Sunday, September 1, 2013

Why we should prosecute Al-Assad instead of bombing Syria: a follow up

Well, I started this, so I'll follow through. Whenever I come up with an idea that sounds really smart to me, I tend to come up with potential arguments against it. So here's a few I've considered:

Q) Why even bother? ICC prosecutions take forever.
A) I know they do. That sucks. I wish justice was faster. It's not even fast within the same country, but it's especially slow internationally. But the question is: compared to what? Invading Syria? Launching a few random cruise missiles or drone strikes? What alternative will have an impact on what's happening right now?

Q) What if it wasn't Al-Assad's idea to launch chemical weapons? What if was some random lieutenant, or even the rebels?
A) That's why we have a trial. Instead of rushing off and launching missiles based on what we think happened, we can find out who's actually responsible, and prosecute them.

Q) But lots of American leaders have done things at least as bad.
A) I know. And if this was a just world, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and a lot of other American leaders (maybe even You Know Who) would be sitting in cells in the Hague right now. But it's not a just world. It's the one we live in. The choice isn't between prosecuting Al-Assad and prosecuting George Bush. It's between prosecuting Al-Assad and killing some random Syrians to teach Al-Assad a lesson. So which do you like better?

Q) How do you even prosecute a person in the ICC?
A) I have no idea. I know there are people that do. I know we are the most powerful nation in the world, and if we want to make it happen we very likely can. But it won't if we don't try.

Q) Are you sure it will work?
A) No. And if it does, it won't work for a long, long time. I'm saying that there is no idea out there that is better. The reason I'm proposing this is because if you say bombing Syria is a bad idea, people who want to do it will say, "Well, what would you do?" So now you can answer the question.

If teaching Assad a lesson is our goal, let's charge him with war crimes

So, I guess good for Obama to ask Congress before he drops bombs on Syria even though: 1) they'll let him anyway and 2) he reserves the right to bomb anyway even if they say no. Maybe someday down the road it will be treated as a precedent. But just because he gets congressional approval doesn't make it okay.

Why do we have to drop bombs? Well, because he said he would. We have to kill people for "credibility." Will civilians die for that word? What's the other argument?

The other argument is that Bashar Al-Assad violated international law, and he needs to be punished. There need to be "consequences." 

Let's start with the assumption that 1) chemical weapons were used, 2) they were used by the Syrian government, and 3) it was on Bashar Al-Assad's orders and 4) killing people with gas is for whatever reason way worse than killing them with guns and bombs. Assuming that's true, then everyone agrees this Onion article describes the situation. There are no good choices, right? 

But there is an option that no one has even discussed. If the point is to punish Al-Assad, there is a choice: charge him in international court with war crimes. 

But, you will say, the Syrian regime is killing people right now. Sure, we can worry about war crimes down the road, but we have to do something today. War crimes prosecutions are great, but they take years. They're not going to stop Al-Assad right now.

Hasn't everyone agreed, however, that there is not one thing we can do to stop the killing now? At least, nothing that won't kill many more people than Al-Assad is killing. If the last fifteen years of military adventurism has taught us anything, it's taught us that. The point is to set an example for other leaders, so they won't think they should use chemical weapons as well. 

Still, what does Assad care about some court off in Netherlands? Well, Slobodan Milosevic didn't care either, but he died in jail in the Hague. 

What if Al-Assad wins the war, you might argue? He's not going to turn himself over for prosecution. But the fact that he might win is exactly why we should charge him now.

Bashar Al-Assad is in a fight for his life now, beyond doubt. Perhaps there was a time that he might have just ended up in jail like Mubarak. But not anymore. If he loses this war, he's going to do a long dance at the end of a short rope, just like Saddam Hussein. Unless they just shoot him first. 

If he wins, he'll still be in charge of the government. But what if he is convicted of war crimes? It's embarrassing to be seen with a war criminal, so other leaders won't want to visit him. If he travels to other countries, he might be arrested. He'll be cut off from most other countries.

Furthermore, it's embarrassing to have a convicted international war criminal leading your country. Assad's generals will be itching to get rid of him so they can re-establish normal relations with other countries. For the rest of his rule, Al-Assad will have knives at his back.

In other words, charging Al-Assad with war crimes is the only course of action we can take that will have a direct impact on Bashar Al-Assad, at least in the long run. Certainly it is much more likely to mean something to him than killing a few more of his soldiers or blowing up a few of his artillery with a drone or a cruise missile. 

Other countries, which are reluctant to help us with military intervention, might well be eager to help us with this. And the ICC is not in the Security Council, so Russia and China can't veto it. 

So instead of a pointless, brief intervention, let's do something that can make a difference. Let's use the international mechanisms we've created, for the purpose they're meant to be used for. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Have we ever stumbled into war more stupidly than we're about to?

Sorry, I promised a long time ago this was not going to be a political blog, but I can't help it. Have we ever stumbled into war more stupidly than we're about to? I know what you're thinking: Iraq, Afghanistan... Believe me, I hate to defend the people that started those wars but at least they had distinct, start-to-finish plans, as deluded as they might have been. In Syria, the plan seems to be to launch a few cruise missiles to "teach Al-Assad a lesson," and then...something.

A little history lesson: On August 2, 1962, the USS Maddox engaged with three North Vietnamese boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, claiming the boats had fired first. A second engagement supposedly took place on August 4th. It's clear today that the NV boats on the August 2nd incident didn't fire first, and that that there was no enemy at all on August 4th. President Johnson himself privately said "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there." Nevertheless, the Johnson Administration quickly pressured Congress into authorizing military force against North Vietnam. Which as we all remember, worked out fabulously.

As with the GOT incident, we still have very little knowledge of what happened in Syria. We're not even 100% certain chemical weapons were used. If they were, we don't know if it was Assad or some rogue splinter of his forces that used them. For all we know, it was the rebels that used the chemical weapons. We have little to no idea what happened, assuming we're even trying very hard to figure it out. I assume we're not. And all of this is based on the idea that killing people with gas is so much more horrible than shooting them or blowing them up, something that a lot of people have been questioning lately. 

So why is Obama so eager to start shooting? Because if he doesn't he looks like a pussy, and by implication so do we. This isn't just implied, this is the reason people are openly giving. There's not one person who seriously thinks that launching a few cruise missiles into the catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war will make things better. Not one. It's just that we said that if the bad guys used gas we'd do get them, and they did, so we have to do it. 

This means that our motivations for getting involved in the Syrian conflict is entirely more likely to even be stupider than the GOT Incident. Because at least Johnson knew he was telling a lie to start a war, just as Bush did 30 years later. 

Either Obama is insane enough to want to get us into this clusterfuck, which is bad, or he doesn't want to but feels like he has to, which is worse. 

If you think that the worst thing that can happen from this is that a few innocent civilians die and we reveal ourselves to be worse dickheads than we already are, then fuck do I hope you are right. But let's just consider all the ways it can get worse. Iran and Israel have been fighting a cold war in the Middle East for quite a while now, one that Israel has shown itself eager to drag us into. Syria is Iran's closest ally, and a historical enemy of our ally Israel. Russia and China are both supportive of, if not outright allied to, the Syrian regime. Furthermore the whole region is on the brink of a massive Sunni-Shiite bloody schism. One of the deadliest wars to occur since WWII was the brutal war between Iran and Iraq, centered where just such a sectarian fight would play out. 

So if you're thinking I'm just saying this might be August 1962 all over again... it's a lot worse than that. I'm saying this might be August 1914. 

Nobody knows who I am or cares what I say. But if anyone looks at this, if anyone's listening, please let's think about what we're doing before we press any launch buttons. Just this once. Let's think what we're getting ourselves into. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

See you on the other side, Vern: The World of the End by Ofir Touche Gafla

About a month ago I attended a 5th birthday party for, mostly just to see some friends I expected to be there. At some point they handed out Stubby the Rocket canvas bags, and I grabbed one quickly before they were gone. The bag contained a copy of John Scalzi's "The Human Division," a Stubby the Rocket pin, and an ARC of a translation from Hebrew of a bestselling Isreali speculative fiction book. This excited me for several reasons, not least because I'm not the sort of person who gets ARCs.

Ofir Gafla's The World of the End is an archetypal story: a man travels into the land of the dead in search of his love. The classical version of this story is that of Orpheus traveling to Hades in search of Eurydice. Orpheus travels to the land of the dead magically, and is preceded by his music. Ben, the protagonist of The World, has no magic. A year after the death of his wife Marian he goes the old-fashioned way: he blows his brains out. His suicide is as dramatic as he could make it, occurring at the end of a posthumous birthday party for Marian to which he'd invited all of their mutual friends.

A better precedent for TWOTE might be Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come. But unlike Matheson's work, there is no divide between Heaven and Hell: everyone goes to the same place. Whether that place is more like the latter or the former is open to question. The newly dead are presented with an orientation in which the eternity they have to look forward to is presented as a perfect paradise: You don't need to eat or sleep unless you want to; everyone has a free place to live and public transportation; there is unlimited free entertainment of every type, including a "Vie-deo" of every moment of your lifetime, and you have a special "Godget" that allows you to set your own personal weather.

But in Gafla's novel nothing is what it looks like, and the cracks appear pretty quickly. Ben's first day in Heaven is ruined particularly when the wife he killed himself for doesn't show up to greet him. In fact, she's nowhere to be found; she might not even be dead at all. What happened to Marian is a central mystery of the rest of the book.

I say a mystery, but far from the only one. Ben's story is interwoven with that of many other people, living and dead. All of them are connected to Ben's story, though how they're connected isn't always immediately obvious. Many of them are more entertaining than Ben is. There is the cranky old artist Kolanski, who hates to draw portraits. There is the nurse Ann, known behind her back as AnnPlugged because she gets off on disconnecting people from their life support. There's the Mad Hop, an afterlife private dick of questionable talent that Ben takes on to help him find Marian. There's the twins Shahar and Adam, an asexual method actor and a pedophile video game designer. There's Yonatan, a man who lives a lifestyle that keeps him on the edge of death not because he thinks it can't happen to him but because he knows it will, and who is drawn into an online romance with a mysterious woman over a shared obsession with Salman Rushdie.

Gafla comes back to Rushdie frequently, and it's clear that he's a model. Like Rushdie Gafla writes in a distant third person with a lot of authorial interjections, in a style that John Gardner called the "essayist narrator." Like Rushdie Gafla's not afraid to go off on long tangents. And like Rushdie Gafla favors a tumbling manic storyline with a million dominoes all tumbling towards a mysterious end.

I have twice called the book a mystery, but that doesn't fully describe it. Neither Ben nor the Mad Hop seem to be making any particular progress on figuring out what happened to Marian, and Ben's story  is more of a posthumous picaresque. He stumbles across all kinds of strange people's afterlives, not least of which is Marilyn Monroe because she shares his dead wife's initials.

Nevertheless a mystery is being uncovered, one that goes beyond what happened to Marian. It turns out whole branches of family trees (literal trees, in this case), are being prematurely lopped off. The agents uncovering it are among those known as an "alias" (what is the plural of that?), which is the closest thing this version of heaven has to an angel. What exactly an alias is is not revealed to us until much later.

The World of the End is rollicking and playful, hilarious in some places, painfully sad in others, and frustrating and boring in more than a few places as well. It should be no surprise that a novel about life after death is a novel of loss. But the loss of this novel is much more than the loss of the dead to the living, or the loss of life to the dead. As Ben uncovers more and more about Marian he learns that there is no greater loss than that of the way things were for us just yesterday, or at least the way we thought they were. Again and again characters in this book cling desperately to the past, only to cause it to drift further and further away. For other characters the loss is getting what you think you want, only to discover that it's not what you thought it was at all.

Though no one really gets what they want in this book, it's not hopeless. But the hope in it is a painful kind, the kind that comes after you accept you've lost everything you cared about. Then again, if there is an afterlife, that's exactly what it would have to be.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Just how much money does Walter White have? A math problem

Spoiler alert: Breaking Bad spoilers below.

At the end of the last season of Breaking Bad, Skyler presented Walter with an interesting math problem. In a storage shed, probably somewhere in Albuquerque's War Zone (roughly from San Mateo to Louisiana, south of Menaul), she had an enormous pile of Walt's money, and she couldn't begin to figure out how to count it.

Like many psychopaths, Walter is a smart guy; I certainly couldn't cook up a batch of 99% pure crystal meth (I mean, I've never tried, but I never even took chemistry in college). Skyler's no dummy either, her refusal to ditch Walt notwithstanding. She is certainly good at math, since she is a licensed accountant. So I'm amazed that neither of them could even make a good estimate of the amount of money they had.

Skyler was sensible enough to think of counting by weight. Her problem was that the bills were in different denominations, so even if she knew how many bills she had, she wouldn't know how much that was. But this is a relatively trivial problem, if one applies a little basic statistics, something both Walter and Skyler should be familiar with.

I can't weigh Walter's money of course. I'd be happy to try, and if the pile ended up a few stacks of hundreds short, I can hardly see how he'd notice. But I can estimate by volume.

Walt's pile appeared to be a rectangular prism of about 6' long by 4' wide by 4' high, for a volume of 96 ft^3. The volume of a stack of 100 bills of any denomination is about 6.45 in^3(1) or about 0.00373 ft^3 (That seems small, but remember we are talking about volume so we are dividing by 12^3 cubic inches=1728in^3).

Simple division tells me that Walt has about 25,000 stacks of bills in there, or about 2,500,000 bills. If they were all hundreds, he'd have a quarter billion dollars! I assume Walt's not keeping any denomination less than a twenty, so bare minimum he'd have 50 million bucks.

But they could do a much better estimate. All they'd have to do is take a random sample of about 100 stacks, and find how many were of each denomination. Say that your random sample of 100 stacks had 40 stacks of hundreds, 50 stacks of twenties, and 10 stacks of fifties. (I assume fifties are least likely, since big drug dealers deal in stacks of hundreds and small-time buyers mostly use twenties.) If your sample is representative, you can say the average denomination is about 100*.4+50*.1+20*.5=$60, meaning that Walt has 150 million bucks in there.

Since Walter estimated that the methylamine he stole from the freight train would be worth about 300 million when cooked, this would mean he's cooked about half of it and sold it, which makes sense. I wonder what he'll do with the other half? He'd probably like Lydia to buy it wholesale, but she is not really enthusiastic about his retirement plan. Maybe those guys that Mike introduced him to want to buy it. But then he'd have to get into what exactly happened to Mike. But, as mathematicians like to say, I'll leave the general case for the next generation.

Bonus question 1: Research the average income of an Albuquerque car wash. Assuming Walt and Skyler bought another car wash as Walt discussed, how long would it take them to launder all that money?

Bonus question 2: Using Jesse's guilt-driven system of distributing his "blood money" by driving through Albuquerque and throwing out a bundle of bills every few houses, how long will it take him to get rid of his five million dollars? How might this impact the Albuquerque economy?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Scary Movie 17: The Conjuring

Near the end of Monsters University, the recent Monsters Inc. prequel, Mike and Sully must, for some reason, scare some adults in a cabin. Sully (spoilers -- not really) is not scary himself, but he's a genius at "setting up" a scare. As the adults enter they cabin, they are exposed to one horror cliché after another: doors creak, a wind-up doll walks across the floor, a warped record plays on an antique record player, etc. It's a pretty funny scene.

It also could have been almost any scene in The Conjuring.

This is the story of the Warrens, a husband and wife who apparently are famous ghost/demon hunters in real life, for a very forgiving version of  "real." Basically they go to houses where things are possessed by demons, investigate, summon a priest to do an exorcism, and then keep the possessed thing in a storage room of spooky things. Somehow the things are all still possessed, even though they had the exorcism.

The first thing that we see possessed is a doll. Really. The doll has a mean-looking face that appears to be scowling at you, which means it's not scary at all. Possessed dolls are scary because of the contrast between their apparent innocence and the terror inside them, so a doll that's already scary defeats the purpose. This doll is found by the dumbest couple of nurses on Earth, who for some reason not only take the horrible-looking thing home but then invite a ghost to live in it. The doll leaves them scary notes ("Miss me?") and makes loud banging noises on the door, until the nurses are rescued by the Warrens.

This was just the opening of the movie, a film-in-a-film played by the Warrens at one of their apparently popular university appearances. I and my date both assumed that it was set up as contrast toward the real scary stuff to come. We weren't the only ones: the audience was laughing their heads off.

The main story  involves a family, the Perrins, moving into an old house out in the middle of the country. Really. We've been warned this story is so scary the Warrens haven't revealed it until now. (Why now?)

Eddie Murphy had a funny riff once about how dumb white people are in horror movies, and wonders why they stay in houses like this. But of course the Perrins sank all of their money into the house, so they can't move out when it turns out to a bigger batch of horror clichés than The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

First, the dog won't go into the house (It doesn't help him; he's dead in the morning.). Doors creak and slam, rocking chairs rock with no one in them, invisible hands grab the children's feet in the night, and there is an old basement full of antique stuff and a ball that rolls by itself. Birds fly into the windows and break their necks. Of course there's a kid who had a sleepwalking problem, and she starts sleepwalking again. She keeps trying to sleepwalk into an old wardrobe. (Spoiler: it doesn't lead to Narnia.) Another kid starts having conversations with an "invisible friend" who she sees in the mirrored lid of a music box.

Really. A music box.

I was reminded of The Shining, which was another collection of scary movie clichés. But The Shining was driven by the genius of Stanley Kubrick and the manic energy of Jack Nicholson. There is no one involved in this movie with the talent to make these tropes fresh, not even Lilly Taylor, who plays Carolyn Perrin, the mother.

Carolyn finds the Warrens at one of their sold-out speeches and begs them to come out. Mr. Warren is reluctant, for mysterious reasons, but Mrs. Warren agrees. Mrs. Warren immediately sees spirits around every corner (she's the one that's "sensitive" to them), including a body hanging from one of the trees. Really.

Research quickly reveals that the house was the location of a ridiculous number of demonic rituals, suicidal witches and child murders. If they'd looked another fifty years back, they'd no doubt have found it was also an Indian burial ground.

Nevertheless the Warrens must investigate with a whole rig of what was then (early 70s, I think) top-of-the-line technology: microphones in every room, video cameras, camera traps, and a UV light for revealing fingerprints. I guess ghosts have fingerprints?

This documentation is necessary in order to convince the Church to get an exorcist out. Mr. Warren can't do the exorcism himself because he's not "qualified." I thought only priests could do exorcisms because of their special relationship with God. But apparently it's just a licensing issue, like being a barber.

They've also brought a young intern (I wonder if he's getting college credit?) and the stupidest sheriff's deputy since The Dukes of Hazzard, who at least provides some comic relief. The deputy was probably sent by the sheriff just to get the idiot out of his hair. I don't know what else he was supposed to be good for since, as the intern quickly points out, "you can't shoot ghosts."

What follows is every scene you've ever seen in any movie about a ghost, a demon, an exorcism or a haunted house. There isn't a single thing that happens in this movie I haven't seen in at least three other films, and I don't even watch that many horror flicks. I kept waiting for one of the Wayans brothers to make an appearance. The Warrens' daughter gets dragged into it and Scary (not) Doll gets involved, too.

Nevertheless, this movie has more than five stars and an 80+% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What's going on, movie critics? Are you trying to trick me into seeing The Lone Ranger?

The movie closes with a quote from Mr. Warren about how God is real and we have to be careful of demons.  Was this whole thing a setup by evangelicals to scare us into converting? That would explain a lot. Using dumb scary stories to spook people into believing claptrap is basically what they've been doing for as long as I can remember. But with all the money they have, couldn't they have gotten a decent screenwriter?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Too Fast to Live: Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince

In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer traces a number of folk European rituals to a tradition that he believes was once widespread: A man, usually young, is chosen as the Summer King, and given all honor and respect for a year. At the end of a year, he is ritually killed, perhaps as a sacrifice or perhaps in a battle with his successor. Frazer claims to have found a number of similar rituals, some of them still in practice at the time he was writing, in African, Polynesian and Native American kingdoms.

Regardless of the quality of Frazer's data, or the degree to which the ritual of the Summer King was ever actually practiced, the archetype remains powerful. Names like Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain or Shakur remind us we haven't ceased worshipping those who will trade longevity for power and desirability. It is ripe grounds for fiction, and Alaya Dawn Johnson mines it well in her new book The Summer Prince.

At first The Summer Prince seems it might be one more book in the flood of apocalyptic scifi YA novels that have hit the market after Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and indeed is marketed as such. But Johnson twists all the expectations of genre into something new, resulting in a work at least as revolutionary as Collins'. The narrator, June Costa, is a teen girl on the verge of womanhood in a the pyramidal glass city of Palmares Três which rises over the wasteland that was once Brazil. Palmares Três is a matriarchy, but it is no utopia. It may be paradise for those who, like June, live in the upper tiers, but their luxury rests on the back of the poor citizens who live in the lowest level amongst the algae tanks that provide the city's energy.

Those who live on the bottom tier call it the verde, or the green, but the upper tiers call it the catinga, or the stink. Literally reeking and full of gangs and poverty, the green produces survivors and people who know how to play the system, people like Enki, the Summer Prince of the title. Enki has chosen to sacrifice his life and future for a year in power, even though his role is supposed to be mostly ceremonial in a city ruled by a Queen and a cabinet of Aunties. The cuddly title of 'Auntie' belies the leaders who bear it. As the book progresses the Aunties, including June's stepmother Auntie Yaha, are revealed to be vicious political knife-fighters more than willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the city and their own place in power -- not necessarily in that order.

It is Enki, initially, who challenges the power of the Queen and the Aunties. He uses the privileges of his position to shove the experience of the verde in their face, literally making them smell the stink they would rather ignore. He hacks the city's robots and its computerized avatar voice, a sort of Big Sister via Siri, to defy the deliberate technological backwardness that the Aunties have chosen to impose on the city.

June, a pampered Tier Eight girl, has no motive to change the order of things. At first, June is only interested in proving herself as an artist, both to the city and to the deceased father who she feels never appreciated her. June's yearning for her father, and her fierce battle of wills with her mother who still seems to be competing with June for him, is painful and utterly believable.

But of course June's quest as an artist links her life to Enki, and to his quest for justice. Initially this happens through Enki's romantic relationship with June's best friend, the painfully handsome dancer Gil. Like a good YA book this one features a love triangle, but as with so many other conventions Johnson turns the triangle sideways. It is Enki who's the vertex here, with June and Gil both struggling for a place in his heart. And no one expects Enki to choose one or the other, or even both. There's no future in a relationship with a boy who has less than a year to live and besides, as June reminds us repeatedly, "everyone knows that Summer Kings screw like mayflies."

It should be clear by now that this book kicks down all the walls regarding sexual conventions and gender binaries. June's mother's marriage to a woman is distressing to June only because it happens so soon after her father's death, and perhaps because the relationship began while he was still alive. Enki's romance with Gil is controversial not because they are the same gender but because Enki uses Gil to deliberately blow off the Queen. In this matriarchal society, there is the implication that men have taken on some of the cultural characteristics we associate with women. At one point June tells Gil, "It's okay for you to cry, you are a beautiful boy." Enki uses his sexuality to seduce older, powerful people to get technology he might not have gotten otherwise. Though never explicit, The Summer Prince deals frankly with a lot of mature themes, and parents will have to decide whether a young reader is ready for it.

At the heart of the book is June's decision about whether to succeed within the boundaries imposed on her by her mother and the Aunties, or to defy and challenge them as Enki does and wants June to do as well. Johnson doesn't make the choice easy, and makes clear that either choice has consequences that are harsh and difficult to escape. This leads to a conclusion that might have been anticipated but nevertheless feels surprising and suspenseful until the end.

 To say that The Summer Prince is the most important YA I've read in a long time understates its significance. A book like this, if it was released when I was an adolescent, would have been categorized as adult science fiction and marketed that way, and a young reader would have only found it by browsing the scifi and fantasy shelves as I and so many kids my age did. In a way I wish it was marketed to adults, because then kids could stumble upon it the way I stumbled upon, and surreptitiously read, so many titles that would then have been considered too mature for someone my age. As it is, I expect Johnson's work to challenge the expectations of young and adult readers alike.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Singularities: Across the Event Horizon by Mercurio Rivera

The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return, the point beyond which the rules of the universe as we understand them cease to make sense. It is also one of the most popular metaphors in science fiction, lately in particular when discussing the Singularity, the time when all our technological developments collapse in on themselves to make a world we no longer understand. Mercurio David Rivera, in his new collection titled Across the Event Horizon, shows a refreshing lack of interest in trying to track where our technological development is taking us. Nevertheless, his book couldn't be better titled.  Rivera's stories tend to be "what-if" studies that imagine what will happen when we cross other kinds of boundaries to futures that are just as foreign to us.

One such boundary is the one that separates us from extraterrestrial intelligences that we imagine must exist. This is a narrative area where Rivera has found fertile ground, much more than a lot of recent scifi. At ReaderCon recently Rivera told me he was surprised when someone told him he had a lot of alien stories, though when he thought about he he realized it was true. One of the first significant writers that dealt with alien intelligences, though he's not thought of as such, was Jonothan Swift in Gulliver's Travels. In addition to the better-known Lilliputians Gulliver encountars many other species, including the intellectually top-heavy inhabitants of the floating island of Laputa and the horse-like Houyhnhnms, each of which was a foil to humanity. Recently Alastair Reynolds' aliens, such as the predatory Musk Dogs of Pushing Ice, have continued this tradition.

Like Reynolds, Rivera understands that whatever aliens exist must be inimaginably strange to us, but he also knows that we can only really imagine them by how they are like and unlike us. The avian Kawkawroons have two personalities in one body, one frivolous and one solemn; the Wergens in "Longing for Langalana" develop an unrequited crush on humanity. Like Vernor Vinge in his "Deepness" trilogy, Rivera recognizes that any contact between other species and ours will involve exploitation. But it may not be obvious at first who is exploiting whom. This theme occurs repeatedly; in "Sleeping with the Anemone," about a director of questionably consensual human/alien pornography, the victimizer becomes a victim.

Another boundary Rivera explores, and one even more rare to scifi, is the one between us and whatever gods or spriritual beings we believe in. Religion plays a large part in a number of Rivera's stories, none more than in "Missionaries," a story about a group of possibly self-destructive Buddhist monks trying to make contact with a mysterious group of uncommunicative aliens. Rivera explores the tension between faith and reason without offering easy answers. In "The Scent of Their Arrival," another alien race is divided between "naturalists" and "supernaturalists," categories that conform to their gender. This enriches a fascinating first-contact story with a terrifying twist at the end.

A pair of stories, "Dear Annabehls" and "Snatch Me Another," are ostensibly about the boundary between different universes, but really are about the boundary between who we are and who we might have been. This alternately hilarious and terrifying set of tales is based on the concept of a gateway that allows us to reach into parallel universes and snatch different versions of the same item. Not surprisingly, people soon go beyond snatching items and start snatching people as well -- copies of people who are alive, and those who are dead.

"Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us," perhaps the darkest story in the book, is also the most directly political. The theme of the story has been explored before, as in "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. LeGuin. But Rivera takes it in new directions, connecting it with race, terrorism and class inequality.

In many ways Rivera's stories hearken back to an earlier era of speculative fiction, an era more concerned with exploring ideas of what it means to be human than trying to actually predict what will happen. Many of his stories feature surprising twist endings that are worthy of a the best Twilight Zone episodes. These kinds of stories are something that speculative fiction needs more of, and I will be eagerly watching for future publications with works by Mercurio Rivera. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Monkey Be, Monkey Do: Monkey, Journey to the West

Monkeys and apes have been a problem to spiritual beliefs and mythology for a long time. They're too much like people to ignore, but they're distinctly animals, and act like it. They throw poop, they commit infanticide and they make strange noises. Consequently, they often play interesting roles in mythological literature.

Monkey: Journey to the West is a multimedia performance at Lincoln center based on the novel Journey to the West, one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese Literature. I haven't read this book, but it appears the authors have made an effort to be as loyal as possible to the text, or at least the central part of it. The book is about a journey by the monk Tripitaka(as he's called in the play, in the book he's named Xuanzang) to India to bring sacred Buddhist sutras back to the East.

The play includes Chinese acrobatics, dance, music, martial arts and animation. The style of animation will be familiar to anyone who's seen the work of animator Jamie Hewlett, the creator of Tank Girl and the "virtual band" Gorillaz. Mostly the animation is an intro to the main action in the first few scenes; I'd like to have seen more of it. Damon Albarn, the producer of Gorillaz, composed the music. But the music is very different in style from Gorillaz's. It's minimalist, combining Asian influences with some modern dance beats.

The stage is alive everywhere in this play, perhaps too much so. There's no way you can appreciate everything that's going on in a single performance. The acrobatics are sufficiently spectacular, with spinning plates, backflips and performers balancing in seemingly impossible ways upon each other. The acrobatics and martial arts scenes are more than engaging enough to entertain a child who is accustomed to manga and cartoon adventures, as my son is.

Tripitaka is the leader of the journey to the West, but the star is clearly Sun Wukong, AKA the Monkey King and Great Sage Equal to Heaven. Born out of a rock, he's a first-class ass-kicking superhero who is not defeated by anyone except the Buddha himself. But he's no saint. The first part of the play is devoted to Sun Wukong leaving his position as king of the monkeys to acquire superpowers, especially magical weaponry from the Old Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. But rather than using his powers for good, he immediately uses them to crash the Queen Mother of Heaven's Great Peach Banquet and chow down on her peaches. As a result, Buddha imprisons him for 500 years, and only releases him to protect Tripitaka on his journey.

The story itself is a syncretist combination of abstract principles of Buddhism with classical Chinese mythology. My wife, who's more knowledgeable about Buddhism than I am, suggested that Sun Wukong represents the mind as opposed to the spirit. Mythological ass-kicking is interspersed with serene Buddhist sermons about desire and suffering. It's hard to see what the two have to do with each other. Monkey is clearly the bridge between the two, but his role is unclear. My first thought was that the monkey represented the id. But that role is clearly played by Pigsy, one of Tripitaka's other guides. Pigsy is greedy and horny, and is first found devouring food out of a dumpster.

Tripitaka's other two assistants, the river ogre Sandy and his white horse, who is the Dragon Prince confined to equine form, play almost no role at all, though they're there for every scene. These characters, and even Pigsy, seem a wasted opportunity. Every one of Tripitaka's guides are superpowered beings who have committed great crimes. Pigsy sexually harassed a goddess, Sandy devoured people by a river, and the Dragon Prince burned down his father's castle. Clearly this is a journey of redemption for all of them, but they do almost nothing to earn the redemption, besides kicking ass on some demons. Their backgrounds are given to us by info-dumping introductory songs, and then play very little other role. The only exception to this is Pigsy, whose lust leads him to fall for the lures of a spider-woman seductress, allowing her to kidnap Tripitaka and nearly rape him.

So whatever redemption happens must happen through Sun Wukong. It seems that Sun Wukong's problem is not exactly excessive desire. When he steals the Queen of Heaven's delicious peaches (which take 1000 years to ripen), he barely nibbles on a few. Mostly he just kicks them to the floor. He seems more interested in kicking ass on the Queen of Heaven's guards. Later, he doesn't seem to be susceptible to the Spider woman's lures, though he's not around when she springs her trap.

It seems that the monkey's weakness is a need for physical and psychological dominance over everyone around him. But whether anything happens that's a redemption for that isn't clear. A climactic moment occurs when Tripitaka mistakenly dismisses Sun Wukong for excessive violence after he defeats a demon disguised as a young girl, and old woman and an old man. But the monkey was correct, since this demon was eager to eat the monk's flesh for eternal life. Nowhere does the monkey have to consider there might be another path to enlightenment besides kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.

Monkey: Journey the West is an amazing show, and incredibly entertaining. It's a great family show. After we saw it, my wife told me "You liked it for the mythology, and I liked it for the Buddhism," and my son said, "And I liked it because it was awesome!"

But the message of the piece is muddled, and the narrative is flawed and weakened by missed opportunities. It's possible that some of these weaknesses are part of the original work. But every work is its own, and loyalty to a classic text is no excuse for narrative failures. As much as I enjoyed the show, I can't help but wish they'd dug a little deeper.