The Expanse is the Best Space Opera. Full Stop.

This week brought the dreaded news that the SyFy channel would not be picking up the series adaptation of The Expanse novels for a fourth season. The move was not quite shocking, but still somewhat of a surprise. The show’s productions values are top notch and not cheap, so the fact that it has not garnered a broad fan base like Game of Thrones made its future uncertain. But the universal critical acclaim seemed to suggest that SyFy would want to keep it around for bragging rights, if nothing else.

In the glory days of the SciFi network (before the questionable and to many, odious name change) the network took a similar gamble on an expensive critical darling that never really had the viewership to justify its budget but was a flagship for what the network wanted to be–before it decided to be the home of craptacular fare like Sharknado. Battlestar Galactica was part of the early wave of revitalizations and everything-old-is-new-again fervor that has gripped Hollywood throughout the twenty-first century. The show took name recognition and the outline of the original series’s concept and created a “gritty” and “philosophical” version of a pulp sci-fi dud from the 70s.

It worked and the network spun the long-running show into a prestige piece with a dedicated fan base that still argues for the series as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time.

Here’s the thing, though: The Expanse is better and will continue to be better than Battlestar Galactica.

Early in its life, the remade Battlestar Galactica (BSG to aficionados) promised its viewers that its nefarious android antagonists had “a plan.” But the producers and writers have since admitted that they included that bit in the show’s crawl simply because it sounded cool. Not only did the Cylons not have a plan, neither did the show runners.

The series sometimes raced and other times lurched through a thinky, but often incoherent exploration of man’s relationship to technology and the age-old question science fiction never gets tired of reheating: what does it mean to be human? Along the way there were some great characters rendered in fantastic performances (often having to overcome inconsistent writing) and some truly intolerable ones (looking at you, Apollo).

Many a science fiction series has waded through such unevenness. Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s first season is unwatchable today and rarely suggests the heights the show would someday reach. It’s natural enough for a series to take its time to find its footing.

It would be easy to look at the first few episodes of The Expanse and think that’s what was happening, but the pacing is not a sign of uncertainty, but confidence. The Expanse rewards patience as it builds its world and its characters. Now, in the third season, the complexity of that world and the investment in those characters is paying off in a tense conflict of epic scale.

But that conflict is only prelude to what’s coming.

Many other science fiction and fantasy shows struggle with endings just as much as many flail about for sure footing at the beginning. One only has to look back at the last few seasons of the X-files (to say nothing of the disastrous rebooted seasons) to see how a lack of “a plan” can be disastrous to a show built on mystery and intrigue. The same could be argued of Lost and, if last season was any indication, may taint the denouement of Game of Thrones.

But fans of The Expanse novels have no fear for that outcome. We know the shape of many things to come and they are earth-shatteringly awesome.  Fans like me aren’t worried by this (hopefully momentary) cancellation because it means we won’t ever know what happens in the story. What we’re afraid of is being deprived of the cinematic rendering of that story that we know it so richly deserves.

Hopefully, that won’t come to pass. Hopefully, the press swirling around the cancellation–every article I read reiterates that SyFy’s move is either a crying shame or down right tragic–will find it a new home at Netflix or Hulu and the Cinderella story will inspire more people to watch it.

It is a show that deserves viewers, but more than that, it is the space opera the Golden Age of Television deserves.

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So you want some links that actually work?

At some point, something went wrong on the back end of the website where the Internet pipes direct your traffic to where it belongs and as a result none of the PDF links for the Novels or Stories pages worked anymore. Oops! I blame DropBox.

Anyway, that’s all fixed now (I think) so you can enjoy some fiction if you’re so inclined.

Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?

Yeah, Guns Again…

This morning I read two reasonable pieces at the National Review.

First was a piece by Kevin Williamson thoroughly excoriating the lunatic, paranoiac wing of the American Right so eager to dismiss the significance of mass shootings that they embrace conspiracy theories about “crisis actors” and school massacres as false flag operations aimed at stripping gun rights. It’s a reassurance that the Earth is not flat recently echoed by Marco Rubio who, in the hot seat from angry teenagers, has nevertheless taken the bare minimum steps required by human decency and denounced suggestions that these children were anything other than survivors of a gruesome atrocity.

The second piece was a very interesting analysis of the political divide on guns from David French. In it, French paints a picture of an America starkly divided. On one side, French quotes his colleague Williams to characterize the leftists who see gun culture as “an atavistic enthusiasm for rural primitives and right-wing militia nuts, a hobby that must be tolerated — if only barely — because of some vestigial 18th-century political compromise,” who are met on the other side by individualists who are “repulsed by the notion that personal security should depend almost completely on the government…[seeing] progressive peers as soft and unmanly.”

French worries that this divide, over such a flash point issue, could “break” America and he seems to earnestly worry over the widening divide as “geographic differences create cultural differences, and cultural differences hasten ever-greater geographic change.”

I have no reason to doubt this earnestness or sincerity from French. He sees an America split down the middle by this painful issue. But despite positioning himself in his piece as someone who knows both worlds and can see past the vitriol, what he sees is obviously biased by his position from deep inside his own “red” territory.

Because the facts paint a different picture of just how divided we are on this issue.

The NRA touts a membership of five million. The current U.S. population is over three-hundred twenty million. As the emerging #boycottNRA movement is quickly demonstrating, that’s just not that big a proportion of the population. It’s true that Americans have a lot of guns, but it’s also true that they are not evenly distributed and that despite ownership rates, some surveys suggest that up to 97% of the population supports automatic background checks for all firearm purchases.

French imagines a clean split, but the truth is that the Right in general has already lost the majority, a trend that many conservatives have worried over, even Williams who recently noted that in surrendering urban communities as hopelessly “blue,” the American Right was turning its back on “where the people are.” In any other democracy, the Republican party would already be out of power. We all know Trump won the election while garnering three million fewer votes than Clinton, but Republicans actually won the house with fewer overall votes than Democrats as well. Without gerrymandering–a practice losing in court battle after court battle–Pelosi would be back in as speaker.

French argues, and implicitly defends, the pro-gun view of the world as a legitimate way of “perceiving your role in a nation and a community.” It is, apparently, a fiercely individualistic worldview in which these patriots reject “the sense of dependence [represented by liberals]… at odds with their view of a free citizenry.”

It is also factually ridiculous.

This notion that being a gun owner will make you safer, that it puts your safety in your own hands is factually absurd.

American gun owners: you are not safe because you own a gun.

Your safety, the security of your lifestyle in which you can wake each day and be reasonably confident that you and your family will not be harmed, does not stem from your ownership of a firearm. If you doubt that, I invite you to reflect on the life of a Syrian rebel today. He has a gun. He woke up very much uncertain about his safety and security.

No, you are safe because you live in a stable and secure society, one defined by the rule of law and a tradition of individual sovereignty. Your gun did not keep murderous thugs at bay today. A functioning society, and yes, a functional government, provided that blanket of security.

It is possible that there could arise a moment or two in your life where your gun could be a tool for further guaranteeing that security, true. But statistically, that gun’s presence in your life is more likely to make you less safe. Whether by accident or misuse, that gun–from a strictly statistical point of view–is more likely to kill you or yours than to save you.

That is what all these guns in our society are doing for us as a nation as well. By most estimates we have as many guns as people in this country and so, unsurprisingly, we have more gun crime than any other developed nation. Even as crime rates have fallen in general, gun deaths are still a rough tie with automobile accidents as a cause of death. Then, of course, there is the grim spectacle of mass shootings, which is a uniquely American blight best captured by the Onion’s recurring headline: “No Way to Prevent This, Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

French is right that there are two views of the world at odds here, but they are not equal. One is informed by facts and by a realistic reckoning with historical and international evidence.

The other is a fantasy.

It is a fantasy to imagine that having a gun makes you safe, that it is a realistic counter to violence in the world. The fantasy hinges on the presupposition that you, law-abiding gun owner, will see whatever nebulous threat you imagine endangers your family before it comes, that you will get off the first shot, that your aim will be truer than whatever criminal element threatens you. The probabilities stack up to the point of absurdity.

Rather than a gun, you are much safer if your community is well policed, if crime is dealt with systemically. Alarm systems are better deterrents to most crime than a gun. There are nonlethal means to defend yourself in close quarters like TASERs and pepper sprays that reduce the chance of accidentally killing your own family members–a grim kind of irony that is twice as likely as killing in self-defense.

The pro-gun worldview French describes is a fantasy.

But you know what, you can have it. Really, keep your guns.

I repeat: Nobody wants to take your guns.

Hillary Clinton didn’t. Obama didn’t. Nobody wants to take your guns.

Every time the NRA has said that someone was coming for your guns, they were lying. Evidence: You still have them. The Democratic majority under Obama in 2008 did exactly nothing to take your guns away. Instead, they just tried to give you health care (those bastards).

Keep your guns. But stop fighting background checks.

We can pinch the gun supply to criminals and crazies alike with a comprehensive system of background checks. Let law enforcement and healthcare providers put temporary holds on gun purchases for domestic abusers and sociopaths alike. Let courts put permanent bars on such purchases. Let’s make it so that gun transactions are documented and controlled like car sales.

Again, 97% of Americans support universal background checks for all firearms.

There are other rational steps–like putting licensing barriers between buyers and especially deadly weapons like the now-infamous AR-15. But the NRA won’t even admit to the necessity for the background checks and their Republican allies continue to defend the fantasies of the pro-gun set, preventing all progress on this issue.

What they miss is the demographic reality. They really are a relic. They are the minority. The pro-gun world view is slipping into the past, where it always belonged. Guns never made you any safer and some retreat into fantasies of an Old West balance of power will not lead to any real security.

We make a safer society together, not by balkanizing our communities behind armed fortifications. And the way people in a society do things together is, yes, through government. This irrational dread of anything collective from the Right isn’t just anachronistic, it’s wholly illogical.

The Right must abandon its commitment to the absurd conviction that government can do nothing right and begin participating in conversations about what’s the right thing for government to do.

Politics and the Superhero

So, Black Panther has arrived and everybody’s pretty excited about it (well, except racists). The film has delivered the biggest debut of any Marvel hero so far (though technically the character appeared first in Captain America: Civil War) and is second in its opening haul only to the original Avengers. Beyond its early box office might, the film has also garnered outstanding reviews, with io9 calling it Marvel’s first “Shakespearean Epic.”

It’s continuing proof that the Marvel is one slick entertainment factory. The film is sumptuous in its realization of the Afro-futurist world of Wakanda, the isolated and secret utopia protected by the titular hero and king. The cast is so undeniably stellar that it’s hard to even begin to talk about the performances without this whole piece becoming a tribute to the spot-on realizations of these characters (though I have to mention the star-making turn for Letitia Wright as the newest Disney princess, Shuri…and Lupita Nyong’o because she’s Lupita Nyong’o).

(Personally, the only disappointing thing about this film was the predictability of the plot. Even without being familiar with the comics, from which several key story points were apparently taken, if you’d sat me down before the movie and asked me to outline the story, I would’ve been able to hit every key plot point based on only seeing the first trailer.)

Of course, what’s keeping the conversation about this film going is fairly atypical for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Audiences aren’t coming out of the movie wondering about the infinity stones (okay, maybe a little) or how this will impact the next Avengers movie. Instead, Black Panther has us talking about representation (again, that cast) and–gasp!–politics.

Captain America: Winter Soldier surprised me by delving into the politics of the drone war and the post-9/11 surveillance state. But those themes were really quite secondary to a plot that was still, at its heart, a superhero’s story. Black Panther, though, inverts this ideological hierarchy, putting the action and whiz-bang antics in the back seat. Up front, it offers several layers of political discourse between its varied (and surprisingly earnest) story beats, from overt commentary on the African Diaspora through the righteous but perverse ideology of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger to implicit critique of American isolationism and exceptionalism expressed through the allegorical mirror of Wakanda.

For whatever reason, the discussion swirling around Black Panther has me thinking back to one of the biggest disappointments in the history of superhero filmdom: The Dark Knight Rises.

That film’s problematic, muddled political themes always bothered me. The way Bane tries to offer himself up as a savior of “the people” in a direct mockery of Occupy Wallstreet was a particularly noxious bent for a movie about a billionaire savior to take. Taken seriously–and Nolan’s movies plead to be taken seriously–Bruce Wayne is, indeed, a problematic figure. How many millions does he spend fighting crime through vigilantism and how much more impact could that money make actually improving communities?

The Dark Knight Rises might have explored those questions. At a few turns, if feels like it wanted to. When Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle warns Bruce Wayne that he and the other filthy rich should “batten down the hatches” because “a storm is coming” it felt as though Christopher Nolan might be game to question the inequality of Batman’s world. But when the storm comes, it is brought by the masked Bane and his master Talia Al Gul. These villains purport to be carrying on the work of the latter’s father from Batman Begins, but Ras al Gul wanted to destroy Gotham to stamp out its decadence and corruption as an example to the rest of humanity. Bane seems only interested in causing despair.

In the Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said, “You either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” What a much more interesting film The Dark Knight Rises could have been if it found Batman wondering–in the light of the League of Shadows’ continued assault on a seemingly at-peace Gotham–whether he had become the villain, the lynchpin holding together a corrupt economic system that kept the rich rich and the poor under control.

But alas, that opportunity was wasted.

So The Dark Knight Rises misses its chance to comment on its times. Perhaps Nolan wanted to repudiate the Occupy movement, but refused to make it an overt propaganda film where the rich, like Batman, should really just be trusted with the reigns of society. It certainly doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the inequality or corruption that was so important in Begins.

In a way, then, Black Panther is the film that The Dark Knight Rises could have been. It is unafraid to question its hero’s position within its fictional world. In the beginning of the film, T’Challa has complete faith in Wakanda’s long standing secrecy, even when urged to abandon it by his love interest Nakia. It is only through his struggle against Killmonger and the revelations his appearance in Wakanda brings that he changes his view of what Wakanda should be to the world. It will not be master as Killmonger would have it, but nor can he allow his country and its myriad gifts to remain aloof from the rest of humankind. The film may have landed during the Trump presidency, but its theme is unmistakably of the Obama era: unabashedly against isolation and militarism alike, advocating principled engagement.

In these troubled political times, a success story like Black Panther is a beacon–made more explicit by a mid-credits scene at the UN in which T’Challa warns the world that we must seek unity, arguing that “illusions of division threaten our very existence…But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

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/

 

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.”