Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Serenity and Race

I like Joss Whedon and the universes he creates.  Firefly is one of my favourites and I have a book of essays from various people talking about the show.  Some are flattering.  Some aren’t.

One essay asked where all the Asian people had gone.  In the Firefly-verse, we are supposed to be seeing a future where Chinese and American culture fused.  The characters all speak Chinese, especially in moments of stress.  Chinese art and decoration permeates the sets.  But the writer did make a valid point that we don’t actually get to see anyone of Asian descent except in occasional crowd scenes.

I’d like to propose an alternative theory to her suggestion that it was an Anglicized bias and that Asian culture had been reduced to an exotic sampling.  Not saying it couldn’t have been, but here’s another way to think on it.

We don’t see any of the true nobility of the Alliance.  Not the truly powerful people.  We see their minions and agents and we see the people who are struggling at the bottom.  The closest we come are the Tams, River and Simon’s family, during flashbacks in the episode “Safe.”  The essay writer believed they were part of the upper nobility but I don’t think that’s true because of two simple factors.

One: Simon works for a living.

Even as a boy, his father is encouraging him to become a brilliant doctor.  He’s not being groomed to take over the family business or enterprises.  The family’s status in society is enhanced if he is a prestigious and respected doctor at a posh hospital.  It’s a cushy job but it’s still a job and he’s expected to perform it.

To me, that suggests the Tams are not nobility but instead are upper working class.  Very upper working class but still, not the people in charge.

My second argument in favour of the Tams being below the top rungs of society: River and the Academy.

The purpose of the Academy remained shrouded in mystery but one thing was clear: they were building black-ops weapons out of people using torture and experimentation.  The children of your top families would not be recruited for that.  Instead you would look for socially hungry families who are looking for a way to break into the upper crust.  It’s the same reason drug dealers don’t target children of Mafia families, the payoff isn’t worth the risk of bringing that much power down on you.

I think, had the series continued, we would have discovered Asian characters at the very top of society.  People imitate what their social betters and superiors do.   It’s how fashion, especially celebrity fashion works.  Thus the Asian flavour to much of the architecture and decoration.  The higher the status, the more Asian things appear.  The Tam’s home wouldn’t have looked out of place in China or Japan but the villagers on the outer planets only have a few bits of decoration.

I can’t be sure but I think the theory fits the evidence available.  I suppose Joss could tell us if he’d thought that far ahead.  But so far, he’s kept quiet on it.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Not Great Weekend

Last week, Alex had a rough time at school.  I was hoping a visit to the dentist would cheer him up.  (It’s not as dumb as it sounds, he loves the elevators at the dentist.)  But the weekend came and he was still very aggressive and non-cooperative.

It’s so hard to try and figure out what’s bothering him.  It could be something which triggered him and started him on a spiral.  Or it could be something continuous.  Usually we can break the spirals but this time, we’re not having any luck, which makes me think it’s something continuous.  But I can’t think of something continuous.

He had been doing so well that I was planning to try expanding his very limited diet again.  That’s off the table now.  Whatever else is going on, school has to be the priority.  Which means we try and make home as smooth and comforting as possible.  He’s only got so much tolerance (as do we all).

I know most seven year olds don’t have insight into their behaviour but they can at least tell a parent if they have a headache or their stomach hurts.  I don’t get those cues.  Unless its an exterior symptom, I won’t know about it.  It makes it very frustrating.

On the plus side, we did get the hardware for the swing back up so I can show it to Alex after school.  Maybe that will help.  I can only hope.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Character Trouble

I’ve been working on getting my first novel ready for submission.  I’ve been working with a critique group as well as a group of loyal test readers.  I’ve been getting one reaction fairly consistently.

My heroine is too passive and bland.

When I started out writing this story, I wanted my heroine to be different from the brassy, loud, aggressive heroines I usually write.  I had two main reasons, one and the most important, my usual heroine didn’t fit with my hero.  He might have enjoyed a weekend with her but he wouldn’t have fallen in love with her.  The second reason was that I wanted to push myself as a writer.  It’s boring to read a writer whose characters are always essentially the same, only with different names.

Clearly, I’ve gone too far in the other direction.  It’s frustrating to me and I’m disappointed in myself.  And yet, I also know this is a learning process and the only way I can learn is if people are honest with me in my feedback and if I’m willing to hear it with an open mind.  I won’t lie, there’s still a moment when it’s hard to hear I haven’t been able to do what I wanted.  But if I take a breath and think about what’s been said, then I usually discover they’re right.

And they’re right in this case.  I have somehow transformed my na├»ve but eager heroine into a passive whiner.  Definitely not what I wanted.

I’ll have to do some real work to fix this and when I feel daunted and overwhelmed, I remind myself this is the price of my chosen profession.  Anyone can write a little story and share it, not caring about how good it is.  It takes dedication and discipline to take something good and make it better.  I need to prove I have that kind of dedication and discipline.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Homo Economicus

I was reading The Value of Nothing: Why Everything Costs So Much More Than We Think by Raj Patel and it gave me some stuff to think about.

All my life I’ve heard about the “tragedy of the commons” and how if you have a common resource, everyone takes advantage and no one feels responsible and the resource ends up being destroyed.  However, Patel points out that historically, the commons actually lasted almost three hundred years from their establishment in 1215 with the Charter of the Forest (a document signed with the Magna Carta).  It  granted the peasants the right to use pasture for their animals, till land, collect wood, harvest honey, use medicinal plants, forage, etc, with local resources.  The system worked, more or less, until the enclosures began in the 1500s and the land began to be privatized for the use of the nobles and royalty.  The peasants were kicked off and had to shift to selling their labour since they no longer had rights to the land.

Patel suggests the land wasn’t actually destroyed until it was privatized by an absent landlord.  The locals no longer had any benefit from the land and thus no reason to protect it.  The owner wanted to wring maximum profit and didn’t have to deal with the local impact.

He also points out that in social experiments, people do not consistently act in a selfish manner.  They act with a mix of selfishness and generosity.  It is only when people are removed from accountability and impact that they act completely selfishly, i.e., when they become part of a corporation.  The corporation wants to wring maximum profit from its holdings and no individual has to be accountable.

It’s an interesting point and one that makes sense to me.  People take care of their homes and their families, we’re hard-wired to be careful with those we care about and in our immediate kin-circle.  But we also have an astonishingly efficient ability to dismiss those outside that circle as unimportant and not care about the impact we have on them.  If we don’t have to see it, we’re okay with surprisingly inhumane situations.

I’m not sure his proposed solution would work.  Patel proposes shifting to a small, local based economy where local individuals are required to participate in government.  He sees big government as the equivalent of another corporation.  However, I think big government is absolutely necessary to prevent the kind of difficulty we’re currently in.  Regulation and protection is necessary to prevent people sloughing off their problems onto other groups.

Patel also supports switching to organic farming.  Now, I agree that the modern industrial agriculture model is incredibly wasteful and destructive but there’s a problem with organic farming: lower crop yields.  The figures I’ve seen say organic fields yield between 60% and 70% of modern fields.  That’s going to be a problem.  You can’t achieve world peace when people are hungry.  They will fight for survival.

I do agree that changes have to be made but I see a huge problem.  In order to achieve global equity, the West will have to accept a drop in their standard of living.  That doesn’t seem likely to happen.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Serenity and Sex

I’ll be upfront about my bias right off the bat.  I think Firefly was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and Serenity was an awesome movie.  There will always be an angry place in my heart for Fox for cancelling it (and a lot of other great shows, too).

I recently got a book of essays from fans of the show and there were some interesting points raised.  Now I came at the story backwards.  I watched Serenity first and then was lent Firefly on DVD.  So I got to see the unaired brilliant pilot rather than being introduced with the hastily written episode “The Train Job.”  My impressions of the characters and crew are different than they would have been if I’d started at the beginning.  I’ve also read the novelization of the movie which gives some additional information which changes some things.

I think the universe Joss Whedon created is amazingly rich, lending itself to all sorts of metaphors and discussion because it honestly feels like a real place.

One of the essays talked about the ambiguous nature of sex in the Firefly-verse.  Inara is a registered Companion, like a geisha but one whose job includes having sex with her clients as well as entertaining and being a graceful social asset.  She is respected and of high position within society.  However, during the episode “Shindig”, a mean girl is reduced to running out of the room when it is implied that she is sexually promiscuous: “It took a dozen slaves a dozen days to get you into that get-up but your daddy tells me it takes the space of a schoolboy’s wink to get you out of it.”

Here’s my alternate point of view.  In our society, actual sex is frowned upon but titillation is used constantly.  Thus the writer focused on sex as the key issue.  But what if it isn’t sex?  What if it’s choice and discrimination?  Inara constantly points out that she chooses her clients.  They must prove themselves worthy to hire a Companion and if they behave badly, they become blacklisted by the entire Companion community.  That’s a great deal of power.

In contrast, the mean girl is being taunted about being undiscriminating.  She’s available to anyone who asks for her.  That’s the insult. 

It’s an interesting view on sex.  Where self-respect is the truly valued commodity in personal relationships, even if those relationships are more business than emotional.  The more I think about it, the more I applaud the idea and think we should be encouraging it.  Girls are sexual beings and there shouldn’t be any shame attached to our desire to have sex, any more than boys should be ashamed for wanting to have sex.  But neither boys nor girls should be sexually indiscriminate.

If you have self-respect, then you come to sex as an equal partner, able to give and demand equal pleasure.  I have to say, when I heard reports of teen girls giving boys blow jobs, my initial reaction wasn’t to be upset at the girls because they were bestowing sexual favours.  I was more annoyed because I was pretty certain those girls were not getting oral sex in return.  To only give or take pleasure one-sidedly is to reduce the one giving it to a lesser status at best and to an object at worst.

I have no idea if that’s what Joss Whedon was actually trying to portray in Firefly and the episode in question was actually written by Jane Espenson, who worked with him on Buffy.  I’d love to get a chance to ask him about that and so many other features of his shows.  But knowing how hard he’s worked to encourage young women to see themselves as strong, independent people worthy of respect, I can’t say it would surprise me to discover it was deliberate.