Category Archives: sf

Rogue One

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Before Rogue One, I had resigned myself to the reality that a new Star Wars film isn’t going to rock my world quite like it did in 1977.  How could any new entry possibly match that experience? Star Wars certainly wouldn’t have become the global phenomenon it is without having some thematic heft and adult appeal, but it has always aimed to pluck the heartstrings of youth.  To say that Star Wars transformed my youthful dreams and angst into a two hour symphony of pure cinematic magic which moved me to the core of my being at that time in my life is an understatement. Though my story is hardly unique in the vast universe of SW fandom, my love affair with the original series was indeed profound and deep.  When Luke stares into Tatooine’s twin sunset and the music swells to a crescendo, the yearning for something greater was palpable. When Luke tells Obi-Wan that he wants to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, I felt that shit. Anyone who doesn’t understand that these scenes all by themselves formed the core of Star Wars’ primal and transcendent appeal doesn’t really get Star Wars in the first place. Sure, the lightsaber duels, battles and starships were awesome, but at a very basic level, Luke’s quest was my quest. This seemingly effortless fusion of the universal and the personal was the truly great feat of cinematic sorcery that George Lucas conjured.

I’m never going to be that kid again, but that kid in me simply hoped that the new gatekeepers of the SW legacy are going to remember that for all of the cinematic and visual effect innovations that have been the hallmarks of the series, what really made these films tick is that they gave you characters in which you wanted to believe. Star Wars gave you friendships and bonds in which you were deeply invested.  It gave you characters whose motivations and foibles were sufficiently fleshed out that when the chips were down, you knew that each character was putting himself to the test and that made the ultimate triumphs all the more satisfying.

While the prequels failed miserably in this task, The Force Awakens also suffered from similar deficiencies in character development. It was enjoyable enough, but every character was paper thin. There was no real backstory to the characters and subsequently, no dramatic arc. These problems were only compounded by the stink of SJW agenda fulfillment permeating every frameFrom the could-be-gay bromance of Finn and Poe to the cartoonish emotional instability (translation: toxic masculinity/male fragility) of Kylo Ren to the impossible Mary Sue-like competence of Rey, The Force Awakens had the unmistakable aura of a PC feminist/SJW checklist.

Despite this string of disappointments, I still came to Rogue One with genuine optimism.  I didn’t care that Jyn Erso was very likely going to be another outrageous female power fantasy designed to flatter the egos of feminists and bolster a now deeply clichéd Girl Power/inverted stereotype hero narrative. I didn’t care that writers Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta were pandering to the SJW, multi-culti, Fight The Power progressive mindset when they tweeted out some moronic nonsense about the Empire being a “white supremacist organization.” I didn’t care that Disney demanded reshoots after Gareth Edwards presented his first cut of the film. Just give me some characters in which to believe and cheer.  Give me a little bit of human drama to complement Gareth Edwards’ epic vision.  I wasn’t worried about the eye candy or the mayhem. I just wanted to care about the people involved.  I just wanted to have a small taste of that yearning to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force all over again, or in this case, root for the Rebel Alliance to dismantle the evil dominion of the Empire.  Surely, a new Star Wars film could deliver this modest goal to my adult self and I believed that Gareth Edwards was up to that task.

If this is also your new hope for Rogue One, I can firmly attest that this film is absolutely the droid you’re looking for. Rogue One is hands down the most successful Star Wars film since the Original Trilogy and the most genuinely satisfying Star Wars film I’ve seen since 1977. I still can’t believe how genuinely good this motherfucker is. It’s the Star Wars film you didn’t know you wanted, but now that it’s here, you can’t live without it. It also succeeds in achieving a goal that eluded The Force Awakens by referencing the original series and mythology while presenting something completely contemporary and fresh.

Rogue One is the story of a team of rebels who manage to abscond with the plans of the Death Star which find their way back into the hands of the Rebel Alliance and Princess Leia. What’s remarkable is how effectively the film builds a compelling story around what amounts to a couple sentences of opening crawl in Episode IV.  Since there’s no real Jedi quest, the film is able to be a full on war/espionage story set in the SW universe at the height of tensions between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. It comes across like a lighter version of The Dirty Dozen with a post-Battlestar Galactica grit to it and to my great astonishment, it’s a mix that works brilliantly.  I believe it marks a distinct tonal shift away from the pop space opera vibe of the other canonical films, but this choice has given the series the new lease on life that has eluded every other post-OT installment.  It is indeed a war film and it packs a visceral punch that is unmatched in the series.

I was concerned about the character development in this film since this has been the great Achilles Heel of every new installment in the series up to this point. While you don’t necessarily know a whole lot about any one of them, you learn enough to be invested.  As Jyn Erso, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I believed in Felicity Jones’ transformation into a rebel leader and her bond with both her father Galen and the militant Rebel who raised her, Saw Gerrera. The scenes between her and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso are genuinely sweet and give the film the emotional core that made the original films sing. Once again, we’re presented with a SW protagonist who had been snatched away from her birth parents and raised by a surrogate who happened to be a radical extremist within the Rebel Alliance.  Subsequently, it’s not impossible to believe that she would be proficient with firearms and have the mental and physical fortitude necessary for combat.  The Strong Womyn archetype who’s smarter and stronger than her male counterparts has become very commonplace in action and SF films for many years, and I was concerned that we were going to be given another variation on Rey. Thankfully, everything about Jyn’s development and the proficiency she exhibits was consistent with what we were presented.  Although when it came to Jyn’s tepid attempt at channeling Henry V, I have to agree with CNET’s Ashlee Clark Thompson that it invoked “Girl, I guess so” more than it summoned the spine of steel one would need to face certain death at the hands of the Empire.

The remaining characters were surprisingly compelling despite how little we actually knew about them.  Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor draws you in through his confessions of the losses he faced at the hands of the Empire as well as the moral compromises he’s made in service of the Alliance. Nothing is really known about the origin of the friendship between Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, but their affection for one another is never in doubt and when they meet their tragic end, it has more emotional weight than expected. Bodhi Rook’s defection from the Empire roughly mirrors Finn’s from TFA, but is remarkably more interesting and believable because unlike Finn, he was merely a pilot for the Empire and one could imagine him being persuaded to the cause of the Alliance by Galen Erso.  The big standout of the film is actually Alan Tudyk’s voice characterization of Imperial droid, K-2SO. He brings some welcome comic counterpoint to the film’s grim tone and his lines are genuinely laugh out loud funny.

On the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn brings a sufficiently nasty sneering menace to his role as Director Orson Krennic.  And yes, Rogue One marks the welcome return of the greatest Sith of them all and one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, Lord Vader. Vader’s appearance in the film is limited to two excellent scenes, and only serve to remind you that neither Kylo Ren or young, tortured Anakin has managed to scale the heights of sheer Dark Side terror that Vader can summon in one line of dialogue or just by entering a room.

Perhaps being unshackled by the weight of the Skywalker mythology really freed up some creative energies, but Gareth Edwards deserves a vigorous round of applause for the feat of world building he has pulled off here.  The film is filled with both new and old worlds that have that grimy, used future vibe of the OT as well as numerous classic vehicles and images.  Mostly, Gareth Edwards managed to convey a sense of scale that even surpasses Lucas’ original vision at certain times.  The Empire has never seemed more massive and imposing on screen as it does in Rogue One. The data storage facility at Scarif is what you’d imagine Qatar to be like had it been developed by the Empire.  Jedha and Jedha City are equally impressive with obvious connections to Arabic citadels and architecture. Edwards even gives us Vader’s palace at Mustafar as a dark monument to the disfigurement he suffered at the hands of his former Jedi mentor.

My biggest gripe with Rogue One is the facile message and the refusal to confront the inherently political content at its center in an honest and meaningful way. The entire message of the film can be summed up as Be Hopeful, Listen and Believe (especially if it’s a womyn), and Down with the Space Nazis. Sure, it’s a Disney property now, it’s unrealistic of me to expect them to make anyone think too hard and Lucas’ message was arguably just as superficial, but when Disney’s Bob Iger says there are “no political statements” in Rogue One, I’m calling bullshit.  Of course Star Wars is political!  It’s about fucking WAR fer chrissakes, people!  It’s about the struggle of liberty versus tyranny. There is nothing more inherently political than war or armed revolution. War is the business of the nation state. Revolutions organize themselves around a political philosophy. The Rebel Alliance were the just remnants of the Old Republic who want to preserve peace and justice by restoring “democracy”.  The films never spell out exactly what the Alliance’s political ideals or principles are beyond “democracy” or “hope”, but the Rebels do aspire to reclaim the seat of power in their own right.  Presumably, they’re just going to be better at it than the Empire.

The politics of Star Wars have long been a subject of debate throughout the geekosphere, but I suggest that’s because people want to be able to connect it more immediately into the world of the present and their own political worldview. Disney and Lucas undoubtedly tried to keep the political content as neutral as possible so that one could view the films though one’s own ideological lens, but it still leaves me wanting a bit more. The film presents a very easily digestible Manichean dichotomy: Rebels are Good and Imperials are Bad.  This simplistic dualism doesn’t allow you to wrap your mind around which mechanisms of political policy the Empire exploited or the propaganda they deployed in order to accumulate such massive centralized political power in the first place. Edwards’ world contained mountains of untapped thematic potential.  If there was an Imperial Labor Camp on Wobani, it stands to reason that this is where dissidents and thought criminals were sent, and subsequently, it was a missed opportunity to introduce the propagandists for the Alliance.  Furthermore, there had to be segments of the galaxy that were pro-Empire and totally pro-Death Star. It was fundamentally a government program and by extension, a boon for lots of industrial interests throughout the galaxy.

Unfortunately, the political content doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you inspect it closely, and more often than not, reaffirms a lot of dopey leftist clichés.  How did the Confederacy of Indepent Systems, essentially the UKIP of the Republic, get to be the bad guys simply for embracing secession and opposing the excessive taxation and bureaucratic palsy of the Republic? That sounds pretty American and like the real rebels to me. And why is the Galactic Empire called a fascist regime?  They weren’t promoting a racially pure ethno-state nor could they promote a unitary galactic identity.  If anything, they were Space Communists, not Nazis.

As good as it is, I can’t help but wonder what Gareth Edwards presented to Disney executives initially.  It’s a little ironic that a film franchise that cashes in on a sentiment of rebellion is ultimately subordinate to the aesthetic mandates of its corporate, Imperial overlords.

But don’t let any of this hyper-analysis deter you if you have even the slightest misgivings.  Rogue One is the best thing to happen to the franchise since Luke Skywalker first brandished a lightsaber.  Who knows if it is a harbinger of Episode VIII or if it remains a solitary bright light in a dying franchise?  Regardless, Gareth Edwards has given us something that all of us OT OG’s have long awaited: a Star Wars film that’s actually fucking good. Enjoy it while it’s here. 

Independence Day: Resurgence

If you garnered any enjoyment from the first Independence Day or if you’re in the mood for a state of the art alien invasion film with some really enjoyable performances, you could do a lot worse than Resurgence.  The film succeeds because it gives you exactly what it promises: a band of heroes who join together to save human civilization from another extraterrestrial threat of extermination. Of course, the threat is twice as bad as before.  

The story picks up 20 years after the events of the first film and rejoins us with most of the original characters. Several young characters are added to the mix in order to fill the void left by the absence of Will Smith. All of the countries have banded together to rebuild civilization after being nearly vaporized by aliens the first time around. Thanks to harvested alien technology, the United States have built a global super state with a futuristic, alien-grade military defense apparatus that extends from the earth to the moon.  

This film has been described in various reviews as an appeal to nationalism and patriotism, but it’s more than that. It’s really War of the Worlds repurposed as a multicultural, globalist fantasy and a Keynesian wet dream. This film is yet another variation on the gleaming, futuristic, techno-utopia fantasy that can be achieved through abject servitude to the State and by building a culture of cradle to grave militarism. The previous alien invasion may have nearly wiped out civilization, but it provided the ultimate opportunity to enact the biggest economic stimulus ever! It’s quite literally Paul Krugman’s prescription for economic prosperity writ large.  


Familial bonds are largely non-existent for the younger characters, but when they are introduced, they exist mostly within the hierarchy of the State. Vivica Fox returns as Jasmine Hiller who is both mother of Jessie Usher’s Dylan Hiller and some kind of high ranking government official.  She lasts long enough to convey maternal pride in her top gun military progeny and die a tragic death amidst the alien devastation.
The technology is so advanced, that one can only imagine that the Platonist social engineers were finally given free reign to build a society of super soldiers whose only devotion is to the State. Naturally, it’s a multicultural paradise with total gender equality.  Every race and culture gets along harmoniously, the women are every bit as capable as the men in every pursuit, and when the chips are down, humanity joins hands to fend off extinction one more time. Even the African communist militants seem like really cool guys. 

But enough of all this analysis.  What about the UFOs and worldwide demolition? Independence Day made its mark by giving us massive alien ships with devastating weapons, and just as one would hope, Resurgence doubles down on the massiveness.  The film wants to overwhelm you with its scale, and it more than delivers. The alien mothership is so big, it plants itself on the surface of the earth like a giant hubcap.  

When it comes to defeating the aliens, the film settles for yet another variation on what has become a completely shopworn cliché: destroy the leader and the minions lose their agency.  Sadly, the human alliance doesn’t differ from the aliens in this respect.  All of the forces rally and are emboldened to fight upon hearing President Whitmore’s grizzled but rousing call to arms.  

Though I doubt it was the filmmakers’ intention, I propose that this film was also a stealth commentary on modern feminism. Everyone will undoubtedly find it so empowering and progressive that Sela Ward plays the current president and gives the command to initiate the attack on the alien vessel, but that’s a side show. The alien civilization is essentially a matriarchy that resembles a highly advanced insect colony with a queen who controls and directs the worker soldiers. Once the queen is killed, all the subordinate aliens lose their will to fight. If an advanced civilization capable of enormous and highly coordinated feats of starship construction, weapons systems development, and intergalactic invasion and occupation is ruled by a woman and all of the subordinate workers are so emasculated that they’re forced to dedicate the entirety of their existence to a never-ending pursuit of intergalactic conquest, that doesn’t speak too highly of life under matriarchy.  

Ultimately, the film is supremely entertaining. It knows that its first job is to be a rousing blockbuster alien invasion movie and it succeeds wildly at this task. But every major Hollywood film exists to transmit progressive editorial of one form or another, and Independence Day: Resurgence is certainly no exception. 

Harrison Bergeron


If you were to compile a list of works of speculative fiction whose predictions of the future were truly prescient, it would have to include Kurt Vonnegut’s short story masterpiece, Harrison BergeronI am hard pressed to think of any work which so perfectly captures the pathological mentality of the modern day social justice warrior so perfectly and traces out the ramifications of this mentality if it were made into public policy. Sadly, it’s a process which seems well underway.  
Vonnegut manages to build his dystopian world in one elegant paragraph: 

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

With this single paragraph, he places us in a nightmare future where the crusade for equality of outcomes has been pursued to its fullest conclusion. In this not-too-distant future, the US Constitution contains over 200 amendments, people have lost the distinction between positive and negative rights, and perverted its original intent beyond all recognition. The ideas of equality before the law, individual rights and equality of opportunity preserved by a Constitutionally limited State have been completely supplanted by an all-consuming obsession with equal results which can only be attained by destroying uniqueness, individualism and humanity itself. Equality is, of course, enforced by a government bureaucrat, United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. Anyone who possesses a quality, attribute or skill that might set him or her apart from everyone else must be handicapped in order to preserve equality of outcomes. The intelligent receive a mental implant which short circuits their ability to think. The attractive are forced to hide their beauty behind masks. The physically able are forced to carry sacks of lead balls padlocked to their bodies. Those with beautiful voices are given speech impediments. And so on. 

The action centers around George and Hazel Bergeron as they watch their son, Harrison, commit the highest act of sedition possible after escaping prison at age fourteen.  Harrison sheds his handicaps and dazzles the world by dancing a ballet on live television before the world. 

One need only to look at any of the social justice jihads being carried out on campuses and in the media to discover that Vonnegut was on to something.  The decades-long feminist outrage against “patriarchal beauty standards” has culminated in the so-called “body positivity” movement which not only destroys the one objective standard present in modeling, but seemingly seeks to reprogram manhood to be attracted to overweight women. The politics of grievance have reached an apex with the never-ending quest to name and shame anyone with “privilege”. Genetic and biological traits now supersede individual rights or merit and are sufficient grounds for legislative redress or special administrative dispensation by today’s social justice jihadists. Perhaps the most pernicious of all the social justice crusades is the pursuit of gender neutrality by those who insist that gender segregation in sports somehow reinforces “harmful” gender stereotypes.  And let’s not forget the deathless claim of a wage gap between men and women which is shamelessly flogged by the political and media establishment despite being debunked several times over. 

Meanwhile, different versions of the United States Handicapper General get created in college campuses and different levels of federal and local government throughout the country. 

What other outcome is possible from this mad pursuit of “equality” if not the anesthetized, institutionalized mediocrity and servitude portrayed in Harrison Bergeron?  As Paul Gottfried and many others have argued, this therapeutic agenda being administered by the democratic priesthood and their lackeys seeks nothing more than to debilitate the population and pave the path to socialist serfdom.  The only equality one can reasonably expect to uphold as an ideal is equality of opportunity. Once you seek equality of results, you destroy the foundation of liberty upon which any possibility for real achievement rests. Speculative fiction of this nature is meant to serve as a warning against the realities of the present. The signs of the nightmare world Vonnegut portrayed are everywhere. Here’s to everyone discovering their own inner Harrison. 

The Philosophy of Star Trek


This is one of the best and most comprehensive overviews of the philosophy of Star Trek I’ve encountered. Absolutely worth your time if this subject interests you. 

Hardcore Henry



Hardcore Henry is one of those films that will immediately polarize the filmgoing audience. You already know whether or not this film is for you. The filmmakers knew exactly who they were appealing to when they made it, and it delivers in spades. It is nothing short of a tour de force and will likely be viewed as a benchmark against which future efforts of its kind will be measured. Conversely, it’s also the kind of film that is reviled and pilloried by easily offended triggerkin.  It’s unrepentantly ultraviolent, it promotes gender dimorphism, has lots of sexy chicks, and it’s filmed in the style of the first person shooter video game. In other words, the very kind of game that has drawn the ire of PC scolds and Puritans like Jonathan McIntosh and Anita Sarkeesian.  

Hardcore Henry has a plot, but it mostly serves to set up the scenes of expertly choreographed mayhem and the requisite showdown between the hero and the villain. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with this approach. The filmmakers know what they’re selling and the plot, however meager and arbitrary it seems, is more than sufficient. The characters with which we’re presented are so colorful, it more than makes up for the wild leaps of the story. This is especially true of Sharlto Copley’s masterful turn in his many different iterations of Jimmy. Mr. Copley even called this film the most challenging of his acting career.

In the beginning of the film, Henry is awakened by Estelle (Haley Bennett) in a laboratory to discover he’s lost his arm, leg and voice.  He’s asked to remain calm while his cybernetic arm and leg are attached. Henry has no memory of his past self, but Estelle tries to remind him that they were formerly married. While awaiting a download for his vocal software, the laboratory is infiltrated by mercs.  The main bad guy, Akan, shows up, wreaks havoc with his telekinetic power, kills the lab technician and threatens to make an army of cyborgs using the technology implanted in Henry’s body.  Estelle and Henry manage to escape from what is apparently a laboratory dirigible, but land on a freeway only to have to fight off another set of goons who attempt to apprehend them. From there, the film basically steps on the accelerator pedal and simply does not let up.  

The action scenes are relentless, but exhilarating because they are just so physical and dangerous. This is one of those movies where you realize that the individuals who shot these performances are just made of different stuff than the rest of us.  Perhaps slightly unhinged. There is an outrageous car/motorcycle chase (see link pasted above), a death defying parkour chase through the streets of Moscow, more gun fights than perhaps any other film I’ve ever seen, and some of the most insane hand to hand combat since The Raid.  

Another big plus is that it was made by Russians and filmed in Moscow. The individuals they hired to play some of mercs and goons looked every bit like they were straight out of the FSB and carried an above average aura of menace.  Perhaps I’m overstating, but the brothel full of scantily clad women is the kind of scene that rarely attempted by the increasingly PC mainstream Hollywood film. 

Hardcore Henry is a film that’s high on its own adrenaline rush.  The filmmakers know that you’re there to see next level action filmmaking and they’re more than happy to oblige.  Like The Green InfernoI was delighted that they simply did not give a single fuck about appeasing any PC sensibilities.  The film gleefully revels in its refusal to kowtow to the phony standards and diktats of would-be moralists, feminist killjoys, Bechdel testers, multiculturalists and racism cops. It’s not deep and has no redeeming social message, but it’s a fast, relentless shit ton of decadent fun. And sometimes, that can be a pretty bold statement all by itself. 

Escape from New York

Escape from New York is a longtime personal favorite and, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever. I’m both amazed and gratified by how durable the editorial remains.

For example: 

  1. The police state is indistinguishable from the military.
  2. The police kill with impunity.
  3. The president is a narcissistic figurehead who is relying on a pre-recorded speech on which world peace presumably depends.
  4. The hero is ex-military and now a convicted felon and is the person best suited to infiltrate a prison and mete out the brutality necessary to fulfill the rescue.
  5. The cops have all the best weapons. Everyone assumes automatically that Snake’s possession of firearms means that he’s working for the government.
  6. Snake is carrying out the rescue mission not voluntarily, but because his life is being threatened.  
  7. The hierarchy of violent goons in the prison is indistinguishable from the hierarchy of violent goons guarding the prison. 

And perhaps most importantly, when Snake asks the president how he feels about all the individuals who gave their lives to rescue his, he mutters some half-hearted bullshit about how the “nation appreciates their sacrifice”.

Absolutely essential.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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After a riding a tsunami of hype that rivals its predecessors and geysers of gushing praise from media and fans alike, how does the Star Wars franchise fare in the hands of its new heir for this particular Star Wars OG?

It’s good. But JJ Abrams is no Jedi.

Yes, yes, yes. It erases the stink of the prequels, but the film still misses the same opportunities and suffers many of the same mistakes as the prequels.

The film succeeds mostly by restoring the overall tone and spirit of the original series, and provides just enough visual invention and drama to keep the ball rolling. But just barely.

Yes, it’s great to see Han, Chewie, Leia, C-3P0, R2-D2, and when he finally arrives, Luke. Yes, the dialogue is snappy and humorous at times. Yes, there are some great battle sequences. Yes, BB-8 is adorable. Yes, it’s got a little of that old Star Wars feeling.

But I can’t help but think that not only does it feel like too much of a rehash, it falls short on character and story development and fails to add anything truly new to the franchise. Star Wars may go down in history as a popcorn special effects spectacle, but it doesn’t get enough credit for being a successful human drama. Just as Lucas dropped this ball in the prequels, Abrams is also guilty of under writing his new heroes and half-assing the political drama in which he inserts us.

Even for a Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is asking us to make too many leaps of imagination.  There are way too many gaping holes in the story of each of the new characters for me to feel truly invested in them.

This error is most egregious and plainly evident in the new heroine, Rey. Rey is the new Luke and her story mirrors his almost exactly, but is infinitely more implausible.  With Luke, Lucas took time to introduce us to him. He’s an orphan, but he has a stable home life and parental guidance thanks to his aunt and uncle. He has responsibilities and his technical expertise can be explained by his upbringing and the skills he had to acquire by working on the farm. He has aspirations to be a pilot and the piloting skills he exhibits later in the film can be explained by the social life he had with his friends on Tatooine.

Rey, on the other hand, has none of these things. She lives completely alone. She has no guidance, no support and was presumably abandoned early in life and forced to survive in a hostile desert environment with limited access to food and water. Yet not only does she have fully developed language and social skills and is in stunningly good health, she has advanced fighting, piloting, and technical skills. And we’re to believe she acquired these simply by being a scavenger.

Luke spends an entire goddamn film training on a shithole planet with Yoda riding his ass just to learn enough discipline to even use a lightsaber.  When he finally faces Vader, it’s dramatic because you knew what Luke had to overcome within himself and even then, he almost gets himself killed. Rey goes through no comparable journey of emotional or skill development. She’s good at everything and acquired these skills without work, guidance or emotional growth.

Give me a fucking break, Abrams. This is not a plausible character.  This is the Strong Female Character taken to a cartoonish extreme. Rey is definitely a Mary Sue, and even if feminists are pleased, the film suffers because of it. Suck it in and cope, feminists.

On a related note, it’s weird that feminists consider Rey feminist in any way. There’s nothing even remotely feminist about Rey. Rey uses firearms.  Feminists oppose gun ownership. Rey is accomplished at combat. Feminists demand protection from the state.  Rey has skills even if they’re implausibly acquired. Feminists demand preferential treatment simply for being female.  Feminists lecture people about gender pronouns, police what people say and are general killjoys and scolds. Rey is blessedly free of these annoying tendencies.

Finn suffers from a similar deficit of dramatic development.  Finn was presumably conscripted by the First Order as a youth, trained to kill without remorse, but we’re asked to accept his moment of awakened conscience immediately.  He suffers no PTSD or adverse effects on his social skills.  Star Wars is popcorn entertainment, but it’s still a war movie. The film could have raised the dramatic stakes by injecting just a little of this reality into it.

The same goes for Poe Dameron. I don’t know anything about him other than he’s the best pilot in the Resistance. I simply don’t know enough about him to feel truly invested in him.  Adam Driver has an enormous task filling the spiritual and psychological void of Vader as new Sith on the block, Kylo Ren, and I’m not sure if the character or his acting skills are up to the task.

Abrams also stumbles by shortchanging the political drama.  For all of the flaws of the prequels (and they are numerous), Lucas gave us a pretty clear political backdrop and intended the series as a Fall of the Roman Empire style allegory.  It was clumsily handled, but Lucas definitely wanted to show how a democratic republic devolves into a totalitarian dictatorship.  Nick Gillespie of Reason persuasively argued that the prequels mirrored the demise of the political ideals of the Boomers.

The Force Awakens inserts us into a divided galaxy 30 years after Jedi and a pretty resounding defeat of the Empire.  The second Death Star was destroyed. The Emperor and Vader were dead.  There was certainly ample opportunity for the believers of democracy to reclaim the seat of government power and restore “peace and justice”.

And yet…

The First Order have reasserted iron fisted dominion and are somehow able to amass significant military might in a remarkably short span of time. The Starkiller Base is several times the size and power of the previous Death Stars and The First Order manage to get it built in 30 years despite getting their asses kicked twice by the Rebellion.  They haven’t learned too much from their past mistakes, apparently.

Listen, guys. Military power of the kind to which you’re accustomed can only be amassed through taxation and budget deficits made possible by central bank monetary inflation. You’re not going to get too far by nuking every goddamn planet in the system, assholes. Chill out a little.

We accept that the Resistance are Good and the First Order are Bad, but Abrams missed another opportunity by failing to spell out in greater detail where the moral fault lines lay and the political principles for which the Resistance fought.

Other missed opportunities included Carrie Fisher’s meager reprisal of Leia as well as Gwendoline Christie’s throwaway role as Phasma.  Both of these women were supposedly high ranking military officials and yet, we see very little military style leadership from either.

Overall, it’s about as good as I could have hoped.  Not a complete catastrophe, but still short of the ingredients that made the original soar: mythic human drama and invention.

Abrams certainly hasn’t tarnished the legacy, but he hasn’t advanced it in a meaningful way either. It made me smile and I appreciated the love and reverence he brought to the enterprise. He was given the difficult task of reviving a beloved franchise while giving it a new lease on life. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect too much innovation from either Abrams or Disney. The Force might be awake, but I’m not yet convinced that the Force is strong in Disney’s hands.

The Dispossessed

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Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel is an admirable work. I really wanted to like it. It mines some rich veins of philosophical thought including individualism versus collectivism, gender equality, the difference between intellectual property and ideas as well as the moral and ethical dilemmas of a speculative anarchist society.  Unfortunately, the novel is ultimately derailed by some fallacious notions and stale, toxic ideas couched in a pretense of edgy progressivism. Sadly, despite Le Guin’s recognition of the insularity, scarcity and conformity bred by the allegedly revolutionary values she espouses, she doubles down and limps to the conclusion waving the flag of communist ideals in a cloud of unearned triumphalism.

The Dispossessed tells the story of a physicist named Shevek from the anarchist world of Anarres. Shevek develops a groundbreaking theory which has the potential to unite humanity throughout the universe. Though the Anarrestri profess revolutionary values, they are unreceptive to his work. He sets out to the sister world of Urras, the civilization from which the Anarrestri fled, in hopes of bridging the divide between the two societies.

Le Guin makes a courageous attempt at tackling the questions of morality and ethics in the absence of state or religious institutions, but she ultimately succumbs to some really dumb and deeply clichéd antipathy towards market economics and property rights and, by extension, their inextricable link to human freedom. She is apparently on record crediting the blatherings of post-Marxist anarcho-collectivist wankers, Peter Kropotkin and Murray Bookchin, as the philosophical underpinnings of this book. The anarchist society of Anarres is essentially her conception of anarcho-syndicalism.  In other words, a society in which there is no private property and no system of prices, competition or currency; everything is “shared” and used for the “common good”, all economic activity is centrally coordinated by bureaucratic “syndics” and the division of labor is determined by computers. Subsequently, her philosophical commentary bears some unfortunate remnants of Marx, Rousseau and even the poisonous proto-fascist drivel of Georges Sorel.  Coupled with the gender politics editorial, Le Guin’s Anarres is probably best described as a fantastical vision of a world envisioned by feminists, social justice warriors, utopian eco-socialists and anarcho-communists.

To her credit, she addresses the limitations of the collectivist worldview in this novel which puts her work in philosophical proximity to another notable female writer who tackled very similar themes but arrived at very different conclusions.  Contrary to her professed disdain for Ayn Rand, the themes of this novel are very similar to those contained in The Fountainhead  and the two books share more than a few similarities. Each book presents a brilliant male protagonist who seeks to contribute his unique talent to society and each is called upon to adhere to principle in the face of demands from authority or perceived authority. Le Guin appears to take direct aim at Randian ideas of “egoism” and “altruism” at various points in the book, but when she does, she ultimately misrepresents both.

Le Guin is widely lauded for tackling gender and sexual politics in her work, but I personally found this aspect of the novel the most grating. All of the editorial around gender carried the sanctimonious stink of contemporary feminism.  Her perverse obsession with equality of outcomes can be traced to an obvious refusal to accept biological differences and individual choices within the paradigm of market economics as well as a blatant scorn towards those who hold religious beliefs. She holds people of faith in contempt for promulgating a sexist and patriarchal belief in the inherent superiority of men over women. While it may have been a transgressive argument in its day, and I absolutely concede that most religious faiths do affirm the traditional role of male breadwinner and female caregiver, this line of argument also feels tiresome.  If she were referring specifically to the manner in which Islamic societies rigidly enforce a subordinate role for women, it might have more bite, but I’m doubtful that was her intent.  It’s particularly dubious hearing this petty nonsense from an author in the Western world who has the freedom to be an atheist, to compete in the marketplace, to claim property rights and has achieved fame and notoriety for the merit of her creative work within the context of a free market.

She wastes no time carving out the contours of her main character and the central ideas of the book. The opening passages describe the wall which cordons off the spaceport of Anarres from the rest of the planet. Right away, Le Guin is telling us that this is a story of walls; walls that stand between societies, genders, and ideologies.

As a character, Shevek is kind of dull. Just as modern writers pander to feminists by writing female characters which are divorced from any conventional femininity, Shevek is the result of Le Guin doing the same thing in reverse. Shevek is arguably Le Guin’s beta analogue to Rand’s alpha Roark. He’s sensitive, a vegan, lives a monk-like life of the mind and holds womyn in reverence.  Since her editorial point of view is so rife with dumb and confused ideas, it’s difficult to view him as a heroic archetype of any set of virtuous attributes.

The first chapter is devoted to Shevek’s arrival on Urras.  Shevek struggles to understand the customs and culture of the Urrastri and cannot fathom a world that holds religious beliefs, has state institutions and operates under a market economy. The framework for a dramatic clash of ideas and individuals is elegantly constructed.  The reader is guided through Shevek’s quest as events alternate between Anarres and Urras in each subsequent chapter.

After this exposition, Le Guin takes us back to Anarres and Shevek’s childhood in order to flesh out the cornerstones of his development in relation to the values he acquired in his own culture.  Here, and in every other subsequent chapter, Le Guin’s muddy logic and dubious editorial comes into sharper focus.

Groan inducing commentary abounds in The Dispossessed, but Le Guin’s disdain for property rights is highest on the list. True to the authoritarian and quasi religious nature of all collectivist political thought, Shevek’s indoctrination to Odonian values begins at childhood. As most children are wont to do, young Shevek is naturally inclined to view possessions as his property. He is hastily scolded for entertaining this notion by his caretaker. Yes, we get it, Ursula. You think property rights are infantile and the source of human sin just like Rousseau. That’s so very progressive and original. Throughout the remainder of the book the words “profiteer” and “propertarian” are used as pejoratives and her disdain for capitalistic property ownership is expressed very clearly through Shevek during his tenure on Urras.

Le Guin equates the ownership of property all by itself as an expression of power; an idea that’s tired and nonsensical in equal measures. She attributes Shevek’s sense of unease on Urras to his perception that a society which affirms property rights is one of “mutual aggression” as opposed to the feeling of “mutual cooperation” that is the guiding principle of the self-abnegating hippies on Anarres.  It’s more than a little ironic that Le Guin venerates this alleged utopia devoid of private property and denigrates the statist aggression of Urras, but in real life, she’s more than happy to advocate for state aggression to enforce copyright law.

This moral confusion and sophistry extends further with respect to acts of actual aggression. Le Guin gets the fundamentals of the argument for anarchism right, but at the same time, she fails to present a coherent Odonian theory of morality with respect to the initiation of force. This also happens to be the one area where, even if inadvertently, she veers a little too closely to Sorellian applications of revolutionary violence. In a conversation with an Urrastri woman named Vea, he explains that Odonians are striving for actual morality by abolishing institutional power. That way, Odonians are free to choose morality instead of having it forced upon them by their alleged betters.  So far, so good. However, when Shevek is beaten up arbitrarily as a teenager, he accepts it as a “gift”.  This suggests a lack of appreciation of the inviolability of negative rights and perhaps illuminates her apparent inability to distinguish the state monopoly on the application of force versus private and voluntary exchange.  At the same time, she engages in some typical moralistic handwringing over the usage of defensive force to protect property.  Since she’s already established the ownership of property as an expression of power and a moral wrong, then anyone who uses force to defend against theft or violent expropriation is possessing “power no one should have”.  Make up your goddamn mind, Ursula.

The Odonian credo of self-sacrifice is equally moronic and cringeworthy and also tips the scale towards a Sorellian notion of “myth”.  For Odonians, the experience of “shared pain” is the principle, if it can even be called one, that binds Anarrestri to one another and to which they must consistently subordinate themselves. It bears more than a passing resemblance to a religious article of faith or any of the collectivist fantasies promulgated by politicians than anything approaching a rational principle.

The one idea which truly torpedoes her book is the centrally planned nature of the Anarrestri economy. Admittedly, she concedes a bureaucratization of Odonian life, but her failure to recognize the inherently preposterous nature of the idea cannot be overlooked. For a SF novel, The Dispossessed is remarkably short of speculative science or any fantastical leaps of imagination. Aside from Shevek’s theory, the DivLab computer is actually one of the wildest speculations in the whole book and Le Guin spends no time discussing it or how Odonians developed such a thing in the first place. Odonians live a life of self-imposed poverty and austerity and yet a really sophisticated computer determines how labor resources will be allocated without any real regard for the individual, purposeful human action which gives rise to supply, demand, or drives skill specialization. Not only is it wildly preposterous that Odonians could develop such a sophisticated piece of technology, the remainder of society is utterly devoid of any other comparably sophisticated technology or any other labor saving machinery. Her description of Shevek’s feelings of “brotherhood, adventurousness, and hope” while waiting to receive instructions during the Anarres famine sounds like dumb, nationalistic propaganda. For all of the realism she brings to every other aspect of the book, Le Guin apparently spent no time examining why central planning was a failure, and I can’t help but fault her for her intellectual blindness on this front.

Her actual grasp of physics and science is equally questionable. For all of Le Guin’s emphasis on the Odonian passion for and veneration of scientific knowledge as well as her usage of actual scientific theory as a basis for Shevek’s pursuits, she manages to smuggle in some dubious notions which sound like applications of scientific theory derived from feminist epistemology. Apparently, Shevek arrives at his big breakthrough because he was able to extend beyond pure scientific theory and include the realms of “philosophy and ethics”. Ursula, good science is philosophy, and is the product of sound ethics. For a woman so apparently keen on equal gender representation in STEM fields, she’s veering a little too close to Luce Irigaray territory with these notions. As a cheerleader for women in STEM, Le Guin is doing a great job, but as someone who earns a living telling stories built from scientific speculation, this is kind of laughable.

Le Guin also attempts to counter Randian ideas, but her conception of both “egoism” and “altruism” are both straw men.  By her reasoning, “egoism” can either be Shevek’s desire to assert his ideas in the face of ostracism or overtly public displays of sexual affection.  As a young child, Shevek is accused of “egoism” when he attempts to formulate his own ideas separate from the tightly controlled confines of the Anarres public school system.  To use contemporary parlance, Shevek would have been accused of using microaggressions.  Here, she suggests an upside to “egoism” which more or less maps to Rand’s conception, but she ends up diluting her editorial when describing Shevek’s revulsion at the “egoism” of an Urrastri couple getting hot and heavy in full view of a group of people.  Apparently, immodest displays of sexual attraction are on par with individual displays of independent thought.  Got it, Ursula.

Her notions of altruism are equally daft and run afoul of Rand’s actual position. Shevek and his friends conduct their own Stanford Prison Experiment on one another just to feel what’s it’s like both to deny freedom to another and to experience an absence of freedom.  When Shevek expresses concern for their captive friend, he is chided by his compatriot not to get “altruistic”.  Though Le Guin is clearly trying to highlight the monstrosity of imprisonment, she completely mischaracterizes Rand’s view of altruism. Rand consistently argued that altruism was a toxic and debilitating worldview because it ultimately fueled a pointless and narcissistic self-abnegation as well as a ceaseless desire to petition an authority to adjudicate the parameters of the alleged altruism.  To be fair, Le Guin’s usage of the term alternates between pejorative and complimentary and it’s difficult to tell where she ultimately stands.

The major intersection between Rand and Le Guin occurs in Shevek’s development of the Theory of Simultanaiety; the theory which would allow the development of an intergalactic internet. Not only does Le Guin use this to distinguish the importance of asserting individualism, but she uses it to make a worthwhile point about sharing ideas even if she misrepresents the nature of intellectual property in the process.  Just like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, Shevek risked ostracism and reproach from fellow Odonians in order to develop the idea. According to Le Guin, intellectual property belongs to the state, and subsequently, is just another form of dominion over others. This is partially true, but fundamentally false. Intellectual property is a monopoly right conferred by the state to the holder of the property claim. It confers state power to the holder of the right.  Ursula Le Guin would know. She’s a huge advocate for it.

Though her commentary on gender is rife with progressive clichés around “equality”, it is noteworthy that she anticipated the whole gender neutral/non-binary view of gender that’s all the rage nowadays. Unfortunately, her views hew very closely to the pretentious, confused postmodern ramblings of Judith Butler.  In the Odonian tongue, “brother” and “sister” share the same noun.  Odonians have sex with males and females as adolescents and there is no stigma associated with this activity.  She also anticipated the current trend of subverting gender stereotypes by casting females in roles traditionally perceived as male as well as the omnipresent push for women in STEM. However, like most contemporary feminists, Le Guin seems to dismiss equality of opportunity and focuses obsessively on equality of outcomes. She seems to relate to inequity of outcome as evidence of retrograde attitudes all by themselves and doesn’t seem to regard the gender imbalance in science as a product of natural choices or differences in skill levels.  While on Urras, Shevek expresses total surprise at the complete absence of women in science and naturally portrays the scientists of Urras as sexist oafs who are somehow keeping women subservient and subordinate.

She goes so far out of her way to create female heroes and invert every gendered convention, that it feels overly calculated and at times, suggests a subtle contempt for motherhood. In this respect, Le Guin’s thought seems to anticipate the broader trend in feminism which all too often reduces to a singleminded focus on terminating pregnancy and Orwellian attempts to erase any semblance of women as caregivers in art. In other words, it comes across like propaganda.  Naturally, Odo, the matriarch of the revolution was female and her teachings formed the foundation of Odonian society. What a coincidence. The foundations of a revolutionary anarchist matriarchy were written by a woman. How totally meta, Ursula. Shevek’s mother leaves his father when he was a baby to devote herself to her engineering career because her Duty to the People took priority over her own child. The physicist who inspired Shevek’s work was a woman, too. We don’t know anything about her except that she’s got a uterus and she had theories which weren’t taken seriously even in the matriarchal utopia of Anarres. Yes, we get it, Ursula.  Women just don’t get taken seriously in this capitalist patriarchy and motherhood and biology are no big deal.

Le Guin betrays a smug, repressive elitism towards women who flaunt their sexuality by wearing makeup or provocative clothing. It’s an attitude that’s sadly endemic to a significant segment of the contemporary feminist “movement”. Vea is portrayed as an attractive woman and yet for Odonians and Le Guin she’s a “body propertarian” whose humanity is absent simply because she’s provocatively dressed and made up.  Who’s the one objectifying and dehumanizing, Ursula? You or that evil patriarchy?

And what feminist novel would be complete without a scene of sexual assault?  Apparently, we just can’t talk about gender politics without some rape editorial. The assault scene between Vea and Shevek stands in sharp contrast to the scene between Howard Roark and Dominique Francon portrayed in The Fountainhead. Here, Le Guin betrays a pretty obviously low opinion of men’s capacity for self-control.  Once Shevek gets a little bit to drink and is in the presence of a woman who’s made up and wearing sexy clothes, he is seemingly unable to stop himself from committing assault despite his monk-like existence amongst the joyless, preachy pro-feminism communists of Anarres.

The Dispossessed is book that’s moderately engaging and asks the right philosophical questions, but mostly arrives at the wrong conclusions. In science fiction, I expect some flights of imagination, and in this respect, Le Guin borders on a sort of pedantic realism that feels slightly inappropriate for the genre. It’s almost as though she’s disconnected from the things that make science fiction fun and engaging. It’s burdened by a certain overly earnest preachiness and stoicism.  As a work of philosophy, it gets a few things right, but misses the mark more often than not. Kropotkin, Bookchin, and by extension, Le Guin were completely correct about state power. Unfortunately, she and her intellectual forebears were incorrect about property rights, market economics and the proper application of violent force.  I would be inclined to disregard all of the gender politics, but the collection of ideas presented are so prevalent nowadays, it demands a vigorous rebuttal. The stranglehold of Marxist and post-Marxist ideals remains as strong as ever. The eco-communist ideas of Murray Bookchin are even getting a second wind in the alleged “anarchist” feminist utopia of Rojava. Naturally, it was dutifully reported by the progressives at the New York Times. I hope Le Guin is happy that a real life version of Anarres is being attempted right before our eyes.

The argument for anarchism is the definitive argument of our times and Ursula Le Guin is to be commended for making an earnest contribution to this debate through science fiction. It’s too bad she’s on the wrong side of the argument.

Tomorrowland

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Despite being little more than a collection of clichés and preachy feelgood platitudes in a visually stunning cinematic wrapper, Tomorrowland gets a couple points for attempting to counter SF’s, and humanity’s, apparent fetish for visions of self-destruction and apocalyptic doom with a message of optimism and hope.

Tomorrowland tells the story of Frank and Casey, two dreamers bound by shared destiny to save humanity from itself and fulfill the promise of the utopian dream that was revealed to them in the titular city beyond the realm of time and space.  The filmmakers had lofty intentions, but the film’s message is so diffuse and its emotions and characters are so superficial, it ends up being another example of high spectacle that’s low on meaningful content. 

We meet young Frank Walker as he travels to the 1964 World’s Fair with his homemade jet pack in hand to present to judge David Nix.  Though he escapes scrutiny from a yet unformed Homeland Security surveillance apparatus despite carrying a suspicious bomb-like device, Nix is unmoved by his invention since it doesn’t work. Frank insists that it’s valuable because it will teach kids that “anything is possible”.  After this setback, we’re subjected to a highly implausible flashback of a hardass father who’s highly critical of his budding engineer son. You know.  You probably hear it all the time. “My goddamn kid and his fascination with SCIENCE!”

Right off the bat, the film is not only asking us to believe that his father (i.e. toxic masculinity, patriarchy, penis = bad) would disapprove and actively discourage his interest in science and engineering, but empathize with a hero who makes a device whose sole purpose is to inspire hope. And he showcases his creation at the very same World’s Fair which, besides the space program, also happened to showcase another notably hope filled vision of the future, The Great Society. Not because he’s passionate about science and building things. Not because it’s something that will be sold in the marketplace and used by the masses. Not because he wants to drive down the marginal cost, employ people and build a company.

No. The sole purpose of the device is to inspire hope.

Wow, Frank. That sounds remarkably like the thinking of a politician and not a capitalist. 

He is eventually joined by Casey; the daughter of a NASA engineer who dreams of traveling the stars herself. At the outset of the film, she’s arrested for sabotaging the demolition of a NASA launch site which employs her father. Though we’re meant to see this as evidence of Casey’s rebellious nature, her concern for her father’s welfare as well as her scientific and mechanical expertise, it’s also pretty sad that the film asks you to view the sabotage of equipment used to dismantle state property as evidence of a forward thinking, contrarian youth.

We are presented with scenes from Casey’s classes where she’s bombarded with pessimistic doomsayers. Naturally, her English teacher is teaching downer literature like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. On the one hand, it’s nice that Brad Bird is acknowledging that the public school establishment is inculcating cynicism and apathy, but he’s also feeding us another dumb and increasingly ubiquitous cliché; the plucky young female protagonist who wants to “fix it” and is totally into science.  It’s not like this character lines up with a political agenda or anything.  That’s right, folks. Public schools are crushing the optimism of our female youth and totally discouraging civic engagement.

Their lives intersect because Athena, a robot from Tomorrowland, recognized their scientific acumen and optimism and deemed them suitable candidates for admission to the city of the future.  A city where the most creative people could work without interference from politicians, bureaucracy, “greed” or other unnamed impediments.  Apparently, the revolutionary future that awaits us requires abandonment of the profit motive just as Comrade Marx taught us.

Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland and lives a life of seclusion surrounded by an astonishing quantity of technology. He has pulled a Hari Seldon and apparently calculated the destruction of civilization with mechanical precision. Frank sees that Casey’s optimism alters the inevitability of civilization’s demise and they set out to change the future.

This “anything is possible” line is basically the central theme of the film, and it is simultaneously the film’s weakness and strength. It’s great that Brad Bird wanted to offer a hopeful vision for humanity, but the film never really tries to define the action and behavior that contribute to such widespread cynicism and apathy nor does it clearly define virtuous action.  It asks you simply to accept that hope and optimism are sufficient all by themselves.

In a climactic scene between Nix, Frank and Casey, they are shown a fantastical machine which broadcasts tachyons from humanity’s presumably inevitable future doom. Once again, we’re presented with another shopworn cliché in cinematic SF; a doomsday device which can only be dismantled by our protagonists.  The bit about the tachyons is a neat speculation that apparently has some actual foundation in particle physics, but the overall idea is pretty tiresome. 

Upon making this realization, Nix delivers the following monologue which reveals the meat of what the film is attempting to address.

Nix: Let’s imagine… if you glimpsed the future, you were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information? You would go to the politicians, captains of industry? And how would you convince them? Data? Facts? Good luck! The only facts they won’t challenge are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars rolling in. But what if… what if there was a way of skipping the middle man and putting the critical news directly into everyone’s head? The probability of wide-spread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it, to scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they’ve ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse. How do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate eclair! They didn’t fear their demise, they re-packaged it. It could be enjoyed as video-games, as TV shows, books, movies, the entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinting towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile your earth was crumbling all around you. You’ve got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation. Explain that one! Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won’t take the hint! In every moment there’s the possibility of a better future, but you people won’t believe it. And because you won’t believe it you won’t do what is necessary to make it a reality. They dwell on this terrible future and you resign yourselves to it for one reason, because that future doesn’t ask anything of you today. So yes, we saw the iceberg and warned the Titanic. But you all just steered for it anyway full steam ahead. Why? Because you want to sink! You gave up! It’s not the monitor’s fault, that’s yours.

While this monologue is great because it criticizes the fetish for nihilism and asks individuals to take responsibility for their own apathy, it’s also remarkably half-assed, timid and tilted towards the alleged evils of consumer culture and almost completely devoid of any meaningful criticism of the actions of the state. The film never really makes a firm commitment on what constitutes virtuous action or what constitutes morality. The main impression with which I was left was that government scientists are the optimists and dreamers and the study of science all by itself will edify humanity.  Never mind that the government is spying on you, turning faraway countries into smoking craters, contributing to a culture of corruption, incarcerating people by the millions, killing unarmed citizens and seizing property.

Apparently, none of these things are worth mentioning.  But that English teacher who assigned 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 is creating too much damn pessimism. God forbid anyone question the actions of the government. 

In the final scene, we get a montage of new recruits for Tomorrowland.  Naturally, it’s a rainbow of multiculturalism and gender equality. Part of me thinks it’s great that Hollywood is so committed to creating new role models and presenting such an “inclusive” vision of the future, but lately, the crusade for social equality in every media form has become tedious, predictable, hamfisted and positively irritating.

I have come to expect big Hollywood films to glorify the state and its subsidiary social agendas of climate change, multiculturalism and feminism and this was certainly no exception.  Despite the flaws, there’s an attempt at a noble message beneath the shallow platitudes and candy coated veneer.  Unfortunately, I think this film will end up “feeding the wrong wolf” as Casey would say.

Starship Troopers

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Heinlein’s 1959 novel holds up reasonably well as work of military SF, but despite Heinlein’s vaunted reputation as a liberty oriented philosopher, this book’s message about a society that allegedly maximizes liberty and moral virtue through voluntary military service is deeply flawed and rife with mixed messages. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that there’s very little about this book that’s truly libertarian.

The book tells the story of Johnnie Rico, an upper middle-class kid who chooses military service over an opportunity to work the family business. Despite his father’s protests, he opts to enlist in the military to fulfill the sense of duty that was imparted to him by his professor of History and Moral Philosophy, Mr. Dubois.  Through a first person point of view, we follow Johnnie’s evolution from his lessons in Moral Philosophy to the punishing ordeal of basic training to his subsequent service on the front lines of The Great Bug War.

As many others have written, it’s difficult to view a world which places military service as a prerequisite for voting as one which would ultimately maximize individual liberty and moral virtue. Between the sanction of corporal punishment and the elevation of servitude to law celebrated as the cornerstones of an allegedly civilized society, the world of Starship Troopers can only be viewed as a deeply sadistic and fascistic society. Paul Verhoeven may have been criticized for omitting many of Heinlein’s philosophical musings in his 1997 cinematic adaptation, but if anything, he just took the book to its logical conclusion.

Philosophically, there are many places where the book goes off the rails.

The book’s most chilling theme is the full throated endorsement of corporal punishment. Given Heinlein’s apparent earnestness in crafting a liberty oriented editorial, this aspect alone is completely contrary to any serious argument for liberty.  It’s undoubtedly a product of Heinlein’s proximity to his own military service and perhaps his own childhood, but when one considers Heinlein’s keen intellect and obvious affinity for human freedom, it’s strange that he would promote this line of thinking. It suggests an absence of faith in humanity to generate morality through non-violent, rational thought.

This theme is undoubtedly tied to his astonishing rejection of any concept of natural rights.  In a key exchange between Johnnie and Mr. Dubois, Heinlein openly denigrates the idea of natural rights.

He even extends this idea so far as to basically reject the idea of freedom of speech. Not only does he casually mention censorship of soldier’s mail during spaceflight, one particularly chilling scene describes a group of infantry getting tazed for having a debate which gets a little too heated.

At its core, the book is essentially attempting to endorse some form of militaristic minarchism, but it’s ultimately deeply nationalistic and collectivist.  Since he very clearly acknowledges state power as a monopoly on the usage of force, he sees those who serve in the military as best suited to use the power judiciously and subsequently, are the only people permitted to vote. While I’m willing to chalk this up to his residual feelings of goodwill towards his own service, it’s another odd artistic choice given the fact that he touches on the concept of economic freedom in the book. He extols the virtues of limited government and low taxation and does a nice little demolition job on the Marxist Labor Theory of Value, but ignores the extraordinary cost of maintaining an interstellar fighting force through compulsory taxation. It also strains the imagination that such a sophisticated military could be kept strictly voluntary without a very heavy handed propaganda campaign or without violent crackdowns when a majority of the population isn’t even voting. If anything, the inclusion of propaganda is one great improvements Paul Verhoeven made on this story when translating to cinema.

Heinlein’s outlook on gender is very egalitarian and, in this book at least, is the kind of treatment that one assumes that even feminists would cheer. He pushes the limits of imagination once again by presenting a military population that’s 40% female and mysteriously free of assault or harassment, but he balances it out with a surprising bit of insight about female pilots. He posits the idea of females as the best pilots of spacecraft; a speculation that was perhaps ahead of its time. Despite this potential bit of prescience, the number of women who presently serve as military pilots is nowhere what he portrays in the book.

When evaluated from the point of view of pure storytelling and SF militarism, it mostly succeeds at the former but falls short in the latter.  Sure, there were aliens, different planets and spacecraft which could traverse interstellar distances.  But the SF actually felt subordinate to the philosophical exposition and some rather turgid rhapsodizing over the dignity of military life and the intricacies of military hierarchy. The descriptions of Mobile Infantry battle armor were cool and helped ground the story in the future, but I was hoping for just a little bit more actual warfare. If you’re going to exalt the extraordinary bravery of the soldier, give me a little bit more action.

Shortcomings aside, this book is a worthwhile read and its controversial reputation is fully earned. The amount of satisfaction you get from it will depend largely through which lens you view it.