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Wakanda

A week ago, C and I went to see The Black Panther, as a belated conclusion to celebrating Saint Valentine's Day. We really enjoyed it; we're looking to go back for another showing. I thought it was one of the best MCU films I've seen, with an almost operatic quality not only in the elements of spectacle and music, but in the plot and characterization.

But I wanted to comment on something else that struck me.

The powers of the Black Panther are tied to a religious belief system: The worship of Bast, a cat goddess. And of the five tribes of Wakanda, one tribe, the Jibari, who are resistant to the Black Panther mythos, are worshippers of Hanuman, a monkey and ape god.

But neither of these is a black African deity! Yes, Bast comes from ancient Egypt, and Egypt is on the same continent, but its language was Afro-Asiatic, whereas the Wakandans were shown speaking Xhosa, a Niger-Congo language; the two cultures are no more closely related than the Persians and the Tamil (both "Asian"). And Hanuman comes from India, where he's an important character in the Ramayana; he was never part of any culture on the continent of Africa.

What we're seeing in the movie is what could be called "the generic exotic": A representation of people from a different culture as foreign by giving them customs that the audience will identify as "foreign," without careful investigation of what customs would be plausible for the specific foreign culture being portrayed—without, for example, using any of the indigenous black African deities who got adopted into Voodoo as loas.

To be sure, that goes back to the source material; Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and their successors were telling stories, not writing theses on comparative religion. And I thought this movie's story was really good. I just couldn't help noticing how much of Wakandan tradition was borrowed from more familiar sources.

Hall of Fame finalists

The Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame committee has picked its five finalists for this year, and done the press release. The finalists are

"Starfog," a story by Poul Anderson
"As Easy as A.B.C.," a story by Rudyard Kipling
The Island Worlds, a novel by Eric Kotani and John Maddox Roberts
"Conquest by Default," a story by Vernor Vinge
"With Folded Hands—," a story by Jack Williamson

I'm thinking this year we may not have as many people as usual saying, "Why on earth did they think that was libertarian?"

business expense

Before we moved to Riverside, I had a library card at San Diego State University. I got it after I finished the technical writing program, and renewed it every year after that. Eventually I turned it to use in writing books for Steve Jackson Games. But I let it lapse when we moved, as I couldn't expect to get to SDSU to borrow or return books.

As it turns out, though, UC Riverside has a "community borrowing" option. And just today I got back a countersigned contract for a new GURPS book, one that's going to call for a good bit of research. So I completed the process of getting a library card, and I've brought home my first three books.

It's a pleasure to have access to a scholarly library again.

year number

As a science fiction fan, I've associated some future years with titles of specific works. Both 1984 and 2001 are now well past, but for me 2018 is associated with a less well known work, the first novel of James Blish's Cities in Flight series, where it's the year when both the first anti-aging drug and a combined faster-than-light drive/antigravity device are invented—though the political setting is really grim, with the United States and the Soviet Union still locked in an eternal Cold War that has transformed the US into an authoritarian bureaucracy (in one of the later books, Blish comments that the US called itself "anticommunist" and the USSR called itself "antifascist," but in practice they were almost indistinguishable).

I don't know if there are another other notable year numbers ahead of us, until we get to 2100, which has inspired more than one eponymous work.

published again

My new book, GURPS Fantasy: Portal Realms, is out now; it's listed on the top GURPS page on the online store as available for download. This is a guide to "portal fantasy," the kind of thing C.S. Lewis did in the Narnia books or Andre Norton in the Witch World series. They turned it around really fast; I was turning in a list of pullquotes just a week ago! I'm happy to see it out in time for the solstitial holidays.

While this is "fantasy," much of its content could be used in campaigns in other large genres; for example, John Carter's visits to Mars use a mechanism much like that of portal fantasy, and land him in a similar situation.

a terminological error?

I'm currently rereading E.E. Smith's First Lensman, which has long been my favorite of the series. This time, I was struck by a passage describing warships crashing onto the surface of the fortified site they're attacking, and spreading out over it, in a thin layer, rather than penetrating and forming craters. And a character explains, "There's a force of over a hundred thousand G's acting in a direction normal to every point of the surface."

Now, "normal" means perpendicular. On a flat surface, for example, a normal force would be directed either straight up or straight down. But a force going straight down would make for an incredibly intense crash; and one going straight up would push the incoming warship back up into the air, in a spectacular bounce, like a bullet ricocheting off a wall. The description sounds as if the material of the warships is going sideways, and so fast that its impact is being distributed over a wide surface. But that suggested that Smith was using "normal" to mean "tangential," which is a fairly serious misuse of the word.

("Tangential" isn't well defined in this case; a point in a surface has a tangent plane, but not a tangent line or vector. And if the surface is concave or wrinkled, the physical effects of a projectile being spread out in a plane are likely to be messy! But it makes more sense than "normal.")

a possible source

In my current copy editing assignment, there's a discussion of the works of Maria Edgeworth, an early nineteenth-century author of educational books for children (she lived from 1768 to 1849). The last of her six books had the title Harry and Lucy Concluded.

One of Lewis Carroll's lesser-known works is a fantasy story in two volumes, Sylvie and Bruno and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded. And I know, from the "Alice" books, that Carroll was fond of parodying "improving" literature aimed at children, as in "You are old, Father William" and "How doth the little crocodile." Could he have been taking a swipe at Edgeworth as well? Were her books still being read in the 1890s, or would Carroll have encountered them earlier on in dealing with his child friends?

sources

C and I took a break a couple of days ago and pursued a low-priority enterprise we've taken up: Watching episodes of original Star Trek, in broadcast order. (I haven't watched the original series in years and years, and there are episodes C has never seen.) This time we watched "The Naked Time" and "The Enemy Within."

A minor point of interest in "The Naked Time" is that its premise is a scientific idea that's almost forgotten now: polywater, the theoretical phenomenon of water polymerized into long molecular chains. Supposedly this cuts down oxygen to the brain and reduces judgment and inhibitions. The TV Tropes summary gets this wrong, attributing the phenomenon of a virus, but the dialogue explicitly rules this out. Apparently the scriptwriter had seen a news article in the short interval between the announcement of polywater and its rejection, and thought "Hey, I can use this!"

There were a couple of things that may have been canon establishing. Christine Chapel announces her love for Spock, probably for the first time; Spock is in tears because he could never tell his mother (a human woman on an emotionless planet) that he loved her, and tells James Kirk that he's ashamed of considering Kirk a friend; and Leonard McCoy says, perhaps for the first time, "He's dead, Jim"—about a doglike alien creature that has been brought up to the Enterprise via transporter, and split into an affectionate half and an aggressive half.

But I think what was most striking about these episodes was that they used science fictional premises to turn attention inward, to what was going on in the minds of the characters. The conflict in both was between the inner mental processes of the various characters—revealed as a result of some sfnal phenomenon—and their outward selves and self-images. I won't say this had never been done before; it's the premise of Forbidden Planet, I think. But it made Star Trek more about character and psychology than was usual for science fiction television shows at the time. And later episodes certainly followed this up.

cricket

At the next major intersection south of us, UC Riverside has a large athletic field, mainly set up for baseball. This afternoon, C had an errand to run, and I walked her down to her bus stop at that corner. And there in the field were a group of men playing a game—but not baseball. I concluded that it could be, and C identified that it was, cricket! I had never seen it played before, and I couldn't intuitively follow it, not knowing enough of the rules to know why hitting the ball in different places had different results. But it was interesting to watch a sport I knew of only from having read about it.

I've mainly done so in the Wimsey novels—Murder Must Advertise has a plot development that turns on Lord Peter being a brilliant cricketeer—but looking back, I realize that it's the sport described in an early Blake poem:

I say, you Joe,
Throw us the ball.
I've a good mind to go
And leave you all.

I never saw such a bowler,
To bowl the ball in a turd
And clean it with my hankercher
Without saying a word.

That Bill is a foolish fellow;
He has given me a black eye.
He doesn't know how to handle a bat
Any more than a dog or a cat.

He has knocked down the wicket,
And broken the stumps,
And runs without shoes to save his pumps.


(Not great literature, but I fancy it's much like how boys playing ball in the London streets talked to each other!)

Marvel TV

Over the past month or two, I've seen episodes of three different new television series based on Marvel Comics. They're a mixed lot!

Inhumans, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has a long-established community of "inhumans," human-derived people given superpowers by an alien biomodification technology, living in a small area of the Moon. Its conflict derives from scarcity of resources giving rise to a rigidly stratified society, based largely on who has powers and who doesn't; one member of the royal family, who apparently has no powers, takes on the role of leader of a mass uprising to support his own coup against the king, his brother. Unfortunately the royal family are the protagonists, and it's hard to sympathize with their confidence in their own right to exploit everyone else. I wasn't impressed by the acting or the scripting, either, particularly seeing the youngest member of the royal family acting like a stereotypic Earth teenager. And the special effects are memorably poor, particularly the portrayal of the queen, whose power is the use of her hair for manipulation and combat; it was a relief to see the other side shave her head. This one's a definite no.

The Gifted is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Its characters are mutants, but it doesn't seem to be part of the main X-men continuity either, as both the X-men and their archenemies, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, have disappeared. This one's conflict focuses on two normal human parents and their two mutant children trying to escape a repressive law enforcement agency (seemingly private rather than governmental) after the kids' powers are revealed. I thought the characterization in this one was—well—"adequate for television"; that is, it didn't really satisfy me, particular when I saw Amy Acker, an actress I've liked in several past series, getting the role of "person who asks uninformed questions to provide an excuse for idiot lectures." There were scenes of combat between a group of older mutants who've gone underground and law enforcement personnel, but they were kind of hard to follow, and the special effects for the powers often seemed confusing. I've been told that it improves, but so far it seems marginal at best.

The Runaways is another MCU series, but seemingly off to the side from the established continuity. It has half a dozen adolescents (one 13, the others all 17, I think) having to adapt to the discovery that their parents are supervillains—and also that some of them have powers or other special abilities. I've liked the characterization, including the parents being a mixed lot, some totally ruthless and some struggling with the impulse to decency; I've liked the kids not being unified, despite having known each other all their lives. And the various sorts of awkwardness between the different sets of parents and kids seemed pretty believable. The special abilities in this one seemed well presented, partly in that initially they're only hinted at—though we did get some good scenes of Molly, the youngest character, discovering that she has superhuman strength. And this one has an interestingly complex central conflict: on one hand, over what to do if you have evidence that people you've always, in some measure, trusted, turn out to be not merely flawed but radically evil; on the other, over how radically evil you're prepared to be. At least from a first look, this looks like a series to follow; it might turn out better than Agents of SHIELD, which I've consistently enjoyed.