Genrely Speaking: Satire

Satire is the last of the three metagenres to get tackled here on Genrely Speaking, the previous two being deconstruction and parody. Satire stands apart from these two metagenres in that it is generally intended in a noncomplementary way. Deconstructions and parodies tend to come from a deep love for a genre and a desire to share it with other people – in the first case, a desire to share it with new audiences in the second a desire to share it more deeply with those who love and enjoy it already. Satire does not come from a love of its source material.

Satire is a metagenre that tries to make an idea, person or genre look ridiculous. Generally it does this by adopting the stance of its target and pushing the ideas until they become absurd.

The hallmarks of satire tend to be as follows:

  1. A very strong tendency to extremes. There’s no middle of the road here, by the very nature of satire it has to be as loud and unreserved. A great example of this comes from the book Animal Farm, where pretty much all of the pigs qualify as ridiculously extreme examples of the kind of propaganda Orwell is satirizing. The horse Boxer is a satire of those who follow such propagandists. Voices in satire tend to be loud because quiet voices tend to sound more reasonable than shouting ones and the point of satire is not to appear reasonable. With one notable exception.
  2. The voice of reason. The point of satire is to push things to such an extreme that the audience is repulsed by it but, at the same time, it’s important to make it clear that the author is not actively endorsing it. So there tends to be this one sane person that tries to bring reason to this totally insane situation and inevitably fails. It’s important to keep readers from getting the wrong impression. Clover is an example of this from Animal Farm.
  3. No sense of actual reality. The point is to push an idea to utter absurdity and discourage people from thinking that way. So the work almost never tries to keep any semblance of reality. Oddly enough, many satirical works wind up seeming realistic despite themselves – Animal Farm in particular turned out to be eerily prescient, describing the cult of personality surrounding Stalin to a T. But that’s not necessarily the goal.

What are the weaknesses of a satire? The biggest weakness of satire is that it’s not really a very nice approach to looking at bad ideas. People who hold them already are going to be offended by the treatment and people who are undecided on the issue may be put off by the tone most satires take. That’s not to say a satire can’t be done well but it’s a difficult balance to strike and even when you find it the unreality of the approach is probably going to put off as many people as it attracts.

Also, there’s always a small minority of people who just aren’t going to get that a satire is mocking the thing it portrays and interpret it as an endorsement for something terrible. Or worse an endorsement for something positive. A more clear cut repudiation of a philosophy would probably serve better.

What are the strengths of a satire? They can be a vehicle for a very prescient engagement with an idea when handled very well. George Orwell wrote two very cutting satires (Animal Farm and 1984) that have stood the test of time, in no small part because he effectively showed how bleak the ideas he was attacking were.

In the end, satire is a very two-edged sword. It can leave a very, very memorable impression but it is going to put a lot of people off, particularly if you don’t use it well. Some people have chosen to put elements of satire into works that, on the whole, are not at all satirical. The character of Gideon Gleeful, from Gravity Falls, is a very modern example of this, satirizing TV psychics and faith healers while still serving to advance the general mystery driven plot of the show.

Ultimately, the use of satire is a personal choice, usually driven by how strong a person’s feelings on a subject is and how they want to address them. How much a person likes satire is the same – some people will like it and some will hate it. You won’t have to read much of one to know which one you are and, if you don’t like what you see, there’s nothing wrong with abandoning it.

Ship of Ghosts

I recently watched the movie Unbroken, about down Army Air Force pilot Louis Zamperini and it reminded me of a book I’ve been meaning to mention for a while. Ship of Ghosts is by James D. Hornfischer and it chronicles the ordeal of the USS Houston (CA-30). The Houston was one of the few ships of the US Asiatic Fleet that had the unenviable task of trying to hold back the Imperial Japanese Navy during the early days of the Second World War. Like so many ships in that fleet, the Houston was eventually sunk by the Japanese.

Most of the crew that survived fell into the hands of the Japanese.

For those unfamiliar with what that entailed, the Japanese had not signed the Geneva Conventions. Their military culture at the time also strongly believed that death for the country was one of the highest honors. The Japanese war machine simply had no allowance for soldiers who failed to fight to the death. On either side of a conflict.

The result was that those men captured by the Japanese would suffer some of the hardest years of their lives, enduring torture, forced labor, starvation, disease and death.

If the title was not enough to warn you, Ship of Ghosts is not a story of uplifting triumph. Some of the men do survive, in fact we only have the survivor’s voices to tell the tales. But what they endured is fascinating only in how horrible it was and in that anyone could survive it.

Like all good histories, Ship of Ghosts lets us meet the characters we’re about to learn about before things go wrong. We follow them out to the under supplied, aging Asiatic Fleet where almost nothing happens but where everyone expects something to go wrong soon enough. We watch the Houston run before the raging storm of the ascendant Japanese Navy. It fights and eventually dies, and the good ship’s labors are done. But the men have three long years to survive.

What they endure is not fun reading. But it is the kind of thing everyone should read. People did endure these things, they did survive them. Kind of puts our lives into perspective. And they did these things for us. And that, perhaps, is why we don’t want to hear about them. Because if we accept that these events are real, and they have real motivations, what are the consequences for our lives? Have we been grateful for what they gave? And do they deserve something beyond gratitude?

Frankly, until you’ve read a book like Ship of Ghosts, those are questions you can’t even begin to appreciate, much less answer. And even if appreciating the question is all you can do, you’ll be better for it.

Thunder Clap: Jacob’s Ladder

Izzy

I crashed down on the fortieth floor, the elevator door twisted around me in a shape halfway between a cocoon and a surf board. Prying myself out took a few seconds but I’d had a little practice over the last twenty floors. Sykes, or Circuit or whatever you wanted to call him, floated in the elevator shaft behind me, a concerned look on his face. “Are you alright? I know you’re tough, at least if you’re anything like your father, but that kind of hit over and over again can’t be good for you.”

I gave my T-shirt a quick tug to straighten it and said, “Smashing into stuff is easy. We can push out against impact for a couple of seconds to absorb the blow, kind of like flexing a muscle against a hit. But you can’t hold that forever so it’s less useful when you have a lot of stuff smashing into you.”

“So that’s why you don’t just walk through bullets like that Aluchinskii guy. Too hard to bounce bullets for a long time, better not to try it at all.” For a moment Sykes looked interested in that line of thought but concern quickly took back over. “You’re sure you’re okay? I’ve met your father and I have a hard time believing he just let you smash into walls at high speed so you’d grow up tough.”

A tilt of the head let me work the last kinks out of my neck, I did my best to do it in a way that wouldn’t let him realize how tired I actually was. He was partly right, I hadn’t had a whole lot of practice shrugging off heavy hits but I had done it some as part of my field training. Unfortunately I hadn’t slept much in the last forty eight hours and that was starting to get to me. Fine control, never my strong suit, wasn’t much of a loss but stamina was another one of those things that was slipping away from me and I was getting tired. Tired enough that I was starting to feel the hits, even when I was braced for them.

But Circuit was still a public menace, even if Sykes might seem like an okay guy, and I wasn’t about to let him know how wiped out I was. “I’m touched by your concern but it’s a little weird coming from the guy who created the plan to leave the city with no power in the middle of the summer. Or did the thousands of deaths by heat and starvation not bother you?”

His expression flipped to offended superiority almost instantly. “There were contingencies in place for that. I had resources in place to deal with those issues. Keep casualties to a minimum.”

“Don’t see a whole lot of that right now.”

Sykes sighed. “Davis wasn’t privy to the full details of my plan, his primary area of responsibility was the tower. And quite frankly, I think that was the only part he cared about. It was just a chance to build newer, better systems and see what they did. It’s what he loves to do and that makes him good at his job. It would be nice if he cared about what the consequences of his actions were, too.”

I gave him a skeptical look. “And this makes the two of you different how?”

He opened his mouth to answer, stopped, shook his head and rapped his knuckles against the arm of his floating chair, sending it upward. “Forget it. We’ve still only halfway to the top. If you can keep going then keep up. If not I’ll go by myself. I want to be there when Helix arrives.”

His wheelchair was almost entirely out of sight by the time he was done speaking. There wasn’t much else I could do except jump back into the elevator shaft behind him.

We were moving in five floor chunks, it took Circuit about ten seconds to ascend that floor and I let him check for traps then get clear before jumping up into the shaft, off of the far wall and back through another elevator door five stories up. The process was uncomfortable but pretty boring, all things considered. We made it up another twenty floors in silence, aside from Circuit occasionally muttering under his breath as he scouted out the shaft. I was waiting for Circuit to clear the jump to the sixty-fifth floor when he let out a triumphant, “Aha!”

“What?” I asked, craning my neck so I could see up the shaft.

“Traps, right on schedule. Looks like no one thought to add extra traps to the setup but at least someone thought of changing them from the kind of thing I could easily disarm with my talents.” The sound of latches being undone echoed down the shaft. “Which is not the same as saying it’s not easy to disarm.”

Circuit’s chair tilted at a weird angle so he could lean over and work in an access panel. The chair was surprisingly stable all things considered. “This may sound like a weird question but is that magic chair of yours gonna have enough juice to last for the duration? You’ve been using it an awful lot. Shoving your impersonator’s guys around by their maglev harnesses, levitating through elevator shafts and who knows what else. I mean, the thing’s only got so much juice to run on, right?”

“Smart question. Yes, it’s got a finite charge but I built it to run independently for a long time.” He paused what he was doing long enough to slap the side of the chair, rattling something in the side of the frame. “It can be charged off a wall socket but that takes time. I want to get to the top before Helix does.”

I snorted. “You’re pretty confident he’s gonna be here.”

“He may be your boss but I’ve known him for a long time, my dear. Almost half your life.” He slammed the panel he was working in closed. “I have a very high opinion of him, odd as that may sound.”

“So I’ve heard. You two are something of a legend around the offices.” Circuit moved to the other side of the shaft and opened another panel there. “Can I ask you something, since we have a breather?”

“Speak for yourself.”

“Why the chair?” He stopped what he was doing long enough to give me a look that suggested his opinion of my intelligence was dropping. “I mean, you could walk just fine in every encounter you had with Helix up to and including that showdown at the hydroelectric plant you built. Why does the chair exist at all?”

“I designed it back when I was still in the business, plotting to rule the world and all that. Faking a weakness is a fundamental rule of evil overlording and the plane crash when I was younger gave me a perfect excuse to feign being lame.” He paused to shove a screwdriver into his mouth and proceeded to mumble around it. “I didn’t actually build it until I retired.”

“So you waited?” My neck was getting a crick in it so I stopped trying to watch him and settled on staring at the wall on the far side of the shaft. In the dim light of the elevator shaft Circuit and his chair cast weird shadows, like the deformed shadow puppet of a king. “Why bother if you were getting out of the business?”

I jumped a bit when Circuit suddenly dropped back into view, his expression grim. “I’ll tell you a secret, Agent Rodriguez. I’m not a good person.”

“When do we hear the secret part?”

He smiled just a bit. “The secret is, I always planned on rolling over and dying when the time came to pay for my sins. Your father was a priest, you would understand that, wouldn’t you?”

There wasn’t a sign of malice or mockery in his face that I could make out. “If that’s true, then what changed?”

He shrugged. “I’m still not a good person, Rodriguez. But no one else should have to pay for my mistakes. My reckoning day is coming but now I’ve got people to look out for. Just because I got out of the game doesn’t mean I’m naïve. I’ve always known Sumter would catch up to me one of these days. And I never imagined that the people I worked with were playing straight with me either. Insurance is my way of life, now as much as when I played the villain, and the chair was a kind of insurance. A way to influence events if it ever came to that.”

I studied his face for signs that he was playing some sort of angle but couldn’t find any. “So we’re at their perimeter, right? What’s our next move?”

“The perimeter presents several-”

A quick chop of the hand cut him off. “Listen, I’ve heard that a million times from Al and Helix. Whenever they say there’s several things that can happen they always have one that they’re planning on happening or one that they’ve settled on doing already. So just tell me what the most likely thing is and we’ll all save some time.”

Circuit stared at me in surprise for a moment, then laughed. “You know, they do that because they haven’t actually worked out what they’re expecting for themselves, right? It’s just a way to buy time.”

“You mean you don’t know what you’re planning on doing?”

“One can’t always know what to expect until you’re on the scene.” He shrugged. “I think we’ll continue with the direct approach for now. We need to get to the seventy-fifth floor.”

He shot back up through the shaft and I got ready to wreck another elevator door.

Fiction Index

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Conflict: A Taxonomy

Conflict is an essential part of storytelling. Every story needs a conflict to drive it, even if that conflict is as simple as getting to the office on time. I’ve talked about conflict before from time to time but today it’s time to sit down and really dissect it. In literary terms there are four to eight types of conflict but in the writing tradition I learned from there are exactly seven and this is the system that I continue to use to this day. Without further ado, the seven kinds of conflict as I learned them are:

Character vs. Character 

In this conflict you have two people who cannot agree on something. Each character tries to get their own way and hijinks ensue. While this seems like a simple type of conflict it is really very deep, these conflicts tend to spread out of control as they exist almost any time two characters interact with each other. The vast majority of stories today have character vs. character as a major conflict, if not the major conflict. Luke’s story arc in the classic Star Wars trilogy is a great example of this kind of conflict, as is any Superman story with Lex Luthor in it.

Character vs. Self 

This conflict arises when a character is dissatisfied with some aspect of themselves and attempts to correct it. If you’ve ever tried to get in shape or break a bad habit you know how hard this can be. Stories focusing on this kind of conflict usually make a big deal of how the thing being changed effects the central character and the world around them, and how the attempts to change cause ripples in the character’s life. Groundhog’s Day or (oddly enough) Scott Pilgrim VS The World are great examples of this.

Character vs. Nature 

A struggle with nature arises any time impersonal laws of existence, like gravity or time, or forces of nature, like storms or earthquakes, or just wild animals threaten a character or prevent them from getting what they want. These kinds of struggles usually focus on the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of ingenuity in the face of mindless obstacles. The Old Man and the Sea is the quintessential example of this. The Perfect Storm is another good case study.

Character vs. The World (or Society) 

When a character desires something that just isn’t the way things are done, or social mores and strictures put entire groups of people against one person or one person just tries to march to his own rhythm and is discouraged by the ways he doesn’t fit in you have a character vs. the world. It’s much like character vs. character except it’s as much about the nature of the system the character is caught in than the wants and needs of the individual characters who oppose him. Romeo and Juliet does this on a small scale, 1984 on a large one.

Character vs. Fate 

This is much like character vs. self except all the character’s attempts to change are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control. It can also pertain to stories where characters attempt to thwart some prediction only to make it come true – usually because of some quirk of their own characters. Regardless, it hinges on how a character’s nature makes their actions ineffectual. And sometimes (rarely, to tell the truth) how they overcome those natures. Oedipus Rex is an example of this conflict.

Character vs. Machine 

This conflict is actually kind of new, but not at the same time. It’s a well known fact that changes in technology force people to adapt and the struggle to adapt to changing places in the world, or hold on to your place in the face of new tools or techniques, is a timeless one. But only in the modern era has it started to look like machines can actually replace people entirely and how people deal with that possibility is the center of this conflict. The Caves of Steel is a perfect example.

Character vs. gods/God 

Any time a character struggles against another character who is utterly beyond their abilities to comprehend that conflict is character vs. gods/God. What sets this apart is that the conflict is almost always one-sided. The human character does all the work, invests all the emotion and purpose and almost always fails to provoke any kind of reaction at all from the other party. These stories run a spectrum from The Call of Cthulu on one end to Till We Have Faces on the other.

So what function do these classifications serve?

Mostly, I find they help you think about your characters in a new light. Trying to classify your character’s central conflict can focus your narrative wonderfully, helping you fixate on and eliminate needless distractions and really hit the story where it lives.

For those of you following my Avengers Analyzed series, I employed this technique to help me narrow down the elements of each character’s own character growth and ignore their actions which were intended to advance the development of others. Which brings me to another important issue. Most every character in your cast should probably have a conflict of their own that they are dealing with. Working out what those conflicts are will help your characters’ actions and dialog to have purpose and make them more believable and sympathetic.

Conflict. It needs to be at the heart of your story so make it as clear as possible.

Cool Things: Shazam!

I have issues with American comics/graphic novels for a number of reasons. They tend to address a very narrow range of topics – mostly people in colorful suits battling crime and/or evil and/or each other. There’s nothing wrong with superhero comics, as a genre, but like many genres with entrenched fanbases and a fairly continuous, unbroken history stagnation is a real problem, with many of the tropes and stereotypes reinforcing one another until everything starts to look the same.

On top of that, most of the comics I’ve read seem to have forgotten that they are visual media, and attempt to tell most, if not all, of their story through captions, narration or dialog. While a certain amount of this is necessary, comics are a visual medium and must be told visually or they kind of loose the point. These two factors combine in some form or another to comprise most to all of my problems with the American comics industry.

Fortunately, there is the occasional title that comes out with enough fresh perspective, engaging characters and well used imagery to stand out from the crowd. One such title is Shazam!, a collection of shorts that ran in the Justice League comics for a time. I recently read the collection and highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a good reinterpretation of a classic superhero origin in modern times.

This book does a lot right but I’ll just touch on a few things.

First, the art is great and does a lot to tell the story all on it’s own. People are expressive, poses are dynamic and there’s no jump from panel to panel that you simply cannot follow because of bad composition or poor blocking. It’s amazing how many comics, even those drawn by artists with perfectly fine technical skills, fail in the area of composition and loose readers simply because you’re not sure what’s happening from one panel to the next. That’s never a problem for this book.

Second, Shazam! chooses it’s tropes wisely. The two it ignores, which most stories of this flavor would try and include, are the trope of the overly tough hero and the trope of the heavily guarded secret identity. Both of these are avoided to the story’s great benefit.

A quick overview – Billy Batson is taken in by a foster family. He expects to be kicked right back out, just like he eventually was at  all the other foster homes he’s been in, but the family works hard to make him feel at home and they make small inroads. Things take a turn for the weird when a wizard named Shazam takes Billy from off of a subway train and tests him for a good heart. He doesn’t find one – he hasn’t found one in the dozens of people he’s tested, but Billy points out that it’s pointless to look for a good heart among human beings and maybe Shazam should consider looking for the potential for a good heart instead.

The wizard takes Billy’s advice and finds such potential in Billy. Thus, Billy is entrusted with the Power of Shazam and the Living Lightning and winds up forced to battle his corrupt predecessor. With the help of the others in his forster family Billy defeats Black Adam and takes his rightful position as the Guardian of Magic in the DC universe.

Also, there are magical tigers. Trust me, it’s cool.

At it’s core, Shazam! is the story of how a damaged foster kid finds himself once more placed in a foster home which he has no expectations about. Billy’s a realistic kid – he’s been in the system a long time and he doesn’t expect much. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t want a family, under all the layers of cynicism and disappointment, he just doesn’t expect one. At it’s heart, Billy’s struggle to find his place is well written human drama and neither takes over the story nor comes off as a cheap sugarcoating.

It also gives the story one of it’s greatest strengths.

At no point in the story does he try and hide the fact that he’s received the power of Shazam from his fellow foster kids. In fact, a lot of time is spent with Billy and his friend Freddy Freeman, exploring what Billy can do as Shazam and what they can do with those powers. Eventually the whole set of foster kids knows about them – the parents are left out only because the growing mess Billy’s new role as Shazam has created has separated them from their kids for a while. This dynamic, with Shazam having a bunch of people who know he’s got superpowers, lets the story explore a lot of ideas that normally never get any attention in comics.

For starters, there is the natural reaction and surprise at seeing Billy’s powers. But that’s gotten over fairly quickly, mostly because Billy is just as surprised at them as everyone else. Then there’s the phase where everyone is trying to figure out what it is Bill can do. Finally, everyone tries to pool resources to solve problems quickly and efficiently while keeping everyone in touch with each other and safe. It’s this last part that I feel most comics really fail at. We never see superheroes collaborating with normal people and sharing responsibilities. Even those who pay lip service to trying such a thing usually end up with the superhero doing everything on their own. But, perhaps in part because Billy is still young, a positive team dynamic rapidly coalesces and the story is both more engaging and more endearing for it.

The comradery among the characters, although not easy to come by, does help the book achieve it’s second major trope aversion. While his life in foster care has made him a hard case, Billy is by no means lacking emotional depth. We see his disappointment at previous failed foster situations, his extreme skepticism at his current foster family and simultaneously his nagging desire to be a part of this family create a meaningful personal conflict for Billy and it’s through that conflict, and the carefully balanced use of the rest of the cast, that we get a chance to see that depth.

Freddy, in particular, is a great foil to Billy’s attitude. Both have practical and self serving streaks that should make it hard for them to appreciate one another but, at the same time, they are the ones who show the most wonder and excitement when Billy is suddenly given superpowers and manage to form a solid bond. The moment they realize Billy can fly as Shazam is one of the best in the book.

Finally, I love the fact that Billy ultimately defeats Black Adam (Spoiler! Hero wins in superhero comic book!) because he is clever and courageous, not because he’s simply more powerful. Many superhero books let their protagonists win because they were more powerful or more determined or more cunning than their enemies. Billy ultimately gambles on courage and good character and I like the fact that he wins.

All in all, Shazam! is a superhero tale that has the trim and trappings of the modern day, that reflects our modern ills and attitudes, but still manages to be a superhero tale at heart. It’s worth at least one read.

Hiatus Act Two

Just a quick reminder that Thunder Clap will continue next week. The recharge is going well and I’m starting to get caught up. Come back on Wednesday for some thoughts on the state of American Comics!

Nate

Midseason Recap: Agents of SHIELD

Hi guys, final midseason recap time. We’ve talked about the writing in Scorpion and Gotham so it’s time to turn our attention to Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

I have so many mixed feelings about this show. SHIELD is different from previous shows in a couple of ways. First, it’s not in its first season and second it’s a tie in to a much bigger media franchise. These things are not necessarily in the show’s favor.

Series Premise and First Season Recap 

The premise of SHIELD is pretty simple. It’s about a shadow agency, the titular SHIELD, that reacts to paranormal and metahuman situations around the globe and keeps them from hurting people. It’s like The X-Files meets Men In Black, except there’s more than aliens running around and we have Clark Gregg instead of David Duchovny (not exactly a bad trade in my book). All of this ties in to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as expressed in movies like the Iron Man franchise and The Avengers. Except now that premise has been put through the wringer for a full season and it’s morphed into something different.

So, a brief recap of Season One. We meet our team, then discover various metahuman and extraterrestrial doohickies and keep bumping into people working to perfect a new supersoldier serum and start cranking out Captain Americas – although probably with less of the moral center. In the middle of the season Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes out and HYDRA infiltrators take over SHIELD and the whole premise takes a serious hit. (Spoilers, by the way.) The SHIELD we’ve started to get a feel for is suddenly ripped out from under us and we have to relearn all the rules of the world and the show. The season ends with Agent Phil Coulson promoted to Director of SHIELD and working to rebuild the organization.

The real problem with Season One is it lacks any kind of focus or cohesion. Several episodes were spent on tie-ins rather than progressing the show’s central plot. Which, by the way, revolves around a character named Skye and her mysterious parentage and history with SHIELD. Skye and the team are ignorant of what happened to her family and Phil decides to do what he can to help her figure that out. We start to see connections between Skye and the people running the supersoldier program… but the tie-ins wreck the pacing of her story and then the sudden HYDRA revolt totally sidelines that mystery for most of the last third of the season.

I’m not saying the HYDRA thing wasn’t good but it really feels like it’s happening at the wrong time in the series. SHIELD probably would have been a stronger TV show if it had either waited for the second season to pull a total revamping of the show’s format or if it had waited half a season and simply begun with Coulson picking up the pieces after HYDRA wrecked most of SHIELD. Status quo must be established before it can be changed up and the show failed to do that before it’s big Season One shake-up. That doesn’t mean the show wasn’t entertaining, it just wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Otherwise the show did a good job with characterization and no single episode was particularly boring. A lot of interesting storylines were set up – although some things that I’d hoped to see, like an episode inside the supervillain prison center or more events inside SHIELD Academy, are obviously not coming to pass now.

All things considered the first season of SHIELD started good and drifted toward high end mediocrity. I approached the second season with trepidation. In fact, I didn’t start watching it until several episodes into the season. I’ve definitely had the most trouble convincing myself I wanted to watch it on a weekly basis out of the shows I’m following this season. That said, there is some good stuff in it. Let’s take a look.

Favorite Character (Honorable Mention) – Phil Coulson 

The answer will probably always be Phil. It’s a combination of many factors, I think, and the excellent performance of Clark Gregg is definitely one of them. I’d like to say there’s great writing behind his character but the fact is Phil is just written as solid, likeable, fatherly and sensible. He’s hard not to like and something about Gregg’s charisma makes it work all the better. But in terms of the show’s writing… Phil isn’t actually written that well. He’s not written badly at all but there’s nothing outstanding there either. So, while I love the character and the way he’s presented, I’m removing him from the running for favorite character because he wins… but more because of the actor and personal preference than actual writing.

Favorite Character – Leo Fitz 

He’s kind of geeky and adorkable which I can sympathize with. But the growth of his character since the rift between him and Jemma Simmons formed combined with his slow recovery from near suffocation makes for some really interesting moments. The most interesting aspect is the way a person who has only really needed one friend has to adapt when his primary relationship is radically and probably irrevocably altered.

While the arc itself is not particularly groundbreaking, each interaction with each character along the way is so well written and so believable that it plays like a dream. Major kudos for handling this whole thing so well.

Least Favorite Character – Daniel Whitehall 

Whedon is great at doing good characters so it’s impossible to pick one that I hate. But there is a character which I don’t like as much as the others and that’s Whitehall. He’s a lackluster villain, feeling much like a generic Dr. Insano kind of a mad scientist. While perpetrating wholesale organ transplants in order to gain renewed youth and vigor certainly establishes him as both vicious and cold we never really get an appreciation for what drives him or what sets him apart from all the other characters matching his archetype, or even his mentor Red Skull.

Whitehall suffers from a distinct lack of development and, particularly with Skye’s father and Grant Ward running around, the series has a lot of better villains casting a shadow over him. That’s a particular weakness given that he’s probably meant as the primary villain of the first half of Season Two. More time should have been spent developing him or, given his current status in the show, less time should have been wasted on him. It’s not a strong dislike but it’s enough that he rates as my least favorite character this season.

Favorite Character Dynamic – Grant/Skye 

The transformation of these two from tentative romance to bitter betrayal and creepy stalker/stalkee relationship is… engaging. It’s not really fun but it does ramp up the suspense and keep you coming back for more. Grant is a very, very warped individual and it’s unclear what caused him to latch on to Skye like he did, or what he might do should he ever find the approval he wants from her.

Skye is a confused person who doesn’t really understand who she is or what she’s capable of, but she’s not going to be manipulated by Grant and it will take more than his attempts to express affection for her to draw her from the side of the angels. The battle of wills between them is tense and hopefully will lead to even better storytelling down the road.

Least Favorite Character Dynamic – Billy and Sam Koening 

Okay, so I’ve played around with the look-alikes with weird relationships a bit in my stories but this one… it just feels a little out of place and weird in this show. Again, not a big gripe, but Whedon does so well with his characters and their interactions that it’s hard not to like them. These two just feel out of place in the larger cast which puts them near the bottom. Hopefully they’ll be more than just quirky background but in the mean time I guess I’ll settle for being mildly exasperated whenever they steal screen time from people I’m more interested in.

Least Favorite Episode – The Things We Bury (S02E08) 

While I like Grant Ward when he’s keeping the pressure on Skye, forcing her to grapple with her own feelings and the realities of the life she’s chosen, on his own he’s kind of a weak character. I’m not sure if it’s because his psychotic fixation makes him predictable or just because he’s not a nice person but he gets old fast. This episode mostly features him and I managed to deduce the outcome, point by point, almost from the beginning and that didn’t sit well with me. I’m inclined to credit that to poor writing, since I think all of this could have been done in a way that made it interesting and effective while still conveying the same events, but I’m not a TV writer and I’m not in a position to judge. It wasn’t a horrible episode but it wasn’t very interesting either.

Favorite Episode – The Writing on the Wall (S02E07) 

This episode was good. The culmination of the TAHITI arc, Coulson regaining sanity and the flashbacks to his efforts to understand fellow TAHITI patients all makes for great character stuff. The episode moves tightly, has good suspense and the reveal shot at the end, when Coulson and the other TAHITI patient who have been searching look down and finally see what they’ve been looking for… that’s a great moment. Yes, the Winter Finale had a powerful climax as well but Coulson’s character resolution for this half of the season resonated more.

Other Stuff 

I’m still on the fence about this show. The incorporation of the inhumans to the MCU before their actual movie is a nice touch and feels much more organic than most of the forced tie-ins from the first season. The reveal that Skye is actually an established DC character (albeit a minor one) is great and, while Bobbi Morse did this first, it’s satisfying to know one of the people who we’ve come all this way with is an established Marvel player.

This will most likely make the character Skye in the Marvel comic SHIELD, which features many of the same characters as the show, substantially different from her MCU counterpart, but we can live with that.

My two biggest problems with the show are as follows. First, the heavy studio hand visible in the first season which resulted in wonky story pacing and poor placement of a major plot twist really hampered the progress of the show. But it seems to be recovering from that.

Second, the beautiful people habit. I mentioned how much I liked Scorpion avoiding that and, to an extent, Gotham has as well. Not as much, but many of the people in Gotham are socialites and others with public images to think of so it’s at least kind of realistic. SHIELD is full of spies and professional hard cases, people who should blend in or be a little on the rough edge of things. But the cast almost universally looks like they’re ready to step onto a photo shoot most of the time. They’re overstylized and it’s a little grating. Only Clark Gregg manages to avoid looking like he’s been spit polished before he stepped onto the set and I suspect that’s more due to his natural charisma than a conscious decision on the part of makeup.

On the other hand, the actors are very good. Clark Gregg I’ve already said I like. Brett Dalton is eerily good at the placid psychotic Grant Ward. But Kyle MacLachlan takes the cake as Skye’s deranged father, teetering wildly between an injured and hurting man and a homicidal wreck bent on vengeance. His jump from one to the other is always believable and, oddly enough, more pitiable than chilling, making his character all the harder to get a handle on. Good work, sir. Good work.

I’m still divided on this show, but my biggest gripe with it was the clear fingerprints of studio interference in the first season. Over time those signs have diminished. Hopefully we won’t have cause to see them again – not that studio direction is bad. But when it stands out too much it can kill a series. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, the good ship SHIELD will not suffer such a fate.

Scifi Fundamentals: I, Robot

The three laws of robotics, when expressed in spoken or written English rather than mathematics, are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Once upon a time, these were almost universally known by scifi geeks as a cornerstone of AI theory. But why are they important and why should you want to read the stories about them?

Welcome to a new segment for Wednesdays which I’m calling Scifi Foundations, it will reoccur whenever I have something to add to it.

Scifi is a young genre, with the very earliest scifi story generally being attributed to Edgar Allen Poe and only really coming into vogue about a hundred years ago. As such, foundational questions that the genre has addressed have not been as thoroughly examined as they have for other genres. There is no scifi equivalent to the hero’s journey, for example. But there are some core works that put forward ideas that are at the very heart of the genre and, in my opinion, ideas that have been somewhat forgotten over the years as authors try to innovate and make new stories. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are at or near the top of my list of such forgotten concepts.

I, Robot is an important foundation for anyone who writes fiction that includes a strong AI if for no other reason than the fact that it’s a good illustration of the principles that form the core of interesting stories about them. The three laws of robotics are simple but the whole purpose of the stories collected in I, Robot is to illustrate the kinds of difficulties even simple “laws” present when dealing with a computer. Probably the most important rule to keep in mind is repeated more than once, that a computer is entirely logical but never reasonable.

Most of the stories in the first two thirds of the book feature problems that result from robots applying the laws in entirely logical ways that result in insane behavior. The point was less to demonstrate how simple it would be to create moral AI and more to demonstrate how very difficult morality is for anyone, relying strictly on logic fails to take into account things like intent, outcome and purpose in laws. In particular, the case of the robot telepath and the robot with the flawed First Law both illustrate both the importance of understanding purpose, something logic cannot do, and the shortcomings of a strict reading of the laws.

Asimov’s careful examination of these concepts is a very important starting point for any writer who wants to examine these aspects of AI in further depth. Unfortunately, most people who write AI in this day and age tend to pattern their work after the last portion of the book, or more likely after Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s at this point in the progression of I, Robot‘s short stories that Asimov departs from his original, highly logical approach to the three laws and decides that AI will simply become capable of abstract thought at some point.

This leads to robots assuming a fourth law of robotics, a Law Zero, that forces them to place the good of humanity above the good of individual human beings and allows them to override the First Law if harm to a specific human being will lead to the greater good of the species. This part of the book feels largely like a cop-out, because it allows robots to break the rules without allowing the reader to follow along with the logic. Yes, we know the actions the robots are taking supposedly benefit humanity as a whole but not how the robot arrived at that conclusion. Or, for that matter, how the robot arrived at it’s definitions of humanity or what is good for it, questions that even the best philosophers, theologians and artists still struggle with today.

In the end, I, Robot is a case study in the use of AI in science fiction. It presents us with interesting problems and an understanding of the limitations our technology has in solving them, but it also worships some inexplicable future technology as a savior, set to free us from all that hinders us if only we trust in it. If you plan to write about artificial intelligence, studying I, Robot for the good and the bad is one of the best places to start.

Short Haiatus

So here’s the deal. I don’t like doing this, particularly given where the story is at the moment, but I fell way behind during the holidays and I just can’t seem to get caught back up. No excuses, this was my bad. Rather than rush to push out the next chapter constantly while trying to build up a buffer again I’ve decided to take the next two weeks off of story chapters – so there won’t be a new installment of Thunder Clap until January 26th.

Again, I’m sorry about this but I want to take the time to write this out well so I can hit the climax I wanted this book to have in a way that will do it justice. Thunder Clap is the end of the series, at least for now, and I want it to be as good as possible and that means taking a little time to get stuff straightened out and written right. In the mean time, Wednesday and Friday posts will continue so there will be some updates.

Thanks for your patience and understanding,

Nate

Avengers Analyzed: Steve Rogers

Time for the third entry in this ongoing series! We’re examining the character writing of Marvel’s The Avengers, one of the best elements of a movie with a lot going for it. We started with Bruce Banner and continued with Tony Stark. To continue with the logical progression, this month we talk about the man who was Stark’s foil for most of the movie – Captain Steve Rogers.

Steve’s Background

The greatest soldier in the world began life in New York during the Great Depression and volunteered to fight in the Second World War. He was turned down for being too small and weak – many times. So great was his desire to serve that he hit every recruiting station he could find and eventually drew the attention of the supersoldier program that would make him superhuman.

Rogers would eventually see service in Europe fighting the rogue Nazi superscience group HYDRA, defeating their leader Red Skull in a battle that left Steve trapped under a glacier until he was discovered by SHIELD and revived in the modern era.

Oh, he also possesses an indestructible shield that he throws at people. It’s pretty cool.

Steve’s Conflict 

Steve Rogers embodies character vs. the world, a dramatic shift from the last two characters who were both at odds with themselves.

Seventy years ago, American society at least paid lipservice to the ideals of courtesy, integrity, duty and honor. While the number of people who actually lived by those virtues were probably no higher than the number of people who live by their personal principles today, what matters for the purposes of this story was that the Captain was one of those people who not only believed in those things but put everything he had into practicing them. Unfortunately, those ideals are not particularly valued today.

But Steve’s conflict runs even deeper than just a difference between his ideals and those of the world around him.

Defeating HYDRA was not the literal the death of Steve Rogers but it came close enough. When his life stopped the world kept marching and it hasn’t looked back. It seems almost impossible for him to have any relevance in the world he finds himself in. The skills he honed as a young man are obsolete, the enemy he fought has been defeated and the friends he knew are gone. What’s a hero to do?

We Meet Captain America 

“I’ve been asleep for seventy years. I think I’ve had enough rest.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

Cap’s introduction is every bit as well thought out as Stark’s. We see him in a boxing gym. An oldschool boxing gym, it looks like it’s been dragged straight out of the Depression era and it immediately tells us a few things about Steve.

First, it immediately gives us the impression that we’re looking at an old fashioned place with an old fashioned guy. There’s no modern exercise equipment in there. Just a ring, a punching bag and some room for warmups. The man there fits in seamlessly, feels entirely at home. He’s just as old as this place, perhaps.

Second, the gym is empty. Gyms are communal places, social centers as much as places to refine and train yourself. Most people don’t go there alone, those that do usually meet with some sort of trainer. But this man is alone.

Third, this guy is good. He hits fast, hard and continuously. And he tears his target to pieces. But never for a moment does he look happy about it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Steve Rogers.

Steve Starts Off

“There’s a lot we’ll have to bring you up to speed on if you’re in. The world has gotten even stranger than you know.” – Nick Fury 

It may sound weird for Nick Fury to try and  tempt Captain America out of seclusion by promising him weirdness, given that most of his woes have come about thanks in no small part to weirdness, but that’s exactly what Nick does. Their meeting, although brief, tells us a great deal about Steve and for the most part it does so without using words. I admire that.

First, we notice that Cap respects authority. He never takes Fury to task for the way SHIELD tried to hide the era he’d woken up in. He doesn’t baselessly question whether Fury and SHIELD deserve the position they hold as the world’s defenders. He assumes Fury has earned his position.

At the same time, he expects Fury to act like the things he claims to be. Steve’s questions about what Fury is telling him are exactly what we would expect from a fairly average guy who’s life experiences are seen almost entirely through the lens of global warfare. He has natural doubts about using the power source Red Skull did but seems to acknowledge it’s potential as well.

Most of all, the Captain is curious. He asks questions constantly, trying to drive into the heart of the matter. He clearly isn’t comfortable with anything around him, nor with the role he’s being asked to take or even with the guy who’s asking him to do it. But his sense of responsibility won’t let him turn away and it does sound kind of interesting…

But the real moment that starts Cap on his journey is his conversation with Phil Coulson, when he asks if his old uniform isn’t a little old fashioned. Phil replies that may be exactly what people need.

Confrontation With Loki

“You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

Steve’s story moves pretty quickly. After paying off a bet with Fury, Steve is dispatched to Stuttgart, Germany where Loki has turned up. This makes Steve the first of the superhuman lineup to confront Loki and the first character in the movie to deal him a setback.

The first, most interesting thing to notice about Cap’s confrontation with Loki is that it happens in Germany, the country where Steve made his reputation and found his greatest enemy.

The second actually happens before Steve shows up. When Loki calls for the people of Earth to kneel before him they all do. But one man, old and looking a little weary with life, thinks about it and pulls himself back to his feet. He challenges Loki by telling him that, no matter how powerful or special the so-called god thinks he is, there have always been people like him.

This man, nameless though he is, has every reason to know. Old as he is, there can be little doubt that he knew the German who made such boasts – not personally, but still. Whether this man was a child or a soldier (and some were certainly both), a member of the resistance or complicit in his silence (and some were one and then the other), this is one man who has seen the horrors of another man who thinks he is a god and come to accept that nothing short of total opposition can be the right answer. This man of Stuttgart defies Loki, even though there is nothing he can conceivably do to stop him.

This man, quite possibly the only man in Stuttgart who could understand Steve Rogers, who has seen the things Steve has and the only one who might be able to argue that men like Captain America are now irrelevant in the world that is, chose to show the exact same spirit and the exact same resolve that Steve himself carries. The man of Stuttgart is not strong enough to do more than defy Loki – but Steve is there to fight for them both.

When Captain America fights Loki it’s a powerful statement about the relevance of heroes in the modern world. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Steve is that he doesn’t realize he’s made it but in many ways, it’s one of the most important moments in the movie, if not in the development of Steve’s character.

For all his skill, strength and courage, Captain America is not able to defeat Loki himself. In fact, he doesn’t even really get him to sweat. While it looks like both fighters could go for several dozen more rounds, Iron Man arrives and tips the odds in Steve’s favor, prompting Loki to surrender. It may not look like Steve’s win and Tony certainly doesn’t seem to think so but it’s an important first step towards Captain America’s ultimate goal.

Battles Within and Without

“Everything special about you came out of a bottle!” – Tony Stark 

Ironically, Steve’s personal conflict is against the world he’s in and Loki is a thing of another world. We can’t really see Cap’s personal conflict in battles with Loki but rather in battles with the people who are helping him fight the larger fight. Add to this the fact that Steve is essentially the leader of the team and we wind up with him playing a part in many of the minor conflicts that build the individual characters into a single team.

But after his inconclusive encounter with Loki Steve’s rep isn’t quite what it could be. In fact, the very next thing that happens is a three way brawl between Cap, Thor and Iron Man. It opens with Stark’s impetuous nature clashing with Steve’s more reserved style and doesn’t come to a stop until Steve steps between the two and takes everything they can throw out. But while the fight is over that doesn’t mean the other two are behind Steve yet. In fact, in Tony’s case in particular it seems to be very much the opposite.

The struggle between the two is kind of a microcosm of Steve’s struggle as a whole. Tony values his own opinion, doesn’t want to give up anything and doesn’t take other people seriously at all. At the same time he provides Cap a push to look into what SHIELD has been doing with its borrowed technology.

It’s interesting the degree to which Steve rejects the paradigm of SHIELD. He doesn’t show much warmth to anyone but Coulson and, while the regimented behavior clearly puts him in mind of his army days, the deep secrets SHIELD hides behind doesn’t sit well with him.

Steve values the members of his team, something that puts him at odds with Fury’s seemingly colder disposition, which seems content to sacrifice the few for the many. Romanov embodies SHIELD’s philosophy and seems to be trying to handle Steve, a man who gave up being handled and set his own course long before she was born. Getting a read on her and how to best work with her is a task that will occupy an entire different movie but for now he just needs her to follow and she’s sticking with Fury.

Thor wants his brother punished, hopefully leading to his reform. That’s not something Steve disagrees with, in fact it’s very much in line with the moral code Rogers espouses, but Thor’s loyalties are elsewhere and this may be why Cap keeps him at arm’s length for most of the film. Of all the people on the team, Banner is probably the most like the Captain but the scientist’s volatility puts a layer of caution between the two that neither one really wants to cross.

In all, Steve’s biggest problem is that everyone has an agenda and none of them are his. But as a man who spent most of his life (his conscious life, anyway) as a little guy who wanted to fight for the other little guys, Steve is the one with the closest connection both to what a hero needs to do and what it will cost them.

Steve’s Tipping Point

“Phase 2 is SHIELD uses the Cube to make weapons.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

Captain America is the only hero who’s entire character development basically comes in a single lump and if any one character was going to get that kind of concentrated character development it should be him. Steve is the heart of the team, it’s moral core and driving force. Yes, the Avengers were gathered by SHIELD and Fury obviously intended to be their leader. But only Steve has the integrity and the single-minded purpose to keep all the personalities around him focused on a single task. That was why he lead the team in the comics and it’s why he leads them in this film, he’s a hero that even other heroes must respect. After all, he’s lost almost his entire life to heroism once and doesn’t even hesitate to risk it again.

But even as the rest of the team slowly falls into orbit around him Steve is remaining passive, letting Fury call the shots and take the lead. Right up until Stark, Rogers’ gadfly, implies that SHIELD may be up to something underhanded. When Steve finds the weapons project they’ve been running he’s upset.

Not so much at the fact that SHIELD is building weapons. Steve was and is a soldier, he understands the necessities of war. But he also knows that the power weapons give their wielders demands accountability, just as he needs to be accountable to his superiors in his function as a living weapon. And building weapons in secret? That’s not accountability. It smacks of HYDRA.

Funny that.

Captain Rogers is not above setting his own goals and working towards them when his superiors are obviously neglecting what’s important – he did it during WWII and he’s up to the challenge now. SHIELD is not handling this crisis with integrity and if they won’t, then Steve Rogers will. The world may not always want his kind of heroism but it’s going to get it anyway.

Steve’s Resolution 

“You need men in these buildings. There are people inside and they’re going to be running right into the line of fire. You take them to the basements, or through the subway. You keep them off the streets. I need a perimeter as far back as 39th.” – Captain Steve Rogers 

After the attack on the Helicarrier Steve is the one to shake Tony out of his stupor and he immediately brings Barton back into the fold, no questions asked. This may seem naïve but it’s all he needs to do to get both Barton and Romanov on his side. The same pragmatic attitude was shown earlier with Bruce, when Steve showed no interest in his Hulk problem and only cared about Banner’s ability to find the Tesseract. As an accomplished soldier and leader of men, Rogers knows that sometimes it’s what a person can contribute right now that matters more than history, ideology or attitude.

The unification of the team around Steve is the end of the character’s conflict – he’s proved his own relevance in the world at large and is now free to act in it and join the battle. The growing ease with which he handles first his own team and then the emergency responders during the Battle of New York cements his place as a hero of the modern age and set the stage for him to entirely leave the shadow of Fury and SHIELD in Winter Soldier – all in all, a very satisfying character arc, if not as dramatic as Tony’s or as deft as Banners.

That only leaves one superhero left in the movie’s line up and I’d like to say I saved the best for last… but the fact is Thor is a bit of an enigma in this film. It’s not to say he doesn’t show character development, it’s just not as pronounced as any of the other characters – come back next month and we’ll take a look at what I mean.