The 21st Century American Social Justice Zealot

I’ve slowly stopped using the phrase “Social Justice Warrior.” Precisely because most people who endlessly whine about social justice issues, in 2016 America, aren’t warriors at all. A warrior is (to paraphrase Worf, from Star Trek) bound by concepts of duty, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice. A warrior puts the needs of the mission, the service, the country, before his/her own needs. A warrior embraces stoicism — the stiff upper lip — and does not indulge in histrionic, spastic outbursts of self-pity, or accusatory name-calling. A warrior does not seek to be offended at the drop of a hat, nor does a warrior run to authority figures every time (s)he is slighted, or finds the actions or speech of others to be objectionable. A warrior is practiced in matters of self-discipline, self-denial, and overcoming obstacles without piteously crying about how external stumbling blocks have permanently hampered his/her progress.

I see none of these qualities — not in the actions, nor the words — of America’s new breed of socially conscious, digitally narcissistic, materially pampered, self-absorbed activists.

Whatever happened to Kennedy’s call, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” Hmm? When did our academic and activist set close its ears to Martin Luther King’s deservedly famous and timelessly evocative Content of Character speech?

Today’s so-called Social Justice Warrior is not a warrior at all. Merely a zealot. There is no onus on the zealot to hold himself or herself to a higher principle. The only thing a zealot understands, is that (s)he is emotionally invested in his/her beliefs above all else, and will use whatever means necessary to harangue, badger, intimidate, coerce, and control other people — so that the zealot gets his/her way. The world is artificially bent to conform to the zealot’s will.

It goes without saying that the 21st Century American Social Justice Zealot is an unhappy soul. By themselves, feelings of anger, rage, hopelessness, or impotency, are not invalid. Just about every human being experiences all of these emotions at one time or another. Most of us — as we grow and mature — learn to channel these emotions into constructive action. We start (in the words of Stephen R. Covey) with our immediate circle of influence. We focus on ourselves, and what we can do about our personal lives. (Worf, tapping fist to chest: “Here! Here is where we meet the challenge!”)

But the Social Justice Zealot is forever focused on external factors. Seeking (and often inventing) outside reasons for why the Social Justice Zealot is unhappy. Pretty soon, friends, family, coworkers, colleagues, they all begin to look like enemies. The Social Justice Zealot ultimately finds (s)he cannot be comfortable in the company of anyone other than more Social Justice Zealots. And together, they spin great narratives about how the very fabric of the world is racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or “cishet fascist,” and it’s the job of Social Justice Zealots to set the world to rights. They are a religion unto themselves. Totally committed to proselytizing their gospel, while driving all other forms of thought out of the public square.

And they demand that the apparatuses of learning and government force the rest of us to conform, or else we’ll be subject to inquisitorial pain and suffering.

(Another Star Trek aside: who remembers TNG’s episode “The Drumhead”?)

if Social Justice Zealotry abides any kind of code, it’s Alinsky’s. “The ends justify the means” is not just an instructive maxim on how to accomplish goals, it’s a justification for the tearing down and destroying of much that is good, noble, and necessary to our Western Liberal way of life. (Remember when “liberal” used to mean being open to multiple points of view, even the ones a person may disagree with?) Social Justice Zealots are far, far more concerned with their own feelings — and how these feelings inform (cloud!) their perspective — than they are in constructively approaching problems, much less seeking compromise. To the Social Justice Zealot, compromise is a dirty word. The church of Social Justice has compromised far too much as it is. It’s time for an all-out holy war on the “normal” facets of society, which “oppress” at every turn.

In their hurry to rip down the tapestries of the Enlightenment, Social Justice Zealots have lately been exhuming the rhetorical corpses of venerated men (and even a few women) from the past, and putting the cadavers on trial for various sins — according to Social Justice Zealot orthodoxy.

(In the realm of the speculative arts specifically, almost nobody is immune — name your favorite science fiction or fantasy or horror writer who died before the year 2000, and you can find twenty and thirty-something Social Justice Zealots verbally eviscerating that person on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media.)

Those historical figures which cannot be creatively coopted for the Social Justice cause, are summarily placed in the stocks, and splattered with rotten fruit. Always by people who seem to possess few or no valuable skills — which they might trade to society, for the purpose of self-betterment. After all, a Grievance Studies degree from Redwood State College of Northern California, doesn’t prepare one to do much else in life, other than become a campus apparatchik teaching other people to have Grievance Studies degrees.

Thus the Social Justice Zealot is a creature of recursive Ouoroborosian dimension. Endlessly traveling along circular paths of external blame, and possessing a special hatred for the edifices of Enlightened Western philosophy, commerce, liberal government, personal freedom, common law assumption of innocence, and the belief that while all men and women might be created equally, outcomes cannot and never ought to be guaranteed. Even progressive fellow travelers — caught straying from the doctrines of the church of Social Justice — are eaten alive. Hounded from their chairs at university. Made to prostrate themselves and grovel.

While the Social Justice Zealots take frowny-selfies — with a collective middle finger erected in the direction of the cell phone lens. Petulant. Unable (or unwilling) to cope. Forever demanding that people with productive lives, be made to stop and pay attention. Because fuck you, that’s why.

No, friends, these are most definitely not warriors. The Social Justice Zealots are the product of three generations of ever-softer parenting, and ever-softer living. Spoiled children in adult bodies. People more enamored with their narratives, than they are with facts. Unused to actually earning an honest living, at a vocation or profession that produces things society needs to function and survive.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!”

Those words have been thrown in the Social Justice trash barrel.

The Social Justice Zealot motto is, “The country owes me everything, and if you disagree, I am going to call you a bigot, a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, along with a bunch of other bad words; and fuck you very much for even existing, you cisnormative asshole!”

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The market always wins

Now that the rebooted Ghostbusters is officially being acknowledged as a red-ink bath for Sony Pictures, can we please put down the protest signs, and have a candid talk? About how all the scolding in the world, cannot force the audience to love a thing? Likewise, all the scolding in the world, cannot force the audience to hate a thing, either.

Basically, stop with the scolding. It doesn’t work. It never works.

Remember how the new Star Wars book — that was a prequel to the seventh film — scored more one-star Amazon reviews, than all of its four and five-star reviews put together? And the author proceeded to scold the audience for it? I say, lighten up, Francis! It’s not because the audience is secretly morally repugnant. It’s because you turned in a weird book, written weirdly, versus the straightforward space adventure novel everybody wanted, and were expecting. Was that your editor’s idea? For you to throw an experimental literary curveball at the Star Wars fans, then teach them to hate you — by accusing them of being horrible people?

See, here’s the thing. The market always wins. Always. Doesn’t matter how brave or bold your posturing may be. If your book, or your movie, or your album, doesn’t have enough “there” there, you can hang a million virtue-signals on the thing — dress it up like a damned social justice christmas tree — and the audience is going to give you a big, whopping, “Meh.” And it’s not because the audience is secretly homophobic or misogynistic or racist. It’s because the audience is tired of being sermonized, and cannot be commanded to vote (with its collective wallet) for something it doesn’t want to vote for.

The Ghostbusters reboot failed, not because America hates women, but because America looked at this movie and said, “Two-point-five stars; maybe three at most, if we’re in a good mood.”

The audience doesn’t care about progressive eat-your-ideological-veggies politics. The audience doesn’t care about the demographics of the actors. The audience just wants to have a good time.

Likewise, you cannot command consumers to shun a thing, if that thing has already won them over. Remember Chick-Fil-A? Bunch of Social Justice Zealots (SJZs) commanded us all to “punish” Chick-Fil-A for (insert progressive political reason here) and the response — by Americans — was to give Chick-Fil-A a record week in profits. Any way you slice it, the SJZ plan wholly and utterly backfired. Because Chick-Fil-A chicken is delicious. People have known this for years. It’s why Chick-Fil-A has exploded nationally. Check out any Chick-Fil-A franchise at lunch or dinner, and you will typically see stacks of cars lined up around the lot, sometimes more than once, with a huge crowd at the registers inside. The anti-Chick-Fil-A “punishment” maneuver merely caused those ordinarily packed lines to go out the driveway, down the street, and around the block. Because the consumers said “F*** you, you can’t make us hate good food.” The consumers are still saying it, too.

So, please, let’s pause for a moment; to consider the boots-on-ground reality. Wagging your finger at people is never, ever a winning marketing strategy. Wagging your finger at the crowds is liable to have the crowds showing you a collective finger of their own — and it ‘aint the index finger. Because people like what they like, and they don’t like what they don’t like. De gustibus. You want to freight your product with all kinds of social justice ornamentation? Fine. Just be aware of the fact that you’re putting a stone around that product’s neck. Don’t be shocked when it sinks to the bottom, never to rise. It’s not the audience’s fault. It’s your fault for thinking the audience wanted or needed you to shove your politics up their collective ass.

Again, the crowds just want to have fun. I repeat: they want to have fun. Can you bring the fun? Can you make something that gets spontaneous laughter or applause, without it turning into an imitation of a Politburo session, where grown men collapse because they dare not get caught being the first one to put his hands back into his pockets? Maybe you think the Politburo sessions are an instruction manual, versus a cautionary tale?

Maybe you need to reconsider.

But wait, who am I kidding? Of course you won’t reconsider. SJZs never, ever reconsider. Smug self-righteousness is a hell of a drug. Once a person is hooked, (s)he loses all perspective, and becomes both myopic and deaf. That’s SJZism in a nutshell: myopic, and deaf.

But don’t say nobody warned you. The next time your movie or book — tricked out with all the latest virtue-signalling baubles — tanks. You spent too much time focusing on the wrapping paper, without paying enough attention to what’s inside. It’s the product itself that counts. Just like content of character counts. Remember who said that? I do. It was good advice.

More “there” there, please. Bring the “there” and you succeed, every time. “There” is what matters to the consumer, above all else.

Not what you think you’re saying with the product. Not what you think you have to say, to make people think you’re one of the Good Guys. The audience isn’t paying money to watch you check yourself out in the mirror, take selfies, and broadcast to the world that you’re wonderful.

The audience wants to be entertained.

Not educated. Not lectured. Not have their awareness raised.

Entertained.

Oh, sure, you might get some fraction of the crowd to buy in — as a political duty. And if you can be satisfied with an “audience” that supports you solely and explicitly out of obligation, knock yourself out. Just don’t be shocked when the crowds aren’t beating down your storefront door. Learn to be content with your monthly trickle from Patreon. You’ve chosen to wear your SJZ badge on your lapel. You couldn’t wait to tell the audience how much they suck. You elected confrontation as your mode of communication. The bad’s on you. Make no mistake about it. The bad’s on you.

On the gripping hand, if you’re a content producer who’s been frustrated by the fact that the SJZs keep demanding you create the way they expect you to create — otherwise you’re a horrible person who will be punished — take heart. You don’t have to do what they say. You don’t have to kiss the asses, nor the rings. Your options are open. You can have fun doing what you’re doing, and find an audience who will have fun right along with you. And if you can spin the fun up to high enough RPM, maybe you get a feedback effect, go viral, and see some real traction? It’s not a guarantee. But then again, with the market, nothing ever is. You just don’t need to load up your ruck sack with leaden social justice conceits, in a vain attempt to appease people who will never be appeased anyway — because they’re high on their own supply.

Create your stuff. Have a good time doing it. Work hard. And above all else, be gracious with the market — even on those occasional days when they throw pies at you. That’s inevitable. You cannot please all comers. But you can thank them for their time. You can thank them for making an investment. You can honor the fact that they tried you, even if you ended up not being to their taste. Maybe they will try you again?

In this way, too, the market always wins. You’re not standing at a pulpit. Pulpits are for fuggheads. You’re standing in the town square, your cart of wares arrayed for viewing. If you’re good at what you do, and enough people notice, good things will come to you. Be patient. And keep playing the long game. The market favors the long game.

Addressing The Problem™

We’re well into our second decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy publishing tying itself up in knots over The Problem™. You’re no doubt aware of The Problem™ yourself. How could you not be? A monolithic wall of text (stretching into the stratosphere) has been erected, concerning The Problem™ and if you’re so dense as to be unaware of The Problem™ then clearly you are part of The Problem™.

Still, for the sake of review, let’s go over it again.

The Problem™ — according to those who’ve made it their business to fight The Problem™:

SF/F publishing is dominated by demographic W. Demographics X, Y, and Z are underrepresented. This is obviously because demographic W is prejudiced, and therefore excluding X, Y, and Z. Therefore demographic W is on the hot seat for making SF/F into a W-only club. So, what can obligatorily concerned, properly progressive members of W do to be more inclusive and celebratory of X, Y, Z, and also A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, and the ever-fabulous Q?

The chief problem with typical analysis of The Problem™ is that it fails to ask a very important question: wence the readership? Editors and authors are not birthed whole-cloth from the dust of the earth. They always begin as readers first. I repeat: editors and authors always begin as readers first. There is no author, nor editor, in the business of Science Fiction & Fantasy literature, who did not start out as a reader. Usually, in childhood and/or adolescence. 99.999% of all professionals began life (in the field) as avid fans of some sort, whether they were laser-focused on a specific author, or a specific sub-genre, or omnivorous cosmopolitans who imbibed everything the field had to offer. Thus, to understand a dearth (or surfeit?) of any demographic, within SF/F publishing, you have to go all the way back to the beginning.

Which kids are reading, and what, and why?

Thus, how many kids from underrepresented demographics, grew up in households where fiction reading was a common and encouraged form of entertainment? And out of that number, how many gravitated to SF/F explicitly?

Because it is entertainment we’re talking about, and where entertainment is concerned, De Gustibus can be an iron law.

The progressive conceit is that kids from underrepresented demographics don’t read SF/F because these children never “see” themselves enough — not in the characters, nor the stories, nor the ranks of authors and professionals. This argument always strikes me as particularly strange — for Science Fiction & Fantasy — since a great heap of SF/F (past, and present) has concerned itself with crawling around inside the heads of people and creatures who are decidedly different from the creators, as well as the audience. No sector of entertainment literature has devoted more time to examining Difference (note the caps) than SF/F. And even if you take the postmodernist deconstructionist approach (“All fiction is simply allegory for the sake of present-tense social and political commentary!”) you still find that SF/F has gone out of its way to explore the lives and thoughts of the marginalized, the alien, and the outcast.

In other words, this is a field that bends over backwards to put Difference front-and-center.

So, what else might be going on? Besides a subtle or unconscious plot on the part of demographic W, to exclude or marginalize the other letters of the alphabet? Especially when publishing is an enterprise that does not require any prospective professional participant to wear his (or her, or their) demographics on his (or her, or their) sleeve?

1) Kids are busy doing other things. This has been especially true since the invention of the television. The number of explicitly youth-focused, youth-oriented passtimes has exploded over the past 70 years. If it’s not music, it’s video games. If it’s not video games, it’s sports. If it’s not sports, it’s texting and chatting. If it’s not texting and chatting, it’s movies and series. And so on, and so forth. In any representative population sample of pre-teens and teens, you’re liable to lose 65% (or more) of that collective attention span, to entertainment that does not involve reading prose on a page.

2) Kids get their SF/F in other forms. This is a huge blind spot for that sector of SF/F literature that considers itself “true fandom” and which regards all other forms of SF/F — outside of literature — to be subsidiary or subervient. Since the late 1970s, the amount of televised and silver screen SF/F has increased dramatically, thanks to the birth of the Star Wars franchise; as proof-of-concept that spec-fictional content was a massive money-maker. Since then, studios cannot not churn out enough SF/F. Look at the big list of Top 25 all-time silver screen earners, and at least 22 of them are explicitly SF/F in some form. Throw in Japanese animation, and modern story-driven video games, and you’re staring at the greatest part of your average english-language teen’s spec-fictional diet. Movies, TV, anime, and games. That’s it. (S)he may not feel the need to seek out books or other forms of spec-fictional prose, simply because there is a universe of (often spectacular and enjoyable) spec-fictional content readily available — long before (s)he has to crack open a book.

3) Kids who are reading, may only be reading what is popular, or familiar. This is one of the great resentments among almost all spec-fictional scribblers: it’s not fair that movie or TV tie-in books, or the latest J.K. Rowling novel, soak up a vast (disproportionately vast?) number of reader dollars — which may or may not trickle down to the rest of us toiling in the salt mines. Scratch an author or editor taking aim at The Problem™ and you will almost always discover someone who is equally unhappy with the fact that Harry Potter or some other magical Fantasy doorstop series are co-occupying the Amazon bestseller rankings, versus this month’s latest “confrontational” pan-African indigenous perspectives gender-queer anthology — from AngryWymyn Press. (Click to donate to their patreon!)

4) Speaking of which, can we please (finally!) admit that what interests and fascinates your typical Intersectional Oppression Studies undergrad — at Oregon Coast University — is not necessarily what interests a majority of reading teens and pre-teens? No, not even the teens and pre-teens from marginalized demographics. Because not every X nor Y nor Z (nor even every Q) teen or pre-teen spends his/her/their time gazing endlessly at his/her/their navel. Thus, if the number of spec-fictional authors coming into the field from an Intersectional Oppression Studies background is large, the number of readers this pool might be directly speaking to, is pretty damned small. And no, scolding isn’t a great way to gin up audience enthusiasm. You can whip a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Especially the young, who will smell a moral sermon a mile away, and immediately run in the opposite direction.

Of course, that’s just the first layer of the cake.

Assuming a sufficiently large number of marginalized youth can be attracted to reading SF/F how many of them are going to be interested enough to want to publish? To edit? To log the long, hard hours of practice necessary to reach entry-level proficiency? There are 101 easier, more direct routes to money, as well as fame. Devoting that much time and energy to getting good at SF/F takes a special kind of maniacal obtuseness — that only those of us with a fatal fascination for spec-fic are cursed to have.

Then, assuming a sufficiently large number of marginalized entry-level SF/F pros can be slapped together, how do we know which markets this body is submitting to? What kind of books or stories? Unless we’re dealing with a university or subsidy press (click to donate to the patreon!!) said publisher has to be in the business to do business. This means keeping at least one eye on the marketplace. And the marketplace is notoriously immune to being guilt-tripped into coughing up its dollars for an entertainment product being proffered like a kelp shake from a Whole Foods organic health bar. “Because it’s good for you!” may not necessarily be a winning sales pitch. In fact, it’s usually a horrible sales pitch. Calling the audience names, when they won’t follow the carrot or the stick, is also a horrible sales pitch. The audience wants to have a good time. Period. Non-subsidy prose publishing has to be accountable to this fact. Thus the endless tug-o-war between art and commerce. Between what is deemed “worthy” by the cognoscenti, and what is actually worthwhile to the consumer public.

Okay, so, we’ve tunneled through reader and author origins, the matter of ideology versus economy, and at last come to the ugly worm at the bottom of the Tequila bottle: are SF/F’s editors actually racist? Sexist? Homophobic? Transphobic? Yadda yadda?

Consider the fact that the total number of spec-fictional editors and publishers are self-styled progressives and liberals — by a gargantuan, wide margin — and it’s a head-scratcher. These are the people who go out of their way to broadcast to the universe that they are on The Right Side of History. They will spare no expense supporting the monthly flavor of Disenfranchised Artist. They are extremely proud to be left-wing, and they will haughtily declare their allegiance to progressive economic and political ideas.

And this is the body of people who are scheming — intentionally, or unintentionally — to keep the Other (note the caps) out of SF/F?

This is a field given over almost entirely to the progressive “side” of the ideological landscape. Thus when progressives attack the field for margnializing or excluding X, Y, or Z demographics, it’s a bit like watching a man pick up a hammer and smash his own thumb — because the thumb had it coming. In calling out the field (over and over and over) for failing to be sufficiently supportive and inclusive, progressives are essentially indicting themselves in a self-conspiracy — of the left hand working against the other left hand.

So, the latest rumbles about The Problem™ are another example of the ouroboros eating its own tail. And with each successive bite, the entire thing shrinks just that much more. Until the whole point of SF/F — to have fun! — seems to be overshadowed by a nasty process of the field collectively and eternally attacking itself, for this or that failure; according to whichever flavor of Oppression Theory is popular this year.

And we’ve not even touched the fact that short fiction — the subsector of spec-fictional prose specifically cited in The Verge’s link — is a micro-economy, compared to novels. I should know. I do much of my work in short SF/F prose. It is the nichest of niche markets. A somewhat zombiefied relic of the Pulp Era, when almost all spec-fictional prose was being done in serial format, for the pre-television magazines of the time.

I mean, seriously, put your politics aside for a minute, and check it out:

● Of the total number of children in the english-language world, how many of them read prose for entertainment?

● Of the total number of pre-teen and teen readers in the english-language world, how many of them will fall in love with SF/F as a preferred genre?

● Of the total number of children who read SF/F, how many of them grow up to decide to try their hand at writing, editing, or publishing?

● Of the total number of people who try their hand at SF/F writing, editing, or publishing, how many of them will actually put in the years to be any good at it?

● Of the total number of people who are any good at SF/F writing, editing, or publishing, how many of them will focus on a microscopic slice of the marketing landscape, in the form of short fiction?

● And of the total number of people who are proficient pros in SF/F short fiction, how many of those are from what might be deemed marginalized or disenfranchised demographics?

● And of the total number of people who are not marginalized, but who are proficient pros in SF/F short fiction, how many of them are actually engaged in discrimination against their fellows? Either consciously, or unconsciously?

Especially when (as noted at the start) nobody is required to wear his/her/their demographics on his/her/their sleeve. This is not like a screen test, nor a panel audition. The editor is not casting based on appearance. The editor is (usually) working from a standpoint of taste, combined with knowing what the audience (for his/her/their magazine or venue) wants, along with perhaps a bit of angling at the critics and the awards mavens.

And angling at the critics and awards mavens favors marginalized demographics! Does anyone seriously suspect the people behind Lightspeed or Asimov’s or Clarkesworld or TOR.COM have a problem with the disenfranchised? Of any type or description? What universe did you warp in from?

The SF/F short-fic editors in this universe — with their fingers on the pulse of the awards — know that featuring authors/stories from disenfranchised groups, is a huge plus. Among the cognoscenti. They all drink from the same ideological trough. It’s “sexy” for a publication to hang a sign on the demographically challenged. In fact, markets like TOR.COM will pay top dollar for stories from non-W authors, spread across the whole of the alphabet. And TOR.COM will loudly beam this news to the publishing world at large, “We’re TOR.COM, and we’re progressive; just look at our menagerie of other-than-W authors we publish!”

So, I have a tough time believing that the supposed dearth of other-than-W authors publishing in the short fic markets, is a matter of prejudice.

But I’m just an evil conservative. I keep banging my pot about fun and merit. I don’t have a patreon. I think stories should earn the consumer’s time and money. I don’t believe the purpose of storytelling in SF/F is to “confront” the audience, nor make the reader squirm. That’s a nouveau-lit academic sentiment that’s migrated over to the field since the advent of the New Wave — when Sense-O-Wonder began to collapse inside a Schwarzschild Radius of social critique and victim narratives, all competing against themselves.

Is it any wonder that Science Fiction — in prose form — continues to fight a rear-guard action against marketplace irrelevancy?

Fixating endlessly on The Problem™ is, to my mind, very much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It doesn’t matter what tune you make the orchestra play, the ship’s still going down. Having struck the iceberg of Social Justice zealotry, people seem to want to rip the hole open even wider. Then they have the nerve to act shocked when there aren’t enough life boats.

Ban guns? We’re a nation of scofflaws!

It’s been roughly a century since the United States embarked upon one of the nation’s most foolish moral escapades: Prohibition. Temperance movements — well-intended, we have to grant — had deduced that alcohol consumption was at the root of any number of household and cultural evils. Therefore, the country was going to be dried up. And since politicians are more interested in getting re-elected, than in having common sense, they went along with these temperance movements’ assertions. And for over a dozen years, the United States was officially a no-booze zone.

Except, that’s not how it really worked. There was booze all over the place. The common citizen was still drinking. The politicians never stopped, either. Even the cops were having a drink, just on the quiet. Everybody knew it, and everybody tacitly agreed that Prohibition had turned into a bad joke. They even invented a new word, for the millions of otherwise straightlaced Americans who were all getting sloshed on the sly: scofflaw.

A combination of the words scoff and law. It meant precisely what it says: a person who flouts the rules.

By the advent of the Depression — surely an event to make even the most stalwart teetotaler consider lifting a glass — the country had come to its senses, and we eventually scuttled the booze ban.

Which should have taught us an important, enduring lesson.

But it didn’t. You’ve heard of the War on Drugs? More Prohibition, that. Just the target of the blockade is different. Equally well-intended, but equally wrong-headed. It guarantees that crime (organized or not) will have a ready cash source, throws countless young men and women into jail, and does not at all stop or deter people who want to do drugs, from doing drugs. In fact, it lends a rebellious kind of cool to the drug scene, that lures millions of teenagers every year — some of whom wind up bottoming out in a state of heroin or meth addiction, which can often be lethal.

If we try to ban guns, I can guarantee you it will be more of the same. Why?

1) You can’t close the barn door, when the horse has already run out to pasture. If firearms were a new(ish) sort of import to these shores, you might have a realistic chance to keep the ports shut to guns. But guns are a thriving domestic industry, as well as cottage hobby. Some estimates place the number of privately-held firearms at or about the number of privately-driven automobiles. You cannot ban or restrict something which already exists here — legally — in such high numbers. There is no known force capable of policing them all up, much less disposing of them. It was the same for the booze.

2) Are you going to throw Granny in jail? How about your uncle? Or your brother? Or your best friend? Yes, many people will voluntarily turn over their weapons, if a ban is made into law. Americans are — despite the protestations of the cognoscenti — a generally decent lot. Law-abiding, by choice. But far more Americans will conclude the law is absurd, and simply refuse to comply. Do you go out and put the cuffs on? Lead the country to the slammer? Where to house the millions of instant criminals? How to try them? Especially when most of the law enforcement will also conclude the law is absurd — and in fact, many of the law-keepers will be law-breakers too, just like during Prohibition.

3) The underground gun scene will thrive like kudzu. Secret gun clubs and gun ranges will become the new speakeasies. It will be chic and daring, to belong to such organizations, and to be seen in such circles. Again, the rule of cool: flouting stupid laws has always been the hallmark of adventurously free-minded people. The dumber or more clumsy the law, the more it’s flouted. Having and shooting guns would become like having and smoking weed used to be; and in some places still is — something the “cutting edge” do for fun, as well as pleasure. And to hell with the risks. Life is short! Go for the gusto.

4) Because the underground gun scene will thrive, the underground gun market will also thrive. Both the cottage machinists, and the black market importers. Price will be no object. In fact, the competition (to cut out or undermine the competitor) will be so fierce, rival black market operations may start dividing the country up into zones of turf. And since laws never stopped true criminals from having and using guns anyway, the amount of gun-related crime will climb as ordinary petty crooks and gun-runners alike, along with average citizens getting caught in the endless dragnets, will stuff the courthouses to overflowing. Not to mention the morgues.

5) Fly-over country don’t give a damn, no how. Small-town America will basically pretend that federal gun bans do not exist. County judges will suspend sentences. The cops will develop “paper bag eyes” for good American citizens who just happen to have and keep firearms in the home. Both the authorities and the common man will collude to keep the dreadful news — that guns are not, in fact, going away — from reaching the eyes and ears of the gentrified do-gooders from the cities. Special dispensations will be invented, to quietly circumnavigate federal prosecution. Own x amount of land, for y amount of farming? Why, you just got to have a critter gun. Or three. Or twelve. Plus ammunition. Don’t want coyotes getting into the chickens. Surely we can open up a loophole for that?

And so, the great moral crusade to “end” guns in America, will go down in historic flames. Being essentially unenforceable, the law(s) will eventually hang like stones around the necks of those politicians who supported such laws in the first place. The gun-banners will be voted out, and voted down, and the law(s) will be struck from the books.

Or . . . we can save ourselves a lot of grief and heartache, and just not go there in the first place.

No gun bans. No silly laws with good intentions, but achieving opposite results.

We know this dance. We’ve done it before. We ought to have learned by now. But memories can be short, and do-gooders always think that human nature can be bent to suit any kind of moral reform program. Which is essentially what the gun-banner brigades are after: moral reform.

Except, you can’t do it like that. Nor should you want to try. The answer to “gun violence” is to merely remove the noun, and focus on he verb. Why does a disturbed young Muslim man walk into a gay club and begin capping people? Could it possibly be that he’s been raised in a belief system that is amenable to violent “solutions” to the moral decrepitude he sees around him? Hell, in Da’esh territory, they chuck gays off rooftops, and Allah smiles. Or so the mullahs of the Middle East say. Maybe that’s got something to do with it? The Boston Marathon bombers used pressure cookers to inflict carnage. Same intent: to murder in the name of Allah. Just different method. You can seek to ban the method six ways from Thursday, and never even touch the intent.

And it’s the intent that we — as a culture, and a nation — should be most concerned with. Grappling with and confronting intent, whether it’s Islamist fanatics (Orlando) or emo outcasts (Columbine) would be a direct way to confront “what’s wrong with America” rather than concocting effigies of “gun culture” at whose feet we pile blame, every time there is a media frenzy about a crime involving firearms.

Again, simply passing a law, won’t solve anything. In fact, the only law which will be obeyed, will be the law of unintended consequences.

Is all of this supposed to assuage the outrage of people upset that we’ve had (yet another) spectacular spree murder? No. But then, we lose tens of thousands of Americans on the highways and freeways of America. Every year. And you seldom hear the same outrage. Not even when it’s a multi-auto pileup on the interstate. We’ve successfully conditioned ourselves to accept these deaths as merely the cost of doing business, in a world which is (rightly) free to engage in impulse travel on public roads.

I, for one, would love to invent a magic solution — to events like the Orlando gay club murders.

But I have lived enough life to realize that there is usually no such thing as a magic solution.

Want to curb murders? Convince the next would-be spree slaughterer that (s)he’s better off finding a different hobby? Join the club! All of us law-abiding gun owners are right there with you, hoping that there might be a way to reach these people, before they decide to begin taking innocent lives. We’ve got friends and families too. We think about them every day. Some of us have raised our hands in front of the flag, dedicating life and limb to the defense and protection of the very laws that ensure our freedom and prosperity in this country. We literally are the “well-regulated militia” so often debated in that controversial Constitutional phrase. And we do what we do, so that you — American man or woman — can go into a firearms store, and purchase the means to protect yourself from rapists, thieves, and murderers.

Is freedom idiot-proof? Nope, alas. Nor is it safe-spaced against all potentially random harm. And that’s a shame. But you still get in your car, and expose yourself to the bone-headedness of your fellow citizens — for minutes (or even hours) every single day. The joker texting on his phone, when he ought to be watching the road, is far, far more likely to hurt you or the people you love, than “gun culture.” In fact, you’ve probably been that joker a few times yourself — yes, even you “good” drivers. Don’t look embarrassed. You’re just normal.

As nearly every law-abiding firearms owner, is also normal.

Should you be punished, because some jackass in the other car decided to cause a wreck today? No?

In the end, we’re wired to buck the system, if the system is too much of a pain in the ass. That’s why we speed like hell, all over the country, daring the highway patrol to catch us. We know that speed limit is there for our safety. We also know that we can handle it, going well over the limit. So we do. And the “game” of daily cat and mouse (millions of mice, only a comparatively few cats) occurs with ritual-like predictability. Even when speeding is a contributor to any number of serious auto accidents in any given week: accidents which take lives.

Do we ban the car? Nope.

Do we lash out at all law-abiding drivers, indiscriminately? Nope.

Do we label those same drivers domestic terrorists in the making? Nope.

Look closely at such answers to such questions, and you can tease out an important conclusion. About who we are, as human beings. And why some things shouldn’t be tried, no matter how well-meant they may be.

The Martian and Mad Max

Two spectacular movies were released in 2015. Both of them were set in the future. Both of them focused on a single man desperately trying to survive in the face of overwhelmingly negative odds. One of these futures was depressingly bleak, populated with violent, deranged maniacs. The other future was incredibly positive, where human beings worked together, and put substantial amounts of hardware — not to mention astronauts — on another planet.

One of these futures would be a delight to live in — the conquering of the solar system, by a planet Earth which has somehow managed to overcome its problems, enough to reach for the stars.

The other future would be a literal hell — civilization has fallen, tribal war is the new normal, and human beings have regressed to a state of endlessly cruel barbarity.

Guess which future the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) voted as their favorite?

Now, anyone who knows anything about the field of Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF/F) shouldn’t be surprised — no, not even a little bit — that Mad Max: Fury Road was the top pick of SF/F’s so-called professional body, for professionals. The fans of Andy Weir’s book-to-movie hit The Martian gave it a valiant try, but SFWA isn’t about Hugo Gernsback’s “scientifiction” anymore, as much as SFWA is about soft science majors (lit and humanities degrees) using SF/F as a tool to critically examine and vivisect 21st century Western society.

Did I mention that The Martian had a world-wide take of $630 million dollars, while Mad Max took in just $378 million by comparison?

Clearly, audiences across the globe had a much greater preference for the science fiction movie that focused on actual science being employed in a setting where science — and mankind — are making miracles happen.

But the professional body of Science Fiction and Fantasy writers liked their bleak future better. The future where a despotic madman keeps women as breeding and food stock, while the young men all die very bloodily, and too early; before the lymphoma and blood cancers (from the nuclear fallout, naturally) can kill them slow.

I saw both films, and I liked both films a lot. As a huge fan of the second, original Mad Max installment — known to United States audiences as The Road Warrior — I put Fury Road second on my list (all time) of Mad Max movies. It wasn’t quite as good as Mad Max 2 (the title by which the world knows The Road Warrior) but it showed us just what kind of insane, pyrotechnic brilliance director George Miller is capable of producing, when equipped with modern technology, and a modern budget. Fury Road was everything The Road Warrior wanted to be, except The Road Warrior was shot on a virtual shoe string.

Nobody is really sure if Fury Road is supposed to be a reboot. A sequel seems likely — which may tell us more, about how the Fury Road universe meshes with the old movies. Will we see more of Furiosa? How about Nux? Because, frankly, the single largest flaw in Fury Road is that it is focused on both Max and Furiosa, while Nux had the fullest, most satisfying character arc. Both Max and Furiosa are largely the same people — at the end of the film — as they are at the beginning. Nux, meanwhile, did a complete 180. Naturally, Nux died. So his reappearance would seem problematic at best. But when has the death of a character ever stopped moviemakers from bringing him/her back for more?

I would have liked to see Furiosa sacrifice herself to save the Wives, with Nux returning to the Citadel. I think this would have worked much, much better, for both character arcs. But that’s just my back-seat writer talking.

The Martian is equally boggling, in terms of the visual grandeur being offered to the audience. Also, like Fury Road, this was a case of one of the trendsetting directors of the 1970s-1980s cusp period, coming back to gift us with some of his best work in a long, long time. But The Martian is a classic man-versus-nature story, with a single survivor of a space disaster working tirelessly — to the very limits of his mental, emotional, and physical endurance — to save his own life. Along the way, his comrades must overcome huge technical and bureaucratic hurdles, culminating in what essentially amounts to a crew mutiny, in order to return to Mars — and rescue Astronaut Watney.

The future Earth of Weir’s imagination, is as far from the future Earth of Miller’s imagination, as Mars is from Venus.

Of course, The Martian was every inch a Campbellian movie, while Fury Road was almost entirely New Wave.

Guess which aesthetic dominates and excites the imaginations of SF/F’s cognoscenti?

I know, I know, I am a broken record about this stuff. But it never ceases to amaze me (in an unhappy way) how the so-called writers of Science Fiction, seem to be in such a huge hurry to run away from the roots of the field. I’ve read and listened to all the many arguments — pro and con, from both sides — about how Campbell rescued the field from the Pulp era, but then New Wave in turn rescued the field from the Campbell era. So it might be true that we’re finally witnessing the full maturation of SF/F as a distinct arena of “serious” literature, but aren’t we taking things too far? Does anyone else think it’s a bad idea for the field to continue its fascination with cultural critique — the number of actual nutty-bolty science types, in SFWA, is dwindling, while the population of “grievance degree” lit and humanities types, in SFWA, is exploding — while the broader audience consistently demonstrates a preference for SF/F that might be termed “old fashioned” by the modern sensibilities of the mandarins of the field?

Now, I think there is a very strong argument to be made, for the fact that Campbellian vs. New Wave is merely the manifestation of a deeper problem — a field which no longer has a true center. The two “sides” in the discussion have been taking shots at each other since long before I was born. The enmity may be so ingrained — in the internal conversation of SF/F — that nothing can reverse it. Save, perhaps, the total explosion of the field proper. Like a puffball of dandelion seeds that’s been hit with a strong wind, the various sub and micro genres within SF/F may simply fly away into the bigger world of literature, sprouting up separately all across the spectrum, with no single colony being identifiable as the “source” or capitol of SF/F.

Lord knows that those New Wavers within SF/F who are covetous of “proper” literary recognition, acclaim, critical applause, etc., are perfectly happy to shed their “skiffy” skins when it suits them. They desperately want to have a seat at the literary grown-ups table, despite desiring to also keep a hand in with the snot-nosed propeller-heads at the kids’ table. It’s a cake-and-eat-it-too problem. Just look at some of the covers being put on “science fiction” books these days, and you can tell that there are a lot of SF/F authors, editors, and marketers, who wish very much that SF/F literature would look (and read) very differently, from the SF/F that helped make the field successful — as a broad-market force, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

My personal stance has always been, “To hell with the hoity-toities! Give me my space cruisers and galactic adventure, like that which fired my imagination in the beginning!” But this is a very passé attitude. Nobody wants nuts-and-bolts SF/F anymore, do they?

Do they??

Maybe those who avidly attended screenings of The Martian, know.

Clinton and Trump are Scylla and Charybdis

In 1992 — my first year voting in United States national elections — I was a Perot man. Unhappy with the choices and rhetoric put forth by the Republicans and Democrats, I was excited by the fact that there was somebody making a very strong push; as a third option. I watched Perot’s presentations, and also his performance during debates. I knew I wanted him to be the next President. He even got my Dad’s vote, and Dad was a very reliable Republican supporter.

Unfortunately, we simply wound up handing the White House to Bill Clinton.

In 2016, I am afraid the terrible two-party calculus, will again wind up handing the White House to a Clinton. The Trump supporters just don’t realize it yet.

Look, seriously, I get it. I get the frustration with the establishment. I get being tired of the endless lies, and being pandered to. I get that the Republicans are always betraying principle, for the phantasm of “electability.”

But Trump is not anti-establishment. He’s as establishment as they come, and he’s actually on Hillary’s side of the fence!

Oh, sure, he’s out there saying whatever he thinks he needs to say, to make you — reliable Republican — believe that he represents a true turn away from business-as-usual words-not-deeds soft-serve Republicanism. He’s the dude who is going to shake everything up, piss off all the right people, and get America back on track. Sounds great. And if Trump did not have a history, even I might be inclined to buy his schtick.

But Trump does have a history, and it’s the very history — of talking like a Democrat flunky, of donating money like a Democrat flunky — that convinced me Trump is not serious. He is, at best, trying to ego his way to the White House. Or, at worst, he is merely playing a role, so that Hillary Clinton is ensured an error-free path to the Presidency. Does that sound crazy? It makes perfect sense, if you believe that the Republican base is both gullible, and easily led astray.

This is a crucial moment, not just for the Republican party, but for American conservative and libertarian principles. For decades, we’ve labored under derision — from progressives, liberals, Democrats, etc. — that we’re a bunch of mouth-breathing goons. We will follow any damned fool to hell, so long as he tells us what he thinks we want to hear. Guess what? Putting Trump forth as the “anti-establishment candidate” pretty much tells the universe that the progressives, liberals, and Democrats, were all right about us. We are going to follow a damned fool who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.

If I am a lifer Democrat, liberal, or progressive, I am laughing my ass off right now. The ascension of Trump could very well mean the final end of the Reagan coalition legacy, and the consignment of the Republican party to permanent minor-player status. If I am a lifer Democrat, liberal, or progressive, I am rubbing my hands with glee. The “enemy” are happily destroying themselves, and destroying any ability they might have had to stand in the way of progressive policy-making — especially where erosion of basic liberties and financial independence is concerned.

So, the country will get one-party rule. Democrats, for the rest of my adult life. And the Democrats are putting Hillary and Bernie forward, as the shining beacons of progress. These are the poster children for our political future: a pathologically lying narcissist who only cares about herself, and a dippy old socialist who thinks economics can be turned Marxist without destroying the value of the dollar.

If that doesn’t make you weep for the future, I don’t know what will.

Because I don’t want to be a vassal. I am a citizen, dammit, and citizens shouldn’t let punks be in the White House.

Alas, punks are all we’re allowed to choose from in 2016.

Oh, sure, I know, it’s time to unfurl the Unicorn Cavalry flag, and put money down on Gary Johnson. But this will simply lock Clinton in, the same way Perot locked Clinton in, because far fewer Democrats detest Clinton, than Trump, and far more Democrats will gleefully consolidate under the Clinton flag, than Johnson’s flag. So the Unicorn vote is a protest vote only, and the Democrats don’t have to give a crap about protest votes. Hillary is going to be guaranteed her eight years in office, and the Republicans will be demoted to second-string status in both the House and the Senate — barring some unforeseen resurgence of a fresh crop of actual conservatives — so that sixteen combined years of Obama policies and Clinton (for the second time) policies, could result in America being a very, very different place; by the year 2024.

The truism goes: in a democracy, we get the government we deserve.

Looks like we’re gonna find out just how badly we deserve unchecked one-party domination in Washington D.C. Because even if by some strange turn of events, Trump does win — and he won’t — Trump is still a Democrat, far more than he’s a Republican. Far more. And even if a rebellious resurgence by a third party does make a dent, it will only be a dent. Just as Perot was merely a dent, and provided the perfect triangulation Bill Clinton needed to win in 1992. Because there are far more lifer Democrats who will always and forever vote Democrat, at all costs, than there are Republicans and independents who could rally to the Unicorn flag.

Like I said: Scylla, and Charybdis. The ship breaks up on the rocks, or gets sucked into the whirlpool.

It didn’t have to be this way. But decades of voter inattention and apathy, combined with over a century of money, power, and influence consolidation — by both the two big parties — have conspired to give us the absolute worst Presidential choices of this generation. Perhaps, even of several generations. We’ve faced poor choices before, sure. But right now, we’ve got a lying, self-absorbed narcissist with liberal tendencies on one side, and a lying, self-absorbed narcissist (also with liberal tendencies) on the other side.

And no, the American Republic is not bulletproof. I firmly believe that one-party domination (by the Democrats) will put the United States on track to becoming a super-sized version of Greece, or Venezuela. And these are the soft crash outcomes. I don’t even want to think about the (also very possible) hard crash outcomes.

If I disliked the two-party calculus when was just 18 years old, I now absolutely loathe that same two-party calculus. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have principles. They are simply interested in keeping themselves elected. And we — the voters — apparently can’t be bothered enough to take our national elections seriously. On the one hand, we have people eagerly rushing to become serfs on the one-party-rule Democrat plantation, and on the other hand we have people lining up behind bozo the clown, with an orange face, zero ethics, and a titanic ego.

I want to think God can see us through this. I suspect God’s simply sitting back and shaking His head, saying, “I warned you what would happen, and you didn’t believe me — have fun with your mess I told you you’d make, if you stopped paying attention to me.”

Why I can’t be a socialist

I’ve tried (over time) to explain my opposition to socialism in these terms:

1) Socialism’s ultimate disregard for the dignity and rights of the individual.

2) Socialism’s ultimate disregard for the economics of human nature.

3) The inevitable suffering and misery that results from 1 and 2.

First, because the root philosophy of socialism is Marxist (ergo, redistribution and leveling across economic tiers) socialism requires an authority capable of bending the knees of the people to the will of the state. There is no form of national socialism which has ever existed without very powerful governmental authority, and a police force capable of backing up that authority. This authority (and that police force) tend to show little (historical) regard for the individual, because socialism is focused (in the ideal) on benefit to the aggregate, not the welfare of the single person. If you’re going to have socialism, you have to be able to make people with “too much” give up things, so that people with “too little” receive those same things. This incredible power—however well-intended in its origins—invariably attracts the worst kind of bloody-handed leadership: psychopaths, sociopaths, and zealous devotees of various forms of social engineering.

Second, socialism is forever battling against the gravity field of human nature. Ergo, socialism is a state-sponsored moral remedy for the natural “selfish” virtue that individuals are entitled to the fruits of their creativity, intelligence, and labor. This warping—group or state “management” of the creation and exchange of intellectual and physical product, not to mention currency—undermines and devalues the very labor which socialism claims to venerate. Men who discover they don’t have to work to keep their bellies full, usually don’t work. Men who discover that working 50 hours a week, gets them no further ahead than working zero hours a week, also don’t work. Societies which bankrupt the incentives to work, always collapse. Fewer and fewer people carry more and more of the burden, until the whole thing crumbles. It happened in Soviet Russia. It is happening in Greece and Venezuela.

Third, the combination of intrusive and coercive state authority, with social engineering and terrible-minded leadership, and the grinding-down of incentives, has resulted in an overwhelmingly documented record of human woe, unlike anything ever seen in history. These facts are not a matter of rhetorical flourish. The Holodomor. The killing fields of Cambodia. China’s Cultural Revolution. The desolation of North Korea and Cuba. The destruction of national economies. Gulags. Poverty. Hunger. Death. So much death. Death unending. The snuffing out of well over a hundred million human lives, during the 20th century alone. That’s nine figures to the left of the decimal, if you want to write the number on a piece of paper and look at it. Men. Women. Children. Starved. Beaten. Jailed. Tortured. Mutilated. Mass graves. Erased from history—because they were deemed to be “in the way” of progress.

Of course, America’s fresh crop of socialists don’t see it like that. Like almost all socialists, the dream of making Utopia is simply too irresistible to them. It doesn’t matter what happened before—nor what will happen again, because we forget history (and repeat history, on this subject) with soul-destroying regularity. America’s socialists have been told (often from the cradle up) that socialism is not only sustainable, but an unalloyed good. Anyone who objects is deemed obstructionist, or even outright dangerous—we are merely “in the way” of progress.

I fear that the United States is the proverbial frog in the kettle. We’ve been gradually adding components of socialism to our national fabric since the early half of the prior century. In 2016, we seem to want to throw caution to the wind, and give the state unbridled ability to “improve” our lives, by making our decisions for us. We have corrupt political parties who thrive on a bread-and-circuses model; for selection of governing personalities. Sooner or later, that gradually warming water is going to be brought to a boil—and cook us. There is nothing magical about the United States that will prevent all the horrors of the 20th century, from happening here too.

The state that “takes care of” you in the ways you desire, can also “take care of you” in a very permanent, very undesirable fashion as well.

I wish more of my countrymen understood this. Alas . . . socialism is the irresistible flame to which the well-meaning, ever-hopeful moths are eternally drawn.

I try to see a positive future. But it’s mighty tough these days.

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.

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!