Tag: nerd blogging

So Call Me Maybe

A recent IR Twitter flare-up occurred on a seemingly innocuous topic illustrated by the flow-chart above: what should I call my professor? A PSA from Prof. Megan L. Cook recommended students to address their professors as Professors or Dr., avoiding references to their marital status or first names. Prof. Raul Pacheco-Vega tweeted the following:

I also delete every email that first-persons me on a first email. Them’s the rules. You can decide how you want to be addressed, but I’m the one who decides how *I* want to be addressed.

Dr. Jenny Thatcher and several others disagreed, pointing out that taking offence at an “improper” address is elitist, disrupts collegiality and can potentially push out first-gen scholars or people from backgrounds that do not share the same culture of academic etiquette. For that intervention, Dr. Thatcher endured insults, digs at dyslexia, and threats of getting reported to the police by random Tweeps.

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First-World Nerd Problems: A Nintendo 3DS Bleg

Last week I purchased a Nintendo handheld (on steep discount) for the express purpose of playing Okamiden. Okami is one of my most favoritist games evah; even though Okamiden is basically more of the same, I’m cool with that.

Yesterday we had to buy off the wee one–we did, in fact, have a pretty terrible day from her perspective–so we offered to purchase her a game to play. That led to Animal Crossing: A New Leaf and a complete loss of custody over the Nintendo. So complete, in fact, that she basically bought it from me. Continue reading


The Lost Jedi Art of Reading Closely

I thought, mistakenly, that the Hoth symposium had run its course: Ackerman point, a bunch of us counterpoint both at Danger Room and elsewhere (here at Duck, and, if it’s not up yet it will be soon, over at Grand Blog Tarkin), and my tossing a little more fuel on the fire by arguing what I generally take to be a pretty obvious and I thought uncontroversial point: that Star Wars is a story about the struggle between Jedi and Sith about the nature of the Force, with other people and organizations (like the Rebel Alliance, and the Empire itself) getting caught up in the middle of what is, basically, a theological dispute. I thought that was pretty obvious because, well, the Star Wars universe is presented to us as one in which the Force exists and is efficacious, in which some people have Force-sensitivity and others do not, and in which the greatest of galactic events derive their importance from their connection to the Jedi-Sith struggle, whether we are talking about Palpatine’s election as Chancellor or Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine with Ben Kenobi.

Then I chanced (or maybe it was the will of the Force?) to glance at twitter as I was waiting to board a plane, and found this gem from Robert Farley: “The real story in the Star Wars universe is about whatever we find theoretically interesting and relevant.” What then ensued was a flurry of thrust-and-parry twitter jabs, a kind of miniature lightsaber duel carried out mainly through 140-character quips (although as Rob pointed out I did break that rule by producing several linked tweets that continued a thought past that limit; whether this is deserving of a penalty or not I leave for the general audience to decide). It was temporarily halted, not as in Episode I by a series of functionally-opaque force fields that impose a break in the action, but by the announcement that we had to turn off electronic devices in preparation for takeoff. Taking the time in fight to gather my thoughts and prepare a reply for posting, here is my contribution to a possible next round. Continue reading


It’s a trap. No, really, IT’S A TRAP.

Change you can believe in. Or is it a trap?

So our little geekfest-in-a-teacup has provoked, among other things, some additional contributions by members of The Duck focusing on additional ways that the Empire’s command structure and Imperial strategy towards the Rebel Alliance doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Imperial troops are feckless, letting the rebels escape on occasions when they should have been able to stop them easily. Opportunities to wipe out the rebels are missed through various kinds of incompetence, tactical or bureaucratic or otherwise. The Empire as a whole is riddled with inconsistencies and incoherences, clashes between divisions, competing goals, unclear budgeting priorities. And so on.

To all of that I say, along with my main Mon Calamari, Admiral Akbar: IT’S A TRAP. Really. The whole damn thing is a trap, not just specific instances of deception like the one that his most famous exclamation seems to refer to. Yes, it’s a trap that the shield generator is still working and the Death Star is operational when the rebel fleet jumps into the Endor system, but more to the point, the entire interstellar-galactic-political situation is a giant trap for the unwary, and by “the unwary” here I mean not just the various denizens of the Star Wars universe who are focusing on the wrong thing if they think that the main game in town is Empire-vs.Rebel Alliance, but also and perhaps even more profoundly the analysts who keep mistakenly treating anything that the Empire does as animated by the strategic goal of securing political rule and defeating insurgents. All of that is a sideshow, because the actual story here has nothing do with political rule; the contest is and always has been Sith vs. Jedi, which is more of a theological contest despite what misguided strategic analysts who don’t respect the conditional autonomy of constitutive ideas might think about it.

So, let’s review a little basic Star Wars history (and I am going to give the grade-school textbook version here, not the C-canon version). Once upon a time there were Sith engaged in an epic battle with Jedi, but the Jedi prevailed, set up their Temple on Coruscant, and proceeded to be the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy for a thousand generations, including their cooperation with the Old Republic. The Jedi order is based on the notion that the Force has two aspects, the Dark and the Light, and that only the Light has merit: they are, pretty directly, Manichaean dualists. Meanwhile the Sith bided their time, adopting the Rule Of Two — always two there are, a master and an apprentice, no more, no less — and managed to survive in the shadows, waiting. Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, after killing his master Darth Plageous, becomes basically the single most powerful Sith Lord ever, with a command of the Dark Side of the Force to make anyone quail in terror. But even this isn’t enough against an entire galaxy that thinks of the Jedi Order as a good thing, so he launches a cunning plan to utterly destroy the Jedi by corrupting the Jedi Order (getting them involved in the Clone Wars as generals) and then turning the galaxy against them (declaring them traitors, blaming the war on them) and then killing off most of them (issuing Order 66, Vader’s rampage in the Temple). Vader then proceeds to hunt down and destroy the rest of the Jedi that he can find, and only misses Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda because they go into deep-cover hiding and lie very low for almost two decades.

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5 Biggest Strategic Errors of the Emperor: a Contribution to the ‘Battle of Hoth’ Debate

You can’t win a counter-insurgency with a military like this


The Duck has gotten into an excellent debate with Ackerman on the Empire’s blown opportunity to stamp out the Space Vietcong Rebellion at Hoth. Westmoreland spent 5 years trying to nail down the VC in set-piece battles where US firepower could be brought decisively to bear and end the war. Here was the Emperor’s similar chance, but Vader and Admiral Ozzel blew it (mostly because the Empire’s officer corps was filled with grandstanding self-promoters, as Ackerman rightly points out).

But as the respondents noted, the larger context does a better job explaining why the Empire’s massive advantages seem to fail again (Yavin 4, Hoth, Bespin, Endor), beyond just the poor tactical leadership at Hoth. The larger strategic context is counterinsurgency, and obviously the Emperor spent too much time cackling in the Senate to watch The Battle of Algiers. So here are the five big structural problems in the background:

1. Trusting the Bloated, Showboating Navy to do Counterinsurgency

Navies are big, blunt instruments with hugely expensive platforms vulnerable to swarming, as at Yavin and Endor, and useful for large, ‘target-rich’ enemies. They scream national vanity, and they’re terrible for hunting rebels. Why does the Empire need a massive, and massively expensive, fleet after the Clone Wars? Probably because the army was staffed by mentally-hamstrung clones who couldn’t push their bureaucratic interest, while the navy had lots of fully human, showboating egos like Tarkin’s Death Star council.

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The Force is strong with this one

Episode I: Spencer Ackerman over at  Danger Room posts this analysis of the Battle of Hoth.

Episode II: 90 e-mails and twelve hours later, this symposium goes up on the Danger Room website including a contribution by our own Dan Nexon. Unfortunately, not all of us involved in the furious e-mail thread made the cut or the deadline, so not all of our replies were posted. Which brings us to:

Episode III: my piece, sadly not included in the Danger Room symposium. Below the fold.

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Was Charli a Victim of ISA Ultimate?

 I cannot say for sure, the last we saw of her was running deep towards the endzone looking for a long throw.  We are left with a mystery–what happened to the Friday nerd blogging?  Thus, I must leap into the fray (since I was the one with the disk looking to throw deep) with this:


Stuff Political Scientists Like #14 — Fantasy Role-Playing, or Game Theory

Political scientists like fantasy role-playing games. But this does not mean they are simple nerds. They like a particularly elegant and sophisticated escapism called game theory. While it might seem obscure and overly complicated at first, you can grasp game theory and impress your political scientist friends with a very simple insight — game theory is just like Dungeons & Dragons.

Like Dungeons & Dragons, game theory players embark upon imaginary adventures in which they interact with others in situations never before seen in the real world. The game theorist operates as the dungeon master, setting up a stylized environment in which players cooperate and compete over some prize such as being elected, winning a missile crisis, or maintaining a fixed exchange rate system. He, always he, sets up the game tree or matrix that describes the actions that are possible at different moments in the adventure or campaign and gives them their powers like the ability to veto or escalate. The outcomes are based on probabilities, although game theorists do not use dodecahedron dice. And like Dungeons & Dragons, the outcome is of no consequence for understanding the actual world around us.

Game theorists believe that active use of imagination clarifies complex situations and concepts. They point out that simple games like Chicken, the Prisoner’s Dilemma or the Battle of the Sexes are apt metaphors that help us understand any number of strategic interactions in the real world. It is unclear how game theorists came about the inspiration for those games, as no game theorist has ever talked to a girl, much less been forced to choose between a romantic beach or mountain holiday. Their interactions with the opposite sex generally revolve around Japanese anime. And they aren’t exactly James Dean or hardened felons either.

Bargaining must have broken down due to incentives to dissemble. Dragons do indeed have a hard time making credible commitments as they make the offense dominant.

Game theory is sometimes called formal modeling, which is an unfortunate term, as no game theorist has ever worn a tuxedo, ever. They are generally pleased to find some sweatpants at the bottom of the laundry basket without a stain. And game theorists avoid having their picture taken when possible because… well, there is the sweatpants, for one.

It is not known whether a successful career in game theory is correlated with prior experience as a dungeon master although there are clear signs that this might be the case. Game theorists and D&D players both spend considerable time in windowless rooms. And both try to avoid any contact with genuine empirical data, whether it be books or the reality that there are no sexy witches in the real world.

However, there are clear differences as well. Game theorists make considerable sums of money while most D&D players, even adult ones, still live in their parents’ basement. And game theorists have clearly lost all sense of mystery. Their players are all colorless automotons who cannot talk to each without fearing that the other is lying, much less fly. They are, however, remarkably capable of making precise estimates of probability which is kind of like magic.

It is possible that game theorists are fantasy enthusiasts who no longer possess an inner child’s sense of wonder. This is perhaps due to the crushing experience of interacting with other game theorists on a regular basis.Contrary to longstanding rumors, however, game theorists are not Satanists. It is all just good clean fun. Indeed their preferred environment, a godless dystopia of egoistic utility maximizers, suggests that they are much more likely to be atheists. It is also not possible to harm a game theorist with silver, although they do suffer great pain when their on-line access to the American Political Science Review is cut off.


Friday Anti-Nerd Blogging: Downton Abbey Jumps the Shark

In a previous post, I puzzled about the popularity of Downton Abbey. It is (was?) a very well-done show, but no different, I thought at the time, than the standard PBS Masterpiece Theater that generally attracts very little viewership.

One of the responses was that Downton was a soap opera dressed up as costume drama. I didn’t see it at the time. Downton seemed to hit all the usual British period piece points – the problem of the heir, the declining fortunes of the aristocracy in the modern age. But that comment was prescient. Downton Abbey revealed this week that it is actually a soap opera and I am questioning its justification in my DVR queue.

Roman I and Marlena

I watched Days of Our Lives for five years, beginning when I was laid up with mono for a month during the summer after seventh grade. Soap operas have two main plot devices – people coming back from the dead and miraculous medical recoveries. Both of them allow the writers to continually throw in dramatic turns of plot to keep people watching. Someone dies, people move on to other loves or fortunes, then the dead return to screw everything up. And you can put people in a wheelchair or a coma, wait for others to move on, then wake them up or cure their polio for the same effect.

Case in point: Roman and Marlena. The latter, played by the beautiful Deidre Hall was happily married to Roman Brady. He (left the show in a contract dispute) “died.” Then they recast him with a guy who looked completely different, Drake Hogestyn. Rather than just gloss over the obvious difference in appearance, they brought him back as the mysterious “John Black” with amnesia. He slowly recovers his memory, realizes he is Roman Brady, convinces Marlena, and they live happily ever after. His face had been surgically altered by the evil nemesis Stefano. Until the writers get bored and bring back the old Roman. It turns out the new Roman had those memories artificially implanted by Stefano. There had never been any plastic surgery. Marlena leaves John Black for old Roman, only to then have an affair with John Black later. I hated, hated, hated old Roman.

Roman II and Marlena

If this sounds utterly ridiculous (the plot, not the fact that I watched a soap opera for five years, which I will grant you, is indeed totally ridiculous), Downton Abbey this week brought back an heir from the dead AND hinted not subtly at Matthew’s recovery from what was described as medically irremediable paralysis. But if you have love, everything is possible! The old heir, Patrick, presumed dead in the Titanic, was in fact rescued but suffered from amnesia. He was brought to Canada, starting saying ‘hoser’ a lot, then sent off to war. At the same time his face was horribly disfigured, he recovered his memory but can’t prove his fanciful story because of said face.

So the writers of Downton Abbey, rather than mining the WWI for its innumerable themes and potential plot points, have dispensed of those five years in five episodes. Tell me the difference between Days of Our Lives and Downton. Like sands in the hourglass………


Zombie Theory of Foreign Policy

We have gone almost a month without talking about zombies, and you all must be in need of a fix. Instead of thinking how various theories of international relations might expect us to cope with a zombie epidemic, I thought it might be fun to think about how leading public figures – elected officials, pundits, etc. – might respond to a zombie attack. This is in keeping with my general belief that we would see many different responses by individuals in the same structural circumstances, that foreign policy is more important than international relations.

Incidentally, I just want you to know that you can Google anyone with ‘zombie’ in front of their name and find an image. What is wrong with you people?

Michelle Bachmann: This Martian invasion will not be tolerated.

Momar Qaddafi : Can you help a brother out?

John Boehner: My sundried skin will not be tasty to them, I am immune. Later, b*tches.

Nancy Pelosi : Be not afraid, I am one of you.

George W. Bush: Zombies hate America for our freedom, to use our brains.

Rick Perry: I urge everyone to spend the day fasting and praying to God to save us from this zombie scourge. This is exactly why I take my gun with me when I jog.

Al Gore: This is yet another sign of the terrible effects of global warming.

Mitt Romney: Do they take checks? I mean, have they heard the good news about Jesus Christ?

Ron Paul: I might make an exception on military spending for this.

Dick Cheney: You are not going to make a big deal about waterboarding these guys, right? Can we at least agree that zombies do not qualify under the Geneva Conventions or are you going to bust my balls on this one too, Amnesty?

Barack Obama: I reject the false choice between the security that comes with eradicating all zombies and our values.

Glenn Beck: Is Woodrow Wilson one of them, because I’d like a shot at that mother*cker.

Sarah Palin: I am uniquely positioned to deal with the zombie threat. In Alaska I can see the graveyard from my house.

Hillary Clinton: It is important for us to understand underlying structural causes of zombies, like poor access to water and development.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn : OK, I can’t get bitten by one, but can I still have sex with one?

Bill Clinton: I had the same question as DSK.

Bank of America: We know how you feel.

Anne Coulter: Zombies are Liberals.

John McCain: It is absolutely unacceptable that zombies are receiving healthcare when they are no longer legal citizens of this country. Or alive.

Hosni Mubarak: This would have been better for me a few months ago. I could have used a little rallying around the flag.

Benjamin Netanyahu: We have some lovely new accommodations we would like to show you just outside Jerusalem.

Dan Drezner: OK, now I’m going to buy a Benz.

Let’s make this interactive. Can you think of some others? Please reply below.


Friday Anti-Nerd Blogging


I am concerned that readers of the Duck are getting the wrong impression about the contributors to the site. I for one was never a nerd. Anyone who knows me will know of my athletic prowess, having piloted my high school football team to the state championship in my freshman year. This academic thing was my back up after I blew out my knee my junior year. Standing at 6’5″ with a rocket for an arm, I was a certain top draft pick.

All of this talk of video games, fantasy and science fiction distracts us from two much more important, non-nerdy things — sports and costume drama. (Yes, I was a thespian as well. When you meet me at conferences, ask me about my Hamlet. I am a regular renaissance man.)

Like for instance, did you know that the geniuses at ESPN have put together a new quarterback ranking that accounts for the contributions made by the fleet-footedness of quarterbacks as well as their clutch play. And what do we think about the Chad Ochocinco signing by New England. Can Chad be a team player finally? Didn’t they learn their lesson with Randy Moss? And did you know that it sucks that to be Peyton Manning’s backup? Really! They don’t let you play. The LA Times reports.

In other non-nerdy news, I am eagerly anticipating The Night Watch, the new BBC adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel set during the Second World War. There is a fascinating piece by production designer Martin Boddinson about how he converted the sets for Lark Rise to Candleford for the interiors in The Night Watch – a real challenge given the very different periods of the two dramas! Yeah, nerds. There were times when not everyone had their own teleporter. They didn’t even have phones or electricity. And you couldn’t marry anyone from another class. They had to have money, and women couldn’t inherit their father’s wealth. History is terribly interesting!

Go back to your books, nerds. I’ll be out playing flag football. With my shirt off showing off my guns. And then I’ll return to my tastefully appointed historic home and have a long bath in my clawfoot tub. Who needs the future?


Harry Potter, Social Misfits, and the Popular Crowd

Amanda Marcotte (via Zack Beauchamp):

“Harry isn’t a nerd,” I said, “Harry is a jock.” I mean, Harry has an existential crisis that gives him some depth, but social outcast and/or geek he’s not. The opposite, in fact.

I realized then that the “band of misfits” theme has so much power over the American imagination (maybe not the British, which could explain Rowling’s choices) that people just sort of shove Harry and his friends into that mold, and then rely on a handful of rationalizations for it—Harry wears glasses, Hermione is a bookworm, Ron is a redhead—in order for that theory to make sense. We’re used to the X-Men or Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Scooby Gang, so much so that we don’t see that Harry’s trajectory is the inverse of Buffy’s. Buffy is a former cheerleader whose magic powers actually make her a geek and an outcast. Harry is a nobody-special who finds out that he’s special, and becomes not just the star athlete and hero of his school, but an actual celebrity. Sure, there’s ups and downs, but his trajectory is away from being the outcast and towards being the homecoming king.

E.D. Kain provides a more nuanced analysis:

Well…almost. Potter may be a chip off the old block, but he’s not an arrogant bully like his father was. Likewise, Potter may not be an outcast himself but he attracts outcasts. Hagrid, Neville, Luna Lovegood, Dobby – these are all social outcasts attracted to Potter because he gladly welcomes social outcasts into his circle, and because he identifies with them in spite of his own celebrity (or perhaps because of it).

Marcotte uses the Snape/Potter animas as an example of the nerd/jock tension, but I don’t think that holds out either. That mutual hatred was born before Harry was a twinkle in his father’s eye. Snape hates the part of Harry that is a reflection of James. If Snape and Harry were classmates, instead of Snape and James Potter, it’s quite likely things would have gone differently between them.

Nevertheless, I agree with Marcotte’s larger point. Harry is no social outcast himself, even if he doesn’t really recognize his own popularity or use it to gain advantage over others. He’s not your typical pop-culture jock either, or your typical hero. His greatness has been largely thrust upon him. More importantly, his success is almost always thanks to the help of his friends. It is his loyalty and his friendship that defines him and bulwarks him against his enemies, not his role as a jock or an outcast. He is Frodo-like in this regard, doomed to failure without the faithful Sam to carry his burden for him.

I want to expand on this a bit further: Rowling consistently pushes the theme that our choices, not our “natures,” define us. Social environment matters a great deal, but can also be overcome by the decisions we make. What Snape cannot recognize is that Harry is a counterfactual James (and even James, despite his character flaws, chooses the right side). Harry grows up bullied, marginalized, and abused. Rather than adopting–as so many would under his circumstances–the role of bully and abuser, he develops a profound sense of compassion and humility. Recall that what shocks Harry so much about seeing Snape’s past (during Occlumency lessons) is that it echoes his own torment at the hands of Dudley.

Indeed, Harry repeatedly rejects the opportunities afforded him by his new-found fame, wealth, and athletic prowess. Consider the first two choices he makes in The Philosopher’s Stone: to turn down Malfoy’s offer of friendship and the chance to be in Slytherin house. Griffindor may be for the brave of heart, but that group includes Ron and Neville; neither of whom seem, at first brush, preordained for courageous feats. In this respect, he’s closer to Buffy than Marcotte recognizes: Buffy also (in the Pilot) aligns herself with the outcasts and nerds.

I think, in another important respect, Marcotte gets it wrong: Slytherin is not the “nerd house,” but that of those willing to let nothing stand in the way of greatness. Snape is a nerd and an outcast, but that’s not why he is in Slytherin. After all, Luna is sorted into Ravenclaw. Hermione is a Gryffindor. Let’s not forget that until magical dentistry and her appearance at the ball, Hermione suffers constant ridicule for her mousy appearance and nerdy disposition. My memory may be off here, but although Hermione emerges from adolescence as a rather attractive girl, she’s never presented as stunningly beautiful. In other words, we should avoid conflating the Hermione of the books with Emma Watson.

My central point is not that Harry Potter is a nerd, but that he is a misfit–by choice. Harry does complicate Marcotte’s distinctions, as Kain notes. But perhaps Marcotte, not popular culture, is responsible for drawing such stark alternatives? After all, the X-Men, contra Marcotte, had popular, rich, and attractive members in their shifting ranks.


Friday Nerd Blogging: Late to the Party (Part the Second)

We saw HPatDHpt2 (as the young’ns are calling it) this evening. It was quite good: action-packed, emotionally satisfying, and all that. We sat next to a group of hipster teenagers who were extremely psyched throughout the whole thing–they clapped, they cheered, and were very upset when my daughter interjected commentary (“That’s a lot of Death Eaters!”). This provided an important reminder of how a whole generation of kids grew up with — or, more accurately, aged along with — the Harry Potter novels. Anyway, I may be doing a review for a “real” online outlet this weekend; I’ll post a link if it comes together.

But that’s not the subject of this post. I discovered web comics relatively recently; although that makes me very late to the party, I still want to point to two superlative sf/fantasy publications available online.

First, Girl Genius. While my wife was out of the country last year, I stayed up all night reading the adventures of Agatha Heterodyne and her (ever-increasing) cast of supporting characters. Produced out of the gleefully demented minds of Phil and Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius has won numerous accolades — in this case, well-deserved ones.

Agatha lives in a “steam punk” world, but that dubious quality doesn’t overwhelm the comic. Instead, it provides a whimsical  backdrop for wacky adventures in the mold of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fantastic adventures –albeit updated in sensibility, particularly in terms of gender roles.

In Girl Genius, “sparks” — super-genius mad scientists — are in the driver’s seat of world events. At its start, a powerful spark exerts hegemony over Europea from his “city” of dirigibles and other aircraft. His position comes as much as anything else from a power vacuum left by the departure of the Heterodyne brothers — members of a long line of “sparks” who turned from villainy to heroism, but then disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The plot becomes more convoluted every few weeks, so that’s as far as I’ll attempt to explain it. The key points: Girl Genius is more than a page-turning yarn, it is often downright hilarious. I snorted a caffeinated beverage during a certain sequence involving a coffee machine.

Second, Gunnerkrigg Court. This gem is even harder to describe than Girl Genius. A female-centric Harry Potter on acid? Maybe. Antimony (Annie) Carver arrives at the mysterious Gunnerkrigg Court. Within a few panels, she befriends a sentient shadow and builds a robot. Then the series gets weirder. Annie’s mother is dead, her father has disappeared. She becomes best friends with Katja Donlan, a scientific genius (she makes a gravity-field generator out of a thermos and coat hangers). Katja’s parents not only teach at the school, but also were schoolmates with Annie’s father and mother.

Gunnerkirgg Court’s author, Tom Siddell, pilfers liberally from Native American and European folklore, Egyptian mythology, and just about any other source you might imagine. The drawings are deceptively simple, evocative, and sometimes a joy to behold. Despite my — and particularly my wife’s — concern that some of the subject matter is inappropriate (which it is), Lyra loves it so much that she’s stolen my print version, makes me read it aloud, and reads it to herself day and night. I console myself with the fact that Gunnerkrigg Court is full of powerful, competent, and resourceful female characters. And that Siddell does a wonderful job alternating between melancholy, a little bit scary, and hilarity.

Gunnerkrigg court is also the recipient of a number of completely justified awards.

So, if you’re like me and have been missing out, go read. If you prefer print versions, there are bound collections of the comic, as well as a novel. Same goes, as I’ve already implied, for Gunnerkrigg Court, although only the first volume is currently available (at least for a reasonable price).


Friday Nerd Blogging: Continuing the Tradition (Part the First)

When I was in graduate school I tried my hand at writing speculative fiction (SF) and fantasy. I even hung out on usenet groups and joined an online writing circle. I flatter myself that, with enough work, I might have improved the quality of my scribblings from “crappy” to “passable.”

It turns out that I chose the wrong career. It isn’t just in the social sciences that atrocious writing, wooden characters, and unimaginative plot lines present no barrier to awards and honors!

As David Moles writes:

Last month [i.e., two months ago] the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gave a Nebula award to a piece that contained no science worth speaking of. There was very little fiction in it either, if fiction is the narrative of imagination; whatever images might have been in its author’s mind, what made it onto the page was determinedly unimaginative, and less narrated than vaguely gestured at. It put forward no fantasy, unless the fantasy that the world is an uncomplicated place populated chiefly by straw men and contrived examples is a fantasy. What writing was in it was mostly bad.

Moles isn’t kidding. Eric James Stones’ “The Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made” is just plain awful. But it has inspired some truly entertaining critical discussion. Check out Martin Lewis’ review. Also of interest: Abigail Nussbaum’s commentary on the Hugo short-story nominees.

What’s wrong with “Leviathan” isn’t just that it’s badly written and that all its characters seem to have been created either to spout talking points (the titular Leviathan just happens to say something that echoes the book of Job) or act as straw men (the anthropologist who, against her better judgment, ends up helping the narrator, and along the way lobs softballs at him and acts like a stereotype of a disdainful atheist; interestingly, the one good point she makes–pointing out that the only reason the Mormon swales care that they’re being raped is that their new religion has taught them to view sex as a sin–is completely ignored by both the narrator and the story). Worse than these is the fact that it’s not a story so much as a thought experiment that posits a situation in which none of the negative associations of Christian missionary work are applicable….

Nussbaum is certainly correct on this last point, but I think it would be a shame to the let political objections get in the way of the story’s utter lack of aesthetic merit.

Nevertheless, Nussbaum makes some other interesting ponts about replacing advanced aliens for humans.

It is a little like the way that creators of war movies have been gravitating towards the alien invasion premise (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, the upcoming Falling Skies) as a way of getting around the fact that it’s no longer acceptable to use the Russians or the Chinese as faceless hordes of evil invaders, or the way that the creators of Avatar tell the utterly familiar story of a white man who not only saves the Native Americans but is better at being Native American than actual Native Americans, but insist that they’re not being racist because the story is set on another planet and among aliens.

This all bears a family resemblance, I might add, to the status of Orcs as fit targets of genocidal eradication in The Lord of the Rings, an issue that Peter Jackson cleverly obfuscated by turning the Orcs into broadsword-wielding proto-industrial national socialists, intent on committing genocide against humankind.

Nussbaum’s post is worth reading in full. In part, it makes clear the thickly intertextual quality of speculative fiction and fantasy–and of its “involved” community. This aspect of the genres carries with it significant costs. It creates high barriers to entry. For example, I am more than a casual consumer, but I find the complexity of knowledge required for serious analysis simply overwhelming. It also place far too high a premium on originality.

Genre fiction is defined, more than anything else, by audience expectations. The best work, it seems to me, meets those expectations while also entertaining, prodding the intellect, and evoking emotion. One way to accomplish those goals, of course, involves playing with audience expectations. But there’s a lot to be said for the artistic merits of a well-crafted pop tune. Perhaps more attention to those sorts of merits would discourage the production, as well as the granting of awards to, pretentious and didactic garbage.

(For more bad SF cover art, see Flavorwire)


Friday Nerd Blogging

And so on.* H/T WinterisComingBitch. Scott Meslow ponders the human security implications of Ned’s choices.

*Oh, the pedagogical possibilities! Does Ned Stark represent constructivism? Or does he represent the mocking realist riposte to constructivists as naive fools? Or only a mockery of that riposte? (For readers not yet following Game of Thrones on HBO, this. For viewers who wish more depth on the Starks, this. To those viewers who’ve also already read the books, please no series spoilers in comments.)


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