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Game of Thrones Recap: Home

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

A not so surprising twist, and the death of two uninteresting and forgettable characters. That pretty much sums up the second episode in the new season. I’ll save the twist for last.

First to the East:

The cities of Slaver’s Bay are not living in a golden age of liberty. Without the Breaker of Chains and a lot of help from the unsullied, the slaves are pacified and the masters regain control. Tyrion unchained the dragons, which was incredibly stupid. Other than that, no change here.

Her struggles and inability to liberate Slaver Bay supports the arguments against nation-building and regime change. Americans are pretty supportive of this notion, despite our utter disgust at slavery and the horrible cultural practices in Meereen and elsewhere. Can we look away as these cities continue to fall back into their old backward ways? Should Queen Daenerys simply say “fuck it” and let them be miserable? Only now she has no fleet… Guess she’s stuck there. It also means she needs to find a way to put an end to this cycle and ensure her rule remains stable. No easy solutions here but a lot of potential for drama in this great challenge.

As expected Arya is welcomed back into the House of Black and White. Seriously, did anyone else think she’d be on the street for long? Another predictable plot point.

King Tommen apologized to his mother and acknowledged his weakness in the face of the Sparrows. The conflict between royalty and religion, is an interesting take on our tradition of separating church and state. Prior to the Sparrows, the throne and the High Sept worked together, sharing power and supporting one another. Religious tenets were bent and broken by royalty, while the faith did their best to encourage the peasants to accept bad government. The throne supported and protected the High Septon in return. Now that alliance is gone and we may see a religious war take place in King’s Landing.

Cersei and Jaime are definitely in favor of moving against the Sparrows. They have the manpower and will, but need to restore the old priesthood into power. There is risk the peasants may not stand back and let their temple fall. Of course, the commoners of King’s Landing do not appear to be the pious type. I think King Tommen and his parents can accomplish this with little trouble.

What to do with the Tyrells? To ensure the throne, Cersei must drop her feud with Queen Marjaery. Ser Loras must be freed as well, and will return to Highgarden in all likelihood. How to ensure the security of the alliance and that Cersei cannot do that again? Destroy the Sparrows is a good start but I would think the Tyrells will want more assurance. Another possibility, once Marjaery and Loras are free the alliance exists in name only. Efforts will be made to kill Tommen and end the alliance through marriage. Either that or have the marriage annulled somehow.

Cersei doesn’t drop feuds easily. Plus the most obvious way to proceed is for her to marry Ser Loras. Not likely.

We got nothing new from Dorne. I expect They will have to make move soon. There is no Lord there as of now, plus they are responsible for the death of the king’s sister.

Balon Greyjoy is dead, murdered by his brother. Who cares? Also Roose Bolton is murdered by his son Ramsey. Whoop-de-do. That puts the North squarely in his hands. He has no heir and his wife has fled to Castle Black. Theon heads for the Iron Islands where we may see a tearful reunion and alliance with his sister Asha. One has cause to rejoice in their father’s death while another seeks revenge.

Overall, I do not think any of the characters in this story line are of interest anymore. Good luck getting fans to care.

And oh yeah, Jon Snow is alive!!!

The prayer from the Red Priestess worked. As we saw in the Brotherhood Without Banners, you can bring people back from the dead by saying the right words. This magical inclusion comes with some plot complications if it is a power without limits. With the backing of the Wildlings and Ser Davos, Castle Black is now returned to him. The threat of the white walkers lingers.

There are two possible sources of conflict going forward: (1) Ser Davos learns the Red Priestess encouraged the sacrifice of Stannis’s daughter and (2) Ser Davos learns Brienne executed Stannis. All three are on death watch.

So, that is all I got for this update. Not much going on except two irrelevant deaths and a predictable resurrection.

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How to Write Not Good: The Mary Sue/Marty Stu

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Wesley Crusher 2

When I was younger, I dreamed of being a Jedi fighting alongside Obi-Wan. In the climactic battle, I was the one who finished off the Sith Lord, of course. The force was strong with me, endowing me with epic Jedi skills. There was also a time when I fantasized of being an officer on the USS Enterprise mixed in with fantasies of being a Navy Seal, ninja, or pilot of a battlemech. In all the dreams, I was the awesome hero in the end. All of them were about my path to power and status, things I did not have as a kid.

These kinds of fantasies are usually normal and healthy, but they don’t make for good stories. Some authors write protagonists that are really an avatar for themselves, allowing them to fulfill all their fantasies of glory. Their ridiculously talented, attractive, and universally adored protagonist is known as a “Mary Sue” character, or “Marty Stu” for the male equivalent. Some call him Gary or Larry Stu but I prefer Marty Stu. The term Mary Sue began as a parody of a common character in early Star Trek fanfiction. The character was usually a young female ensign who saved the Enterprise and ended up with one of the major characters (Kirk, Spock, etc.). It was a way for fans to put themselves on their favorite ship and live in the universe of Star Trek.

The term has since broadened to include all situations where the author is inserting themselves into the story via a character that is a little too perfect. In science fiction, Marty Stu’s are prevalent in military science fiction. The no-name private rises up to become a war hero thanks to his tactical genius, unwavering bravery, and supreme martial skills. Marty and Mary are also common in young adult fiction, which is largely becoming the genre of wish-fulfillment. It is the place for anxious, insecure teenagers to live out their fantasies of obtaining popularity, success, and wealth.

How do you know you’ve written a Mary Sue character? There is no official test (although there is a good unofficial one here) or exact definition. Most commentators do seem to agree there is a sliding scale, with many protagonists exhibiting some Mary Sue traits.

Here are the basic elements of a Mary or Marty:

Unrealistic Abilities
Marty and Mary aren’t just talented, they are REALLY talented, blessed with powers that push the boundaries of realism. They are often gifted in multiple areas, even if they are completely unrelated (i.e. a master engineer, award-winning singer, and a Olympic-medal winning gymnast). The plot is structured so that they have several opportunities to demonstrate their talents, typically in a public setting. They might begin as a diamond in the rough, unknown and unappreciated. Members of the opposite sex just do not appreciate them, at least not yet. When Marty finally gets his chance to demonstrate his skills, the ladies come flocking. Mary often gets her choice from a cohort of admirable men who fall in love with her. They do not necessarily obtain power and status in the end, but always receive honorable recognition from those around them.

In Star Trek, you will find a Marty Stu in the character Wesley Crusher, who was an author-insert for creator Gene Roddenberry (his middle name was Wesley). Wesley seems to possess a genius despite his young age and limited education. He is young and handsome, with a bright future, and has among his friends the top ranking officers of the crew. Captain Picard even treats him as a surrogate son.

Attractive in so Many Ways
In addition to their awesome abilities, Marty and Mary are almost always attractive physically, or have one unique and captivating physical trait such as exotic colored eyes or an intricate tattoo. In the beginning, the author will try to describe them as plain or unremarkable but this faux humility falls apart later. The other characters inevitably find them attractive.

They are also great people, better than you in every way. Other characters get a good feeling about them when they meet them. The only people who don’t like Mary and Marty are evil morons, obviously unworthy of their virtuous foes. Our godly protagonists are compassionate, trusting, loyal, understanding, and incredibly charming. Even if they had a rough upbringing, they retain these sage-like qualities. Everyone around them recognize their saintly nature, are easily persuaded by their arguments, and will try to emulate them.

The only allowable character flaws are stubbornness or a temper, but neither flaw has any adverse consequences when it is exposed. Whenever Marty gets angry, his rage falls upon someone who desperately deserved it. All excuse him for his outburst, even celebrate his loss of self-control. When Mary gets set on something, she won’t let anyone stand in her way. Naturally the story rewards such tenacity because their ultimate aim is always righteous. They are described as bold, fierce, passionate, fearless, brash, a loose cannon (if they’re a cop), a rebel, or someone “who plays by their own rules.” Whatever supposed flaw they possess, the author will spin it into a virtue.

Exceptional Backstory
Fascinating and unique backstories are very common for Marty and Mary. They are the last of their kind, possess rare genetic traits, are descendants of legendary characters, grew up extremely poor or disadvantaged, or possess some valuable one-of-a-kind artifact. They are different and special. Sometimes, the other characters stand in the wake of their celebrity, whispering to one another “they are the chosen ones! They will do A,B, and C for us!” Yes indeed, incredible things always seem to happen around them.

Everything Revolves Around Them
The story must dedicate itself to the steadily unfolding awesomeness of Marty and Mary. All the other characters talk about them constantly, and have their actions driven by them. Most apologize for the slightest insult or act of rudeness, except for the villains or are infinitely rude. Pages and pages are spent describing Marty and Mary, from physical appearance to backstory, the inner feelings, which are always righteous. Nearly all conversations among the other characters are about them. Whenever something happens, the author’s first question is “how does it affect Mary?” The impact on all other characters is irrelevant.

 

It is easy to understand why authors do this. They want to live vicariously through their fictional character. We all do it in our imaginations, from a young age all the way to adulthood. That doesn’t make it a good story. It results in a poorly-developed protagonist and an implausible plot. At the same time, most modern heroes have great abilities or an exceptional back story. Some are paragons of virtue as well. How is it that they are highly successful yet so many Marys and Martys fall short?

Well, the vast majority of successful heroes and heroines are towards the lower end of the Mary Sue/Marty Stu scale. Let’s apply the elements described above to the protagonists of the biggest sci-fi franchises:

Katniss Everdeen is a talented archer, brave, and selfless. At same time, none of her talents or admirable traits are implausible when you learn her background. She also has a temper which does not serve her, and she always seems to be a step behind everyone else. While she has two men vying for her attention, she is described as plain looking and ends up with permanent injuries and a few ugly scars. In terms of backstory, she is unremarkable among the many poor of District 12. Given that the novel is written in first person present tense, her domination of the plot is justifiable. With only one element satisfied (plot domination), Katniss cannot be labeled a Mary Sue.

Luke Skywalker is a more of a Marty Stu. He is the son of the chosen one, Anakin, and the force is unnaturally strong with him. In the Star Wars universe, there are numerous individuals with force abilities, therefore his talents are not unrealistic or extraordinary given the setting. Neither Luke nor his famous father really demonstrate supremacy in their skills. Anakin is defeated by Count Dooku on Attack of the Clones and later the less powerful Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke loses a duel to his father and is nearly killed by Darth Sidious. In terms of personality, Luke is just an all around great guy that everyone adores. In terms of plot domination, a good part of the original three movies does not involve Luke at all; it is the story of Han and Leia. That is two elements satisfied (attractive, exceptional backstory).

In Force Awakens, Rey is emerging as a Mary Sue. She has multiple talents, which have not been explained yet (she has Jedi skills without training). She is a great person, compassionate and kind. We do not know her backstory yet but we get the impression she is attached to one of the legendary Jedi names (Kenobi or Skywalker). Even if she isn’t, she grew up on the rough world of Jakku just like Luke and his impoverished hellhole of Tatooine. Yet still grow up to be good people. A good part of the movie does not involve Rey. Fin, Han, Leia, and Kylo Ren play major roles in the plot that often do not involve Rey.

Firefly/Serenity sports several quality characters but none have unrealistic abilities. Mal Reynolds is a skilled fighter and clever captain but many episodes involve his follies. He plays the rogue at times but is a principled individual, a typical anti-hero. With a common backstory and lack of plot focus on him, Mal is no Marty Stu. None of the other characters come close.

Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead is brave, strong, and good with a gun. His background as a former cop and his experiences in the zombie apocalypse all plausibly explain his skills. There are moments when he seems to be a great leader and father, while other times he is emotionally absent. As for his backstory, he was just a cop before the zombie apocalypse. Rick is zero Marty.

The Doctor in Doctor Who qualifies as a Marty Stu, in my opinion. He is all-knowing with extraordinary abilities thanks to TARDIS and his sonic screwdriver. All of the Doctors are great and admirable people with a couple quirks here and there. The backstory is certainly unique but the Doctor does not always dominate the plot. In many episodes, it is the trials of the companions that drives the plot. Still, Doctor satisfies three of four elements. If you look at the motivations behind a Marty Stu, you also have to wonder. The adventures through space and time are very likely a form of wish-fulfillment.

Star Trek is a franchise that typically includes several talented officers with impeccable character. Their genius is demonstrated time and again, pushing the bounds of realism but there are also episodes where they reveal weaknesses in their abilities or a minor character flaw. Most have average backgrounds with the exception of Worf (only Klingon in Starfleet) and Data (only android in Starfleet). Wesley Crusher was clearly a Marty Stu. Captain Picard could be a Marty Stu. There is certainly some wish-fulfillment for Mr. Roddenberry but Picard doesn’t receive much in the way of tangible benefits. More likely he is an author-insert, the person the author wished he could be. The franchises largely overcome having less realistic characters by being much more plot-driven in many episodes, or requiring a team effort to overcome challenges as opposed to a single protagonist shining high above the others.

Also, I do not think it is a coincidence that Wesley Crusher was deeply disliked among fans. In one episode, he accidentally let some nanites loose because he was exhausted from all his endless studies. Apparently he was going for a triple-doctorate at age 16. This is the plot equivalent of a humble brag. “Oh I screwed up because I am so busy getting A’s in twelve graduate level courses.”

Neo is a pretty big Marty Stu in The Matrix. He is the chosen one with godlike abilities, a great guy, and dominates most of the plot. As a character, he is pretty dull. You never really get to know the messianic Neo. I suppose I love the movies anyway because Neo is very mortal and average outside of the Matrix. There are philosophical and religious facets to the movies that are brilliant, but I would have to admit Neo is not a well-developed character.

What about superheroes? All of them have incredible abilities from a conventional standpoint but are far from omnipotent in their universe. They can be outmatched at times. Two are portrayed as paragons of virtue: Superman and Captain America. Superman has an extraordinary origin and the plot largely fixates on him. Some consider him the prototypical American Marty Stu. Captain America is not as high on the unrealistic abilities scale as many of his foes have similar or even greater powers. His selflessness and ability to persevere are his defining traits, both character related. Trailers for the new film, Civil War, suggest he is fallible however. In most of his movies, there are several things going plot-wise. I’d say he is a moderate Marty Stu.

As you can see, having one or two elements of a Mary Sue isn’t a problem. It is when you have most or all the elements in high doses, that the character loses appeal. Even then, there are ways to get away with it. In the right context, they can appeal to an audience. For science fiction, they tend to do better in military and young adult action/adventure sci-fi. These novels typically appeal to niche audiences but not the broader population of sci-fi readers. Also, if the novel or movie is plot-driven as opposed to character-driven, a Mary or a Marty is more tolerable. The other elements and themes must be strong enough to carry the story. Otherwise, authors should avoid inserting themselves into their stories as a form of wish-fulfillment. Take some time to develop the protagonist to include some real imperfections.

Want to know if you’re protagonist is a full-on Marty or a Mary? Here is a good Writer’s Test that will tell you where on the scale they are.

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Game of Thrones Recap: The Red Woman

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Well, that had to be the most predictable season premiere of all time.

Fans have had nearly a year to chew on the previous season, and put together their own predictions of what is to happen next: (1) Jon Snow is brought back to life by Red Priestess; (2) Brienne would find Sansa; (3) Lannisters and Martells go to war; (4) Daenerys would convince the Dothraki of her previous marriage to Drogo and avoid being treated as a typical slave; (5) Arya is blind beggar but won’t be forsaken by the House of Black and White.

Nearly all of these things happened. Let’s start go in order.

Of all the predictions, (1) did not happen in episode 1. Ser Davos has his knightly sensibilities insulted when Jon Snow is murdered. Jon’s friends are prepared to die for their revenge while Davos wants them to escape. The Red Priestess may be the answer, or it could be the Wildlings.

Much to the disappointment of the millions of female fans out there, Jon Snow is still dead. Not only that, they still have no answer to the White Walkers. We also don’t know if Davos will learn about what happened to Stannis’s daughter. The Red Priestess won’t be alive much longer when he finds out. She is on death watch.

Sansa and Theon meet up with Brienne and Podrick. This was inevitable. Now that Sansa has some muscle and some intelligence, she is off death watch for now. If they stay in the North, they will need to find a house still loyal to the Starks, or hate the Boltons. That might be the Karstarks, or it might be the house that is sheltering Rickon Stark, her brother. Otherwise they will need to flee south and head to the Vale. Sansa might not be too enthusiastic about that given her uncle Littlefinger basically sold her to Ramsey the sadist.

It was interesting to learn the Boltons do not really have enough power to hold the North. They rely on their alliance with the Lannisters and Walder Frey. With the Lannisters circling the drain, Roose Bolton does not feel secure. The marriage with Sansa Stark was part of his play to keep the North but with her gone his grip is slipping.

I still don’t know what Littlefinger’s play is. I thought he wanted Sansa for himself, a younger version of his beloved Catelyn. At the same time, he tends to play the long game and may be thinking a few steps ahead. The endgame for him is the end of House Lannister and Baratheon, those responsible for the death of his love, as well as several personal humiliations. One is already extinct (Baratheon), while the other is falling farther into the abyss. However, Littlefinger has no claim to the throne. He could use Robin Arryn as a puppet but who would accept such a weakling as king? A puppet is one thing, but Robin can’t even succeed as a puppet, not without a lot more muscle behind him.

Not sure where that is going.

We knew Lannisters and Martells were heading to war but it seems the process has been accelerated. Lord Doran Martell was assassinated along with his son Trystane, effectively ending their house. Ellaria is of a great house and thus has no claim, nor do the Sand Snakes. Unless they fabricate a claim for the eldest daughter of Prince Oberyn, I see the Dorne falling into chaos. They would have to come up with marriage documents, legitimizing the one daughter they had together, Tyene.

Those seeking vengeance do not always plan ahead, but Ellaria executed a pretty good plan against Doran.

King Tommen is in trouble. The alliance with the Tyrells is all but dead. Ser Loras and Queen Margaery are imprisoned. That leaves the Lannister armies fighting by themselves against the Tyrells, Martells, and whoever else smells blood in the water.

We all knew Daenerys was not really in mortal danger. She has a big scaly, fire-breathing friend plus two reliable knights on her trail. When brought before the Khal, she convinces him she is the widow of Khal Drogo. Unfortunately her negotiations to be escorted back to Meereen fail. She is to be brought to Vaes Dothrak the capital for the Dothraki hordes.

Meanwhile, Meereen is falling apart. Even the wise Tyrion and Varys may not be able to hold it together. Prior to that, Queen Daenerys was struggling to rule the troubled city. How does she expect to rule seven kingdoms?

Arya is now a blind beggar, for her crimes against the House of Black and White. The young girl from the temple challenges her to a fight and wins easily. It seems the House is not done with her yet, as expected.

So that’s 4 out of the 5 most common predictions that came true.

Politically Westeros looks like it will endure more years of civil war and chaos. None of the great houses have enough power to maintain control over seven kingdoms. Partition is a possibility for some, although several of the kingdoms look to be in ruins: Riverlands, the North. The threat of the White Walkers remain unchecked.

In the East, Daenerys has struggled. Even if she is freed and returns to Meereen, more peril waits for her there.

It’s all just a big mess and will take a long time to clean up.

I predict Sansa and Brienne will inevitably go to the Karstarks or some other lower house in the North. Jon Snow will be brought back to life and will be an outlaw along with Davos and those that will abandon the Watch. A war between the Boltons and the pro-Stark houses may be coming. Look for White Walkers to breach the wall and advance into Westeros.

Dorne will declare itself a sovereign kingdom with Ellaria Martell (fabricated marriage documents) at the head and Tyene Martell as heir. It is difficult seeing them create an alliance through marriage, in fact it is hard to see any of the Sand Snakes marrying anyone. If they care at all about the dynasty they would have a matrilineal marriage (children are of the mother’s dynasty, not father’s). Perhaps it will be a marriage in name only, formalizing an alliance but the two will live separately. That leaves the problem of producing an heir. Perhaps Ellaria marries…Ser Loras? Tyrells have reason to switch sides, perhaps become sovereign themselves.

What is Littlefinger up to? He might return to King’s Landing and begin his machinations for wiping out what is left of House Lannister. Then what? Can Arryn ally with any other great house? Frey has heirs, Greyjoy has a daughter, and then there’s the Boltons with no unmarried heirs. Maybe a lower house will rise to seize the Baratheon lands, or maybe the brotherhood without banners will start to matter. There is still Blackfish Tully lurking about, desperate for revenge against Walder Frey.

Daenerys certainly cannot go to Westeros without ships. Her challenge, with the help of Tyrion and Varys, will be to defeat the Sons of the Harpy and pacify her new city. Then she needs to figure out how to get to Westeros.

Assuming she gets there, then what? Who would back her as Queen? Dragons and an army would certainly impress but they would also need to be convinced she can end the civil war. As of now, Lannisters, Freys, and Boltons are directly threatened by her claim. The Tyrells might be open if they can somehow nullify the marriage of Tommen and Marjaery. Ellaria and the Sand Snakes are probably not interested in swearing allegiance to an Eastern queen.

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Is This the End of Young Adult Dystopias?

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Allegiant Cast

By Jacob Foxx and Paulie Spiceflow

One of the biggest box office flops this year was Allegiant, the third installment of a franchise based on an extremely popular young adult novel. It will likely earn less than half than the previous movies in ticket sales and has been almost unanimously shunned by the critics at Rotten Tomatoes. It is not the only recent YA novel-based movie to tank. The Host, 5th Wave and many others also failed with the critics and movie-goers. These two movies are part of a growing pattern of young adult dystopias utterly failing at theaters, which begs the question: are we seeing the end of young adult dystopias?

These movies have a few things in common. First, they are almost exclusively based on novels as opposed to original screenplays or adapted from TV shows or comic books. Second, the movies usually have moderate budgets and do not sport a big time Hollywood mega-star as the lead. More often than not, there is a female protagonist and the inclusion of a sappy teenage love story. Third, they possess almost no social commentary of value, unlike most traditional dystopian stories. So why was Hollywood convinced this formula would work?

The answer is usually the same for any fad Hollywood latches onto: some movie hit it big, and all the other studios simply implemented the exact same formula. It began with the worldwide success of The Hunger Games in 2012. The low budget film about a girl trying to survive a gladiatorial style deathmatch, earned over $400 million in the US alone. Hollywood studios took notice. Soon thereafter we had the Divergent Series, The Host, 5th Wave, and a few others not worthy of mention. Most failed miserably, while the few that managed some modest success, fell far short of the film that started it all.

Speculative fiction in general has not been particularly friendly territory for YA movies. For every Twilight there are numerous Mortal Instruments and Hosts. The vast graveyard of flops suggests the “based on the best selling YA novel” fad was never really a fad. There is one wildly successful franchise in each group but most would agree it takes more than one of something in order to be a trend. It may just be that the successful movies were just great movies, and do not owe their success to a formula.

The Hunger Games succeeded because it had all the important elements of a great movie: greet writing, great cast, and great director. On one point in particular, they hit the jackpot: casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence is the most talented young actress of our generation, and was a perfect fit as Katniss. Throw in strong performances by Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and a terrifying Donald Sutherland and you have a hit. The dialogue and special effects were solid as well, although would not have carried the day by themselves. The source material, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian trilogy, provided a truly compelling premise that has captivated millions.

Most of its peers were found lacking in these vital categories. Producers must’ve thought that as long as the source novel was popular, the movie would succeed. Clearly, that is not the case. The Hunger Games was simply a great movie, regardless of where they got the idea. While it is true that it borrows some from 1984 and Battle Royale, the society and story itself are well-developed and compelling. The others movies mentioned above suffer from horrible world-building. The dystopian settings are under-developed, implausible, or clearly contrived to fit whatever plot the writers wanted. Most of them lack any compelling social commentary or relevance to world events today. In short, they were just bad movies.

So, to answer the question: yes we are seeing the end of YA dystopias in theaters. Surely Hollywood is convinced by now the YA dystopian formula isn’t the key. However, it is still enjoying some success at bookstores. They are part of a broader trend of incredibly successful YA speculative fiction franchises. From vampires, to post-apocalyptic survival, to dystopias, there is a strong demand for stories with young, attractive, strong heroes in exotic situations.

A few things have fed this trend over the past decade or two. One stems from the emergence of the “strong female character,” which is extremely common among YA spec fiction. In the good old days, women were cast to be the love interest of the hero, or the femme fatale, hooker with a heart of gold, or some other secondary stereotypical role, all subordinate to the leading man. They were seldom warriors or heroic protagonists. Somewhere along the line, that began to change. For younger audiences, the first hugely successful, strong and heroic female character was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There were others before her, as well as a few contemporaries, but Buffy seems to hold a special status among fans. Buffy was soon followed by Charmed, Vampire Diaries, TrueBlood, and Twilight. They exposed an enormous hunger for strong, heroic female characters in fantasy and science fiction (we would argue that Bella Swan is not a strong female character at all, but we’ll table that argument for now). This previously under-served market demonstrated their power by catapulting YA speculative fiction series onto the best seller lists, as well as pushing up TV ratings. Throw in the fact that women read a lot more fiction than men, and it is no wonder many of these successful franchises began as novels.

These new female roles filled the cultural role for women that action stars filled for men. Granted, there is plenty of gender cross-over appeal for big action movies and paranormal romance/action. However, movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Bruce Willis were clearly marketed more towards men than women. And vice versa for the shows and movies mentioned above. In short, Buffy and the others were the first modern heroines. YA Dystopian novels and TV shows is just one of many species that spawned from the rapidly growing market for strong, heroic, female protagonists.

Of course, not all YA shows and novels are heroine’s journeys. Some are simply romance novels with fantasy or sci-fi settings. In particular, dystopian settings seem to take the place of the old, stuffy patriarchal structures and traditional social norms that used to frustrate the romantic desires of young characters. The star-crossed lovers came from rival aristocratic families, or live on different sides of town. In many stories, the family and the community did not approve of a young girl’s boyfriend because of his criminal or rebellious nature. In all these stories, outside forces intervened and acted as the antagonists.

As we make our way deeper into the 21st century, the old oppressive patriarchal power structures are fading. Contemporary romance is probably having a hard time using these tropes as most young women grow up with far more autonomy then their mothers and grandmothers. The same goes for those rebellious boyfriends. Some men don’t bother obtaining their prospective father-in-law’s blessing anymore as it implies he has some sort of control over his adult daughter. Writers have found new ways to create outside antagonists, one of which is building an oppressive dystopian society that will actively seek to frustrate the desires of the young characters.

It isn’t all about the ladies, but the gender balance favors them by far in this particular area. One exception is Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, which features a young widow desperate for revenge against the society that killed his beloved wife. It’s success suggests we could see a new wave of YA dystopias with male leads… or it may simply be just a great book.

So why are YA speculative fiction failing at theaters but thriving in bookstores? We really aren’t sure. It may be a simple numbers game. Hundreds of YA novels are published for every film release. The marketplace has a much larger selection and thus provides a better opportunity for quality work to rise to the top. It could also be that the general movie audience is a larger and much broader demographic compared to the loyal readers of the novels. Most of them do not have appeal beyond their niche market.

YA speculative fiction may continue to thrive on various medias but we could be seeing a gradual decline in YA dystopias. The dystopian settings are often no more than flimsy plot devices that create some sort of outside oppressor for the star-crossed lovers. In non-romantic stories, there are usually silly, implausible societies that utterly fail to maintain the suspension of disbelief. Dystopias are bad places that we visit to gain perspective about our own society and ourselves. They provide unique, hypothetical situations that have deeply impacted political discourse, even coining new terms like “newspeak.” Since young adults, especially in America, are generally disengaged from political discourse, YA dystopias tend to be superficial, robbing them of their literary purpose. A few great books may transcend the genre but most titles are forgettable.

Perhaps one day publishers will publish dystopian books that fulfill their intended purpose, leaning more towards the “adult” part of the YA genre instead of the “young” part. We aren’t going to hold our breath.

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The Silver Ships by S.H. Jucha

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Silver Ships

Occasionally I will choose a book based on its popularity and customer reviews, even if no one has recommended it to me. In particular, I love to find self-published novels that are selling well on Amazon or B&N. That is how I found The Silver Ships by S.J. Jucha, a military science fiction novel with some serious space opera elements. Unfortunately, it doesn’t distinguish itself in any real way, utilizing many conventional tropes from both subgenres. In terms of writing style, editing, plot, etc. it is a decent novel but in most other respects fails to stand out among its many peers.

Alex Racine is a loner, piloting an ice freighter out in space around his home world New Terra. He is the descendant of colonists who left Earth after some sort of cataclysm. While collecting ice, He discovers a derelict ship and tries to get inside to discover its origins. He discovers the AI is still operational and that a small group of survivors are in cryo-sleep after seventy years of wandering through space. They are Meridiens, a human civilization that is descended from another colonial ship that left Earth. Alex helps them repair their ship, learning that they were attacked by an alien silver ship. They conclude the silver ships are a threat to both civilizations and decide to ally with one another to destroy them.

The strongest element is the world-building. There are plenty of details on physics, trajectories, ship design, weaponry, AI, nanites, and other common sci-fi ideas and technologies. There isn’t much detail given to the future timeline but what is explained seems plausible with a few unique details. Neither the technology nor world-building drives the story, however. Even the titular silver ships don’t seem to be all that relevant for most of the book. The novel is largely about Alex and his rise to utter awesomeness.

The novel could’ve been called “Everyone Loves Alex.” Every single character loves, admires, and is faithfully loyal to Alex, from the Meridiens to the New Terrans to the ship’s AI named  Julien. Everyone from the military up to the President of his own country defer to him. Then there are the Meridiens, blessed with a nanite technology that keeps them eternally young and beautiful, while also having light, elven bodies that Alex and many New Terrans find incredibly attractive. The female Meridiens adore Alex, of course, waiting for their opportunity to express their strong feelings for their savior.

In short, Silver Ships is a young male fantasy with no real conflict or tension AT ALL. A loner gets to save a ship full of hot babes, becomes a celebrity, and insanely rich in the process. Despite early descriptions of him as struggling with social skills and lacking regard for authority, he immediately rises to be the ultimate charismatic leader of the Meridiens and adopts his new authoritative role with total ease. Alex is given every opportunity to be the perfect man as the compassionate savior, hardworking engineer, quick-witted diplomat, brilliant strategist, and irresistible hunk to the tiny, doe-eyed Meridian ladies. The de facto leader of the Meridians, a beautiful little blonde (little in her physical stature and weight compared to Alex) falls for him in every way, constantly expressing her adoration and gratitude.

After reading a few other reviews, I learned these types of stories are called “Marty Stu” stories, based on the original literary concept of a Mary Sue.

A Mary Sue is a young, low-ranking character that is seemingly perfect in every way, possessing unrealistic abilities. Most see Mary Sue characters as the author inserting an idyllic version of themselves into the story, letting it become an exercise in fictional wish fulfillment. The term comes from the name of a character from Star Trek fan fiction, a young talented ensign who finds ways to save the Enterprise and end up with one of the stars (Kirk, Spock, Bones, etc.). The Marty Stu is the male version of this wish-fulfillment type story.

For Marty Stu the process involves rising from being a loser or loner who is not appreciated by his peers. Men love stories about glory, honor, and recognition from the society at large for their talents. They also love stories where all the glory gets them rewards such as wealth, women, and power. In the stories, Marty Stu gets miraculous opportunities to demonstrate his talents and quickly rises to be the popular guy, a leader, and has women falling over themselves to be with him. In military sci-fi, the rise to glory involves glory on the battlefield or proving martial skills above and beyond all others.

Alex fits the Marty Stu profile perfectly. He seems to have a brilliant strategic mind despite zero experience in the military or in any leadership position of any kind. He even possesses a genius for weapons design, something desperately needed for the story to go anywhere.

Starship Troopers is the progenitor of nearly all military sci-fi, but that novel had social commentary and details derived from authentic military experience. Many of its successors lack such insights. Silver Ships lacks any original or thoughtful social commentary and the military aspect is so minor it isn’t worth analyzing for plausibility or realism. It is comparable to many contemporary sci-fi novels, such as Poor Man’s Fight, but doesn’t have anything that distinguishes it from others.

If the novel had tried harder to develop the conflict itself or maybe gone a little farther into the nature and origin of the silver ships, it could’ve helped balance the Marty Stu sections. It also would’ve helped if there was at least some tension between Alex and any of the other characters. In this novel, there is almost none of any kind among anyone. Everybody gets along and is very understanding.

Despite all this, The Silver Ships has found an audience. My guess is that it particularly appeals to young male sci-fi readers, as well as some older ones who enjoy Marty Stu stories. It is all about fulfilling the male fantasy of personal glory and all the rewards that go with it, particularly the romantic ones. Beyond this audience, I don’t think it has much appeal.

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Archangel by Marguerite Reed

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Archangel

When a book makes the reader work just to keep up with the story, it can be frustrating. Some authors like to throw all sorts of neologisms, strange characters, and unique ideas at a reader without much context. Archangel is a tough read at times but possesses some unique ideas and an original story that makes it worth the effort. With topics ranging from genetic engineering to ecology, author Marguerite Reed wrote an ambitious debut novel.

Set in the far future after Earth has become a wasteland, Archangel takes place on an alien planet called Ubastis. Vashti Loren is a colonist and xenobiologist studying the planet’s indigenous life, which includes plants and some dangerous animals. Scientists and explorers like Loren are there to ensure colonization is possible and safe for the people and the indigenous life. They do not want to make the same mistake they did on Earth. Loren is also the widow of a famous colonial leader, who was brutally murdered. The killer, a genetically engineered super soldier called a beast, is the center of the story. As the novel begins, a Ubasti dignitary smuggles a beast onto the planet, traumatizing Loren at the sight of it. Events will force her to get past her hatred of beasts, and work with it to help save her planet.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was the unstable narrator. Loren is erratic in her thinking and prone to abrupt mood swings. The people around her seem to give her room to behave erratically, due the tragic loss of her husband and the unwanted celebrity thrust upon her following his death. The attention is unwanted, judging from her general “fuck the world” attitude. The instability made some parts of the novel difficult to follow or comprehend.

If you can get past the emotional turbulence, you will come to like and admire her. Loren is intelligent and strong. Not only is she a celebrity, she is the only licensed hunter on the planet. The expeditions into the Ubasti wild are sometimes for sport but are predominantly for research purposes. The carcasses are brought back to the labs for dissection. Her stereotype-shattering personality is complemented well with her surprising insight into the events unfolding around her. Interestingly, she is brutally honest with herself, aware her behavior is erratic, and threatens her relationship and custody situation with her daughter Bibi. The planet has a very intrusive government, with the authority to remove Bibi with little cause and force Loren to undergo therapy or re-education as they call it.

While Loren’s behavior is understandable, the behavior of the other characters is baffling. Several of the other characters from Ubasti also have abrupt changes in mood and nasty, sometimes vulgar outbursts. Dialogue and mannerisms shifted a lot, creating sudden tension then dissipating into nothing, creating incoherent exchanges. Some characters were absolutely awful, in particular the offworlders. It was difficult to understand or accept their extraordinary rudeness and hostility, especially in the situations that called for neither.

Their attitudes laid out clear ideological lines between the eco-friendly, isolationists and those wanting to move the rest of the human race onto Ubastis, regardless of the consequences for the local environment. The Malthusian themes are presented in such a painfully one-sided way, it was clear where the author stood. The use of straw men for antagonists was disappointing and was a missed opportunity to explore the themes with greater depth.

Ubastis has an interesting mixture of Muslim, Christian, and secular elements to its culture as well as a very progressive communal society. It was refreshing to read about a non-American, non-White future society. For me, this might’ve been the most interesting part of the novel. The author clearly intended it to be the ideal, utopian society implementing progressive and collectivist policies. People refer to each other as “citizen” and child-rearing is a shared responsibility among many people. Killing is forbidden, whether human or animal. Even self-defense is a questionable justification for homicide. Hunting is considered abhorrent to many citizens but is necessary for research. Individuals need permission to procreate, and political leaders conduct psychological examinations of citizens.

The writing was strong and at times beautiful but the author made a habit of unnecessarily using obscure words. Some seem to come straight from graduate school exams, such as lugubrious. She also introduces several neologisms that require the reader to use context to figure out what she is talking about. I’m also not clear on where the title Archangel comes from. I don’t recall it coming up in the book.

Unfortunately, the ending was anticlimactic and failed to conclude the outstanding conflicts in the story. The novel reads like it is built on some thorough research, with the exception of these final scenes where the author attempted to depict some sort of political hearing. As a result, Archangel is a setup for a sequel and not a strong stand alone novel.

I think many readers will enjoy the unique world-building as well as the complex feelings of the narrator, while some may be annoyed that the novel doesn’t have more of a conventional sci-fi style to it. My individual experience with the book was mixed. At the same time, I appreciated the novel’s rich detail, and how it avoided typical sci-fi plot devices. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel this unique. While it didn’t move me personally, I think many others will love it.

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Speculative Fiction Continues to Tilt Toward Younger Readers

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Divergent Scene

If you’ve worked in a bookstore the past decade or two, you’ve probably noticed something strange going on in speculative fiction. Publishers are making bank on young adult titles, pushing aside traditional “high-brow” genre fiction. These novels sport younger protagonists, young adult themes, and bend more toward action and away from science. Provocative philosophical questions and plausibility are not as important as they once were. In some novels, the science is stretched so thin that they could easily be reclassified as fantasy. Sci-fi readers tend to argue over whether this trend is really happening (some people don’t like to face facts), why it is happening, and whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. Is the science fiction genre better off with this onslaught of young adult titles?

Before I can get into the topic, there are a few objections that I anticipate will be raised right away. When I broached this subject on message boards and at book club, a number of people argued that young adult fiction (YA) is not a rising genre at all. Sure, when it comes to movies or TV, it is all about youth. Whether its the countless teen superhero shows on CW or the worldwide success of The Hunger Games, the evidence is undeniable. Yet readers seem to think their literary realm is free from the superficial obsession with sexy young heroes, non-stop action, and easy to follow plots.

Publishing statistics say otherwise. Young adult fiction, which was once a niche market, has expanded to compete with adult fiction. Are younger people reading more? It is doubtful. Actually, adult readers are taking a liking to YA novels in greater numbers. Surveys suggest the young adult demographic is stretching from the traditional 12-18 age group to one that extends into the 20s. There are even readers in their 30s who admit to reading and enjoying YA novels.

The second objection to the success of YA fiction is the typical battle over labels. It seems readers cannot agree on a definition. For the purposes of this article, I will use the definition from Wikipedia: “YA is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults.” The definition here focuses on the intent of the author and publisher, not reader definitions or interpretations. Luckily, it isn’t too hard to discern the intent of authors or publishers; most of them are unafraid to publicly state whether their product is YA fiction or not.

What makes our task somewhat difficult is the subtle changes in YA plots compared to what publishers called YA in the last century. YA fiction used to include problem novels or social novels, where there was a specific focus on an important societal problem one would encounter as an adult. There were also coming-of-age stories, or ones where a young protagonist experiences something that transitions them from child to adulthood. This is not what we are talking about here. Genre fiction in particular, tends to put out stories that are more action-based, easier to read, and less substantive. Some might describe it as “low-brow” but that might not be the best term. It isn’t that these novels are for stupid people but that they are for readers who want something lighter, even if they often read the high-brow stuff. In any case, YA genre fiction doesn’t seem focused on the transition to adulthood. It is for readers who want to feel young and idealistic.

Based on surveys and sales numbers, it appears the YA demographic is much wider today. The readership has expanded out of the teen years into the early 20s. Why are older readers picking up novels written for teenagers? They are not only buying up these books, they are enjoying them. It isn’t the books or promotional campaigns, it is the readers themselves that are changing. Late adolescence and early adulthood (roughly 16-24) is no longer a transitional phase but one that many are encouraged to relive as much as possible in their later years. Social norms used to put great emphasis on working hard and being practical. Young adults needed to grow up and get started on a career as soon as possible. They typically married in their early twenties and had children not long afterward. All the things associated with adulthood, like personal responsibility, were expected from you starting at 18.

As a Gen-X’er, I can tell you that norm is not as prevalent today. Not much is expected from an 18 year old, whether it be employment or personal responsibility. It is very common for young adults to live at home into their 20s, failing to embark on their own career until 24 or 25. College and graduate school had rigorous academic and disciplinary standards, much different than the glorified daycare for adults they are now.

Marriage and children are coming later and later, or sometimes not at all. College is treated as a time for students to explore or “find themselves” in an environment with minimal consequences. Academic standards are relaxed in many institutions of higher learning. Any mention of being “realistic” or practical is met with a scoff and an eye-roll. Such notions are considered ignorant, oppressive, even fascist. Being practical is to be repressed.

In other words, people are growing up more slowly. The expectations of adulthood have been delayed from high school graduation to college graduation or maybe 30. It makes sense that such individuals would still find YA novels enthralling.

When it comes to science fiction, some things remain constant regardless of whether a book is marketed toward young adults or adults. However, it does seem like the genre has moved away from technology-centered plots toward conventional drama or action. They focus more attention on the protagonist rather than the technological challenges or the changing world around them. Science and plausibility are not emphasized, which tends to make them less relevant to current events and more specific to the individual experiences of young readers. They can see more of themselves in the modern protagonist than say Paul Atreides, Offred, or even Ender.

The plots also tend to be more conventional. For example, the hero’s journey has always been a common story structure both within and outside of speculative fiction. What surprises many (including me) is its implementation in traditionally non-heroic or tragic realms in speculative fiction. The biggest example is the prominence of heroes in YA dystopian fiction. Dystopias have traditionally been a place for social commentary, dark nightmares, and alternative perspectives. Heroes seldom factor into these stories, or when they do, they meet with tragic ends. Today, authors use dystopias as oppressive settings for young heroes and heroines to break through and tear down. Their rebellion is a triumphant conquest of the flawed society.

Revolution, rebellion, defiance, and fighting the man are all extremely appealing to younger readers. This has been true since the Pharaohs of Egypt. The mystery is why younger people, who are largely apolitical, even apathetic, would find the conflicts in dystopian stories so appealing. It may be because politics don’t play much of a role in recent dystopian novels, if at all. In most cases the dystopian societies are ill-defined, poorly-conceived, or a carbon copy of some previous dystopia such as Brave New World or 1984. It is merely a setting for a great action story, or the platform for a unique new, stereotype-shattering heroine.

The same could be said for YA post-apocalyptic fiction as well. The dire warnings and future nightmares of post-apocalyptic fiction are now nothing more than setting for a love triangle among three young, attractive survivors.

At the same time, these lightweight YA novels can be distorted to produce stories with self-centered, self-indulgent, narcissistic themes where the protagonist’s great achievement is becoming a celebrity. The protagonist often begins as an impoverished nobody, neglected or ignored by the people and institutions around him. Their call to action is the discovery that they possess some innate quality that allows them to change the world. Whether it is Tris’s divergent disposition, Sookie’s fairy lineage, or Percy’s genetic connection to Poseidon, the stories all suggest the boon or elixir comes from within. For example, one could summarize the Harry Potter novels as “a white kid learns he is special, and attends exclusive private school where he is a celebrity.” Obviously the Harry Potter novels are much more than this simplified tagline but it is an example of a greater pattern. Generally, the protagonist learns she is special and moves on to cash in on her gifts.

You rarely see a protagonist rise through hard work, training, or guile. They always seem to have an innate talent that carries the day. Greatness comes from nature, not nurture. Moral or ethical dilemmas are rare; often the central conflict is simply a test of courage. Worst of all, the stories tend to be about glory, with the protagonist promised great rewards for their sacrifice, making them far from selfless. These are great bedtime stories but most would attest that they bear little resemblance to the experiences of modern life.

For nearly two generations, it’s been standard practice to tell children they are special. Even into early adolescence, parents stress the unique and special qualities of their children. In high school and college, there is an emphasis on students having an impact on the world, becoming leaders, activists, etc. We are all special snowflakes and if the world does not recognize our greatness, it is because the world is unjust. We must make it just. Some novels seem to be focused on exactly that, correcting the world’s rejection of the protagonist. In other cases, the conflict is the dystopian/PA world interfering with the protagonists wants, such as a forbidden love, or more commonly, absolute freedom.

Everything in the plot is clear. The bad guys might as well be wearing black, sitting on a throne while stroking a cat on their lap. The good guys are perfect examples of virtue, compassion, and just all-round goodness. They also tend to be attractive. No reason to offer up any subtlety.

Is this new trend a good thing or a bad thing?

First off, I really doubt the rise of YA fiction is displacing quality adult science fiction. Also, there is certainly nothing wrong with people reading more fiction, even if it is lightweight. What should trouble us is the increasing desire of older readers to read fiction written for teens. At some point, you need to grow up and challenge yourself to read something that will make you think. If you are in your mid to late 20s and love Divergent or Red Rising, you should ask yourself why you keep reading books about teenagers.

High-brow science fiction is still out there; it just isn’t enjoying the same commercial success. Perhaps publishers and authors should give some thought as to why deeper, more thought-provoking novels like Charles Stross’s Glasshouse or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam aren’t getting the same sales as love triangles of the future. Maybe demand is down, or perhaps the supply isn’t measuring up to the classics of the previous century.

Also, it is important to recognize not all YA science fiction is light, self-indulgent pulp. The Hunger Games Trilogy is a triumph. Other titles such as The Giver, are also worth reading even if you are older. They resemble the older problem or coming-of-age novels. In each, there is something about the real world that must be faced when we become adults. It will not be as simple as good guys defeating the bad guys. Real life rarely is that clean.

The best elements of adult science fiction is the thought-provoking worlds, the unique moral and ethical dilemmas, the philosophical quandaries, plausible futuristic scenarios, and warnings of future perils. They are about the future but also a uniquely powerful method of cultural self-examination that in some ways mainstream fiction cannot accomplish. Many of the conflicts and issues raised are bigger than any single individual, which separates it from the more individualistic nature of most YA science fiction. I believe there is still a place for adult science fiction and a strong demand that is not being fully supplied. These novels may never compete with Tris or Sookie for the top spot on the bestseller list but I think in time they will begin to command more attention from readers.

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First Quarter Update

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Well, I wish I had good news or something big to tell everyone but it just didn’t happen in early 2016.

As I explained last time, my plan was to self-publish two new books, The Fifth World: Purification, and Heroes of Coburin. Both are ready for the next steps including editing, book cover designs, and a promotional campaign. Unfortunately, I got some bad news financially and my start-up publishing company is going to have to be set aside indefinitely. It also means I am unable to self-publish the two novels on my own, at least for the foreseeable future. That leaves the traditional publishing route.

I submitted Heroes of Coburin to five literary agents but none were interested in representing me. The next step is to submit to publishers that will take a look at unsolicited manuscripts from unrepresented authors. They are out there but they are midsize to small, and many don’t have a track record of success. The internet is buzzing with stories of “predatory vanity presses” masquerading as digital imprints who try to shift costs on to the author and leave them to do a large amount of the promotional campaign. Course, when you are running out of options, you take what you can get.

My biggest concern, in addition to being screwed financially, is creative control. I’m open to critique and suggestions of course, but there are also stories of publishers doing some dramatic revisions, twisting an author’s story into something that fits their product model. In a market that is getting more competitive thanks to self-publishing platforms like Kindle Select and Createspace, it isn’t wise to just “get your work out there” without the right kind of editor and publishing team behind you. In a crowded field, quality matters. Also, for me writing and publishing is a passion, not my primary vocation. It’d be great, but I do not expect writing to pay the bills anytime soon. Therefore, I will sacrifice short term gain for creative control.

On the writing front, I’ve written about 12,000 words for the next Warmek episode or what might be the sequel to Heroes of Coburin. I’m off-pace for my 80,000 words/year goal so I need to step it up here.

On the reading side, I am on pace for 52 books in 2016 and have discovered a couple quality indie novels including Fear the Sky by Stephen Moss and Archangel by Marguerite Reed (review coming shortly).

That is all for now. Wish I had better news to report or maybe something relevant to report but the beginning of 2016 has been uneventful.

Maybe the Spring will be more exciting.

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The War Against the Machines: Should We Fear Automation?

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

This is one of the nightmare scenarios of a future dominated by machines. If they aren’t killing us or converting us into energy, they’re turning us into fat, lazy, ignorant slobs who have no understanding of the world or the technology that makes our opulent lifestyle possible. This is the dystopian world of WALL-E. Others see the machines as scabs, taking their jobs away or forcing their wages to historic lows. They argue automation is contributing to growing income inequality, placing an entire class of citizens in perpetual poverty. This isn’t a new fear. Centuries ago, a group calling themselves the Luddites trashed textile machines that replaced them in the factories. Is automation a threat to modern society? As more jobs are being done by robots or software programs, will we see a growing divide between those whose jobs are not yet eliminated and the others? Will it turn us into lazy slobs, spending our days playing video games, watching cat videos on youtube, or ranting on Facebook?

There are two sides to every issue, so I will try to give an objective look at both.

First, what are the pros to automation?

It has raised the standard of living for all socioeconomic classes. Automation contributed to mass production processes, lowering the cost of new goods to the point where any household may afford them. Some claim that only the 1 percent see the benefits of automation while the bottom get screwed but that isn’t exactly true. If you compare the standard of living for an impoverished family in 1970 to an impoverished family today, there is no comparison. Even those at the bottom are enjoying the benefits of low cost household goods and services such as internet access, air conditioning, refrigeration, cable television, and better medical care. If you go even farther back to the turn of the century, you see an enormous improvement in education, life expectancy, and quality of life.

According to the Luddites, we should’ve seen a wave of mass unemployment among the working class due to automation. It never happened. There has been no tidal wave of mass unemployment. People simply moved to other, better jobs. Automation allowed millions to leave the farms for the factories, and is now allowing them to leave the factories for work in the service sector. Many of the most dangerous, least desirable jobs are now done by machines. For those that grew up and mastered these jobs, it is little solace that they can now get a “better job.” It isn’t easy to start a new career after decades in a single job or profession. At the same time, most working today do not face the same dangers their parents and grandparents did on the job.

Not only were many of the older jobs dangerous, they were also tedious and repetitive. Factory workers standing on the assembly line often did the same set of tasks over and over. Having workers do repetitive, mind-numbing work for so long is inhumane and soul crushing. It was also inefficient from a global economic perspective. Imagine how many world-class musicians, artists, chefs, teachers, engineers, entrepreneurs and inventors were forced to make car parts rather than apply their talents to more beneficial endeavors. For centuries, most human potential was lost in the fields and factories. Automation has allowed talented individuals to unleash their potential, and has played a major factor in the unprecedented technological breakthroughs of the past century.

Now for the cons of automation:

Poverty remains a fact of modern life, even two centuries after the industrial revolution. There always seems to be a class of citizens that are not reaping the full benefits of this golden age. It is true that the standard of living is rising for all, but it is unevenly distributed across the population. Those slowest to benefit are those that have seen their jobs eliminated by automation. Economies have been able to create as many jobs as are lost but are the new jobs really better? Lately that has not been the case. Median income is now in decline, and the poverty rate has begun to rise approaching pre-1960s levels.

One possibility is that automation is expanding too quickly, and economies are unable to generate new jobs fast enough. Or it may be that we’ve reached the inevitable conclusion of automation: that there are no more new jobs to be created. There simply is no more work to be done.

Let’s extend the current trend out a few decades. Let’s suppose millions of jobs become automated in the manufacturing, retail, and a few other service sectors. History suggests those workers won’t simply become perpetually unemployed, but it is very possible their new jobs will be remedial with little or no opportunity for upward mobility. Another possibility is that even those in the bottom bracket will be able to live comfortable lives of leisure. In other words they won’t need jobs anymore.

This is a plausible scenario given current trends. Every year, we seem to resemble the society of WALL-E more and more. We are getting fatter, with the obesity rate in America reaching new heights. Perhaps one day we will all be pushed along in chairs all day. We are also obsessed with electronic interaction rather than direct human interaction. In one scene from WALL-E, two guys are talking via a Skype program while sitting right next to one another. Kids are already doing this with instant messenger, while sitting in the same room. In the movie, when there is a problem with their ship they ask the computer to fix it. None of them have a clue how anything works. If the computers break down they’re doomed.

H.G.  Wells and Aldous Huxley have written about this possible devolution of humanity in their novels The Time Machine and Brave New World respectively. In The Time Machine, humanity devolves into small, feeble-minded, weak, childish Elois. Will our knowledge and skills atrophy in an era of movies, TV, video games, social media, internet porn, and cell phones? Brave New World also depicts the problem with technological bliss. The engineered humans of his novel are so obsessed with pleasure, they cannot see anything else. They don’t care how the world works as long as they’re kept safe and happy. Anything that gets in the way of pleasure is removed, or in some cases the person that gets in the way is murdered.

Dystopian writers see this opulent yet ignorant future as a potential tool for an all powerful government. The State gives the people distraction just to shut them up. All these boons keep the populace in a stupor, unaware to what the State is doing.

The post-apocalyptic genre foresees the Brave New World collapsing, forcing a weak and infantile humanity to face the real world once again. This has been depicted in The Walking Dead, Revolution, Station Eleven, and many other places. Many of its stories depict modern society being pulled back down to the stone age by a cataclysm, where all our impressive modern skills are useless. We’ve forgotten how to grow our own crops, or how to hunt and fish. Nature is a scary place, and there are few that could survive there. The question is one of adaptability. We may be capable of it, but increased automation is increasing the demands on us to adapt should everything go wrong.

So automation is going to make us unequal, fat, stupid, weak, and unprepared for the future. Right?

The inequality fear is real but only some countries are facing serious disparities in quality of life and income. Not all developed countries have enormous disparities in means. This suggests automation is not the primary factor in creating inequality. It is more likely bad public policy. Automation is certainly making some of us fat and stupid but not all of us. Obesity rates are very high in some regions but much lower in others, which suggests there are other factors at play here as well. As for weak and unprepared, that may be true. However, there seems to be a growing counter-cultural reaction with increasing interest in rediscovering basic skills. There remain numerous athletic competitions, interest in outdoors, and the growing appeal of “prepper” activities.

So far, these groups represent a small minority. Perhaps it’s not enough. Perhaps they are a dying breed. However, what about the growing popularity of dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories such as those referenced above? It seems we as a civilization are aware of these dangers, and some of us are making efforts to prevent it. Will we succeed?

It is difficult to imagine a modern society being utterly incapable of adapting to a changing environment given the wealth of knowledge we’ve accumulated. Never before has information been so widely available and in incredible quantities. When the machines start to break down, we’ll be in trouble at first, but as long as the “user manuals” are still lying around, we have a chance.

Overall, I do not think we should fear automation; we should embrace it. Thus far the benefits far outweigh the costs. While there are some troubling signs of devolution and entropy, it is hardly enough to conclude it is inevitable. At the same time our culture and values must keep up and adapt to the changes taking place. The dangers of becoming hopelessly dependent on technology and automation must be guarded against at all times. As long as we are prepared and remain vigilant, I think we will avoid a future like the one portrayed in WALL-E.

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Fear the Sky by Stephen Moss

Posted on by Jacob Foxx

Fear the Sky

They don’t write many novels like this anymore. Fear the Sky is a combination of classic hard science fiction, technothriller, and spy thriller. Rich in detail and incredibly realistic, it covers just about every branch of the military as well as several advanced weapon systems in each branch. Author Stephen Moss demonstrates an impressive knowledge of military technology and applies it to a plausible alien invasion plot that follows many familiar tropes while giving its own spin on others.

Told from a near omnipresent third-person perspective, Fear the Sky is about the arrival of an alien infiltration unit sent to Earth in preparation for a full-scale invasion that is to come twelve years later. Their job is to infiltrate Earth’s militaries and disable our nuclear deterrent. Their landing capsules are disguised as meteor fragments but their suspicious impact points leaves scientist Neal Danielson wondering if they are more than just space debris. He manages to persuade the scientific adviser to the President to let him and a research team take a closer look at one of the impact sites. Before he and his research team can learn the truth, the alien entity sinks their research vessel near the site of the impact, making it appear as an accident. Danielson and one of his colleagues, Madeline Cavanagh, survive, realizing that the objects were alien vessels and they mean us harm.

The book details the efforts of Danielson, Cavanagh and a small group of talented men and women working to thwart the alien invasion. Lucky for them, one of the aliens that landed on Earth does not intend to carry out his mission. He intends to help the pitifully weak humans prevent their extinction.

The first thing readers will notice is the rich detail and sheer breadth of knowledge brought to bear in this novel. It extends beyond astrophysics into military technology, espionage, geopolitics, and deep sea exploration. As you delve deeper, you feel as if the scenario may actually be plausible. Everything from the alien plan to the human response were well thought-out. I could only find the tiniest of questionable details within the whole story.

Of course, rich detail and exposition is a double-edged sword. The plentiful details weigh down the middle and parts of the ending of the novel. The heavy information is communicated directly by the narrator or in contrived meetings and briefings among the characters that have all the excitement of a Congressional subcommittee hearing. For those big into hard science fiction or technothrillers, you’ll love it. For most others, it will bore you to the point of skimming over several chapters.

The omnipresent narrator saps some of the suspense and drama from the story by jumping from character to character, giving a pretty dry play-by-play of each meeting or conversation. Most of the narration is dry, analytical, appealing to the rational side of the reader but giving very little in the way of raw emotions. Most of the dialogue exchanges are very civil, reasonable, lacking in tension. In contrast, the alien antagonists are pretty nasty, resembling Dark Age warlords. I would’ve preferred a more sophisticated and less stereotypical villain but most readers probably won’t mind.

Overall Fear the Sky has a classic, golden age feel to it, reading a lot like War of the Worlds or Starship Troopers. Some authors still hold to the omnipresent narrator giving plenty of exposition into science, politics, and warfare. Others feel they need to make the aliens bigger, nastier, and weirder to out do their predecessors. Thankfully this author does not attempt that in this novel. Classic science fiction usually had a bit of social commentary, which Fear the Sky is lacking. Having said that, it did compellingly demonstrate the effectiveness of a small but dedicated group. I enjoyed watching them progress in their efforts to thwart the alien threat while large corporations and government bureaucracies, including the US military, struggled. Politicians and ladder-climbers do not fair well in this novel.

It is the first in a series, which means the threat is not extinguished at the end of the novel. Fortunately, it has the proper balance of plot progression and unresolved issues to have readers excited for the sequel. As a work of hard science fiction with significant military elements, it scores pretty high. It is well-researched and plausible. The way the conflict unfolded also had the feel of a spy novel in some chapters, and a technothriller in others, which gives it some broader appeal beyond the hardcore sci-fi readers. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend it for readers who shy away from these subgenres. Suspense, drama, character development, and pacing are all a little weak by general literary standards. But for the right audience, it is an excellent read.

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