In my dissection of His Dark Materials, I mentioned a discussion I had had about the problems with C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – in particular the sexist and racist patterns in them. More recently, I’ve learned of Ana Mardoll’s exhaustive ongoing deconstruction of the series, which also describes the pervasive classism and several other harmful patterns in the books.
Mardoll’s blog also hosts thorough deconstructions of several other series, which are also worth looking at.
Specifically, I wrote a cute little command line utility I creatively named SolarSystem. It’s an N-body gravitational solver, which means that if you plug in the positions and velocities of whatever stars, planets, moons, or spacecraft you want, it’ll tell you what happens to them in the future, how they orbit each other, and so on. It’s also entirely general — I included an example which runs a demonstration based on our own solar system, but you can write up your own based on any system you want, real or imaginary.
Why did I do this, do you ask?
Well, first, I’ve always wanted to write a relatively nice gravity solver, convenient for solar systems. Now I have one. Yay!
Second, I’m plotting a novel based on the second example system I included with the software. It’s a system which has gone very, very chaotic. Interesting things happen to those poor planets. As to why this is important to the story… well, I’m going to keep that under my hat for now.
And, finally, I’m also looking for jobs. Like, in the real world. Preferably the kind that pay you for doing stuff like writing software. So, I’m also planning on using this project as a launching point for beefing up my programming skills. At the moment, this program is a command line utility — you’ll need to know a little bit about working with a terminal and the Linux environment in order to use it, you’ll need to know a little about solar systems in order to make your own, and you’ll also need a separate plotting tool in order to look at all the shiny results. I plan on writing a GUI (graphical user interface) that handles all that in a clean manner. Preferably, something intuitive to use. If you’ve got suggestions for features you’d like to see, please feel free to leave them here.
If you want all the gory details about how it works, you can read the help document I included with the program. Ideally, it should help. If you do end up using it, keep in mind that it’s not up to snuff as full-bore scientific software. There’s a whole host of effects it doesn’t include, ranging from the time-delay for how long gravity takes to affect something (Earth feels the Sun’s gravity from where it was eight minutes ago, and vice-versa) to tidal interactions. So, keep that in mind.
So, what happens if you mash up a fantasy world with the politics and technology of the French Revolution?
The result appears to be Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan. The storytelling is good enough that I’m likely to go back for more — it’s the first book in a trilogy — and I think it does a fairly compelling treatment of the intersection between magic and the industrial revolution.
As ever, there will be spoilers — some of which are incredibly epic, so I’ll try to leave those closer to the end in the event that I haven’t talked you into reading the book yet.
Rachel and I have been doing an archive binge on the biopunk / cyberpunk ambiguously-dystopian science fiction series Dark Angel, which originally ran from 2000 to 2002. Yes, we have covered other works by James Cameron before. Here we go again.
If you want to watch well-filmed scifi with a lot of characters with secretive and complex agendas, a bunch of fight scenes, and the inevitable amount of Zeerust; and you do not want spoilers, do not read further. But do be aware that despite the high quality of the production there are still some significant problematic aspects to the plot and the portrayals of various characters.
One historical note: Fox canceled Dark Angel after two seasons. Soon after, the network picked up Firefly and then canceled it after one season. Some pervasive failings of management there.
The main action of Dark Angel is set in an alternate version of 2019/2020, and takes place in and around a dystopian Seattle (Vancouver doubling was used to good effect). That it is alternate history by now is pretty obvious: the explanation for drastic and negative changes to the social order of the United States is that an unspecified-but-very-well-equipped group of terrorists set off a very high-yield EMP – “The Pulse” – at high altitude over the western half of the country in 2009, apparently missing Canada and Mexico. But the setting was alternate history even when it was developed in the late 1990s.
The central character of the show is Max Guevara, who is one of a group of people who were genetically engineered before birth and then raised from birth as living military hardware as part of a secret US government project called Manticore – which had the goal of producing super-soldiers. Max and most of her particular class at the Manticore training center (they’re collectively called X5s, and relate to one another as siblings) escaped just prior to The Pulse. The X5s attempt to live comparatively normal lives while avoiding capture by various spooky people. At the time of their escape, they were all perhaps 9-12 years old – and there are four X-series classes who are older than they are. That means that the Manticore project would have had to exist before 1995 or so. In reality, genetic engineering even now is nowhere near what would be necessary to even attempt what Manticore was doing, so the point-of-divergence of this alternate history is long before that.
In the second season of the show, we learn about Sandeman. He was one of the founders of Manticore, so perhaps we can call him Max’s grandfather. Sandeman was a defector from a few-thousand-year-old conspiracy dedicated to the selective breeding of a small subpopulation of humanity and the eventual genocide of everyone they didn’t approve of. This falls prey to the question of The Masquerade, and pushes the point-of-divergence back a very long way. Despite this distant divergence and the very different history of technology (e.g. human cloning c. 1998 but no smart phones c. 2020), history was close enough to ours that Bob Marley and George H.W. Bush did much the same thing, so there is a very big butterfly-effect net operating.
Artistic License, Biology and Physics
Max and the other people who carry Manticore genetic-engineering modifications, and many members of the secretive long-running breeding cult, have superhuman or at least extreme-upper-limit-of-human capabilities. That’s the biopunk side. Cyberpunk is represented by, among other things, a contingent of scary soldiers from alt-South-Africa called The Reds, who have had their nervous systems modified with creepy burrowing metallic implants, and several cyberpunk gangsters called “steelheads”.
Let’s start with the Reds and the steelheads. It may be technically possible to bridge gaps in a spinal cord or to bypass nerves with some manner of electronics, or to construct a fully functional cybernetic replacement arm. But doing so is not going to allow a normal human to punch through an elevator door. That’s a question of leverage and of the failure strengths of muscle fiber and bone. Likewise, when Max puts a Red down with a fire extinguisher to the jaw, he should have a broken jaw and perhaps a cervical fracture. He shouldn’t be up and moving normally ten seconds later. Feeling no pain doesn’t mean bones aren’t broken.
Biology doesn’t work that way. Neither does physics.
And then we have the transgenics: Max and the others. Supposedly, mixing and matching human genes and adding in some from other mammals and a few unspecified de novo products allowed the Manticore team to produce superhumans. The basic X-series package: enhanced speed, enhanced strength, stronger bones, accelerated healing, diffraction-limited nightvision, better hearing, better coordination, better endurance, larger margins on oxygen and water and food deprivation. That all seems to come with some serious hunger when they do eat: Max goes through lots of takeout and roast chickens. But even if energy is conserved, this makes no sense. You couldn’t engineer something like that without a lot of basic research, decades of testing in vitro and in animal models, and then far longer than Manticore was supposed to have existed in the first human tests to be sure that the mods would work as desired.
Manticore’s other products and some members of the breeding cult, who apparently were doing only old-fashioned selective breeding, get bizarre. Some become impossible. Human-dog hybrids; people who look like large reptiles; people who breath with gills and lay eggs; people who can talk to one another with internal ultrasound generators and are described as “a hive mind”; people with telepathy or telekinesis. If we erase the last one, perhaps physics hasn’t been completely violated. But biology doesn’t work that way either. We are well outside of the limits of hard scifi.
One thing that does make sense: Manticore didn’t do a perfect job. Max and a few others in her group developed seizures; the death and subsequent dissection of one of her sisters due to them was the catalyst for the escape. She can manage her own seizures with some not-actually-appropriate-for-the-purpose drugs, but it takes Manticore’s gene therapy people and several years of work to effect an actual cure. Other X5s developed other problems. The same gene mods also don’t manifest the same way in every person: Max needs far less sleep than normal humans, but only a couple of her group have that trait. As the older escapees start having children, with each other and with unmodified people, it becomes clear that the gene mods are expressed unpredictably in their offspring. And even clones of X5s don’t develop the same as each other – especially when each has had different post-natal genetic therapies.
Okay, after all of that background and ripping into the world-building, here’s something about what actually happens in the show.
The plot of the first season focuses on Max’s quest to survive and evade Col. Lydecker, formerly her physically and psychologically abusive chief instructor at Manticore; to find and help her siblings; and eventually to destroy Manticore’s facilities and free all of the transgenics. She is aided in this by Logan Cale, aka “Eyes Only”, guerrilla journalist and aspiring force for social justice in the broken post-Pulse United States. Logan is shot and paralyzed from the waist down trying to help a friend of Max, which catalyzes her helping him at the same time as she maintains a legitimate identity and a set of friends as a bicycle messenger and a covert identity as a thief-from-thieves. Logan supports their projects with a certain amount of wealth, and provides intel, equipment, and a large list of contacts. The two of them eventually become a couple, although Cameron & company deliberately drew out that subplot to the point of absurdity.
With the assistance of various of her brothers and sisters, and the ambiguous aid of Lydecker after he is pushed out of Manticore by an even-more-spooky antagonist called Renfro, who is acutely concerned about ensuring that knowledge of some of Sandeman’s work remains secret, Max eventually succeeds in destroying Manticore’s operation. During that arc, which begins the second season, she learns about Manticore’s more-obviously-not-ordinary people. Saving all of the transgenics from a cleanup operation instigated by the cult, who want to stamp out Sandeman’s children because they challenge their long-term plans for controlling human evolution, and by panicking normal citizens and government authorities forms the arc of the second season. The series ends with Max and the others establishing a safe zone for themselves in an abandoned section of Seattle. With the help of her friends at the bike messenger company, she defuses the public’s fear enough to stop killings as the Masquerade finally ends.
The plot was carefully developed, with continuity relatively well-preserved and a lot of call-backs and brick jokes. For example: in an early episode, we see Kendra – Max’s friend and roommate for most of the first season – making a little extra money and getting a supply of scarce imported coffee by teaching kids Japanese. Some episodes later, Kendra gets a job as a translator/assistant for a visiting Japanese geneticist; which seeds the first occasion that Max encounters Lydecker face-to-face since her escape – forcing her to wrestle with the ethics of if he should live or die.
The motivations of the characters are appropriately complex. Max has to navigate avoiding detection by the people who want her dead, helping the helpless, finding and helping her siblings and friends, dealing with her own personal medical problems, and her relationship with Logan. Logan has his relationship with Max, his quest to regain use of his legs (by implausible biopunk and cyberpunk means), and the complexities of covertly fighting corruption in the post-Pulse world without getting killed for it. Even Lydecker is complex in his motivations: he was an abusive instructor and is an extreme Determinator when it comes to finding the escaped X5s, but when Renfro puts out the order to kill all of them he rebels against the threat to “his kids” and helps burn his life’s work to the ground.
But there are some aspects of the plot that don’t make sense. Manticore indoctrinated its soldiers from birth, never giving them a choice about if they wanted to do the job or not, and didn’t teach them many of the crucial aspects of everyday human lives. And they were tortured: arms deliberately broken to see how fast they would heal; beaten and drugged with the excuse of making them resistant to interrogation should they be captured in the field; forced to shoot prisoners. Young children were sent out on live-fire exercises with no safety protocols, and several ended up shooting one another. What is the purpose of this? Shouldn’t the Manticore management have realized that such an abusive and coercive culture would make their soldiers mutiny, given that the soldiers have enough empathy for one another to function effectively as a unit? Even if everyone involved in setting up the project was so lacking in compassion as to not care at all about the pain they were inflicting on the kids, why didn’t they realize that their methods were self-defeating and become less evil?
Of course, the same can be said about far too many groups of people in real life. So perhaps that was part of the point of the series.
But good characterization, tight plotting, and very well-done filming aside, there are some problematic aspects to the show.
The main cast at the beginning of the first season was nominally 8 people: 3 women and 5 men. Things changed a bit during the show’s run, but let’s go with this. Max was played by Jessica Alba, who is of Mexican and French-Canadian ancestry. Of the rest of the main cast; two were black and the rest were white. Seven characters were heterosexual, one was homosexual. Those demographics may not be perfect, but they also aren’t entirely out-of-line.
On the good side: Max is very much the heroic lead character. Being the tough one, she handles the fighting, infiltrating, and high-speed chases. Logan mainly leaves that part of the job to her, and focuses on intel, financing, and get-away driving. The apparent power mismatch in their relationship (somewhat older wealthy college-educated man; younger less-wealthy never-finished-high-school woman) is appropriately called out by some of the supporting characters.
But on the bad side:
Max and the other female characters tended to be gratuitously sexualized. While there are a few similar scenes with some of the male characters, there is a big asymmetry. Not cool.
And casting was not perfect. The supporting/background characters; heroes, villains, and otherwise; skew heavily white and male. Perhaps this is to be expected given the assumed alternate history. The setting is a Pacific Northwest with a largely white population and a patriarchal culture. But the supposed story only does so much to excuse casting that reinforces harmful real-life social stereotypes.
For a more serious problem: there are a few side-plots that center around Max episodically “going into heat”, supposedly due to having feline DNA in her mixture. She supposedly becomes super-humanly aroused, and is unable to control her sexuality – several obvious ways of doing so are not mentioned. Not cool. And while it is good that these episodes are not presented as a good thing, that she has at-best-ambiguously sexually assaulted at least one person during them is never addressed. Not cool.
I also worry about subtle heteronormativity/homophobia. Original Cindy, Max’s best friend, is a lesbian. She refers to numerous past relationships, and the plot of one episode focuses on an ex-girlfriend of hers who has been exploited as an unwitting test subject by a corrupt biotech firm. The potential problem with an otherwise very cool character is that portrayals of characters that focus excessively on just one aspect of their identity can be a way of reinforcing harmful social stereotypes. I cannot say if Dark Angel falls into that trap with Original Cindy or not.
One final problem: in more than one episode of the show there is blatant cissexism/transphobia, presented without apology and sometimes explicitly as a joke. Not cool.
Dark Angel was supposedly influenced by some aspects of early-to-mid 1990’s third-wave feminism. I am not qualified to say exactly how poorly or how well it conveyed those ideas. But it is a long way from being entirely free of problematic elements.
This is the “wham episode” for the Dresden Files. It’s the only book that breaks the title two-word potentially-punning naming scheme. It also changes everything. The long running plot takes a sudden, sharp turn. And, also, stuff blows up.
If you thought the earlier books were a wild ride… hoo boy.
Oh, The Drama
Is this a soap opera now?
If you thought the brother that Harry Dresden didn’t know about was bad, it just gets worse in this book.
In fact, at least twice as bad.
The first big twist is that, actually, Harry has a daughter with his old flame, Susan Rodriguez.
Who didn’t tell him about it. Their little girl is around seven or so. Also, she’s been kidnapped by the Red Court of vampires.
Dresden is rather understandably furious. He’s mad at Susan for lying to him (by omission, at best), and even more mad at the Red Court. It’s Papa Wolf time. He goes a bit overboard, in fact. Still, I wonder if there wasn’t a less… overtly dangerous approach he could have taken. More on that later.
It gets better, though. It turns out that Dresden’s mentor, Ebenezar McCoy, is actually his maternal grandfather. An item kept (mostly) secret for everybody’s safety. At least in this case, the secret has been floating around long enough that some people had figured it out before the story opens, notably including a group of Red Court vampires. Again, oops. At least this makes all the secret-keeping feel a little more realistic, since the information did actually leak.
If both secrets had been out, and openly discussed? Then, surely, McCoy and Dresden together could have found a safe place for Maggie (Dresden and Susan’s daughter) to grow up away from all the things that go bump in the night – as Dresden eventually does. Instead of Susan just relying on her contacts in the anti-vampire underground, some of whom were ultimately untrustworthy.
Meanwhile, I’m just frustrated at all the secrets being kept. Seriously, people, those don’t help anybody. It just makes everything messier. And it also makes me wonder who Dresden’s maternal grandmother was.
A Deal With The Devil You Know
Dresden makes a dangerous deal to save his daughter.
Oh, yes he does.
He was in a bit of a rough spot after some adventuring resulted in a spinal injury which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Which makes it kind of hard to lead an assault through the parallel world of the Nevernever and from there to southern Mexico. So, he accepted the offer of Queen Mab to become her vassal. This required that he kill Lloyd Slate, the previous Winter Knight, in order to take up the position himself.
Spinal injury repaired. Magical mojo increased. But now he serves at the whim of Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, one very scary fairy indeed. It’s a particularly interesting twist, given that he’s been resisting her attempts to recruit him for many of the previous books. But, it’s plausible, since he knows several other ways of picking up the power he wants quickly — this is just the least horrific one. And he’s apparently willing to sacrifice pretty much anything to rescue his daughter.
As part of the bargain, has leave from Mab to rescue his daughter. But he fears that he will become a monster afterwards. Speaking of which…
The Well-Intentioned Extremist
Admittedly… the stakes are high. Especially once Dresden realizes that the Red Court vamps are going to kill Maggie in order to power a bloodline curse. One which will kill Dresden, Susan, his brother Thomas, and (he later realizes) Ebenezar McCoy. Which would be bad.
Dresden, having spent much of his life as an orphan, has some extra angst and bonus anger when anybody threatens his family.
This is adequate motivation for him to push his limits. We’ve seen that before — when he started a war with the Red Court over their attack on Susan Rodriguez, and also burned down a building. We’ve also seen it in his efforts to help Thomas. So it’s not out of character.
This is a delicate line to walk in the writing, however. It’s hard to sympathize with a protagonist who goes over the moral event horizon. Dresden probably manages to avoid going in too deep, at least so far — which is helped along by the fact that the bad guys are utterly evil. On the other hand, to keep him in a place where the reader can root for him, Dresden is going to have some serious regrets after all is said and done. In fact, it’s even worse than we realize in this book… but I’ll talk about that when we hit the sequel.
Meanwhile, in less psychological terms…
You Blew Up What??
Dresden causes a… small earthquake at Chitchen Itza, the big, famous Mayan pyramid in Mexico. With the associated considerable damage.
Also, because he redirected the bloodline curse onto Susan as she turned into a vampire, he ended up killing all of the Red Court vampires. All of them. Which means there are lots of bodies with their hearts exploded out of their chests, in addition to all the numerous other mortal and vampire bodies that are lying around the site.
And, still… the Masquerade prevails. If that kind of event occurred in reality… there’d be some hell to pay. Starting from that little earthquake. Earthquakes are closely monitored, and can be observed far from the area where high-tech seismic sensors would be damaged by the magic being flung around. The close monitoring is for two reasons. First, to learn about and understand earthquakes, learn how to manage living in earthquake-prone areas, and provide some amount of warning when a large earthquake occurs. Second, to watch out for nuclear bomb tests. (The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the related monitoring systems are the relevant information, if you’re interested. And here’s the Wikipedia article.)
This kind of monitoring is actually one of the ways we know so much about the North Korean nuclear tests. Since those are largely surface events, they’re relatively straightforward to tell apart from natural earthquakes.
Dresden’s actions? Not a natural earthquake. There would be people flying in there in very short order to try to figure out what the heck just happened. And then call for backup after realizing something funny was going on on the ground.
You could argue that the Red Court has (had…) enough influence in the area to avoid being disturbed, but that would be difficult. Ignoring a potential nuclear strike is not exactly in the national interest. Besides, the Red Court has been largely identified with the drug cartels, and I don’t think that’s quite enough influence to get the military to overlook threats to national security.
So, here is where I say that Dresden is definitely not our reality. Even with a lot of handwaving, I can’t quite make it fit. Nonetheless… I’m looking forward to the point where, as the story progresses, the Masquerade inevitably comes down. Perhaps during the Apocalyptic Trilogy that Butcher has planned.