Friday, December 19, 2014

Dragons of Industry Minifesto

Warning! Spoilers ahead! No major plot twists, but lots of setting and thematic details.

So, since one or two people have asked about it, here's an infodump on The Dragons of Industry.

Themes

There are certain themes I want to keep in mind throughout the writing of this series:
  • Diversity: A continent is a big place, with room for lots of different kinds of people. Racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity; gender diversity--not just men and women, but genderfluid, third gender, trans, and agender--diverse sexualities, diverse religions, diverse ages, diverse politics. Most of all, I just want lots of diverse points of view, because fantasy has been historically really bad at that. Which is why each story in the series will use a third person limited perspective with a different point-of-view character, even though they cover overlapping events and characters.
  • Power: It comes in many forms, and each of them will try to bend you to itself. It distorts, disrupts, destroys. To wield it is to be wielded by it. And yet the only thing that can oppose power is power... though not necessarily the same kind of power.
  • Apocalypse and Revolution: This is another reason I want multiple POVs, because of course these are both just words for "massive, rapid change on a large scale."
  • Defying the "Great Man" Theory: Science fiction and fantasy are rampant with singular heroic men (and, occasionally but not often, women) who alter the course of history by ingenuity, pluck, power, and will. This is bullshit. I don't want any Chosen Ones; just people, making choices, some of which turn out how they'd hoped and some don't; it is the aggregate of thousands upon thousands of such choices, not any one heroic individual, that shapes the course of history.
  • No Hegemonic Masculinity: Since I want to talk about power and a multiplicity of perspectives, I decided to imagine what it would be like if no culture had ever associated power with one gender. So, there is no hegemonic masculinity in Dorn; different cultures construct gender differently, but none have a hierarchical notion that men are strong, women weak, or that showing weakness is unmasculine, or that shows of power are inherently masculine.
Magic

The original ideas for this setting involved something more fantasy-with-rivets, which is to say a system of magic that was reliable, dependable, and obeyed clear, precise rules. Meh.

I've revised that fairly heavily, so that magic feels more alive, more integrated into the world instead of the video game-like thing it tends to be in fantasy-with-rivets. There are two forms of magic, innate and constructed.

Innate magic is instinctive and physical, an inborn connection with one of the elements, which you can use to sense and manipulate that element; it can be trained to build skill and power, but this training is often quite physical and always more about developing reflex and technique than learning theory. Both element and capacity vary from person to person, with some people having such a low capacity that their element can't be determined. 

By contrast, constructed magic is symbolic and cerebral; it involves channeling magical energy through runes or symbols representing concepts--both the elements themselves and the "verbs" and "adjectives" describing the intended effects--to create effects. Key here is that te sequence of symbols IS the effect, It just needs magic to being it to life. Still, you can't just plop down symbols and push magic into them; it takes skill and power both, and since each person's magic is innately tied to one element, certain symbols will he easier or harder for that person.

The elements are the traditional earth, water, fire, air, plus lightning, darkness/light (there is some scholarly disagreement over which of the two the element actually is, or if there's even a difference), pattern, form, life, mind, time, and magic itself. Each also has associated concepts and personalities, though it's not true that people with a particular innate element always have the same personality. 

Dragons and Familiars
Despite the name, dragons are not remotely like the familiar creatures of legend and fantasy. Well, not collectively anyway. Some of the...

Anyway, there are twelve dragons, one for each element. Dragons are the absolute paragons of innate magic, casting no spells, but each able to manipulate their chosen element with near-perfect skill drawing on millennia of experience, and they are also effectively immortal so long as they can bond to a human. The bonding is a process by which the minds and lives of human and dragon are linked; it only works with a human who shares the dragon's innate element, and the result is that they can both tap into the combined power of both, though it is a rare human indeed that can make any significant difference to a dragon's power. When a dragon's human dies, or more rarely when a dragon is "killed," the dragon reverts to a stone-like dormant state in which it is unconscious, sessile, and effectively indestructible until the next time a human of the appropriate element whom the dragon deems worthy touches it, at which point the dragon revives and bonds to the human.

Dragons are also the only ones capable of familiars, also called elementals, lesser spirits that bond to a human similarly. The familiar shares the innate element of its dragon and can only bond to humans of that element, and like dragons shares in the power of the human; the main difference is that elementals are generally in the mid-to-high range of human power, while no human has ever lived who could come close to a dragon's power in innate magic, and only one or two master mages who, if extremely well-prepared, could do it with constructed magic.

The Setting

The primary setting of the series is the continent of Dorn, a large continent, with diverse biomes and climates. The far south is mostly frozen tundra, while the center of the continent is dominated by tall mountains and dark forests. West of the mountains is a great desert, and beyond that wide rolling fields dotted with the occasional forest. North of that is the Altavari Sea, and west and north of that is the huge, mountainous, volcanic, hot Northern Peninsula. Meanwhile, north of the mountains, southeast of the mouth of the Altavari Sea, are the rain forests of the north-central coast, fading into swamps in the east. South and inland from the swamps, east of the central mountains, are more plains, though less well-watered than the western plains.

North of the continent, forming a sort of blobby chain curving east and north away from the Northern Peninsula, are the Karaian Islands, volcanic and tropical. Beyond that are vast wastes of trackless ocean, growing steadily hotter and more storm-prone as one goes north, until at last one reaches a hot region of constant mist and storm where the wind blows and current flows only south. Those few intrepid explorers who have fought their way still further north tell grim tales of the Boiling Ocean, where sudden gouts of steam, invisible in the thick hot mist, can boil a sailor's flesh from their bones, and ceaseless storms slash with wind and lightning at the hapless ships toiling forward into the unknown.

History

For most of human history, the most ancient of laws held: one dragon, one nation. To be bonded to a dragon was to be so overwhelmingly powerful that one almost couldn't help but conquer everything until you hit the next dragon, not to mention being able to supply an army with familiars; as such, while there's been some fluctuation of who rules what, there have effectively always been twelve nations in Dorn, corresponding to the twelve elements. Citizens of a given nation are no more likely to have a particular innate element than in any other nation, but since dragons and familiars must match their bondlings' elements, and for most of human history the ruling class was defined by possessing dragons and familiars, their leaders have traditionally possessed a particular element, and this has impacted the culture and character of each nation.

In addition, there have been for centuries twelve international Guilds, each of which specializes in a professional associated with a particular element and with the study and exploration of that element's magic, such as the Mages' Guild for magic, the Healers' Guild for Life, or the Sailors' Guild for Water. Again, one does not have to possess the element in question to join or work for the guild, but they do tend to be one of the places for someone who has that element to work.

As said, this was the pattern for most of human history. Three major events have disrupted it, the first about 2200 years ago, when the Great Alliance of eleven nations banded together to destroy the Unnamable Realm, transforming it into the Glass Desert in a single night and annihilating its people. No one remembers any longer what it was called or who lived there, though some believe the scattered nomads who now roam the desert are descendants of its people; other scholars believe they are simply a mix of Tornik and Hologi who wandered into the desert or fled their from justice or persecution, and built lives. Regardless, it is known that once the Nation of Time was there, and as punishment for its crimes--whatever they might have been--it was destroyed and its people and cities annihilated. The Dragon of Time, Melkeledh, has never been seen by reliable witnesses since; legend has transformed him into a sort of dark trickster figure, a tempter who offers power for service, but always ends up demanding more than he gives. He is frequently referred to as the Dark One, as some believe saying his name can attract his attention. In addition, time-innates are now extremely rare--some say as a divine punishment, others as a result of some great magical working by the leaders and dragons of the Alliance, and still others that it was always so--and nascent wielders of its power usually whisked off to their nation's capital to be trained in prescience and history-reading. They are in particular strictly forbidden to learn any constructed magic, for fear of what they might be able to do--or undo, as the case may be.

The second great disruption began about 1100 years ago, when the Alterian Empire began a campaign of conquest after its mages developed the first complete, workable system of constructed magic. The only realm actually ruled by a dragon, namely Empress, the Dragon of Magic, it expanded for centuries until at last all of Dorn except the Wannet lands of the far east, some of the Karaian Islands, and part of the southern tundra remained free. By 500 years ago, however, enough people in the conquered realms knew enough magic, and the dragons grew restless enough, to tear the Empire apart, so that eventually there were eleven nations once more, though many with quite different borders and ethnic makeup than before the Empire.

The third disruption occurred about 300 years ago, and has yet to settle down, when two events happened quite close to each other in time. First, Pryderys, traditionally the realm of Fire, developed the Firestone, an enchanted stone that released heat, either as a comforting gradual warmth or as an explosive burst, depending on the construction of the spells. Second, the Mage Guild announced the development of the first new rune in centuries, the Combine rune, a simple to learn and use rune which allowed one spell to be woven into another--an act which previously had required a complex spell of the Magic element, one of the hardest to master. The difficulty and power needed for a spell had always grown swiftly with its effectiveness and complexity, but the Combine rune circumvented this, allowing one to build a spell by stacking simpler spells atop one another. The result: clever members of the Guild of Sappers and Pyrotechnics invented the first magical assembly line and began mass-producing Firestones.

Even the most destructive Firestone came nowhere close to the power of a familiar, let alone a dragon, but they could be made in great quantities, wielded by people with neither strong innate talent nor long years of training nor a familiar, and used anywhere and everywhere. Suddenly, even though a dragon-bonded ruler could conquer basically anyone who didn't have equivalent defense of their own, said ruler couldn't protect them once conquered. A century of widespread chaos, war, and civil war followed, until eventually the eleven nations reached their modern forms.

Nations and Ethnicities

The twelve realms are:

The Unnameable Realm: Associated with the element and dragon of time, the realm was destroyed over 2,000 years ago, turning it into the great desert in south-central Dorn. It is still pocked here and there with great glass-lined craters where, it is said, the dragons did battle.

Alteria: Once an empire stretching across the continent, this realm still commands a healthy portion of northwest Dorn. Fertile fields and one of the most defensible capitals in the world, which also houses the headquarters of the Mage's Guild, make Alteria still a military, economic, and cultural force to be reckoned with. The majority of Alterians are ethnic Alterians, generally brown-skinned, with narrow faces and longish noses, usually dark (but occasionally red) curly hair and dark eyes. The Alterian language is the most widely spoken in the world, being still the language of culture, trade, and diplomacy throughout the former Empire, and the Alterian faith is likewise the most widespread, teaching that the Dragons formed from the raw elements themselves at the dawn of the world, and created and shaped mankind to be their partners. However, people of nearly every ethnicity live in the capital and throughout the country, and there is a sizable Keiokarnan minority in the northeast and Tornik minority in the south--indeed, the Ackerbucht region along the border with Toftor is almost all ethnically Tornik. Realm of Magic.

Pryderys: Occupies the southeastern part of the Northern Peninsula, a hilly, volcanic region known for glass, olives, wine, and the mass production of weapons. Ruled by a Tarnic minority who conquered the native Keiokarnan majority (often referred to as "Keo," because the Tarnic speakers who conquered them could not pronounce the "ei" sound and considered the long name unwieldy; today, many Pryderian Keiokarnans us the term for themselves, though the more rebellious, and any Keiokarnans elsewhere in the world, consider the term a slur) some 400 years ago following a war with Caertarn that went very badly, then declared independence just a decade later. Ironically given it is where Firestones were originally invented and mass produced, it is the only realm still ruled under traditional, post-imperial draconic feudalism, which is to say the member of the royal family selected by the dragon Lazukoazu is the King or Queen, with familiars issued to members of loyal noble houses. All of these families are, of course, strictly Tarnic. Realm of Fire.

Karaia: Occupies the Karaian Archipelago that stretches east and north from Pryderys. It is populated mostly by Keiokarnan people, who tend to be short, broad, and dark, with flat noses, wide faces, dark eyes, and coarse, curly hair black hair. Its people are considered to be unquestionably the greatest navigators and explorers in the world, and are among the wealthiest and happiest thanks to a massive trade empire built mostly on the luxury foodstuffs, textiles, and exotic herbs (both spice and medicinal) they ship around the world. Realm of Water.

Toftor: Occupies the southwestern portion of Dorn, the most fertile land in the world and largest nation in area. Toftor is inhabited mostly by Tornic people [I may change this or Tarnik, as they're a bit too similar], who tend to be a similar brown to Alterians, but taller and with straight hair, ranging from brown to black (never red, unless there is Alterian ancestry somewhere in the line). There is also a small Holodni minority in the southeast of the nation. Toftor is ruled by a series of hierarchically arranged council; the landowners of each village form a council, which selects one of their number to serve on a county council, which in turn elects one of their number to serve on a regional council, which in turn elects one of their number to serve on the Grand Council. These councils act as both legislature and judiciary, while the executive function (which is mostly law enforcement, military, and tax collection) is handled by a professional, career civil service/military--each member has both a civilian peacetime role and a military wartime role. Nation of Earth.

Avaris: Occupies the western part of the Northern Peninsula, down to the isthmus where it borders with Alteria. The last part of the Empire to break away from Alteria, the Tarnic majority are still ruled over by a militaristic faction of Alterians. One of the poorest and most brutal nations, a place of sharp peaks and narrow valleys. Home base for the Guild of Airmen, the newest guild, which is still working on expanding its airship routes across the continent. Realm of Air.

Caertarn: The northeastern part of the Northern Peninsula, similar in climate to Pryderys but less fertile and more mineral-rich. A place of mines and machineries, which has taken to industrializing like no other nation. Caertarn is the original homeland of the Tarnic people, and still inhabited almost exclusively by them, although there are Alterian and Keiokarnan minorities scattered about; Tarnic people tend to be dark-skinned, tall, and lean, with dark eyes and straight dark hair. Realm of Lightning.

Tamryl: A quiet, neutral realm on the southern slopes and foothills of the Central Mountains, shrouded in dark forests. The Tamri people tend to be small, slender, very dark, and straight-haired; the beauty of their art is renowned throughout Dorn, especially their fashion and jewelry. Since they keep mostly to themselves, there is a tendency for other cultures to view them as "exotic," "mysterious," "alluring," in ways that can be quite problematic. They worship the celestial bodies of Sun, Moon, and Stars. Realm of Darkness/Light.

Holog: The isolated and isolationist "barbarian" tribes of the far southern tundra, mountains, and highlands. Though the Holodni have no coherent nation, their realm is held together by a shared language, culture, and faith, the last of which is maintained by The Order of the Divine Crystal, who believe that in the beginning of things the universe existed in a state of near-perfect order, but one tiny bit of discord grew and grew until it shattered everything into chaos; the purpose of humans and dragons alike is to reorder the universe so that this time there is no disharmony at all. The Holodni are tall and pale, with hair ranging from white through yellow to light brown, straight or wavy, and blue or light brown eyes. Realm of Pattern.

Wannet: The great realm of the east, second-largest in the continent. The Wannet have possibly the most different culture in Dorn, mostly due to having never been part of the Empire. For example, they regard gender as a verb, and consider anyone who stays the same gender their whole life to be a bit eccentric, rather like deciding you love a certain outfit so much you'll just buy five identical outfits and never wear anything else again. They also have a unique religion, not entirely dissimilar from the Holodni faith, but pantheistic, teaching that all things are part of All, and in particular humans are the Hands of All, tasked with the never-ending, always-in-progress task of endlessly shaping and reshaping the universe into more pleasing forms. Their storytellers, known as Shapers, are highly trained and highly respected. Like Holog, Wannet has no central government, but exists as scattered, independent settlements linked by wandering Shapers. Nonetheless, as the occasional Holodni or Tamri raiding party has found, when threatened the Wannet are capable of banding together and fielding a formidable fighting force with surprising speed and organization. Realm of Form.

Keioloaia: Located along the north-central shores of Dorn, south of Karaia, with which it has strong cultural, ethnic, and political ties. Keioloaia is a rather harsher environment that Karaia, being a little less hot but a lot less fertile, being mostly full of either rainforest or swamp. However, those forests and swamps contain many of the exotic herbs and spices which Karaia sells to the world, and the rough terrain make the country near-impossible to invade; even the Empire never conquered Keioloaia by force of arms, but instead by egging them on in a series of disastrous wars against their neighbors over the course of which they progressed from ally, to protectorate, to vassal. The country is mostly Keiokarnan, with small but significant Chennelish and Tamri minorities in the south. Realm of Life.

Chennelea: Located in more or less the center of the continent, in the high pine forests and mountains of the center part of the Central Mountains, with Keioloaia to the north, Tamryl to the south, Toftor and Alteria to the wast and Wannet to the east. A study in contrasts, it is metal rich and full of mines, nearly as industrialized as Caertarn, but also renowned for producing far more than its share of scholars, mystics, and teachers. The University of Chenm is considered the greatest institution of learning in the world, except possibly for magical theory, where it is at least rivaled by the school of the Mage's Guild headquarters in Alteria. Chennelea is traditionally neutral in all conflicts involving its neighbors. Its people tend to be olive-skinned, with pale or brown, loosely curly hair and prominent noses. Realm of Mind.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Mortification of the Flesh

In Desolation Road, which is seriously one of the most overlooked and undervalued should-be classics of science fiction, there are a few chapters late in the book dealing with this religious cult that, much like certain medieval Christian monks and mystics, pursues the mortification of the flesh--they believe the body is sinful and evil, while the spirit is pure, and so seek to punish the body as a way of expressing the purity of the spirit. For medieval mystics, this meant stuff like living in deliberate filth, whipping themselves, starvation, and so on, while in the novel, they do it by destroying their sinful flesh and replacing it with pure, holy machinery. They are, of course, a parody of a certain kind of science fiction fan, the sort who talks about "the singularity" a lot--the end-goal of the cult is the Ultimate Mortification, a human mind in a completely robotic body.

It's gotten me thinking a bit of how I think about my own rotting sack of vomit, and in particular how I tend to view it as not a part of me, but rather as an antagonist that holds me hostage. I am occasionally insomniac, yes, but far more often the reason I don't sleep is stubbornness: I deliberately stay up, doing things that make it hard to sleep, because I'm sick of my body demanding I waste a third of every day doing nothing. Sleeping isn't taking care of myself, in this mindset; it's letting my body win.

Or there's the time in college I kept refusing to go to the doctor while I got sicker and sicker, either though campus health services was literally across the lobby from the student newspaper offices where I spent the overwhelming majority of my time. The only reason I ever made it there was because I passed out in the office and other members of the staff carried me there. ...And then a few years later more or less the same thing happened, where I had an infected cut on my face, and despite it being both painful and incredibly disgusting, I walked around with it for weeks until my fever got bad enough to make me delirious, and Viga (again, literally) dragged me to the doctor.

Or these last few weeks, where my feet have been getting steadily more painful, until last night I finally broke down and bought some arch support inserts for my shoes. And I really do experience it as breaking down, as a failure of will and a defeat. Once again, my body has defeated me and gotten its way, forcing me to alter my behavior to cater to its whims.

To an extent it runs in my family--my brother and nephew are very much the same way about sleeping. ("Runs in the family" is not, of course, the same thing as genetic--it's quite plausible that my nephew and I picked it up from my brother as small children, imitating the attitude and behavior of a familiar adult.) But I'm rather a lot more stubborn that the rest of the family--my brother will stay up until 2 a.m. on occasion, while I'll pull all-nighters when I'm feeling stubborn enough, and they usually don't apply it to obvious medical issues the way I do--and I think that has to do with chronic illness.

My teen years were pretty shitty. I was already severely depressed going into them thanks to a combination of parental neglect, peer abuse, and AvPD, and then my dad died when I was 13, and put on top of that the usual problems of a shy, nerdy adolescent, and my emotional state throughout high school was basically suicidal, but too depressed to be able to put together an attempt. Also I threw up a lot.

Which, you know, when you're fat at the beginning of freshman year, and by late sophomore year you're pathologically skinny and publically throwing up in the middle of the cafeteria almost every day, there's kind of an assumption people make about what's going on. Thankfully, my parents at least believed me when I told them I wasn't making myself throw up, it was happening on its own, and took me to a doctor instead of a therapist, because it wasn't an eating disorder at all. It was purely neuromuscular, and curable, as long as I was willing to trade it for a near-certainty of chronic acid reflux disease. Death by starvation or chronic pain; that's not actually a hard choice once you've experienced true hunger. I've experienced a lot of pain in my life, and nothing has been worse than the combination of agony, discomfort, and mind-numbing lethargy that was two straight weeks without anything making it into my stomach.

Add onto that what I increasingly suspect to be the case, that I'm sexually anhedonic, and the net result is that my body is basically entirely worthless to me. It is a hindrance, a hateful, demanding thing that gives nothing in return. I would love to be a brain in a jar, to be able to spend all my time on intellectual pursuits and communicating with people through text. (I mean, food is nice, but basically all food-related pleasures result in pain later, whether because of the reflux or the lactose intolerance or what I suspect is stress fractures caused by being too damn fat for my feet to support in these cheapass shoes.)

So basically, for all that I mock the singularitarians, I'm sympathetic. I can understand in wanting to believe you could be liberated from the flesh, could finally defeat it once and for all. It's just that I'm skeptical it's possible, hyper-skeptical it's easy enough to happen in the fairly short timespan our civilization has left to survive, and aware that most people actually like being made of meat and would strongly prefer it not occur, which is a fairly significant factor where major social changes are concerned.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Video Vednesday: Vlog: The Legend of Korra S4E02 "Korra Alone"

Patreon backers at $5 or higher get to see these videos weeks in advance, plus like everyone at $2 or higher they get to read The Near-Apocalypse of '09 entries months in advance!


Vlog review of The Legend of Korra, Season 4, Episode 2, "Korra Alone." I talk about structural similarities and references to AtLA episodes "Zuko Alone," "The Storm," and "Appa's Lost Days," how those help set the stage for the return of Toph, and my hopes for a sequence where Zuko, Katara, and Toph fight an entire army to liberate Ba Sing Se.

Monday, December 15, 2014

I was on a podcast: Lucifer with Uncle Yo comes to an end

Well, it's been 11 fun episodes, and I'm sure I'll be on the show again at some point, but for now, my run as a guest on Uncle Yo's We Are the Geek podcast is over with our discussion of Volume 11 of Vertigo's Lucifer. Here's all the episodes, with Yo's descriptions from his site:
  • Volume 1: Yo and Jed A. Blue are knocking on the wrong door by reviewing, paraphrasing, and summoning volume 1 of Vertigo Comics' great series, Lucifer. You know what they say about idle hands...
  • Volume 2: Summer gives way to spring(?) as Uncle Yo retrieves Jed A. Blue from his crystal dagger prison on the fields of Glys to discuss Vertigo's fantasy epic, Lucifer, written by Mike Carey. Prepare for purgatory as we embrace The Fall. Korra is done, Peter Capaldi is the Doctor, and we are all Fire and Brimstone.
  • Volume 3: Our journey into Lucifer continues as Yo and Jed watch the Devil face off against Izanami, demons, and an 11-year old British Grammar School Student in Lucifer Vol 3: "A Dalliance With The Damned."
  • Volume 4: Pride cometh before the fall, and it's time for Lucifer to be pegged down a notch. Jed Blue and Yo descend beyond Death herself to discuss the most action-packed volume of this graphic novel series. (Content warning: Sexual assault, forced pregnancy.)
  • Volume 5: A fight to the death, a debt to pay, and Heaven vs. Hell as Lucifer returns his old hometown of Hell to face Archangel Amenadiel of the Host.  With Jed A. Blue.
  • Volume 6: Lucifer assembles a crew to pilot the Naglfar in an attempt to bring Elaine Belloc's soul back from its resting place. Yo and Jed A. Blue look into the mirrors of other worlds and discover that, yes, there is something staring back at you.
  • Volume 7: The Throne of Creation is empty now that God has left his Creation to crumble. Who is able (or willing) to usurp? Lucy and Maz have their hands full in this gory, comical and oddly touching volume.  With co-host Jed A. Blue.
  • Volume 8: With Yahweh gone, there is blood in the air, and that can only mean the Wolf is not far behind. Fenrir, the demi-god of destruction, seeks out the tree Yggdrasil. It's suddenly up to Lucifer, Michael, and Elaine to intervene and stop this linchpin. If they can...
  • Volume 9: While Yo reminisces on the passing of New York Comic Con from the fans to Hollywood, Jed A. Blue and he dwell on despots, leaders, change, death, rebirth, birth, and the outcome of Fenris' plots.
  • Volume 10: We've reached the final battle between Creation and Destruction as Fenris takes on Lucifer, Noema takes on Free Will, and Lilith takes backstage with Elaine to make the case to Yahweh himself.
  • And, finally, today's episode, Volume 11: Yo and Jed have arrived at the new Creation. How will the Devil wrap up his business with Creation, how will Elaine play God, and how DOES Lucifer...y'know...with the ladies? The final stretch is here as we sing the Evensong.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Like you wanted, remember? (Trade Ya!)

I was really disappointed when the mallet didn't squeak.
It just looks like it should, y'know?
It's April 19, 2014. The top movie and song have remained unchanged in the two weeks since last episode. In the news, astronomers discover the first moon outside our solar system, Boko Haram attack a Nigerian school, killing two guards and kidnapping 200 girls, and the Supreme Court of India ruled that the government must recognize the existence of and ban discrimination against hijra, a third gender that broadly corresponds to the Western concept of transgender.

In ponies, we have "Trade Ya!" by Scott Sonneborn, one of the more structurally complex episodes of the series inasmuch as it has a full A, B, and C plot, as well as an implied background D plot. For the sake of clarity in discussion I'll lay out the four plots briefly, so that henceforth I can refer to them solely by letter: All four plots are set against within a giant annual swap meet. In approximate order of screentime, plot A follows Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy as they engage in a chain of deals in an attempt to acquire a rare first-edition book Rainbow Dash wants; plot B follows Rarity and Applejack as they pool their resources in order to trade more effectively, only to conflict over which of two items, each of which will require everything they have in trade, to get; plot C follows Twilight and Pinkie Pie as the former tries to get rid of books she no longer has space for and the latter tries to prevent her from making a bad deal; and plot D is Spike spending the entire day at one stand, dithering over which comic to trade his mint-condition copy of Power Ponies for, only to finally pick one just as the swap meet is ending.

At first, the episode appears to be a farce. As I've discussed before, the farce is characterized by complex, usually multi-threaded, plots rich in absurdity which eventually pile up into a ridiculous climax. Characters often work at cross purposes or pursue incompatible goals, only for the whole thing to collapse into a resolution that collides them all and, improbably, leaves everyone satisfied, except possibly the villain if there is one. However, this climactic collapse never materializes; the closes we get is Twilight presiding over an impromptu hearing to determine whether Rainbow Dash's final trade was legitimate under the rules of the meet, at which the A plot is finally resolved, but by that point the C plot of which Twilight is a part has already been resolved. More to the point, although in the end everyone is happy, no one except Spike actually gets what they want.

Instead, the episode becomes an examination of desire and value. Each of the threads (excluding D, which as I said is only ever implied by background events) involve characters who value very different things, for very different reasons, and generally fail to understand or appreciate the values of others.

In the A plot, for instance, we have the chain of deals Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy perform. Rainbow Dash's lucky horseshoe is a perfect example of an object which has value to Rainbow Dash, as she considers it a good-luck charm, but no one else can perceive this value--to them, it is a rusty old horseshoe. The pony with the crystal chalices then turns this onto the audience; she wants a rusty old horseshoe, not because she perceives it as a good-luck charm (maintaining that as a value only Rainbow Dash sees in it) but because she specifically wants a rusty old horseshoe. The audience never learns what she wants it for or why it needs to be rusty and old; we know only that she wants it enough to trade a chalice for it, thus making us the ones who cannot see the value she sees in it. Rainbow Dash then breaks the chalice and she and Fluttershy have to fix it; the viewer, naturally assuming that the sculptor wants the chalice for display purposes or to drink out of, assumes that he will likely reject the crudely glued-together chalice, but instead he happily accepts it and then smashes it with a hammer, so that he can use the crushed pieces for his mosaic made of smashed crystal chalices. Our assumption about what a crystal chalice can be valued for has proven false, further undermining the notion that we can judge value for others. After a few more trades, they finally get the orthros (a cute reference to the chimera in Sonneborn's previous episode--in Greek myth, Orthros was Cerberus' two-headed brother and Chimera's mate), but the pony with the rare book no longer wants it unless Fluttershy will come to Manehattan with her to train it. Even when we know what others value, it can shift without apparent warning!

The B plot goes beyond how values vary from person to person, and examines a straightforward conflict in values. After Rarity and Applejack pool their trade goods, they each find an item that will require the entire pool: a pie tin that is very slightly more efficient than normal pie tins for Applejack, and an antique brooch of which Rarity already owns a perfect replica. What's interesting here is that the show aligns the audience against empathy; rather than both items seeming like reasonable things to want, instead it is the arguments the ponies make against each other's items that seem reasonable. Both Rarity and Applejack are completely sincere in seeing their respective absurd items as being completely worth the trade, so by emphasizing that absurdity the B plot serves to highlight the arbitrary nature of value.

The C plot moves from examining differences of value between people to differences in value over time. To Twilight, the books initially have negative value--she does not want them, she wants the space that she'll get once she gets rid of them. (So that she can fill it with more books, naturally.) Even a broken quill is worth more to her than the books, because it occupies less space. Meanwhile, the other ponies at the swap meet seem not to value the books very highly at all, if a broken quill is the best offer Twilight gets for them.

But then Pinkie Pie gets involved, and starts trying to make the ponies at the event value the books more by playing up Twilight's celebrity status, which predictably annoys and embarrasses Twilight. Pinkie succeeds, gathering a large crowd to bid on Twilight's collection, but then she plays up the books' value so much that it backfires: the books are now worth too much, and none of the other ponies have anything worth trading for them! But Twilight is content, because she's realized that the books have value to her after all, as mementos; each is a reification of her memories of the events she associates with them.

All of this then serves as background to the brief trial scene. The value of things--of anything and everything--has been depicted as subjective, arbitrary, and changeable, which is a direct challenge to the premise of the show, which is about depicting the value of friendship, of varied interests and personalities, of kindness and generosity and loyalty and honesty and laughter. But if value is subjective, arbitrary, and changeable, then is the entire show to this point a lie?

And the answer is no. Because even though Twilight is forced to rule that the trade of what amounts to Fluttershy's indentured service and an orthros for the rare book is, under the rules of the swap meet, both fair and binding, Rainbow Dash's plea that she values Fluttershy far more than she could ever value the book touch everyone present. All the material objects depicted in the episode, their value is subjective and arbitrary because it's not a part of them; it can't be, because value is intangible, created by the valuer, while the objects are tangible. Again and again, this episode shows us that the objects desired by various ponies don't have value of their own, but have it placed into them by other ponies. It's not Twilight's books that are valuable, it's celebrity or memory. Not the brooch, but age; not the pie tin, but efficiency and saving time.

It is basically a more sophisticated version of both "The best things in life are free" and "It's the thought that counts": value, this episode is saying, is intangible, and therefore only intangible things have value. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy's friendship is the most obvious case, but the resolution of the B plot on the train ride home shows the same principle: Rarity and Applejack each used their half of the trade goods to acquire a lesser version of the item the other wanted. Both their explanations of their choice of gift suggest they haven't completely understood the other's reasons for their desires--Rarity thinks Applejack values age, when what she wants is a specific kind of plate that's no longer made; Applejack thinks Rarity wants something similar to what she already has, when what she really wants is age--but as Rainbow Dash points out, the real value is the effort they made for each other.

Is the episode right? It's difficult to say. On the one hand, it is right that value is not inherent in objects, but constructed onto them by individuals and societies. On the other, that doesn't mean that intangibles have inherent value either; for example, one person may value familial relationships more than friendships while another values friendships more, so the value of friendship isn't any more inherent than the value of a birdcall. That does not mean, however, that the show is in any sense being dishonest when it portrays friendship as highly valuable. The key here is that value is not just individually constructed, but also socially constructed. Shows like this are part of that social construction; they are a way for people who value friendship, and value the valuing of friendship, to encourage it in the wider society. So no, it's not dishonest; the show has never pretended that it's not trying to change the society around it. That's what being utopian means.

Next week: Oh for fuck's sake.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Escaflowne ep 3 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

Option 1: Whenever you watch the episode, comment on this post as you watch with whatever responses you feel like posting!

Option 2: Go to http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We'll be watching Vision of Escaflowne and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST.

I will update this post with the chat log afterwards.