About Brad R. Torgersen

Blue Collar Speculative Fiction

A Star Wars review: The Force Awakens

Okay, with a full four weeks behind us — since Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted — I think I can safely discuss the particulars of the film, without being wary of spoilers. But, if you still haven’t seen the movie? Stop reading now.

(This SNL skit is totally canon! It has to be!)

On a scale of 1 to 10 (for the franchise as a whole) I’d give SW:TFA a solid 7 — with Empire Strikes Back at 9, and Revenge of the Sith at 2.

SW:TFA hit a lot of right notes with me. The acting was solid, there was a fair balance between practical and CGI effects, and I think they were smart to give the relationships in SW:TFA a very dysfunctional 21st-century sensibility.

I mean, Han and Leia were clearly a train wreck. As fairy tales go, that’s a lousy way to plot their relationship. Return of the Jedi was a very happily-ever-after finish to the first three films. But if we examine who these characters are, realistically, it’s pretty obvious that they were headed for some rough times, following Jedi. Neither of them was what we might call good parent material. Ben Solo (Kylo Ren) was probably more of an accident, than he was planned. We’re not even sure Han and Leia were married at the time. With the re-rise of the Republic, duking it out with the remains of the Empire — and the founding of the Resistance — there was precious little time for settling down and raising a family. Han and Leia were probably grateful to pawn Ben off on Luke, the way some parents might send a sulking, troubled boy to a military academy. In the hope that Uncle Luke could straighten the kid out.

Except, Ben (the Force-sensitive emo basket case) wasn’t so easily steered away from the Dark Side. Unloved and unloving, he was probably a major thorn in Luke’s side. So that, try as he might, Luke could not get the kid to turn around. Probably, the harder Luke tried, the more Ben plunged into his anger — at having been raised by a shitty set of parents, who never gave him enough love and structure when it counted. So that when Luke tried to fill the role of surrogate, Ben’s frustration and hatred were already a large component of his general state of mind.

This is all, of course, armchair psych analysis. But when writing bad characters, it’s important for any writer to really crawl inside the bad guy’s head, and figure out why he is the way he is. I liked that we were given a lot of strong signs, pointing to Ben’s apparently unhappy childhood. Kylo is filled with rage, and a need to control. That kind of sentiment doesn’t come from nowhere.

Which made Han Solo’s death — at Ben’s hands — the best scene in the movie, in my opinion. Without it, there is nothing to anchor SW:TFA to the larger family drama stretching all the way back to when Darth Vader boarded the Tantive IV at the beginning of the fourth (first, for my generation) episode. Ben clearly wants to throw himself over fully to the Dark Side, and Han clearly wants to try to find some way of getting his son back.

Speaking as a father, those few moments when Han and Ben are face to face, that made the film for me. Because even though Ben is a mess, and has been doing some terrible things, Han Solo is still a decent man. And a decent man looks at what has become of his son, and he asks, How did I screw my son up this much? Let it go this far? What am I prepared to do, to try to salvage what’s left?

When Solo says, “Anything,” I believed him emphatically.

Han doesn’t even struggle much, when Ben runs his father through. Just cups Ben’s cheek with a fatherly palm — as if to say he still loves Ben.

Now, if you’re not a parent, this might not key so hotly for you. I really do think being a parent sets this scene apart, from almost any other scene I’ve ever experienced in any of the other Star Wars films.

For Han, he’s looking in Ben’s face, and seeing the eyes of his five year old child staring up at him. Vulnerable. So much pain and hurt, between those early years, and that cat walk in the center of Starkiller Base. And Han felt responsible. Solo was ready to give his life for the sake of his boy. That touched me in a very personal place.

As the saying goes, you never stop being a parent.

So of course Ben has to off his dad, thus becoming Kylo Ren permanently. It’s the singular act of Ben’s young life, up to that point. The one he hopes will erase all doubts. Thus making his later chest-beating — during the forest fight with Rey — reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

As for Rey, we were served a steady diet of question marks. Is she a Kenobi? Is she a Skywalker? It seems like a fifty-fifty proposition at this point. I personally would love for her to be a Kenobi, just because I think that would make for some wonderful symmetry with this whole series. But the how and the why of Rey’s abandoning on Jakku is a real humdinger. It was obviously necessary, for reasons not easily discerned. She certainly seems to have emerged from her childhood damage in much better shape than Kylo. Surviving as orphans on a desert world seems to do the Force-sensitive a lot of good, if Luke (in the originals) is any indicator. But what’s Rey’s connection? What was the whole vision in Maz Kanata’s cellar about? How about the memories from being dropped off on Jakku in the first place?

Personally, seeing little Rey screaming, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” was hard for me to take. Great, brief moments of acting on that little girl’s part. Hit me right in the feels. So much so I had to ask, “What terrible thing would force me to dump my own daughter, at that age, on a barren, hostile planet?”

I guess the next two movies will help us find out.

Again, I gave the movie a 7 out of 10. Not perfect. No way. But then, nothing — after over 30 years of waiting for some true sequels to the originals — was going to make SW:TFA perfect. All of us have wondered, and there have been the Expanded Universe books and series (now scrapped.) We have all, I suspect, also written our own personalized scenarios in our hearts, and in our heads; about how things worked out. Like I said, Jedi served us a very fairy tale ending. The Emperor is dead! Vader is dead! The new Death Star is destroyed! The Imperial fleet has tucked tail and retreated! Han and Leia are going to be together! Luke is finally a Jedi!

Except, fairy tale endings don’t lend themselves well to sequels. You have no conflict upon which to construct more story. SW:TFA needed conflict, and that conflict had to be rooted in the events of Jedi. So, the First Order rises from the — assumed — competition between the remaining, loyal Imperial generals and admirals, to salvage their power. Some of the galaxy has gratefully gone back to the pre-Rebellion days, when the Empire did provide a kind of order. Tyranny, sure. But order. Some people want and need order, above all else. With the Empire down, the galactic economy and political situation must have been a pure mess. The First Order offers structure, and a chance for stability — even if they are iron-fisted about their work.

As a writer, I feel like my job is not to back-seat-drive another writer’s work. That’s usually something a lot of critics do — their ranks being replete with frustrated and failed writers. If I am examining a piece, and especially if I am examining a piece that’s been successful with a broad audience, I am seeking clues to that piece’s appeal. What made it tick? What was the general audience reaction? What was my own reaction, and does it square with most everyone else’s?

I said up top that SW:TFA hit the right notes, for me. It provided a healthy amount of spectacle, twined with nicely-written drama. There was enough meat on these bones — which I didn’t find with the prequels — that the movie kept me suspended in a timeless state for the duration. That’s usually my bottom-line gauge. Did the movie make me forget the clock? Few movies do, these days. But SW:TFA did. And I was grateful for that.

But I also thought the film erred in a few ways. Such as giving Phasma almost no dialogue. And in gifting Finn with a thousand-yard stare that didn’t mesh with his position as a relatively inexperienced combat troop. I mean, for a guy whose job it is to burn the galactic shitter, he sure became disillusioned with the horrors of war mighty quickly.

Now, it’s not unheard of. Humans, as a rule, struggle to kill. Failure to pull the trigger is a documented phenomenon in every war since World War One. Many men simply can’t bring themselves to do it. Even hard men, who’ve endured hard training. But Finn talks like he’s dropped on two dozen worlds, and seen far too much death and blood for his taste.

That’s something I’d have expected from Phasma, frankly.

Which makes me ask: how did the guy who burns the galactic shitter wind up on a combat insertion in the first place? Was he replacing somebody who went to sick call? Is the First Order that short on guys, that the shitter-burner has to put down his matches and his can of galactic diesel, in order to draw a weapon and go out on an op?

Speaking of which, the clone nature of the vaunted Imperial Stormtroopers seems to have been scuttled. I mean, all through the original three films, we never got any indication that any of the Stormtroopers are clones. The prequels made it clear that they were, but now the First Order is changing things up? Or is Finn merely part of a series, derived from one of many different samples? How about Phasma? Also, how about the black-uniform officers? They don’t seem to be clones. We’re never clear on whether or not the Empire promotes up, all the way from Private.

For the next film, I’d like to see more of Phasma, and more of Poe Dameron, frankly. His character’s satus is largely implied, by reputation, but we don’t see or experience much of him. Will this be true for the next two movies? Is Poe merely the new Wedge Antilles? Seems like you could do a lot more with this guy. Fill in his story. He’s the Resistance’s top fighter jock. And he’s not a kid, either. What’s his journey?

As for Rey and Kylo . . . it’s all but certain that these two are going to be saber-battling until the end of the third and final movie in the latest trilogy. Rey as the heir to Luke, and Kylo as the heir to Vader. Will Kylo turn back to the Light Side at the end, as Vader did?

I know a lot of people have hated Kylo’s mopey petulance. What kind of bad guy is that? Vader was a scary, imposing mofo. Kylo makes you want to pick him up and dangle him by his ankles, with his head in the toilet, while you flush repeatedly. (See the video at the top of this post.) Frankly, I think it’s fitting. Kylo is a neurotic, unhappy soul, who wants to bring “order” to the galaxy, thus living up to his grandpa’s legacy. In other words, he’s just like all the children — on modern college campuses — who are angry at the universe, and who expect the universe to change for them, otherwise they need a safe space to run to.

Hitler and Stalin were also neurotic, and expected the whole universe to change for them. And they were some of the most evil men — along with Mao, Che, Castro, Pol Pot — the world has ever seen. Ever. They were also, in their own minds, the heroes. Of their own stories. Which Kylo is too. In his world, it’s the Resistance who are the bad guys, because the Resistance means the Republic, and the Republic means Mom and Dad, and dear God let’s not go there again, because it makes Kylo want to thrash a computer workstation with his lightsaber.

Nice work, Abrams. And nice work, Disney. If you can do this well with the next two movies, and also the auxiliary spinoffs, I think the Star Wars franchise is going to be healthier and more enjoyable than it’s been in decades.

Speaking as a Star Wars fan, this makes me smile.

2015 becomes 2016

Had a whale of a year. The Chaplain’s War earned out in just nine months, in trade paperback and e-book editions. Made a nice splash on Audible.com, too. Netted the family a surprisingly robust royalty check, just in time for Christmas. Consistently earning four and five-star reviews. Got a pile of sweet letters from some gradeschool kids who were read my story, “Astronaut Nick,” for the holidays — and enjoyed it quite a bit, to hear the anecdote of the reader. Fan mail is always amazing, but fan mail from youngsters is priceless. Better than diamonds or gold, I tell you. And I am (of course) contracted for more, with Baen. Hard to find any bad in any of that. 2015 was awesome. Only real bad thing has been being away from family over the holidays. Especially my little daughter, who isn’t so little anymore. I confess to shedding a few tears about that on Christmas eve.

Looking to 2016, I have a multi-faceted plan to spend a lot less time on social media, a lot more time reading recreationally, much more time with family — a new car will aid greatly in this — in addition to re-integrating with the household when I get home from deployment. On that note, my wife and I are going to be focusing especially on co-diet and co-exercise, to begin the process of reshaping our at-home lifestyle for long-term sustainability. Nobody lives forever. But the changes Annie and I both make, now, could be the difference between us enjoying our (eventual) senior years, and hating them. My desire is to be the 70 year old biking up Little Cottonwood Canyon, not marooned in an easy chair, made prisoner by arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, etc.

2016 is also the first year of a rather ambitious five-year writing roadmap, including overdue projects, long-dreamt-of projects, stories I both need and want to tell, new experiments in marketing and fan outreach, as well as making good on some promises to both myself, and to other people. 2010-2015 was an amazing stretch for me. At least in comparison to all the years from 1992 (when I first imagined becoming a pro) to 2009 (when I won Writers of the Future, in November.) I’ve got my feet firmly established. Venues. Audience. All of it. If 2010-2015 was the burning of the first stage, 2016 sees that first stage fall away, and the ignition of the second stage. If all goes well, the second stage should put me into orbit. I am looking forward to all of it.

Of course, nobody can eat a whole side of beef in one sitting. Over at Mad Genius Club, I put together a piece about New Years resolutions, and how not to make a liar out of oneself. I think most New Years resolutions fail for two key reasons. First, we don’t understand the difference between a goal, and a dream. Second, we don’t anticipate setbacks, bad days, road blocks, etc. In order to achieve a thing, we must understand what it is we’re capable of actually effecting or influencing in our lives. And in order to reach a large goal, we have to hit small goals over an extended period. That extended period should include enough elasticity (in our plans) for bumps, bruises, and the drama of life.

2015 certainly had its fair share of drama, of which I was a willing participant. Some might even say, pugilist? But we all have to pick and choose our battles.

One of the reasons I am imposing some new rules for myself (for social media) is because I am dreading the 2016 United States Presidential election. Or at least, the run-up to said election. I am pretty sure no matter who wins, half of America will consider it the end of civilization. I already went on that carnival ride in 2012, and don’t need a repeat. Especially since none of the present frontrunners thrill me. I will cast my vote, and hope that (somehow) everything will work itself out as it should. This faith isn’t easy right now. Both my father and I agree that there’s a great deal wrong with Washington D.C., almost none of it easily rectified. But then, getting back to my circle of influence — the things I can actually control — there’s no point spending all day raging into a keyboard about politicians who don’t care.

I wish everyone else — my many friends, my readers, my family — good luck with your New Years resolutions, goals, plans, ideas, etc. My church always offers some smashingly good thoughts on this subject. I know I’ll be referring back to these basics when the inevitable missteps and setbacks occur. It really isn’t about starting off with a bang, that counts. It’s getting back up off the mat, each time life knocks you down.

Sad Puppies and the future

Many people have already seen George R. R. Martin’s optimistic (and well-intended) commentary at his LiveJournal. However, just as with George’s hood ornament Alfie awards (also well-intended) there is more than one way for a thing to be perceived. My perception — and I am not alone in this — of George’s desire for an end to the rancor, is that George still seems to think that a) the rancor was flowing almost entirely one-way, from the Puppies’ side to the Trufan side, and also b) none of the Puppies are themselves fans. Not Fans (caps f) and certainly not Trufans. No. Puppies are still an outsider bunch, who carry an outsider’s stigma.

There is also a bit too much parentalism in George’s tone: dear kids, I hope you’ve learned your lesson, now wipe those dirty looks off your faces and come give your mother a hug!

As long as that’s George’s take — and he’s certainly not alone in this — then attempts at reconciliation will be difficult at best. Because as long as Puppies are deemed to be subservient, second-class citizens within the field proper, the emotion that spawned Sad Puppies, will remain. I don’t know anybody who easily accepts being a second-class citizen in her own country. Especially not after certain people within George’s beloved community — including certain individuals at George’s own publisher — moved heaven and earth to slanderously and libelously smear all Puppies indiscriminately.

Also, consider the carpet-bombing of the Hugo awards in August. And the infamous wooden asterisks — the CHORFholes.

An analysis of the post-Hugo numbers identifies a 2,500-vote block of individuals who seemed to think the best way to annihilate the infamous forces of the Kurgan — Vox Day — was to accept Vox’s challenge to play chicken. Now, I warned everybody that chicken is the Kurgan’s favorite game. But that 2,500-vote block went ahead and played the game anyway, nuking five whole categories, and cheering themselves in the process. It was their finest moment. It was also precisely what Vox Day wanted them to do, because it gives Vox his pretext for further assaults on the Hugos in future years, while also radicalizing and alienating many people who wanted nothing to do with Vox, but who did want to see justice done at the Hugo awards proper.

And the CHORFholes? A straight-up dick move, covered by a fig leaf of charity. Sorry, there’s no excusing that one. The CHORFholes were a deliberate insult, done deliberately, and there is no way possible to put enough lipstick on that pig to make anyone who received the insult — loud and clear! — believe it was not an insult. I don’t think George knew about the CHORFholes. I suspect strongly that this was David Gerrold and some snickering Trufans, being too-cute-by-half. Only, it was ugly. About as ugly as watching the annihilation of the categories, by people who think burning down a thing, is the equivalent of saving or celebrating that thing.

Is anyone else struck by the fact that we’re living out a They Might Be Giants classic?

Now, I don’t hold George R. R. Martin responsible for David Gerrold, nor the people who worked together to conduct the CHORFhole, nor do I hold George responsible for the 2,500-vote block bombing. George is on record opposing the game of chicken with the Kurgan, and he said he hated the results of the block bombing, in the editor categories specifically. (Note: George, I think I can speak for every Sad Puppy when I state that warm-blooded human beings with souls hated what happened in the editor categories.) So I don’t think George has to answer for the burner-downers.

I’ll say it again, for emphasis: I do not hold George R. R. Martin responsible for the burner-downers.

I bring all of this up, however, to demonstrate — for George, and any other onlookers — that there have been some horrendously poor decisions made on his “side” of the fracas. And until or unless some accounting is made for these horrendously poor decisions, I can’t see attempts at reconciliation — with the Sad Puppies — producing much fruit. Because almost nobody on the Sad Puppies side has ever received anything like an apology that is worth a damn. Far from it. What Sad Puppies gets, is being blamed for Rabid Puppies, and being treated like the Rabids and the Sads are no different from each other. It’s Putin bombing the Syrian opposition, to get at ISIS. Putin doesn’t give a damn because Putin only cares about Assad, just as the 2,500-member block bombers and CHORFholers only cared about “defending” the Hugos — from people who have just as much right to participation, as anyone else who’s in this field.

Many Sad Puppies find Vox Day and the Rabids to be revolting. It didn’t save any of the Sad Puppies from being treated as synonymous with the Rabids — which is (again) exactly what Vox wanted. And, to be truthful, it’s what many CHORFs wanted too. As long as the CHORFs don’t have to reckon with Sad Puppies honestly — as long as Vox gives the CHORFs an excuse to be zealously hateful toward all things even remotely canine — the CHORFs will happily use that excuse, and hate with a clear conscience.

Knowing what I know about the personalities behind the CHORFholes and the block-bombing, they will never, ever regard any of it as a mistake, because for them, it’s been blood sport from day one. All is fair in love and war, and for the block-bombers and CHORFholers, this was absolutely a war. Before, it was a cold war — when they could treat the not-quite-good-enough-fans like shit, and nobody said or did much about it. Sad Puppies became an exercise in second-class citizenry demanding full participation and recognition, which caused the block-bombers — and the CHORFs, with their crybully accomplices — to launch not just a wide media slander campaign, but a deliberate destruction of the Hugos proper; in direct violation of their own stated principles. Remember how many people were so upset at Sad Puppies, because Sad Puppies was supposedly a block vote, and block votes are bad?

So, while I respect George’s sentiment — I truly do think his heart is in the right place — I think George still isn’t recognizing the full scope and nature of what’s gone on, and how what’s gone on has its roots in the deeper divisions which trace back through fandom and science fiction publishing for decades. This isn’t a fight that manifested from nothing. 2015 was all of that shit — years and years of it — boiling to the surface, and it was ugly, and a giant amount of that ugliness was on the Trufan side, and now that the block-bombers have given Vox Day his pretext for an all-out assault on the Hugos, I suspect what’s going to happen is that Vox will keep fucking with the Hugos — regardless of what anyone says or thinks — until Worldcon literally has to shut off the faucet. Make the Hugo a juried award, or at least cordoned off from direct public participation — voters being screened and vetted. Because it’s obvious (at this point) that the defenders of Hugo propriety do not want everyone being able to have a say. Too much of the “wrong” people, and the village will get burned down; so as to save the village.

I don’t know how bridges get built from here. Most of the CHORFs and the crybullies will hate Larry Correia and myself forever. I knew in April that for me specifically, there would never be any kind of going back. I was, and would forever be, an outlaw in the minds of the CHORFs and the crybullies. And since the CHORFs and crybullies occupy numerous seats of prestige and influence within the SF/F establishment, this would relegate me to the role of desperado — forever riding the fences. I can get away with it because, as I told one critic, my career path doesn’t depend on me bending my knee to the SF/F establishment. That’s a big reason why I knew I was a good pick for running Sad Puppies 3 in the first place.

But the future of Sad Puppies isn’t in my hands. It’s not mine to say.

I will, however, hypothesize.

I suspect that in order for a genuine mending to take place, between your average Sad Puppy, and the SF/F establishment, there would need to be several things.

1) A very public admission by the establishment that the NO AWARD bombing of the 2015 Hugos was a gross error.

2) A very public admission by the establishment that the CHORFholes were also a gross error.

3) A very public apology from the establishment, for the deliberate conflation of the Sads, with the Rabids.

4) A cessation of the endless game of shibboleths and street cred checks, on the part of Trufans, as conducted against everybody else (looks hard at Steve Davidson.)

Frankly, I think the chances are slim to none that any of this could come to pass. And while some Sad Puppies might be wooed by enticements and promises of amnesty — we saw this leverage playing out over the summer — most Sad Puppies are not in the mood. They are, if I put my finger to the wind, quietly determined. And this is not a hot thing. It’s the old, tired sentiment of a people too long ignored, spurned, neglected, overlooked, even mocked and derided, who played by the rules in full view of the arena — so as to have their place in the sun — and were shut out and shouted down, by an establishment that pretended (falsely) that it was the afflicted party in the whole affair.

Meanwhile, I fully expect the quiet manipulators of Hugos past, to double down on that manipulation. I suspect the behind-closed-door games are going to be hotter and heavier than ever before. Now that they know there is competition from a competent body of people. I also expect the crybullies will continue framing the Hugos as part of their larger culture war — the Hugos are exactly that at this point, no question — which means they will have to attack future iterations of Sad Puppies, regardless of who is running the store. (aside: can the crybullies bring themselves to admit that women are running Sad Puppies 4? That’s a bit like asking zealous Democrats to admit there are black Republicans.)

I suppose it’s always possible that people just mutter to themselves, reach a hand over the fence, and hope somebody takes it — sans joy buzzer. This would require a kind of across-the-aisle, deliberate amnesia. A mass forgetting: that what has happened, has not happened. There may be a few willing to do it. But my finger to the wind (again) tells me that the Sad Puppies are not in a mood for forgetting. On the contrary. There is memory here — like wormsign! — the likes of which even God has never seen.

A Christmas Noun: The Unauthorized Spinoff – teaser trailer

CUE: soundtrack by John Williams.

ATMOSPHERICS: Camera viewpoint soars through space, eventually coming to focus on a single, fragile-looking planet — white cloud formations and blue oceans, decorated by brown land masses, which are in turn mottled by green forests. Camera viewpoint drops quickly down through the sky to the night side of the world, punctuated with the glowing light from towns and cities, eventually reaching a darkened mountain range.

Modulated voice of Torgers0n: There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?

SCENE: Brad Torgers0n is cloaked in a use-worn, black shroud. He is standing at the rocky base of the CorreiaTech fortress, on formidable Yard Moose Mountain. His back is turned to the camera. It’s mostly dusk, with snow falling loosely around Brad Torgers0n’s shoulders.

Modulated voice of Torgers0n: Nothing will stand in our way . . . .

ACTION: the cloaked shape of Torgers0n stoops over to peer at something in the rocks. It looks like grass. Camera zooms in to reveal bits and pieces of crumpled straw, covered in ranch dressing. Brad Torgers0n reaches out and reverently picks up a small handful of the vanquished remains of Straw Larry. Cut to a close-up of Brad Torgers0n holding the remains before his mask-covered face. The black-gloved hand slowly clenches; reverence turning to anger.

Modulated voice of Torgers0n: I will finish . . . what you started . . .

ACTION: Cloaked figure of Brad Torgers0n suddenly rises to his feet, throwing the remains down, and snapping out his opposite hand. The Log Saber™ deploys into Brad Torgers0n’s black-gloved hand, a tremoring beam of evil red energy springing instantly to life from the Log Saber’s™ hilt. A thrumming sound echoes around the base of the CorreiaTech fortress.

Modulated voice of Torgers0n: I will show them the power of the Darkness!

ACTION: Cut instantly to a pastiche sequence of exploding TIE fighters, rubber nipples, soaring X-Wings, Powdered Toast Man jumping to light speed, the Millennium Falcon zooming over a desert landscape, and Mr. Horse declaring, “No sir, I don’t like it!”

A comment about Stolen Valor

So this piece of news has been floating through the military ethersphere. Stolen Valor has become a very hot topic over the past 15 years. It is a literal crime for someone to wear medals, tabs, or badges (s)he did not earn, just like it is a literal crime for civilians to impersonate military personnel. But we (in the various branches) read and hear about such cases all the time. And those cases generate a tremendous amount of anger.

As in all things, though, righteous passion can turn to zealotry. And zealotry can make even good men do stupid things.

The world is filled with poseurs. The world is also filled with people itching for an excuse to be assholes to other people, sans guilt.

My take?

Service records have been getting embellished since Alexander the Great. And probably before. Always, the ones who have done the most, tend to talk the least, and the ones who have done the least, tend to talk the most.

I have admired the military, and members of same, since I was a tot. One of the reasons I joined (after 9/11) was because I didn’t want to be sitting on the sidelines. I didn’t want to be one of the people who desires to know what the uniform feels like, but never put his hide on the line to earn one. I didn’t want to be that guy.

I also respond with the same answer any time anyone asks me what I do/did in the Army Reserve: paper pusher! (said with a smile and a laugh) I am fully aware of the fact I am on the dull end of the spear. I go out of my way to claim my cake-eating civilian-most-of-the-time status. Because the truth is, I like being a civilian most of the time.

And I like being able to stand up and do my little part in the giant machine, when called for. In this way, I don’t think I am any different from the original militiamen who left their farms to march with Washington, then went back to those farms when the marching was done. They weren’t soldiers for life. They were simply patriots when it counted.

And that’s all I’ve ever wanted to be: a patriot, when it counted. No more, and no less.

I actually feel sorry for the guys (and it’s almost always men) who are so tied up in knots over their service records (or lack of same) that they have to embellish or lie. That’s a psychic wound that clearly cannot heal, and I believe it must be a miserable thing to stand in front of a mirror every day, chest pushing out medals you did not earn, or telling the world stories that aren’t true, knowing all along that you are a fraud.

Because ultimately, God knows it too. And that’s the man all Stolen Valor perps ultimately have to answer to.

Seasonal listening: Autumn and Winter

I’ve always been a very seasonal listener. I am not sure why. Certain music just “fits” with certain times of the year, and not at others. Probably because I happened to hear and enjoy a particular piece (or group) during a particular season, thus the experience and the season become intertwined. This is undoubtedly strange, as I am not sure I’ve ever known anyone who is seasonal about his music choices, like I am. Certainly my wife is an anytime, anywhere listener. A fact which has made me grit my teeth on occasion. “No, no, no! Tears For Fears is summertime! You can’t play Songs From The Big Chair in January. That’s madness!” Naturally, she just smiles and turns it up louder. So I go on about my business, nevermind the fact that what’s rocking on the living room stereo is against all seasonal music logic.

Out here in Deployment Land, seasonal music is more important than ever before. Because where I am at, there are no seasons. There is merely insufferable heat and humidity, followed by not-so-insufferable heat and humidity, with occasional days of, “This isn’t so bad . . . at midnight, when the breeze is blowing from inland.” There are no mountains. Nor anything that grows, really. It’s beige, and it’s flat. Once every three months, it might rain. A little bit. And I doubt there’s been any snow in this part of the world since before the end of the last Ice Age; if even then.

So, I retreat to my headphones, and thank the Lord for MP3. Troops of past eras were stuck with Armed Forces Radio, or whatever vinyl was spinning at the (then, equivalent) MWR. Or, if you go back far enough, no music at all.

Ours is a time of technological wonder and luxury.

My tastes tend to be somewhat eclectic — these are my dozen-plus “stuck on an island” choices, for this time of the year.

The Year Without Politics?

Everybody seems to hate it when Christmas decorations show up in the stores before Thanksgiving. Me? I hate it when we’re talking about the next U.S. Presidential election a full eighteen to twenty-four months away from the actual poll date. I mean, come on, seriously? Methinks this particular election (and this particular office) is literally blown out of proportion. The President is not — or at least shouldn’t be — an all-powerful individual who can make sweeping changes in a mere four years. What Congress and the Senate do actually has more impact on our day to day lives. So how come we’ve been rolling with the Election ’16 media frenzy since January of ’15?

Honest to goodness, I am sick of it. I am sick of the whole thing. Especially since nobody being pushed by either the media or the two big parties really gets me out of my seat right now. The only guy who got me out of my seat lately, was Romney, and before that . . . Perot. So obviously if I feel myself getting excited by any particular candidate, there’s a good chance (s)he’s gonna lose anyway.

My Facebook friends have also noticed that I am dialed up extra-cranky about the cultural Chekist infestation that’s plaguing social media right now. I was prepared to launch into a lengthy tirade about the whole schizophrenic mess, but (irony of ironies) Bill Maher did it for me!

Now, nobody can accuse me of fondness for Maher; he’s far too much of a raging anti-theist. But I think he nailed it right between the eyes with his Halloween 2015 commentary. It really says something when a chap like Maher is going off on the Politically Correct. His point at the end is especially apt. It’s something I’ve been saying for awhile now: the cheap “virtue” of internet slacktivism, is no virtue at all. It’s just self-righteous no-effort self-huggies for people who don’t want to break a sweat, nor get their hands dirty. You want to make the world better? Get off the damned internet and go do something that takes work. Otherwise, you’re not helping anyone, or anything.

Which takes me to Sad Puppies — or, rather, the people who fought against Sad Puppies with every fiber of their being. Because when the Hugo awards went off-script, it was literally a catastrophe so terrible and great that the Puppy-kickers pulled out all the stops to challenge Lord Vox in the Ritual of Desecration.

Me? Sad Puppies burned up my political fuel on a personal level. It’s one thing to pay attention to and argue about politics on the national scene, but Sad Puppies was both heated and contentious, and it took place right on my doorstep.

Certain people thrive on that kind of stuff — they eat political fights for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It gives them energy. Not me. I find politics draining. I felt (and still feel) it was worth it. But the baton has passed to others — and I am fully confident that Kate, Sarah, and Amanda will carry the banner high, and acquit themselves handsomely. If the vitriol they face is anything like what I faced last time — and there are plenty of indications that it will be — I am glad they are tag-teaming between them! In the words of Emmett (from Silverado): “You’re in it now, and it’s gonna get mean.

Which reminds me of an anecdote I once heard, about the glory years of the Soviet Union — before the world found out about all the horror that was committed by the Soviet state. It was said that Lenin (perhaps also Stalin) were so fully steeped in politics, that they even dreamed politics. For them, the Soviet Revolution was not just a waking thing, it was front and center in their unconscious lives as well.

Frankly, I find that notion more than a little creepy — and it may explain part of the reason why the Soviet Union (as happens with all Marxist states) turned out to be such a grotesque train wreck. Those men literally lost themselves to their political obsession — and innocent people suffered and died as a result.

I look at the social media agit-prop spilling across my screen every week — plenty of stuff that would make Lenin and Stalin smile — and I want to just . . . switch it all off.

The CHORF war against all things canine will continue whether or not I drop dead next week. The Republicans and the Democrats will keep playing flag football for the White House, with the media acting as one-sided referees. My social media feed will continue to be populated with high-volume, low-density blather about how Bernie, Hillary, Ted, and Ben, will all ruin the world — unless good people rush to stop them! It’s a state of perpetual crisis, fostered by the pols and the lobbyists and the activists and the fanatics, who want us forever teetering on the edge of a fearful abyss — lest we go back to thinking life is actually okay. People who aren’t in fear, can’t be maneuvered to do things the activists and the pols want us to do.

So, consider this my one-man vote against the politicization of everything over the next fifteen months.

Do I care about the election? Sure. Do I care about Sad Puppies? More than ever! And I will be cheering for Kate, Sarah, and Amanda! They’re going to have their hands full.

But this coming year . . . I am going to devote my full attention to things much closer to home. Being on the other side of the planet (from loved ones) has reminded me in a big way how lucky I am to be able to wake up every morning and have my wonderful little family. By the time I get back to the States next year, my heart is going to be very, very far away from the hollering and shouting. And I may just keep things that way. Again, politics are draining for me. I talk about them because I feel I have to, not because I want to. And right now, the “have to” is being displaced by a very strong desire to just let the typhoon pass over me.

In other words, this motherf***er needs a dandelion break!

Feeling their way to The Force?

Have you seen the latest trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII? (Of course you have!) Beyond the delirious joy of seeing Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Leia Organa return to the big screen, I was left with a question that’s lurked in the back of my mind ever since I saw the original three Star Wars films over 30 years ago: in the absence of a Master, how does a Sith or a Jedi discover his or her aptitude for the power?

Now, I know the Expanded Universe books have tackled aspects of this question, but from a pure film standpoint, we’ve never seen the question addressed directly . . . until now?

Kylo Ren (red warbly crossguard lightsaber = immediately bad!) and Finn (pleasant blue lightsaber = immediately good!) would seem to be the first new Dark and Light Force users to arise since Luke Skywalker himself — who is conspicuously absent from both the latest trailer, and the official movie poster. Barring some kind of reveal (entirely possible) the operating assumption is that both Kylo and Finn are “feeling” their way into their roles, as users of the Dark and the Light sides of The Force. (Leia Organa appears to have remained a muggle by choice; again, barring a reveal.)

Presumably this is similar to how it all happened in the first place, for the very first Force users, way back in the history of history. Somebody had to be first.

But if it’s possible for Kylo and Finn, why not lots of other people? The small percentage of Force-sensitive sapients in the Star Wars Galaxy would not have diminished dramatically due to the events of either the original movies, or the events of the prequels. Only known Jedi were slaughtered, not potential Jedi. And while the Emperor seemed to be seriously stingy with his delegation — Sith are fantastically few and far between — the Jedi order had no such restriction. Hell, they formalized their education and set up a damned school, and a council, and everything.

So, what triggers a Force-sensitive person into exploring his or her (its?) abilities? And how does this exploration differ from what we saw Luke go through? And why aren’t the Force-sensitive popping up all over the place, playing little parlour tricks on the muggles of the galaxy? Just because they can? The movie subtitle is, The Force Awakens. Did the death of Palpatine and then, Vader, cause some kind of cosmic Force shockwave that dimmed or diminished The Force for a period of years?

Again, there is what the EU says happened, and there is what the new film is going to establish.

I know, I know overthinking it; and without much evidence to go on, either. But when has this ever stopped Star Wars fans from speculating? (grin)

What does the Bible have in common with William Shatner?

Two pieces crossed my desk this week, each of them tangentially connected to the other. Both of them discuss what I’d call the more unfortunate side-effects of adult fannishness. In the case of the one, the article-writer is essentially complaining that adults who were born in the 1970s and 1980s have so thoroughly coopted kid culture, that today’s kids are kinda getting squeezed out of the picture. Everything that used to be made explicitly for kids, has been all-growed-up and is now pitched to an explicitly adult market: video games, comic books, TV cartoons, etc. It’s a billion-dollar consumer party, and kids — anyone below the age of 16 — aren’t necessarily invited. The other article-writer engages in no small amount of self-praise because of the fact that he’s skipped paying bills and even skipped buying food, so that he has enough money to attend his favorite science fiction convention(s) — because you’re not a real fan until you’ve suffered and sacrificed for your street cred. It takes the maniacal dedication of an aesthete to make a fan (mundane) into a Fan (caps-f).

Now, I am the last guy in the world to jump up on the “You’re doing it wrong!” soap box. I generally say, hey, whatever floats your boat, it’s your life — you go ahead and live it.

But not paying bills? Not buying food?

I think 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13 has something to say about all of this:

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I’ve had enthusiasms all my life. Just about everybody does. Such as rooting for a favorite sports team. Or loving a favorite movie. I’ve also let some of those enthusiasms go, simply because I haven’t had the time — all-growed-up! — to keep pursuing them. Like scale model airplanes. From age 9 through age 16, my bedroom was festooned with replica fighters and bombers. In my late teens and early twenties, I switched over to scratchbuilding starships from the Star Trek universe. But even that hobby took a back seat, as the demands of being a responsible adult increased. Taking on two careers (civilian and military) followed by, eventually, three careers (batcave job: author) meant making choices about where to devote my time. And this was on top of having a marriage and a family to look after, including church responsibilities.

But at no time did I ever fool myself into thinking that a mere enthusiasm should take priority over real world commitments and necessities.

Look, everybody scripts her own existence. No one person’s life is ever going to be lived exactly like any other person’s life. This is the beauty of free agency. But being a free agent doesn’t mean having a free pass from adulthood. Paying the bills and putting meat’n’taters on the table are so basic, so completely fundamental, they shouldn’t even be part of the discussion. This is rudimentary maintenance stuff, like brushing and flossing. If you actually have to decide whether or not you’re going to buy groceries and pay your power bill, versus spending that money on a convention . . . I’m going to gently suggest that not only is this not noble, nor does it elevate you above others, you in fact may have a serious prioritization problem that goes way beyond the silly hubris of declaring yourself more-fannish-than-thou.

Meanwhile, I do think my generation (we’re crossing into middle-agedness now, oh noes!) and the generation after mine, have a legit problem with extended adolescence. All over social media lately, I see people joking, “I had to go out and adult today!” or “I can’t adult today, I just don’t have it in me,” Where adult is a verb meaning, “Doing the unpleasant chores of the real world, which all grown-ups have been forced to do since the beginning of time.” Which is really kind of sad, considering the fact that most first-worlders live lives of astounding convenience and luxury, compared to their great-grandparents. We live much longer, we generally don’t have to worry about diseases like polio, and many of us sit in comfortable chairs behind comfortable desks, only having to log eight hours a day, a mere five days a week. Yet we talk as if this is a nigh-unbearable burden — a psychically crushing and existentially soul-destroying purgatory. Because reality won’t let us follow our bliss every waking minute of every day, all week, every month, each year.

I suspect our generational clinging to the loves of our childhood — comics, video games, cartoons — is a coping mechanism. And coping mechanisms can be good, so long as “coping” does not become synonymous with avoidance in actual practice. Real life doesn’t go away. In fact, the more a man avoids real life — escaping into his enthusiasms — the larger the problems of real life loom. In past eras, men who couldn’t deal, typically descended into pointless violence, or crawled to the bottom of a bottle, or simply ran away; abandoning wives and children. In our era? Adults who can’t deal may find themselves utterly lost in an enthusiasm, such that real life is just an annoying distraction. The enthusiasm itself becomes a replacement for reality — a secondary, preferable world. Could be a MMORPG. Could be the convention circuit. It doesn’t matter what the thing is. When the thing becomes more important than fundamentals — paying bills, taking care of yourself, and also taking care of family — you might have a problem. Dare I even say, a serious problem?

Now, lest I be accused of being a fun-hater, I want to emphasize that I am not saying we should all dump our enthusiasms and live a completely hairshirt existence. But I believe there’s got to be balance. And I do think there are times when we — all-growed-up, in body if not in spirit — have to put away childish things. At least until we’ve successfully reckoned with real life to the extent that we can plop down in that mythic beanbag chair, pull out the video game controller, and enjoy some well-earned R-and-R; knowing that the bases have all been covered.

I also think we can afford to let some things remain kid-friendly. We don’t have to drag every single damned thing we loved when we were kids, forward into our disillusioned middle age, where the sunshine of youth gets clouded over by the grimdark of maturity. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed Cartoon Network productions such as Regular Show, Adventure Time and Chowder so much, is because they work for my daughter as well as they do for myself and my spouse. The jokes, the situations, the references, all of it operates at two levels. Which, if you think about it, is also true for much of the classic animation of yore. Example: the Looney Tunes shorts were originally written and produced for adult theater-going audiences. Not Saturday morning cereal viewers.

Regardless of whatever sort of balance each of us strives to achieve, it’s important to remember that the total universe of enthusiasms is an egalitarian universe. You like football. I like basketball. Somebody else likes baseball. You like Skyrim. Your friend prefers World of Warcraft. I prefer my throwback video game from twenty years ago. You attend a lot of conventions. I attend a few conventions. Our mutual acquaintance attends none. And it’s all good. As long as people are taking care of the fundamentals — doing what needs to be done for house and home — I think it’s no-harm, no foul.

The problem is when things get out of balance. When an enthusiasm becomes an obsession. When we get so caught up in our formerly childhood passions, we take over the landscape and crowd out the real kids. When we begin to depend on others to take care of our fundamentals for us, so that we can remain distracted by the alternate world of our formerly healthy diversions. And — last, but not least — when we mistake our out-of-balance obsession for proof that we’re better than the merely “normal” people who’ve managed to successfully keep one foot planted in the real world, while also being actively engaged in the fun of their choice.

And yes, I know, you can’t say stuff like this without making somebody angry — that’s expected. This is the internet. You can’t talk like this, and not make somebody on the internet flamingly mad at you.

My answer to the angry folk?

Let’s go back to the question I first posed: what does the Bible have in common with William Shatner?

Both of them tell us to get a life.

The will to work the struggle of America

If ever anyone asks me what it means to salute the Stars and Stripes, this piece (starring actor Geoffrey Lewis) is how I respond.

Because It’s not about Republican or Democrat; these things are not America. It’s also not about a specific physical location; the American Experiment raises its banner in every part of the globe. Nor is it about conservatives or liberals, libertarians or progressives; these are merely labels for ideologies that morph over time, until they are almost unrecognizeable from one era to the next.

It’s about a single idea: that people are created free. And that this freedom is worth both blood and treasure; the necessary investments to ensure that liberty is not extinguished from the face of the earth.

“The will to work the struggle of America,” indeed.

Sweating. Pushing. Bleeding. Dust on our brows. Two steps forward, one step back. Warts and all.

Do you need your friends and relatives to be perfect, in order to love them?

No. You love them because they’re worth it.

That’s exactly how I feel about the United States.