Fighting Evil?

February 23, 2009

There are things we recognize as indisputably evil – for example, slavery, the Holocaust. And there have been wars fought whose outcome resulted in the end of these evils – the American Civil War, World War II. So those were good wars, right? Right?

Well…

I’m not saying they weren’t. But, it strikes me as odd that, while both of those wars resulting in the end of an evil, they were not entered into for that purpose. The American Civil War began as a question of states’ rights versus preserving the Union, not as a question of slavery. WWII wasn’t about saving the Jews, it was about stopping Hitler from taking over Europe.

Another example people might not like – the Iraq War’s stated purpose was to remove Saddam Hussein from power so he was no longer a threat to the US. Saddam was also a horrible dictator who slaughtered tens of thousands of people. Why is it that we had to present the war as stopping a threat to us (which it turns out Saddam wasn’t, really) rather than as stopping something that was indisputably evil?

I don’t know the answer to this. Perhaps it’s an imaginary problem.

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Hue, Value, Saturation, Mythopoeia

February 21, 2009

Every color can be described with three basic numbers – hue, value, and saturation. The hue is whether the color is red, green, or blue; the value is darkness vs. light; the saturation is how much “color” there is in the color (a really bright red has high saturation; a faint red that’s almost white has low saturation; both of these would have the same hue and value).

Now, when I look at things qualitatively, especially when thinking about mythopoeia, I tend to think of them in terms of colors. For example, in Orbivm, there’s a lot of color imagery – Lavinians=red, Sidhe=green, Marauders=blue, for starters – and that’s all intentional. Somehow those colors just seem to fit with those civilizations.

These are all different hues, clearly, but basically the same value, somewhere around the middle (though there’s some variation). This because good is white and black is evil, traditionally. There’s not really any civilization in Orbivm that could be qualitatively considered as “black” or “white”… they’re just different hues.

There’s a reason for this, I think. If you have one civilization that is pure black and another that is pure white, then their average saturation is zero. So it seems out of place for there to be a red, or green, or blue group; the fantasy world has been cast in terms of black and white, and there’s no room for color.

Which isn’t to say that black and white fantasy is impossible or pointless. The last few short stories I’ve written have been very dichotomous – light versus darkness, and all that. But when you do this it’s necessarily simpler – with only value, you can do much less than with hue, value, and saturation.

What’s hard to do well, I think, is combine light vs. darkness and red v. blue v. green. It requires forcing each civilization, which was originally just red, or blue, or green, without any real moral alignment, to pick a side. What you can’t do, as someone on the Wesnoth forums tried to, is leave the RGB valueless and just add two more groups, one black, one white. Doing so is conflating hue and value; they’re simply different things, and have very different implications for a fantasy world.


The Bard in the Mead-Hall

February 14, 2009

A few friends and I recently had an interesting discussion – what would our ideal earthly existence be like? It can’t be Heaven, but you can pick the landscape, the political nature of your city/town/whatever, your own occupation and political and social role, the architecture you want, even modify the laws of physics to some extent… so, what would I do with this opportunity?

After some discussion, it came out that my ideal existence could be summarized as being the bard in the mead-hall…

I’ll start with the landscape and weather. There’d be stark mountains, plains, a mysterious forest, and an ocean (but no beaches – just sheer cliffs of varying height everywhere). It would generally be cold, varying between a bit below freezing and, at the warmest, maybe 60 or 70 degrees. Mostly overcast, sometimes raining or snowing, rarely sunny (though not never). A northern climate. (Which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read what I have to say about heat vs. cold.)

On to the city itself. I’d pick a small community, just a few thousand, where I can know a sizable portion of the population and talk to whoever I wanted, but not really be obligated to talk to anyone. We’d all live in separate small, simple houses, kind of like the huts you’d see in medieval towns, but with indoor plumbing, and congregate in the communal feasting hall, one of the two large buildings in the town. The other, bigger one would be the library-cathedral, done in the Gothic style.

As to the political structure of this town; it’d be basically feudalistic, I guess, but the main feature is that it is in constant war with a neighboring and extremely evil city, or perhaps monster (which would make this even more like Heorot Hall from Beowulf). Why do we need to be fighting? Because otherwise life would get boring. Remember, this is not Heaven. Eternal existence in an earthly paradise with nothing to try to accomplish, but with mankind still fallen, would, I think, not be very paradisaical. We need something to struggle for – what better way than to have an undeniably evil enemy to fight against? The stories of the war would be told in the feasting hall, everyone would fight and so have some experience of something grander than themselves… but the war would always stay distant enough not to threaten the town itself.

But what would I do in this town? I certainly wouldn’t want to be the king or a warrior or anything like that. I considered being just one of the intellectual class (which there would be – even if everyone is educated, not everyone is equally intelligent), but I realized that wouldn’t really satisfy me. It’d be too boring; again, there’d be nothing to fight for, or rather nothing to really try to accomplish. I’d rather be a bard, composing and singing tales in the mead-hall. Then I could have a goal – write something great. Much more interesting.

This hypothetical paradise is supposed to include other personal stuff, so I guess I’ll include that too; I’d be married, I guess, to someone much nicer and more social than I am (that’s almost necessarily true for me, of course), and probably have kids too. Oh, and there’d be a bunch of pet wolves in this town, and I’d have at least one. I considered taking a super-power like flying or something, but then realized that actually sounds kind of boring. I’d rather have basically what I describe above.

This is an interesting exercise because it gives the audience a view into both your personality, and your world-view – and shows how much the two are intertwined. I’d choose to be the bard in the mead-hall because that’s what suits my personality the best – but it suits me the best because of my views on the nature and significance of literature.

Try it yourself – it might help you figure something out. I didn’t realize that my town needed to be at war with something evil until constructing it with the assumption that it would be at peace and realizing that it wouldn’t work.


On the Sublime and Beautiful

February 9, 2009

For my Romantic Tradition class, we recently read Edmund Burke’s “On the Sublime and Beautiful”. It’s a fascinating work; it distinguishes between the sublime, which is composed of what is terrible, obscure, powerful, vast, infinite, uniform, difficult, magnificent, painful, from the beautiful, which is composed of the small, smooth, delicate.

Given that these are the words used to describe the sublime and beautiful, it surprised me that Burke did not distill these descriptors down to their essence – the beautiful is what is proportionate, moderate, while the sublime is what is extreme, excessive. But this does seem like the basic point of the distinction between sublime and beautiful – extremes versus proportions. So I’ll go with that.

Now, before I read this, I did not distinguish between the sublime and beautiful because I did not have the word “sublime” in my critical vocabulary (I knew the word, but not its literary meaning). I considered what was sublime to be beautiful, just in a different way – is there not beauty in the raging of a storm or a vast expanse of snow? But in Burke’s terminology, these are only sublime, not beautiful. I’m not sure I’d agree with this. Part of me wants to say that both extremes and proportions types of beauty, calling the former sublime and the latter something else. Burke instead classifies both the sublime and beautiful as different, but both pleasureful for us.

I suppose the difference is mostly just semantic. But which way is better? Do we want to say that beauty is everything that gives us aesthetic pleasure, or do we want to say that beauty is proportion, and that the sublime is not beautiful, but also gives us aesthetic pleasure?

(And yes, I wrote this post because I have a paper due tomorrow about the sublime that I don’t want to write yet.)


Book Review: Frankenstein

February 3, 2009

So, I recently read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Because, you know, it’s a classic of speculative fiction, was instrumental in development of the archetypal “mad scientist” character, was one of the first books to bring up the issue of science creating life and whether that’s morally acceptable or not… might be worth reading, right?

Wrong.

Frankenstein was one of the most disappointing “classics” of speculative fiction I have ever read.

I mean, it really has nothing going for it except the basic premise. Granted, that premise (which everyone knows) is well worth contemplating, but honestly you get a better sense of it from any horror movie with a Dr. Frankenstein-like character and a Frankenstein’s Monster than from this book.

The basic problem is that Mary Shelley evaluates the entire situation in terms of emotion, not morality, and has absolutely no grasp of how emotions actually work. I mean, really – none of the characters are believable. They’re all extremely stylized over-emoting self-absorbed idiots. Which is somewhat of a problem in a book mainly about human emotion (she devotes almost no attention to the actual scientific or moral issues at hand). It’s a nightmare, but not in a good way; it’s like a parody of English Romanticism.

Just do yourself a favor and watch a Frankenstein movie instead…


Fight!!! (February)

February 1, 2009

I have noticed recently that I often enjoy being enemies with someone more than being friends with them. I don’t mean “enemies” as in we actually detest each other – rather, I mean that, whenever we meet, we are constantly sparring verbally, never being “nice” (which means basically being polite) to each other. Often it’s more fun this way; after all, unless you’re good friends with someone, you don’t get much out of being polite to each other. But arguing with people when neither of you cares about the argument helps you think on your feet, improves your wit, and gives you a thick skin.

I’m afraid others don’t see it this way though; most people avoid confrontation like the plague. So sad. They’re missing out.

The only problem with this is that it can be used too often; there are probably some people I would be better off being civil to than arguing with, but that’s not how it goes down. Perhaps I ought to try being nice every once in a while…

Anyway, what Wesnoth/Orbivm character does this remind me of? Sparxus the Orc, a gladiator. As you may recall, he led one of the first bands of escaped orcs from the Lavinian Coliseums; they wanted to escape so they could fight who they wanted and not fight who they didn’t want to. Sparxus is more civil than most of the orcs, and ends up not really as enthusiastic about gladiatorial combat as some of them – but he still ends up dueling Grarivus, his mortal enemy who he was friends-of-convenience with while they made their escape, once they’ve reached safety. He can’t rise above his orcishness and love of violence.

The part that applies to me should be obvious. I don’t mean to imply I have a love of violence or am an orc, obviously.

(BTW, I do plan to write that post about the purpose of criminal punishments… eventually. Just haven’t had energy and time at the same time yet.)


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