The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Is Resident Evil 5 Racist and I’m Just Not Seeing It?

resident evil 5 africa settlement

When Resident Evil 5 came out, I remember there was much outcry about it being racist, because you play as a white guy and you shoot a bunch of Black people. What could be wrong with that?

This came about because I was listening to a video game podcast (The Besties) ranking the best Resident Evil games and RE5 didn’t make it past the first round. Mostly because it failed to fix the mistakes of RE4 and didn’t add anything new or innovative (except maybe the co-op).

So I guess you could call this a “Late to the Game“. I played RE5 way after it came out, but not, like, yesterday.

Even in today’s context, I’m not seeing what’s specifically “I’m trying to suppress you because your skin is a different color.” I see “I’m trying to suppress you because you are a monster zombie trying to kill me.”

Resident Evil 5 Map to Be Included in Multiplayer Shooter Umbrella Corps -  GameSpot

They’re IN Africa. There’s going to be Black people there. It’s hard to walk around Africa without running into one or two. If there was a zombie outbreak, I guarantee a few would get infected.

There IS a part in the beginning where a blonde white woman is pulled against her will into a shack and infected with the parasite. It’s “blink and you’ll miss it”, has no bearing on the plot, character model has no name, never shows up before or after. Why is she there? Why did they make her white to stand her out, then do nothing but fridge her?

There’s also a white antagonist named who seems to be a slimy carpetbagger. He’s a “business man with standards” and sounds like Wario if he were less cartoonish. He acts exactly like Chucky, but is more a pastiche of Salazar from RE4–he can’t be taken seriously.

And let’s not forget Booby McGee and Sheva Alomar, the light-skinned female characters who barely look Black despite being African. These aspects make the game “iffy” at best and “terribly racist” at worst. So I’m not saying it’s got a halo on its head.

But when Resident Evil 4 was released no one made an outcry because they were all Spanish people. And it’s not like there’s no similar history of racism and colonialism against Hispanics and Latinos. Is it because slaves came from Africa? But then aren’t you treating all of Africa as a country?

People don’t take time to understand context when it comes to cultural insensitivity, just like Anita Sarkeesian’s analyses. This game was made in Japan. Do they have a history of racism there? Yes, indeedy. But it’s like this:

Mr. Popo from DragonBall Z

Mostly based on what American troops brought over during the WWII occupation. Japan’s history does not include bringing a whole race of people from one continent to another, enslaving them for three-quarters of a century, then letting them go without a system or compensation to “pull themselves up.” (In fact, instituting several social programs and laws to ensure they never gain political or financial power.)

So when they try to duplicate past success, they think “Well, going to places other is working out. We went to the South Pacific and Antarctica in Code Veronica, and Spain in Resident Evil 4, which was a smash. Where could a zombie outbreak occur with interesting visuals and is somewhere Umbrella’s money can create a foothold? How about Africa?”

The Scramble for Africa | Mr. Leverett's World History
Just imagine Umbrella is one of the guys tugging at the edge.

Now this is a case of treating all Africa as a country, which might make me seem hypocritical since I just accused you of it. But we’re not talking about literary treatment, we’re talking about racism. Why would you think Japan’s intent is related to American slavery? Do you think Resident Evil 5 was meant to sell to Proud Boys and right-wingers who get their jollies off shooting Black people?

Now I’m certain some of those sick types bought Resident Evil for that reason. But once you put art in the world, you aren’t able to control what other people do with it. No one wanted My Little Pony to become the fandom for unwashed convention-going demi-misogynists with obsessive tendencies.

Conservative brony: justneckbeardthings

Would a Resident Evil where it all takes place in Detroit or South Central Philadelphia be racist? As long as the number of zombies reflects the demographics of that city, I don’t see how. A Resident Evil that takes place in Madison, Wisconsin and all the zombies are non-white — that’s racist. Because it’s lying about the true nature of the setting to induce a certain reaction (that of racist delight).

I might have put my foot in my mouth on this one, but please, tell me what I missed.

Mommy, Why Is That Man Cancelling Culture?

cancel culture erase person

“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”

Ever since I heard those words in “The Dark Knight”, I keep seeing it proved again and again, like a horrible Blue Car syndrome. Role models, world leaders, artists, athletes. Time makes fools of us all. Except now those fools have teams of Proud Boys and Twitter trolls to call to their side.

Like most terms, “cancel culture” started as light slang being thrown around. If you were “swiped right” you were canceled. People tweeted at Kanye West “you’re canceled” when he did something stupid.

Now it’s grown to where public outcry on social media can affect someone’s career. Is all this controversy worth it? Are we not being forgiving enough or do celebrities deserve it?

Why is it when James Gunn gets fired from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 for tweets he made in the past, he’s not the bad guy. But James Lasseter and his shoulder rubs are. Why is that?

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Cancel Culture?

First we need to clarify some definitions — what is cancel culture and what is not. Like a lot of liberal movements, it has no leader and no manifesto. So the rules and end goals get ambiguous.

“Cancel culture” is a movement to not support or cut off income (such as royalties or speaking fees) from an artist’s art because they did something heinous. It refers to the act of fans turning on a celebrity (sometimes too quickly) who did something wrong or something they don’t agree with. One of its goals is to “deplatform” them–to make it so no one wants to hire them for new work.

This applies to the person, not the work itself. So that means you can’t “cancel” Song of the South or Gone with the Wind. That’s a different kettle of fish I’ll talk about it a minute.

Criticizing is not cancelling. So if a celebrity’s big enough to be targeted, leaving a bad review on Amazon doesn’t do anything to their bottom line. Likewise, Twitter replies to their bad takes are not cancellation.

Being offended does not mean that someone is “canceled”. It is not “I don’t like this and nobody else should either.”

“Cancelling” is an act or a protest. Like a peaceful sit-in or a boycott. Voting with your dollar. But often it must happen to those who hired or commissioned that person’s art (resulting in them letting that person go).

Like any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. Some people think doxxing or going after someone’s sponsors or getting them fired is cancel culture. It’s not. That’s just griefing or plain old harassment, like GamerGate.

So we know we’re not talking about harassment or criticism. Are we talking about punishment? Justice? Are they the same thing? Let’s take the example of Count Dankula.

Certainly looks like the kind of guy you want babysitting your kids.

Short version of his story is that he taught his dog the Nazi salute and apparently this is worth getting arrested for in his native land of Scotland. He said in a tweet that he tried getting a normal job in a sandwich shop, and was rejected the next day because of people harassing the shop.

We can argue whether this is an overreaction. We can argue whether a dog trick is a hate crime, either here in America or in a country actually affected by the Nazi regime. We can discuss the fact that Count Dankula is a humorist and not a neo-Nazi and there were no victims.

But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about this question–was he “canceled”? The question is did Count Dankula not get the job because:

A) Harassers harassed the shop in obnoxious ways
B) Harassers harassed the shop to point out he did a video of a pug doing the Nazi salute
C) The shop being made aware of the video itself

People cite this case study as a reason cancel culture is bad — that you’re preventing people from being heard or having a normal life. I say there’s not enough evidence here to make a conclusion.

Reminds me of a Jim Belushi or Artie Lange type

Another case study: Shane Gillis was supposed to be on SNL’s 2020 season. Then he was found to have said a bunch of racist jokes a number of years ago, trying to be funny. People found out and told SNL. SNL dumped him. Was that right or wrong? You don’t want to reward racists, but how long do you hold the mistakes of the past over their head? What if it turns out they weren’t past mistakes, that’s just the way that person is?

Is Justice Punishment? Is Punishment Justice?

What's the Opposite of Punishment? | The Crime Report
There’s a reason why Lady Justice carries a sword and a judge wields a hammer.

The trial of O.J. Simpson taught us a fundamental lesson about America–the justice system doesn’t care if you’re guilty, as long as you’re famous. We have been living in that society ever since 1996 and we feel powerless to stop it. Hence the gates lift on the jury of the masses.

We’re not talking about cases like Richard Jewell or the Boston Marathon Bombing (where Reddit, upon being prodded by the FBI, falsely got a Saudi man arrested). Those cases were the fault of the media, an unregulated Internet forum, and a poorly thought out FBI response. The court of public opinion is eager to pounce and sometimes it pounces without a mouse being there. In those cases, that is not justice. But what else do you have when the justice system fails?

Cancel culture came about because the justice system takes too long to fix. People like R. Kelly and Chris Brown and Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian should all be in jail now, but they get off because of their fame and that their fame lets them afford expensive lawyers. Drug fines and DUIs are nothing to them financially, but they’re acts that can get someone killed. L’il Wayne and Gwyneth Paltrow and Mel Gibson and Tekashi 6ix9ine get new gigs and make millions.

These are the cases where the evidence is either plainly there or corroborated by witnesses. People like Woody Allen and Louis C.K. and Billy Cosby have clearly performed crimes–heinous family-destroying sex crimes–and continue to make money and suffer no consequences.
And then there are the crimes that can’t be tried in court, like racist or sexist or abusive statements.

Society changes fast, and thanks to social media, we’re learning about more celebrities who aren’t catching up to social norms that haven’t been 100% set yet. Maybe you can’t get justice, but you can give visibility to marginalized voices.

What Are We Trying To Do Here?

Star Fox 64/Lylat Wars - Area 6 Boss Defeat - Mission Accomplished - YouTube

One of the reasons that I said “don’t consider Gone With the Wind and Song of the South as targets” is that I believe we shouldn’t judge people now for the mistakes they made as children. America has matured since the 1950s in terms of the role of Black people in media and where they belong. Now if a movie studio tries making something like that today…

There’s a difference between an author who made a controversial work in the past (maybe during a time when the content wasn’t so controversial) and one using their wealth and power to advocate against marginalized groups. You can’t control how someone uses their money and influence. But you can control how you work with a text.

We changed, but older people like Seinfeld and Adam Carolla and Donald Trump haven’t. What they think is funny is not funny to us. They grew up in a time with The Honeymooners, when beating your wife was considered fine humor.

What do we want? I think we want an apology. A good apology. And a cessation to the behavior that caused them to be canceled in the first place.

People like Jonah Hill, Dan Harmon, and Justin Bieber all had cases where they did something very wrong and apologized for it. And they did their apology the right way. I think, for the most part, the world has forgiven them. (The works they’ve done since then are another matter, but not part of this conversation.) But others have not been so humble.

These people aren’t being punished and never sincerely apologized for their actions or words: Mel Gibson, Roseanne Barr, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, J.K. Rowling, Louis C.K., Orson Scott Card, Bill Maher, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity. They are rich entitled people surprised that the world has changed to one where there are consequences because social media lets us all talk to each other. There are zero degrees of separation between me sending my hot take on soup to Tom Hanks and him seeing it with his own eyes.

So if no apology is given, what do you do? Not support the author. That means more than not buying the books (because you’ve probably already bought them) or attending the shows. It means not participating in the fandom at all. No fan fiction sites or conventions to see your friends.

Because you can’t consume Harry Potter stuff without supporting Rowling’s wealth and influence. You have to force consumers to change their habits. You must make businesses decide that person is too toxic to associate with. And that’s going to be damn hard for someone who has her own theme park.

Harry Potter Theme Park - Universal Studios Hollywood
And what a happy theme park it is too. So bright and cheerful.

And how do the celebrities respond? Like they’re being attacked. What should happen is that we refuse to buy R. Kelly and Chris Brown’s albums. Then their label drops them. But then they blame us, saying they were “canceled” when they just weren’t making money. People with power don’t get to claim they’re a victim of their fame.

It’s really a denouncement, like the Klingon discommendation ceremony. You did this bad thing, so I shall not support you anymore. I turn my back on you.

klingon star trek discommendation

And that’s pretty much all you can do as a consumer. It’s not much, but maybe if enough people get behind it, something can happen?

Why Do We Cancel?

Why 'Cancel Culture' Is a Distraction - The New York Times

Are we simply living in an intolerant climate? Or do we now have avenues to organize and do something about bad behavior? Are the people who claim they’re being canceled just screwing up and don’t want to be called on their bullshit? Speech has consequences. Actions have consequences.

And it’s so easy to track and record everyone. We’ve become a 1984 surveillance society VOLUNTARILY. We carry our cameras and microchip trackers in our pockets. It’s easy to become Orwellian when your citizens do the work for you. We decided it’s worth being monitored if we can have a button that lets us know where our kids are at all times.

But one of the benefits of that is that you can’t get away with things so easily. There would be no George Floyd protests if someone hadn’t been recording all eight minutes and forty-six seconds of his death. Cops are so bad they have to be fitted with body cameras to audit their actions. Body cameras which they routinely turn off or obscure when they know they’re going to do something bad.

Are we too brittle? Too sensitive? Or are we trying to strike back at people who mean to do harm. Are we blowing the whistle on those who continually “get away with it” because they’re famous?

If you make anti-LGBT or anti-semitic comments, what makes you think that’s okay? It makes me think you’re not aware of what kind of society you live in.

This is called shitposting or being an edgelord. This kind of humor general doesn’t translate well to anyone who isn’t someone in the group being joked about or sensitive to that group.

Edgelord | Edgy | Know Your Meme

It’s tough to be in certain demographics, especially these days. Police are targeting Black people to the point where they’re being straight up killed and the cops who did it face no consequences. Congress is chopping up the land of Native Americans in the Dakotas and Alaska for fossil fuel profiteers like they learned nothing in 250 years. So when celebrities spout off a slur, the fewer platforms they can do it on, the better.

Who Should We Cancel?

The people that Cancel Culture wants to target are people like J.K. Rowling and Dave Chapelle and Michael Richards. People who have tons and tons of money and prestige. They’re the prime targets because they’re in the limelight and they’re seen as role models and they have no problem speaking about controversial topics.

I do believe there is a difference between art and the artist–no one thinks a crime writer wants to commit murder. But also, the artist has an unbreakable tie to their art. One influences the other. Like Doctor Victor Frankenstein, the creator cannot be extracted from the created. You know the work better if you understand the context it was written in, like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye.

The Harper’s Letter
More Than 150 Journalists, Academics Speak Out Against 'Harper's' Letter On  'Cancel Culture' 07/13/2020

The famous Harper’s Letter that came out shortly after J.K. Rowling’s remarks states: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”

First, I hate how poorly constructed and unreadable that sentence is in something endorsed by a bunch of writers. Second, I’m not really into that perception when the “information and ideas” are about white supremacism and racism.

Any platform that allows free speech, even hateful speech, is making a small, silent allowance that it’s okay to say these things. Legally, Twitter is not responsible for the statements people make on their application. Morally, they are.

Third, there is no atmosphere stifling you. There are so many ways to get your message out nowadays. The difference is what you say with your art and what you say on Twitter or in an editorial.

Everyone who signed onto this letter is old and already established in the industry. There’s no Pewdiepie or David Dobrik on this list. No Tomi Adeyemi. No Lil Nas X. No Megan Thee Stallion or Nicki Minaj. No G. Willow Wilson or Brian K. Vaughan or John Green or Justin McElroy or Taylor Tomlinson.

Plus the people who rescinded their signatures after they figured out what the letter was about. What, did Harper’s mislead them? Did they not give them the letter to read beforehand?

Celebrities and Comedians

So ask yourself this question: are you angry at cancel culture or are you angry at people reacting to you being a shithead?

It’s only the controversial celebrities who complain about it, because their livelihood, their product, is based on social transgressions. If they get canceled, they have no job.

Comedians especially are mistaking being canceled for not producing material that’s liked (Bill Burr, Louis C.K., Kathy Griffin). Which is fine–it’s their job to throw out joke after joke and not all of them are going to stick. I don’t expect it to. The problem comes when they double down on a joke they think is funny, but either A) has problematic content B) didn’t land. They , they think it’s the audience’s fault. Which is a huge no-no.

Case in point: Kathy Griffin. Did she go too far? Maybe. I think so. I didn’t see where the joke was and I hate Trump. What was her goal? To incite violence? No. I think she was trying to make something, if not funny, at least satisfying. Because many of her fans are LGBTQ and with Mike Pence as VP, they had a prison spotlight on their backs.

Kathy Griffin Apologizes for Trump Photo: 'I Went Too Far'

However, the backlash was equally too far. There’s no reason to think a successful American comedienne is part ISIS. Speech and photographs are not evidence of treason. Subjecting her to an FBI investigation is a waste of our resources and my taxes.

The best thing to do when a joke is unfunny or doesn’t land is to just ignore it. Don’t give it attention, because that’s what comedians want.

When they hear they’re getting “canceled”, they think there’s an angry mob after them, instead of a vocal minority. But there’s something about social media that amplifies the most contentious voices. So John Cleese is not the victim because two people complained about a Fawlty Towers episode from 1970. The victims are the people who work on the shows that get taken off the air because producers thought it would be too controversial.

Comedians are sensitive, broken souls, so it’s little wonder they act like this. They think people are searching for what they’ve done in the past, not who they are today, but that’s not true.

They think we’re twisting their words to fit our own narrative. Like we decided we’re going to “get” Rowling and “get” Louis C.K. We don’t need to–they dug their own graves. We don’t need to twist anything, it’s already there. Logan Paul visited a suicide forest and posted it on YouTube. What’s he going to do? Deny it?

How Not to Cancel

Cancel Culture Makes Everything Look Worse Than It Is | by Meghan Daum | GEN

One of the negative elements of cancel culture is the tendency to jump down throats or to shut their ears while they shout at the person. I remember, long ago in the early 90s, I saw a 20/20 special where John Stossel was talking to some college kids demonstrating for the environment. When he tried to tell them there were actually more trees now than a hundred years ago or that recycling caused pollution, they just shouted him down and drowned him out with chanting. They didn’t want to listen to the agenda-having, propaganda-spewing journalist.

I’m no fan of John Stossel–I think he’s a blowhard–but you can’t shut your ears to viewpoints you don’t like. “I’m not going to let anyone sway me of my opinion” or “anything you say is opposition, which means you are the enemy, which means you must be blocked at all costs”. That’s what I’m afraid is happening with social media–we’re demanding change and justice too fast.

Bean Dad | Know Your Meme

We’re seeing it in real-time with Bean Dad. I’m not sure why what he did was so “triggering”. He wasn’t starving his daughter, he was trying to teach her a “hard knocks” life lesson. It wasn’t abuse by the legal definition, but it was a judgment call.

Parenting–no one really wants the job but everyone thinks they can do better.

Bruce Lansky

Problem was this notoriety made people dig up a bunch of unrelated tweets he made in 2012 and 2013. Were they racist and anti-semitic and sexist tweets? Yes, I think so. But maybe there’s a reason they’re all from eight years ago and not 2017, 2018, or so on. Maybe he’s changed since then.

Rather than tell her the answer, he tried to guide her to it, using abstract thinking tools that can be applied to many life scenarios. He’s allowed to parent his nine-year-old the way he wants, even if that evokes the “Ron Swanson School of Toughness and Discipline”. But it wasn’t wrong or right. And it’s not up to me to decide how to parent his nine-year-old. I’m not there with her.

He deleted his Twitter because of this. Does this mean his career over because of bad jokes he made eight years ago? His song has been the theme of one of the most popular podcasts in America for a decade. The day this all went down–the SAME day–they changed it. Because it was “antithetical to the energy they try to bring”. The evidence has been on Twitter for the past ten years, why didn’t you change the theme then?

There is a difference between making a clumsy mistake (James Gunn) and condemning a category of people (J.K. Rowling).

I don’t think actions from the past should be used to cancel you in the future. I’m not talking about people like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and Harvey Weinstein. I mean old college essays or a Halloween in blackface or “bad take” tweets. Things that happened before they were famous.

Using your current fame and influence to do wrong things is bad. I don’t like it when things that were socially acceptable then are censored now. This means Song of the South and Gone With the Wind and old Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons should not be hidden from the world’s eyes.

Looking at Community's Banned Episode – Pop Cultural Studies

I was watching Community for the first time on Netflix and I had no idea the famous Dungeons & Dragons episode wasn’t there. Why? Because Ken Jeong dresses as a Dark Elf and there’s a joke that he’s in blackface. Except he’s NOT in blackface — that’s the joke. So because of a one-off joke, I had to buy the episode on YouTube separate from my already-existing subscription to Netflix.

These are works and art with values from a different time. Values that no longer exist or have changed into different values. Harry Potter and Ender’s Game are great works, but they can’t be removed from the culture they were created in, no matter what their authors do.

Just because it’s racist now doesn’t mean it’s offensive now. Shoving art under the rug, like it didn’t happen, isn’t okay. Facing your past is the only way to conquer it. It’s always going to be a part of you, but you don’t have to let it define who you are now.

Cancel culture fails when it loses a sense of forgiveness. Count Dankula is no longer using his platform to promote Nazism (whether he intended to or not, and I don’t think he did). He’s been deplatformed, and shouldn’t be stopped from going to one that’s different. He doesn’t need to be blacklisted for the rest of his life.

But forgiveness should be proportional to the crime. People like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, given their position and age, I don’t believe there’s any punishment they could receive that’s enough.

Conclusion: Does Cancel Culture Work?

At what point do they pass from “mistakes of the past” to “evidence that proves someone is a bad person”?

I don’t know. For the past four years, I’ve watched the majority being ignored. Either in voting or abortion or healthcare or wealth distribution. I’ve been to huge protests and seen nothing change. So I wonder if we can do anything to change.

The Blame Game at Work and Why it Doesn't Work

As with any movement, people get caught in the splash damage. Maybe that’s why James Gunn and George Takei and Aziz Ansari “got away with it” or were “exonerated” (depending on how you look at it). Did we decide they were worthy of saving because they had done more good in the world than evil, like Martin Luther King?

I’ve never seen it work.

Louis C.K. still sells out comedy shows. Donald Trump was never successfully impeached. Everyone who was one of his cronies got pardoned or exonerated. Jeff Bezos buys a yacht and his workers struggle to make rent. Sean Spicer got to be on Dancing with the Stars. Ansel Egort still gets roles. Ellen DeGeneres just turns into Rosie O’Donnell.

The one thing we can take solace in is that the art will outlive the artist.

The people who saw Gone With the Wind in 1939 were interpreting something different than we do today when we see it. Back then, smoking used to be okay. People smoked everywhere. Doctors went on TV to recommend brands. But not anymore. Does that mean we have to remove smoking from every movie? There’s tons of smoking in It’s a Wonderful Life–are you going to stop watching it during the holidays?

So why does it matter what we do now? Because, for us now, knowing who J.K. Rowling is influences the way you read Harry Potter. Knowing Orson Scott Card is an anti-homosexual affects how you read Ender’s Game. And moreover, any dollars you give or fandom you contribute support that author and those views. They’re using their platform to do things that are “iffy” at best, harmful at medium, morally reprehensible at worst.

So I’ve got nothing for you. Just do what you’re going to do. Vote with your dollar or don’t. Seems like more factors must take place to get a Harvey Weinstein put in jail, more than normal citizens are capable of doing. And even if a majority of those factors work together, it still might not happen.

Remember, words are tools. They can hurt and they can harm.

The Books I Read: May – June 2020

bookshelf books
Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

It’s like the last book, I guess. It’s YA, has a strong female lead, takes place in a romanticized non-American country (France in this case). But I stopped at 40% because I just didn’t care about the characters.

It’s half spin-off and half sequel. The new main is a “strong female character” who’s mean and angry just so she can appear tough. But in reality, she’s a screw-up who doesn’t know she’s a screw-up and then wonders why there are consequences for her actions. Her main goal is to find her grandma, who went missing two weeks ago. But the government’s not doing anything about it, so she stews and grouses until a street-fighter helps her for some reason. He’s the one who actually takes action. (He’s also the dangerous bad boy who uses his anger and rage to protect her. Never seen that before.)

It’s full of filler and introspection and “thinking” on events that had just happened. (Example: “She bit her tongue, thinking of being worried about the killer beside her. Could she trust him? He had killed a man in the ring, but he’d also volunteered to come with her, blah blah blah.”) I just read the Wikipedia summaries to find out how the story ended.

Shoving a fairy tale into a science fiction setting is a fun idea, but just for one book. Making a series out of it, with each book repping a different tale, and it’s a square peg in a round hole. It becomes as silly as wolfmen on the moon.

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Like the last one, it’s great but long. This time we’re involved in more than one heist. There are multiple characters in multiple locations, so a few adventures are going on. It’s just as dark and violent and splashes lovingly in the middle part of the morality pool where the water becomes gray.

And there’s a great push-and-pull as the bad guys put obstacles up, the good guys plan and banter a way around them, the goalposts get pushed back, and so on. It’s just good writing and good plot development all around. Finding a good fantasy story that’s not just a clone of “Game of Thrones” is hard–something that’s not houses going to war, princes & princesses in political marriages, or prophetic chosen ones. But it’s so loooooong.

Nonetheless, it ends the duology well. Somehow Leigh Bardugo knows how to psychologically manipulate through story and still bring out good character development and plot movement. You hate to read so much and be disappointed by the ending, but that’s not the case here. The ending is like a cherry on top for this saga.

The Last Emperox (The Interdependency #3) by John Scalzi

I feel like this might be Scalzi’s least Scalziest book yet. Something about the writing style of the Interdependency series leaves me cold. Colder than his other books, at least. In terms of tone, it feels like one of those big deal epics that Isaac Asimov or Larry Niven wrote. Not like Lock In or Old Man’s War.

First, a lot of the book is setup. Basically, the empress is dealing with the paradigm-shifting changes made to the status quo last time, and not everyone in government likes it. In fact, half of the battle is stopping those derogators than moving forward with fixing the mess. Every chapter is “oh, this might happen”, “oh, this might happen”, “oh, this might happen”, and it’s exhausting waiting for a shoe to drop. He’s basically saving it all for the end. Reminds me of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, which I didn’t like.

The scope of the narration feels so high it’s like you’re watching Sims go about their business. Getting emotionally close to characters is eschewed for snarky narrative and plot twists. It loses characterization to be a book about global machinations, like the saga of the Spanish Armada. A “big deal” political epic like Dune or Foundation, condensed and modernized. But it’s a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. I’m just eager to read something a little more personal and intimate.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell: Tales of a 6′ 4″, African American, Heterosexual, Cisgender, Left-Leaning, Asthmatic, Black and Proud Blerd, Mama’s Boy, Dad, and Stand-Up Comedian by W. Kamau Bell

I have double- and triple- and quadruple-checked this review to not sound racist, and it still sounds racist to me. Everything I write seems condescending like “ooh, let me read about the experience and perspective of these poor downtrodden folk so that I, as a lord, may better fathom these men’s plight. Ah, now I totally understand the Black experience, tum-tee-tum.”

On Twitter, during the Minneapolis riots, someone listed a set of books by Black voices discounted on Amazon, to encourage the purchase of artistic works by Black people. So I bought some of them. I understand other humans through books, and my bookshelf does not have many authors of color. Especially Black people, since they have a unique aspect that the Chinese or Irish or Indian or Hispanic or any other American emigrants don’t have–slavery.

W. Kamau Bell is the child of two people that couldn’t fail if they wanted to. Usually, I complain about people like that (see my review of Mary Robinette Kowal‘s book), but in this case, it’s fine because Bell fails quite a bit. He drops out of college. He can’t make friends. He doesn’t fit in at private school. He doesn’t have two married parents. He likes superheroes and rock music and Bruce Lee. He’s in a Venn diagram of not Black enough for Blacks and not safe enough for whites.

He’s spent his career in jumping around mediums–stand-up, one man shows, late night TV round-tables, man-on-the-street news features–but the common theme is he’s always exploring social issues.

But sometimes his essays get too progressive for their own good. Sometimes Bell points out incidents that he claimed were racist, where I didn’t see where it wouldn’t have gone different if he was a white man. Like having to deal with idiot television producers or nosy Karens who think they know better than you how to be a parent. Despite large amounts of text dedicated to his upbringing, I just didn’t see where he had experienced a lot of hardship or interesting things in his life. Not like Lindsey Stirling or Kayla Williams.

That being said, I enjoyed this collection of essays, especially compared to the pasty white drivel I had read previously (David Sedaris and John Hodgman) and I think he has intriguing ideas. This guy’s got the makings of a leader. I would like to see another set of writing, now that the autobiography stuff is out of the way. There’s still plenty that white people don’t know about being Black in America.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

This book has effluvial praise. That always makes me suspicious–when everyone likes something that usually means I’m not going to like it. If it pleases everyone, that means it’s been adulterated to appeal to everyone.

It’s another class-conflict story, like The Dutch House. Rich man, poor man. Upstairs, downstairs. The guys who can afford everything versus the people who have to eat jelly packets.

The story starts with a suburbanite family’s house on fire, unsalvagable. Three of the four children (all teenagers) watch it burn, theorizing their littlest sister did it and no one seems very surprised or impassioned. I would be like “OMG she just destroyed our lives! Kill that bitch!”

That’s the “upstairs” family–Mom’s a journalist, Dad’s a lawyer, and the four teen kids all fit in a WB teen drama. The “downstairs” is a single mother and daughter who just moved into the duplex rented out by “upstairs” mom. The mother is basically a starving artist. She considers her artistic photography to be her “job” and the waitressing is just to make money. Hence why they’re “downstairs”.

Which brings me to the main reason I stopped reading — I liked no characters. There is a part where the single mother gets a successful gallery show and the curator offers to pay her for another batch of similar photographs. What does she say? No, I never do the same thing twice.

Fuck you, lady. You’ve got a KID. She needs to EAT. You’re fine with feeding your kid tortillas and canned beans so don’t have to “compromise your artistic integrity”. Are you gonna tell your daughter “Sorry honey, it’s Imaginary Christmas this year because ‘the MAN’ doesn’t understand my vision.” I can’t stand people like that — I thought the notion of the romantic Bohemian artiste died at the same time Moulin Rouge came out.

I can’t stand the notions some people have that if you create art that makes money you’re a sell-out. I have a quote on my website — “Being a better writer is something of a moot point, since if you’re not a commercial writer to some extent, very few people will know whether your writing is any good or not.” (John Scalzi).

I made it 18% in. There was just no plot happening. The excitement happens in the first chapter, but it’s a bait-and-switch–it’s a flash-forward, and then the rest is exposition. (What’s the opposite of burying the lede?) By chapter six there wasn’t even an inkling of what was to come. The alleged arsonist little sister hadn’t even shown up. BTW, she’s the most interesting character–the sister who plays violin and writes “I am not a puppet” on her forehead at dance recital because her parents pushed her into it. I want to read about that person. But no, she’s the bad guy because she doesn’t want to conform to you suburbanites.

Instead I got the friendship between the single mother’s daughter and the four upper class children. And the jealousy and longing and desire for each other’s lives and crushes and money woes as one would expect. But it’s just characterization and “getting to know you” passages. The only interest comes from the “differences” between the two families. Well, an elf and a dwarf have differences, but they still need to do something.

And after reading the summary and analysis, I’m glad I cut out early. Because I’m wondering what is the point of this novel? It seems to be “stop sticking your nose into other people’s business”. The story sounds like it’s a microwavable version of a “Desperate Housewives” melodrama. There’s abortions, given-up babies, affairs, women’s issues, shame in front of the neighbors, lawsuits, runaway mothers, and nosy white bitches. If I wanted to something about someone not fitting in and the dirty little secrets of white middle class suburbia, I’d watch Edward Scissorhands.

The plot hinges on a bunch of Karens making bad decisions because they think they’re right. Halfway through a woman tells someone that they should sue an adopting couple for the child she gave up. Because she thinks every woman should have the right to raise their own child. And she would know, since she’s been living on the run for the past decade because she was a surrogate and stole the child she was meant to surrender. At a certain point, don’t you look at your life and wonder how you got there? Oh, maybe it’s because I keep imposing my high and mighty beliefs on others and lashing out at anyone who doesn’t agree. This is the same reason we have people who don’t wear masks and cluck their tongues at BLM protests like “why are they so angry?”

I hate this book and I haven’t even read it.

Orcs Be Racist?

angry orc

This was a recent hot take on the interwebs, and I love the low hanging fruit so…

I actually have a little expertise in this (as much as one can about a swords & sorcery race that doesn’t exist). I have read the D&D Player’s Guide & Dungeon Master’s Guide cover-to-cover, and written a novella about orcs. So I’ve done my research. I mean, I’m not savvy on the history of orcs in fiction, but I’ve got some stakes as a fiction writer.

So the big debate is whether orcs are a stand-in for Black people, either in the tribal African “Shaka Zulu” sense or the “genetic predisposition” sense.

There has never been scientific evidence that Black people intrinsically violent or unintelligent. Could you see Idris Elba or Dulé Hill as an orc?

orc and bunny

This is all conjecture. It’s circular reasoning — you’re starting with the conclusion and then cherry-picking the evidence that supports it. You have to assume the premises are true to accept that the conclusion is true. I know this is true because what if I said “Hey, I think orcs were based on cowboys. They’re both violent, unintelligent, and uncivilized. How do we know Tolkien didn’t have vicious American cowboys in mind when he wrote Lord of the Rings?” I could do the same thing with Romans, Mongolians, or frontiersmen like Davey Crockett and Jeremiah Johnson.

I’m not gonna rehash the history of orcs. That’s what the Wikipedia page is for, so check that if you’re interested. Suffice to say, the word “African” or “Black” (in the context of race) does not appear in the page. Point one.

Second, orcs were brought into modern usage by J.R.R. Tolkien, an author from a land where they don’t have systemic racism. There weren’t Black slaves in England. There weren’t phrenologists and quacks trying to prove Africans as inferior so they could justify slavery. That was America. Meaning they weren’t conceived as a mock for Darkest Africa.

orc family

However, fantasy writers have a history of making their races as caricatures of existing cultures. Dwarves have been stereotyped in lots of places as being Jewish (obsession with gold, semitic-sounding language) and/or Scottish (since most Fantasy is vaguely British-based, dwarves resemble Celts best in terms of behavior, history, and relationship). So the idea is not without merit. But like Belle and Stockholm Syndrome, even if the circumstances are ripe for it, there is no evidence associating the culture of orcs to African-Americans.

The original argument was presented in the context of Dungeons & Dragons, a modern day game that is ever-changing. Let’s talk about orcs in that context.

Death of the Author– No

Someone noted that if you play as an orc, no matter the class, you take a -1 penalty to your intelligence score. That means the smartest orc can never be smarter than the smartest human. (The reverse is not true, since stats can’t go below zero – the dumbest human is as dumb as the dumbest orc). Extrapolate that out and that means the average orc is dumber than the average human.

But is this legitimate? You’re trying to apply biological, psychological, and sociological traits with game statistics. A person’s logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, reasoning, creativity, problem-solving, etc. cannot be reduced to a simple number.

D&D is a game. You need balance in a game. Like in any Madden NFL game, a character might be a 99 for catching in real life, but has to be reduced to 90 or else one team is going to dominate or exploit a mechanic or something.

In most RPG games, there is some kind of “brute” playable character–something with high strength and low intelligence. Something that’s strong when it comes to melee or physical attacks and weak to magical attacks. The INT penalty is a game mechanic.

pensive orc

And keep in mind this is the same game where being “evil” is a naturally occuring trait. (Which goes into a whole big about the nature of evil and nature vs. nurture and condensing motivations to a 3×3 grid and do you kill the orc babies and so on). This wasn’t meant to be a universe, it was meant to help with role-playing. All monsters have some innate descriptors — mermaids, nagas, ettins. Some have characteristics they share with existing cultures. Some do not.

Death of the Author – Yes

In the excerpt, it says “an orc trying to live within the confines of civilization is faced with a difficult task.” Fine, but is the author is assuming that said orc was raised among other orcs and will have culture shock? Or is the author saying orcs are born “uncivilized” like primates?

Orcs started in D&D as monsters. They were enemies to fight that you didn’t have to worry about the moral implications of killing. Something more challenging than animal-like monsters. That’s how Tolkien envisioned them too. Orcs live for battle. They want to prove their strength.

Then D&D got popular and expanded. Then orcs became a race that people wanted to play, to add flavor to the game. The game designers obliged, but they had to keep the orc as an orc, otherwise it wouldnt be an orc. That meant integrating a fighty-shouty monster into a world where the apex citizens had civilization and culture and highly advanced problem-solving skills.

That meant you had a monster that had to live among human kind. Kind of like the Klingons in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They had the same stats as a monster, but were living among humans (and dwarves and elves). They’re not human, but apparently they can breed with humans, because there are half-orcs. And that gets into all kinds of issues I don’t have the wherewithal to comprehend.

pretty like an orc

That’s the thing–in D&D, anything goes. This is not a set world. Not a set culture. There’s no such thing as canon. All Wizards of the Coast provides is world-building. The characters and stories and situations within are created by the millions of game players worldwide. That means an orc could be a savage race in one game session and a tribe of noble warriors in another. Or a race of bunny-farmers in another.

My question is–where is the Black person in all this? When do they show up? Cause I haven’t seen it. What makes you think when we talk about orcs, we’re really talking about Black people?

It’s all BS and pot-stirring. D&D is meant to be played how you want. Anything in the book is a suggestion. A helpful guideline. An approach to impersonation. Play the orc how you want. Maybe he’s a sophisticated guy with a monocle who sits in an upholstered chair smoking a pipe. As long as the orc has a reason for getting to that station in life, it’s fine.

An orc is an orc is an orc. If you see something else, that’s your own Rorschach test.

female orc and knight love

The Books I Read: January – February 2018

bookshelf books

The Elven by Bernhard Hennen

It took me two months of dedicated reading to complete this. Of course, I took breaks along the way, but still, I feel stories can wear out their welcome. We’re not in the era of television-less-ness anymore. We don’t need War and Peace to keep us occupied. And this is a callback to those kinds of books. It’s a saga rooted in high fantasy and Norse/Germanic myths (like elves and dwarves).

We’ve got three main characters. Two are elves who have been rivals for a girl elf’s love for whatever thousands of years elves live. The last is a viking who gets treated like the comic relief throughout the book. Seriously, you think he’s going to be a badass, but the elves treat him like Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movies. Every place they go, the elves cluck their tongues at him for drinking, fighting, and being crude (although no more than any normal viking) and go “look at this boorish human, ha ha”. They’re like Legolas in every way–eagle vision, can do magic, nimble, skilled warrior, and so on. Very few female parts that don’t involve a queen or someone more important’s daughter, so don’t look here for any diversity.

It is well-written, it’s just so damn long. You forget who characters are, what places are. There’s a map in the beginning but it only covers a small portion of the world. Maybe I’m a dummy, but if you’re going to make a novel this big and sprawling, add a few cheat sheets in there.

And as a result, I don’t think I can recommend this book. It’s good enough for a normal size novel, but not for something this long. It took me eighteen hours–I could have read three or four other books in that time. I can’t help but think I’d have been better off continuing The Expanse.

futuristic violence and fancy suits david wong

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong

I found a few books recommended for people who liked “Ready Player One”. And I needed it after finishing some long fantasy sagas. I wanted something funny and contemporary. I’d read David Wong before and liked it so I thought this would hit the spot.

And it did. Wong’s not good at titles (or is he too good?) but it’s exactly what’s on the tin–fast action and men-in-black doing gratuitous violence. It’s a big that stew that combines cyberassasins, superheroes, horror movies, anime, future dystopia. Much of them reflect (but aren’t directly coded as) eighties weirdness like “Rock and Rule” and MTV’s bizarro years.

It’s not a story that holds up to scrutiny. The plot moves so fast you don’t have much chance to learn character backstories or reflect on anything. You’re onto something new before you can digest the old. Characters turncoat from bad to good without explanation. Plot coupons come from nowhere. Chapters are short and action-packed. The character is dragged through events by the seat of her pants, rather than making decisions for herself. And none of the cast is likable. It’s like a Jason Statham movie.

So this should only be used for amusement and entertainment. It won’t give you anything profound. It won’t be taught in high school. But it is a great book for a reader who likes Marvel movies and video games. It’s a trip and a joke and an action movie.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

This is the story of a twelve-year-old girl coming to terms with the absence of her mom. It’s told in two parallel narratives. One is in present-time, on a road trip with her grandparents. The other is the story she tells to her grandparents that involve her mom and what happened with her and her dad after she left.

The classic trifecta ensues: 1) they move somewhere she doesn’t like 2) Dad starts seeing another woman 3) No one in school likes her. In the process, she befriends another girl, and HER mother leaves. This is the interesting part, as our main character gets a taste of what a pill she was, having to console someone in the same situation.

It’s a good story, especially if you know what a broken home is like. And the style, full of odd quaint country expressions and quirky humor. It’s not a cheesy Hallmark story. It reminds me of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie or “Holes” by Louis Sachar or “I Am the Cheese” by Robert Cormier. All of these have an unreliable narrator and implication of something sinister going on below the surface.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I was nervous about reading this at first. John Green highly recommended it, dedicated a whole vlog to it. But in the past, he’d recommended Kendra by Coe Booth, which I didn’t like. And The Boy in the Black Suit was only so-so. So I thought this genre wasn’t for me, because I couldn’t be more white and it’s a big leap to sympathize with… what are we calling them now? Underprivileged minorities? Then I saw it on a bunch of Year End Top Ten lists and thought I’d give it a try.

Days later, I was still thinking about it. Yes, it’s an “issue” book, but it’s more about the aftermath of what someone goes through. Other issue books miss the point entirely, skipping over roots & causes and capitalizing on a hot button to sell books (like 13 Reasons Why or This Is Where It Ends).

Our main character is split between two worlds. By day she goes to school in a white neighborhood full of preppies, thanks to a school voucher. By night, she’s back in the ghetto, with her family of half-siblings and Dad who’s done time and now runs a grocery store. She never lets either side know of her other life because she’d be called a traitor or ostracized for some other reason.

That all changes when she witnesses a cop shoot her friend and can’t toe the line anymore. But it’s more about what her neighborhood goes through, how they react, from gang leaders to barbers, and the whites & lawyers reactions. It’s about what it means to be “ghetto” when that’s your life, not just a thirty-minute sitcom. Even when you live among gangs and broken families, a young black teenage girl can still want daddy snuggles. No one is a one-note or ghetto caricature. It’s modern life and helps a great deal with empathizing and sympathizing and, most of all, understanding the POV of “Black Lives Matter”.

Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer

It’s a solid C. The main character lacks a “Save the Cat” moment, so he’s not very sympathetic. And women won’t find anything for themselves here. The only female in the book is the person the main character is trying to ask out. She’s a prize to be won. Also there’s no plot, no bad guy, no goal (either inner or outer) besides “learn a thing”. So it’s a little like Disney’s The Sword in the Stone in that way. But at least in that movie, Merlin was grooming Arthur to be king. Here, the wizards’ objective is to live easy bachelor lives, geek wish fulfillment, and to conjure burritos whenever they want.

After that, you’d think I’d give it a low rating. But despite its flaws, I realized, halfway through, that I still wanted to know how it ended. This is what I wanted Wizard’s Bane to be–a computer programmer in medieval times using programming to do magic.

This is a book for people who like comic strips, not characters. It’s light-hearted, fun, and humorous. But keep in mind that means the plot is going to be held by shoestrings. So don’t come in with expectations of Harry Potter.

Also, the cover is bupkiss. There’s no video games here.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

This was way better than I thought it would be. King’s known for horror, not high fantasy. Before this point, the only other fantasy he wrote (if you don’t count The Gunslinger, which goes beyond genres) was The Talisman. And after this point, he didn’t go back to it for a long time. So I thought it would be a disaster. When an author writes outside their wheelhouse, you get wary. But it was also written in 1987, around the same time as It, Misery, and Skeleton Crew. And before he got sober.

The whole book has a fun storyteller vibe, like an old man in a tavern telling you the saga of King What’s-his-face. And since it’s a secondary world, you don’t have to worry about those Stephen King cliches.

However, the weird thing is the story never seems to start. It keeps describing characters, giving anecdotes, showing the history of the kingdom, etc. but you’re halfway through the book and the inciting incident hasn’t occurred. The narration consistently feels like it’s building towards something all throughout, which is disconcerting.

But overall, yes, I recommend it. It’s a good book even for the non-Stephen King fan and I plan on reading the sequel.

John Dies at the End by David Wong

I remember reading this when it was free online, many many years ago. At the time, it felt like a life-changing work. So many books consist of dull introspective characters, plodding plots. This was a story for the MTV generation, with creative monsters, gross-out moments, and complete rejection of post-modern literary crap.

But it’s a flawed narrative. Many scenes take up space and reflect what you’d see in a movie. They don’t drive plot, reveal character, or restate theme. Also, all the events happen without being tied together, so it gets long and boring when the characters don’t want anything except to survive.

It’s like a Transformers movie: every scene is framed as MAXIMUM importance… which means nothing is important.Things happen, but you don’t care. It’s not a character-based story, it’s event, then event, then event. There’s no quiet scenes where we get a chance to absorb the impact. There’s sort of a beginning but there’s no middle or ending. The imagery provides information that isn’t necessary, like reading a book while listening to a different one. It’s all spectacle and no information.

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View by various authors

This is an anthology of short stories that tells the story of Star Wars, but from the point-of-view of all the little characters that don’t matter. Like the Jawa that finds R2-D2, the Tusken Raider that cold-cocks Luke, various droids and rebels, even the stormtrooper that bonks his head on the doorway. All the parts that didn’t even earn scale.

It’s actually one of the better short story collections I’ve read. Maybe because A) there’s one unifying element tying them all together and leading to a conclusion and B) it’s Star Wars. It was enjoyable, but not pull-you-in enjoyable. There is a LOT of time spent on Tatooine. I think there’s a story for every character in Mos Eisley. If you like Star Wars, this is definitely worth looking into.

White Guy Includes People of Color In His Book, Gets Lynched

diversity in work

These days, I feel obligated to include people of color (PoC) in my works, because the SF community is really bearing down on publications and works that don’t include them. There’s no particular target but anyone who exhibits the slightest tint towards misogyny, even in jest (I’m thinking of the Hugo host kerfuffle) gets eliminated. And anyone in one of these minorities will always tell you how there needs to be more representation.

Jim C. Hines recently had a 2 week series of guest bloggers talking about this. People of all sorts of genders, non-genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, mobilities (handicapped), mentalities (autism), medical conditions (albinism). And basically, all of them really just wanted more and fair representation in fiction. Not the evil albino, not the asexual wheelchair guy, not the white princesses, not the war-like Muslim, and more than binary representation of gender. (Didn’t see any religion on the list. Is no one suppressing Jews anymore?) They’re good posts and I learned a lot.

Thing is, there’s no way I can do what they want me to do.

I know Jim C. Hines is trying to spread awareness, but it feels like white writer’s guilt. Like if I don’t include at least one of these minorities in my work, I’m screwing up. Well, if I write about dwarves, am I supposed to make one of them black? Do I have to explicitly state that then? Do I have to give that black dwarf black characteristics? And if I do, what would those be in a fantasy setting? They don’t have urban culture in Rivendell. Just what am I supposed to do?

I’m xenophobic. I have no problem with any of the above divisions. If I think of a story that involves them, I will write it, but I usually don’t. My characters tend to be more hubs around a plot. I almost included a handicapped character in my latest novel, but I cut her out because she became extraneous (but plenty of potential to put her in for the potential sequel). Whether I “got her right” or not is meaningless. But I’m too afraid of screwing it up farther if I actively write about minorities, because I just don’t know enough about their lifestyle.

I live in a Minnesota suburb, which is not known for its diversity. I don’t know anyone within one degree of separation who’s of a non-binary gender. I’m not a product of divorce. I have no childhood traumas to draw from.  I don’t know anyone of a non-Christian religion. I don’t know anyone handicapped. I don’t know anyone with an autism-like learning disorder. I don’t know anyone with a medical condition that affects their ability to work or integrate with people. Except for the Indians I work with, no one really talks about their background.

Everyone I know are white males and females, married, dual-income, starting families with 2-3 kids and/or dogs. I can’t write what I don’t know. And one person’s story won’t be another’s. I don’t think you could be taken seriously with a lesbian, red-haired midget, but they do exist (Ashley from Pit Boss). I can’t be the writer those minorities want me to be. Any different race or type I write would be in name only. And morally speaking, would you rather I write about over-represented peoples or under-represented peoples wrong?

But I guess the onus is not on me to provide stories with under-represented people in them. It’s on editors to accept stories from under-represented authors and/or containing under-represented characters. What I don’t see is two weeks of guest blog posts from editors and publishers about diversity.

 It appears that people are writing the stuff, but they’re either not getting picked up or not getting marketed. I’m sure there’s a reason, and I’d like to know what that is. I just know that if you’re looking for diversity, you won’t find it here.

The Black Villain

black hand holding white hand

I don’t like to talk about controversial topics, but I am trying to go beyond my boundaries. This is also a good exercise in me accepting feedback/criticism/humility. Something I need to do if I intend to write posts like “The Penny Arcade Dickwolves Go To State“, “My Philosophy on Writing Women“, and anything concerning Anita Sarkeesian (btw, that’s a fun name to say). I better be able to take it if I can dish it out.

Remember, just because you are offended doesn’t mean you’re right.

Here’s a problem I run into when writing. I’m a straight white male. I live in Minnesota. I simply do not know much about being a member of the “other”. That means I’d better make most of the people in my story a straight, white male. At least if I want to be commercially successful. There’s good stories about being the “other” out there, but I’m still an amateur.

However, I don’t want to make everyone a SWM. Not only is it implausible, it’s boring. So if your “other”‘s not going to be the protagonist, what other roles are left? There’s the supporting roles, like the mentor. But if you make a Black man that role, you’re in the “magical negro” territory. If you make him an ally, then it’s too easy to make him the trickster/comic relief (Grover from “Percy Jackson” comes to mind) that evokes too many “minstrel” memories. Not to mention you end up with a character who has no life outside of his one white friend. (More info) He’s nothing more than a device to show the main character is a good guy (look at him, he’s got a black friend. He’s not racist!)

Then there’s the antagonist — the shadow, the shapeshifter, the tempter — but if you do that, then marketing or political groups think you’re vilifying all blacks. You’ve got a white guy facing off against a black guy? It’s no longer about the characters. Now those people represent their entire race, and people cry “white man’s burden” and “nothing’s changed, same old tropes”.

It’s either positive discrimination or re-enforcing years of racist entertainment. James Earl Jones does a fantastic job as the villain in Conan the Barbarian. His role has nothing to do with race. But you still find people who think the whole story is meant as a political message

In a book, it’s a little easier to get away with it. Just don’t physically describe your characters. John Scalzi’s done this multiple times. He’s even maneuvered some so that he doesn’t mention a character’s gender. Characters who actively have sex with a male.

In movies, you can’t do that. You’ve got a character who could theoretically be any race. More often than not, he’s not going to be a black guy, unless he or she was specifically written as such. And style doesn’t count, like the Muses in Hercules.

It’s a no-win situation. It means that movies stay the same — screenwriters are forced to make the same characters, same archetypes, and black actors are forced into the same types of roles if they want to get work. (See Hollywood Shuffle, a great movie that’s still holds up today). Either they’re in movies where they’re the only black guy, or movies where there’s nothing but black guys.

I feel like I’m not explaining myself well enough. Take Game of Thrones for example. (Spoilers for Season 3). Daenerys spent her year’s story arc gathering an army. First, she buys 8,000 obedient soldiers, then wipes out their slavemasters who owned them. Then she traveled to a slave city and freed everyone there. Her season ended with crowd-surfing over 10,000 freed people calling her “mama”.

But people are accusing Daenerys of being a white savior, sent to free the poor brown people. I’m not sure exactly who they’re accusing (they do know that she’s a fictional character, right?) That whole white man’s burden thing — she’s suddenly become the noble and impeccable pinnacle of shining morality. And in turn, that accuses her writers/creators of perpetuating white fantasy stereotypes, or being ignorant of them. One commenter said they can’t watch that scene without the racial implications taking them out of the narrative. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when complaining about race in GoT.

But really, what else is supposed to happen? You can’t just race-flip Daenerys in the middle of the season. She is white, blond, and blue-eyed because her whole family is (and she’s a product of questionable hereditary mixing in the first place). Westeros has many kinds of weather, it’s an expy of England. The people across the narrow sea are dark-skinned because it’s mostly desert and sun. They’re probably toiling in the sun 24 hours a day. Daenerys is a moral person who has power — she’s going to do what she can to free others. Character motivation + setting equals plot. That’s the way the story goes. It’s what the character would do.

Now granted, I wish that she had some more obstacles during her arc. It seemed that everything went very easy for her — she exchanged her dragon for all the 8,000 Unsullied, then used them to kill everyone in the city and get her dragon back (you’d think they’d have a precaution for that in the contract). Then she goes to Yunkai and meets the three badass mercenary leaders that are going to take on her new army (one of them’s called “the Titan’s Bastard”). But do we see Daenerys’s mettle tested? No, because all three of these super-warriors get killed off-screen by a traitor. Then Daenerys sits and waits while her knights sneak in and take out the guards. And then crowd-surfing at the end. My comfort is that I know things won’t keep going this well for her (it’s Game of Thrones, after all).

But the problem when anyone brings up race is that the other side says “you just don’t get it”. Fine, I agree with that. But I think no matter what gets changed, no one’s going to be happy. There are no black vikings, but then people are angry when Heimdall is portrayed as black in Thor, when he’s white in the comic, but then cast him as white and people say “why are there no black people in this movie? Throw us a bone!” and chaos ensues.

Are these the same people who thought The Two Towers needed to be renamed to be “sensitive” to 9/11? You can’t win. There’s always going to be someone complaining. Tell me, what would make you happy? What do you want to see?

So I’m going to keep making the stories I want. I’m going to make the stories I’d want to read, whether they have white villains or Asian housemaidens or woman shapeshifters. Bucking the paradigm is one thing, but not at the sacrifice of story. I’m lucky that in writing, all the pictures are in your head.

A Video Gamer’s Take on Lowest Difficulty Setting

bookshelf life lessons

I don’t think I need to introduce Scalzi’s “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting“. You know it, I know it, the American people know it.

I’m not going to say anything that hasn’t been said. Jim C. Hines made a great post of backing facts. This person re-emphasized the point with “driving a smooth road and not even knowing it”. And Dr. Sheila Addison helpfully gives us things you can do about it.

And it’s not like this is news. Remember that episode of The Simpsons, where Grampa is sitting at the kitchen table saying “It’s rotten being old, no one listens to you.” Lisa says “It’s awful being a kid, no one listens to you.” Homer jumps in and says, “I’m a white male, age 18 to 49. Everyone listens to me, no matter how dumb my suggestions are.” Then he pulls out a jar of “Nuts and Gum”.

I think the biggest reason people are knee-jerk reacting is that they now understand the issue and feel shame. I don’t think that was Scalzi’s intention, but it’s the inevitable result. And we now live in a society where you can’t shame anyone, can’t judge anyone, and everyone feels entitled. Shame is a great motivator. And if you don’t judge anything, don’t criticize anything, nothing changes. Because no one thinks there’s a problem.

My biggest beef with the essay is that Scalzi used the video game metaphor, but didn’t carry it to completion. All he said was it’s more difficult to get things done at harder difficulties, but he didn’t illustrate how that works. He even said this several times: “no simile is going to be perfect”.

But what if it was? The thing about video games is that difficulty setting can mean different things. Sometimes it means enemies deal more damage or take more. Sometimes it means fewer checkpoints, Sometimes whole levels are changed or skipped. Sometimes you can’t play the game because it’s too hard or too easy. Sometimes the difficulty meant nothing. (See Video Game Difficulty Tropes)

What can you expect when you first boot up the game World of… World? Keep in mind when you start the game, you don’t get a choice of what setting to play. And you only have one account. Ever.

All players have the same quest opportunities, assuming level, stats or prerequisites are fulfilled. But players on the harder settings have a 5 – 7% chance of refusal. That means if you accept the quest or mission, the NPC can change his or her mind, and deny you from accepting. For all time. Yes, this means some parts of the story may get closed off, but this is a random chance. If you want that item, you may have to buy it in the Auction House, or try a different quest.
If you are banned or suspended from the game at any time, players at Medium or Hard receive a 10% longer suspension period than players on Easy.
Woman players (available on Medium or Difficult setting only) receive a random amount of gold 75-100% of what the “Easy” player would make. Could be 100%, could be 75%.
Players who are non-White or non-Straight (available on Medium or Difficult setting only) receive 10-20% more random encounters. Sometimes you might get engaged in battle right after a hard quest, and you’re limping home with your loot, when you get attacked and killed.
Mana cost for magic spells is the same for players on all difficulty settings. However, for other players, the cost to do spells and buffs on players playing at Medium or Hard is increased by 10-25%. This might mean some players can not (or will not) heal you, for various reasons.
Once you reach a certain level, you can apply to be a GM. This is open to anybody. However, as a result of the difficulty settings, you’ll find that 85% of GMs started on Easy mode, and thus are of the SWM variety.
GMs assign each “petition” or “issue” a priority rating from 1-10. Players on Medium and Hard get an automatic -1 and -2 penalty to any issue they bring up.
Woman players (available on Medium or Difficult setting only) have a 18% random chance of getting kidnapped by an NPC for use in a quest. This means you remain immobile, essentially becoming an NPC, until a PC rescues you.
There is also a bug where Women characters have a chance of freezing up permanently. But since most GMs are playing on Easy, they haven’t put forth much effort to fix it.

Globally speaking, this is why you see more “Easy” players with higher levels, more positions of authority, and more wealth than others. Easy players will finish quests faster, earn more gold, and thus get to higher levels more quickly. It’s why you see RMT’s targeting more players on Medium and Hard, because they know, statistically speaking, those players will have less items by comparison to Easy players. Some of those players accept those deals from RMTs, for that very reason. Which encourages the RMTs to keep targeting them. And the cycle continues. And there’s about 6% more game drop-outs from players on the Medium and Hard difficulties.

Now, it’s entirely possible for a player on Medium or Hard to complete the same game, and have the same game experience as someone on Easy. All of the above are random chances. There’s no reason a player on Medium or Hard can’t reach Level 85 as fast as a player on Easy. But is it likely? … Hell, no.

Scalzi’s essay feels like being blamed for something you didn’t do or have no control over. But the easy thing to forget is that this is a blanket statement. Mileage may vary. The “Lowest Difficulty Setting” theory is meant for examining large groups and trends over time. Like the “Bechdel Test”, it’s not meant to be applied with a narrow scope. When applied to individuals, and dinged with every nuance and nitpick, it loses the broader focus of making a point about global patterns.

That being said, I can’t disagree with the statement. And there’s nothing I can do to change my difficulty setting. The best thing I can do is stay mindful of it when I go about in life. I am very aware I have it quite easy, in many, many, many ways which have nothing to do with my orientation, gender, or race. It is a certain level of power. And the important thing is to use that power, that advantage, for good.