Monday, November 23, 2015

Dear Science Fiction Fans: You Need To Let Things Go

You'd think that since science fiction* is all about exploring new ideas and seeing the world in a different way, science fiction fans would embrace change, but that's not entirely true. Sure, they're open to new ideas and are always willing to give the latest movie, TV show, or book series a shot (as long as it has spaceships/vampires/guys with swords, at least). The problem happens later, when they've decided they like that new thing. Once a science fiction fan's decided a thing is "theirs," they don't want to let it die.

In and of itself, that isn't a problem. Science fiction "fictons" (to use a word stolen from Heinlein that the Hex Games crew has been trying--and mostly failing--to popularize for years) are by their very nature ripe with possibilities for new premises, new characters, and new stories. The problem is that sci-fi fans don't want to see creators exploring all these possible stories, they want to see the exact same thing that made them enjoy the thing in the first place. They want to see the same characters doing the same shit over and over again, even when it's gone on for so long that it can't possibly be fun for anyone anymore.

I understand the nostalgia thing. Hell, I almost missed out on the Buffy TV series (which turned into one of my favorite shows of all time) because Kristy Swanson was "my" Buffy, which may be what forced me to re-evaluate the resistance to change that makes science fiction fans complain whenever there's a remake or sequel that's different than the one they grew up with. I promise you that even though we all know that Harrison Ford and Mark Hamil and all the rest will at best be doing long cameos in the new Star Wars movies, there will be fans who complain that Abrams spent too much time on all the new characters instead of focusing on "the real heroes." These people would honestly rather see a geriatric Han Solo lumbering around shooting at storm troopers than something new and (shudder) different.

As an aside, this insistence on a "right" way of handling things is even sadder when it comes to comics, because the "right" way to do a comic is always the way it was done when the person doing the talking started reading them. People who started reading comics during the Frank Miller years will completely discount the decades of Batman not being a grim psychopath to insist that Batman should always be a grim psychopath.

There are people who still hope for more Firefly. It's been over a decade, everybody's moved on, and thanks to Serenity they were able to give the story an ending, but if somebody suggests that there might be a reunion in the works, thousands of fans will piss themselves in joy. I was right there with them for a while, but there's a point when you just have to accept that Firefly was a thing and that thing is over now. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to see more stories set in that universe, maybe even with some of the characters from the original show. I'd love to see (most of) that group of actors work together again, and look forward to watching Fillion and Tudyk's web series. But I don't want anyone to try to make more episodes of Firefly.

Why? Because there's no way for it to be Firefly. For starters, at least two of the characters are dead, and based on what Whedon's said a third one would have died in the interim unless they try to pretend that everyone aged prematurely from the stress of stuff that happened on Miranda. Also, as much fun as it was to watch Adam Baldwin being a terrible person as Jayne, I've got a feeling it would be less fun now that we know he's a right-wing asshole in real life. The main reason I don't want to see a Firefly reunion, though, is because I've seen Red Dwarf: Back To Earth.

I loved Red Dwarf. We used to rent the VHS tapes of the show at the comic shop I worked at, and it was one of my go-tos for background noise. A few years ago, someone sent me a DVD of Back To Earth, which I hadn't even heard of. It was a 3-episode reunion show made in 2009, ten years after the show had ended. The crew ended up on modern-day earth where they had to meet their creator, and it was full of Blade Runner references and fourth-wall breaking and stuff I'd normally really enjoy, a starbug made out of a Smart Car, and lots of other good stuff. If they'd made it ten years earlier, it would have been great, but it wasn't.

What was wrong with Back to Earth? You know that really awkward scene in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back where they show up at Holden MacNeil's door and Affleck stiffly repeats some of Jay's lines from Chasing Amy and it's just weird and awkward for everyone? Back to Earth was like that. You could tell that the actors really wanted to recapture the magic of the old episodes of Red Dwarf, but it just wasn't there any more. Even the bits that worked came across as sort of stilted and sad. It was depressing to watch.

That brings me to the thing that inspired this blog post: They're making more episodes of Red Dwarf. Here's a picture from it:

Even without the example of Back to Earth, this picture should tell you why this is a bad idea. Look at how old Craig Charles is today. The other guys look older, too, but even though they're the characters that shouldn't age (being a robot and a hologram), it's Lister looking old that's the real problem. If you had to boil down the character of Dave Lister to three words, they would be "young and stupid." He's the trickster archetype of the group, the untamed id who makes things interesting for everyone else, and that's not a character that ages gracefully.

I'd love to see more Red Dwarf, but I'm pretty sure that this series, which looks like more of the same Red Dwarf, is going to be as uncomfortable to watch as Back to Earth. And if anyone claims that the premise of the show doesn't allow doing anything without these characters, they weren't paying attention. Despite the "last man alive" premise, they ran into all sorts of other characters during the show, and that's before you remember that they regularly traveled through time and to parallel dimensions. There are ways to keep the Red Dwarf ficton alive without making us watch Dave Lister go from young and stupid to old and pathetic.

*I'm using the term "science fiction" in its most imprecise form to represent sci-fi, fantasy, super-heroes, horror, and the whole spectrum of geeky shit.

"Love us with money, or we'll hate you with hammers"--Milk & Cheese

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Wikepedia Litmus Test

So, against your better judgment, you've gotten into a debate online. It happens. You don't really know the person you're talking to and so far they seem to actually be interested in having some kind of rational, nuanced discussion rather than just an exchange of scripted knee-jerk reactions, but it's still iffy. You don't really want to waste your time only to end up hit with a wall of copypasta sometime later, so how can you figure out whether they're legit?

It's actually pretty easy. Just cite Wikipedia (after doing your due diligence to insure that the page you're citing is unbiased and well-sourced, of course). If they respond by telling you that Wikipedia can't be trusted, you can ignore anything else they have to say and go on about your day.

You're probably thinking, "Wait a minute, Wikipedia can't always be trusted. They've actually got a point." True. Kinda. You're right, Wikipedia is a terrible source for recent information, and the very nature of the beast makes it possible for editors with an agenda to introduce bias into controversial pages. They key word in the fictional statement I'm pretending you made is "always." There's a huge range of subject matter for which Wikipedia is completely trustworthy.

When someone brings up the "Wikipedia can't be trusted" meme (which almost always happens when a Wikipedia page contradicts their own argument), what they're really saying is "Wikipedia isn't always 100% accurate, so I have no way of knowing whether or not to believe this page." Since a good Wikipedia page includes source citations (often with links that you can follow and use to evaluate the source right from your computer), someone who says this is basically admitting that either they can't be bothered or don't possess the intellectual tools to critically evaluate a resource for themselves. If they can't figure out on their own whether they can trust something as clearly cited as a typical Wikipedia page, they're not smart enough to waste your time arguing with.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Starbucks Thing Is Even Dumber Than You Think

If you're at least semi-literate and have an internet connection, you've heard the accusations about Starbucks joining a huge list of other companies in the "War on Christmas." When I first saw the stories in my news feed, I mostly ignored them, assuming this was a case of one Fox News fan complaining, one blogger realizing the clickbait potential and writing about it, and every horrible site on the internet picking up the story like a South Park gnome who just found a pile of underpants. Then last night @midnight played the original Youtube video that supposedly started the whole thing and I realized it was just too dumb to ignore.

I'm not going to link the video (because screw that guy), but after the expected rant about how Starbucks doesn't love Jesus because they didn't put any snowmen on their coffee cups this year, he shares his brilliant plan for punishing Starbucks' blasphemy: everyone should go to Starbucks, buy a cup of coffee, and tell them your name is "Merry Christmas," effectively forcing Starbucks to acknowledge the holiday at dumbpoint.

The idea of threatening a company with what amounts to the opposite of a boycott is so seemingly counterproductive that I have to wonder whether the whole thing is a joke or a well-planned marketing campaign by a company cynical enough to suspect that support of the--"buycott," I guess?--from Bill O'Reilly or Sarah Palin or some other wingnut would mean tons of Chick-Fil-A diners and Hobby Lobby shoppers who've never even been to Starbucks suddenly showing up to demand that the barista sell them some overpriced coffee with "Merry Christmas" written on the cup.

I think it's even more fascinating if the real-life Paul Blart who made the video is completely sincere. If he's serious about this, there are some really odd assumptions that he's got to be making. For starters, he's got to believe that the Starbucks cup is a deliberate attempt at Grinchery. The "War on Christmas" meme is so steeped in the dumb that that one's kind of a gimme, so let's move on to his plan to get back at Starbucks by buying coffee under the name "Merry Christmas." This part of the scheme seems to suggest that forcing some Starbucks employee to write "Merry Christmas" on a cup and then maybe say it out loud when the coffee's ready in some way harms or humiliates the corporation. Well, these are people who seem to honestly believe that bacon affects Muslims like holy water affects vampires, so maybe he's under the impression that making Starbucks say "Merry Christmas" enough times will send them back to the Fifth Dimension or something.

Of course, even if you accept that the words "Merry Christmas" in some way hurt or annoy the Starbuck's company, it's kind of a stretch to assume that the probably minimum wage employee behind the counter is going to give much of a shit what name they write on the cup. The only thing about it that might bother them is the fact that the whole "name on the cup" thing is so everyone knows which cup goes to which customer, and having 15 idiots calling themselves "Merry Christmas" could cause confusion. Hey, maybe that's it! He's going to disrupt Starbucks' business with the confusion caused by a lot of of customers using the same name! Eat it, Starbucks!

Unfortunately, that plan's pretty dumb, too. Let's face it, people who work in the service industry spend most of their time adapting to new forms of customer stupidity, so it's not going to take them long to come up with a way of dealing with multiple customers named "Merry Christmas." Maybe they'll add a number, maybe they'll add your actual name after the greeting, but they'll come up with something. Even if you don't give them that much credit, there's still the problem that, based on my (admittedly limited) experience with Starbucks, any bottleneck the confusion might create would be in the wrong place to hurt business. Any store that's busy enough for the plan to affect will probably have a dedicated register jockey, and the bottleneck would form where people are waiting for their coffee, not the line. Unless the confusion locks up the process so badly that people don't have anywhere to go after paying for their coffee, the register line's going to keep moving and few people will leave. The slowdown only affects people who have already given Starbucks money. And for that matter, it's the customers who mostly have to deal with any confusion caused by a restaurant full of "Merry Christmases." All the baristas have to do is call the name and stand there until somebody figures out that "Merry Christmas 37" is them.

Long story short, the whole "make Starbucks call you 'Merry Christmas'" scheme is a way to give money to a company that's doing something you don't support and to mildly annoy some poor son of a bitch who's already stuck working at the mall during the holidays. That seems like kind of a petty, dickish way to celebrate a holiday that's at least theoretically dedicated to a guy who was all about peace, love, and forgiveness.

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