Check out “Inversion” over at The Drabble

The Drabble put up some flash fiction from me the other day. Go check them (and it) out: https://thedrabble.wordpress.com/2018/01/10/inversion/

 

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Merry Christmas

From the first moment he saw the sign, he felt aggrieved on their behalf:

“Open Christmas Day 24 Hours.”

He was not overly fond of the holidays. In fact, he mostly resented the days overstuffed with his wife clattering around in the kitchen while he talked to portly second cousins about their peculiar interests–one was especially fond of beach volleyball and always had predictions for the upcoming Olympics.

Yet, this, this was a bridge too far. Fast food workers consigned to laboring all day and night on Christmas!

The plan was cemented in his mind as the brown-toothed woman who always served him his morning McMuffin and McCafe deluxe chanted cheerily, “Merry Christmas” on the 23rd. He had to do some last minute shopping anyway, he thought, finding that perfect something for his wife–the cranberry colored purse she had picked out and put on hold at the mall–so he had ample opportunity to do his own little part to put things right.

He did not explain the package to his wife when he got home. (Perhaps she thought it was something extra for her.) After watching his two children dig, ferret-like, through the glittering vistas of pre-printed snow scenes on the three hundred square yards of wrapping paper his wife had used on their various presents, he excused himself and snuck to the garage. Before his wife could even protest the grinding of the garage door, he was off on his own personal Santa mission.

As he’d feared, there were customers making the employees’ Yuletide drudgery even worse. Seeing the cars in the parking lot made him feel even more righteous about his Christmas errand.

He strolled in with the over-size gift basket under his arm. Pretzels and truffles, cheese and crackers, some peppermint sticks and durable, blackberry scones. A little knot tightened, though, as he approached the counter and faced the bepimpled young man at the register.

“Hello…may I take your order.”

“Actually,” he told the boy. “I don’t need anything. I, um, I actually wanted to give you guys something. I felt bad for you all having to work through the holiday, so…”

“Oh, okay, sir,” the register jockey said, raising his stick-like pasty arm to point. “Thank you, you can leave it with the others.”

“Oth…”

He turned and noticed the cornucopia of pre-packaged and baked goods piled on the largest of the dining tables behind him.

“Um,” he muttered to himself as he nestled his shrink-wrapped care package between a long dish with a fresh fruit cake and a white Merry Christmas bear holding a box of caramel candies.

Confused, he bowed his eyes as he inched away from the pile of gifts and back toward the exit.

“Thank you, sir,” he heard the boy call after him mechanically. “And Merry Christmas.”

Where Does Wealth Come From?

Over at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg is waxing philosophical about the tax bill and contrasting America with Venezuela. In his essay he takes on the Rawlsian thought experiment of the “original position,” imagining a disembodied soul waiting to be born.

Goldberg thinks that such a soul should really choose to be born right here, right now in the good ole US of A because we are such a great capitalist country and we know how to produce wealth.

Goldberg says, “But if you recognize that humans create wealth with their brains and their industry and that it therefore belongs to them, you’ll be a little more humble about the state’s ‘right’ to take as much as it wants to spend how it wants. Human ingenuity is the engine of wealth creation, and there is no other.”

His argument is a mix of sensible commitment to the foundations of Western liberalism…and a healthy dose of naïveté.

Yes, ingenuity produces wealth, so does good old fashioned hard work. A culture that does not value these qualities is not with its salt.

But it is not the only way wealth is created. Not by a long shot.

For one thing, his assertion that there is “no other” factor is fanciful. Wealth begets wealth all on its own in 21st century America. If I already had a few million dollars, I could just put it in the market and let it ride, living quite nicely for all my days off the churning capitalist engine of Wall Street.

I suppose Goldberg’s answer would be that I’d still be generating wealth from good ole human ingenuity–just not my own.

Exactly. Not my own. There’s the rub.

Goldberg’s idolatry toward capital rivals Ayn Rand’s. But just as her novels crafted a fantasy world to make the capitalist class mythic heroes, Goldberg’s simplistic rendering ignores reality–mostly by ignoring the contribution of others, of the working class and middle class, to the creation of wealth. Not every wealthy person sits atop wealth they created solely through their own labor and genius.

Take Jeff Bezos. Now the richest man alive. Good for him. If you look at his story, you’ll see a man with a vision to transform retail. That vision has paid off.

Goldberg would say that he deserves to be rich.

And yeah, he does.

But does he deserve to be that rich? How is it that he came to control so much of the wealth his company has produced? It was not, after all, a sole proprietorship. Bezos was not burning the midnight oil packing all those smiling brown boxes himself. It took thousands of people working together to create his empire. What’s more, it took a whole landscape of infrastructure and culture to allow him to accrue this wealth on behalf of Amazon.

Wealth is not the inevitable byproduct of ingenuity. You don’t just input your genius into a machine and POOF! out comes your fortune. Wealth flows through a system and right now, the way that system channels wealth is skewed.

Here’s the crux (and I’ve said this before). If it was only ingenuity and hard work that dictated how wealth is created and who gets it, then something interesting has happened in the world since the 1970s:

The wealthy have gotten much, much more ingenious and are working much, much harder.

Inequality is the bugaboo for people like Goldberg, but they won’t talk about it. In their world view, wealth is the straightforward reward for hard work, oh and “ingenuity,” nothing more. But for over a generation now, that wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated in a few hands. So how can they account for this?

The simple answer is that they can’t and don’t. Republicans largely ignore the issue of inequality. Partly because their plutocratic donors don’t want them to, but more so because it represents a clear a challenge to their world view. CEO pay, for example, has grown 930% since 1978. You’re seeing that right. Not 93%. Nine hundred and thirty. As a ratio to average worker pay, the average CEO now makes 271 times as much. That’s up from CEOs earning around twenty times what average workers made back in the 70s. Mr. Goldberg, are today’s CEOs really more than ten times more ingenious than in the past? If not, how can you account for this inequality? Whence comes this massive concentration of wealth?

It is not just the product of hard work or ingenuity–unless you mean the ingenuity to rig the entire economic system to screw over workers and benefit the investor class.

Sorry, Mr. Goldberg, there is another way to accumulate wealth. You can design an economy with systemic channels of wealth that invariably favor supply-side factors like capital and grant the wealthy disproportionate access and influence to politicians, and you can refrain from taxing huge investments in any meaningful way to allow existing wealth to grow and grow without limit.

So, for your hypothetical floating soul out there in the aether, it would be a good time to be born here in 21st century America…if you were sure you were going to be born rich.

Because the rich are only getting richer,

On Reading ‘The Wasp Factory’

Iain Banks had an interesting career trajectory. He set out to write science fiction novels, but found it impossible to break into the genre. Then his more literary The Wasp Factory was received to great acclaim, launching his dual career. (His Culture series and other sci-fi was published under his name, but including his middle initial “M.”) He said, though, that The Wasp Factory was not so different from science fiction–that its protagonist and narrator Frank was something of an alien consciousness in his own right.

Frank is a sixteen year old who, as a child, killed three children in three carefully staged crimes meant to look like accidents. Yet his prose reads like a somewhat more intellectual Holden Caulfield as he describes his isolated life on a Scottish island with his father. He seems at most times grounded and perceptive–until he launches into a excursion into the woods to slaughter local rabbits with explosives and petrol or before he introduces the titular Wasp Factory itself. It is a huge labyrinth he has constructed in his attic with various ingenious means by which captured wasps might blunder into their own demise. Their deaths in his enormous contraption he reads as prophecy, using the factory as a means of prognostication.

The world, even his father, has no idea about Frank. No one knows he is directly responsible for the three deaths from his childhood (and he is careful not to kill again) or suspects the depravity of his other activities. They all do know, though, that his brother Eric is insane. As a med student, Eric was exposed to human horror so jarring that he was shaken out of his mind and developed the bad habit of setting dogs on fire. Frank spends much of the novel worrying about Eric who has escaped from protective care and, we learn from a series of raving phone calls to Frank, is making his way home.

The mishmash of coming-of-age teenage narrator and heavy helpings of the grotesque worthy of Flannery O’Conner make The Wasp Factory a puzzling exploration of otherness. Banks complicates that exploration by delving into misogyny and genderedness. Frank harbors a deep hatred towards women, beginning with his absentee mother, and has a complex about his own masculinity because he was essentially castrated by a dog attack as a young child.

If that sounds improbable, there’s a twist that I won’t reveal except to say that it feels unearned at the end of the novel and doesn’t make Frank’s psychology any more believable.

But that may be the point, after all. Banks succeeds first and foremost in crafting a very alien mind in his narrator, one you forget to be disturbed by more often than you should.

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.

The Last Jedi

 

In what our Disney overlords apparently intend to be a new yearly event, a new Star Wars film has arrived in theaters.

The Last Jedi is the continuation of the Skywalker saga, the Star Wars films proper as opposed to the forthcoming torrent of spin-offs that began with last year’s Rogue One: a Star Wars story and will continue with Solo: Because You Know This Character. (In Disney’s defense, they are also giving Last Jedi director Rian Johnson the reigns to a whole new trilogy set in the Star Wars universe but involving–get this–all new characters and stories!)

Before I go further, let me issue the obligatory spoiler warning.

SPOILERS!

There.

I’m glad to report that The Last Jedi dispenses with the sloppy plotting of its predecessor, The Force Awakens. Unfortunately, it replaces it with gratuitous plotting. There has never been a Star Wars film with this many subplots. While Rey trains with Luke, Po Dameron struggles to guide the Resistance in its slow-burn flight from the First Order, clashing with Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Hodor, or whatever. Meanwhile, Finn takes new character Rose on a side trip to a casino planet to pick up a code breaker to hack the First Order mothership. Oh, and on the mother ship, Kylo Ren struggles to please his master as they pursue–again, slowly–the fleeing Resistance ships.

(Star Wars has never been real sci-fi, but as with the last movie, the logic of the physics in this film are laughable. So the First Order fleet is getting outrun by the Resistance cruiser that is faster and lighter…and yet they never get outrun. They seem to just be stuck behind the Resistance at pretty much the exact same distance for eighteen hours. And yet, it’s only the Resistance ship that can’t go to light speed, so why don’t the First Order ships just split up so some of them can light speed AHEAD of the Resistance, surround and destroy them.)

Of these many plot threads, some are much stronger than others. The most conspicuous weak link is the Finn-Rose subplot. One has to feel for newcomer to the saga Kelly Marie Tran, whose Rose is really shoehorned into an already crowded cast. Her forced motivation is very reminiscent of some of the hackneyed character arcs in Rogue One and the attempt to work her in as one vertex in a love triangle with Finn and Rey (or quadrilateral if you give the Po-Finn shippers their due) just falls flat.

Oscar Isaacs mostly carries through his plot arc as Poe Dameron, wrestling with mutiny to buy Finn and Rose time to pull off their plan, but the real saving grace of the movie is Daisy Ridley’s Rey. As with the last movie, her earnest heroine is the heart of the movie and her interactions with Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren are great. Their showdown with Snoke is tremendous, made all the better because it only ends up revealing the gulf between the two.

The Force Awakens teased Rey’s origins, leading to two years of speculation about her parentage. Is she Luke’s secret daughter? Is she Ben Solo’s secret sister? Is she Obi Won Kenobi’s secret granddaughter?

Thank goodness the answer to all those questions was: No.

According to Kylo Ren, she’s nobody. So, the Skywalker saga will end in Episode IX with Kylo Ren’s defeat and Rey’s ascension as the new Jedi master. (Oh, sorry, did I spoil it? Did you think the whole sage would end with the universe being plunged into darkness?) As Ren breaks this news about Rey’s parentage which the Force revealed to him, he suggests that, deep down, Rey has always known. It’s as she was told in the last movie, “Whoever you were waiting for…is never coming back.”

And therein lies one of the many failures in the film. No, not the filmmakers’ failures, the characters’. In fact, The Last Jedi distinguishes itself from every other Star Wars movie by plumbing new thematic territory. Almost every major character grapples with failure in this film. Rey failed to reunite with her family, the aching need for which is her only lure toward the dark side of the Force. Finn’s mission fails and he is captured. Poe’s mutiny fails and actually undermines the Resistance’s chances of survival. Luke failed Kylo Ren. Leia faces the end of the Resistance, the failure of her life’s work.

And then Yoda shows up to hammer in the lesson. Luke tempts his old master by threatening to burn down a sacred Jedi tree and take all the religion’s most ancient texts with him, but Yoda beats him to the punch and summons some lightning. “Pageturners they were not,” he admits and says that Rey has more Jedi in her than any old books.

Star Wars was based on myth and sought to explore the timeless battle between good and evil, but The Force Awakens began to explore the limits of that dynamic, to really explore what might be meant by that “balance” that George Lucas wrote into the prequels. According to those regrettable chapters, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader was supposed to bring about balance in the Force and Maz Kanata said in The Force Awakens that the battle between good and evil is an endless, recurrent one. The Last Jedi steps beyond good and evil and frames the Force as the cosmic glue that negotiates the cycle of destruction and creation.

And so failure is part of that cycle. Luke warns Rey that assuming the Jedi are needed to bring light into the universe is pure hubris, that the cycle is unending. Rey, though, gets to remind him–with a little help from Yoda–that we must still always pick a side in the endless struggle, to build or to destroy.

 

Assorted Musings:

-Captain Phasma is still useless.

-Seriously, somebody buy more BB droids for the Resistance. Those things are indis-fucking-pensable!

-Chewy eating roasted porg.

-Seems like we should use that light-speed kamikaze trick more often. Why’d we struggle to hit that one little spot on the Death Star. Just empty out a freighter and light speed it through the heart of the damned thing.

-We finally know where the blue milk comes from. We sooooo did not want to know.

 

The Force Awakens: A Retrospective

You may have heard that there’s a new Star Wars movie out now.

Fear not for spoilers as I have not yet seen it (the wife is feeling under the weather).

Last night, though, while my beloved sniffled, we did watch the previous chapter in the post-George Lucas Star Wars saga: The Force Awakens.

Somehow I refrained from commenting on this film when it was released two years ago. In fact, I haven’t written much about Star Wars in general over the years. That’s a strange omission as Star Wars was–without hyperbole–my entire childhood. (Okay, maybe some hyperbole.)

I watched the original movie on Betamax (Yes, Beta!) dozens of times. My parents tell a story about how, while living in Panama, the delivery of my Christmas present–the Millennium Falcon!–was delayed and they had to concoct an elaborate story, complete with forged note from the big guy in the red suit himself, about how Rudolph had accidentally stepped on the package, forcing Santa to send me a replacement after the holidays.

Then, of course, there were the prequels. I remember dragging my wife to Phantom Menace and becoming very confused the moment Jar Jar Binks appeared on screen. “They’d better kill this guy off quick,” I told her. Those craptacular films are no small part of why I generally fear and distrust prequels today.

Yet, the Force Awakens marked something of a Renaissance for the saga that was so seminal to my imagination. Now safely in the not-at-all-sinister hands of the Disney Corp, Star Wars is prospering again. The praise was unanimous: Star Wars is back! It was fun. It was dynamic. It looked great and not at all a CGI shitshow. The fanboys proclaimed it a success and all rejoiced, “Yay, J.J. Abrams, we forgive you for Into Darkness” (which, for the record, I think is highly underrated).

Except that rewatching Force Awakens last night, I was much more aware of its myriad flaws.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking about prequel-level discussions about sand or about how love had blinded anybody, but there is some sloppy ass plotting going on there. Like, Star Destroyer sized plot holes.

Take the story’s reliance on awfully convenient coincidences which I suppose we are meant to assume is the will of the force acting on a grand scale. The map to Luke Skywalker (which…a map to a person?) ends up on Jakku within walking, er, rolling distance of Rey, our erstwhile protagonist with some sort of mysterious background that  will in some future movie hopefully explain her awesome force sensitivity (without making her a Skywalker–please don’t make her a Skywalker!). Then, Han Solo just happens to take her to a bar with Luke’s old lightsaber in the basement. It goes on and on. Han, Chewy, and Finn just happen to find Captain Phasma on a base the size of a planet and she just happens to be self-interested enough to screw over her supreme leader (there is a comic explaining this character’s background that makes sense of this, by the way). After Rey has won the big lightsaber duel against an injured Kylo Ren (How’d she beat him with no training? He was hurt and she was already good with a stick. Yay, not a plot hole!) a chasm just happens to open up between them, killing neither. Then R2 wakes up and just happens to have the rest of map to Luke all along. And, wait, where’d this map come from in the first place? You know, in the first movie, they stole Death Star plans from the Empire. The plans didn’t just fall out of the sky?!?

But by far the worst part of the movie is Starkiller Base. Look, I get how Abrams was intentionally echoing moments from the original film because the original film was constructed to be archetypal and the whole theme was about the cyclical struggle to find balance and fight the darkness. I get it. But the super-weapon trope wasn’t part of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and it wears really, really thin here. Somehow the First Order, which is only remnant of the empire builds a super weapon that is even more fearsome than what the empire produced at its height. Um…okay. (My son had a great idea here; they should have established that this was a project started under the empire that Snoke resurrected. See, most plot holes can be patched with one line of dialogue. One line! Call me, Hollywood. I will script doctor the hell out of all your sci-fi and I will work cheap.)

This giant planet cannon can fire a single burst…that then automatically breaks up and nukes every planet in a star system? How, exactly? And how can Han and company see the red bolt hitting the Republic’s planets from a completely different system? That should take years for them to see. And wait, where’d the energy for that first shot come from? Starkiller base consumes a star to power up (a whole star!?!) so were there two stars in that system to begin with? Wouldn’t the gravitational disruption of losing a star totally destroy that planet before the Resistance even got there? And if not…does that mean the weapon was only good for two shots since there weren’t any more stars in the system to gobble up? (I mean, it’s stretching credulity enough to believe they could move the Death Star at light speed, but surely we’re not meant to believe they could have warped that entire planet to another star system to keep using that thing, right?)

But dammit, the movie still works. And it works for two reasons:

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.

They are so charming and engaging as Rey and Finn that you cannot help but love this movie. Seriously, all the fan service may have gotten folks in the door, but what saves this movie from being another Crystal Skull level debacle is these fresh, NEW characters. Enough of the old characters. BB-8 is cuter than R2! Long live porgs! Hell, I’m glad they killed Han Solo. I hope they kill Luke. (But I wish Princess Leia could live forever.)