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.

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 http://webchat.freenode.net/. Enter a nickname, then for the Channels field enter ##rabbitcube, and finally fill in the Captcha and hit Connect! We’ll be watching Vision of Escaflowne and commenting there starting at 2:00 p.m. EST. We will then be watching Sailor Moon Crystal at 2:30.


Chatlog below the cut!





Escaflowne
 
[14:00] Huh… when I watched this series on VHS, I never heard that opening bass strum
01[14:00] Interesting.
[14:00] (and this time, arrlaari can see the opening credits)
[14:01] Have I gushed enough over them?
01[14:01] I hate to say it, but so far they’re easily the best thing about the show.
[14:01] Yeah, I downloaded a torrent because the stream sites were intolerably bad
[14:01] Really?
01[14:02] Yeah. It’s not, like, actively bad or anything, but… I haven’t seen anything yet that makes me understand why it has such a great reputation.
[14:02] Well… you’ll see
[14:02] “The Diabolical Adonis.” A great description of Dilandau
[14:02] Yo prince it’s time to speak up for Cassandra
01[14:02] I mean, to be fair, the first time I watched Utena I probably would have said the same thing aroudn ep. 4.
[14:03] Good point
01[14:03] …well, except Utena ep 1 is pretty spectacular, so maybe not.
01[14:03] But then it goes into a fairly mediocre run for a while, so it can set you up for the sucker punch.
01[14:03] Oh.
01[14:03] Good.
[14:03] Ah, I was wondering what happened to Merle (I couldn’t remember)
01[14:04] Annoying catgirl survived.
01[14:04] Yay.
01[14:04] …Okay, I feel a little bad for calling her annoying when she was about to have this scene.
01[14:05] But I’m sure she’ll rejustify the accusation later on.
[14:05] There’s a lot of fainting in this show
[14:05] Does This Remind You Of Anything
01[14:05] Does what?
[14:06] The communique between Folken and the Emperor
01[14:06] Oh that. Yeah.
[14:06] IUh, Dilandau, you don’t exactly have a great track record with using those stealth cloaks effectively
[14:07] Angst
01[14:07] I was ABOUT to type “his mom’s dead, isn’t she?”
[14:07] Eeyup
[14:08] Vaguely Christian Graveyard
01[14:08] I like the almost-crosses on the graves.
01[14:08] Like a hybrid of a cross and a fleur de lisle.
01[14:08] de lis?
[14:08] Yeah… fantasy series have a strange relationship with Earth religions
01[14:08] Can’t remember.
[14:08] I think it’s “de lis”
01[14:09] I think you’re right.
01[14:09] Lol, for a second there I thought he’d found a tick on Merle.
01[14:09] It was a very strange direction for the show to be going, I thought.
[14:09] Seriously though, Vaan needs to testify that she is a legit oracle
[14:10] I think Van’s already told them that, they just didn’t believe him
[14:10] Dilandau isn’t great at pretending
01[14:11] I wonder how many episodes it’ll take to get an explanation of what’s so special abtou Escaflowne vs. the other mechs.
[14:11] Well, we’ve already seen that it’s fueled by a Dragon’s magical organ
[14:12] Mole Man had that coming
[14:12] I’m behind Sylo, I think
01[14:12] Well, yeah, but we don’t know that the others aren’t, and even if that is unique, we don’t know what it lets it do.
01[14:12] Sylo is definitely out of synch with me or vice versa?
01[14:12] I’m on a scene where Merle and Hitomi are both in bad glaring at each other.
[14:13] I’m at 13:10
01[14:13] Well, Merle is glaring, Hitomi is staring.
[14:13] Cat & Hitomi are thinkingabout how weird the other are
01[14:13] Yep, that’s where I am.
[14:13] All right… let me know when Mole Man shows up
[14:13] I’ll pause
[14:13] Okay, mole guy just showed up
01[14:13] He just showed up
[14:14] The ambush just begun
[14:14] And here they come
01[14:14] I will admit, I still find the idea of stealth mecha very funny.
01[14:14] Espceially how they make massive thumping noises and leave huge footprints.
[14:14] Those whip-claw things are OP
01[14:15] Pretty sweet-looking, though.
[14:15] Well, the stealth cloaks make sure that the enemy doesn’t have time to PREPARE for the fight
01[14:15] Point.
[14:15] Dilandau licks his lips while ordering his troops to burn everything because of course he does
[14:15] At least not if they don’t know to look for footprints
01[14:15] Yeah, I’m… not enthused with the cliche “effeminate, sexually deviant villain” thing.
[14:16] Van, cut your losses and run
01[14:16] Van, that kind of attitude is how you end up alone with all your allies far behind you and enemies on every side.
01[14:16] …not that this is how I lost my first ship in STO or anything, nope.
[14:17] Ouch
[14:17] Vaan’s older brother was briefly mentioned earlier ni this episode
[14:17] Earlier, the Samurai spoke of Vaan’s brother being disgraced for abandoning the “murder a dragon” quest
[14:17] Van and Allen both have sibling problems
[14:17] So Vaan’s hangup about retreating has a specific cause
[14:18] Dilandau cares about evidence?
01[14:18] Nah, Dilandau’s just rationalizing.
[14:18] Well of course
01[14:18] Well, that’s a point in the show’s favor at least, it’s not just because Van’s a shonen hothead.
[14:18] IIRC, in the dub, Dilandau’s voice sounded like a 10-year-old kid
[14:18] I mean Vaan is also a Shonen hothead
01[14:19] Sure, but it’s nice that they actually made some attempt at exploring where shonen hotheadedness might come from.
[14:19] Hahah… “Then kill anyone who sees you!” that’s Dilandau’s solution to everything
01[14:19] I like the look of their flight mode, it reminds me of Xenogears.
[14:20] Uh, Allen, you’ve already SEEN their guymelefs fly
01[14:20] …Come to think of it, I suspect the design of some of the villain-mook mecha in that series may have been influenced by this.
[14:20] DENIED
01[14:20] That game, not series.
[14:21] Van learns quick
[14:21] Always a good thing
01[14:21] DUDE
[14:21] Ah, I forgot, Escaflowne has a flight mode too
[14:21] A much more fabulous one
[14:21] Ahaha… Dilandau leaves ONE henchman to fight Allen
[14:22] That dude might get murdered by Dilandau later
[14:22] “Not getting yourself killed” is not Van’s specialty
[14:22] The animation holds up so well, which is sadly rare for a series from this era
01[14:23] This is ture.
01[14:23] *true
[14:23] VLC is defintitely better than shady stream sites
[14:24] Yes, yes it is
[14:24] I should skip previews if they’re willing to spoil a big twist like that one just did
01[14:24] Yeah, Sylo, I think whatever site you’re watching it on has upped the speed sligthly, most likely to hide from bots designed to locate copyright violations.
[14:24] Ah
01[14:24] …I am suddenly glad I skipped the preview.
[14:25] I should just get around to torrenting Escaflowne as well
01[14:25] Yeah, that’s what I did after the second episode.
[14:25] So I’m starting to feel oriented in the setting
[14:26] Like, there
01[14:26] Anyway, this episode is kind of what I’m talking about: it’s nice to look at, cool mecha designs, good music, but extremely predictable.
01[14:26] The characters are familiar types with familiar problems, and there’s nothing that makes me stand up and go, “Yes, more of this please.”
[14:26] *there’s an evil empire trying to secure its power by destroying or capturing the Ancient Artifact that underlies the Special Kingdom’s power
[14:27] The visual similarities to FF6 are also a good cue
[14:27] I guess it’s not so revolutionary anymore, but IIRC, this was pretty darn radical in its genre at the time
[14:27] But trust me, once we find out what the villain’s plan is, well, the series gets very, very unique
01[14:28] I look forward to that, then.
[14:28] I suppose someone who watches PMMM after watching the Magical Girl shows that followed it (e.g. Yuki Yuna) wouldn’t be as impressed as a contemporaneous viewer
01[14:28] I mean, I’m committed to watching it, that’s how these things work.
[14:29] I’m glad of that
01[14:30] One of my friends pointed out (while noting that it was a MASSIVELY overbroad generalization) that there’s something of a tendency in anime and Japanese games to focus a lot of effort on having a novel setting and premise, but draw the characters from a fairly predictable pool of stock types, while American media tends to focus more effort on having novel characters but relies heavily on stock premises and settings.
01[14:31] I don’t think it’s entirely accurate, but I think it kind of works here–Escaflowne is cast entirely out of central casting, and whatever is novel about the premise/setting hasn’t really shown up yet.
[14:31] Well, giant robots in a fantasy setting would have been  novel at the time
01[14:31] (Though, as arrlaari alluded to, I think growing up with FF6 makes fantasy with mecha feel less novel to me than it might have at the time.)
01[14:31] Yeah, exactly.
[14:32] I will spoil only one thing: When the true premise of Escaflowne shows up, well, it baffled me as a kid… it was only when I came back to it later that I was able to figure out what this show was really “about
01[14:32] Anyway, I’m going to go make soem toast and then we’ll watch SMC?
[14:32] Alrighty then…
01[14:32] That’s not really a spoiler, Sylocat, no worries.
01[14:33] (I mean, Mark Oshiro would treat it as one, but he’s WAY more hardass about spoilers than basically anyone I have ever heard of.)
[14:33] It’s probably a result of his huge audience throwing out enough people who push the boundaries of the spoiler rules that he wants to push the border out that far
01[14:34] A quite plausible theory.
01[14:34] (Toast status: currently bread, but the end is inevitable.)
[14:36] Alright… we start at 1:40/2:40?
[14:36] 11:40
01[14:36] k
01[14:38] Buffering
01[14:38] Also buttering
[14:38] Ready?
[14:39] Ahahah… nice one
[14:39] ya
01[14:39] yep
[14:39] Clickity
 

SMC 
  [14:40] Ah, the Speedy Gonzales opening logo
[14:40] That’s a cat
[14:40] I know, but it looks like him
[14:40] Ah yes… when we let off, Tuxedo Even-More-Of-A-Jerk-Than-Usual had beat up all Usagi’s friends
[14:41] I don’t remember “Queen Metalia” from the first anime
01[14:41] So are they implying that Beryl and Tux are undead?
[14:42] Queen Metalia totally was in the first anime. She  looked different – more like a tumor in the roots of a tree – but had the same role in the overall plot.
01[14:42] In the opening credits, Metalia looks kind of like the Pokemon Haunter.
[14:43] Oh for goodness’s sake, Usagi, just slap some sense into the guy already
01[14:43] Hell yeah, Jupiter.
[14:43] Ah, their DPS is the first to revive? That’s lucky
[14:43] Oh… they’re all up now
[14:43] Sailor Star Trek leaps into action
[14:44] Ooh, they’re in the Technicolor Void? Aren’t they only supposed to fight the final boss here?
[14:44] Wait, she has prehensile hair?
[14:45] Oh, so it’s a past-life grudge
[14:45] Wait, she got the crystal? When?
01[14:45] Ah, so Beryl’s pullign a Starscream.
[14:45] Last episode I think Mamoru grabbed it
[14:46] Whoa, how did she summon that?
[14:46] Well it worked on your hair
[14:46] Finally, they DO something
[14:46] The Venus WHAT chain?
01[14:46] Okay, it’s confirmed: my favorite character is whichever of Mercury or Jupiter just did something.
[14:47] Venus Love-Me Chain
[14:47] That’s… all kinds of disturbing
[14:47] He will never become a warrior
[14:47] “You can change him with the power of your love!”
[14:47] Whoa, they defeat Beryl now?
01[14:47] I’ll admit, being able to change magic swords withthe power of her love is pretty cool.
[14:48] True enough
01[14:48] But yeah, like basically EVERYTHING ELSE to do with Tux, it’s terrible.
[14:48] Don’t tell me Beryl turned evil because she was in love with… oh for goodness’s sake
01[14:48] Oh bleck adn now the whole hsitory of the series turns out to just be a love triangle centered on Tux.
[14:48] btw Beryl’s motive was possessive romantic jelousy all along
01[14:48] Boo
[14:48] Bleck indeed
[14:48] Whoa, cool runes though
[14:49] Count Bleck
[14:49] (that was the point of Count Bleck’s character, really)
[14:49] (only Super Paper Mario actually realized how toxic that mentality was)
01[14:49] THAT IS NOT A GOOD WAY TO PICK UP A SWORD
[14:50] Wait, Metalia’s goons can’t really wield that sword
[14:50] Can they?
[14:50] But they can pick it up and run away
01[14:50] They can at least keep the good guys from using it
[14:50] True
[14:50] Oh great…
[14:51] Did she switch out the crystals?
01[14:51] Blah blah legendary silver crystal is in her heart all along
01[14:51] THEY HAVE A SPACESHIP NOW!?
[14:52] Whoa, they have a spaceship with fancy magic radar?
[14:52] I do like that
[14:52] Their HQ was a spaceship alll along
01[14:52] Why didn’t they use THAT to go tot he moon?
[14:52] That’s awesome
[14:52] Because then their secret hideout wouldn’t have been hidden anymore!
[14:52] Oh no…
[14:52] More “But we can’t fight our boyfriends!”
01[14:53] So you’re actually going to fight this time? Please?
[14:53] Hopefully
[14:53] Eww
[14:53] Metalia is freaky
01[14:53] ad
[14:54] I thought you put ths site on adblock?
01[14:54] No, just that one time.
[14:55] For some reason the video ads are blocked on this laptop. I don’t remember doing that and it’s not blocking a small banner ad to the right of the player.
01[14:55] back
[14:55] AdBlock’s gotten a lot better… they actually agree to show ads that are static and unobtrusive
01[14:55] User still has the option to block all ads, though.
[14:55] Like I don’t remember even installing ad block
[14:55] True
[14:56] But it’s not the default setting, and most users never change the default setting
[14:56] But anyway
01[14:56] I wonder if we’ll ever get, like, actual motivation for Metallia?
[14:56] Ooh, laser battle
[14:56] I wonder if Metalia was just born out of the rage and weakness in people’s hearts, or stuff like that
[14:56] Wait, it is?
[14:57] Ooh, they have to rip the crystal out of him! I hope she actualyl does that
01[14:57] This is basically Asspull: The Episode.
[14:57] She won’t, of course… but it’d be fun to watch
[14:58] Come on, Usagi, fillet him like a fish and get the crystal
[14:58] …
[14:59] Has she ever used that spell before?
01[14:59] Yeah, all the time.
[14:59] Like, was it foreshadowed at all?
01[14:59] It’s her big area-effect healing spell.
[14:59] Oh, it was? I forgot
[14:59] Mooon Healing Escalation is the thing that stick does ever since she got it
[14:59] Ah, it’s the same thing? I thought it was a different one
[14:59] Oh, of course… they change ALL the boys, with the power of their love
01[15:00] *throws up in own mouth a little*
[15:00] “The true meaning of their names?”
[15:00] Their names mean rocks
[15:00] Has this show never heard of foreshadowing?
[15:01] Ah, good, Metalia intervened
[15:01] Just straight up murdered all of them in a moment
[15:01] If it had been that easy, I would have been even more ticked off
[15:01] Whoa… wait, are they actually dead? How are they talking?
[15:01] “Thank you, guys”
[15:02] That is a bad subtitle
[15:02] I kinda like it, actually
[15:02] “guys” was not the word that fit
01[15:02] ad
01[15:03] back
[15:03] Oh man, Mamoru’s expression is so goofy. It looks like he’s been cast as Dracula in a high school stage play.
01[15:03] lol
[15:04] *Vision of your ghost mom* “You totally can fight your boyfriend”
[15:04] Yeah… this is so over-the-top I actually dig it
01[15:04] Likewise.
01[15:04] Now CUT HIM OPEN
01[15:04] DO IT
01[15:04] YAAAASSSS
[15:04] DO IT… DO IT… DO IT…
[15:04] YAY!
01[15:04] Holy shit she actually did it!
[15:04] AHAHAH!
01[15:04] SHE MURDERED HIM AND MADE OUT WITH HIS CORPSE
[15:04] Oh, this show suddenly became awesome
01[15:04] no wait
01[15:04] wait
01[15:04] what
01[15:05] WHAT
[15:05] I mean, it won’t stick, but it was fun to WHAT THE HELL IS SHE DOING
01[15:05] I WAS NOT EXPECTING HER TO STAB HERSELF AS WELL
[15:05] Well if she didn’t do that it wouldn’t be Romeo & Juliet enough
[15:05] which is the same thing as not being romantic enough
01[15:05] But I mean, this has actually reversed my opinion on their relationship
[15:05] So, it’s a Romeo & Juliet thing, only instead of their stodgy parents keeping them apart, it’s the Power of Darkness and the magic McGuffins
01[15:05] He makes out with sleeping girls, she makes out with guys she just murdered, clearly they’re made for each other.
[15:06] Ahahah… arrlaari and I both made the same connection
[15:06] But yeah… this show just suddenly got awesome again
01[15:06] Well, and also it’s playing the idea straight, where Romeo and Juliet is a black comedy.
[15:06] fyi I knew about that bit because it’s something people bring up when they talk about differences between the old show and the anime
01[15:07] Yeah, I mean, I’d’ve preferred she didn’t stab herself as well, but her stabbing Tux was METAL AS FUCK
[15:07] I actually like this show again
[15:07] That was a cutting motion, really
01[15:07] Total agreement, this show just got awesome again, that was the best thing since Sailor Jupiter’s intro.
[15:07] Also you two are so bloodthirsty dang
01[15:07] Eh, the sharp metal bit went in the squishy thing, that’s close enough to a stabbing.
01[15:08] It’s nto so much the violence as that it’s Usagi MAKING A DECISION AND TAKING ACTION
[15:08] “Ugh the sailor scouts are getting a squishy romantic hapiness OH YES THE BAD GUY MURDERED THEIR BOYFRIENDS” “Ugh Usagi is feeling conflicted because of her romance OH WAIT YES SHE MURDERED HER LOVE INTEREST”
01[15:09] But again, for me at least it’s less because violence and more because sudden swerve disrupting an otherwise obnoxiously cliche sequence.
[15:10] Oh, I didn’t object to there being romance and conflict, it was just the way it was handled had been so bad
01[15:10] Precisely.
[15:10] Like, all five of them were having the exact same angst about fighting their designated boyfriends and it was paralyzing them and preventing them from doing anything
01[15:11] I mean, a well-handled sappy romance can be really good.
01[15:11] But this was cliche and generic and ignored the fact that there were, you know, CHARACTERS on screen–they all went entirely programmatic.
01[15:11] Yeah, what Sylocat said.
[15:12] Anyway, in a couple of weeks I think I might urge you two to check out the last couple episodes of the first season of the older anime, because there are significant differences
01[15:12] Hmm.
[15:13] Well, I have been kinda hankering for an excuse to finally watch the older anime subtitled
[15:13] And the way it played out in the older anime is relevant to other things

Continue reading

Dragons of Industry Minifesto

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

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

Themes

There are certain themes I want to keep in mind throughout the writing of this series:

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

Magic

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

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

Innate magic is instinctive and physical, an inborn connection with one of the elements, which you can use to sense and manipulate that element; it can be trained to build skill and power, but this training is often quite physical and always more about developing reflex and technique than learning theory. Both element and capacity vary from person to person, with some people having such a low capacity that their element can’t be determined. 
By contrast, constructed magic is symbolic and cerebral; it involves channeling magical energy through runes or symbols representing concepts–both the elements themselves and the “verbs” and “adjectives” describing the intended effects–to create effects. Key here is that te sequence of symbols IS the effect, It just needs magic to being it to life. Still, you can’t just plop down symbols and push magic into them; it takes skill and power both, and since each person’s magic is innately tied to one element, certain symbols will he easier or harder for that person.

The elements are the traditional earth, water, fire, air, plus lightning, darkness/light (there is some scholarly disagreement over which of the two the element actually is, or if there’s even a difference), pattern, form, life, mind, time, and magic itself. Each also has associated concepts and personalities, though it’s not true that people with a particular innate element always have the same personality. 
Dragons and Familiars
Despite the name, dragons are not remotely like the familiar creatures of legend and fantasy. Well, not collectively anyway. Some of 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.

History

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nations and Ethnicities

The twelve realms are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Captain’s Log, Weekly Digest 1

So, those of you who follow me on Tumblr probably already know this, but I have created an in-character blog to record the log entries of my Star Trek Online character. It’s sort of something between a Let’s Play and a fanfic. I’ve decided to post weekly summaries, with links to the relevant posts, here.

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.

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.

Escaflowne ep 3 Liveblog Chat Thingy!

How to participate in the liveblog chat:

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

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

Chatlog below the cut!




01[22:55] Okay, FINALLY watching the episode.
01[22:57] Who is that?
01[22:58] Um, if Gaea is that close to Earth the stars shouldn’t be any different?
01[22:58] Unless this is thousands of years displaced in time.
01[22:58] Oh what the fuck
01[22:59] Oh hey, this guy is in the opening credits.
01[22:59] Allen?
01[22:59] His name is ALLEN?
01[22:59] That’s just… silly.
01[22:59] Oh, he looks just like Amano. Interesting.
01[23:00] Oh god it’s one of those stupid honor codes.
01[23:00] You’re out of your league, guy whose name I can’t remember.
01[23:01] So you have a duty to kill him if he draws, but you refuse to kill him?
01[23:01] Da fuck?
01[23:01] Oh, and here’s the effeminate sexually deviant villain. Because that wasn’t already played out in 199whatever.
01[23:02] I guess the dragon is the mech?
01[23:03] Destiny Prognostication Engine, seems fortunetelling is going to be a major theme if both teh evil emperor and the main character ahve it.
01[23:03] Atlantis AND tarot, wow this thing is going to leave no mystic BS unturned.
01[23:04] Wait, he’s leading THIS band? I’m starting to think maybe blondie isn’t a villain?
01[23:05] Oh right, Van, that’s his name.
01[23:07] Wow, that’s pretty hardcore, introduce all those characters, like annoying catgirl, and then immediately kill them off.
01[23:07] Because of course I’m certain that none of them escaped.
01[23:09] Of course Van gets himself in a fight.
01[23:09] …or not?
01[23:10] I guess yes, Hitomi does stand out more than he deos.
01[23:10] This came after FFVI right? Because Allen apparently is just straightforwardly Edgar…
01[23:11] Wait, what did Allen do to become his enemy?
01[23:12] Van is indeed correct about cards.
01[23:12] Okay, but maybe haunted doom cards can?
01[23:13] I really don’t knwo what to make of this thief character but I don’t like him.
01[23:18] Yeah, I have basically nothing to say about the mecha duel.
01[23:18] Was that a vision or an actual attack?
01[23:18] Guess I’ll find out tomorrow, because it’s time for crappy end credits!
01[23:19] …That episode was pretty meh, I hope this gets better because so far I don’t really see why it’s a classic?

Continue reading

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.

“What?”

“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.