Nerd Culture


It’s that time of year again, where I hate -watch the latest Star Wars dump so that you, my dear reader(s), don’t have to. I’m a little late to the party because I was on holiday and had much better things to do with my time than watch a shit movie for this blog[1], so sorry for those of you who already wasted your money on this stinker. This review isn’t going to be quite as expletive-laden as my review of the pile of shit that was The Last Jedi, but that’s because this movie was mostly just disappointing, overblown rubbish, not earth-shatteringly bad.

This review will contain extensive spoilers, so if you really do want to subject yourself to this masochistic annual ritual, don’t read past this paragraph. In this paragraph I present a spoiler-free assessment of the movie, to encourage you to wait until it’s on free-to-air TV. Basically, this movie was boring, insipid and lacking in any real sense of direction. The whole thing was weighed down by all the woeful decisions made in the previous one, and by the ruinous changes to the Star Wars universe that one introduced. It was also weighed down by bad casting decisions made years ago, and by the fact that JJ Abrams is an utterly shit director. It has some nice set pieces but they can’t hold your attention as they should because it’s impossible to bring yourself to care about these people or this story. It’s a washout, and I’m glad the whole sorry travesty has finally come to its ridiculous end.

So now to the part of the review with spoilers.

Why do I care about these people?

The first and biggest problem with this movie – and with so much of modern American cinema, actually – is that I just can’t bring myself to care about any of these people (okay, maybe Chewie and BB8, but no one else). They are just the worst, most boring, most anodyne characters I have seen in an action movie in so long. Sure, Rey is significantly improved from the useless whining loser she was in The Last Jedi, but that just means she has ascended to the level of boring. All the spice in her character in The Force Awakens has been leached out and replaced with, well, with nothing. Finn is a complete waste of space, Rose seems to exist only to worry about Finn (why would she?), there is some old lady who is in a few scenes who kisses another girl who I guess I’m supposed to care about (was she Dorn in the previous one? I can’t tell because these people are so boring that they all look the same). Even the supposedly quirky aliens – like Babadook or whatever the stupid little rat thing was called – are just quirky aliens out of central casting, stereotypes done boringly. Compared to every alien in this movie Ja Ja Binks is a miracle of acting and character development. The cast also acted very poorly – the actors playing Poe Dameron and Rose were super wooden, but everyone was pretty bad – which is really bad when they’re also delivering a bad script in a plot that doesn’t work. Within seconds of coming onscreen for their first introduction every character is reduced to empty nothingness, by a lethal combination of poor script, poor acting and poor character vision. Look at Hux as an example: an Aryan icon giving vaguely meaningful fascist speeches in The Force Awakens gets shot for the most pathetically-acted attempt to lie I have ever seen on screen, an effort that would have made Weasley in the first Harry Potter movie look like the Arch Deceiver himself. And Hux was played by a decent actor! I guess it’s just impossible for them to even give a shit by now, and so why should I?

Poe Dameron needs to die

Poe Dameron was a central problem in The Last Jedi, and he’s absolutely awful in this. I can’t understand why I’m supposed to care about Poe Dameron, or indeed how I can support the Rebel Alliance at all when he’s hanging around it. I would absolutely unleash the Final Order ships on every planet in the universe if it would scrub the universe clean of that man. He’s awful, the worst stereotype of the American jock-hero, with the added crapitude of being absolutely shit at everything he does. In The Last Jedi he single-handedly brought the Rebellion to the edge of ruin, through refusing to behave like a soldier, but somehow in this movie instead of being spaced or fed to the Sarlak in the first scene he is a fucking general, and now everyone has to follow his stupid plans that invariably fail. He – and I guess the director – thinks he’s funny and rogueishly charming but he never does or says a single funny or charming thing, even with the masked chick he just comes across as a sleazy failure (of course we learn that he betrayed and failed his previous gang too). What a piece of shit that character is – and what a piece of shit the director is for assuming we are going to find any fellow-feeling with this worthless scumbag.

The sputtering plot turns

This movie was stupidly long, and a big part of the reason it was stupidly long was that the heroes would be halfway through executing a plan when a fundamental plank of the plan fell apart, so then they have to quickly make another plan to achieve the same objective, and then again, and so on. This meant that a bunch of things happened that just didn’t need to happen, for no apparent reason connected to the overall plot. Or, the heroes would do a thing to achieve a thing, and then something would turn up that meant the goal they achieved was no longer needed. A prime example is the wayfinder, which the heroes spent half the movie looking for just to have Emo Ren smash it, so then Rey just stole his ship. Seems to me like a big chunk of the movie could have been dropped and I could have gotten out of that shitshow about an hour earlier if they hadn’t done that useless quest. Sure I’d have missed the cool scenes on the ruins of the Death Star (just about the only good setting in this movie) and the Big-Haired Black Chick (who I think gave her name only at the end of the movie but I missed it because I was being utterly floored by the sleazy way Lando Calrissian basically made a move on her right there), who was the only cool character in this whole movie. But I’m willing to make the sacrifice if a) this movie can have a bearable length and b) this movie can have a functional plot.

This thing of wasted sacrifices is pretty common in American movies, and it really shits me. The characters spend an hour chasing down an important goal and then it is rendered useless, and I’m meant to somehow maintain a healthy attitude towards the director? The best example of this in history of course is Titanic, where the whole story turns out to have been a complete fucking waste of time. Why would any director think it’s cool to do this to the audience? Ask JJ Abrams I guess because it happened regularly in this movie.

The incredibly stupid plans

I don’t want to sound like a hero or anything, but if I am ever taken captive by a pack of shitstains and held in an impregnable fortress, and you my dear reader(s) are on a mission to save the galaxy, could you maybe consider not putting the entire mission on hold to save my worthless arse? Even if I have somehow managed to graduate to being as charming as Chewie? Just leave me to die and go save the galaxy. Yeah I’ll blame you later, but whatever, you’ll be up to your necks in whatever gender of eager supplicants you want after you become galaxy-saving heroes, and you’ll soon find a way to fuck away the guilt. Don’t do what the idiots in this movie did, and go running to rescue your friend for no reason! And if you do, try to come up with a plan better than “we’ll land in the space ship and start shooting.” That’s not a plan. Oh! Of course Poe Dameron thought of it, so I guess we have to pretend it was a stroke of genius. Just like his plan to take on the largest battle fleet the galaxy has ever seen: take a handful of ships into the middle of the fleet and hope some more will join you later.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to have a movie centred around stupid plans – when you think about it Aliens was a series of increasingly dumb and desperate plans – but it needs to have some other redeeming feature. The original Star Wars movies had fresh ideas and good characters with a tight script, and weren’t exhaustingly long. Here we have boring characters led by an utter shitstain[2], repeatedly fucking up the simplest tasks and taking reckless and irresponsible risks in the middle of a galaxy-threatening event. This is not the recipe to an enjoyable movie!

The power creep

It’s a kind of joke that in each movie the Death Star is bigger than the previous one, and still stupidly easy to blow up, but there is a bigger problem in these movies, that each iteration of the saga we find the ships are bigger, the powers more extensive, and the stakes exponentially higher. We see this power creep in many ways in this movie: the vast Final Order fleet, that just appeared out of nowhere; the sudden revelation that there is a whole planet of Sith; the way that force ghosts can now raise spaceships from the ocean; the use of the Force to, amongst other things, stop spaceships flying or use lightning bolts to wipe out a whole fleet; the deployment of a gun that can kill planets, as ubiquitous now as artillery; the ability of force users now not only to project their image across the galaxy but to interact physically with the location they send their ghost to. It all just keeps escalating, and we the audience get decreasingly emotionally invested in every victory and every defeat. It also seems that with every step in power things also become noticably more fragile: the star destroyers can be blown apart simply by shooting the big planet-killer guns; the bridge of the flagship can be completely destroyed with light artillery; the entire fleet is rendered useless if a single transmitter is knocked out; and so on. There’s no coherence to the power steps, and with each revelation of a new level of power there is a decreasing sense of threat for us the viewers, since we’re so used to everything becoming bigger and nastier, and simultaneously more vulnerable. It’s just puff, useless decoration to hide the fact that there’s nothing underneath the story, nothing to carry the movie.

The problem of hyperspace skipping

So the Final Order have somehow procured a fleet so vast it has enough spaceships to bring every planet in the galaxy to heel, every ship so big and nasty it can kill a planet if the planet doesn’t surrender completely. Very Genghis Khan, much fearsome! Except … there is a super simple way to end this entire strategy. You simply place an old and decrepit ship in orbit of each planet, and when the Final Order ship arrives you just point your ship at it and go into hyperspace. We saw in the Last Jedi that this previously unheard-of strategy enables a small ship to completely destroy a star destroyer. Worse still, these Final Order ships are vulnerable to having their planet-killer guns hit[3], so even a tiny ship capable of hyperspace travel will be sufficient to get the job done – it doesn’t have to be even the size of a Rebel cruiser. We also know that this power move hasn’t been retconned out of the movie, because Poe Dameron uses it in the Millenium Falcon in the first 10 minutes of the movie, to break through an ice wall[4].

So why do I give a fuck about the Final Order fleet, the entire dramatic tension at the centre of this movie? I just don’t care, because in the previous movie these chuckleheads came up with a 100% plot-killing idea that has retroactively fucked the story of every fucking movie in the entire series. What a pack of amateurs.

The stupid rewrites of past decisions

Although JJ Abrams was too stupid to retcon the Hyperspace skip out of his movie, he did make a few efforts to get rid of or explain some of the other dumb-arsed decisions Rian Johnson made, though it didn’t help. We have a training scene where Leia’s Jedi past is explained (spoiler: it isn’t explained, because nothing can explain the awful decision to ruin her character by making her a Jedi); Emo Ren remakes his stupid helmet so he looks even dumber than he did before, like he spilled redbull on his helmet or something; Palpatine is back, because the final confrontation of every trilogy needs a Sith Lord and Rian Johnson stupidly killed Snooky boy back in the last movie; and a few other minor concessions to fandom or to criticisms of some of Rian Johnson’s more bizarre decisions. These just make it seem like the whole trilogy was a dumb dick-swinging contest between directors, and serve to break us out through the fourth wall (though none as badly and awkwardly as the stupid fucking festival of ancestors – see below). They remind us that more than anything else, this is no longer a Saga but a franchise (how I fucking hate that word when it is applied to cultural products), a business whose managing directors have been at odds over the past few years, but which we are now assured has been settled down and is back to sensible business practice. Yuck.

The awful idea of Rey’s parents

I’ve been waiting for the bullshit reveal about who Rey’s parents were and why they matter. It turns out that she is the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, because everything in this stupid series has to be some kind of petty family drama, and only rich people matter. So she wasn’t a nobody as told by Emo Ren in the second movie (shock!), so another decision had to be retconned, but whatever. The return of Palpatine was such a dumb idea, and a sign that these writers have no original ideas at all, though I guess it’s better than having a Sith Lord called Snooky Boy, which is the kind of name you give to your dog when it’s being cute, not to a giant force-wielding pscyhopath with very poor recruitment practices. It was also revealed very poorly, and a confusing story revealed quickly with no real sense of meaning or gravity to it. Who cares anyway? It’s been five hours of cinema since we last saw any spark in Rey’s character, so by the time we find out she’s descended from the last good character to die in any of these movies we don’t really care anyway. I think soon after we find this out she dies and gets resurrected by more magic force powers that never used to exist, so it doesn’t really matter. And then at the end of the movie she calls herself Skywalker, probably because the original idea was that she was Luke’s daughter but Rian Johnson fucked all that up. So now this movie also has a completely misleading name – Skywalker died in the last movie and there is no Skywalker to rise, just as the entire second movie was about two Jedi, not the last Jedi. Maybe these guys can’t count, as well as being unable to write.

If Rey’s parents had genuinely been nobodies at least she would have had at least one redeeming feature, but no.

The unseemly arrogance of the Festival of the Ancestors

The first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, and so the entire shabby saga comes to a close here with this shambling boring wreck of a movie in 2019, 42 years later. At one point in this movie our heroes arrive on a planet that is having a festival of ancestors, which only happens every 42 years and is super special and we are told by C3P0[5] is a very rare and important event that we are privileged to see. This is obviously a meta-reference to how this final movie in the trilogy is super important and special and is a festival of the original movie and carries on in its tradition.

Fuck off already, you fuckheads. What an awful, arrogant, stupid and shallow little reference. Everyone involved in making this movie – and the previous one – should hang their heads in shame. You are reprehensible, and you should never be allowed to make another movie.

Conclusion

There are lots of other things wrong with this movie – minor things like how did Lando Calrissian manage to muster up a fleet of thousands of ships from hundreds of star systems in just a couple of hours – but I can’t go exhaustively through all the myriad failings in this and the other recent movies. I think though that it’s enough to say that there are really very few redeeming features in this movie, nothing really to make it worth watching and certainly nothing to salvage the flaming wreckage of this series. The original three movies were fun, charming and exciting, with fresh ideas and a lot of really good acting and writing, but they have been well and truly betrayed by everything that came after them. It’s a shame: the Star Wars universe is rich and diverse and holds a lot of opportunities for good stories, as we saw in Rogue One; but the main story has been wrecked beyond recognition, and all the charm of the original vision has been buried under a mound of bullshit. There is nothing left in this series, and every additional movie is just going to further poison the already much-corrupted legacy of its original stories. Disney need to take this franchise (oh how I hate using that word to refer to cultural product) out the back of the studios and put a bullet in its head. The best option for this decrepit old series now is a quick and painless death, before any other creepy Hollywood Directors further abuse its corpus.

I won’t be watching any more of the main series, and I recommend you do the same. These directors have ruined a once great thing, and they will probably continue to do so. But we don’t have to help them do it.


fn1: For example, reading shitty economic “mathematics” on the plane, in preparation for a post on the disaster that is “analysis” in mathematical economics, oh I do have such a fun life!

fn2: How did Poe get to be leader, btw? Leia was in charge in the second movie, and now suddenly this idiot is running the show. If ever there was a model for a shitty white man failing up, Poe is it.

fn3: Somewhat tragically, these guns hang under the ship like a massive cock, so it’s exactly like kicking the ship in the balls.

fn4: Apparently this strategy destroys Rebel cruisers but barely scratches the Falcon, who knew?

fn5: Who, fair play, is mildly enjoyable in this movie, especially after he loses his memory

Fucking muppets!

 

I have spent the last 4 weeks on a series of fairly demanding business trips to two continents, and since I am bound by the tyranny of miles to a single airline I have been forced to watch movies on only one channel during the flights. This has been really challenging because aside from the enjoyable John Wick 3 the only action movies on offer have been super hero movies, and derivative schlock from other series (like Godzilla). Here I give my brief thoughts on the movies I watched, and ask some questions about the terrible decline of the modern action movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I can’t believe how ordinary this movie is. Does it even have a plot or a purpose? The acting is terrible and the entire cast of mutants is boring and shallow, with no possible reason for me to care about them. As a movie it only holds you because there are some other movies in the same series and you need to see what they do – but since I haven’t seen any other movies in the series I really can’t feel anything for these characters and can’t be led to even understand why they bother turning up. There are some good actors in this movie but you wouldn’t know it. This movie also has one of the most execrable scenes in modern cinematic history which is also one of the most execrable plot hooks in human history, and which is performed so poorly by Michael Fassbender that the depth of its depravity almost slips by you through the power of its banality. I am, of course, talking about the scene where a dude called Apocalypse tries to convince a Jewish concentration camp survivor to join in with his plan for genocide by having him destroy Auschwitz. There’s something really wrong about watching a fictitious character destroy the Auschwitz memorial – it’s just so horribly wrong – but to do so as part of a scheme to enlist a genocide survivor as a genocide perpetrator is really … well, it’s a chef’s kiss moment in modern cinema, isn’t it? But it’s all done so badly that you almost don’t realize how terrible it is until you wake up from the stupor this movie has sunk you into and realize what you’re being tricked into nodding along to. I gave the movie perhaps 20 minutes after that pearler but it didn’t offer anything remotely interesting, so I gave up and decided that staring at the ceiling of the plane was a better use of my time.

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 isn’t bad – at least I managed to finish it – but it’s a really lame and weak follow up to the freshness of the original. Standing on its own as a piss-take of super hero movies, Deadpool is entertaining and creative, but as a series in its own right it has nothing to hold it together. Deadpool’s smut and the particular conceit of his humour gets old fast, and watching Deadpool 2 I realized that the original movie was good primarily for its freshness in what is otherwise a stale, juvenile and worn out genre. Since Deadpool was made this genre has gone from needing a healthy dose of satire to needing a bullet, and is such a weak and overworked formula that satire no longer works. Indeed, when you look at the poor mixture of humour and pathos in Avengers: Infinity War you realize that the genre has been satirizing itself accidentally for quite some time now, and satire doesn’t work any more.

Avengers: Endgame

I hate-watched this after reviewing the awful sack of shit that was Infinity War, and had such low expectations after that wretched abomination that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s failure to be abysmally awful. It was, however, too long and way too boring, and it ended exactly as I expected: with the universe being saved by a rich white guy (what are the chances!) Plot spoiler folks: our world is not going to be saved by a rich white guy, and the fantasy of the rich white dude who does good has got old fast. The movie still had so many bad points that it was almost unwatchable, but I struggled through so I could see how this horrible shitshow ends (or, rather, restarts). I still didn’t know (or care) who most of these boring, caricatured white people were. Hulk was, if anything, worse than he was in Infinity War, transformed from a metaphor for erectile dysfunction into a sad mocking image of middle-aged ennui. Iron Man had lost his last redeeming feature (his sense of humour, which had already grown old and tired) and was now just annoying. Black Widow at least had a speaking part, though the rush between her and the other dude to kill themselves was just pathetic – neither of them are of any use to anyone, so why didn’t they just toss a coin? And why did they undo the extinction of half the universe anyway? Wiping out half of all life in the universe seems like a bargain if it will get rid of spiderman and space douche in the process. Why bring them back? I mean I know you love your mother and you’re sad she’s dead but five minutes in a room with either spiderman or space douche and you’d kill your own mother to escape. So why on earth would anyone bring them back, and are we meant to really believe that this cast of nobodies is sad about the deaths of their colleagues, who were the most forgettable characters in cinematic history? I’m surprised they could even remember who they used to work with, let alone want them back (I still don’t know the names of most of these incompetents, let alone work myself up into any kind of sweat as to whether they might die or not). This movie also went on a walk through about 8 other Marvel movies, as a reminder that by now these movies are so self-referential and self-involved that you have to do 20 hours of homework through the back catalogue just to understand what’s going on in multiple scenes. What was that shit between Thor and the blonde chicks? I get the impression one was his mother, who he used to live with and see daily, who didn’t notice that apparently overnight he had turned into a fat stoner. How’s that for a maternal bond! (Also Thor was one of the few redeeming features of Infinity War so of course they ruined him in this movie). I guess I should be happy that this entire tired story got a resolution but given that the final scene is just all these people getting back to more adventures it seems like more of a sigh of exhaustion than of relief.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Apparently this is a thing now, with multiple Godzilla movies, which are also somehow linked to King Kong because why not? Also it has this novel plot idea that the beasts are dangerous but some people think they’re part of the natural order and we should try to co-exist with them which is definitely not at all an idea that was old when Jaws was made, and we definitely need to sit through those debates again, especially when they’re done by people who could only be loosely described as “actors”. In this one there are bad guys who are actually environmentalists who want to wake up all these giant monsters to restore the balance of the earth (read: wipe out humans). Because absolutely, definitely, as the world slides into climate crisis and multiple environmental disasters that the environmental movement has been trying to warn us about for 60 years what we absolutely, definitely need are more movies where the end of the world is the environmentalists’ fault and the good people in the government have to fight them to stop them wiping out humanity. Definitely that’s a message we need right now! I would tell you what the moral of the story was but I stopped halfway through because the movie was so pathetic, the action scenes so contrived, and the plot so silly that I just gave up. This movie included Charles Dance and the chick who was Eleven in Stranger Things but even they couldn’t rescue this junk.

Men In Black: International

Boring daddy issues that can’t figure out if they’re serious or a joke, no appreciable plot and the worst acting since Liam Neeson apologized for his racism.

What’s going on with American action movies?

Looking at the menu of the plane’s entertainment system was depressing: just a long chain of superhero movies, with a couple of remakes and a few sequels. There was almost nothing original on the screen at all, and if you wanted to watch something original you would have to look outside the action movie genre. I’m now writing this in the same week that Martin Scorsese derided superhero movies as “theme park junk” and I have to agree with him[1]: action movies were once a great part of Hollywood, but in recent years they have degenerated to the point where they are reliably the worst. They’re just an endless series of rehashed super hero movies, which can be best characterized as second rate pro wrestling, with a scattering of other “franchises”[2] like Men In Black, Star Wars, Batman, or – god forbid – Rambo. There’s nothing original in this at all, it’s just microwaved kara age for the soul. There are even remakes of great movies (like Death Wish, the remake of which was abominable). I think the last original action movie I saw was Atomic Blonde, which was genuinely brilliant but what three years ago now? Since then it’s been spandex as far as the eye can see.

I don’t know why this is happening – why people pay to watch this junk, or what kind of business model the production companies are running that requires them to return to this artistically and culturally desolate fare rather than doing anything original. The best I can think is that it’s the cinematic equivalent of outsourcing risk. They’re guaranteed to be able to make these movies easily and on time, since the plots don’t matter and there are so many characters in your average super hero movie that plot is almost superfluous, and you pay for the movie before you see it so by the time you realize it’s shit it’s too late. I can’t think of any other reason for why people would make super hero movies at all: the original material by Stan Lee is just obviously low-rent, juvenile crap for teenage boys in the 1960s and it is laughably bad, so why would anyone think to draw on it for a movie? Recall that Stan Lee’s material – all the American comic legends – for years followed the Comic Code Alliance, which is a recipe for transparently nationalist and vapid material, and although Stan Lee is said to have broken with this[3] in 1971, this is just post hoc valorization. American comic books were drek for decades, and building a successful movie series on them is going to necessarily require dipping into some of the most juvenile trash that has ever been written down on paper.

Which is fine if these are occasional movies, but the cinematic landscape has been dominated by what is essentially adolescent drivel for the past 10 years. There are now something like 20 Marvel movies, almost all of them shit, and a similar number of DC Comics movies in probably just the past 10 years (apparently there are 71 in total). This is not including the awful TV shows that have now almost all been cancelled because they are so bad. Why has American cinema been overwhelmed by this flood of movies from the same universe about the same characters? And why this universe and these characters, which are specifically and particularly so stunningly low quality?

I don’t have an answer for this, although I suspect it lies somewhere in the toxic witch’s brew of American pop culture’s growing venality, the terrible education system in the US, concentration of American media in the hands of a very small number of companies, and the complete intellectual and artistic emptiness of the money men in those companies. But it’s a depressing turn for American culture to take, because for a long time America was a reliable producer of good quality, exciting and enjoyable action movies. But that industry – the industry that brought us movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Jaws, the original three Star Wars movies, Aliens, Blackhawk Down and Bladerunner – appears to have shriveled and died, and come back as a zombie monstrosity that just lurches from movie to movie, slowly eating our brains.

Someone needs to chop its head off, before the entirety of western cinema culture becomes an empty wasteland.


fn1: Overall Scorsese seems like a man of vulgar tastes, since he seems to think that the only real movies are movies where a young woman falls in love with an older man (or as he puts it, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”), and he seems to think anything where things blow up or people die isn’t real film, so he’s obviously basically wrong. (I mean, if you want to experience “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” you could hang out with your family, or read a book – cinema is definitely not the best place to experience that!) But in this case he is just by pure good fortune correct: this is theme park junk.

fn2: I fucking hate this word when it’s applied to movies or games but when you’re talking about super hero movies or these other long-running bullshit series like Star Wars you’re basically using the right word. They’re the McDonalds of cinema.

fn3: Incidentally, check out the quote of Stan Lee in the linked article. My god, what a prat he must have been.

 

Big sister’s gonna get ya

Recently I went on a five day holiday to China, and while I was in Fuzhou I took part in an escape game with my partner Miss Jade and her Chinese friends (hereafter referred to as Team Princess). The escape game was played at Mr. X Fuzhou, one of the shops of a national chain called Mr. X. Mr X runs a variety of different escape rooms at any time, with some changing on a seasonal basis and some permanent fixtures. We played Yayoi, which is a horror/investigation type with a Japanese theme. Others available included an alien-themed Area 51 game, an Alice in Wonderland introductory adventure, and a couple of other mystery investigations. Team Princess chose Yayoi because they wanted a challenge and because it is one of the new genre games that features NPCs (i.e. human actors).

The other games

I’ve never done an escape room before and my image of them is as a kind of boring puzzle in a single room, so I really wasn’t expecting the Mr. X experience. Miss Jade and Team Princess do these games every time she returns to China (she lives in Japan at the moment), and I was kind of surprised when I heard this because given my image of the games I really didn’t think they would be so compelling. How wrong I was! Here I will explain briefly what happened in the game, and then give a review. If you’re planning on doing this Yayoi game, I recommend you skip the section describing the adventure itself and go to the review.

Approximate layout of the Supernatural Hostel

The events of the game

This game has a whole backstory and took us 90 minutes to complete, which involved a frantic series of investigations and pursuits, so I will explain briefly here what happened and how it worked, based on my memory and the explanations I received from Team Princess afterwards. We were a team of investigators who had been asked by the police to investigate a mysterious death in a hotel that is rumoured to have supernatural connections. We took an elevator to the hotel, and entered the first room we found, room 401. I have prepared an approximate map of the hotel as we experienced it, but when we arrived we only knew about the four rooms (401 – 404), not the strange supernatural section behind the closet. In room 401 there was a body on the bed, which we shall refer to as Dead Dude (DD), which body I had to touch (it was gross). He had apparently died of dehydration. At the back of the room was a closet (visible in the map) and near the door a small desk with a weird computer screen on it. The computer worked, and had its own email client with emails from various organizations and individuals in the inbox. In the drawer of the desk we found a cassette, which activated a video on the computer. This video showed DD’s boss (we shall refer to him as The Boss), sitting at a desk, face out of view, explaining to him that he needed to find a doll, of which he showed an example. There were rumoured to be 6 dolls in the hostel, each with a Japanese girl’s name, and all under the control of some spirit thing called Hasegawa san. He was to find a doll.

We guessed DD died trying to find the doll, so we sensibly set about finding the doll. We went to room 403 and found a way to open it, and in room 403 we found a second cassette. This cassette had new instructions on how to get the doll, involving the word kagome, so we went to room 404 to investigate. The door at 404 had a keypad with six buttons, each of which when pressed emitted the sound of a child reading a single Japanese syllable. We entered ka-go-me and then opened the door. This led us into a room with five of the dolls on the far wall and a strange arrangement of ropes with bells on them, in a circle in the room. One of the dolls was missing! A song then started playing, the kagome song from Japanese childhood (this is a kind of Hey Mr Wolf game). At the end of each repetition of the song the ghost voices singing it would say a Japanese girl’s name (corresponding with the doll’s names, which were on a diagram on the wall of room 401), and we had to ring the corresponding bell. This process took us two tries but when it was done Hasegawa appeared in an empty space in the middle of the far wall of the room, between the dolls. Hasegawa appeared in the form of a Japanese spirit from a picture, wearing a mask and yukata, and he carried the key to room 402 (Hasegawa was our first NPC!) He also told us that now we had sung the song correctly we would be able to see the ghost that killed DD. Yay! Apparently this ghost only comes out to kill when it is raining, but it wasn’t raining so yay.

In room 402 we found a series of crawlways that we had to search through. We found a third tape, which when we played it had a video from The Boss giving DD new instructions. It congratulated him on finding the doll but told him to hide it and explore the hostel some more, because it was rumoured to have some secret place where you could find an elixir of youth. Wow! So we guessed DD had hidden the doll in room 402 and went back to find it. Eventually we found it and took it back to room 404, where we placed it back in the place DD had stolen it from.

Which was when everything went dark and the rain started. We all panicked and ran screaming back to room 401 where we all jumped in the closet[1], the last one into the room being a member of Team Princess, Mr. J, who had lingered in the hallway to see the ghost that killed DD. This ghost was apparently some monstrous thing in a torn yukata that crawled down the hallway rapidly on all fours, and it freaked him out a lot. So we all dived into the closet, and then the closet began to shudder and twitch and move and after a few moments it came to rest again but there was this horrible, hideous laughter outside, that can be best likened to the creaking hacking laugh of the ghost in The Grudge. It was horrible.

After the laughter faded we opened the closet door and found ourselves in a strange redlit room like a study, with icons and buddhist type stuff on a desk at one end and the walls lined with candles. Apparently we were no longer in the normal world, because now the ghost that killed DD could speak to us. It revealed that it was the older sister of a girl called Yayoi who had died here, and whose soul was restless. Since we had escaped the ghost, she would give us the chance to escape if we could pass certain tests and restore the soul of her younger sister to rest.

Well, now we certainly knew how DD died! But we had more pressing concerns, like getting out alive. So we followed the tests. The first was relatively easy, we had to blow out the candles in the room as they flared up, in the right order. Then we went back into the closet and it again moved and shuddered, and when the door opened again we found ourselves facing a long, narrow cave-like room with taiko-style drums at regular points on the wall, and at the end. Between the drums were ropes stretching across the hall, hung with bells that we must not touch. We manoeuvred ourselves to the drums and beat them in the right order, which took some figuring out. This opened a secret door that in turn led to a small cave-like room with a chest in one corner and a locked door on the far wall. The walls were covered in ivy, in which a few skeletons and old bones were entangled. There was a strange clear orb over the locked door, and a locked chest on the floor. We could see through the locked door to a weird kind of temple with a figure of a cat god on the far wall and a big lantern in the middle. Obviously we needed to get through to there, but how? Also in the room were two hand mirrors. Weird. In one of the skeletons we found a note printed on leather, which gave clues to open the combination lock on the box. This we did after some faffing, and inside we found a key. Two of the team took this back to the drum room, and used it to open a compartment under the drum at the end of the hall. This triggered a laser that shone down the hallway, and we used the two hand mirrors to direct it into the clear orb over the locked door.

With that simple task out of the way the door opened and we entered the temple of the cat god. In front of the idol of the god were two empty pedestals for small icons, and the room was lined with miniature sake barrels, each adorned with a Chinese character. We had to choose the characters that would match the wishes of the cat god. Eventually we settled on the barrels with kanji for 9 and tails, because there is a legend that the cat god wants 9 tails. This was the right choice, and it activated something in the lantern, a kind of glowing orb. This, once pushed into position inside the lantern, restored Yayoi’s soul to rest, and we were free! The door opened and we stumbled out to freedom!

About the escape room

I have never done an escape room before so I can’t compare, but this was a genuinely excellent experience, as close as I think I have ever (or could ever) come to LARPing. It was atmospheric, carefully constructed to maintain a complete sense of immersion, challenging and scary. The lighting, decorations, music and sound effects were all designed to build up suspense and terror, and it took minimal effort to really feel like we were there. The addition of NPCs – including one crawling along the floor like a Japanese ghost – really brought the whole thing to life, so that we spent 90 minutes in a state of constant tension. It also sprawled over a wide area so it felt equal parts horror, investigation and exploration – very close to a dungeon crawl, in fact.

If you were to lay out the after action report above and add one or two combats, the escape game I played is essentially equivalent to a single full day session of an RPG. We could have done the whole thing in some Asian-themed Call of Cthulhu and it would have been just as great. This escape room experience really was as close to a real life role-playing session as I can imagine being able to do. It was a thoroughly excellent experience and I commend it to anyone who has a chance to try it.

There is of course a small problem with trying it though – you need to be able to speak and read Chinese very very well to get away with it. I can’t speak any Chinese (I have only learnt Japanese since coming to Japan), and although I can read some Chinese characters and understood the Japanese components of the game, I was essentially a chump for much of the game. I could help with searching and some basic tasks (like the bells and the drums and the candles) and I found some important clues (like the orb above the door and the glowing contents of the lantern in the final room) that were important, but I couldn’t answer any of the riddles, read the emails, or understand the necessary components of the story. So only try this if you have really excellent Chinese or you’re in a team who are patient and willing to go out of their way to coddle your chumpishness. If you can do that though, you will get to have a really good role-playing experience.

I also think that the game I played could form an excellent part of a campaign, with the second stage being to find the Boss who sent DD on his mission, and the third to kill or free Hasegawa san. Each game changes every six months or so apparently (it takes a long time to design and set up new settings) so this would mean a group of regular players like Team Princess would have 18 months of a story before they completed it. I hope Mr. X takes this on in future! They could probably also do a nice sideline in modules for actual RPGs, and if this escape room experience is any guide to how seriously Chinese otaku take their otaku world, it’s likely that China has a really amazing TRPG scene. If you know about that, I’d like to hear more!

About Mr. X

The Mr. X chain isn’t just an escape room company. They also provide rooms to rent for playing games of your own, and have tables in the main area where you can play card games supplied by the company. They provide drinks and food, and board games and card games that you can play while you’re there. The atmosphere is very comfortable and relaxed, and the staff are also very serious otaku – one of our staff was a young Uyghur woman who had moved to Fuzhou from Xinjiang so she could get a job in this company, because she loves the games. They are also able to explain the rules of the board and card games that they have available, and are friendly and warm and patient with our many demands.

The card game options …

Mr. X is an excellent otaku world, with a wide range of challenging escape room games and a nice environment for lazy days of board games and RPGs. It gave me a hint of a world of role-playing and nerdy games in China that I had never heard of before, and suggested to me that there may be a huge, vibrant and very advanced fantasy role-playing scene in China. I hope that more of this will become accessible in the west in future, and if any of my reader(s) visit China in the future and are in a position to do it, I strongly recommend you try it. For me it was a very impressive and new experience, and I hope you can all have a chance to share it in future.


fn1: Apparently we were given instructions before starting the game that we should a) run to the closet when we heard rain and b) not try to fight or interact with NPCs.

 

[Spoilers below obviously]

In 2016 a journalist reported that voting machines of a county in Florida had been hacked by the Russians, in support of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything. Other media outlets, right-wing agitators and partisans jumped on this and dismissed it, burying the story completely. In 2019 we discovered it was actually two counties, and the Florida governor has signed an NDA while the FBI investigate. In 2016 Barack Obama tried to organize a coordinated statement from political leaders on Russian interference in the election, but Mitch McConnell refused to support it and threatened to oppose it, in service of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything.

In 2018 the producers and writers of Game of Thrones had their Mary Sue, Tyrion Lannister, give a speech about the power of stories, and about how evil men cannot kill a story, in support of electing to the highest office in the land an unqualified and useless white man who has never achieved anything.

Do they think we’re fucking stupid? Or are they, in fact, fucking stupid?

Jon Snow Completes the show’s murderous and misogynist arc

Until this season, to the best of my recollection, Jon Snow had not murdered any women in cold blood, and hadn’t killed his own lover in a passionate embrace. I guess the show-runners wanted to make sure that he got to share in the fundamental misogynist spirit of the thing, so gave him the chance to murder his own lover in cold blood and made sure it was the crowning moment in the entire 8 seasons of this shitshow. Remember Jon Snow has been turned into this show’s liberal conscience over the past 8 seasons, so in doing this they made their modern, liberal audience complicit in this final act of spite.

They also had Tyrion complicit in it, because the misogyny of this show has always been a conscious conspiracy by the male characters (with people like Littlefinger and Varys explaining this with bored exasperation to the female characters who hadn’t figured it out). Tyrion egged Jon Snow on to do it, and what were his reasons? Listen to him lay them out: he reels off a long list of all the bad men Danaerys has killed and all the good people she has liberated, and suggests Jon and Tyrion and the bad men of Westeros might be next. Yes, Danaerys killed slavers and murderers and rich exploitative bastards and every man who harboured resentment towards her in his heart. Clearly she was going to have a field day in Westeros! So better that the show’s liberal conscience kill her off before she gets to work. #notallmen amirite?

The show betrays its own grimdark history

I have watched over 8 seasons as the people of this show go through a vicious and cruel exploration of the grimdark genre which, I have argued before, has nothing in common with the reality of mediaeval history and is really just the show-runners’ fantasy of how they would act if they had no legal restraints on the murderous power of their cocks. One element of this grimdark fantasy’s over-the-top bloodthirstiness is its heroes love of murdering prisoners, and the gleeful abandon with which they wander through the battlefield putting their vanquished foes to the sword. This has been standard practice of all the armies of Westeros since the beginning, including the good guys. Jon Snow certainly had no problem with it when he defeated the wildlings north of the wall, or after the battle of the bastards. He didn’t complain when Sansa had the captured leader of his enemies eaten alive by his own dogs.

But when Danaerys and her foreign horde do it, the men who have been running people through with impunity for 8 years develop a sudden case of the Geneva Conventions. Suddenly the show would have us believe that its gentlemen are really gentlemen, and if any one of these other leaders got astride a dragon in a time of war they wouldn’t burn a city to the ground. They’ve been more than happy to have their soldiers run rampage through vanquished cities for the last 8 years and suddenly they get the willies. It does seem like the show has softened this season, as they have attempted to make some of the characters more relatable to the liberal US audience watching it, but this is a problem. For 8 seasons we have understood that the spoils go to the victor. We accepted Danaerys’s Dothraki horde raping and looting their way through every town they conquered and we understood that powerful men get to choose who and what and how they fuck. There was nothing in all the abuse Sansa experienced that was incongruous in its time or place, and only its brutality was unusual. We appreciated that when the Hound killed those dudes talking about Arya as a chicken it wasn’t because their conversation was in any way wrong in the context of this world; it’s just that the Hound didn’t want them to do it to his friend. But if we carry this to its logical conclusion then whoever ascends the Iron Throne is going to murder their way there, and treat the city – and all the seven kingdoms – like their property. Given that the only people left standing are the liberal crowd pleasers, this is going to be a little on the nose for many of the fans. So the show had to take a liberal turn to not end up with one of the most repellent endings in cinematic history. But to me this is a massive disappointment. Don’t throw this gory shit at me for 7 seasons and genuinely revel in it then suddenly get squeamish at the last. Show the courage of your convictions and have the eventual ruler burn, stab, rape and murder their way to the top. Dispense the summary justice and vengeance we should expect! Even Cersei’s death was a cop out here: we all know that if this show were sticking true to its roots she and Jaime would have been captured and she would have been handed around to the people of King’s Landing to be used before her eventual bitter end.

I didn’t sit through the red wedding to see this piss-weak cop out of an ending. If you’re going to commit to this level of grimdark, see it through.

Does everyone in Westeros have their own weather?

I tried to focus on the stupid scene where Tyrione is allowed to choose the next king by a suddenly piss-weak Grey Worm, but I kept looking at the costumes and thinking what is wrong with these people? All the northerners were dressed like they were on a mission beyond the wall, while the southern dandies were in the mediaeval version of shorts and a t-shirt – on a sunny day in the south! What’s going on here? Does every noble in Westeros have the power to set up their own personal environmental zone? Shouldn’t the northerners be sweating like Brits? This whole scene was some of the worst story-telling I have seen in modern tv but still, couldn’t they at least have got the costumes right?

(Incidentally and relatedly – as time goes on in this show I have become more and more convinced that the Northerners are a bunch of insufferable prigs. Turning up to a meeting in the sunny south wearing your best arctic weather gear and sitting like you have a stick up your arse Sansa is the epitome of the kind of inflexible prudery that makes them Westeros’s eternal losers).

Pulling the teeth of all the most dangerous people

I think I’m not alone in wondering what the actual fuck was up Grey Worm’s arse in the second half of this episode. Or Drogon’s, for that matter. Or Arya’s. Or Sansa’s two episodes earlier. Over the past 3 episodes we have seen Sansa retreat to the basement at the first sign of trouble, we have seen Arya go from monster-slayer to pissy girl who forgot how to change her face, and finally in this episode we see Drogon just give up on the whole thing and piss off once his mother dies. WTF? Since when do dragons just chuck a bit of side-eye and run away after someone kills their mother? Worse still, Drogon shows enough intelligence to know that Danaerys’s quest for the throne was her undoing, but not enough to figure out that the dude holding her body killed her, even though the knife that smells like him is sticking out of her chest. Why didn’t Drogon burn Jon Snow, the tower, the city, and all the rest of humanity? Oh because he’s a dragon and they’re renowned pacifists? This is just pathetic.

Similarly with Grey Worm, who goes from being willing to kill all his allies in order to get vengeance on a couple of captives, to handing Tyrion over to what are effectively his enemies, making some weak mewling pleas for justice, then allowing his prisoner to speak, choose a king of all the 7 kingdoms, and then get himself pardoned. The Unsullied have gone from an unstoppable force with iron commitment to their queen, to a bunch of pussies who give up as soon as some white people ask them nicely. Similarly the Dothraki, who in the last scenes are depicted walking along the docks past Jon Snow – the man who murdered their queen – and ignoring him affably.

Basically every opponent of the entitled white men in this story – and in particular every rival to Jon Snow’s attentions as the Most Important Character – has been completely disempowered in this season, their motivations, powers and murderous ethics all melting in the southern sun so that Jon can come out as the reluctant hero. This is weak.

Tyrion fails up

Tyrion has been a failure for multiple seasons. Basically every piece of advice he has given Danaerys has been wrong. She could have captured King’s Landing first with three dragons, burnt Cersei alive, raised a huge army, waited for the army of the dead to come to the south, burnt them all to a crisp with her three dragons, presented herself to all of humanity as their savior, and then replaced all the kings of all seven kingdoms with her handpicked allies. But because of Tyrion’s advice she lost a dragon on a stupid mission to the north that just led to her fooling herself into thinking she had an ally she didn’t; she gave that treacherous ally time to build dragon-killing machines that took out her second dragon; and she lost her best friend in the process. Then Tyrion helped her enemy escape which ensured that she didn’t get to flamegrill Cersei, the woman in all of human history who most deserves a flame grilling, and almost allowed a claimant to the throne to escape alive and foment insurrection. And finally Tyrion managed to convince her lover to kill her (not a hard job since Jon Snow is such a piss-weak loser of a human, and in this show the boys will always prioritize their misogynist conspiracy over a worthy woman). Anyone looking at Tyrion’s history of bad advice would probably think that he’s not a good person to listen to.

So of course when he proposed Bran as king they all agreed. Bran, the most useless person in all the useless people in this show. Bran, who has no experience of leadership, no experience of battle, no significant education, no identifiable character traits, and no evidence of any ability to think or plan. Bran, whose sole contribution to the progress of the story – in fact the only way in which he has materially affected any human being in 8 seasons – was to break Hodor’s mind in a desperate defense that was revealed to have been completely futile within a couple of minutes of it happening. This man is the person who was recommended to the council of Entitled Fuckwits as the next leader. And what new system has Tyrion introduced them all to with his shitty speech? An elected monarchy? I’m sure that will last the test of time!

And after that, with all his evidence of dangerous and useless advice, Tyrion was appointed hand to this useless man. Has anyone ever failed their way to a loftier position than this pair of idiots? This show is like an object lesson in the value of being a rich white failson. Even Jon Snow, whose repeated failings led ultimately to the destruction of much of the northern population and the sacking of King’s Landing, manages to escape justice for murder and then once assigned to the Nights Watch is seen, at the end, just skipping out on those obligations to go and fuck wildlings beyond the wall without a care in the world.

This show should be renamed Rich White Kids Can’t Fail.

Winter’s waning as the final insult

At the end of the show, as we see Jon Snow skipping out on his punishment that Grey Worm meekly agreed to and heading north of the wall to find, fuck and fail another Ygrit (who had the clearest judgment of his character, though for some reason she still fucked him) we see the first budding shoots of spring. This really pissed me off. For 8 seasons we have watched this show on the fundamental understanding that winter in Westeros is unpredictable, long, and horrible. It has been made clear to us that winter doesn’t just come because the Night King brings it, but that it comes randomly for its own reasons, and the Night King has not had anything to do with its coming for so long that nobody believes in him anymore – Cersei had to see a wight with her own eyes to believe he was even real, remember. We were told repeatedly that this coming winter would be longer and harsher than those recorded in long memory, and led to believe that this is why the Night King has been raised up and why he is using it to his advantage. Yet here, barely a couple of months after the Night King dies and so only perhaps an actual earth season since winter reached Winterfell, we see it is already receding.

This is utter bullshit and it is the perfect, final example of how the writers of this show betrayed all its fundamental principles in order to tie it together into a nice, trite package that reassures us that the system must stay the same, nothing must ever change, and white men must win. It’s pathetic, weak writing and the end of this show was a catastrophe.

… and if it weren’t for her dragons Danaerys should probably swing with him.

[Spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 3 below]

He is incompetent, rash, and when it matters he always makes the wrong decisions. This time around, at the Battle of Winterfell, he also managed to stay well out of battle, hanging around on a dragon and using it to no good end while beneath him thousands of his men died horribly.

This isn’t the first time, either. At the Battle of the Bastards he completely broke with his own plan when he saw his brother murdered, and then led his troops on a reckless charge that sealed their destruction, and stood their helplessly while they fell all around him. That time only Sansa saved him (though she should probably swing for not telling him about the Knights of the Vale). This time it was Arya.

Let us recall as well that when his little team were fleeing from the army of the dead beyond the wall, their dragon still alive, it was Jon who delayed their retreat with a stupid reckless charge that put them in range of the Night King’s spear. Everything Jon does is driven first and foremost by stupid reckless rage and posturing. He’s a useless planner and a terrible leader.

Not that there isn’t blame to go around. In Episode 2 of this season we see the whole team – including Daenarys and Sansa – planning the battle as the Night King approaches, and it’s their clear plan to keep at least one of their dragons out of the battle because they think that the Night King is going to come for Bran. This means that their one reliable weapon against the countless dead is out of the battle, and all on the strange idea that the Night King is going to break out of the battle to kill Bran, a man whose sole effect on the world over 7 whole seasons has been to break Hodor’s mind. Why would they think that is going to happen?

A better plan

A far better plan for this battle would have been to use the unmatched power of their dragons to draw the Night King into range of their missile weapons, then shoot him down with dragonglass. They know that the army of the dead has no missile weapons, so once they get near the army of the living the dragons could simply hover over them, within missile range of the army, burning everything that approaches. The Night King then faces a choice: lose his whole army with no ability to replace it, or come forward to kill the dragons. Given the Night King doesn’t know that they know about dragonglass, and doesn’t know they have a huge supply of the stuff, he’s unlikely to think that all the human soldiers are armed with weapons that can kill him and his dragon; and although he will be hard to hit, his dragon will be super easy to kill with dragonglass – not to mention that it will be two dragons against one, and all they need to do is knock him off it so that the army can take him out with dragonglass weapons. They could further bolster this plan by putting Bran in the crypt, instead of in the garden, so that the Night King has to fight his way through the castle to get to him.

The many stupid decisions in this stupid battle

But no instead they put Bran in the garden, where the Night King can fly straight in and he can be attacked from all sides; left him with a very small number of defenders; sent the Dolthraki in to fight the Night King without any support; put the siege engines in front of their army and then didn’t bother to use them; dug a trench behind their army so they had to retreat over it; and hid all their non-combatants in a cellar full of dead people when they knew they were fighting an enemy that can raise the dead.

It’s also worth noting that until Melisandre turned up – completely unexpected – to light the Dolthraki weapons they were standing in the front line with weapons everyone knew could not harm the undead, and obviously intended to be a sacrifice to slow down the enemy. If you want to slow down the enemy why not build your trench a little further out? And have the Dolthraki charge in from the flanks to disrupt the forward motion of the enemy, while the dragons burn the front ranks as they arrive, and just wait for the Night King to get desperate? And why why why would you sacrifice even a single soldier when you know your enemy animates your dead and uses them against you? The moment the Dolthraki rode off into the dark the forces of good knew that they had gifted the Night King another couple of thousand soldiers. Well done!

This was the worst-planned battle ever. Why did they put their cavalry in front of their infantry, and why was everyone arrayed in front of the enemy even though in the previous episode we learn Brienne will command one of the flanks? You know you’re fighting a tireless enemy who can charge at you so why would you not use the cavalry from the side to disrupt movement? And why did they stop using the siege engines pretty much as soon as the Dolthraki died, instead of laying down a ceaseless rain of fire? And why did Jon spend so much time fart-arsing around up in the clouds on his dragon? If you don’t know where the Night King is, why not idle away some time by incinerating your enemies one field at a time? You’re sitting on the most powerful weapon the world has ever known, rubbing one out in the night sky because you don’t have the guts to fly down and set a bunch of dead people alight? You don’t just know nothing, Jon Snow; you are nothing.

What is the point of Bran?

Since the beginning of this show I have found every episode with Bran to be boring and pointless (except the Hodor one). He does nothing, learns nothing, tells no one anything, and contributes nothing. As far as I can remember his sole effect on the world of the living was to break Hodor’s mind, and his worging power is completely useless. Who cares if he can see through crows if he can’t move or speak while he does it, can’t communicate over long distances with anyone else, and can’t do anything through them? I was briefly hoping at some point he might worg into a dragon, which would be great, especially if it was the Night King’s, but nobody has bothered at any point to make his “power” useful or interesting. The people of the forest basically got exterminated helping him, the weird pointless dude in the tree gave him some riddles, Hodor died, and for what? He is supposed to carry the memory of humanity, but that’s already all written down in books and unlike Bran, books are actually capable of communicating, and will still be around long after Bran is dead. What’s the point of him and why would anyone think the Night King would come for him?

If you’re the Night King why would you break off of a battle where your enemies have two dragons that your forces cannot defend themselves against to hunt down a single useless dude, when you know that once the dragons are dead you can kill him at your leisure? If you were planning such a battle why would you assume he is going to do that? When Bran announced this silly idea in the meeting everyone should have just looked at him and said, “Dude, seriously? Get over yourself.”

The problem of failsons in Game of Thrones

Bran’s arrogance in assuming that the Night King would come to him first – because if you want to exterminate all human life you can guarantee the job is done by starting off with a rich dude who has a special insight, amirite? – is of a piece with the show writers’ weird attachment to Jon Snow. Way back when they killed Jon Snow, an act that is entirely consistent with their ruthless willingness to brutally slaughter popular characters and nice people, but then they went against all the show’s moral history by bringing him back from the dead. In doing that they basically singled him out as a super important character in this show with some kind of plot destiny, but since then he has led his people near to ruin repeatedly, and done nothing worthwhile. So why are they keeping him alive?

They have revealed to us now that he is the true heir to the Iron Throne, which raises the obvious possibility that they’re keeping him alive to fulfill his destiny and sit on the throne. If so then we can see how the show is going to play out: Through his poor temperament and bad judgment he is going to repeatedly create crises that the competent women will have to save him from, and then at the end he will simply walk up to the throne and take it from a more qualified woman. If that is their intention in keeping him alive then the ending of this show is going to be breathtakingly cynical. I’m still hoping Arya will assassinate them all and take it for herself now that my personal favourite the Night King is out of contention, but I’m thinking the chances are low. Jenny’s song [sung admirably by Florence and the Machine] implies that he might abdicate the role in favour of Danaerys getting it, but I doubt that will happen, so my guess is the show-runners are going to lead us to the final conclusion in which this incompetent failson gets everything he doesn’t deserve.

Please god no.

A final point about the Arya-Mary Sue thing

Apparently online a horde of manchildren are angry that Arya killed the Night King and are making out that she’s just a Mary Sue for the creators. This is hilariously bad analysis, and a strong reminder of why fan boys are the worst. Arya has spent 7 seasons training to become an assassin who can swap her face and moves so silently that even the dead can’t hear her, she was introduced in the very first scene of the very first episode as an excellent archer, and her every move in the final scenes of this episode was foreshadowed over the past three seasons, but a bunch of angry men online are angry that Jon Snow – who let me remind you should swing for being an incompetent fool – should have got the pleasure of killing him. Why on earth and wtf? Furthermore, since when did these showrunners reveal they have any kind of Mary Sue characters? They kill off all the cool kids, and the only character they’ve shown any loyalty to is Jon Snow. Before this episode aired there was general speculation about which of the famous people would get it, and who would come back as a wight, so it’s a surprise Arya even got to the end of the episode. And her final act had a great deal of surprise and tension to it – I think the viewer had been well deceived into forgetting her, and even when she leapt she got caught and everyone in that moment surely thought she was going to be the famous person who got done. That was genuinely the best moment of the episode, and way more plausible than the stupid battle plan they came up with. But for a bunch of angry neckbeards it was a step too far because a girl did something important.

If ever you have cause to doubt male resentment towards women in power, women in the workplace, #metoo or anything else – if ever you find yourself doubting that there will be many men who say they would love to vote for a woman but just not this woman – then just remember how this show unwinds, with an entire battle built around the idea that a useless rich kid who can’t do anything and has contributed nothing should be the focus of everything; a rich man who is so incompetent that every time he takes leadership thousands die, who will probably win the prize because he was just born to win; and a legion of men who are pissed off that this failson didn’t get to be the hero because an actually competent woman cleaned up his mess.

So much of what’s wrong with modern America is encapsulated in this episode of Game of Thrones, and the reaction of a bunch of angry men to a woman cleaning up an incompetent failson’s mess. I hope this man dies horribly, and I hope Arya does it wearing Danaerys’s face.

Watching the new Fantastic Beasts series, set in the Harry Potter world but outside of Hogwarts school, has made me aware of the horrible inequalities and vicious politics of the Harry Potter world. I have reported on how the first movie very starkly illustrated the lack of interest wizards have in the welfare of muggles, and the extreme inequality between wizard and muggle world that wizards actively work to maintain. In the second movie their disregard for the muggles bleeds into full exterminationism, and the central plot of the movie is revealed to be the battle between an evil guy who wants to exterminate all muggles and a plucky wizard who wants to preserve the status quo (although perhaps his main motivation is getting laid). In the second movie we also see how the politics of the wizard world is close to fascist, and definitely dystopian, and the wizards are subjected to a strict system of control and enforcement that seems to be largely built around ensuring they don’t reveal themselves to or do anything to help muggles.

In comments to the post in which I discuss this dystopian wizard world I attempted to discuss which kind of political dystopia the wizard world is, and after rejecting fascism and communism I settled on a colonialist model for the world. In this post I want to explain in detail how the politics of the Harry Potter world is explicitly colonialist, discuss the world’s repeated turns to exterminationism in light of this politics, and ask a few questions about how it is that a book in which we cheer for a bunch of colonialist bell-ends became an international sensation.

This post is going to be long, and will be structured something like this:

  • An introduction to colonial practice: Exploitative versus acquisitive colonialism
  • The proto-fascist structure of colonial states
  • The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion
  • Why muggles are treated the same way as indigenous people in the Harry Potter world
  • The inevitability of extermination and the threat of muggle technology
  • Cheering on racists: How did we come to this?

In constructing this argument I will draw on background material from the Harry Potter books, some supporting material which I think JK Rowling published, and the events of the two Fantastic Beasts movies. I’m not a Harry Potter expert, so there may be mistakes. Anyway, here goes…

Two kinds of colonialism

When people think of colonialism they often think of the conquest and exploitation of India, which is seen as the canonical model of how a rich European state takes over and exploits a thriving non-European community. However, this is only one of two types of colonialism. For simplicity in this post I will define these two kinds as exploitative colonialism and acquisitive colonialism. In exploitative colonialism an aggressive and expansionist state invades and subjugates a weaker but technologically advanced state, destroys or co-opts its existing political structures, and runs its economy to its own exploitative benefit. Typically the state that the colonialist power invades is established, strong, with its own heirarchies, a thriving market, international trade and its own technological developments and progress. The model of such a state is India, but any of the South East Asian nations and also much of North Africa qualifies for this situation. In exploitative colonialism the cost of exterminating the locals, and the huge benefits of exploiting their existing markets and social structures, mean that exploitation is the best or possibly the only way for the colonial power to extract benefit from a people it considers its inferior. In contrast, acquisitive colonialism seeks no benefit from the people it overruns. In acquisitive colonialism the expansionist state finds a people who are technologically far inferior to itself, have a very small and dispersed population, limited or no international trade, and few markets it can intrude into. The only thing they have that is of value to the expansionist state is land and the resources locked in and under that land. Often their political systems are so alien to the conquering state that it cannot conceive of how to exploit them, and in any case the local economy is so small in comparison to the colonial state’s that there is no point in wasting energy trying to extract anything from them. Often these highly isolated societies are also vulnerable to diseases that the colonist brings, so exploitation will be highly destructive in any case. In acquisitive colonialism the costs of extermination are so low, and the benefits of exploitation so minimal, that the best outcome is to destroy the local community, drive it off of all profitable or beneficial lands, isolate it from the invaders and exclude it from all contact with or benefit from the invading society. This form of colonialism was practised in Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. The final goal of this form of colonialism may not have been the complete destruction of an entire race and culture, but it was most certainly the complete expulsion of these people from all profitable lands and their exclusion – generally on racist and eugenicist grounds – from all political and cultural interaction with the colonial state. This final stage is characterized in the USA by the reservation system, and in Australia by the mission system and the child abduction program. These acquisitive colonial states reached their nadir in the mid- to late 19th century and early 20th century, when they mixed their colonial ideology with scientific racism, but had a tail that trailed into the late 20th century, with the end of the explicitly exterminationist strategies probably marked by Wounded Knee in the USA and the end of the child abduction program in Australia in the early 1970s.

Of course neither of these kinds of colonialism perfectly enacted the goals they set out for themselves, partly due to conflicting political visions, partly due to changing circumstances, and partly because the goals cannot be pursued to their pure conclusion through the flawed and human agents of colonial repression. But that they did not, for example, completely exterminate the native American peoples should not be taken as a sign that American colonialism was not explicitly acquisitive and exterminationist.

The proto-fascist structure of colonial states

Colonialism extracts a heavy toll from its subject peoples, but it does not do so without also implementing an architecture of oppression and authoritarianism at home. Colonialist states explicitly structure their world view around heirarchies of human worth, defined in terms of race, class and gender, and the state and its supporters construct a network of social, political, economic and cultural forces to support and maintain these heirarchies. Within the home country of the colonialist state there is usually an extensive apparatus to control the poor, with institutions such as the workhouse and the prison, poor laws, debtor’s prison, and press gangs. Much of the British state’s early actions against sex workers were based on fear of the weakening influence of sexually transmitted infections on the colonial project, and the mistreatment of poor women and their children – including deceptively stealing their children and shipping them to the colonies to be used as cheap labour in the mission system and the homes of wealthy colonial families – is well documented, finally.

In the acquired colonial territories the state enacts vicious repression on its own lower classes, in the form of anti-union violence and the employment of terror organizations such as the Pinkertons to enforce its will. Where extractive industries in the acquired territories come into conflict with colonial labourers or encounter activism to preserve the environment or other public goods they react violently and with government support. Movement of non-indigenous people into indigenous areas is heavily restricted, and organizations that might represent the interests of indigenous people are suppressed. In the USA there was lynching of free Mexican workers throughout the south west, and in Australia in the 1960s the Freedom Riders were met with violence in their journey around Australia publicizing Aboriginal disadvantage. In the UK it was not uncommon to see “No dogs and Irishmen” signs on public accommodations, and at times in history it was not acceptable for white and indigenous people to marry or live together. In later years through programs like Cointelpro and the undercover police operations of the UK the state’s secret police worked assiduously against not only indigenous rights but also environmental and labour activism, animal rights progress, and any form of restrictions of the rights of the colonial state to extract full value from its stolen lands. In the USA this led to state and extra-judicial violence against indigenous people protecting their water rights, open suppression of land rights activism, and the use of prison and state power to restrict services to reservations to force acquiescence from indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters. The British state introduced transportation in the 19th century, dumping petty criminals and labour organizers from the UK into the badlands of its colonial properties and then pitting them against the indigenous residents, and punishing those who spoke out against these practices.

It is not possible to exterminate whole peoples, push them off their hereditary lands, and steal their resources without maintaining a violent state that represses all attempts at clemency or understanding. You cannot keep humans out of your polity without forcefully policing the boundaries of your polity, and requiring that your citizens stay strictly within it. Colonialist states are repressive, and build up structures of political and state control intended to ensure that their heirarchical and violent systems are maintained. There is a wide literature on the damaging political consequences of the exercise of state power in support of colonialism: George Orwell writes eloquently about its damaging effects in Burmese Days, and Katharine Susannah Pritchard describes the oppressive atmosphere of the frontier very well in Brumby Innes and Coonardoo. Henry Reynolds describes the violence of the frontier in The Forgotten War, and of course the Bringing them Home report details the racist underpinnings of the political order supporting colonialism in Australia. The Waitangi Treaty Grounds in New Zealand offer an unrelenting description of the colonial project in New Zealand, against an incredibly beautiful and peaceful backdrop. There is no reason for anyone in colonial societies not to know these things, but many of us do not.

Having established these outlines of what colonialist policy is and how colonial states enforce it on both their colonized victims and their citizens, let us move to the world of Harry Potter, and examine how the wizard world treats muggles.

The Muggle Protection Act and the politics of muggle exclusion

The Muggle Protection Act is a law passed in 1992 to protect muggles from magical accidents. It was part of a broader body of legislative and scholarly work on maintaining the veil of secrecy between the muggle and wizard worlds. It may be just a coincidence, but most colonial states have a law akin to this. For example in 1869 the Aboriginal Protection Act was passed in Victoria, which amongst other things restricted “where people could live and work, what they could do and who they could meet or marry”. Similar restrictions and guidelines were published in the wizarding world, for example the three volume Laws of Conduct When Dealing with Muggles, or the cultural (but not legal) stigma attached to marrying muggles. It appears, from Queenie’s behaviour in The Crimes of Grindelwald, that it is not possible for her to marry Jacob Kowalski or even to have a relationship with him, which is why she has abducted him and charmed him to come with her to France. That suggests that in 1920s America at least there was some kind of restriction on muggle-wizard relationships, or at least they were only considered acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is also apparently the case that the ministry of magic attempted to remove certain books from school libraries if they depicted relationships with muggles or were overly sensitive in their reporting on muggles.

The politics of muggle exclusion becomes much clearer when we investigate Dumbledore’s history of activism on this subject. In a letter to Grindelwald on the topic, this scion of liberal wizard politics writes

Your point about Wizard dominance being FOR THE MUGGLE’S OWN GOOD — this, I think, is the crucial point. Yes, we have been given power and yes, that power gives us the right to rule, but it also gives us responsibilities over the ruled. We must stress this point, it will be the foundation stone upon which we build. Where we are opposed, as we surely will be, this must be the basis of all our counterarguments. We seize control FOR THE GREATER GOOD. And from this it follows that where we meet resistance, we must use only the force that is necessary and no more.

This is a classic model of white man’s burden. Consider, for example, this minute from the colonial secretary of New South Wales to the Legislative Assembly, 1883:

HAVING carefully read the two reports by the Protector, the various letters and articles which have appeared in the newspapers on the La Perouse blacks, and the report of Messrs. King and Fosbery on the Warangesda and Maloga Mission Stations, the opinion which I formerly held is confirmed, viz., that much more must be done than has yet been done for the Aborigines before there can be any national feeling of satisfaction that the Colony has done its duty by the remnant of the aboriginal race.

Later in this note (which can be found as a reference here), we can find in the report of the NSW Aborigines Protection Association the following charming indication of how many people in 1881 felt about Aboriginal people:

As usual in inaugurating an effort of this nature, the Association had some obstacles to surmount through misrepresentation and apathy. It was said that any attempt to better the condition of the blacks was labour in vain; that they were such irreclaimable savages, and so devoid of ordinary human sympathies that no hold could be got over them ; and that they were dying out so fast that no good end could be served by trying to civilize and educate them.

This is very close to the way Grindelwald or Voldemort think about Muggles; indeed, without having access to it, one could assume that Dumbledore’s reply to Grindelwald is a reply to a sentiment such as this. Certainly there is a movement in the wizard world – epitomized by Grindelwald and Voldemort, but also expressed through pure-blood fascists like Malfoy – that the wizards have the right to rule over muggles, that no consideration should be given at all to muggles and that purity of blood is essential. Indeed, the entire language of blood status in the wizard world exactly mirrors the language of racial heirarchies in colonial societies, and policies championed by pure-blood fascists are very similar to those proposed by people like A.O. Neville in early 20th century Australia. The similarity of language and intent is striking. Effectively what we see here is one side of an ongoing debate between wizards about whether to completely ignore or even exterminate muggles, or to keep them excluded from wizard society but act where possible for the good of the muggles when doing so. In the Harry Potter books we see this debate manifest as a violent conflict between Voldemort on one side, and Dumbledore and the children on the other, in which we side with Dumbledore and his white man’s burden, rather than the exterminationist Voldemort.

The Muggle-Indigenous parallel

Of course, one might argue that this colonial vision cannot be shared between wizards and European colonialists, because wizards are not stealing anyone’s lands. They don’t need to interact with muggles at all and they’re simply maintaining a peaceful distance. But this is not the case at all. Muggles are a constant burden to wizards; muggles are in the way. Whenever wizards show themselves around muggles – whenever they attempt to be on muggle land or in muggle spaces as wizards – they risk violence, and the entire architecture of wizard secrecy was developed in 1683 in response to violent encounters between muggles and wizards. In the colonial project Indigenous people are also in the way, because they occupy land that the colonialists want, and attempts to use that land incur Indigenous anger and violence, so the simple solution is to push them off. Perhaps they could have come to some arrangement to share the land, but why would they bother with people so far beneath them? And why negotiate when essentially you do not believe that Indigenous people are using the land at all? This logic of terra nullius makes it an injustice to the colonialists to have to negotiate with their inferiors for access to land they don’t believe the indigenous people are using or need. A very similar situation applies to the wizard world: wizards cannot openly use muggle land or public space without incurring violence, and so the muggles to them are just a nuisance. They have nothing to gain from interacting with muggles, and consider themselves so far above muggles that negotiating with them is a waste of time, and so they try to separate their societies. To this end they establish a complex system of laws that they enforce with extreme violence (towards wizards who violate them) and obliteration (of memories) for muggles who stumble across their existence. It is also clear from the books that even liberal wizards don’t think twice about interfering in the wellbeing and livelihoods of muggles if the muggles’ presence causes them even a moment’s inconvenience. Consider this story from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince[1]:

There was no doubt that Mrs Cole was an inconveniently sharp woman. Apparently Dumbledore thought so too, for Harry now saw him slip his wand out of the pocket of his velvet suit, at the same time picking up a piece of perfectly blank paper from Mrs Cole’s desktop.

‘Here,’ said Dumbledore, waving his wand once as he passed her the piece of paper, ‘I think this will make everything clear.’

Mrs Cole’s eyes slid out of focus and back again as she gazed intently at the blank paper for a moment.

‘That seems perfectly in order,’ she said placidly, handing it back.

Here Dumbledore, ostensibly a champion of muggle rights, simply screws with a woman’s mind and creates a future disciplinary issue for her, just because she is “inconveniently sharp.” Her situation or needs are of no importance to her at all – he simply dismisses her intentions and free will, and tricks her into not doing her job, with all the consequences that entails.

It is inevitable that at some point in this history an impatient or particularly arrogant wizard is going to advocate for the next step from this inconvenient co-existence: exterminate them and take their land. This is what Grindelwald wants to do, keeping alive perhaps a small number for some as-yet-unclear purpose. It is also part of Voldemort’s goal, although he also appears to want to reshape wizard society as well. Perhaps he realized that rebellion against the system of muggle protection boards and secrecy statutes was not enough, and to properly settle “the muggle question” one needs to also change wizard society so it is less squeamish about what needs to be done. This would make him no different to the people arguing against the Aborigines Protection Association in Australia in 1881.

The parallels are obvious: an inferior race interferes in the goals of wizards by being in their way on land they could be using for their own benefit. So the debate becomes: do we tolerate them and do our best to rule with good intentions, avoiding harming them as much as possible; or do we exterminate them for our own convenience? All of the Harry Potter plot – and especially the plot of the new Fantastic Beasts series – concerns the resolution of this debate. It’s the classic debate of the colonial era, with magic.

Extermination and the threat of muggle technology

The slide towards extermination is inevitable, and the imperative to do so becomes obvious in The Crimes of Grindelwald, where we begin to realize that there are too many muggles, wizards can’t control them forever, and because they haven’t already completely destroyed their society, the muggles are developing their own technology. Grindelwald shows a vision of the future in which muggles have nuclear weapons and it becomes painfully apparent to the gathered wizards that the game is up: if the muggles get that technology, they are the equals of wizards. That one vision by itself is enough to convince at least half of the wizards to switch sides. Queenie switches sides, with the promise of no moral constraints on how she will be able to deal with muggles. The implication for Queenie is that she can have Jacob – but what does that mean for the other wizards in the room? Murder? Slavery? It’s not clear but the implication is not good. The moral implication of this in the context of this colonialist model of wizard-muggle interactions is obvious: because they didn’t exterminate them and disrupt their culture sooner, the wizards have allowed the muggles to flourish and become independent, and now they are a threat. The wizards should have learnt from the human playbook, and done the job properly from the start. Grindelwald – and, perhaps, later Voldemort – will do the job properly!

The moral implications

What should we as readers take away from this collection of stories? I tried googling to find out what others have written about this topic, and although I found some interesting questions and debates on colonialism in the stories, I could not find anyone tackling the obvious racism of the wizard/muggle divide and the horrifying language of colonial racial hierarchies in Rowling’s lexicon of blood purity. I found an article from an academic, Magical Creatures and How to Exploit them, about the colonial politics of wizard’s attitudes towards non-human magical beings. I found a question on Metafilter (wtf!) about whether the wizards bothered to stop colonialism when muggles did it to each other, with the obvious implication (since it happened) that wizards from all the countries on earth sat back quietly while muggles of one country enslaved and exterminated muggles of other countries. This is an interesting question that makes the central interventionist debate in Black Panther look kind of pissy, but it doesn’t address the issue of how wizards view and treat muggles. The entire issue seems to have just slid under everyone’s notice.

I think this is a strong indictment of how western societies view our colonial past, and also a really depressing example of how much indigenous peoples’ voices and cultural history have been excluded from western culture. We didn’t even notice as a series of books in an obviously, openly racist and colonialist setting swept the world by storm. A huge amount of ink has been spilled on her description of native American wizards, but nothing has been said about the colonized nature of muggle life, and the fascist society that rules over them and is planning to exterminate them.

There is nowhere in the original series of novels or in the movies where the author makes a judgment on this, or leads us to believe that she even sees this issue (indeed, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them it is unclear whether we’re even meant to think the summary execution of Tina is bad). It is possible to make stories of this kind with a little more moral nuance than we see in Harry Potter. For example, in his Culture series, Iain M. Banks makes it very clear that there is something slightly wrong about the Culture, and especially about the behavior of the Contact section. In Consider Phlebas we are obviously meant to sympathize with the Culture’s enemies as they race to find the Mind, and in The Player of Games the planet that Gurgeh intervenes in is set up as almost comically evil with the specific intent of posing a moral question about interference. The decisions that the main characters make leave them scarred and cynical, and sometimes set them against their own society. In the movie Avatar the colonial conflict has a clear moral framework and we end up switching sides midway through. There is no point in any of the multitude of books, movies and associated stuff where any wizard character of any kind rebels in any meaningful way against the colonial system, or even questions it. The obvious implication of this is that we’re complicit with it, as readers – we are asked to go along with it, and we do!

This leads me to ask a few questions about the series, its conception and its reception, which I have not been able to answer:

  • Did J.K. Rowling intend this series to be a discourse on colonialism, or did she invent this entire apparatus out of whole cloth?
  • Has anyone noticed the racism of wizard society and its colonialist parallels, and has Rowling responded to that?
  • Is there any young adult literature where the good guys are embedded in and supporting a society as openly fascist as the one that Rowling writes about?

It is disturbing to me that this series is about a group of children defending an overtly authoritarian society from a fascist takeover, in which two separate storylines describe bad guys intending to exterminate most of the human race on racial grounds, and we are supposed to cheer on the “good” colonialists who are protecting a “good” society which controls the minds, bodies and souls of 6 billion people because of their infinite inferiority, and maintains a deeply violent and illiberal social order in order to protect that colonialist project. I cannot remember any book I have ever read in my entire life (except perhaps Starship Troopers, but for obvious reasons my memory of that is dim) in which the society the good guys come from is so deeply evil, and yet we are so blithely expected to cheer along the main characters as they defend and support that society. Looking back on it now, I feel as if I have been indoctrinated into a vicious and disturbed cultural order, raised in it just like the children in the books, and only when I was presented with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them did I finally realize that the society I had been cheering for needs to be torn down root and branch.

Conclusion

The society of the Harry Potter world is best modeled as a colonialist society in which an elite of extremely powerful people lord segregate themselves from a mass of muggles who they exclude from the riches and benefits of their own society, on explicitly racist grounds. This society has developed an intensely authoritarian and illiberal system of government to control the wizards and ensure that the colonial order is reproduced, and is happy to use violence and imprisonment in a soul-destroying prison to maintain that order. Exterminationist ideology bubbles up repeatedly in this world because it is inevitable that a society which views 6 billion people as worthless interferences in its daily activities will eventually decide that the convenient thing to do is murder all of them, and the need to do so becomes pressing when people realize these supposedly useless muggles will get nukes. We the readers are supposed to cheer on the agents of this authoritarian society as they defend it against a fascist, exterminationist incursion, without ever questioning the underlying principles of this social order, the author never shows any sign that she intends for us to question the moral framework of her series, and no character ever seems to question the fundamental evil of it all.

Of course this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the series, and it’s certainly an interesting political project. But it says a lot about the state of our society that this became popular and that the political underpinnings of the work have never been questioned, or indeed that the explicitly racist framework of the stories has not been repeatedly attacked. Obviously it’s good that millions of children enjoyed a hugely popular book that is enjoyable to read and introduced a whole new generation to the joys of reading and the creative brilliance of literature, but I really hope that in future we as a society can do better than this.


fn1: Itself a deeply disturbing name, when you think about the history of phrases like “Half-blood” when applied to indigenous peoples.


Art note: This is a ledger drawing, art drawn on a school exercise book or some other workaday paper, which is a part of the historical record left behind by indigenous Americans after the end of their independent communities. This one is a drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, which I took from the Wikipedia entry on ledger art.

Recently Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar announced that she will be running for president, only to be confronted with reports that she is a nasty boss. The media are avoiding calling it bullying, but the reports are bad and suggest that she is genuinely terrible: throwing things at staff, making them do personal chores, humiliating them publicly and terrorizing them personally. Until 2017 she had the highest staff turnover of any senator, and rumours suggest she was warned about her treatment of staff by a senior colleague. This is bullying, plain and simple, and these actions should be called bullying. Her defense has been that she’s a “tough boss”, and others have suggested that she is just “demanding”, but throwing things at staff and humiliating staff publicly is not “tough”, it’s abusive.

Besides the obvious moral failings of bullies, there are three important reasons why a bully should not be nominated for, or run for, and certainly not become, president.

  • Bullied staff are bad staff: When you’re bullied you avoid reporting mistakes, you bury issues you know will trigger your boss, you avoid communicating with your boss, and all communication and information is carefully managed and manipulated to ensure it doesn’t trigger the boss. This means that errors compound and grow, the boss only hears what they want to hear, and decisions get made on the basis of what the boss wants, not what is best for the organization or what is right. Many people will claim that they wouldn’t behave this way if faced with a bullying boss but I can assure you from experience: Everyone does. Bullies run dysfunctional organizations, and often ultimately destroy those organizations.
  • Bullied staff are vindictive staff: If Klobuchar is a bully and she wins the nomination, you can bet that all through the general election there will be a constant dribble of negative reports about her, as her staff try to stop her from becoming the world’s top bully. This will hamper her effectiveness and ultimately risks Trump winning.
  • Bullies do not play well with others: There is only one way to stop a bully’s bad behavior: smash the bully. The only way to restrain a bully is with power – it is the only language they understand. Bullies always punch down and suck up, they have a natural power to understand where power lies and who uses it, and they don’t collaborate or cooperate with peers or weaker people. This is bad at school but it’s monstrously dangerous in a nuclear-armed and powerful nation. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to see – we can see how Trump doesn’t play well with others, and he’s obviously a bully.

Public responses to reports of Klobuchar’s bullying have largely ignored these points. This Washington Post article, for example, starts with the question “does it matter?” and finishes with this pearler:

If you think about it, the problem with [President] Trump is not that he’s a crappy boss, it’s that he doesn’t get along well with peers and with the people he needs to work with to get legislation passed … I’m not sure the job of being president is a job of management in the sense of being a CEO, but frankly as I see it, it’s about convincing people to do what needs to be done.

This is exactly why Trump being a bully is a problem: he can’t get along with his peers because he has a history of bullying and attacking them, and he can’t convince people to do what needs to be done because they refuse to cooperate with such an outrageous arsehole. These things are all linked!

On Twitter another response I have seen to these reports is that it’s a double standard, that no man has been subject to these complaints and that it’s just another way of bringing down a “tough” woman (with the addendum if she were a man she’d be called “tough” but because she’s a woman she’s “unreasonable”). I am sympathetic to these arguments and I can see that if Klobuchar were just tough she might well be derided as unreasonable, but that is not what is happening, and conflating the reports with “tough boss” is wrong. Furthermore, it’s not a double standard: reporters were reporting on Sanders’ mistreatment of his staff in 2015, Trump’s bullying was well known and well reported on, and Tim Kaine (Clinton’s VP pick) made Trump’s bullying a central part of his address at the Democratic National Convention. While it’s true Sanders didn’t get hauled over the coals for this, it’s true that in a lot of other ways coverage of Sanders was ludicrously biased (he’s not a Democrat, for example, but he was taken seriously by the Democrats wtf), and the broader issue of how poorly the media handled Clinton’s candidacy is about way more than this issue – and largely unrelated, I think. The fact is that Trump’s bullying was widely reported on, as was his sexual assault. It’s just that a lot of Americans didn’t care, only watch Fox News, or were too stupid to understand how to check the candidates before they voted.

Of course it’s possible all the reports about Klobuchar are lies, but I doubt it. I haven’t bothered investigating in detail because it’s not worth my time – Harris is going to win the nomination, so it doesn’t matter what Klobuchar did – and because if Klobuchar does win the nomination it doesn’t matter, since she’s obviously better than Trump. But the fact that this comes up now shows the importance of a simple principle: At all levels of society, at all times, we have to confront and beat down bullies, and we need to always be aware that a lot of people love and support bullies, and we need to confront and deal with them too. I will talk about the importance of this at a more prosaic and local level: the US role-playing scene known as the “Old School Renaissance”, or OSR, where a major figure in that scene has recently been uncovered as a rapist and a shocking bully and power abuser.

Zak S and the personal politics of bullying

Zak S is a major figure in the OSR, who runs the Playing D&D with Porn Stars blog and has been involved in a great many OSR projects, especially Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Zak S has been involved in the OSR since about 2009, when he started the blog, and in his early days was well enough behaved. He occasionally commented here in 2009/2010, before he discovered he had bigger fish to fry, and then I lost interest in the OSR and stopped paying attention to the recycled junk they produce for many years. But somehow in Twitter I stumbled upon a report that Zak S’s porn star players – who, it turns out, were all his lovers as well – have started posting reports on Facebook about how he raped them and abused them for many years. He was apparently a gaslighting, emotionally manipulative abuser, since probably about the time he started blogging. As it stands at the time of writing two women have reported similar behavior and abuse, and it seems pretty unlikely that this is some kind of political campaign. The truth is out and it’s not pretty.

I was not surprised, because Zak S is an obvious bully. He has been bullying people for years, with help from a coterie of vicious internet allies, and has been an incredibly disruptive presence in the OSR. Multiple producers of OSR content and various bloggers have had to bow out of the whole scene or disappear because of his behavior; in 2016(?) a group of women marched out of the Ennies in protest at him winning prizes (they walked out on political grounds; aesthetic grounds would have been sufficient!); he was banned from one of the big forums (RPG.net I think) with an epic post listing his behaviors that I can’t now find; and various people have taken sides over his behavior over the years. It’s no surprise that a man who showed the kind of public aggressiveness and rudeness he showed should turn out to be a manipulative rapist, because bullies only listen to power, not to moral claims, and rape is a crime of power. But by the time this came out he had managed to leverage his vicious public behavior into a role as a “consultant” on D&D 5th Edition and some kind of advisor to Vampire: The Masquerade[1]. He had also ingratiated himself with Lamentations of the Flame Princess to the extent that he is one of their main contributors, and was involved with various other OSR/DIY gaming[2] outfits. Somehow this thoroughly unpleasant man had managed to become popular with a lot of people despite his repeated public bullying of weaker figures. How did this happen?

It’s instructive to compare the response of some people to this news today with the way they defended him for years. People have known about the claims about Zak S and they defended him, over and over, for years. They repeatedly dismissed any criticisms of his behaviour as lies, slander, “social justice warrior” posturing, jealousy, conspiracies, or people being delicate snowflakes. But all the criticisms were true, and all the defenses were the usual bullshit that the enablers always give for bullies. The reality is that a lot of people in the OSR were willing to side with Zak S and supported or defended his behavior when they realized that he was going places. They didn’t dissociate quietly from him, they didn’t refuse to support him, they didn’t confront him – they actively defended and encouraged him. Now they’re all acting ooooh so surprised that he’s a rapist and that all the tactics he deployed online were deployed to devastating effect in his personal life, and a lot of them even now are trying to back out of responsibility by claiming it’s a social media storm, or blaming the women or pretending that they were blinded by political considerations. It’s all bullshit: these people were the sycophants to the bully. Just like every bully in school has a gaggle of hangers-on who applaud his every tawdry move, the leading lights of the OSR clung to Zak S. They hung on his every word. Even now Raggi at Lamentations of the Flame Princess is waiting to see how everyone reacts before he makes comment, because that’s the kind of coward he is. The rest of them are trying to pretend that they had no clue – no clue! – that this guy who had been banned from multiple forums for abuse, who was a known sock puppeter, who broke every social norm and paraded around like the Sun King on Meth, was completely unknowably bad. How could they have guessed? They could not have known!

Well they’re lying. Bullies are nothing without their enablers, and the enablers always crawl out from under their rocks when they see someone who might be going places, someone who they can suck up to for some benefit, even if it’s just the vicarious coolness of being around someone who is “popular” – and even if that popularity is just other morally backward people like themselves cheering the bully as he hurts others. That’s what happened with Zak S, and now we’re watching all these people come to terms with the fact that they spent years helping a rapist and a bully get popular and famous in their sordid little scene.

That’s what happens when you don’t confront bullies. That’s what happens when you stand by while they act like shitlords, and tear up the communities that welcomed them. Every single one of us has a personal responsibility to confront bullies and to drag them down, to shame them and humiliate them. If we all did this from the very beginning there would be no Zak S’s, no Klobuchars, no Trumps – they would all have learnt that it doesn’t work, and they would have stopped. But too many people make excuses, say that Zak S is just confrontational, that Klobuchar is tough, that Trump says what he means and means what he says, and ignore what is really happening. They let it pass, and then someone genuinely weak and helpless – someone like Mandy Morbid, Zak S’s girlfriend, who has serious disabilities and is a foreigner in America – has to finally break everything and make the stand that everyone else could easily have done years ago. The burden falls on the weakest, the victims, instead of on people like Raggi from Lamentations of the Flame Princess who could have sent Zak S a very strong message years ago by telling him “fuck off Zak, you’re a fuckwit.” Instead of years of humiliation for being a fuckwit, Zak S got years of support and ennoblement, and learnt repeatedly that there is no penalty for being evil.

Not everyone can stand up to bullies. Bullies know power, and often their victims have no power to say no. But bullies always seek the powerful for approval and support, and they know how to accrue power, social and financial resources, and the kinds of capital that protect them. If you control that power, those social resources, or that capital, then the responsibility is on you to attack those bullies. If you have money, a steady job, love, physical strength, tenure, stable and supportive networks – it is your responsibility to confront these people and tell them to fuck off. You may fail or they may try to hurt you but if you don’t it comes down to this – a disabled sex worker crying for help on facebook, anonymous staffers having their stories dismissed in the national press because they’re anonymous cowards, victims of Trump U taking him to court in a fevered national election environment – vulnerable and scared people, risking everything to tell the rest of us what we already knew. But if every day those of us with power and position used that power and that position to tell these people how they are wrong, and to take away their power to do wrong, then those vulnerable people would not have to risk everything to warn the rest of us about what is coming.

The responsibility to smash the bully lies with you, not with anyone else. And if we all use that responsibility, if we do what we should do, then the bullies will never thrive, and the world will be a better place. Or we could be like the cowards in the OSR, and achieve some measure of temporary fame by sucking up to a known bully.

The choice is yours.


fn1: I have always hated Vampire, which is a classic attempt to tell the story from the bully’s perspective, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would be attracted to a bully and a rapist.

fn2: “DIY gaming” appears to be some sort of euphemism for “we do D&D”

 

News continues to trickle out concerning the latest bullying scandal in American academia, on which I reported briefly in a previous post. Through the Lawyers, Guns and Money blog I found a link to this excellent Twitter thread on the damage done to the humanities by celebrity academics like Ronell. These celebrity academics don’t just exist in the humanities, and not just in the “literary theory” cul-de-sac of humanities. They also exist in the physical sciences (think of people like Dawkins and Davies), and they are also a thing in public and global health. In public and global health they are typically characterised by the following traits:

  • They build large teams of staff, who are dependent upon the celebrity academic for their positions
  • They have a flagship project or area of research that they completely dominate, making it hard for junior academics outside of their institution to make progress on that topic
  • They attract very large amounts of grant money, a lot of it “soft” money accrued through relationships with NGOs and non-academic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, AXA, the World Health Organization, and similar bodies
  • They have cozy relationships with editorial boards and chief editors, so that they get preferential treatment in journals like The Lancet, New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, etc
  • They attract a lot of applications from students and post-doctoral fellows, who often bring in their own funding in the form of scholarships and prestigious fellowships
  • They often have a media presence, writing commentary articles or having semi-regular invitational positions on local and national newspapers, in medical journals and on certain websites
  • They are on all the boards

This means that these celebrity academics are able to drive large amounts of research work in their field of expertise, which they often parlay into articles in journals that have high impact through friendly relationships with their colleagues on those journals, and they also often get invited into non-academic activities such as reports, inquiries, special seminars and workshops, and so on. Even where these celebrity academics are not bullies, and are known to treat their staff well and with respect, and to be good teachers and supervisors, this kind of celebrity academia has many negative effects on public health. Some of these include:

  • Their preeminence and grip on grant funding means that they effectively stifle the establishment of new voices in their chosen topic, which risks preventing new methods of doing things from being established, or allows shoddy and poorly developed work to become the mainstream
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals pushes other, higher quality work from unknown authors out of those journals, which both reduces the impact of better or newer work, and also prevents those authors from establishing a strong academic presence
  • Their preferential treatment in major journals enables them to avoid thorough peer review, enabling them to publish flawed work that really should be substantially revised or not published at all
  • The scale and dominance of the institution they build around themselves means that young academics working in the same topic inevitably learn to do things the way the celebrity academic does them, and when they move on to other institutions they bring those methods to those other institutions, slowly establishing methods, work practices, and professional behaviors that are not necessarily the best throughout academia
  • Their media presence enables them to launder and protect the reputation of their own work, and their involvement in academic boards and networks gives them a gatekeeper role that is disproportionate to that of other academics
  • Their importance protects them from criticism and safeguards them against institutional intrusion in their behavior, which is particularly bad if they are abusive or bullying, since junior staff cannot protest or complain

This is exactly what we are now learning happened to Reitman from his lawsuit – he tried to transfer his supervision to Yale but discovered the admissions officer there was a friend of his supervisor, he tried to complain to a provost who also turned out to be a friend of his supervisor, and he could not complain while a PhD student because of fear that his supervisor would destroy his job opportunities through her networks. We also see that Ronell (and friends of hers like Butler) have a disproportionate academic influence, which ensures that they maintain a cozy protection against any intrusion into their little literary theory bubble. Ronell’s books are reviewed (positively) by Butler, who then writes a letter defending Ronell from institutional consequences of her own poor behavior, which no doubt Butler knew about. There’s a video going around of a lecture in which Ronell’s weird behavior is basically an open joke, and in signing the letter some of the signatories basically admit that they knew Ronell’s behavior crossed a line but they saw it as acceptable (it was just her “style”). We even have one shameful theorist complaining that if she is punished, academics in this area will be restricted to behaving as “technocratic pedagogues”, because it is simply impossible for them to teach effectively without this kind of transgressive and bullying behavior.

One of the best ways to prevent this kind of thing is to prevent or limit the ascendance of the celebrity academic. But to do so will require a concerted effort across the institutions of academia, not just within a single university like NYU. Some things that need to happen to prevent celebrity academics getting too big for their boots:

  • Large national funding programs need to be restricted so that single academics cannot grab multiple pools of money and seize funding disproportionate to their role. This already happens in Japan, where the national grants from the Ministry of Education are restricted so that an academic can only have one or two
  • Private and government funds such as Ministry funding, and funding from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, needs to be more transparently accessible from outside the academy, and also more objective and transparent in assessment – you shouldn’t be able to work up a large amount of money for your research group just by being able to go to the write cocktail party / hostess bar / art gallery – basically at every level, as much as possible, grant funding should be competitive and not based on who you know or how much money you’ve already got
  • Journals – and particular senior journal editors – should stay at arms’ length from academics, and journal processes should remain transparent, competitive and anonymous. It simply should not be possible – as often happens in the Lancet, for example – to stitch up a publication by sending an email to a senior editor who you had a chat with at an event a few weeks ago. No matter how many times you have published in a journal before, your next submission to the journal should be treated in substance and spirit as if it were your first ever submission
  • Journals need to make more space for critical responses to articles, rather than making stupid and restrictive rules on who and what can be published in response to an article. I have certainly experienced having a critical response to an article rejected on flimsy grounds that I’m pretty sure were based on a kneejerk response to criticism of a celebrity, and it’s very hard to publish critical responses at all in some journals. A better approach is that pioneered by the BMJ, which treats critical responses as a kind of comment thread, and elevates the best ones to the status of published Letters to the Editor – this insures more voices get to criticize the work, and everyone can see whose critiques were ignored
  • Institutions need to make their complaint processes much more transparent and easy to work with. Often it is the case that serious harassment cases – physical or sexual – are easy for students to complain about the smaller and more common complaints, like academic misconduct and bullying, are much more difficult to complain about. I think it is generally true that if an academic is disciplined early in their career for small infractions of basic rules on misconduct and bullying, they will be much, much less likely to risk major misbehavior later
  • Student complaints need to be handled in a timely manner that ensures that they are able to see resolution before their thesis defense or graduation, so they can change supervisors if necessary
  • Academic advisors should never be able to sit on their own student’s dissertation committee, or on the committees of their close friend and co-author’s students, since this gives them undue influence over the student’s graduation prospects and kills dead any chance of a complaint (I can’t believe this happens in some universities!)
  • The academic advisor’s permission should never be a requirement for submission. At the very least, if your relationship with your advisor goes pear-shaped, you should always be able to just tell them to fuck off, go off and do the work by yourself, and submit it to an independent committee for assessment

I think if these kinds of rules are followed it’s much harder for academics to become celebrities, and much harder for their celebrity status to become overpowering or to enable them to stifle other students’ careers. But a lot of these changes require action by editorial boards, trustees of non-profits and NGOs, and government bodies connected to specific topics (such as ministries of health, or departments responsible for art and culture). Until we see wholesale changes in the way that academics interact with editorial boards, grant committees, private organizations and government agencies, will not see any reduction in the power and influence of celebrity academics. In the short term this influence can be fatal for students and junior academics, but in the long term – as we have seen in literary theory, it appears – it can also drag down the diversity and quality of work in the whole discipline, as a couple of bullies and pigs come to dominate the entire discipline, ensuring that no one deviates from their own line of work and no one ever criticizes their increasingly weak and low quality work. Academia as a whole benefits from genuine competition, diversity of funders and fund recipients, spreading grant money widely and fairly, and maintaining rigorous standards of independence and academic objectivity in assessing work for publication. Celebrity academics weaken all of those processes, and bring the entire academy down.

A final note: I cannot believe that academics invite students alone to their houses, or (as in this case) invite themselves to their student’s houses. There is no legit reason to do this. Every university should tell its academics, from day one: if you invite a student alone to your house and they lodge a sexual harassment complaint against you, you’re on your own – we will believe them every time. Just don’t do it, under any circumstances. And they should tell students from day one: if your supervisor (or any academic) invites you alone to their house, report it immediately. It’s simply terrible behavior, and no good will ever come of it. Reading the report that this student lodged against his supervisor, it’s simply impossible to believe that she wasn’t up to no good, and simply impossible to accept that the university did not uphold his complaint of sexual harassment. He has now launched a lawsuit, so we can now see all the details of what happened to him and how he dealt with it, and it looks like a complete disaster for NYU and for the professor in question. If the university had disciplined this woman much earlier in her career for much lighter infractions; if it had a clear rule forbidding these one-on-one home-based “supervision” arrangements, or at least making clear that they are a sexual harassment death zone for profs; and if the university gave its senior academics a clear sense that they are not protected from such complaints, then this situation would never have arisen. There is no excuse for this kind of unprofessional behavior except “I knew I could get away with it.” And the academic world needs to work to ensure no professor can ever know they can get away with it, no matter how famous and special they are or think they are.

The death of a great mage, who has many times in his life walked on the dry steep hillsides of death’s kingdom, is a strange matter: for the dying man goes not blindly, but surely, knowing the way.

On the 23rd January Ursula le Guin died at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy unrivaled in science fiction, and a body of work that has been hugely influential in and outside of the genre. Ursula le Guin was my gateway to fantasy, and a very important personal influence for me, not only on my reading habits but also on my game mastering, and on my own perspectives on politics, feminism, and race relations. She has received accolades from newspapers and writers across the world, and there’s little that I need to say to add to the obvious appreciation of her contribution on display in all the usual places, so I thought I might say a little about the various and important ways that she influenced me from a very young age. It’s not much, but ultimately this is what writing is all about – the impact it has on its readers.

A Wizard of Earthsea was my introduction to real fantasy, probably the first book I read after the Narnia series, and the one book more than any other that served to kick me into a lifetime of devotion to this genre. I was always an avid reader when I was a child so there was no risk that I would not be reading a lot of books, but it was A Wizard of Earthsea more than any other book that ensured I would commit a lot of that reading time to the fantasy and science fiction genres. It’s a great book to start with, because it is immediately accessible to children, but whatever age you read it you will gain something from it. Indeed, I think I have read the whole series perhaps three times, and the first in the series at least five times. The writing is very powerful and so very simple, every sentence carefully poised to carry as much weight as possible. The original three slim volumes require so little work to read, and have such a powerful impact. For me Ged is one of the most powerful and engaging characters in all of fiction, speaking to me not like a lone magician but like the voice of some eternal conscience, a moral and spiritual force far greater than its possible to believe one literary figure can possess. It surely helps that when I read this book I was beginning to give in to my position as an outsider, always moving around, always rejected by new schools and new communities, living on the edge of things just like Ged when he discovered his powers. This book, simultaneously so forceful and so gentle, was a huge influence on my personality when I was very young.

The Dispossessed came to me at the beginning of university, and is probably the single biggest reason I fell into left wing political views. I was a very naive, very inexperienced boy coming from a very poor background with a great deal of anger about the disadvantage that I, my family and my friends faced, but no sense of how anything could ever be different – or that it even could be. Then, because I had read A Wizard of Earthsea, I decided to read The Dispossessed – and I suddenly discovered an image of a world where everything was different, where there was no inequality and people worked and struggled for very different reasons. This story was about a scientist – a physicist no less! – embarking on a world of political discovery at just the time I was studying physics, and moving from my country town to the big city. Just like Shevek after he left Anarres, I felt again like an outsider, a country bumpkin in amongst all these sophisticated kids from the city who already knew each other and already knew the world they moved in, kids who had spent their whole lives knowing they would be at university, and knew that after they left university they would inherit the world – while I had only learnt what university was a year earlier and did not know where I would go after it finished. Caught in that in between world I read The Dispossessed and suddenly I knew that there had to be another way, that maybe things didn’t have to be the way everyone assumed they had to be. After I read this book I sat with a much older mature age student in the cafe, trying to explain how it had opened my mind to knew ways of social organization, and my anger at how things were, and he suggested that I should join Resistance, the youth arm of the communist party. “I think you’ll hate them,” he told me, “and you’ll leave after a year. But you’ll learn about the things you need to know.” So I did, and he was right in every detail – I did hate them, and I did learn a lot, and I did leave them after a year. Just like Shevek I ended up in between political ideas, but knowing a lot more about myself and what I believed.

The Left Hand of Darkness came after The Dispossessed, again while I was still a callow youth, and it opened my mind about gender the same way that The Dispossessed made me think about politics. It had never really occurred to me that the relations between the sexes were culturally constructed, and the complex relationship between biology and culture described in that wonderful little book was a completely new idea to me (like I said, I was a very naive youth). The Left Hand of Darkness is perfect science fiction, in that it gets you to think about how things are and how they could be and how they should be, but it doesn’t give you any neat answers – it just makes you wonder. After you read a book like that you just want to know more, you have suddenly a whole new dimension of thinking that you didn’t know about before, and suddenly you are open to all the new ideas that flow from it – feminism, post structuralism, whatever. I spoke to a friend after I read this book, an activist in the Australian Labor Party, and he recommended to me an excellent guidebook called Men, Sex, Power and Survival that provided a primer in feminism for men. At the same time the university where I studied was offering basic education in how to behave in a non-sexist way in tutorials and in general at university (a few tips on how not to sexually harass people, that sort of thing) and I think without this book I would have been less open to these things. I don’t credit myself with being “woke” in some dumb-arsed American way, but I think I have lived my life open to feminist ideas and alternative ways of thinking about sex and culture, and I think I can credit Ursula le Guin for this.

So in terms of my main hobby and interests, my main political direction, and a lot of my views about gender and sexuality, I have a lot to thank Ursula le Guin for. Of course nothing is all one person’s fault, and there were other things that influenced me in all these directions – Dragonlance probably cemented my interest in the fantasy genre, and I think Star Wars and a few other movies would have fixed me on science fiction (though I came to sci fi later than fantasy). I guess I probably would have discovered left wing politics anyway, given my class background and my anger, and the university was pushing a strong feminist line when I arrived that might have influenced me anyway, but I’m sure that without Ms. le Guin’s impact I might have been far less committed to or interested in any of these areas of life. She influenced me in other ways, too – I think Orsinian Tales is a heart-breakingly well written depiction of the lives of ordinary people, that really moved me when I first discovered it, and I read a lot of her other work and was duly influenced by that too, but these were the big three ways in which she changed my life.

Ursula le Guin didn’t get the credit she deserved in life, and although as she neared the end of her career she began to get the accolades which she should have got decades earlier, I think she still didn’t get all she deserves. I think she identified this as partly being because of her gender, at least within her field; but she also seemed to be very convinced that it was the genre itself that held back the esteem its authors deserved (not just her; she never seemed to be very proud). She was a staunch and prickly defender of her genre, refusing to apologize for it or to break out of it, and as punishment for that I believe she is not as well rewarded as, say, Margaret Atwood, who writes slightly science-fictiony stories in a mainstream genre and got a lot of respect much earlier in her career. Of course I can’t speak for Ursula le Guin but I think, from what I read of her essays and her writings, that she wouldn’t care about those awards and accolades nearly as much as she valued the impact that she has had on the lives of her readers, the ordinary people from whom she believed all important change arises, about whom she always told her stories, and to whom she so patiently and consistently directed her work. So I wanted to add my voice to all those others this week who spoke up to say how much she influenced them, and how much she mattered to them. Ursula le Guin’s work changed the direction of my life, for the better, and I will always be thankful to her for that, and for her huge contribution to the fields of science fiction and fantasy that have formed so much of the backdrop of my life. She may be gone, but she leaves a formidable legacy that will change science fiction and fantasy forever, just as it changed me.

 

The internet is all abuzz at the moment with the proud news that a men’s rights activist (MRA) has produced a woman-free version of Star Wars’ The Last Jedi, based on a low-fi cam recording from a cinema somewhere in Asia. The stated reason is to (amongst other things) cut out all the scenes which involve women “commanding people around/having ideas” and to get rid of the “girlz powah and other silly stuff”.  This dude’s problems with The Last Jedi seem to be the same as some of the douchier commenters on my (much-read!) review of The Last Jedi, which primarily seem to be that “diversity ruined the movie” and “there were too many women in charge.” These complaints are always associated with some kind of whine about how this insistence on diversity has ruined the original series. For example a random reviewer at Rotten Tomatoes says:

With the clear intention of moving away from the Lucas Legacy, this Director has consumated the machiavellian Disney’s plan of turning SW saga in one size fits all current tendencies: ultra-feminism, anti male, ultra-diversification, pro-millennial ranks…

Suggesting, very strongly, that the original movie did not have a political stance or pro-diversity ideal, and that to do so must ruin the original movie. There’s also no evidence that the bigger plot and consistency problems identified by so many commenters on my blog are of great interest to these MRAs – they don’t complain about the acting, only the fact that the actor is a woman, and (for example) the execrable hyperspace weapon is still in the MRA cut. So it certainly appears that their sole and only concern is that the movie features a) too many non-white male actors and b) too many chicks in charge.

Which gets me wondering – exactly what version of the original series did these dudes see, and what exactly did they like about it? For example, A New Hope has a core cast of five people – Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia and Darth Vader. Of those one is a woman who is introduced as a leader in the rebellion, and another is black and a leader of the Empire. Now, you might dispute that Darth Vader is actually black since in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back we see a brief shot of his white head (as we do at the end of the Return of the Jedi), but when you and I went to see A New Hope as callow youths in 1978 or whenever it was, having not yet seen The Empire Strikes Back, we watched a character dressed entirely in black, with a black face mask, voiced by a black man, and we loved him. How is this character not black at the time we saw the movies? We might have imagined he was white under the mask but in doing so we were explicitly disavowing everything the movie itself was telling us. To all intents and purposes Darth Vader was black. But even putting aside that little note of controversy, we still have 20% of the cast being a woman, and she’s in charge – when Luke is going down the death star canyon to stick a photon torpedo up Vader’s arse, he is being directed by Leia from the command center of the rebel base, because she’s in charge. The same rule applies in The Empire Strikes Back, where our cast is further diversified by the inclusion of Lando Calrissian, and in Return of the Jedi we are introduced to Mon Mothma, a middle-aged woman with short hair who is the leader of the rebel alliance (and there are female fighter pilots in the briefing room, to boot).

Then of course there is the small issue that C3PO is super camp, and would be interpreted as a gay stereotype if he weren’t a robot. I’ll forgive MRAs for missing this, since they’re mostly NFL fans which probably means they think high camp is super macho, and misinterpreted C3PO as a football player or something. Also in the original movie we are meant to identify most with Skywalker, which means we’re meant to want to fuck Leia as he does, but in Empire he gets friend-zoned, which is a move that MRAs hate more than almost anything else on earth.

So what about the original movies gets a pass? They’re just as diverse as the Last Jedi, with just as many women in charge, and the key heroes in both sequences are firmly under the control of the chicks: under Leia’s command (Wookiepedia lists her as the leader of the battle of Yavin, for example) and then Mon Mothma’s, while in the Last Jedi they’re under Leia’s command and then Holdo’s. The hero is generally and universally admitted to be a snivelling idiot in the first movie, outshone by Han Solo – who, we are regularly reminded, is a rake and a criminal – and in the subsequent movies he gets friend-zoned and becomes your classic beta cuck, doing all the serious hard work while the rakish fuckboi runs off with the girl we’re all supposed to want.

What exactly in the legacy of the original movies does the Last Jedi betray by having a woman in charge or a black dude in a key role, and how does its pursuit of diversity make it different from the originals in any way?

This matters to me for two reasons: 1) that MRAs suck and I hate that I might be on the same side of them in any debate, regardless of whether our reasons are 100% different; and 2) it’s affecting critical reaction to the backlash against the movie. While 1) might be just a petty personal foible, I think 2) is important. The critics were all wrong about this movie, which was shit, but it wasn’t shit for the reasons that the stupid MRA idiots are ranting about. But the very public, sexist and gross response of MRA manbabies to this movie means that the critics who were so terribly wrong about it can dismiss the backlash against their terrible performance as the disaffected whining of a bunch of MRAs, rather than a genuine critical disagreement. Consider this response to the MRA cut from the website Junkee, which usually does quite entertaining discussion of internet phenomena, in which they say that

a vocal minority of manbabies detested it, mostly because it’s full of women.

A great example of this is the targeted attack on the film’s rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, which led to a 40% discrepancy between the critic and audience reviews, and which was later claimed by the “alt-right” as a manufactured backlash

This makes it seem like the continuing decline in the movie’s ratings on Rotten Tomatoes[1], and all the critical backlash against it, are driven by a small number of MRAs, and manages to escape any kind of serious discussion of what was wrong with this movie. This kind of thing was also visible in other responses (e.g. Vox’s) which dismissed it as due to a sense of entitlement among fans, or grown men being uncomfortable with the diversity of the movie. Given that the movie is no more diverse than the originals, and given that there are serious major problems with the rest of the movie (the casting being the least of them, I would have thought), this means that the critics avoid responsibility by pinning the whole thing on MRAs, and Rian Johnson – and the Disney crew generally – can avoid putting any thought into what they’ve done wrong, and what they need to do right to fix their mistakes in episode 9. Given the response of critics and the director himself to criticisms of the movie, I think we can rest assured there’s no point in expecting episode 9 to be anything less than a shithole. And to the extent that this is because the whining and posturing of MRAs created a false narrative of increased diversity, and saturated debate with their stupid whining about chicks in charge rather than genuine complaints about this woeful movie, then I’m comfortable with blaming MRAs for the death of star wars.

Get back in your basements, you grommits. But before you go I have two questions I’d like you to answer in comments here: 1) how on earth did you ever enjoy the originals when there was a woman in charge and 2) how do you enjoy science fiction at all given that movies like Terminator, Aliens, Mad Max, Ghost in the Shell etc. are full of strong female characters, often in positions of authority? Why do you bother going to science fiction movies at all? Also 2a), how do you watch porn?

Answers in the comments, please! And try not to use pointless MRA jargon like SJW, blue pill, or cuck!


fn1: it’s down to 49% now, from 56% at the time I wrote my review. Well done Rian Johnson!

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