Saturday, 31 January 2009

Smug, Sleazy, And Wrong

So, originally, I had no intention on commenting on the spat between Jessica Alba and Bill O'Reilly. I mean, Alba was clearly right, and Sweden was neutral in WW2, but it's not like catching Bill-O spouting grotesque factual inaccuracies is particularly difficult, any more than it is finding examples of his thuggish bullying or ludicrous violations of basic logic. [1]

Then Jules Crittenden weighed in with a post that's wrong on several levels. Most involve the fact that his argument is transparently idiotic:
Might want to ask the Norwegians what they think about Swedish neutrality.
Why? Is an unpopular fact no longer true?
But let’s have some Swedes tell us about the neutrality they carefully maintained in difficult times as a result of policy decisions to seek a positive trade balance with another northern European nation, rather than engage in non-lucrative, potentially hazardous resistance operations.
Gosh, that sounds like they were neutral. Carefully so.
Great Britain, Australia and Canada chose to fight for others, at great cost.
This would only be relevant in an attempt to demonstrate Great Britain, Australia and Canada weren't neutral. To my knowledge, not even O'Reilly has attempted to make such an argument.
there is no such thing as neutrality when the fundamental sovereignty of peoples and civilization itself is at stake. Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, doesn’t matter. When the world is on fire, neutrality is the skirt under which selfish, cowardly nations hide.
Crittenden is claiming that anyone who doesn't follow one specific (and not widely recognised) definition of neutrality is "stupid"[2]. Actually, he isn't, since by his definition Switzerland wasn't neutral either and O'Reilly wrong too, but that apparently doesn't matter since it presents no opportunity to post pictures of an attractive woman in various states of undress. No, only Ms Alba must be schooled for her "mistake".

That's where we get to my other problem with his post. If Crittenden wants to argue the toss about the technical definition of neutrality during a global conflict, then he should by all means feel free to have at it. Calling people stupid for not following his particular definitions is ridiculously over-the-top, but that just makes him childish (in fairness he admits this in an update, though in pretty much the most juvenile way possible). What bothers me is that he combines his inconsistent, sloppily-composed arguments and his playground language with the suggestion that Alba should just stick to looking hot (all whilst accompanied by lascivious photographs). It's altogether too close to the standard sexist BS that a woman can't be simultaneously smart and sexy, and shouldn't even try. I'd be uneasy about the approach Crittenden took even if Alba had said something stupid (claiming Germany was neutral in WW2, for example), but given that her comment correlates with the vast majority of historical thinking, and the definition of "neutrality" as it is widely understood, the entire post seems to be based on attacking an attractive woman because she refused to be browbeaten by a powerful man.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I am compelled to admit that I too find Jessica Alba hot).

[1] I still can't decide whether to label the condition suffered by those who think situation X totally outrageous, morally bankrupt and worthy of significant punishment, but the slightest alteration makes it suddenly beyond any reproach. On the one hand, should it be "O'Reilly Syndrome" for lambasting Britney Spear's mother for "allowing" her teenage daughter to become pregnant and then going after those who made similar comments after Sarah Palin's teenage daughter became pregnant (difference: Sarah Palin "supervised" her daughter's dates)? On the other, perhaps "Ashcroft Syndrome" is a better name, after the latter flew into apoplectic rage at someone suggesting it is inconsistent to claim Americans water-boarding foreigners is an acceptable interrogation practice, but foreigners water-boarding Americans should be tried by international war crimes tribunals and sentenced to a decade of hard labour (difference: pouring water into the mouth rather than forcing it in).

Actually, on reflection, I might go for "Ashcroft Syndrome" purely because "O'Reilly Syndrome" would imply a total inability to understand the basics of rational thought and the habit of sending out TV crews to ambush those who point your stupidity out.

[2] Of course, within twelve lines he tells us that Sweden needs to do more to make up for having been neutral in WW2, so I guess he doesn't intend for us to put too much stock in his alternate definition.

Friday, 30 January 2009

Awesome, But Infuriating

Somebody's taken the time to put together a database of completion screens for various old games. Obviously, my favorites are for the Spectrum and the Mega Drive, but YMMV.

The Spectrum version is the more interesting, since I was but a tiny child when such technology was available, so I tended to suck at computer games (the insane, unfeeling bastard-hardness of so many of them hardly helped). The Mega Drive collection mainly pisses me off for reminding me that I only ever got as far as the penultimate screen in Might & Magic, even though I actually knew the password. Grumble grumble grumble.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

All-Star Republicans

Since I take no interest in DC (Vertigo aside), a long-term policy that seems more and more wise with every passing year, I don't have an opinion on All-Star Batman and Robin. All I know about it, really, is the (allegedly) defining quote of the entire masterpiece/fiasco/destruction of comics altogether that the book apparently represents: "...[A]re you dense? Are you goddamn retarded?... I'm the goddamn Batman!"

The only reason I mention this, really, is because now I can't help but think of the first half of that quote every single time someone does or says something overwhelmingly stupid. Today it was over the party-line vote for the stimulus package.

House Republicans: listen up. Obama spent significant time and energy (to say nothing of political capital) trying to make this bill more Republican friendly. If one of you, just one, had voted his way on this, then you'd be sending a message that you're open to negotiation. You could have ridden that one vote for months, gotten important concessions on far more controversial issues, by giving Obama hope that by doing so he could win bipartisan support. All it would have taken is for one of you to support a bill that was obviously going to pass anyway.

Instead you showed that you have no interest in compromise, and you've given Obama political cover to ignore you totally the next time around.

Are you dense? Are you goddamn retarded?

Update: Publius has a different take on this:

Frankly, I don’t think it was a completely irrational move considering the circumstances. The House Republicans’ long-term prospects ain’t good – they’re locked into a declining, southern-centric demographic base getting smaller by the year. Plus, it's not like voting for the stimulus will reverse these trends. If it works, Obama will probably get credit regardless of what the GOP does. Accordingly, the GOP decided to do something more drastic, and then hope for the best by hoping for the worst.

And it might work.... Maybe the economy will get even worse in 2 or 4 years. If so, the Republicans can stand up and say, “if only we had cut more taxes, if only we hadn’t wasted all this money…” And who knows? If the economy continues to tank, that might get some traction.

It's a fair point, I guess, though I'm not sure why this strategy required 100% rejection. I think the GOP could have afforded a concession of a vote or two and still made the case later on that they were against the stimulus package.

Publius' take does at least suggest there was strategic thinking behind the move, at least. It's just that said strategy is to trust entirely to luck and that that luck be bad for everyone in the country but them. Publius' analogy to a game of poker is a good one, and is made all the more interesting by the fact that under that analogy, the Republicans' are playing directly against the US as a whole.

In other words, by thinking the GOP has no grand plan at all at this point, I may actually have been too kind.

Commanding The Kingfisher (Part 3)

5th March

“Jesus, get us out of here!”
The two surface cannons fired again. Once more the massive shells detonated to the Kingfisher’s stern, but this time they were disturbingly close. The next shot would probably hit. And given the incredible size of those cannons, and the horrifying brisance of those shells, a probable hit would be followed by a certain kill.
“Ryugi, decrease speed by 3k.p.s., and increase port-speed by the same amount. We can’t let those cannons draw a bead.”
“Yessir, Commander!”
Jaime flicked a switch on his seat. “Gunnery-Sergeant; report status.”
“All guns spiked and rolling, sir. Anything with more than two legs is going to have a fuck of a hard time out here.”
“Excellent. Bridge out. Vinga?”
“Still no sign of enemy ‘ceptors, sir. Aint nothing big enough for them to hide behind out here, either.”
“Thank you.” Another switch toggled. “Duty navbot?”
“Yes, Commander.” The voice of PNR-47345 was strangely distorted through the comm, electronic through electronic, like watching a video on another video screen.
“Time to jump point?”
“Eighty-seven seconds.””And remaining calculation time?”
“Eighty-four seconds.”
Jaime flicked off the comm. “Hear that, Ryugi? We’ll be cutting it close.”
Ryugi grinned through the sweat running down his face. “Three seconds? Maybe I should try it blindfolded and give the ‘pedes a chance.”
Jaime had never commanded in battle before. It had never occurred to him how impotent the experience was. Give order. Receive report. Give order. Wonder how much longer they could stay alive. And even those first three had dried up now.
There was one thing he had left to do, though. One task he was both desperate and terrified to perform.
Another explosion from the cannon fire rocked the craft, but Jaime didn’t notice. He slowly reached out once again for the comm switch.
The comm-plate in sickbay chimed happily. A moment later the captain launched a spray of blood-tinged vomit across the room. The resulting impression might have seemed almost Pavlovian, but this was far from the first time this had happened.
Jessa sprinted back to her patient, only just avoiding slipping on the bile now coating much of the floor. The two rodent-sized cleaning robots were fighting a losing battle against the various bodily fluids on the floor, and in the meantime they simply made navigating the room even more difficult.
She found the captain in an even worse state than when she had left him fifteen seconds ago. Blood was dribbling from his mouth and nose, and his eyes kept threatening to roll back into his skull. For the moment his convulsions had paused, but they could easily return full-force, and they were too violent to even strap him down; he would dislocate every joint almost immediately. And of course they made any attempt at an IV futile, which rendered any necessary injections quite literally hit or miss. This time Jessa was able to administer a hit, for all the good it would do.
There was another chime from the comm.
“Sickbay!” she shouted over her shoulder, activating the plate.
“What took so long?” came Jaime’s voice, “What’s happening down there?”
“The captain’s slipping, Commander. I don’t know how much longer I can keep stabilizing him; the injections are having less and less effect.”
There was a momentary lull as the commander considered this. “What about the others.”
Jessa glanced at the nurses tending to her other two patients. One nurse nodded, the other slowly shook his head.
“Second Officer Summers will be fine. He escaped infection, and I’ve almost closed the wound. And we can bring her round in…” she inclined her head, and the nurse raised three fingers, “…Three hours.”
“As to Davis… I’m sorry Commander, there’s nothing we can do. He’s even further along than the captain. He’s not responding to the injections, and he’s skirting the edge of a coma. I can’t see him surviving to Gateway Kappa.”
Jessa felt the deck shift under her; another barrage from the R’Dokken Starport. It felt less bad than the others; Ryugi must be earning his pay up there. Even so, they couldn’t keep running indefinitely.
Jaime knew the same thing. “Let me know if there’s any change, and be advised of hop in eighteen seconds. Bridge out.”
Toggling switches on the array above her captain’s head, Jessa began a scan to ensure his HS-implants were still running. She didn’t like to think what effects a hop might have on her patient without any internal compensation.
The captain’s voice was soft and slow, but it was at least steady.
“I really wouldn’t advise you to talk, Captain,” said the physician, “The best thing you can do for yourself is rest.”
The captain smiled weakly at that, displaying the tips of his blood-flecked teeth.
“Where’s Keigh?” he asked, eyes fluttering.
“She’s with Hanna. I thought it would be better for her not to see all this.” Hanna Whitford was a Secondgrade Gunner, and Keigh’s unofficial babysitter, ever since the child had taken one of those inexplicable infant shines to her. Jessa had had a hell of a time prizing Keigh away from the gunner during their headlong flight from the Starport.
“I need…her…here.” Gabe gasped.
“It really isn’t a good idea, sir. Right now, this place could traumatise her permanently. If you want to speak to her, surely the comm-link-“
“No,” the captain hissed, through teeth gritted with pain, or perhaps anger. “She…has…to be here.”
“There’s no way it’s happening, Captain. Why are you so insistent, anyway?”
Gabe paused for a moment before replying. Whether he was gathering his strength, or attempting to gauge her reaction, she couldn’t say.
“Need… mind-dump.”
Jessa’s brain froze. So did her blood.
“Jesus, Gabe; you can’t be serious!”
“Has…to be done. And it can’t be… anyone else. Blood-” he coughed, “Blood relative.”
“Don’t lecture me on goddamn medicine, Gabe,” she snapped, too angry to worry about insubordination, “You know damn well the law on this; even if I was prepared to do it, which I’m bloody not!”
“Peace-time law.”
”We are at peace!”
”Maybe not for long.”
That got her attention.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I’m … not… fucking around, Jessa. I… have to get back… to Proxima. Tell them… what I know. Doesn’t… look like…my body’s coming too.”
“Then tell me, Gabe. For God’s sake, she’s just a child!”
“There isn’t any time!” said the captain, with new found vigour. Damn it, the injection had worn off already; another fit of retching could start any moment. “Of course she’s just a child! She’s also my fucking daughter, Doctor.” He broke off for a moment as a fresh bout of coughing shook his body. Blood leaked from the fingers of the hand he used to cover his mouth. “But my God, I have to get back with everything I’ve found. Otherwise, Davis and I have died for nothing, and we’re not going to be the only ones. Now go!”
Jessa shook her head sadly.
“I’ll get Hanna to bring Keigh down. It appears I have a lot of preparing to do.”

17th March

Harlan stepped out into the stars.
Jessa held her breath as she watched Flopsy’s lumbering bulk enter the monitor picture behind him. The still-wet patches of blood on its chassis evaporated in the void, leaving small trails of red mist in the machine’s wake.
The latest victim of the captain’s kangaroo court had been the Kingfisher’s head chef, a likable, if bumbling, woman named Carra. Now they would likely have no decent food, in addition to no showers and no beds. Jessa had been confused at first as to why Keigh had blocked off access to the crew quarters when she took power, but following their conversation with Geiss it seemed likely that there were simply no pressure sensors installed in there.
Jessa couldn’t shake the feeling that all of this was her fault. If she had found a way to save the captain, gotten to him sooner, tried something smarter; none of this would have happened. It was the only part of this horrible little drama that she had had any input into whatsoever, and she had screwed it up royally.
In truth, it had not been failing to the treat Gabe that had made this all her responsibility, it was what she had done to the child.
It had not taken long to realise that somewhere along the line the mind-dump had gone terribly wrong. Or maybe not, maybe this was exactly result they should have expected. Jessa had been unable to find a single case file of a child receiving someone else’s consciousness. There were two common reasons for the treatment. The first was euthanasia; people could sign documents stating that in the event of brain-death, they would allow their blank mind to be written over with someone else’s, giving those with terminal illnesses a second chance.
The other reason was punishment. Jessa could still remember watching the news report of the method’s inventor condemning its use in such a fashion. The interview had been followed by policemen proudly parading former quadriplegic Dayvid Harker, now in the body of multiple-murderer Samuel Craig. A local judge had been trotted out to talk about a new age of humane punishment, as though wrenching out a man’s mind was any less appalling for not taking his body alongside.
None of this applied to children, though. Their still-forming minds could not stand removal from their bodies, and imprinting them with other intellects. Children stood outside the regular methods of criminal punishment, even if one had committed crimes that qualified as sufficiently serious (Jessa could no longer make herself believe such a thing was impossible), and parents invariably refused to allow their brain-dead offspring to become hosts to invalid adults.
Quickly, then, so that parents could feel their children were safe, and by extension so that politicians could feel their votes were also safe, a law was passed banning the inclusion of a minor in the procedure.
From then on in, mind-dumping became increasingly rare. It had initially been hoped that the technology could be combined with a form of cloning, growing new bodies to specifications, and jumping from husk to husk every few decades. In theory it would be a form of immortality, but with a successful transfer rate of only 70% (perhaps as high as 90% if the DNA was a good enough match), constant body hopping was more risky than was palatable. Then pressure built up from various religious groups, claiming the procedure copied mind but not soul, and eventually the procedure had been banned more or less entirely.
All of which had left Jessa with very little information with which to understand what was happening to the daughter of her old friend. Since, in theory, Gabe’s memory and intellect were entirely contained within Keigh’s brains, they had allowed her to give orders to the crew, (checking them quietly with Jaime), since they were so close to Terran space, and because Jessa had shared her concerns regarding the warning contained in the captain’s “final words” to the rest of the command staff.
She had had perhaps one more chance to avert what eventually took place. As CMO she could have relieved “Gabe” of command if his behaviour became sufficiently erratic, citing her fears that the alien virus and/or stress of mind-dump had affecting his rationality. The order for the Kingfisher to bypass Gateway Kappa entirely (in case of further contamination, Keigh had said sweetly, despite Jessa’s assurance that the virus had been utterly destroyed by the quarantine systems) had raised some eyebrows, but the course change from Proxima to Helioshea was strange enough for Jessa to have acted on.
She hadn’t, though. Perhaps it was cowardice. Or perhaps she was so desperate to believe that her old friend was still alive in some way, still whole, had blinded her to the very simple truth.
The captain was still alive, but he was utterly, irredeemably insane.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Is There Really Nothing More Important You Have To Do?

I know that it's sometimes a little too easy to treat Creationists as a homogenised mass of idiots, constantly demanding ludicrous concessions across the fields of politics and education and sulking every time someone mentions evolution without including magic and pixies in the same sentence.

Every now and again, though, it's worth noting that some of these people are just really, really stupid:

We'll leave aside the fact that the Creator, if one does exist, is presumably not too bothered as to whether they receive credit in BBC documentaries (I'll never understand the distinct subset of Christians who are apparently convinced that God is a petulant glory-hog). Is Attenborough really the most important target to aim for when it comes to attacking people for denying ID? You might as well try to bring down the monarchy by calling Jenny Bond a bitch.

On the other hand, Attenborough's response is glorious:

Telling the [Radio Times] that he was asked why he did not give "credit" to God, Attenborough added: "They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."

It's a great line, which reminds me of Stewart Lee pointing out a few years ago that those claiming March Of The Penguins proved that God wants us to stay in monogamous relationships and raise a family had obviously never seen a mallard gang-rape.

To sum up, then:

Proof that God appreciates beauty and grace.

Proof that God is all about people going blind after invertebrates eat their eyes.

Proof that God is a fan of the family unit.

Proof that God thought that Hostel 2 just didn't go far enough.

I hope that clears things up for you.
(On a personal note, I could happily have gone my entire life without typing "parasitic eyeball worm" into Google. These are the sacrifices I am prepared to make for you).

Galactica Musings: Part Whatever

Spoilers people, this shit is red-hot.

I'd just like to say that tonight's Galactica was really good. It's ironic that plenty of us (including me, though not as much as some) complained during the tail end of Season 3 that too many episodes were just treading water without moving the main plot along.

Guess they sure showed us. The first half of Season 4 felt like a three-part arc-heavy storyline stretched to ludicrous proportions. There were far too many moments when all I could think was "God, bring back Dirty Hands, all is forgiven [1]".

A Disquiet Follows My Soul managed to modestly move forward a few plot arcs, but at heart it returned to what Galactica always did so well, offering us as many character moments as possible and framing them inside a crisis. The collapse of the civilian government and Adama's attempt to move into the vacuum makes complete sense to me, so much so that I can forgive the shades of Kobol's Last Gleaming and The Farm. Bonus points also for making Hot Dog a dad (poor shmuck) and dodging the bullet (or should that be bullet-head? ZING!) of Nicky being half-Cylon (we're back to just Hera and whatever it is growing inside Caprica Six).

Mainly, though, the episode was Gaeta's, and it was Zarek's. I always like the political wrangling in this show, and Zarek is finally back to what he does best, drum up support by telling half of the truth, and hoping everyone else is too scared and/or angry to fill in the blanks. Bill attempted to beat him at his own game, and thinks he succeeded, but Zarek is playing a longer game. He must be: persuading the Hitei Kan to mutiny had no benefit whatsoever on the face of it, but it made Zarek's position on the Cylon alliance very clear, and has left him in Galactica's brig (which is, like, the galaxy's most visitor-friendly prison) where he can be visited by mutinous officers.

Mutinous officers like Gaeta, for example. Now there's a character who just gets more and more interesting. He might have seemed pissy in his confrontation with Kara, but he did raise a very good point, and after what happened in Raptor 718 he's on a mission to remind everyone in the fleet that even the friendliest Cylon is still just a machine, painted pink. Besides, his conversation with Kara wasn't in any way meant for her. He was spouting off about Anders, Tigh and Tyrol to see if anyone else in the room objected. How else do you judge who's on board for a mutiny? Plus, he annoyed Kara to the point where she slouched off, which left him clear to get his plotting on.

It finally feels like Galactica is getting back to the show I used to love. A reprieve from all the quasi-mystical destiny bull-shit, and back to a whole mess of people trapped in tin cans dreaming of ways to kill each other.

Let's see how long it lasts.

Oh, also: hurrah for Adama and Roslin finally getting down to sweet, sweet business. It's a credit to the show that such hideously old people can get their groove on and it not be icky.

[1] Actually, Dirty Hands was proper awesome, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot. Fact.

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #15: The Elf

I think a lot about turtles.

There's an old story that appears in A Brief History Of Time regarding a woman convinced that the world stands atop a giant turtle. When pressed as to what the turtle itself is stood upon, she replied with the famous quote: "it's turtles all the way down".

The anecdote is usually dug out as a warning against the assumption that everything must have an attributable cause. Which, of course, is a valid point, and one I've batted around before. When I consider the infinite chelonian stack, though, it makes me think, no pun intended, of scales.

Regular readers of this blog (along with anyone who has ever overheard me in a pub) will know I'm fascinated by the concept of religion. For all their many differences, the vast majority of faiths have one thing in common, they all place humanity here on the scale of divinity, and place God (or Gods) there, many steps above us. The gap varies, but the idea is that it must be there. Maybe it's the truly unhealthy proportion of time in my life that I've spent thinking about mathematics, but every time I consider the gap between us and Him (or Her, or Them) my immediate question is: what fills the gap? What comes between us and God on the scale? Is there anything above God, for that matter? Is God really the terminus, or is it turtles all the way down?

The Marvel Universe, as one might expect, has spent much of its time filling the gap to bursting, in myriad and frequently contradictory ways (the price you pay for half a century of shared universe storytelling). Whilst actually attempting to attribute a hierarchy to this mess might be enough to send the most dedicated taxonomist mad, the implication is clear: there are many beings that exist between us and God, and some are closer to us than others.

One of the things I love most about the X-Books, the unique aspect to them that makes them the only Marvel books I read with any degree of regularity, is the dynamic between mutants and humanity in general. In its earlier incarnations, this was fairly simplistically sketched: some mutants wanted to fit in, others wanted to rule, and most of baseline humanity wanted them all gone forever. As time has passed, though, and the X-Books have "matured" (always a loaded word in comics), the situation has become more complex. Some humans tolerate mutants, and others accept, but some go so far as to fetishise them. Mutants are the new celebrities to some. More still are so desperate to join the new race that they'll use fatal drugs to gain powers for a few hours, or even kill mutants and wear their abilities like new suits. The lines between human and mutant are becoming more and more blurred.

The X-Men stand on the front line of this twisting, fluid war that shouldn't be a war, trying to avoid taking sides amongst combatants which are increasingly difficult to tell apart. But there's another conflict going on as well. For every human that approaches accepting mutants, or even becoming one, there's a mutant casting far into the gap. Whatever delineation might ever have existed between us and the divine is rapidly being dismantled.

This is where Nightcrawler comes into the picture. Kurt Wagner's entire life to this point has been an attempt to understand the boundaries around mankind. What separates good from evil? Man from mutant? Earth from Heaven? In that sense, he places Xavier's struggle for coexistence into a larger conflict. Where do the inhabitants of Earth lie on the scale? Which turtle are we?
Kurt begins his life unaware of his true heritage. He is raised in a circus by a sorceress named Margali, alongside her children Stefan and Jimaine. Stefan is so concerned that his mystical heritage will corrupt him that he makes Kurt promise to kill him should he flip out and go Dark Side. Reluctantly, Kurt agrees. It is around this time that Kurt develops a devout faith in Catholicism. I don't actually know how this happened, but given his adopted mother's powers and the fear it inspires in his "brother", it's possible that it was a direct response to the oat he has taken. If evil and corruption are real, so too must be good and purity. I might be way off the mark, but I can't think of another particularly compelling explanation as to why a child whose only parent was a mystic would become Catholic. It's a hell of a jump.

Eventually Stefan's fears come true, and he begins to kill people (well, not people exactly, but that's a long story). Kurt tries to stop him without killing him, but manages to snap his neck. Finding Kurt standing over Stefan's corpse, the local villagers attempt to lynch him, which is where Xavier enters the picture.

At this point, the lines are clear. Murdering is evil, trying to save lives is good. Magic is corrupting, Catholicism is purifying. Meeting the other new X-Men and leaving with them to battle Krakoa (and how horribly ironic in retrospect that Xavier was manipulating Kurt's mind throughout that mission) clarifies the one border he was still uncertain of. Now it is clear. Good mutants save the world. Bad ones try to conquer or destroy it. Everything is black and white, a cartoon sketch of the world. It's no wonder that Kurt obsesses over old pirate movies, they tell him exactly what he needs to hear: how others view or label you doesn't matter as long as you do what's right, and have fun with it. How can reality possibly complete with such glorious simplicity?

Fantasies never last, and the prettier they are the harder they tend to die. It all starts with Kitty Pride joining the team, because all she can see when she looks at Kurt is a demon. He has encountered such prejudice before, of course, but that was from strangers. Whether or not it was true, Nightcrawler could take comfort in the idea that they were simply ill-educated, that they feared mutants in general, rather than him specifically. Kitty, though, is a fellow mutant and (admittedly neophyte) superhero. One of the good guys. She has no problem with mutants, except for him. The borders start blurring, and Nightcrawler reacts by retreating inside his swashbuckling persona, hoping it will win Kitty over. He retreats inside one boundary in the hope that others will reset. It works, but worse is to come.

During the "Secret Wars" an insanely powerful alien being known as the Beyonder comes to Earth, kidnaps both superheroes and their adversaries, and dumps them on a planet of its own creation to watch them beat the snot out of each other. It sounds good on paper, but of course not everyone wants to play ball, and several of the villains (mainly Galactus and Dr Doom) decide a better way to spend their time would be to nick the Beyonder's power for themselves.

Kurt's reaction is very different. Faced with a being of apparently limitless power, he immediately fears that he may have met the entity he formerly knew as "God". What if Earth was created, just like this crazy patchwork planetary battlefield, as an experiment to see how the universe and its inhabitants tick? What if the gap was far smaller than he thought it was, and the Big Man at the top of it all is kind of a dick?

Meeting the Beyonder is probably the pivotal moment in Wagner's life. On the one hand, where he once had faith in a grand design, he now resents the merest possibility of being manipulated by outside forces (this is why he breaks up with his girlfriend Amanda Sefton, because he fears she is using her magic powers to manipulate him, when it would make far more sense to have dumped her for only pretending to be an air stewardess when she was actually his adopted sister, which is kinda icky). On the other hand, he is terrified of stepping out of the shadow of others to become his own man. He is riven by doubt and insecurity as temporary leader of the X-Men (after Ororo is hit with a weapon that removes her powers), and is only too happy to step down once Storm returns. If divinity is a lie, if the Beyonder is really all there is at the top of the pile, then how does one define the gap but in terms of power. Better to let others tread there, and just to retreat to the basics. If true good no longer exists, and the world has to be viewed in shades of grey, then at least being a swashbuckler is still fun.
Or at least, it should be. Doubts and insecurities continue to follow him around. An encounter with the future-built Sentinel robot known as Nimrod leaves his teleportation powers severely weakened. This in turn leads to him being badly beaten by Riptide during the Mutant Massacre, and requiring a period of convalescence, during which most of the rest of the X-Men apparently die.

It's difficult to know which variable is independent, whether the chicken arrived before the egg, but the disintegration of Nightcrawler's spirit and his abilities are so parallel that it seems foolish to assume they are independent. By now his faith has been shredded, his powers crippled, and his friends killed. Anti-mutant hysteria is higher than ever before, and there is nothing left for Kurt to hide behind or retreat into. Given all of this, the fact that he ultimately helps form a new British-based superhero team, Excalibur, who operate out of an abandoned lighthouse, seems almost painfully ironic. "We'll help you people out, but we ain't gonna be neighbours".

Once again, though, the boundaries become an issue. Without asking for the role, somehow Kurt ends up as de facto team leader. He finds a Pacific island filled with people who worship him as a God, having seen him fight and help defeat Krakoa and consequently altered their entire culture. It is then discovered that he accidentally mutated a ship full of aliens whilst aboard the Starjammer, in effect creating an entire new species. Ultimately he and his team save the entire multiverse through their exploits in defeating Necrom and the Anti-Phoenix. Even his powers recover (ostensibly because Doctor Doom accidentally fixes them with some weird ray gun, but c'mon). The man who doubts his abilities and the existence of God is now creating cultures and species and saving everything that exists ever. Kurt is deep in the gap.

And now that he's in there, he's not getting back. Nightcrawler discovers his father is one of an ancient race of demonic mutants, who fought a race of mutant angels long ago and became enshrined in the literature of several religions. He finds Jimaine has hidden a magic sword inside him due to the purity of his heart. Hell, Mephisto himself arrives to tempt him, offering the safety of his loved ones and the return of Stefan if he promises to not oppose him.
You see where I'm going with this. Dude ends up in the Bible, and then tempted by an actual resident of Hell. All whilst being pure of heart enough to hold a magical sword inside himself without getting his insides all cut up and shit. That's pretty pure, I would think.
If Marvel actually has a position on God, the actual God, then I've missed it. I'd be pretty surprised if it actually existed. This is a universe, after all, in which vampires and sorcerers and zombies and even leprechauns are all real: specifying a "correct faith" would be limiting from a storytelling perspective even if it wasn't a political shit-storm just waiting to happen ("This week: Wolverine meets Mohammed. Not Vishu, though; some fool just made that shit up!"). All they can do is explore the gap, and maybe draw some parallels. Take the Trinity, for example. It's at least arguable that God the Son, in the form of Jesus Christ, is somewhere in the gap. By becoming human, part of his purpose was to act as a bridge. He had some cool tricks to get it done, too, but there isn't anything Jesus is actually reputed to have done that various mutants in the Marvel universe couldn't have pulled off as well (though I confess I'm not sure if any one specific mutant could create food, alter molecular structures, heal the sick, and come back from the dead).
The power of those in the gap, then, isn't really the issue in the Marvel universe. But then, it isn't really the point here, either. The point is the application of power, whatever form it actually takes; that's what all that stuff about rich merchants and poor old ladies was about.
Once again, this is where Nightcrawler comes in. For all his doubts about his place in society, for all his problems with being in command, and all his Gethsemane moments in which he considers giving up on God, he never fails to try his hardest to do the right thing. His view of the world is too simplistic/pure for anything else. I kind of love him for that, even if I suspect that were I to meet him person he would piss me off fairly quickly. No amount of kicks and bruises and disappointments will allow him to change his fundamental assumptions of how the world should be. That's the point of spirituality, and of heroism. So what if he requires periods of convalescence in which he pretends to be Errol Flynn? He comes out of it, and then he saves the motherfucking universe.
He isn't worthy of worship, nor would he want it if it were offered, he proved that on an island a few miles from the place where he risked his life to save a bunch of people he had never even met before. He'd probably be OK with respect, though. I suggest you give it to him.
Next time: we see whether there is anything left to say about the universe's most ubiquitous mutant, and attempt to do it without typing the term "snikt".

Monday, 26 January 2009

Torturous Logic: Obama Edition

So, Obama thus far has entirely followed through on his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and deal with those still in custody there. Now, obviously this has led to an extended round of bleating by the exact people you would expect. The Minority Leader John Boehner warns us "I think the first thing we have to remember is that we're talking about terrorists here." The House Minority Whip Eric Cantor adds " Most families neither want nor need hundreds of terrorists seeking to kill Americans in their communities".

I'm not going to pretend that having terrorists running around the US is in any way a good idea, obviously. Nevertheless, one would think that "the first thing we have to remember" would be that there is such a thing as a legal system.

This got me thinking about the bind supporters of Guantanamo Bay are in right now. Back when Bush was in office, the argument generally went like this:
  1. Anyone in Guantanamo Bay must be there for a reason, because we can trust the Bush administration to only have grabbed people if they were really sure they were terrorists;
  2. Not everyone in Guantanamo Bay will be found guilty if given a trial, because of pesky things like "evidence" and "due process" and "habeus corpus" and "not extracting confessions under duress". Since by 1. the prisoners must be guilty, a fair trial must therefore not be extended to them;
  3. The only option is to create a new system of trials that require less evidence and/or allow evidence that would be inadmissible in a courtroom. We can trust the Bush administration not to abuse this new legal system;

The fact that 1 and 3 are transparently idiotic isn't really the point at this stage. What interests me is this: are the rabidly dedicated GOP apologists still pushing for a ludicrous degree of trust in the Oval Office now that it's Obama who has his feet up in there? (Metaphorically speaking, of course, I'm sure he doesn't want to scuff the Resolute Desk).

Having already found the above quotes at Glenzilla's site (one day, if I work hard at school and eat all my vegetables, I hope to rise to the level of Glenzookie. A man can dream), I thought I'd take a look at the various links he provided to what passes for conservative wisdom these days. Given that the alternatives are now either to give everyone a fair trial or give the Executive the power to alter the legal system as he sees fit, is the latter idea still palatable?

Unsurprisingly, it would seem not. Both Boehner and Cantor object to ordering the close of Guantanamo without a plan in place to deal with the inmates. Of course, there is a plan, they're going to be tried. What both of them mean, presumably, is Guantanamo could well be shut "without a plan that guarantees convictions regardless of circumstance". What sort of plan they want to see instead, they don't bother to mention. Guantanamo is now a problem without any solution at all.

Fred Hiatt at least has the guts to put his money where his mouth is. His plan has been widely criticised for suggesting there should be three tiers of legal proceedings of differing levels of thoroughness, to which cases will be assigned specifically based on how much evidence is available, but at least it's something: at least Hiatt is dumb enough to hand ludicrous power to a Democrat based on nothing but faith that it won't be abused. That is, he's a fool, but not a hypocrite.

Everyone else, though (see here, for example) seems to be shifting the goalposts. The problem isn't trials anymore, it's that once the trials (be they fair or kangaroo) have been conducted, it's too dangerous to house those convicted in military prisons, lest they become targets of concerted attempts by their terrorist buddies to affect an escape. The fact that no-one has tried this at Guantanamo and that there are plenty (see Glenn once again for a list) of terrorists already in American prisons who have not been sprung is, apparently, irrelevant [1]. Beyond that, though, it seems like a deliberate conflagration strategy. How the guilty are punished is a different question to how the guilty are determined, and right now it's the latter that we need to focus upon. Guantanamo became infamous because of how it was used, not for its existence. If it is now so tainted that even legitimately tried convicts can't be housed there (and if so, heckuva job once again, Bushie), then the US can always build another facility, somewhere else, miles away from any civilians that might be at risk from hypothetical terrorist rescue attempts.

Finally, whilst on the twin topics of Guantanamo and idiocy, this piece by Marc Thiessen is so massively fucking retarded that it deserves an entire post to itself. Maybe if I have time later I'll demolish it as stress-relief.

[1] Also, what's with the imagery of terrorists flying a plane into prisons? Are people hoping the mere spectre of "plane meets building" will make them terrified and irrational? Because I'm pretty sure that if Al Queda are planning a jail-break the chances are crashing planes into it is pretty far down the list. As far as idiotic plans go, that's Snakes On A Plane level.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

In Which I Continue To Not Understand People

This list of Americans' top priorities for 2009 is pretty depressing. Partially because I'm unsure about the methodology: it's all very well telling us you used a random stratified phone sample, but we should really know exactly what was asked. The numbers below make it very clear that participants were allowed to offer more than one "top priority", but I can't find it mentioned anywhere whether there was a specific number asked for. Is global warming really a top priority if everyone who mentioned it did so at the end of a list of seven other things?

Speaking of global warming, Kevin Drum laments the fact that global warming comes last in the list. Obviously, I agree that this is concerning, although probably not surprising. What got me, though, was that 30% listed global warming as a "top priority" compared to 45% who listed "moral decline".

This is the sort of stuff I simply don't get. For every two Americans seriously concerned about global warming, three of them are worried about moral decline? Crime was mentioned by 46% of respondents. That means that at best, only 2% of people worried about crime enough to have mentioned aren't also worried about moral decline to a similar extent. I say "at best" because the alternative is that there are people in the States who mentioned moral decline without mentioning actual lawbreaking.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Tradition Is Tradition, Bob

OK, I had planned on not dipping my toes in the blogohedron today, but since it's Blog For Choice Day (FACT), I wanted to say something.

Most of you know that I'm a card carrying liberal (seriously, I had a card made [1]), and damn proud to be so. Abortion, though, was for a long time by far the topic on which I was most conservative. I was still pro-choice, mainly because you have to be pretty fucking sure you're completely right before you start telling women (or anyone else) what they can and can't do with their bodies, and despite rumours to the contrary, the level of PFS is one I don't often reach.

The problem was that I never found a particularly convincing argument put forward by pro-choicers beyond "It's none of your business". Which, as I say, was enough for me on the issue, but it's not a convincing argument overall, since using it implies either a) the inherent assumption that the act involved can't be serious enough for external interference to be justified, or b) that no act can be serious enough for external interference to be justified. The latter is obviously ridiculous, and the former is problematic precisely because it assumes part of what it tries to prove, i.e. that we should butt out of telling women what to do with their reproductive system.

Anyway, all of this changed two years ago when I read this article. This was the first piece I had read that actually deconstructed this extraordinarily complicated issue and deal with each strand logically. It's wonderful, and it's right, and it means I get to look all the other wishy-washy bleeding-heart liberals in the eye again.

h/t, and I can't believe I'm typing this, to darkman.

[1] I did not. Well, I did, but it has a lonely hearts ad on it, in case I get nervous and tongue-tied.

Friday Me Blogging

I'm too busy today to even take photos of my Warhammer collection, so instead I thought I'd kick off my campaign for president. A lot of people think Obama is a shoo-in for a second term, but those people clearly haven't faced a irritable giant liberal squid before.

Create your own propaganda here.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

My PhD Has Not Been In Vain

SpaceSquid: I'm still having trouble with this whole atheist ad campaign.
J-Dog: You mean that idiot who wouldn't drive the buses around?
SS: More that stuff about having to verify "probably." I'm still not sure how to do it.
J-Dog: You mean in a proper Bayesian context?
SS: No-one will know what that means. No, I'd look at it from the perspective of representation invariance.
J-Dog: Yeah, that's much clearer.
SS: Fine. Look at it this way. The probability God exists must be at least as big as the probability the Christian God exists. Which must be at least as big as the probability that the Catholic version of the Christian God exists. And so on, and so on, and so on. You can keep shaving off possibilities, but there's still only two possibilities, true or false, and you can't quantify either.
J-Dog: I guess.
SS: You can apply it to life in the Andromeda Spiral, too. The chance of there being unicorns out there must be at least as high as there being pink unicorns, then pink unicorns being ridden by sharks.
J-Dog: Wouldn't the last one be impossible, technically? How would they both breathe. Unless one was in a diving suit, I guess.
SS: I vote for the unicorn. A shark in a helmet: not scary.
J-Dog: It would be reduced to worrying at you with its fins.
SS: So let's give the unicorn aqualungs. Mind you, I can't imagine what a shark would gain from riding a unicorn underwater. Be much faster swimming.
J-Dog: Maybe it isn't utilitarian. It's just for show.
SS: A status symbol.
J-Dog: It's a pimp-shark.
SS: I love how republican this country has become. When we imagine a grotesque display of unnecessary wealth, we now think of "pimp" instead of "Prince Regent".
J-Dog: Pimps are the new aristocracy. Even the ones with cartilage skeletons.
SS: What would they pimp, though? It can't be other sharks. That's way too risky. It would be like visiting a brothel and having the madam tell you all her girls are also kick-boxers. It might sound like a great idea for a TV show, but in real life you'd go down the street to a whore-house where you're in no danger of getting your face kicked in.
J-Dog: That first place would always be empty anyways; they'd all be out fighting crime in tight skirts. So, I guess haddock and cod.
SS: Also called "the pussy fish". Much rather those than the actual royal family, to be honest.
J-Dog: You want to replace the royals with sharks on unicorns and their stables of bitches?
SS: Well they certainly can't come over here otherwise. Keep England English. And, er, free of alien sharks. Coming over here, taking jobs from human pimps.
J-Dog: I blame the credit crunch. All the former shark pimps have been reduced to dragging ploughs behind their unicorns, tilling the soil for space crops.
SS: Man, that sucks. Getting their unicorns plastered in mud, rather than in what they presumably want on their unicorns, which is rims.
J-Dog: They've had to replace all their hos with robots, too.
SS: Would that actually be cheaper?
J-Dog: It is in Andromeda.
SS: I had no idea that the economy was fucked up on an intergalactic scale. I feel terrible now. All those hyper-intelligent shades of blue queuing up at the job centre. "Sorry mate, those damn cyans came in and took all the jobs yesterday."
J-Dog: How did we get from God to sharks to pimps to UB40s?
SS: I dunno man, but throw in some cocaine and this could be an LA script meeting.

Commanding The Kingfisher (Part 2)

5th March

It had not been an easy task to refit the Kingfisher to allow it to travel underwater, but this was not the vessel’s first visit to a R’Dokken instillation, so the crew at least had known what to expect. Nevertheless, manoeuvring the unwieldy orehauler-cum-destroyer whilst submerged was a tremendously complex task. Certainly rotation was impossible, leaving the crew in the tenuous grip of the station’s micro-gravity field, which was more or less unnoticeable. Ryugi sat rigid in his harness, his eyes fixed unblinking on the screen. A pale green overlay transcribed their approach vector through the night-black water. They had long since left behind the piercing shaft of light at the entrance to the sea, and the only illumination came from the spotlights the Kingfisher had once employed to aid asteroid mining operations. Occasional shapes drifted through the darkness; huge shadows that occasionally betrayed an enormous tail, or the tip of one mammoth fin. Davis identified them as R’Dokken prey animals. The closest Earth analogue was the manta ray, but the comparison was as an elephant to a poodle. Not only that, but these monsters were apparently carnivorous, and quite happy to devour any R’Dokken they had come across. Quite why the alien had seen fit to ferry such dangerous creatures to the stars to allow them to threaten R’Dokken lives in other systems was a mystery. Perhaps it was part of the Kellarealm xenoc’s love of combat. Or perhaps they were the only things the R’Dokken wanted to eat, plankton aside. And just what else was out there for the uberrays to feed on? There had to be an entire ecosystem down here, all for the benefit of the few hundred thousand R’Dokken who lived here. She shook her head. Aliens.
“How long now?” Gabe asked.
Ryugi flicked his gaze down to his console, and back to the screen.
“Another twelve minutes. Assuming we don’t get sent another course change.”
Flight Control (Swim Control?) had ordered five alterations to the ship’s flight path in the last fifteen minutes.
“You think they’re pushing for a screw-up?” asked Jaime from beside the captain. Jaime didn’t speak much, but when he did he had an unnerving tendency to summarize what was going through everyone’s mind.
“I think it’s more likely to just be corrections for the current,” replied Ryugi.
“What’s that?” asked Jaime quietly. He was leaning forward in his seat and squinting at the viewscreen.
“What is what?” said the captain.
“I see it too,” Jessa said, who did. It was an indistinct cloud, no, two clouds, of ephemeral yellow light. It looked to be no more than a few dozen metres from the bow, but the surrounding water hampered the judgement of distance.
“Any thoughts?” Gabe asked, with a sidelong glance at Davis.
Whether or not Davis knew the answer, he had no time to say anything before the clouds shot forwards into the full glare of the Kingfisher’s spotlights.
Jessa had never before seen R’Dokken in their natural environment. Divested of their suits, they seemed somehow smaller, perhaps three metres from mouth to tail, although once again the silt and murk of the pseudo-ocean made such estimation inaccurate at best. The only real clue to their size was provided by the incandescent smears Jaime had noticed. These proved to be streaks of what was presumably bio-luminescence. Three longs stripes of light ran along the aliens’ segmented bodies with perfect radial symmetry. Travelling alongside the strips were the creatures' “legs”; hundreds of small, soft, feathery limbs that rippled in waves as they thrust their body forward. When suited up, R’Dokken legs seemed much like those of the millipedes to which they owed their nickname. Without such obstruction, the overall effect might almost have been beautiful, had it not been for the aliens’ faces. Each R’Dokken head was marked by three feeder tentacles, each half as long again as the armoured torso to which they were attached. The appendages twitched lazily as they sifted nutrients from the cold water. At the centre of this crown lay gaping jaws, surrounded by semi-circular and razor-sharp teeth, ready to accommodate any wishes from the alien for larger prey. The bloated, fleshy tentacles and lethal, crimson maw contrasted sharply with the streamlined symmetry that followed, and left Jessa feeling distinctly uneasy.
Her discomfort was not aided by the realisation that one of the two R’Dokken had some form of device wrapped around the end of one tentacle. Its snub, almost ovoid form made it very unlike the R’Dokken weaponry Jessa had seen, but nonetheless she considered it foolish to believe it represented anything remotely positive.
The alien promptly fed the device into its maw, and swallowed it. No, it didn’t swallow; it was holding the object in its mouth.
“Signal!” reported Gallagher, “I’m putting it on speaker.”
“Human visitors,” said a voice suddenly, alongside a sound which sounded an awful lot like whale song, although simultaneously more gravely and at a higher pitch.
A transmitter, Jessa realised, kicking herself. And a translator, presumably.
Gallagher was now looking at the captain, eyebrows raised in question. Gabe nodded, never tearing his eyes from the screen.
“This is the Free Merchant Starship Kingfisher,” Gallagher intoned into his mike. “Please identify?”
Silence. The R’Dokken had stopped swimming, now they were simply floating. Just within the searchlight beams.
“I repeat, please identify?”
“We are ambassadors,” sang the speakers. “We request conversation.”
“This is Captain Gabriel Merriman, ambassador,” said Gabe slowly, “Are we not conversing right now?”
“I will clarify. We request conversation within your vessel.”
That raised everyone’s eyebrows. Face-to-face contact with the R’Dokken was very rare, and for it to be outside the field of combat was all but unheard of.
Gabe slashed a flat hand across his throat, and Gallagher deactivated the comm.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” murmured Jaime. No-one else spoke; all attention was directed at the captain. Gabe looked lost in thought. Gallagher began absentmindedly caressing the button that would reactivate the comm.
Finally the captain spoke.
“Two R’Dokken? We won’t have any problem taking them,” Jaime assured him.
“They could be suicide bombers,” Davis pointed out. “The R’Dokken sense of self-preservation is markedly less pronounced than our own.”
Gabe shook his head. “If they wanted us dead they could have blown us to pieces with those immense pop guns up on the surface.”
“Unless these two aren’t Kellarealm,” Davis pointed out.
“Noted, Mr Davis. Medical?”
“Sir?” asked Jessa, puzzled.
“Our “ambassadors” aren’t wearing suits,” Gabe explained. “If they come in here like that, what are the health risks?”
“Unknown,” she confessed, “We’ve never bothered trying to find out. It never even occurred to us that we could meet a R’Dokken without at least one of us being in suits. We didn’t think they could survive out of water.”
“They can’t,” said Davis, clearly implying that things would be moving along far faster if the crew consulted him with greater regularity.
The captain nodded slowly.
“Right. We’re going to try this. Mr Gallagher?”
“Comms on, sir.”
“This is Captain Merriman to R’Dokken ambassadors. We would be honoured to have you as our guests. Please proceed to port side airlock L4, where we shall wait to greet you.”
“We thank you, Captain Merriman. Transmission ends.”
The R’Dokken retrieved its transmitter, and spasmed sharply. The sharp movement was echoed by the alien’s luminous stripes, which flared angrily.
“A signal?” the captain asked himself quietly. Jaime nodded beside him.
It appeared they were right. Another cloud of light swam into view, this time far brighter, from beneath the R’Dokken, ascending leisurely. As it entered the spotlight beams, two suited R’Dokken were revealed, operating some kind of submersible skiff. The vehicle was around six metres long, and only a few centimetres in height. The machine curved from the centre outwards, ending in several prongs with its crew nestled safely inside. From above the craft was shaped roughly like a tapering oval, with a powerful headlight at the pointed end (presumably the front from the direction its pilots were facing).
Behind the two crew were stashed a pair of long, curved troughs, each permeated by two rows of holes travelling lengthwise. The ambassadors swam to these troughs, pausing above them.
“This should be good,” Davis murmured.
What followed was almost too fast to see, and later Jessa had to piece together the images in her memory in order to form a coherent account of what had occurred.
The two R’Dokken twisted sharply, before flicking themselves downwards. Simultaneously, they thrust erect the two rows of limbs currently beneath them, whilst flattening the third row against their chitinous bodies. As they reached the trough, limb found hole all the way along the alien’s body, in a bewildering display of co-ordination. Once each leg was inserted, the troughs shifted somehow, curving smoothly upwards to envelop the aliens, hugging them so tightly Jessa could still faintly discern where each armoured segment met the next. The final stage of this process involved pulling on the protective sleeves for the feeder tentacles, an operation soon completed with help from the skiff crew.
“Well, that’s one question answered,” said Gabe.
Jessa was still stunned by the display she had just witnessed. The sheer skill that manoeuvre must have taken…
“Still with us, Doctor?” asked the captain.
“Yes sir. I’m just a little…” awe-inspired? “Impressed.”
Davis snorted. “You should see them get suited up for combat. Those things have three rows of leg holes; and far more unpleasant things than sleeves for their feeder tentacles.
“So those aren’t combat suits?” mused the captain. “Well, that’s reassuring, anyway.”
“Those are guns, though,” said Jaime, nodding at the screen. The skiff crew had retrieved two weapons from a compartment in between them. The devices were harmless enough in appearance, large discs thicker at centre than edge, and with three curved prongs sprouting from the back and sweeping over the top. But Jessa had seen and tended to the wounds those odd-looking objects had caused in her fellow crewmen; she knew enough to treat them with respect.
Irritation flashed across Gabe’s face.
“Gallagher? Ask them what the hell they’re doing.”
“This is the Kingfisher to R’Dokken ambassadors,” started Gallagher, not quite masking the tension in his voice, “Why are your… companions carrying weaponry?”
Jessa watched the lead R’Dokken return the translator to his mouth.
“Our fellows are no more than an escort,” explained the ambassador’s translator, over its backdrop of singing, “And an escort must be armed. It is how things are done.”
Gabe signalled to Gallagher. Let me deal with this.
“Ambassador, this is Captain Merriman. You are more than welcome aboard the Kingfisher. Your bodyguards, however, are not; not armed at any rate.”
“No R’Dokken Realmguard would ever forsake his weapon,” replied the alien. The translator’s dull tones gave no clue as to its operator’s emotions, but the accompanying whale-song was now higher in pitch. Jessa’s intuition told her this was not a good sign.
The captain remained stone-faced. “Then no R’Dokken Realmguard will ever set foot aboard my vessel.”
There was a pause.
“Ryugi,” said Jaime quietly, “Plot a course for the ice-hole, and start feeding power to the thrusters. Nice and gentle. If the R’Dokken get nasty, we’re going to be gone before they can take aim.”
“Yessir!” said Ryugi, furiously tapping commands into his console.
Finally the R’Dokken responded. “Our fellows will escort us to the airlock, and will then remain outside your vessel. Are these arrangements acceptable?”
“Entirely. I look forward to meeting you, ambassador. Perhaps we can talk about the prospecting team you are holding in this installation.”
“Of course, captain,” said the alien. “We have a great deal to discuss.”

16th March

It was gone two in the morning by the time Jessa stumbled into engineering. Her colleagues at med school had assured her that with sufficient experience, doctors acquired the same skill as sailors and smugglers; awakening instantly to full alertness whenever necessary.
Jessa had never got the hang of it. Perhaps she was not sufficiently addicted to caffeine.
She looked around for her patient. There, by a control console, Harlan was half-kneeling, his injured leg splayed in front of him. He was cradling his left hand beneath his right arm, his eyes closed and screwed with pain. Quickly she strode over to him.
“Harlan, are you OK? What happened?”
“Goddamn… console blew. Burnt my- fuck!- burnt my hand.”
“Let’s take a look, honey.”
Jessa inspected her husband’s wounded palm, clicking her tongue. The burn ran most of the way along his hand, and started to travel up his wrist, but none of it was particularly serious.
“It doesn’t look too bad, Harlan. A few injections; a dermal-sealant spray, no problem.”
As she began to fish the relevant supplies from her bag, Harlan leant over and whispered in her ear.
“You wanted to talk.”
She stiffened. “Are you sure we’re-?”
Harlan nodded. “The vids can’t see us from here, and I reckon the engine vibrations will screw up any pressure plating. This is about as private as we’re gonna get right now.”
The penny dropped. “You… you did this to yourself, didn’t you? You deliberately mutilated yourself to make sure we could-“
“I had absolutely faith in your skills, darling,” said Harlan, with a trace of amusement. “Speaking of which…” He wiggled his scorched fingers.
Jessa set to work.
“I did want to talk,” she confessed in a murmur, “About Geiss.”
Harlan nodded, an action his gaze didn’t quite manage to compensate for; the effects of the anaesthetic in the DS-spray. Harlan must have picked up on it too, he settled down against the bulkhead, and allowed his eyes to close.
“You don’t trust him,” he said neutrally.
“Do you?” she asked, inspecting her handiwork. The index finger still needed a little more attention.
Her husband shrugged slightly.
“I’m not sure anyone on the ship has ever trusted Geiss as a person. But…”
“But you have to remember two things. First, Geiss is a top-notch engineer. If he told me he could build a Starport from tin cans and catgut; I’d be collecting kittens for him.
“The second reason is even more important. There’s no reason for Geiss to betray us. We saw yesterday how… disappointing the captain’s rewards are.”
“And how lethal her punishments.”
Another shrug. “That’s a motive for not helping us. It isn’t a motive for selling us out.”
There was silence for a few moments. Jessa had now completed her treatment, but she continued to feign concern for Harlan’s hand, inspecting it continually.
“What if… I had doubts about his competence?”
Harlan’s eyes flicked open.
“And what would lead you to that conclusion? Something nasty lurking in his files?”
“You know I can’t answer that,” she admonished.
“Of course not, Doctor Lambert.”
Jessa had kept her original name after they had been married. The tradition of double-barrelled names had been abandoned some time ago, after it had been realised that the population was facing an epidemic of exponentially growing surnames.
Harlan made a good spouse, as such things went, but he always seemed convinced that her confidences as a doctor should be entrusted to his confidence as a husband.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I wouldn’t worry. I’m quite sure we can trust Geiss, and if not; we’ll handle it.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Jessa mumbled, in a tone that implied anything but. She couldn’t maintain the pretence of administering to Harlan’s hand anymore. Leaning forward, she lightly kissed her husband.
“It’s been a while since you did that,” he commented as she stood.
“Kissed me, I mean. It’s been quite some time.”
“Has it? I hadn’t realised. I guess… it’s just with all this going on, I really don’t feel comfortable-“
Harlan rose to stand beside her.
“I wasn’t fishing for an explanation. Or an apology. I’m just saying.”
He grabbed hold of her, and they kissed again; searchingly, painfully. It was a long moment before he released her.
“Time we were off,” he said, once they had separated. “We both have very busy days tomorrow, and the sooner we crawl into our little boudoir in the mess hall, the happier I’ll be.”
They held each other briefly once more, and then they were gone.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Be Careful What You Wish For

Galactica spoilers follow. Big ones. Huge ones. Mutant spoilers created in labs by psychotic scientists to take over the world and force everyone to find out Bruce Willis is already dead. You have been warned...


Right then, that's the contractual warning out of the way. Let's get to business. Today's burning question: how do you make the reveal of the Final Cylon the least interesting part of an episode?

I guess some of last night's installment can be forgiven due to the writers' strike forcing them to film the first script written. I choose to believe that's why so much of it was stupidly heavy-handed (the fist-fight Adama ignores as he walks the halls was particularly ridiculous). The somewhat unpolished dialogue can be swallowed for the same reason.

But, still, c'mon: Ellen? Who the Hell cares about Ellen? She's been dead for more than a year, and aside from her actions on New Caprica, she did nothing of any interest whatsoever for all the time she was still alive. The way she got under Tigh's skin was cool, but that's because Tigh is cool. He was interesting when he was addicted to booze, and interesting when he was addicted to a screeching harridan of a woman. Making Ellen the last Cylon model, at this point at least, is no more interesting than it turning out to have been a bottle of Jim Bean.

Having said all that, I suspect the problem isn't in the specific reveal, so much as that the writers had painted themselves into a corner. I can't think of a single character in the series that could have turned out to be a skin-job and it not be a case of "Huh, whatever." The only possible exception I can think of would be Starbuck, but the same qualities that make her a plausible choice totally rob it of any dramatic impact (finding your own dead body; now that's dramatic).

So, yeah, colour me underwhelmed at the reveal we've been waiting for all this time. On the other hand, there was a lot of awesome stuff in the rest of the episode. It was both the right choice and a very, very brave one to have an entire episode dedicated to watching everyone fall to pieces because Earth turns out to be an irradiated Cylon summer camp (a far more interesting development than the Ellen reveal). It was particularly gut-wrenching following Dee around in her final hours. Moore has stated that her raptor flight from Earth back to the fleet was the exact moment at which she decided to kill herself. What shines through all the tragedy is that she spent what she knew were her last hours making sure Lee could carry on, making sure he could bring hope to the Quorum, even though she'd completely run out of it herself. I suspected something was up when she was so heavily featured in the episode (the writers seemed to entirely forget about her this season), but I sort of love the idea that the most optimistic and steady member of the extended cast was slowly bleeding out hope all this time, and no-one noticed. It's horrible, but it makes a twisted sense.

Speaking of making twisted sense, a lot of people have commented that they didn't buy Adama's attempt to have Tigh shoot him, arguing that it was against character. These people are wrong, for three reasons. Firstly, Adama is traditionally a man who responds to a hopeless situation by getting himself killed right in the middle of it. This is a man who was prepared to fight to the death to defend the Twelve Colonies after they'd been nuked, and the entire fleet was lost. This is a man who took a single Battlestar to liberate a planet under massive Cylon guard. When things look bleak, and the only option is to give up and slink away, Adama tends to want to just go in guns blazing until either hope returns, or he's dead.

Secondly, it's pretty easy to make the argument that Adama doesn't know what he's doing in Tigh's quarters. He's drunk, he's miserable, and both the woman he loves and his only surviving family member are wrapped up in their own grief, for Earth and prophecy and for a wife, respectively. All he has left is Tigh, his oldest friend, who is also a machine built by the enemy. He needs someone to vent to, someone who can take the pain away one way or another, and Saul is his only choice. It's just as possible that Adama's arrival a the XO's quarters is just a desperate, drunken cry for help. Bill is a deeply proud man, and it's not at all surprising that such an attempt to seek solace would come out as a vitriolic attack and demand to be shot.

Finally, and most importantly, let's go back to Roslin for a moment. Back in Sine Qua Non, Adama stepped into and launched a raptor whilst the rest of the fleet headed on. He made it very clear that there were only two resolutions to having lost Roslin (and half the air wing) that he would entertain. Either Roslin would return alive, or he would asphyxiate and die. The whole point of that episode (as revealed by the title) was that Adama wasn't prepared to live having lost Roslin.

The best line from The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the central premise to that entire trilogy, is this: "How do you hurt a man who has lost everything? You give him back something broken." That's where Adama is now. His only reason for living was Roslin and hope she represented. And now, she's broken. She won't talk to him, or let him touch her. She's lost the hope that Adama relied upon. She made him believe in Earth, and believe in her, and the first turned out to be a lie and the second she's now rescinded. Meanwhile one daughter-figure may or may not be a Cylon, the other has just blown her brains out, and his oldest friend and confidant turns out to have been the enemy all along (and the last time that happened, he got two bullets in the chest and ended up with a scar the size of a baguette).

He finally confessed to his sine qua non, got her back, and then lost her again, along with his hope for the future. This time, a Raptor isn't going to cut it. That gave him an out, a condition under which he could survive, and want to survive. This time, it's pretty much going to have to be a bullet.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Waking Up

What can we possibly talk about today, except for President Obama's inauguration? After an eight year nightmare, we're finally waking up.

Note that we're waking up, not entering a dream world of chocolate houses and candy cars (though on reflection both of those things would probably turn out to be rubbish and impractical anyway). Obama's a politician, and that means compromise and sneakiness and expedience. What it doesn't mean, or shouldn't, is mendacity, hubris, idiocy, rabid devotion to ideology over evidence, and pissing all over whatever laws happen to stand in your way. Those things, one can hope, are firmly in the past, at least for now.

Back to reality, then. Except, of course, that our nightmare was so bad, it's tainted the waking world as well. Bush and his Elite Gibbering Bastard Squad have become the world's own personal Freddy Krueger. Two countries lie in ruins (three if you include the massive problems the US faces with its infrastructure, plus that little matter of New Orleans), fishermen across the States are more likely to catch coal, pig shit and dysentery than they are a trout, and the world seems to have lost its wallet before it picked us up for our date.

The amount of time Obama will have to spend clearing up this sham of a mockery of a farce of a FUBAR is impossible to gauge. It's depressingly possible that by 2012 the US will still be in worse shape than it was in 2000. And of course many of the surviving Republicans in Congress, rather than getting to their knees and thanking God their constituents are still so imbecilic as to have voted them back in once more [1], are promising to mess with anything that actually gets accomplished, apparently mainly as an act of petulance.

Miles to go before we sleep, then. I'll worry about that tomorrow, though. For today, I'm happy enough to just be awake.

[1] I'm not saying voting for a Republican is stupid a priori. I'm saying voting for a Republican who in the current political climate promises to derail anything the elected government tries to get done, in an attempt to keep things the same as they were under the worst administration in American history, is so stupid it makes my teeth hurt.

Monday, 19 January 2009

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #14: The Evolving Boy

When Peter David was looking for replacements for Layla Miller and Wolfsbane in the latest iteration of X-Factor, he eventually settled on Longshot (which is a shame, because Longshot was and is and always will be a shrub-headed perma-permed goon) and Armando Munoz, aka Darwin. The former was drafted for his "optimism" (read: total inability to grasp the seriousness of any situation) and "upbeat attitude" (read: twat). The latter, apparently, was chosen almost entirely because it would give David plenty to flesh out.

There's certainly a lot of mystery surrounding Munoz. Or maybe mystery is the wrong term. After all, the word implies a certain degree of secrecy and seeming contradiction, an unidentifiable darkness lying just out of sight. With Munoz, there's no desire to solve the puzzle presented. Plenty of pieces missing, but no particular compulsion to go searching for them behind the sofa. Or, to paraphrase Layla Miller herself, "We just don't know stuff".

I have a theory on why this is, of course, but let's start with what we do know. Darwin's power is "reactive mutation", which is a fancy way of saying that his body subconsciously adapts itself to any situation. Fall off a building? He'll bounce. Trap him underwater? He'll grow gills. Chuck him into a fire? He'll - well, I'm not sure what he does, but he doesn't get burned, anyway. You can even try to incinerate him, throw him into a hole, and then chuck him into space, and he'll turn himself into pure energy and keep himself alive. Which is lucky, of course, because that's exactly what Krakoa, Petra and Polaris do to him during his first mission.

The fourth and final of the "missing X-Men", Darwin goes from being hated by his mother for being a freak (which is kind of harsh), to being hated by his classmates at a swanky school (which is kind of expected) to being experimented upon by over-zealous geneticists (which is kind of interesting, from a scientific perspective). Eventually this draws the attention of Moira MacTaggert, who inducts him into her "Runaways, orphans, and amnesiac psychotics" club. There she performs pretty much the same sort of experiments on him, but now it's in the name of "training", so it's OK ("Hey Darwin, I'm going to train you how not to get killed by mustard gas. And.... DON'T BREATHE!!!"). A couple of days later, he's pure energy that Vulcan is using to keep himself alive with, somewhere in the depths of space. All we really learn about Darwin during this period is that he still can't be set on fire, and nothing else. Well, there's the fact that his reactive mutation apparently makes him a total klepto when it comes to nearby fruit pies, but that's not exactly deep character stuff.

But, and here's the thing, we never really seem to get to the deep character stuff at all. That was forgivable as far as Sway and Petra went, since neither of them were really around for long enough to do much more than spout narrative dialogue and then get massively killed. Vulcan stuck around for longer, and almost immediately became a fascinating ruin of a mess of a clusterfuck, both more cyclops-y (cyclopean meaning something else and thus necessitating that I invent my own term) than Cyclops and creating more havoc than Havok (see what Marvel have done there?); with ancillary daddy issues and vicious spirals spilling out all over the place. In the same period (Deadly Genesis [1] followed by Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire) we seem to learn very little about Darwin, and what is there seems almost contradictory. He starts out fairly passive, not particularly keen on the Professor holding him back (an act of over-protection that must surely stem from what happened to his original team mates), but neither especially vocal in his opposition. During a mission to steal a Shi'ar spaceship and follow Vulcan before the crazed third Summers can do damage on an interstellar scale, Darwin watches (albeit unhappily) as various X-Men take hits during a mission to steal a spaceship and follow Vulcan. Once the Professor himself is threatened, though, it's a different story (and let's be clear, monster standing behind Professor: time to act. Polaris being crushed by deadly energy field: wait and see). Darwin flips out, grabs one of the Shi'ar ex-slaves-cum-killer-robot-beasts, and throws it and himself down a lift shaft. Later on, when Xavier is abducted by Shi'ar agents, Darwin hitches a ride on their space-ship's hull [2] in order to keep an eye on him. The man who has shown no antipathy towards anyone before (the freak-show Shi'ar security constructs hardly count, since Marvel Girl points out they're so hideous that they would kill themselves if they could) breaks the faces (and possibly at least one skull) of several Shi'ar guards outside Xavier's prison.

What is it that makes Darwin, a man who didn't even feel up to sparring with Warpath earlier in the story, defend Xavier so violently and doggedly. What is it flicking the switch?

There are two possible answers to this. The first one to occur is yet another variation on the Xavier-as-surrogate-father meme. Armando is four when his father walks out on the family, something that Darwin's mother rather unfairly holds him responsible for [3]. Whatever Darwin's feelings toward his actual father (having not read the issues of X-Factor in which he shows up, I can't comment), there is clearly a role to be filled there. This is then compounded by how miserably Darwin fails at ever impressing his bitter and miserable mother (his power first appears when he aces an IQ test whilst trying to make her happy, she responds by packing him off to an elite boarding school). With one authority figure gone whilst he was still a child, Darwin fails to hold on to the other. This ultimately leads to a suicide attempt, which of course his body prevents from succeeding. With Xavier, the desire to have someone who will take interest in him, and be impressed by his success, is finally something that can potentially be fulfilled. Given that, it would hardly be surprising that where Vulcan wants to blame Charles for his own failures, Darwin wants to prove himself. If nothing else, it allows Xavier to still retain some authority after losing the trust of many of his students, most notably Cyclops.

There is another possibility, though. Much has been made of the degree to which Darwin's body can alter itself to almost any situation. The IQ test he takes proves the same is true of his intellect. What if his personality is manipulated in the same way? During World War Hulk, Darwin's body concludes that he cannot defeat the Hulk, and teleports itself away. If his movements are not always under his control, then what else isn't? Is it his love for Xavier that makes him so brutally defend the man? Or does some dark corner of his psyche simply recognise that his interests are best served by keeping his benefactor and teacher alive? Were it his new friends in the X-Men threatening Xavier, would he be any more restrained than he was fighting the Shi'ar? Or would the red mists descend?

Once you start thinking along these lines, Darwin suddenly stops seeming like a blank slate, but as a constantly shifting pattern. Nothing is revealed because nothing is constant. Moreover, it makes him a dangerous and uncertain ally, because you can never be sure when his id is going to decide it's better off without you, and send him psychotic. There are other less critical questions, obviously, whether he would deal with romantic rejection by hardening his heart (more than the rest of us, I mean), for example. Mainly be worried about the flipped-out murder spree possibility, though. The flight/fight/freeze/flock response is an evolutionary trait like any other, and when you come right down to it Darwin's body simply selects whatever evolutionary trait is most appropriate. With the Hulk, it was flight. You don't want to be around for fight. The last human he got into a fight with ended up on the crappy end of two fists made of stone (some evolutionary characteristics are more plausible than others, obviously).
On the other hand, maybe I'm worrying unnecessarily. Just as defending those important from you is something many animals have evolved, so too has the desire to co-operate within a society. Dawkins describes this tendency well in The Blind Watchmaker (he was so much better before he decided to just travel to various places and tell the faithful there that they were pricks), but the nickel version is that being a prick gets you further than being a nice guy, but groups of pricks tend to explode, while groups that co-operate carve Mount Rushmore.
Hopefully Darwin's ego understands this. Certainly his brief conversation with Vulcan in UXM 484 suggests that his natural tendency is for compassion. "Banshee, the innocent people on that plane, the man flying that Sentinel... just wasted lives." At this point he Darwin is trapped inside alien handcuffs that presumably deactivate his powers to some extent (otherwise it wouldn't be too hard to escape from them), so we can assume he's talking from his default position.
More than that though, when faced with his mother drifting ever further from him, his powers chose not to steel him against that loss, but instead to try to bridge the gap. The ways in which love can be an evolutionary adaptation isn't something I like to think too much about (mainly because it feels like breaking a toy to see how it works), but it's nice to think that ultimately, it will trump the others.
Next time: with Vulcan's short-lived team out of the way, we move onto Second Genesis, and several mutants that changed the face of the franchise, starting with a man who looks like a demon and wants to be a priest. Or possibly a pirate.
[1] Which in fairness should probably not entirely count since Darwin spent most of it trapped inside Vulcan's head, and then growing himself a new body in Hank's lab. Not a lot of time spare for a list of hobbies and turn-ons.

[2] Having only just discovered he can survive in space (without becoming the energy-form he did following Krakoa) a little while earlier, and with no idea as to how long that survival period actually is.

[3] It's interesting to note that Darwin is half-black and half-Hispanic (his pale skin is hypothesised to be due to spending so much time in cooler climes, where an abundance of melanin isn't really very useful), which is pretty rare in the comic book world. Race relations in America being what they are, the repeated labelling of Darwin as a freak may bring along with it some heavy subtext.