Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Video Vednesday: Legend of Korra S4E4 "The Calling" Vlog

I typed "The Callening" like four times, I don't know what's wrong with me. Ikki gets an episode, apparently. Was there demand for an Ikkisode? I don't know, I have very little sense of what's going on in any given fandom, even one's I'm theoretically a part of.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 3

A summary of the past week of posts to my in-character Star Trek Online Tumblr, chronicling the adventures of E.N. Morwen, a science-loving and thoughtful young woman trapped in a galaxy of warring space giants.
  • [Promotion]: Lieutenant Commander: Morwen is promoted and given command of a new ship, the USS Sakura. She has mixed feelings about this.
  • Halting the Gorn Advance: Morwen fights to protect miners in the Tostig System from lizard space giants, and she and T'Vrell take the first steps toward learning some important lessons.
  • The Kuvah'Magh: Morwen tries to prevent a pro-war faction of Klingons from disrupting peace talks.
  • Treasure Trading Station: A servant in one of the Klingon Great Houses wants to defect to the Federation.
  • Secret Orders: The Sakura is sent to locate a Klingon base hidden in the dangerous Briar Patch Nebula, while the seeds of tension sprout among the crew.
  • Task Force Hippocrates: A Starfleet task force tries to stop Klingon and Gorn raids on medical and research facilities near the border.
  • Skirmish: The mysterious Drake sends the Sakura to investigate fighting between the Cardassians and Klingons. (Interdimensional Vampire Ghost Giants From Space Saga, Part 1).
  • Outreach: Morwen helps negotiate a trade dispute.
  • Spin the Wheel: The crew of the Sakura goes on shore leave, but it's actually a cover for Morwen to go on a mission for Drake. (Interdimensional Vampire Ghost Giants From Space Saga, Part 2).

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Final Count

Come Sunday, My Little Po-Mo will have its final blog post. Including the introduction, Derivative Works Months, Best Pony, and Commissioned Essays, but not book-exclusive chapters, guest posts, or things like "Equestria Stands!" it will be the 103rd entry, and falls just over two years after my first post. Being the kind of person who leaves a long trail of abandoned projects lying in ruins in his wake, this will be the first time I have ever finished a project of remotely this kind of scale.

This blog will continue. I really, really want to finally get up and running by the end of January, but even then this blog will stand as a redirect to that site--and that's assuming I do get it up and running. But that still leaves the entirety of January for guest posts and such.

I have written a single sentence of it, which puts me ahead of where I usually am on Monday. That sentence is the first sentence: "This is the path from Crown to Kingdom."

It will be a mildly gonzo post--no dual columns or intentional jumbling, but definitely not standard essay structure.

The title will be the only thing it can be, the only way this can end. It has a comma in it.

The Madoka Magica book is, as of two days ago, in editing. I hope to release it in January-February. I will probably also be conducting the Kickstarter My Little Po-Mo volume 3 in February. It will consist of the third season and the Derivative Works/Fanworks Months.

At this time, other than the liveblogs when Season 5 airs and whatever commissioned essays/Best Pony/book exclusive chapters I do for the remaining two volumes, I have no intention of ever writing anything about My Little Pony ever again.

But you never know.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Let me help you (Equestria Games)

Sorry this is late. It was actually finished in plenty of time, but I screwed up queueing it and set it for noon instead of midnight. Soon as I realized I switched it to publish immediately, but unfortunately that wasn't until after 11.

I think this is the first time I've ever seen the "feed them
grapes and fan them" thing done that it wasn't all women
doing the serving. Also: Spike has a fanboy. Haha, get it?
It's May 3, 2014. The top song is unchanged, and the top movie is The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In the news, India surpasses Japan as the world's third-largest economy in purchasing power parity, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford takes leave in order to get treatment for substance abuse, and the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma leads to a brief reignition of debate over the death penalty in the U.S.

And in ponies, we have something of a perfect storm: a story set in the Crystal Empire, which has not boded well in the past, that is also the second Spike episode in a row, and written by Dave Polsky, whose output has been uneven, to put it mildly: he's written on real gem, "Rarity Takes Manhattan," several fairly solid episodes, including the misunderstood "Feeling Pinkie Keen," and a few, let's be honest, total stinkers, such as "Over a Barrel," "Daring Don't," and most importantly for our discussion of this episode, "Games Ponies Play," which was both set in the Crystal Empire and focused on the Equestria Games.

Fortunately, "Equestria Games" falls into the "fairly solid" range, thereby achieving the rare feat of a Good Spike Episode. Spike manages to not be a jerk to anyone else for an entire episode, which immediately shortcuts the usual problem of Spike episodes not noticing that Spike is a jerk, and instead spends it acknowledging he has a problem and then attempting to address the problem. Specifically, he is suffering a crisis of self-confidence, and the only cure is for him to accomplish some kind of meaningful achievement.

In its own way, this episode is a step further along the same path as "It Ain't Easy Being Breezies." That episode was about the damage that saving instead of helping can do, and while it was from the point of view of the would-be savior, Fluttershy, it gives a great deal of screentime to a very strong character from among the "saved," Seabreeze. "Equestria Games" tops this by having the "saved" character be the main focus, and showing the damage it does to him and the process by which he recovers.

As I noted in my article on "It Ain't Easy Being Breezies," this is a difficult and delicate topic to address, because there is a significant political faction in our culture that uses the philosophy of Ayn Rand to argue against helping, and the arguments against saving are quite similar: that it creates dependency, undermines confidence and self-esteem, and imposes a submissive or servile state on the saved. The key to navigating this is to remember that these don't happen with helping, and are in fact how you tell the difference: saving imposes the will of the savior, which in turn forces the saved to be submissive, undermines their confidence, and makes them dependent. A helper, by contrast, allows the helped to decide what help is needed and how to use it, which empowers the person helped and prevents those negative effects.

The episode gives us two pairs of acts of helping and saving, and contrasts both, once in a silly way and once in a more serious way. The more serious contrast is in Twilight's actions. During the torch lighting, she saves Spike when he is crippled by performance anxiety. She has no idea what is causing the problem--she outright states that she doesn't know why he's not lighting the torch--but she can see that he isn't lighting it and fears that he will be embarrassed, so she rescues him by lighting the torch for him. Once he understands what's happened, Spike is devastated; he sees it not only as a failure, but as a vote of no confidence from Twilight. His resulting desperation to prove himself leads to him humiliating himself with the Cloudsdale anthem, pushing him even deeper into withdrawal from the outside world and unhappiness.

It is only when Twilight starts actually talking to him, asking him why he's upset and what would make him feel better, that it becomes possible for her and Cadance to help him. As Twilight puts it, he needs to do achieve something that has meaning to him, not others, in order to earn back his confidence, and only he can tell them what that is. They can offer help, but he must be the one to take it, rather than having it pushed on him by them or by circumstance, as with the falling ice cloud.

That ice cloud forms part of the second contrasting pair. Spike, from the start of the episode, is hailed by the people of the Crystal Empire as their savior. Which is true--he was the one who actually retrieved the Crystal Heart in "The Crystal Empire." But nonetheless the episode paints this as ridiculous--Spike, who the viewers know is the perpetual fifth (or, rather, seventh) wheel of the Mane Six, has ponies kowtowing to him, asking for his autograph, even fanning him and feeding him gems while he reclines! Spike, too, ultimately finds this empty; even when he saves the Equestria Games by destroying the ice cloud, he is unable to feel a sense of accomplishment from it. Unstated but implied is the contrast between his actions to save the Empire, which were spur-of-the-moment things that weren't asked for, to his failure when the Empire actually asked him to do something. He has internalized the difference between saving and helping, having experienced himself, and now he wants to be a helper rather than a savior.

Which Twilight and Cadance then help him become, repairing the damage Twilight did by saving him earlier. Twilight and Spike thus both learn the same lesson in this episode, but for once the gravity of Twilight's character is resisted, and so her learning occurs more or less in the background. The result is actually a little bit like a key episode for Spike, though not as much as the previous episode; he has repeatedly been described as Twilight's helper or assistant. "Helping" is the closest thing he has to an Element of Harmony, and this episode was about exploring the fail-state of Helping just as "Rarity Takes Manehattan" was about the fail-state of Generosity, "It's Not Easy Being Breezies" was about the fail-state of Kindness, and so on.

Which, with only the finale left to the season and, presumably, the key arc, raises the question: What is the fail-state of Magic? Of Friendship? What must Twilight overcome to earn her key?

Next week: Why we climb trees.

ETA: Corrected an error in the first name of the Toronto mayor.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Escaflowne Ep 5 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 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.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Fiction Friday: Faultless, Part 2

Continuing on from where we left off... wow, was it really a month ago? Bit of a short one, but this feels like a natural break point.

Content Warning: Child abuse/neglect

It wasn't her first time outdoors, of course. She'd been in the garden many times, to pull oranges and avocados off the trees or smell the flowers or just feel the sun on her skin. It was hot out there, beyond the faint blue glow of the cooling spells at every door and window, and sometimes she just needed to be hot. She would stand out there and hug herself tightly and just let the sun wash over, beating at, imagine it squeezing its way through her skin and deep down inside. Sometimes for hours, if nobody came out--she had a vague notion that she was not supposed to go outside, but fortunately there were a great many doors between garden and house, and she could always get back inside without being seen.

But this wasn't like going out into the garden. You couldn't see anything but house from there--you could hear the noises of the city, and sometimes smell its smells, but not see it. Ghost found that these days she very much wanted to. Maybe it was from being in the cellar so long, but she had developed a powerful yearning to actually see the place in which she was, supposedly, growing up.

Of course, she'd watched people coming in and out of the house for years. She knew that you dressed differently for outside than in. She wasn't entirely clear on why, but she could see what--going out meant shoes, and frills, and hats. Fortunately there was the ragpile in the corner of the laundry, where all the clothes that couldn't be mended or cleaned went. Ghost had gotten her smock there, and the one before it. Before that she was fairly sure she'd been dressed by the servants, but it was long enough ago and she'd been small enough that it was only a vague, fuzzy notion. A lot of the past seemed to dissolve into those, sometimes very quickly.

From the ragpile she procured her secret treasure, her going-outfit as she thought of it, a broad-brimmed hat that had once been white, with a chunk missing from the brim, a pair of shoes that were only a little too big for her, and which she stuffed with torn and crumpled paper stolen from her father's study, and a light, loose white dress with a broken strap, but she was able to tie the two halves together. The result was a little lopsided and too big for her, falling well past her knees, plus it was supposed to be belted at the waist and she couldn't find a belt, but it would do well enough.

She slipped out the servants' and traders' entrance when no one was looking, and found herself on a sort of ribbon made of a strange rock, gray and pitted with other rocks--all smooth and rounded and in a variety of colors--sort of half-buried in it. Up the hill and to the left the ribbon split off a side-branch which ran under the house's main gate--Ghost thrilled to finally see it from the other side--while the main trunk of it continued up the hill. Some ways beyond that, at least ten times as far as Ghost had ever walked in a straight line, was another house.

To the right, the ribbon--which, Ghost realized, could only be a road--descended to the base of of the hill, where it grew suddenly wider. From up here she could see buildings of all descriptions lining it, and dirt ribbons--roads, she corrected herself, or maybe alleys?--running away from it through more buildings, spreading out as far as she could see. And rising up from it came a blurred hubbub of noises, voices, sounds Ghost couldn't identify, sharp cracks and creaks and a sort of rumbling undercurrent to it all where the sounds just gave up and dissolved together, and smells! Good smells, bad smells, cooking meat and baking bread and garbage and something not unlike what Ghost's cellar had smelled like by the time she was let out of it. It was enticing and horrifying, inviting and lurking--but within all those things it was exciting, and Ghost was determined to experience it at least once.

She set off down the hill.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Cease Fire

The terms of the cease fire in the War on Christmas are as followed:
  • Christmas shall be permitted to continue as a voluntary activity
  • All Christmas activities shall be contained within the designated temporal zone: December 24-25 (Gregorian calendar, Julian for Orthodox and related sects only)
  • Hostilities against Christmas shall be suspended within the temporal zone
  • All those who wish it shall be issued a statement of "Merry Christmas"
  • Hostilities shall remain suspended through the end of the year, after which they may resume if Christmas attempts expansion outside the designated temporal zone.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Video Vednesday: Vlog for The Legend of Korra S4E3 "The Coronation"

And the Korra vlogs continue with episode 3! This is kind of rambly, but I'm mostly rambling about Toph, so it's okay.

(Note for people viewing this through Tumblr: the service I use to repost all my blog posts to Tumblr fubars the video. If you want to watch it, just click the link and go to my main blog.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Captain's Log, Weekly Digest 2

A summary of the past week of posts to my in-character Star Trek Online Tumblr, chronicling the adventures of E.N. Morwen, a science-loving and thoughtful young woman trapped in a galaxy of warring space giants.
  • Personal log: Morwen's feelings on being put permanently in command of the Oracle.
  • Stranded in Space: The Oracle is assigned to look for a lost freighter, and finds trouble.
  • Diplomatic Orders: The Oracle is assigned to protect an ambassador who is not all that he seems.
  • Oracle's Last Stand: When a Borg fleet enters the Sirius Sector, Morwen is determined to help stop them. In the aftermath, she struggles to deal with her sense of failure.
  • Celes Patrol: Morwen and Kolez investigate possible sabotage on Starbase 114.
  • Hide and Seek: The Nephilim explores the Paulson Nebula in an attempt to determine why the fake Ambassador Sokketh sent a signal there.
  • Starbase 24 Defense: The Nephilim must help defend Starbase 24 from a massive Klingon fleet that has slipped behind Federation lines.
  • Stop the Signal: The Nephilim searches for a hidden Klingon listening post in Federation space.
  • Researcher Rescue: When contact is lost with an archeological research station in the Kassae system, the Nephilim is sent to investigate and provide assistance.
  • [Promotion]: Lieutenant Commander: Morwen is promoted to Lieutenant Commander and given command of a new ship, the small but advanced science vessel USS Sakura. She has mixed feelings about this.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy Fucking Hanukkah

Here's the thing about Hanukkah: It's a fucking nothing holiday. It's President's Day or Arbor Day or some shit like that.

And here's the other thing: for two thousand years, one of the major goals of the Christian religion has been to eliminate the Jews by some combination of killing us and turning us Christian. (I mean, one of the major goals of the Christian religion is to make sure everyone in the world is either dead or Christian, but Jews have historically been a particular obsession. Also, note I said "one of" and "Christian religion" not "the sole goal of each and every sect of Christianity and individual Christian without exception," so kindly take your strawman and shove it up your slippery slope.)

And they've pretty consistently failed. I mean, they kill a few million here, convert a dozen there, but we've persisted through Inquisitions and pogroms, forced conversions, missionaries, kidnapping of our children, and "stealth" conversion attempts like Jews for Jesus.

By far, the most successful attempt of the 20th and 21st centuries? "Happy Hanukkah." Because inexorably, thanks to the spirit of "inclusion" (being included by Christianity is rather a lot like being included by the Borg), American Hanukkah has morphed into Christmas with a menorah. It's morphed from a holiday where the kids get a daily small treat for a week to a major gift-giving event. It's become a time of "warm feelings" and "family togetherness" and fairy lights and fucking godawful novelty pop songs.

And an entire generation plus of American Jews has grown up believing that the biggest holiday of the year happens in December, and that "big holiday" is equivalent to "gift exchange." I have met more than a few, Jews who celebrate Hanukkah and nothing else, or just Hanukkah and Passover, and don't know that there even is anything else. Jews whose own kids will just celebrate Christmas and be Christians, and another fucking drone joins the collective.

So when you say "Happy Hanukkah" to me, or you put up a "Happy Hanukkah" sign in the middle of big gaudy display of Christmas decorations, and you have never mentioned or given any indication of having fucking heard of Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot, or Yom Kippur, then I know what you're really saying. "We are Christians. You will be assimilated. Your cultural and religious distinctiveness will be repurposed to service us. Happy Jewish Christmas."

To which the only response is, "Fuck you." And, possibly, "Mr. Worf... fire."

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I don't see any disasters (Inspiration Manifestation)

Clearly this bodes nothing but glad tidings and happy times.
It's April 26, 2014. The top song is still "Happy," as indeed it will be for the remainder of the season, and the top movie is revenge comedy The Other Woman. In the news, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that states may amend their constitutions to eliminate affirmative action, China amends its environmental laws to reduce pollution and environmental damage in the country, and on the day this episode airs, the legendary hole in the New Mexico desert where thousands of unsold E.T. Atari cartridges were said to have been buried after the Video Game Crash of 1983 is unearthed, proving the legend true.

On TV we have "Inspiration Manifestation," cowritten by Corey Powell and Meghan McCarthy, and surprisingly solid for a Spike episode. It is actually readable in a fair number of different ways, and happily none of them are worse than mediocre--that being the surface reading, in which this is an episode about Spike wanting to only ever say positive things to Rarity so that she'll like him more, not realizing that criticism is an important part of friendship. First, as an artist, she needs honest aesthetic criticism from Spike not just to keep from going overboard as she does in this episode, but so that she can trust his statements of support. She knows the puppet theater at the beginning of the episode isn't good enough, because the client rejects it; Spike insisting that it's perfect, especially in such an overblown way, doesn't do anything to persuade her, and can only serve to call his judgment into doubt, making it easier to treat his positive statements as things he's "just saying to be nice." Second, and this is the point on which the episode spends most of its focus, by refusing to question or criticize her actions, Spike tacitly endorses her worst behavior as she wreaks chaos and destruction throughout Ponyville in the name of beautifying it, disrupting and endangering the well-being of the other ponies. Only by having enough backbone to speak the truth to her can Spike be truly a friend to her, because only by doing so is he accepting his communal responsibility to inform other members of the community when they are doing wrong.

In this sense, the episode serves as something of a metaphor for the worst problems of the brony community. As I discussed in both My Little Po-Mo vol. 2 and my post on the Bob's Burgers episode "The Equestranauts,"  bronies have a serious problem with self-policing. The (generally laudable) desire of the community to be all-inclusive and all-tolerant leads to a tolerance for behaviors and inclusion of people that are intensely toxic, helping to create an environment in which spamming and harassment of non-bronies and attacks on anyone who criticizes the behavior of bronies are commonplace. Most recently, a brony accused of plagiarizing a fanfic appears to have been bullied into suicide. Spike's refusal to criticize Rarity even when her art becomes harmful is particularly reminiscent of the "Down with Molestia" conflict, which started as a disagreement over a Tumblr blog that had a running gag about Princess Celestia being a serial rapist and rapidly escalated into a vicious war of words, threats, and harassment on both sides. Bronies can tolerate anything, it seems, except honest disagreement or critique.

This is not the only available read of the episode, however. Spike's behavior can also be read as enabling. In this read, Rarity's attachment to the magic is akin to a drug, perhaps a stimulant that makes her more superficially productive but disrupts her judgment and endangers the people around her. By continuing to praise her, Spike is helping to encourage her addiction. In this light, Rarity's line "I'm so excited! I'm so excited!" stands out as a possible reference to the infamous 1990 anti-drug Very Special Episode of Saved By the Bell, "Jessie's Song," in which Jessie becomes addicted to caffeine pills while trying to become more productive. In that episode's most famous scene (with over 2.5 million YouTube views), she tries to sing the Pointer Sisters song "I'm So Excited," before breaking down in tears: "I'm so excited! I'm so excited! I'm so... scared!"

Spike's struggle about whether or not to tell Twilight that Rarity is causing the problems around town, in this addiction read, is another staple of PSAs: "sometimes you have to break a promise to help your friend." Again, in both reads there is a running theme that it is impossible to be a true friend to someone without sometimes risking disapproval or entering into conflict with them. Even in Equestria, perfect harmony is both impossible and undesirable. Of course, even though he learns this lesson, Spike doesn't stop being a jerk; he goes from the kind of jerk who constantly tells "white lies" to the kind of jerk who makes unkind, unhelpful statements and then excuses them with claims he is "just being honest," as he does to Twilight at the end of the episode.

Which brings us to the last of the readings of this episode I want to discuss, one that ties into running themes of my coverage of this season: Spike's place in the Tree. He of course has none, corresponding to none of the sephiroth, and thus has no key episode. This, however, is in a sense his equivalent, because this episode deals closely with the other function of the Tree: it is not merely the path from humanity to God, from the material to the spiritual; it is a bridge that links them, and can be traversed both ways. It is the original process of Creation, from the divine spark to the material world, and so, just as every soul is a microcosm of the universe, so too is every act of creation a microcosm of the Creation. The Sephiroth, read top to bottom, are thus a model of the process of creation, from initial inspiration to finished product.

And so of course the spell Spike finds is dark magic, because its function is to circumvent the Tree, to pass directly from spark to matter. It is thus a negation of the Tree, and thereby allied with the Tree of Death, the qlippoth, the plundervines. A reptilian creature tempting a woman away from the Tree of Life and toward another Tree, which brings death? Fairly sure I've heard that story before.

Yet Spike's role is not really to be the Serpent, since his telling the truth is what ultimately sets Rarity free from the trap he unwittingly placed her in. Only by refusing and rejecting her behavior--stepping out of harmony with her--can he restore her to who she was, bringing back the proper creative process and with it, the Tree.

Once again, the qlippoth, in the Jewish tradition at least, are not evil. They do keep us away from the the sephiroth, but only as a rind keeps us away from the fruit inside; they are as much protection as hindrance. So, it seems, may be the case here: Perhaps the Tree of Harmony needs a little Discord.

Next week: But first, more of the other plotline no one cares about and another Spike episode. Shoot me now.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Escaflowne ep 4 and SMC ep 12 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 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. We will then be watching Sailor Moon Crystal at 2:30.

Chatlog below the cut!

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.


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.

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 them...

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 creating 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.


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 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.

Chatlog below the cut!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Fiction Friday: Untitled

The Princess sat by the tower's one window, chin in hand. Today was the day, it seemed--today she came of age. Which meant that today was the day her three years of imprisonment in the tower ended, to be replaced by something even worse: marriage.

It was not that the Princess was inherently opposed to marriage. She was sure it probably worked out quite well for some people, if they were suited to it and to each other. It was just that she was quite sure it was not for her, and definitely not with the Regent, who had locked her in the tower in the first place, precisely to ensure that he could wait until this day, then marry her and be crowned king.

After which, well, she wouldn't expect much in the way of life expectancy, to judge from history. Which the Princess could, better than most, because although she was locked in the tower, she was permitted books, and over the course of three years she'd read every single one the quite extensive castle library had to offer.

The door opened. She stood, brushed down her dress, and faced the Regent. If nothing else, she had her dignity.

"Well, Princess," said the Regent, smiling the same way he did everything, smarmily. He was, the Princess had come rather quickly to realize, more or less made of smarm. To wit: He didn't so much walk across the small chamber toward her as ooze. "I trust you are excited for this day as much as I?"

She gave a small smile and inclined her head. "Indeed, my lord."

He looked surprised. "Really? Well, that is good news. I'm glad you've come around and realized marrying me is the best thing for our nation."

She laughed, a bright, crystal sound echoing in the dingy room. "No," she said.


"No. I will not be marrying you today. Instead, I will be removing you from power, eliminating the cronies and mercenaries with which you have imposed your cruel reign on the kingdom's people, and either banishing you or having you executed, I haven't decided yet."

It was the Regent's turn to laugh, though if anything, his made the room even dingier. "Oh?" he said. "You and what army?"

The princess turned and looked out the window. He stepped forward to stand beside her, creating a study in contrast: him tall, thin, and pallid as a dead fish; her short and dark. Three years of imprisonment with effectively no opportunity to exercise and little to do besides eating and reading had left her quite fat, but it had also carried her past the gangly, clumsy, spotty phase of late adolescence and left her with clear, smooth black skin and a body that fit precisely, while all that study had done wonders for an already keen and curious intellect. She had matured, quite simply, into the most beautiful and wisest princess in the land, and she knew the Regent quite hated her for it. Not as much as he was about to hate her for what came next, though.

He followed her gaze, past the city spreading out below the castle, past the high walls and shining gates that girded it, to the wide and fruitful plains beyond. And there they were, filling those fields, stretching out into the distance until they faded to the horizon.

"How?" he asked.

"I escaped," she said. "Every day. Multiple times, some days. And I went out, and I made friends, and I asked them to come help me on this day."

"Escaped..?" he said weakly, paling from merely dead fish to vampire victim fish. "But... it's impossible! There is no escape from this tower!"

"I had everything I needed right here," she said, picking up a book. "Over and over again, I escaped into these stories, so full of wonderful people." She gestured out the window. "And in some of those stories I found other books, and tales, and narrative forms you have never dreamt of, and I went to all of them I could, shared in their lives, and gave them of myself to make them live. And now, they are here at last."

The two of them looked out the window at them all, brave knights and noble rebels, rogues with hearts of gold and friendly witches, people armed with sword and spear and whip and hammer, gun and blaster and disruptor, angry revolutionaries and disappointed idealists, elves and fairies and dwarves and trolls and goblins and aliens and ghosts and vampires and humans and werewolves, rockbiters and Gorons, all the serried ranks of the armies of Fantastica and Emelan and Terabithia and the Republic of Heaven, martial artists and martial artists with power over the elements and martial artists with magic and martial artists with alchemy and ninjas and samurai and princesses! Princesses with bows and magic bows and crossbows, princesses with wands and glowing staves and magical lacrosse sticks, a small young red-haired princess leading an army of wild animals and Fair Folk, and a tall dark-haired one leading an army of elves and dragons.

"But," the Regent protested, "they're only stories! They're not real, they can't come here!"

A skinny redheaded teenager incanted something and blew a massive hole in the city wall. The army came charging through, while from the skies above--well, they were as full as the sky, full of schoolchildren on brooms and angels with fiery swords and efreeti with fiery everything and fighter planes and bombers and starships and starfighters and battlestars and starfuries...

"You poor, pathetic, silly man," the Princess said, the contempt in her voice tempered with just a trace of pity. "You're an evil Regent who kept a wise and beautiful Princess locked in a tower for years so that you could marry her and cement your tyrannical rule over a once-peaceful and prosperous kingdom. This is a story. We're no realer than they are, so if I can go to them, of course they can come to me! So you see, I rather think the answer to your original question is, well, this one."

And then the army of everyone who never existed swept over the city, and in less time than it takes to read this sentence, it was done, because of course this is the kind of battle that moves faster for faster readers.

The regent was exiled, of course, the Princess having wisely decided that starting a new, better realm with a murder was probably not the best precedent. His exile was her first decree as Queen, and her second was to abolish the kingdom and establish an interim government to oversee the reconstruction and ease the transition into a less authoritarian form of government, and so there would never be a third decree because she wasn't Queen anymore, and of course having been a Queen she couldn't go back to being a Princess.

After that, as she mused to the new chairman of the interim council, "I suppose there's not much left for me to do here. It's time I was moving on for good."

"Really?" he asked. "But we only just got you back!"

"Well, yes," she said, "but there's in infinity of stories out there and only all of eternity to see them all. I really must be getting started." She paused. "I rather think I won't need the books anymore--I've had a lot of practice, and I believe I've developed a knack for it. Farewell!"

And then, with a wheezing, groaning sound, the woman without a title stepped out of this story and into another.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

There's something wrong with the baby (Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3)

When I wake up in the morning
And the alarm gives out a warning
I don't think I'll ever make it on time
By the time I grab my books,
And I give myself a look,
I'm at the corner just in time to see the bus fly by
So I whistled for a cab and when it came near
The license place said "FRESH" and it had dice in the mirror
If anything I could say that this cab was rare

But I thought 'Nah, forget it' - 'Yo, homes to Bayside'
I pulled up to the school around 7 or 8
And I yelled to the cabbie 'Yo homes smell ya later'
I know I'm in a mess
And my dog ate all my homework last night
But it's all right
Because that's how I became the Fresh Prince of Bayside
It's April 5, 2014. The top song is still "Happy" and the top movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a scathing indictment of the security culture of global surveillance. Speaking of surveillance, in the news, the Irish government establishes a Cabinet committee to investigate the Garda phone recordings controversy, involving years of government phone taps on incoming and outgoing calls at Irish police stations. In other news, the High Court of Australia recognizes a third, "neutral" gender; the U.S. Supreme Court votes to overturn aggregate limits on campaign contributions by individuals, because the Alito court is really, really determined to find ways to protect the right of the super-rich to buy elections; and the Tungurahua volcano in Ecuador demonstrates that you can indeed explode twice.

On TV is Amy Keating Rogers' last entry of the fourth season, "Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3." Credit where credit is due, she knocks it out of the park; she has improved drastically since the first season, in part as a result of increasingly taking or being assigned stories that play to her strengths, but also, as this story demonstrates, in part by dealing with her earlier weaknesses.

To very briefly recap those weaknesses, which I discussed in depth back in Season 1, the largest is a tendency to repeat cliches and common narratives uncritically, perpetuating toxic stereotypes not out of malice, but because they are "in the air," so to speak.  Secondarily, she is distinctly better equipped to write some characters than others; she writes Pinkie Pie extremely well, but precisely because she relies on broad-strokes, cliche-driven characterization, she struggles to depict a more nuanced character like Rarity, and rarely overcomes the issues with more problematic characters like Spike.

Thankfully, Rarity and Spike are barely in this episode, and more importantly, it is entirely about critiquing a particular common attitude, and thus for once avoids the trap of letting that attitude seep in unremarked upon. Specifically, this episode is about learning styles; Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle clash because Twilight's attempts to help Rainbow Dash study for her test are all rooted in the notion that Rainbow Dash has the same learning style as Twilight. For Twilight, successful learning comes from very traditional means such as reading textbooks, listening to lectures, and studying flashcards. But this is ineffective for Rainbow Dash, who is used to absorbing information from a multitude of sources at high speed--all of Twilight's methods are too ponderous for her, and her attention wanders. She has similar problems with Fluttershy's dramatization, Pinkie Pie's music, and Rarity's museum-like "history of fashion" display.

Because she is unable to learn from any of the methods presented to her, Rainbow Dash naturally despairs, and decides that she is stupid; what the episode reveals, however, is that she is really quite brilliant within her particular specialty, which is a sort of hyperawareness and near-perfect recall of everything she sees and hears while flying. Given the history lesson in a form that caters to her learning style, Rainbow is able to learn the information quickly, thoroughly, and accurately.

Twilight ends the episode penning the lesson she's learned, effectively that learning styles vary and should be accommodated before judging anyone's intelligence, making this the most overtly and straightforwardly political "Letter to Celestia" in the show's run. Twilight, after all, provided precisely the kind of learning opportunities that typical, traditional schooling entails, such as textbooks, lectures, and rote memorization; Pinkie and Fluttershy provided some of the more generally painful forms of education familiar from public schooling, the unwatchably amateurish skit and the badly outdated, cheaply made attempt at a "cool" song, while Rarity provides the alternative of a museum and Applejack the escape hatch of hands-on, on-the-job learning of a trade. No one, however, provides what Rainbow Dash needs--and in our modern system, it is Rainbow Dash who would likely be punished for the failure of the educational system to meet her needs. Her intellect, if such a thing exists, would be left to flounder unnourished, and that brief scene where she declares herself "dumb" could very well last a lifetime. Indeed, we may see here the origin of her antipathy toward books and "eggheads" back in Season Two; the Equestrian school system shows every sign of operating more or less like our own, and it really does seem as if no one has ever told Rainbow Dash she's intelligent before--she expects to fail at academic tasks, and affects an attitude of nonchalance toward them until one appears as an obstacle toward her life goals. It seems very likely that Rainbow Dash was very poorly served by her education; it would be in character for her to choose not to care about her schoolwork in order to avoid failing at it--and of course, without instruction that works with her unique learning style, she will fail.

We tend, as a culture, toward victim-blaming both gross and subtler. One of the subtler ways is that we tend to treat systemic problems as "belonging" to the victims rather than the dominant parties. The pay gap is seen as a women's problem rather than an employers' problem; high incarceration rates of black men are seen as a black problem rather than a justice-system problem; pollution is seen as a problem for the communities poisoned by it instead of the industries that generate it. And so we tend to view a child failing in school as a problem of that child--they are "dumb" or "lazy" or have a "learning disability." And sometimes perhaps that's the case, for example the child is choosing not to participate in their education because they'd rather play video games. But at other times, especially where "dumb" or "disabled" kids are involved, it's that the child's learning style isn't something that fits neatly into the narrow range of styles we've arbitrarily declared "normal."

And that's where this becomes an intensely political episode--and given some strong views and personal circumstances Rogers shared in regards to the Derpygate incident, almost certainly intensionally political--because of course the only way to broaden that range is to train teachers in more styles, which costs money, and have them spend more time with students with less common styles, which requires more teachers, which costs money, and provide them with the resources necessary to deal with those styles, which costs money, and thus ultimately comes down to the question of how much we choose to prioritize education as a society, which is of course a completely political question.

Yet it is fundamentally a straightforward ethical imperative when phrased in this way: of course a child should be given every chance to succeed. Of course a mind with an unusual gift should be nurtured, even if it doesn't respond to the "normal" methods. Of course Rainbow Dash shouldn't be made to feel dumb. Yet from that fairly straightforward, not particularly controversial ethical position we arrive at a moderately controversial political position, that schools should do more and therefore we as a society should spend more money on them. Which is, of course, just the inverse of the more familiar process in which an extreme political position leads to unethical behavior; politics is just ethics on a larger scale, yet somehow our instincts don't seem to always make the jump when the scale shifts.

And yes, we can argue about political parties and tax rates, revenue streams and budget deficits, but in the end it all slams into the blunt fact of the Rainbow Dash's of the world, and the ethical failure they represent, just one of many, many ethical failures we hide behind political rhetoric. But they remain, an indictment of our system and our politics--and one so obvious that even a show for little girls can elucidate it in twenty minutes.

Next week: Farce!