Damn the Torpedoes!

Adm. David G. Farragut, ca. 1863 Mathew Brady Collection. (Army) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 165-B-1921 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 130

Adm. David G. Farragut, ca. 1863 Mathew Brady Collection. (Army)
Exact Date Shot Unknown
NARA FILE #: 165-B-1921
WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 130

Two years ago I was part of a group of aspiring writers who would follow and promote each other on Twitter as a means to get more exposure for our books. I neither expected much nor gained much from the effort. However, I remember in particular a comment that crystallized in my mind the state of the modern publishing industry. One writer (I forget her name) posted a complaint about Internet “cancel culture,” asking her fellows to weigh in on the sacrifice of free speech to the prevailing PC ideology. The response was enlightening. In the hundreds of replies, something like 90% of the writers said, “Free speech is good, but there should also be consequences.”

These writers did not refer, as an uninformed person might suppose, to laws concerning libel or the classic example of “shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Rather, they were affirming the aforementioned cancel culture, in that people have the right to say “bad” things but that being punished for said opinions – whether it’s losing one’s platform, one’s job, or even one’s bank account – is perfectly acceptable. After all, these are “private institutions” doing the punishing.

Now I’m not going to debate this issue or the fairness of “private” censorship when 90% of America’s banks, news outlets, and social media companies are owned by a tiny cabal of interconnected billionaires who are also intimately entangled with the US government. My focus will be instead on the overwhelming agreement of the majority response. Did all 100-plus of these people who said “cancel culture is OK” actually believe what they were saying? Or were they trying to curry favor with the Powers that Be, which happen to be overwhelmingly and intolerantly leftist? Many progressive writers, J. K. Rowling, for example, have run into trouble due to a single disagreement with the prevailing orthodoxy. It seems that the lesson these writers have learned is not that “cancel culture is bad because it may someday come for me” but “I need to toe the line all the more carefully and I’ll be fine.” That caution includes, apparently, avoiding any criticism of cancel culture itself.

Let’s consider this question against the backdrop of the publishing industry in 2022. New authors attempting to publish a novel in today’s social climate will notice an interesting development. Besides looking for certain genres, topics, and styles of writing, many agents and publishers are also seeking certain kinds of writers. “Marginalized voices” is a common catchphrase, which usually refers to ethnic and sexual minorities – people of color, gay, transgender, etc. Sometimes women are included in this equation, though it’s hard to imagine misogyny is an issue in an industry that is literally dominated by female executives.

What I’m getting to is this: does it make sense for those of us who don’t belong to a protected group – in particular, straight white males such as myself – to muzzle ourselves in hopes that the publishing industry will cut us a break? For blacks and gays, this may make sense, because even luminaries such as Dave Chapelle and Glenn Greenwald can be labeled as “Nazis” despite their favored identities. To be clear, I don’t fault “marginalized” writers for taking advantage of literary affirmative action; I certainly would. It would be wonderful to have my work automatically moved to the top of the slush pile. And if they do fall afoul of the cancel mob, they may be more easily forgiven; consider whether Netflix would have stood behind Chapelle if he wasn’t an African-American. (By the way, I’m a big fan of both Chapelle’s comedy and Greenwald’s clear-headed political commentary.)

As for pale stale males, like me, I believe we’re fools to comply; we should be exactly who we are, as liberal or conservative or libertarian or populist as we feel. I’m reminded of a 1960’s cartoon in which a pair of hippies are dragging a normal-looking man away by his arms. “I’m relevant, I tell you!” screams the normie. The two hippies aren’t buying it and neither will the publishers who prioritize a writer’s identity over the writing itself. Those few enlightened agents or publishers who don’t consider a writer’s politics won’t be impressed by these acts of obeisance. And honoring the progressive shibboleths will positively shut us out of alternative non-liberal institutions such as the notorious Vox Day’s Castalia House.

This may sound like sour grapes, but being a straight white male is freeing in a way. I don’t need to apologize for having voted for Donald Trump twice, for supporting America, or for opposing immigration. Any opinions I express in this column are what I actually believe, no virtue-signaling required. If the political situation continues to decline, the American Stasi might come like the hippies in the cartoon to drag me away, but I’m not worried. The reign of intolerant reality-challenged lunatics can’t go on forever.

Which leads me to the title of this article. In 1862, faced with overwhelming odds in the Battle of Mobile, US Navy Admiral Farragut is quoted as saying, “Damn the torpedoes! Four Bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead! Jouett, full speed!” The battle was won for the Union Navy, though Farragut and his men could easily have died in the effort. This motto is perfect for dissident writers of all stripes who refuse to censor themselves. I repeat:

DAMN THE TORPEDOES!

Whatta You Mean, Sedition?

 

British Infantryman,1941

British Infantryman,1941

Way back when I created this blog, I chose the title with tongue in cheek. Besides having a love of science fiction, I’ve always been critical of the established order. This is an attribute I share with many of my kind. Science fiction has always provided an outlet for people who look to better their society.

As a proud American citizen, I support free speech and regard attempts to limit citizens’ discourse with contempt. One strategy of the political establishment is to shame dissidents into silence. For example, when we opposed the Iraq war, we were hurting the feelings of soldiers and their families and “emboldening” the enemy. It’s a weak argument when you consider that our service people face dangers to life and limb as part of their job. Criticism is the least of their problems And the Islamists on the other side care absolutely nothing for what we infidels think.

When Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected President in 2016, defenders of the status quo became more hysterical, painting critics on both the left and right as villains in league with foreign enemies. At that time, in a fit of pique, I modified the heading of my blog, adding flags that would trigger these schoolmarms of respectable thought. The Betsy Ross flag, for starters, evokes rage from those who hate our American heritage because our ancestors had different values. Yes, slavery was legal in the USA in 1776, but it was also practiced in many if not most of the world’s nations!

I chose the other five flags to offend those who can’t stand diversity in political thought. Our elites hate Russia because Putin’s government halted the looting of their country by predatory American capitalists. Furthermore, they refuse to bend the knee to LGBT ideology. Venezuela is a similar case; they had the gall to take control of their own oil reserves. Hungary and Japan are bad because they oppose immigration–how dare they decline the enrichment of hordes of incompatible refugees! Finally, Palestine stands in the way of Israeli expansion, therefore its people are routinely slandered as terrorists. I’ve heard otherwise respectable Americans call them “animals” who “only understand force.” Our media considers all five of these states to be “anti-democratic,” though their real crime is to honor the wishes of their respective populations.

Since February of 2022, Russia has been the target of unprecedented vitriol; all the more reason for me to leave their flag in place. I’m sick to death of everyone, Democrats and Republicans alike, virtue signaling with their little blue and yellow Ukrainian icons. They’re hysterical about a piece of ground in Eastern Europe changing hands, though Russia is actually less authoritarian than Ukraine. These same folks ignore the genocide in Yemen being committed by our good friends the Saudis. As Orwell would say, some victims are more equal than others!

In summary, I make no apologies for displaying the Russian flag, the Palestinian flag, and all these other “evil” symbols. I hereby declare that when I do update my heading, I’m doing it for a fresh look rather than for fear of being labeled an “enemy” sympathizer. If opposing the corrupt, irrational foreign policy of America’s ruling class makes me a seditionist, I embrace the label whole-heartedly.

ONE SMALL STEP AND FIFTY YEARS

Buzz_salutes_the_U.S._Flag_cropped

Above, photo of Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface.

One of the most momentous events in human history happened fifty years ago today. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first human being to set foot on another celestial body. It should have been declared a national holiday – hell, an international holiday – but people have never been very good at grasping what’s truly important at the moment it happens.

Before I go any further let me say that all you Apollo 11 deniers are completely and utterly mistaken. Like you, I’m a conspiracy theorist, but I draw the line at believing that significant events witnessed by hundreds or even thousands of people can be successfully faked. Sometimes they may be misinterpreted for propaganda purposes (such as the destruction of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor) but there always must be some basis in reality. Furthermore, if the US government felt it needed to fake a moon landing, why would it do so six times?

The tragedy, the travesty, the monstrous crime was that we stopped going after trip number 6. I emphatically disagree with people who say “we have too many problems here on Earth to solve first.” Fie on this defeatism! With that attitude, people would still be living in caves, because there have always been social and economic problems. There are a number of government expenditures we could sacrifice rather than space exploration such as corporate welfare and military intervention overseas (which is, to be technical, another form of corporate welfare.) Nor do we need to give “foreign aid” to third-world dictators who just stash the funds in their Swiss bank accounts. Fiscal conservatives often mock scientific research as a waste but the opposite is really the case. Science is more significant, more uplifting, and more beneficial than just about anything else the US government supports. It’s most of that other stuff that’s wasteful.

What the Apollo program proved is that we Americans can do great things and that people of all walks of life can play a part. Yet I don’t expect mankind’s greatest achievement to be celebrated with the enthusiasm it deserves, because it doesn’t fit the current year’s grievance-based narrative of identity politics. It’s just too darn uplifting, Too many of us want to be angry about something. To those people I say, search for a video of President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University where he challenges the nation to go to the moon. I dare you to listen to Kennedy’s speeches (especially his Inaugural Address) and not get choked up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I did.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of a great accomplishment by heroic Americans. I may be disgruntled at times, but today is not one of them. Today I am proud to be an American.

We’ve moved! (Sort Of)

snow_tracks

Some people have recurring dreams about it being finals week in college and not having studied, or showing up at work in their underwear. I have a stranger dream, in which I remember I have a house somewhere else that I’ve forgotten about. I’ve left a bunch of my things there and need to go get them. In other words, I must have moved without much forethought. This blog is a lot like that. When I started my new blog Steampunk Desperado, I stopped posting here, and didn’t even leave a forwarding address.

I assumed this blog didn’t have much of a readership since I posted sporadically and my topics were all over the place. I didn’t even bother to check the visitor stats on Godaddy. However, my son Lowell reminded me that one of his friends used to read this blog, and although he didn’t often agree with my weird opinions, he was always interested to read them. So it is for unsung readers like him that I post this forwarding address.

The idea behind Steampunk Desperado was that I’d try to stick to the topic of my writing and not get so far afield on political nonsense. (My wife Arlys scolds me that I’m alienating potential readers.) I’d also post every day, which I’ve done since mid-October. At least half of these articles are reposts from the Sedition blog, particularly if they were about steampunk or related sci-fi or historical topics. I’ve also reposted most of the articles Arlys has written so far about Victorian culture and recipes and crafts related to our books. In the ten weeks since Desperado’s inception, we’ve almost run out of these, so it’s going to be mostly new stuff from now on.

I’m not entirely ruling out posting again on “Sci-Fi and Sedition,” especially if I want to talk about political topics, such as some of the deplorable channels I follow in You-tube. The problem is that it’s tough to get a blog post out every day on my main blog without doing stuff here as well. It’s always possible, though.

Deathnote Signs Its Own Name

DeathNoteScaled

A bit like Malkovich entering his own brain…

It may sound morbid, but “Death Note” is one of my favorite stories. I’ve experienced it in every form: the manga, the anime series, and the Japanese live action movie. I was excited to see the American movie version, a Netflix production, so I watched as soon as it was available. I was gravely disappointed within the first five minutes.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Deathnote is based on a manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. Shortly before his high school graduation, Light Yagami finds a magical notebook labeled “Death Note.” It’s a supernatural prank by a shinigami (Japanese “death god”) named Ryuk. The book’s instructions say that anyone whose name is written within will die, at the time and by the method specified. Ryuk (a Joker-like winged demon in Goth attire) appears and encourages Light to try it out. Light tests the notebook by writing the name of a hostage-taker from the evening news. The criminal drops dead. Light decides he’s been chosen to rid the world of evil-doers.

This power, even in the hands of an upstanding young genius like Light is an insidious thing. It takes him down a dark path much like Walter White in Breaking Bad. Eventually, the media notices the mysterious deaths and dubs the anonymous executioner “Kira” for “killer.” To the public, he’s a vigilante hero while the authorities view him as an existential threat.

This theme of hubris and corruption plays out through 12 volumes of manga and 37 episodes in the anime adaptation by Madhouse. One of its most popular aspects was the game of wits between Light and “L,” the autistic savant teenage detective the authorities hire to stop Light’s reign of terror. Some viewers felt the show drags in the final season as Light eliminates the investigators one by one, sparing only the police chief, who happens to be his own father. I disagree. The latter episodes are as intense as the early ones. You can feel the desperation of the police as they face down Kira’s supernatural power.

Just as the smash-hit anime series was drawing to a close, Japanese director Shūsuke Kaneko converted Death Note into a pair of live-action movies. Because of the time limitation, he shortened and rearranged the story. Though purists hated these changes, I felt that the movies stayed true to the spirit of the original. Casting was superb, especially with Tatsuya Fujiwara and Kenichi Matsuyama as Light and the eccentric candy-devouring L, respectively. (By the way, Matsuyama appears in an alleged sequel, L– Change the World, with Matsuyama as L in one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.)

Death Note characters Light and L

Three Versions of Light versus L

Not so for the Netflix remake directed by Adam Wingard, which makes far more significant changes. Rather than being a “goody two shoes” from an upper-class family, Light Turner (played by Nat Wolff) is a rebel with a tragic backstory. His mother was killed by a criminal who escaped justice, predisposing him to a vigilante mindset. Though he’s smart, he’s already dishonest and gets caught selling homework to his classmates. Apparently, the American script writers thought it needed “girl power.” In this new version, Light’s girlfriend Mia (Margaret Qualley), a clueless pawn in the original, becomes Light’s co-conspirator right from the start. She’s the one who insists on killing the FBI agents who threaten Kira, while the American Light (unlike his ruthless Japanese counterpart) refuses to do so. These changes confuse and muddle Death Note’s message. Worse yet, there’s no time for the famous sparring between Light and L. Early in the movie, L confronts Light at a coffee shop, saying, “I know you’re Kira.” How? What investigation has he done? Even the ending has major changes. I won’t spoil it, except to say there’s a lot less death in this Death Note.

That said, there are some good points. I enjoyed Willem Dafoe as the voice of Ryuk, though the new CGI rendering makes him more of a demon than the trickster he was in the original. Lakeith Stanfield was also excellent as the eccentric “L,” though the script has him acting out of character at the end. I also must admit that the final plot twist surprised me, perhaps because my expectations had dropped so low.

To summarize, if you’ve seen the original Death Note, you might want to skip this train wreck of a remake. If not, you might not necessarily hate this version, but please don’t judge the rest of the franchise by it.

Note: While researching this article I became aware of a second Japanese live-action Death Note sequel called Death Note: Light Up the New World, directed by Shinsuke Sato. With some trepidation, I plan to see this one as soon as I can.

Review: City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian Poster

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Sometimes a good thing is worth waiting for. Fifty years after the debut of the French space adventure comic series Valérian and Laureline, these intrepid heroes have reached the big screen. Valerian is the creation of writer Pierre Christian and illustrator Jean-Claude Mézières. The series has won numerous awards but few people know it in the English-speaking world. Though I haven’t yet read this long running series (it would give Doctor Who a run for its money) judging by the movie, it must be pretty impressive.

Valerian follows the 28th Century adventures of government agent Major Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan) and his partner and love interest, Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne.) The story’s exotic settings include the giant multi-species space station Alpha and the paradise world of Mul. The film is visually stunning and replete with the usual CGI spectacle. The action is non-stop but well paced, not needlessly frenetic like, for example, J.J. Abram’s recent Star Trek and Star Wars movies.

Though “City of a Thousand Planets” is not the most inspired title, I’m at a loss to think of a better one, except perhaps “Series that Spawned a Thousand Imitators.” As I watched the move, I was struck by the number of elements I’d seen in other sci-fi TV shows and movies, including Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, The Fifth Element, and Babylon Five. Since the Valerian comic series has been around longer than most of them (and almost as long as Star Trek,) we can guess who was plagiarizing whom. The Millenium Falcon, to name just one example, looks an awful lot like Major Valerian’s spaceship.

Overall, the movie was quite enjoyable but no masterpiece. It couldn’t live up to its amazing trailer, which features a pastiche of the movie’s most spectacular images set to the Beatles song “Because.”

The story is interesting, though not terribly original. I correctly predicted many of its plot turns, which is always disappointing. The main characters are likable though their acting is a bit flat at times. In fact, my favorite performance was by pop singer Rihanna as Bubble the shape-shifter. In particular, I found DeHaan’s youthful appearance jarring. He barely looks old enough to drive a car, let alone pilot a spaceship. The movie’s lowest points revolve around the romantic banter between him and Delevingne, which was at times painfully cliché. The action scenes made up for that.

Flaws aside, Valerian is still a must-see for any science fiction buff, especially Star Wars aficionados who loved the originals. I’d rate it 4 out of 5 stars.

International Tesla Day

N_Tesla

Nikola Tesla, 1898

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Happy Birthday, Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla was born 161 years ago today in Smiljan, Croatia. Known as a pioneer of radio, the father of alternating current, and the archetypal “mad scientist” he was awarded at least 278 patents. A lifelong eccentric, he never married nor had any romantic relationships, though he’s rumored to have been infatuated with a pigeon. Some of his ideas were as offbeat as he was. He proposed free power, transmitted wirelessly, and conceived a “death ray” that he believed would make war impractical. Another well-known aspect of Tesla’s life was his feud with Thomas Edison over which was better, alternating current or direct current. Ironically, he received the Edison Medal from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1916. Tesla has become a cult figure in recent years and has appeared as a character in numerous fictional works including The Prestige by Christopher Priest (also a movie by Christopher Nolan), Goliath by Scott Westerfield, Wonder of the Worlds by Sesh Heri, and Fidelio’s Automata by yours truly. Background info from Wikipedia/Infogalactic.

me_as_tesla

Modern Tesla Imitator

Happy Birthday America

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Peace Flag, image from SoCal Flags, https://www.amazon.com/SoCal-Flags-Polyester-Weather-Resistant/dp/B01CF2THTK

It doesn’t seem that long ago that we were celebrating the Bicentennial and everything was red, white, and blue. Now, 41 years later, we’re having a bit of difficulty getting along with each other, and with the world at large. If America can manage to stay together, I propose we adopt a new version of the Stars and Stripes, one that expresses our most important mission for the 21st century: Peace! Happy Fourth, everyone!

 

 

Cool Summer Reading

KeepCoolIoneD

When I was a kid growing up in North Dakota, winter was the best time for reading a good book. Here in Arizona, however, the summer is the miserable season. This June has been a particularly hot one, with the temperature hitting 120. So when you’re lounging around in your air-conditioned house, what’s good to read? You’re in luck because Arlys and I are offering our e-book Professor Ione D. and the Epicurean Incident for FREE on Amazon this coming July and August. And if you happen to be attending Westercon 70 at the Tempe Mission Palms, come see us on our steampunk-related author panels on 11 AM Sunday and 5 PM Monday.