Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review of "Starfish" by Peter Watts

Starfish is a sci-fi novel by Canadian author Peter Watts. The story mainly follows Lenie Clarke, a deep-water worker who has been cybernetically enhanced to survive benthic conditions. The world's thirst for electricity has led humankind to tap geothermal power from deep-sea vents, and Clarke and her fellow rifters are specially selected by their employer to be psychologically primed to work in the freezing dark. That is, they are all broken: victims of abuse, unhappy loners, perverts or dangerous psychopaths. Starfish studies how the rifters change themselves, how their environment evolves them, and finally how their world transforms the unwitting humans who rely on them.

I feel safe in an assertion that you have never read anything like Starfish (or its two sequels) in your life. Watts' story is steeped in marine biology, sociology, psychology, parapsychology, computer science and biotechnology. Lenie Clarke's world is unique. She endures lack of sunlight, isolation, dangerous and unpredictable seafloor eruptions, attacks from monstrous fish, and finally the conniving politics of her own employers. Though an unhappy sufferer of previous sexual abuse, she learns to thrive in her new environment.

This book is in many ways a study of how life evolves and changes. Each deep-sea organism that Watts spotlights has learned to survive in hostile conditions in its own way. The rifters themselves are changed. Above the ocean's surface, humanity struggles with the evolving artificial intelligences of computer viruses and "smart gels", or bio-engineered brains. Because humans are so numerous, so are the illnesses that plague them. The world of Starfish is one in which nature has begun to compensate for the sudden evolutionary dominance of homo spiens.

The plot is fascinating. Lenie Clarke is a wonderful protagonist. She starts as quiet, shy and broken, and develops into a character with understated power. The story also features a few secondary protagonists, all fully-developed and intriguing. Each character is wonderful, real and morally ambiguous.

Summing, Starfish is unique and, above all, it is a fantastic read.
4 1/2 crippled fish with broken teeth out of 5

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Faceless Enemy

Since fiction has existed, hordes of incompetent foes have assailed heroes. These foes are a literary device which, at first, encourages audiences to fear villains by making them seem formidable. Then the foes get blown away and the secondary literary function is achieved: the hero looks very tough indeed. When these foes appear in a visual setting, such as theatre, comics, film or video games, these foes often have their faces shrouded or hidden. It's a tradition that I'd like to examine.

The Faceless Enemy has a long history. The earliest example I can remember with any clarity is the ninja. The famous shinobi shōzoku outfit that we all know, the all-black costume with the facemask, puffy pants and two-toed shoes, was very likely never used by actual ninja. Rather, it was a symbolic stage-convention of Japanese theatre that would allow audiences to easily identify a character as a ninja. It's a cool-looking costume that sticks in the viewer's mind. No wonder that it resonated over hundreds of years in Japanese culture and was copied by North American filmmakers in the 1970's. Many heroes have donned the awesome ninja garb, but when enemies do so, they are frequently very bad at their jobs.

Of course, the most famous Faceless Enemy these days is the Imperial Stormtrooper. For over thirty-five years, the Stormtrooper has been a pop-culture icon. However, we must not forget that the Imperial Stormtrooper was a dream inspired in George Lucas' mind by the Faceless Enemies that Flash Gordon and other cheapo-serial heroes fought in the early days of cinema.

In the world of video games, you will be playing an exeptional game if you AREN'T killing Faceless Enemies. From the masked-enemies of Borderlands to the shrouded reapers of Infamous to the balaclava-terrorists of Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, they are the industry standard. The reason for this is that it's just easier to program a certain number of enemies for the player to murder and if they don't have faces, it's less likely that the player will say, "Hey, didn't I kill that guy already?"

You get it. They're everywhere. But why? What is it about Faceless Enemies that we seem to like so much? Why do we like seeing them getting killed? It seems to make no intellectual sense. As a writer I am told over and over to fully-flesh my antagonists, yet fiction is rife with cartoon baddies Wilhelm-screaming and falling off roofs.

The enemy who has his face hidden is an enemy who has been dehumanized. Humans have instinctive reactions to seeing each other's faces. When the face is shrouded, those instincts are deadened.

This has two major effects. Fistly, for audiences, we cease to identify with the enemy. It just won't do for viewers to sympathetically exclaim, "Han Solo, you brute! That poor Stormtrooper! Did you think about his family when you blasted him?" This allows heroes to plow through hundreds of faceless foes, letting audiences worry only about the protagonist's peril.

The second major effect is a by-product of the first. When we have our sympathetic reactions to death impaired, it affects censors like the MPAA and the ESRB less. Dead Stormtroopers make for PG-ratings in theatres, at worst Teen ratings in video games. By putting a mask on your baddies, you are making your story available to millions of bloodthirsty children.

Okay, so that explains why creators select the Faceless Enemy. But why do audiences find them compelling? I've mentioned that the mask dehumanizes them, but with dehumanization also comes fear. The mask represents mystery and fear of the unknown. The emotions of a Faceless Enemy cannot be read except by body language, making their thoughts a mystery as well. With the identity hidden, the Faceless Enemy becomes a menacing stranger. Menacing strangers are a powerful human fear, as evidenced by the amount of media attention random murders, child-snatchers and serial killers receive. Lastly, when the Faceless Enemy serves a political entity such as an empire or terrorist group, he becomes a symbol of powerful conformity that has obliterated his identity, quietly whispering to the viewer, "This could happen to you, too."

In short, as a literary device, Faceless Enemies can inspire terror in the human heart. By including them as followers of your antagonist, (who should remain fully-fleshed), they significantly enhance his/her fear factor. Are you still worried about allowing poorly-fleshed characters into your work of fiction? Remember that the way to be a bore is to say everything. Unless that gas-masked Nazi is going to play a significant role in your plot, we don't want to know about him. We don't even want to know that his name is Hauptfeldwebel Helmut von Pickelhube. Just let your protagonist murder him and move on with the plot.

Believe it or not, this diatribe has real-life application. In his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman showcases the innate human resistance to killing other humans. Apparently, before the Korean war, only about 15% of soldiers actively tried to shoot their enemies. The rest helped wounded comerades, reloaded weapons, cowered in fear, ran around shouting like idiots or fired their weapons over the enemys' heads. Generals like Carl von Clausewitz were confounded as to why, when a Prussian infantry formation fired a musket volley at a barn, all the shots hit, whereas when the same formation fired at an advancing line of tightly-packed infantry, only one or two enemies dropped. The closer you get to your enemy, the harder it is to overcome the urge not to kill him. A pilot can easily fire a torpedo at a battleship and sink it, killing who-knows-how-many soldiers, but the same man may freeze and be unable to bayonet one enemy in close-combat.

Modern training and drilling techniques have been introduced to overcome the resistance to kill. It also helps to have a superior officer yelling at you to kill. The American military also makes extensive use explosives and snipers, which kill at a distance rather than forcing up-close confrontation.

But by far the most time-honoured tradition of getting soldiers to kill is the art of dehumanization. From the made-up stories of the barbarious Hun mutilating innocent Belgians in World War I to the bullshit story about Iraqis tossing babies out of incubators, governments have been using real and fake propeganda to encourage soldiers to kill. If a soldier can view the enemy as degenerate subhumans, he/she can pull the trigger with more ease.

So here's the point of all this. Many special forces, SWAT teams and guerillas purposefully hide or cover their faces when they go into combat. Sometimes it's a balaclava meant to hide the wearer's identity. Sometimes it's facepaint to assist camouflage. Sometimes it's infrared goggles. Sometimes it's a gas mask to protect against airborne toxins.

Considering what Dave Grossman has to say and how audiences react to fictional Faceless Enemies, it might be worth examining the wisdom of hiding the face. Camouflage, anonymity, night vision and protection from chemicals have their uses. But by hiding the face, these soldiers and police are dehumanizing themselves and becoming more attractive targets. In situations where the enemy has no modern military training, this is especially important. An untrained fighter is more likely to shoot a menacing mask than a real person with a human face.

If this is something that soldiers and commanders consider before they enter combat, that's good. I'm glad to hear it. But otherwise, it's something to think about. Obviously there will be other tactical considerations in any engagement, but if I were a soldier (and I'm not), I'd think twice about putting on that balaclava.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Making D&D Alignments Work

Nerd alert! This post is for my D&D readers. You pipe-smoking intellectuals who come here for the dreamy intellectual poetry might want to sit this one out.

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for over thirty years and its system of alignments has been around for nearly as long. The alignment system defines characters along two axes, good vs. evil and law vs. chaos, with neutral between both. The intersection of the axes allows characters to choose an alignment that suits them, such as chaotic evil, lawful good, neutral good, lawful neutral or true neutral. This alignment defines their personality and also has game effects. Something about this system captures the imagination of players. I have to admit that I have thought about it a lot. My opinion of it has swayed back and forth from it being one of the stupidest ideas ever to a system of quiet brilliance.

Here's a quick review of what each point in the axis means:

Good characters like helping people and being nice. Evil characters like hurting and enjoy being mean. Neutral characters follow selfish ideals or have a true commitment to being impartial.

Lawful characters obey the law and have strict personal codes. Chaotic characters disobey authority and have few personal restrictions. Neutral characters can go either way.

It's an interesting way to view the world. But is it applicable to real life? A look at psychologist Theodore Millon's Inventories, which I covered briefly in this post, shows some similarities. Millon also has axes of personality and motivation, but many more of them.

The Law vs. Chaos axis in D&D bears close resemblances to two of the axes in the Millon Inventories: Systemizing vs. Innovating (cogniative) and Conforming vs. Dissenting (behaviour). Systemizers live their lives based on past experiences and evaluate new things based on old views, while Innovators seek novelty and change. On the other axis, Conformers follow societal trends and obey authority while Dissenters follow their own drum-beat. Realistically, the behaviours covered in Law and Chaos should follow two axes, not one.

Good vs. Evil is a little more difficult to compare. For one thing, Millon does not acknowledge the existence of malevolence in his inventories. Most of the axes that deal with such things view behaviour as either selfless or selfish, which in D&D terms translates into good or neutral. I would imagine that psychologists would see the desire to hurt or cause harm as a rare mental disorder rather than having its own place on a Millon axis, and when such individuals are following selfish desires when they act upon those brutal urges.

Regardless, Millon has two axes which could fit upon the D&D scales: Nurturing vs. Individuating (motivation) and Complaining vs. Agreeing (behaviour). Nurturers love to help others while Individuators prefer to help themselves first. Complainers are angry and sullen while Agreeing folks are generally nice. Once again, two realistic axes in place of D&D's one.

Aside from the four axes I listed in this post, Millon classifies personalities with eight others, making a total of twelve. While Dungeons & Dragons has 9 possible alignments, if you made an alignment for each of the combinations in the Millon Inventories, tacking neutral into each axis, that equals 531,441 possible alignments. Not gonna happen. Still it's fun to think of the possibilites. I'd love to see a spell called Sense-Blast that did extra damage to characters with the Intuitive alignment, or the Antisocial Sword that does 1d extra damage to Gregarious characters. Ha!

But D&D has only two axes and if you play you have to live with them and the limited roleplay possibilities that result. Not only that, but in a game system where your alignment can shift depending on your character's actions, leading to important game effects, you have to pay close attention to what your actions really mean. DMs especially should think about alignments and be clear with players about the decisions when they arise with players. Players who commit alignment-altering actions and unexpectedly find their alignment shift can get pissed-off.

That doesn't mean you can't have fun with the system. Here's some tips on the common pitfalls that can make this system annoying and how to avoid them.

Chaos is Bad

As a Discordian, this particular logical flaw is very important to me. The Milgram Experiment proved conclusively that most of the human race is Lawful. We obey the rules and if somebody in charge tells us to do something, we do it, especially if they're yelling. Another trait of humans is the tendency to fear and hate things that are different from us. Therefore, many players confuse Chaos with evil.

This just isn't true. Chaos is change. Change is neither good nor evil. Yes, change claimed your kindly grandmother on her deathbed. But it also killed Hitler. Change began every government and will destroy every government and all its laws. When a law is broken, even if it is theft or murder, good or evil can result.

Remember, Order and Law are merely artificial constructs that allow us not to think very hard. The breaking of a tradition merely forces us to re-examine it. Unless the breaking was intended to maliciously hurt or generously help somebody, the act of breaking is not a moral action.

The Chaotic Good Paradox

A Chaotic Good character has a thin line to walk. His mantra must be to do as much good outside the scope of the law as possible. The only real way to do it seems to be selective about who and what he uses as the targets of his chaos. Destruction and punishment of evil must be the main focus, rather than fixation on Law versus Chaos. Cruel brigands should be his target just as much corrupt tax collectors. Robin Hood is a good example of a Chaotic Good character. He robbed only the rich and wicked and routinely gave the money to people in need. Similarly, Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly loves to win fights by thwarting warrior codes and catching opponents unprepared. A Chaotic Good character should have no problem knifing a psychopath in the back if it prevents others from being hurt.

Malcolm Reynolds and Robin Hood were lucky, however. They were in direct opposition to governments which could be fairly called Lawful Evil. It is much more difficult to play Chaotic Good when living under a government that is Lawful Good. How is it done? With difficulty. Certainly a Chaotic Good character would refuse a draft order and engage in illegal protests if he was riled enough. I also don't see this character paying taxes. But neither do I see him hurting soldiers, police and government agents when they come to arrest him, unless he knew they were bad people.

Whose Laws are you Following?
Lawful characters are great if your campaign takes place in one kingdom. However, it's more than likely that your decade-spanning epic will not. So what happens when your goodie-two shoes paladin crosses the border?

If said paladin enters a wilderness area with no government or laws, I hardly think it would make sense to take a literal view of things and let your paladin start robbing travellers. It would make much more sense for him to continue to live the life of a law-abiding citizen from his own kingdom within the barbarian reaches.

Well and good. Now he travels to the magical elf-lands of Franduil. Like most elves, they are Chaotic Good and live as a sort of anarchist commune. Their legal system is lax and it is more likely that families and clans will punish their own, if at all. Your paladin's urge to smite the guilty is going to get him into trouble. Not only that, but if he imposes his kingdom's laws upon the elves, is he truly acting in a Lawful manner?

After eviction from Franduil, our paladin travels to Wickedia, a Lawful Evil kingdom ruled by vampire overlords who rob their peasantry of riches and blood. What does the paladin do when he witnesses his first perfectly-legal virgin sacrifice? If he halts it, he's breaking the law. Does he impose his own kingdom's standards on Wickedia?

Here are the basic moral dilemmas. If he chooses to impose his kingdom's laws elsewhere, how exactly is "Lawful" even a universal alignment if it's based on ONE KINGDOM? Next, if he chooses to follow local traditions, he will often find himself doing stuff contrary to his alignment. And lastly, if it's his own choice whether he chooses to follow the laws of whichever kingdom he's in, how is he any different from a chaotic character?

Honestly, I don't have the answers. This is a matter of choice for your Dungeon Master. DMs, think about this one. If you don't have an answer you might have annoyed players.

Vigilantes: What alignment is Batman?
A D&D sourcebook called "The Complete Scoundrel" lists Batman as being a Lawful Good character. But is he really Lawful Good? He's a vigilante, one of the most lawless professions known to man. He is routinely hunted by police for being a vigilante. He constantly assaults police officers, resists arrest and wrecks public resources to evade capture. Yes, he hunts lawbreakers, but he breaks the law to do so. So what alignment is he?

I'd say he's Neutral Good, honestly. But once again, if you're playing a vigilante, ask your DM. The same goes for evil vigilantes like the ones that Woody Guthrie used to complain about.

Evil characters in the party
It's likely that a Lawful Evil character with his code of honour could fit well into a party situation. But what about a Chaotic Evil character, the sort of personality that is basically a dangerous sociopath. Or the Neutral Evil character's pure and passionate dedication to cause harm in the world? What is stopping these characters from slitting their friends' throats while they sleep and fleeing with all the magic items?

Obviously, the most simple solution is for DMs to say outright, "No evil characters allowed." It's an easy solution that works. But some players like being evil.

The best way to justify the existence of an evil character and his continued cooperation with a party of adventurers is the long-con. He is only temporarily working with them so that once they have defeated your campaign's antagonist, he can make his play for true power. Either that, or traveling with a pack of powerful troublemakers who constantly engage in combat provides many opportunities to inflict suffering on others. Of course, there is also a chance that a player of an evil character will engage in "character development" (in D&D? Seriously?) Witness the development of Sawyer in "Lost", in the first season starting Neutral Evil and later becoming Lawful Neutral.

These solutions sound good until that paladin character shows up. If the alignment system was more ambiguous, it might be easy for a paladin to work with evil characters and have doubts about them without smiting them. However, paladins come equipped with Detect Evil spells and paladins cannot suffer evil to live, right? If you're a DM who wants to allow evil characters in the game, you might actually want to say, "no paladins allowed."

That's the best I can do for making the D&D alignments work. Personally, I'd rather play an RPG like GURPS or Savage Worlds that allows for complicated personality customization. But D&D has such massive appeal that it is easier to find a game. D&D games can be found in the most unlikely places, from tiny prairie towns to isolated forest cabins to secret games in the basements of Mormons. So if you're starved for the art of interactive storytelling, D&D and its beautiful and flawed alignment system is often your best option.