It’s been quite a while since I wrote a post here. That’s not because I haven’t been reading books or not viewing other media. But it happens that much of what I’ve been reading lately hasn’t been the science fiction / fantasy that we usually dissect here. So here’s a partial list of what I’ve read or viewed in the past few months:
I was part of the team that observed the binary asteroid 2004 BL86 recently.
2. Various public health / epidemiology / medical research material. These have ranged from extremely positive (e.g. Hep C could now be potentially eradicated!) to anxiety-inducing (e.g. antichloinergic drugs – in very common use – appear to be associated with higher risk of developing dementia) to preliminary research that is too early to form opinions on (e.g. projects to identify genetic predispositions to various diseases in different cohorts and what those could imply for future prevention efforts).
3. Quite a lot of material on intersectional social justice. I’ve still got a lot of learning to do here; my reading lately has focused on but not been limited to efforts to simulanteously address racism, sexism, heterosexism, and gender essentialism. I have some biases in what problems I’ve been educating myself on – I’ve tried in particular to read up on problems in current US culture and in the scientific community, since those spaces are where I spend most of my time.
For the classic Chinese novels, as with a lot of other media past and current, I’ve had to invoke Anita Sarkeesian‘s rule: “it is both possible and necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects”.
For example: One of the main characters in the novel 水滸傳 / Shuǐhǔ zhuàn / “Outlaws of the Marsh” or “Water Margin” is called 宋江 / Sòng Jiān. He starts as a clerk for the government, but helps the titular outlaws steal a large amount of money and takes a payment from them. His estranged wife discovers his involvement, and threatens to report him unless he divorces her. He kills her. And we are meant to be sympathetic to him. In another episode in the novel, some of the designated-hero outlaws become sworn fictive brothers with a cannibalistic serial killer who had drugged them into unconsciousness and was going to murder and butcher them until he figured out who they were – apparently not having a problem with his killing and eating people, as long as he isn’t killing them. So yeah. Not so much. Lots of Values Dissonance there.
5. I have read some scifi lately. Specifically, books from C.J. Cherryh’s Alliance-Union setting. I may do a post about them at some point.
Avatar: The Legend of Korra is the ongoing sequel to Avatar: The Legend of Aang / The Last Airbender , which we talked about here before. The series is being made by a team that includes some of the writers and animators for Legend of Aang and some new people. There are plans at least 4 relatively short seasons, but only 2 have aired so far. Having recently watched them, I have opinions.
Legend of Aang had a very extensive level-grinding aspect to the plot: Aang starts only knowing air-bending, then learns water-, earth-, and fire-bending in sequence at the rate of one per season. And although there are some complexities to it, the Avatar’s task to restore balance to the world came down to “beat up this guy until he can’t beat up others”.
Legend of Korra has a very different plot. Korra starts the first episode knowing all of the techniques of water-, earth-, and fire-bending. While there is some plot around her learning air-bending, the bulk of the story addresses such things as the ethics of responding to terrorism and social unrest, the implications of a massively changed society to the role that Korra has been born into, and various complicated elements of the Avatarverse that were not addressed in the original series. This is a great surprise to Korra, who starts the series with good intentions but a default strategy of bending-first-questions-later. She learns otherwise quickly.
The changes to the world in the sixty years between the two series were also well-done. In my review of Legend of Aang, I mentioned how the strict segregation of the Four Nations by element-bending skill bothered me. They fixed that. Most of the action in the series is centered around Republic City, where water-, earth-, fire-, metal-, and a few air-benders live and work together with a great many non-benders. After some false starts, the city has its own local democratic government and is the central point of a new globe-spanning organization called the United Republic of Nations.
Legend of Korra is also appropriately updated from the just-post-Industrial-Revolution setting of Legend of Aang. Rather than the thousands of years of near-stasis implied by the Avatar cycle, Republic City is now styled something like 1930’s Shanghai or New York or Hong Kong – except with bending. There are large corporations working in cars, motorcycles, aircraft, radio, movies, bending sports, and clean lightning-bending power plants. Many of the cops are metal-benders, a skill that was brand new during the original series, the better to deal with thieves skilled in using fast cars and chi-blocking.
And, in the second season particularly, we learn about the deep backstory of the Avatar universe. In particular, where the giant lion-turtles that gave the Avatars and all other benders their powers come in. Apparently, 10,000 years ago, the spirit world that was seen briefly in Legend of Aang and the world in which the humans in the story live were merged. The humans fought the spirits, and survived only by working with the giant lion-turtles, who granted them bending (although not the ability to use it well) and safe locations for settlements in exchange for services. The first Avatar, Wan, was a human who was cast out of a fire-bending city but kept the power that its turtle had granted him. He survived by working with the spirits, and acquired different bending skills from other turtles by persistence and persuasion. Then Wan interrupted an eternal struggle between a spirit of order and one of chaos, inadvertently releasing chaos and destruction on both spirits and humans. So he partnered with the spirit of order, making an agreement to last for all reincarnated lifetimes and be a force for order and balance – in exchange for the spirit and human worlds being segregated
This gives some justification for the many thousands of years of near-stasis of the Avatarverse before Aang took the Avatar out-of-circulation for a hundred years: the spirit of order and balance was ascendent, and kept things from changing – for better or for worse. Aang attempted to establish a new equilibrium; but the spirit of chaos gets the idea of also partnering with a human to create an inverse Dark Avatar. Korra prevents total chaos and destruction, but only by ending a part of Wan’s compact and removing the barriers between spirits and humans. This causes some serious changes to the world, which are to be the focus of the third season.
Two final good things about the series:
While nearly all the cast of the original series are dead (Katara takes over the role of grandmother), we still encounter Iroh, awesome mentor figure and tea enthusiast. Apparently, Iroh has transcended the cycle of reincarnation that humans in the Avatarverse are normally subject to. He spends his time in the spirit world, dispensing good advice to visiting humans and drinking the spirit world’s perfection of tea. That was fun.
And, quite obviously, Korra is both an effective and complicated heroic character and also is a (young) woman. Apparently, the show’s audience has not objected to this, and generally considers her an awesome character. That’s good to see. Also good to see: Korra is drawn as quite appropriately athletic for someone who spends multiple hours every day in strict physical training, and without the artificial shortness compared to the older characters that happened in Legend of Aang.
One of the more powerful parts of Legend of Aang was the depiction of the relationship between Zuko, Azula, Mei, and Ty Lee; all nobles of the Fire Nation. Zuko starts as the primary antagonist of the series, but does an appropriately-complicated shift of alliance from hunting Avatar Aang to helping him stop the Fire Nation from committing further atrocities. Azula is Zuko’s sister. In addition to fully supporting war crimes, she is physically and psychologically abusive to her brother and to her friends, Mei & Ty Lee. Azula’s abuse of others is portrayed seriously and as the bad thing that it is, and Zuko’s and eventually Mei’s and Ty Lee’s escaping from toxic relationships with her is a key part of the development of all three characters.
Unfortunately, Legend of Korra does not treat abusive relationships well at all. At one point in the second season of the show, Bolin, an earthbender who works with Korra, becomes romantically involved with Eska, daughter of the chief of the Northern Water Tribe. She is verbally and physically abusive to him, and attempts to force him into marrying her. This is treated as comedy, and as the beta-plot in the episodes that it features in. That is massively uncool. Here is another discussion of the problem.
Something similar applies to Varrick, trade-magnet-turned-media-mogul and conspirator in provoking a civil war within the Water Tribes. His treachery and war-mongering are dealt with seriously, and he ends up imprisoned (although he eventually escapes). But his horrifically exploitative and creepy treatment of his employees is played significantly for laughs. Not cool.
As with Legend of Aang, there is a core group of characters centered around the Avatar, each of whom provides different skills, and the relationships between them are a major part of the plot. We have Korra, Avatar-learning-on-the-job; Bolin, earthbender athlete and eventual movie star; Bolin’s brother Mako, firebender athlete and eventual Republic City cop; and Asami, non-bender expert driver and pilot who happens to be heir to the transportation company Future Industries. It bothers me a bit that over the first two seasons of the show, every possible heterosexual romantic pairing of these four characters has been hinted at or canonical. This is pushing the shipping a bit too much. And it is also vaguely worrisome that all of the characters whose sexual orientation we know are apparently strictly heterosexual, even given the relatively small number of such characters.
Legend of Korra also addresses some complicated social issues explicitly. Amon, the main villain of the first season, is a blood-bender who applies that skill to suppress other benders’ abilities to bend (much as Aang did before). He exploits classism in Republic City to gain power. Benders had used their skills to gain money/power, and then were colluding with one another to shut out many non-benders from the political process in the city. The people thus disenfranchised were justifiably angered by this, and that anger was exploited by Amon and by various political and business leaders for their own ends rather than to relieve the oppression. The analogies to real-life political situations are obvious.
Amon organizes a campaign of terrorism, injuring and killing many, kidnapping and removing the bending of various powerful figures who oppose him and his allies – including the chief of the Republic City police. His eventual goal is to remove the powers of all benders in the city, including Avatar Korra. Korra stops him by forcing him to expose his bending in front of his followers and convincing them that installing a deceiving and mass-murdering dictator is not going to resolve the social problems in the city. He flees, is pursued by a former ally, and both are presumed dead at the end (no bodies found, but an impressive explosion at sea).
The government of Republic City is reformed in an at-least-somewhat more democratic manner; the other leaders of the terrorist campaign are tried and imprisoned; and Korra is able to restore bending abilities to people who had lost them. But what struck me was what was not addressed in the show: the classism and social inequalities that allowed Amon et al. to acquire any support for a campaign of terror in the first place. Simply having an election for a new president is not enough, and the social changes that would need to happen for classism to be far less of a problem would take time. It would have been good to see the show address why terrorism happens, and how that can be avoided, as well as how to react to terrorism after it happens.
One final thought: The lion turtles have the ability to give humans who cannot bend the ability to do so, and at least one of them is wandering around the landscape. Korra can restore bending to people whose bending abilities had been removed – can she also give that ability to others, and give bending to people who have never been able to bend? And given that either Korra or the lion-turtle is willing to do so, why not give everyone who wants it the ability to bend whatever element? It would have been one way to address the power differential between benders and non-benders that Amon was exploiting.
James White’s Sector General series was the first (or at least one of the first) scifi series that I read completely, thanks to there being omnibus versions of the oldest six novels and to the staff of Uncle Hugo’s bookstore in Minneapolis having copies of the related short stories. White wrote 12 Sector General novels and a bunch of shorter pieces, between 1957 and his death in 1999. I finished reading the series sometime around 2000 if I remember correctly.
You could describe the series as pacifistic space opera. White grew up in Belfast and was motivated to a very strictly pacifistic system of ethics by his witnessing The Troubles. So while there is military conflict in the series, it is always presented with a very clear message that war is to be avoided if at all possible. The focus is far more on the dramatic tension of “We have this apparently-sick person. How can we save them?”. It is nice to see a series where most of the characters are explicitly well-intentioned and don’t exhibit uncharacteristically bad judgement as a way to short-cut the plot. White also had a gift for designing thematically-interestingly-alien aliens, which I’ll talk more about below.
The plots are in large part formulaic, with limited character development. This is not by itself a bad thing: consider most medical dramas or procedurals. And while the initial stories focused almost entirely on the actions of a single doctor, a surgeon named Conway (who I suspect started as a self-insert character), White later considered things from the points of view of characters with many different roles in the hospital: patients, students, the Monitor Corps police/coast guard/engineers that maintain and supply the place, the psychologists who serve the hospital staff, the chef running the hospital kitchens.
The novels are also not entirely episodic. The events of the earlier ones are reflected in the later ones, although White was not fully consistent in his world-building. On the other hand; this is a series where there is FTL by “hyperspace jump”, artificial gravity, and a Federation of several dozen intelligent species with nearly comparable technological expertise spanning the Milky Way and Large Magellanic Cloud. So we are already deep into the inconsistencies of space opera, which have been mentioned before.
Despite White’s effective advocacy of pacifism, there are some serious problems with the series. I recognized them when I first read the books, but missed their full extent until I did a re-read more recently.
There is persistent and grating sexism and gender essentialism in the stories. It presents somewhat oddly. In stories from human points-of-view, all non-human intelligent aliens are referred to as “it” rather than with other English pronouns and it is repeatedly stated that their genders are irrelevant to anyone who isn’t part of the same species and that whatever biological sex they may have is only significant if they are patients and it matters to their treatment. This is handled consistently: in stories from non-human points-of-view, all humans are referred to as “it”. But the five non-human narrators are all from species that have two biological sexes that are mapped to two socially-constructed genders and referred to by she/he and him/her. Of the five, four describe themselves as male and one as female.
And the worst sexism is among the human characters: men are persistently and disturbingly over-valued relative to women. Of the main human characters, all but one is a man. And that one is Murchison, who is introduced initially for the express purpose of being Conway’s love interest. She also is initially cast as a nurse assigned to work for Conway, which introduces an additional layer of creepy. In the later books, she transfers to pathology and demonstrates exceptional skill at figuring out what killed people whose existence and biochemistry no one has encountered before. So apparently White was learning to be less sexist. But he still included repeated nonsensical claims that “human women think differently than human men” and so no woman was capable of becoming a doctor at Sector General. And that is even after he wrote an entire novel centered on the culture shock experienced by female-described non-human doctor who is the first person from her world to work at the hospital.
Let this be an object lesson: it is all to easy to continue to be horrifically bigoted even if you think that you are not being so.
Anglocentrism (or at least Ireland/Scotland/Wales/England – centrism)
As with the sexism, this is far more obvious for the humans in the setting than it is for the interactions between the many different intelligent fictional species. There is a problem with many of the alien cultures being treated as Planets Of Hats rather than individuals, but White’s portrayal of the human characters in his stories is more immediately grating. By way of illustration, here are the names of the human characters that show up in the first 100 pages of one of the books, Mind Changer, in order of appearance:
O’Mara. Skempton. [Peter] Conway. Braithwaite. Craythorne. Bates. Mannen. Davantry.
The details of these characters’ appearances are largely not described. But the setting for the series is a many-centuries-distant future where Earth is supposedly united under a single government that covers it and many space-based installations and colony worlds, and that government is itself only part of the deeply-integrated Federation. Under what positive future history does almost every human have a currently-traditionally Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or English name? I’ve flagged this pattern under “anglocentrism”, but I suspect it reflects pervasive and unacknowledged subtle racism where White was wrongly treating a very small fraction of humanity as the default. That is a serious problem. (Edit: a human nurse named ‘Patel’ does show up briefly later in Mind Changer. Physical description of the character extends to “dark skin” – while the skin tones of the other human characters are unspecified.)
There is a related problem: even with the various non-human narrators, human characters are in the majority in the stories, particularly in the Monitor Corps. And this is in a Federation of several dozen intelligent species, where the human population is explicitly not particularly high as compared to those of other species. This does not make sense, even if we restrict ourselves to oxygen-breathing liquid-water-as-solvent environments with people who have close enough to the same senses as humans that we can use the same toys they do. Star Trek has the same problem, but Sector General doesn’t have the excuse of needing the characters to be portrayed by human actors.
So White was using human-as-default for most of the medics in his stories (although not for the patients) and a very unrepresentative fraction of humanity as default humans. That’s not cool, even though White is perhaps less bad in this respect than many other authors – that merely illustrates how pervasive the problem is.
The male-assigned-narrow-subsection-of-humans-as-default-people problems aside, White did create a lot of interestingly alien aliens; ranging from sentient symbiotic virus colonies (that was inspired by Hal Clement) to heavy-gravity people with six legs whose idea of a handshake would break your arm to a collective intelligence that forms itself together into a several-kilometer-long walking city.
White often designed his aliens to fit a particular plot he wanted to do. Somebody said “make a doctor who is actually a leech”. So he did – except that the leech isn’t actually intelligent. It’s the equivalent of a white blood cell for a sentient continent. Think a peat bog threaded with an organo-metallic nervous system, which has been successful at competing with other similar creatures for real estate over a large landmass. Then somebody makes the mistake of trying some limited terraforming … cue the plot of Major Operation, where there is a combination of landscaping, surgery, and how-do-we-explain-what-we-need-to-do-to-the-patient.
On another occasion, White was considering how a culture might make interstellar spacecraft without what we would be pleased to call high technology (I later figured out a different way of doing that). White’s idea was inspired by the bombardier beetles: biological rockets. He assumed an intelligent species that evolved in an ambiguously parasitic/symbiotic relationship with something not entirely unlike a large version of the beetles. They engineered a way of exploiting a large local heavier-than-air flying creature in the same way, put a few of themselves inside it in suspended animation, coated the whole thing with an aeroshield shell (see above), and launched the whole thing onto an escape trajectory at the top of a very large pile of beetles (the usual complaints about biotech apply). Quite a long while later, a Federation survey vessel finds the bird. Confusion ensues as the patients are mistaken for a disease on their life-support system.
White did have one complaint: “Whenever I invent a really interesting alien, it promptly gets sick and ends up in Sector General”.
Remember When I Said Evolution Does Not Work That Way?
Some of White’s aliens have evolutionary histories assigned to them that are somewhat plausible. For example: the Blind Ones are in fact blind. That’s the human name for them, rendered into English from whatever language the human characters are actually using. They evolved from a subterranean borrowing species. Their technology is centered around tactile and auditory controls and they have built interstellar spacecraft with it. Good enough. But a bunch of other of White’s aliens don’t work due to basic physics – telekinesis is not possible, nor is telepathy that works on all brains of any kind.
White also falls into the trap of thinking that evolution has a direction.
Sector General staff classify lifeforms based on a four-Roman-letter classification scheme that is supposed to cover all known possible life-support requirements and basic anatomy and body plans. This is not the same as species: humans are DBDG, denoting approximately “warm-blooded oxygen-breathing carbon- and water-based lifeforms with a spinal cord and tetrapod limb and head arrangement”. So are two other species in the Federation, who look as little like us as they do bears or dogs (there are also, implausibly, the Human Alien Etlans – who look more like us than we look like the other chimps; they aren’t members of the Federation).
The problem is not the forcing-all-lifeforms-into-456976-categories*. That would probably be possible, although not necessarily in a clinically-useful way (does it matter more for surgery where your limbs are or “this anesthetic will knock you out and not kill you” ?). The problem is the ordering of the scale. Humans are classed under “D”. Supposedly, water-breathing or otherwise fully aquatic lifeforms were assigned A, B, and C prefixes because they were “more primitive” – which is meaningless, as I described before. Some people who are approximately mobile intelligent woody plants are classed as AACP because “plants came before fish”. Except what do you mean when you say “plant” and “fish” ? There is as much or more diversity within clade Viridiplantae as there is within clade Animalia, and new types of plants appear constantly. On Earth, the first woody plants (~400 mya) appeared after the first bony fish (~420 mya). We can expect any comparably-extensive biosphere to have produced as wide and chaotic a range of lifeforms. And since evolution has no direction, there is no universal pattern of what your ancestors were doing to lead to what you are doing now. For example, Earth has some intelligent species whose ancestors went from being fully land-living to being fully aquatic…
Basically, White was good inventing anatomies and physiologies but he failed at evolutionary biology and ecology, as well as remaining apparently largely oblivious to several different forms of social privilege.
*The cultural privilege illustrated by using a four-Roman-letter scheme may be worrisome.