Headed for Huxley?

Dystopia is hip again.

In The Children of Men humanity’s infertility leads to the rise of an autocratic “Warden” of England. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it leads to a new theocratic state that takes over part of the United States.

Both of these books describe a singular event that leads to dystopia. Like the best fiction, they start in the midst of the action, and they don’t waste time on the exhaustive detail of exactly how things happened. We just know that a severe drop in births leads to panic.

1984, arguably the most famous dystopian novel, is a cautionary tale about how revolutions can degrade into to excess and betrayal of the principles that lead to them. Here again, we have a single event pushing society to dystopia. Of course, Orwell had two real-life examples to draw from; Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

But is that always how it has to be?

As a writer, tying the rise of a dystopia to a single event is a hell of a lot easier than trying to describe how one might slowly subsume a society. Huxley pulled it off in Brave New World,  which I consider one of the most terrifying dystopian novels ever written.

Neil Postman compares 1984 and Brave New World in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death:

Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

If that doesn’t give you chills in 2017, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Fake news.

Cell phones rewiring our children’s brains.

Climate change that gives us a spectacular fall.

We live in a Philip K. Dick novel. Or maybe Robocop?

 

 

 

 

Daredevil Fights Fake News

We left off last week with a campaign of fake political ads targeted at Franklin “Foggy” Nelson, Matt(Daredevil) Murdock’s best friend. This subplot spanned several issues and then ended in a three-part story focusing on the “real” villain.

The political ads evolved into bizarre news stories:

And now you know what made me think of these comics; the recent release of government files about the assassination of JFK, and how they validated some of the “crazier” ideas (while answering almost no questions) that have floated around it. We know the story above is true though because that’s Walter Cronkite.

The fake news continues in Daredevil, with Foggy Nelson finding out about his statement questioning his own competence by seeing it on television:

His opponent denies responsibility:

So we have untraceable political advertisements. Fake news stories, including one about the candidate that was the target of the mystery ads, and an opponent that insists he is not involved.

Sound familiar? This was in a “kids” comics series, 42 years ago.

Of course, a campaign of disinformation should be easier back then than it should be now because back then there was only TV and newspapers.

Right?

Well, finally we find out who the real target is:

After all, it’s his name on the cover of the comics.

In 1976 this kind of editing was possible. Editing videotape with computers (using time offsets, not digital processing) was already a few years old. The fiction is the Jester having such a system (they were incredibly expensive and rare) and his ability to air pirate broadcasts for weeks without being caught.

The Jester’s campaign works until he throws Daredevil into a death maze (comic book!) and Daredevil beats him up, and then it’s the end and join us next issue for a special guest hero.

This wasn’t the first appearance of the Jester, nor was it the first time he framed Daredevil for murder and drove a story that spanned multiple issues. It wasn’t even the first time the Jester was involved in an election. Nor was this the first or last time a Marvel comic added “serious” ideas to its stories.

This one seems notable to me, though, because as much as 12-year-old Eric enjoyed it, he thought it was far-fetched.

Heh.

Extra credit: Some fake newspaper pages from the story.

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The Crime Computer Will Protect You

It’s 1975, and the District Attorney of a major city is facing fierce opposition in his re-election campaign. Desperate to stay ahead and stay in office, he works with national and international law enforcement agencies to develop a comprehensive database of criminals to help law enforcement around the world.

A 70’s cinema thriller? An episode of Radiolab? A Sci-Fi novel?

No, a subplot in Daredevil issue #124, August 1975. (On newsstands a few months earlier than that.)

This was another comic I read when it came out, and it is a treasure trove of science fiction concepts and social commentary. The mid-seventies was a time of chaos inside the hallowed halls of Marvel Comics, with Stan Lee stepping aside to run licensing efforts for the company on the west coast, and the inmates ran the asylum for a few years. Sometimes this led to some pretty bad books, other times it created gold. This issue was a goldmine, but I’m only going to touch on two. Bear with me, even if you’re not into comics.

Dr. Christopher Reeve explains.

Dr. Armstrong Smith explains that he is working on a “reference bank” of “worldwide habitual offenders.”

This idea sounds positively adorable in 2017. While a “worldwide” database might never exist, we know that something pretty close is with us today. Probably several different systems that may or may not share data. Big databases of people and their habits are not flights of fantasy; they are the stuff of nightmares. Not because no one saw the potential abuses coming, but because people failed to see the databases while they cheerfully added their personal information to them. This makes Matt Murdock’s example of murderers with a “penchant for pasta” especially sad-funny.

As you might know from the Netflix series or one of two terrible movies, Matt Murdock is not just Daredevil; he’s a criminal defense attorney. What he might say is, “Hey, Mr. District Attorney and Best Friend, this might be ripe for misuse.”

But he doesn’t.

What could go wrong?

He’s impressed. He also wants to know why Foggy is so worried about his campaign. We’ll get to that.

Murdock/Daredevil does have qualms about the computer(s) a few issues later, but they’re not what you would expect.

Click to see a larger and easier-to-read version

 

Blind attorneys that work during the day to defend criminals and at night to beat the crap out of them aren’t just ethically-challenged. They’re ethically challenged liberals.

Smith’s word choice ad Murdock’s going along with it are interesting in this conversation; the computers will help with location, not identification. If someone is in the system, it’s just a matter of finding them. They’re already a criminal.

But don’t worry, Dr. Armstrong Smith is killed in Spider-Man #155 after his ethical lapses catch up with him: his computer achieves sentience and becomes a criminal itself. Comic books!

Maybe Windows 1976 was a poor choice for the operating system.

Coming across this old subplot was a treat, but then I saw these panels a few issues later:

The pie in the face is actually a hint.

What’s this? Did Foggy’s campaign manager go off the rails?

FAKE NEWS.

No. It was a fake campaign ad…and the networks can’t tell District Attorney Nelson who ran it. C’mon…that could never happen!

To be continued next week.

 

Jeff Corey’s Appearance on Babylon 5

Babylon 5 drew from many places for its guest stars. Genre stalwarts like Michael Ansara and Brad Dourif. TV regulars like William Sanderson, Melissa Gilbert, and Erica Gimpel. Special guest stars like Michael York and Robert Englund. Even fresh new faces like Bryan Cranston.

But one of my favorite appearances, even though it was barely a cup of tea in length, was by Jeff Corey. You might know him from Little Big Man, where he gave an incredible performance as Will Bill Hickok.

Jeff Corey as Wild Bill Hickok
Jeff Corey as Wild Bill Hickok
A creepy Jeff Corey in Conan the Destroyer.

Or maybe from Conan the Destroyer as the creepy Grand Vizier.
Or maybe you recognize his voice as Silvermane in the 90’s Spider-Man cartoons. Or the sheriff in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or Tom Chaney (the main villain) in True Grit Or from one of the 100s of roles he played on TV, such as in the original Star Trek or The Outer Limits. He was everywhere, and he tended to be memorable.

His turn on Babylon 5 is a real treat. Without revealing any critical spoilers, he plays a mysterious man that wants something from a skeptical Captain Sheridan (Bruce “Scarecrow” Boxleitner,) and is delightfully strange and oddly persuasive. It’s a great piece of writing, where the series creator, J. Michael Straczynski starts revealing what has really been going on for three seasons with some great dialogue and vivid imagery.

I have a clip with just enough to give you a taste without revealing too much.

What Makes a Person Good?

A few acquaintances said of them, after it all happened: they were good people. And there was nothing else to say, since they were.
There was nothing else to say. They lacked the weight of a grave error, which so often just happens to be what opens a door. At some point they’d taken something seriously. They were obedient.

— Clarice Lispector “The Obedient Ones.”

What makes a person “good?” Is it obedience? Is it pleasing others? In “The Obedient Ones,” Lispector describes an “obedient” couple, “good people,” and where their obedient life leads them.  (I don’t want to spoil it. Listen below. It’s the second story, but they are all worth listening to.)

Donald Trump likes to use “good” to describe people. “They’re good people” is a common refrain. When he uses it, it means someone who did something he liked. He often wants us to ignore people’s behavior and focus on “their hearts,” as if wearing a sheet to a parade or colluding with our enemies isn’t a good indicator of “heart.”

When people that please him are caught doing wrong, he wants us to ignore their behavior and focus on “their hearts,” as if wearing a sheet to a parade or colluding with our enemies isn’t a good indicator of “heart.”

Some religions seem to have a similar take on goodness. A change of heart at any point, even at the moment of death, can redeem a lifetime of evil, or at least a lifetime of disharmony with that religion. The Good Thief in the Gospel of Luke is a good example of this, and the basis for the doctrine on deathbed conversions.

He’s evil, but a patriot and defender of his people. Most of the time.

The nature of goodness is something one has to think about when creating characters. Characters can be antagonists or protagonists, but in the better books and movies that alone does not make them good or bad people. Among the many failings of the many recent Fantastic Four movies was failing to capture the fact that Doctor Doom stopped being a cardboard cutout of a “Bwahahaha, and then I will take over the world!” villain more than forty years ago. He’s not what we would call a “good person, own ” but there’s an explanation for his behavior.

Purely good characters are boring. In the new Wonder Woman movie Diana is about as close to an “all good” hero we’ve seen in a long time, but she stole the sword and the lasso, tried to sneak off of Themyscira, and then had a Mount Everest-sized moment of doubt in the end. Without these moments, it’s close to a made-for-tv movie in the early 70s.

Civil War Feels

Steve Rogers (Captain America) is a close second. In both “Winter Soldier” and “Civil War” he is a very principled man, but he is willing to go to extreme lengths to defend those principles, including fighting his government and even his friends.

Good is where behavior and belief meet. A character has a moral center, a set of beliefs, that guides their behavior. Realistically portrayed antagonists and protagonists both have this center and a set of beliefs.

Evil starts where those beliefs devalue other people’s lives and well-being.

https://soundcloud.com/selectedshorts/magic-and-realism-clarice-lispector

The Culture of Interruption, Redux

I finished The Shallows after I wrote and queued The Culture of Interruption.

We want to be interrupted, because each interruption brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts means is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated (emphasis added.) The near-continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to “vastly overvalue what happens to us right now,” as Union College psychologist Christopher Chabris explains.

Wanting to be connected and keep up-to-date is a natural tendency, but we survived for a long time without “real time” updates about the markets, Washington, and the President’s idiotic tweets.

The tendency to overvalue the new is something that the crap artists at Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, have been exploiting for years, so it’s natural that it’s migrated to our cell phones and computers. The fact that the information comes from the Internet doesn’t make it any more valuable.

I’m writing this on Thursday. Irma has already decimated the Virgin Islands and left hundreds of thousand without power into Puerto Rico. It (she?) is over open water right now, bearing down on the Turks and Caicos, but I have caught myself checking the new three times already today. Why? Because something new might happen.

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