, and mad science.

The first issue of U.S.Avengers is framed around the members of the team talking to the ‘camera’ about why they’re part of the team and, as they are a part of the remade AIM (American Ideas Mechanics) which is overseen by the US Government, about the whole being American thing. For Roberto da Costa, the leader of the team, this means talking about wanting to be American. Lemme make this clear, the first panel of the first issue of a comic book called U.S.Avengers is Roberto da Costa, someone born in Brazil, talking about his wanting to be an American. It culminates in him firmly declaring that he’s an American citizen, something that can’t be taken away.

So right off the bat we have, in a comic book called U.S.Avengers, the definition of American identity being one of an immigrant (who’s also not white, by the way).

But who else is on this team? We’ve got Toni Ho, genius Chinese-American who built her own version of the Iron Patriot which she pilots. Her girlfriend, Aikku, is also part of the team. A Finnish-Norwegian (say it with me:) immigrant, she finds the US different and slightly frightening, but takes comfort in Toni and the others and the space to find herself. And has her own super high-tech suit. We’re also introduced to Squirrel Girl, who stresses her Canadian/American dual citizenship; General Robert Maverick, the representative of the US Government who’s also Red Hulk; and Sam Guthrie, the guy from Kentucky whose interpretation of the American Dream is that of his blue-collar father, one where “there is no ‘them’ to help or hurt.” The first issue ends with an appearance by Captain America (which makes sense), only this is Captain America from an alternate future where she’s Danielle Cage, a bulletproof black woman.

This has been is a stupid amount of summarizing, but I hope you’re following my train of thought here. The image of the American put forth by U.S.Avengers isn’t one of a straight white dude; in the book Americans can be – and are – immigrants, people of color, women, and queer. This isn’t something the book hints at, it’s a blatant thesis statement put forth in the first issue.

I’m sure you’ve realized by now that this is important, but let me explain why. For much of American history, the image of an ‘American’ has been a straight white guy. Even today, especially today, the prevalent narrative of an American is a straight white guy whose family has been in the states for generations. It’s that whole idea of a ‘true’ or ‘real’ American. U.S.Avengers offers a counternarrative; one that’s, well, reflective of the actual US. We can talk all we want about shifting demographics and the changing face of a nation, but until the narrative shifts we’re just blowing air. U.S.Avengers reflects that America, as Marvel has been  doing as of late: Ms. Marvel is a naturalized Pakistani immigrant; Hulk is Korean-American, one Captain America is black.

So again, this is why diversity is important. If you’re doing a story about the modern US then the characters ought to reflect the people who make up the country: a nation of immigrants not just from Europe. We need these stories, we need to see people who aren’t straight white guys portrayed as American in fiction if we’re ever going to shift the default image of what an American is.

Elsewise we find ourselves in some ersatz 1950s America, and you don’t really wanna go back to that, do you?

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Of Movies and North Korea

I have a strange fascination with a certain North Korean dictator. Maybe it’s because he’s barely eight years older than me, hangs out with Dennis Rodman, and tyrannically rules a country of 25 million people with a combination of a cult-of-personality and sheer terror.

Like I said, fascinating.

So naturally I was really looking forward to The Interview. I had passes to a preview of it on Thursday and was all set. Only, it turns out, North Korea was really pissed about it and, a hack and couple terrorist threats later, and it’s been pulled from cinematic distribution. And I’m bummed.

Because The Interview is satire and satire is important. Because North Korea is terrifying; for there to be a country that, well, crazy is scary. But that’s the thing: we make fun of what scares us.

Satire takes away the teeth. It’s why The Great Dictator exists, why videos about Iraqi loyalists like this exist, and, of course, what makes The Interview funny. But what’s worth noting is that The Interview, like that video about subtitles and terrorists, seemed ready to make as much fun of the ‘good guys.’

The comedy of the subtitles video comes not out of how the reporter (and, by extension the media) treats the soldiers, that is her insistent condescension to them. The Interview’s comedy, based on the trailers, looks to stem from the bumbling antics of Seth Rogen and James Franco in a place where they really shouldn’t be. Plus, Kim Jong Un and all of his eccentricities makes for great fodder. Taking the piss out of him with a movie like that doesn’t diminish his status as a threat, one that everyone is aware of, but reminds us that he’s still human. ‘cuz Supreme Leaders are people too.

But now I didn’t get to go to my screening and theater chains won’t be showing it. Granted, there’s some justification in not wanting to incur the wrath of North Korea, but it’s the precedent that’s worrisome. Another film about North Korea in production, Pyongyang, has been canceled for much of the same reason. There’s a weird sort of fear that’s stifling satire and fiction. Which, again, is a shame. Without it we wouldn’t have The Colbert Report taking shots at everything from terrifyingly conservative politicians to, of course, North Korea.

Now, there’s a distinction here to be sure. We make fun of the part that scares us, not what saddens us. There’s no comedy about those dying under the Kim regime, just as Jon Stewart couldn’t find anything funny to say in the wake of the grand jury’s decision on Eric Garner. There’s a line between the amusing and the not. Kim Jong Un exists on that line, almost caricature that he is. He’s an easy target, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking the shot.

So I’m of the opinion that The Interview shouldn’t have been canceled. Even if it’s cinematic release has been pulled, then at the very least there should have been plans made for an immediate digital release. It doesn’t make sense for the Hermit Kingdom to be the one calling the shots on what gets released in a different country. If anything, this has also upped the hype for the movie more than an advertising campaign could.

Because, hey, what gets a public’s attention more than an international incident?

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Sacrifice

There’s this trope in fiction called the Heroic Sacrifice. The idea is that a character gives himself up so another can live or succeed. When done right it can be an incredibly powerful writing tool.

Doesn’t have to be sacrificing your own life, though. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman has just saved Commissioner Gordon’s son and the fallen Harvey Dent has tumbled to his death. There is blood on Dent’s hands; the man who came close to saving Gotham has come crashing down and his stellar reputation will follow. So Batman tells Gordon to pin every one of Dent’s crimes on him. Batman will take responsibility for what Dent did so that the late District Attorney’s work will not be undone. Gordon agrees reluctantly and Batman disappears into the night and we are left marveling at the self-sacrifice of the Dark Knight. Gotham has been saved, at the expense of Batman’s character.

Of course, the trope of sacrifice can be done wrong. In the terrible live-action adaption of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the interaction between two characters (Sokka and Princess Yue) is treated from the get-go as comic relief. It’s amusing to see them bumbling over themselves as their attraction grows. Then suddenly the plot necessitates a sacrifice and the only one who can do it is the Princess.

The relationship that we’ve only seen snippets of (and has thus far been used exclusively as comic relief) is suddenly thrust forward as drama. Before we get a chance to realize that it isn’t a joke, she’s dead and everyone forgets about her as the climax continues. It’s forgettable and fails to add any tension or poignancy. The general crappiness of the script, acting, and direction probably doesn’t help any.

(Do note: in the cartoon series the sacrifice had punch and weight and genuinely felt sad)

A far stronger example comes from the TV series Lost. Sawyer is never presented as a particularly ‘good’ character. As far as he’s concerned, he’s not someone worth liking and no one could possibly hate him more than he does.

The plot continues and Sawyer faces his demons and grows into a protector of the other castaways. As Season Four draws to a close a handful of the castaways are given the chance to get off the island. Sawyer is among them.

But the helicopter is too heavy; they need to lighten the load. So someone has to jump from the copter. Though Sawyer isn’t killed from his sacrifice, it serves as the climax to his arc. He’s gone from the selfish murderer when he arrived on the island to someone who would give up his spot for another. It’s a story of redemption and sacrifice.

Sometimes everything comes together to form a simply beautiful sequence. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek opens with the USS Kelvin being viciously attacked by an unknown enemy. George Kirk has only been captain for a few minutes and orders the evacuation of the entire crew; including his wife and about-to-be-born child. To buy time for the lifeboats he resorts to ramming his ship headlong into the enemy. Autopilot’s gone and only he is left to pilot it in.

The gravity of the moment is accentuated not only by Michael Giacchino’s beautiful score (see Up for further reference) but by the heartbreaking conversation he has with his wife. Within a few minutes we’re caught up in this valiant act that not only sets up the plot but gives his son a standing to aspire to. It’s a universal notion: the idea of giving up one’s own life for a loved one, one that draws us in and makes us feel.

The midnight release of The Dark Knight Rises was marred by the Aurora Shooting. Yet even in the most horrible circumstances, light can shine out. Three men, three unrelated individuals, had one instinct when the shooter opened fire: get their girlfriends out of harm’s way. Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves all died to save the ones they loved. There was no fanfare, no triumphant score as they fell to the ground. Just sacrificial love. Though the press will follow the shooter until he receives his judgement and beyond, it’s these stories, the actions of Blunk, McQuinn, and Teves that should be remembered. Because of what they did three young women still have life. Because of them we’re reminded that though some of us may be absolute bastards, some of us are still good.

I’ve written of heroes on this blog before. I’ve said that one of the reasons heroes inspire us is because we hope that we can be like them. We read and watch our fiction about brave heroes who will die to save the day. Then we see before us real people who willingly gave their lives. All of a sudden the notion of the heroic sacrifice ceases to be a trope in fiction and it becomes real.

And heroes ARE real. And Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves ARE heroes.

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