Friday, September 4, 2020

Be Prepared: A Brief Personal Review of Vera Brosgol's Russian Scouts in Exile Graphic Novel

 In her semi-biographical graphic novel Be Prepared, Vera Brosgol epitomizes many of the experiences of going to summer camp for the first time. The manipulations of younger Scouts by specific older Scouts, the cruel mockery of teens, and the heightened drama of young hormones all ring true, as does the hoarding of candy. Someday the tale of the Boar of Pioneer Campsite will be told! The integration of boys and girls was not familiar from Boy Scout camp (until recently), but was indeed familiar from Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) and various programs put on by the Episcopal Diocese of California (BREAD - "Boy-Related Education After Dark!) The CYO experience seems most relevant in the context of not quite fitting. Vera's protagonist Vera thinks that attending Russian Scout camp will allow her to find a place where she fits in, but she is not Russian enough there just as she is too Russian in New York with her (perceived as?) rich friends and their fancy dolls and summer camps. The organization itself seems a bit out of place, a piece of Russia in America, exemplified by the Russian and American flags flying side by side. Many Scouts have been all the roles in the book: the lost new kid, the best friend, the best friend betrayed and bitter, the unexpected friend, the cool counselor, the manipulator and the manipulated. Growing up is hard. Be Prepared is terrific.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Foundation's (Middle) Finger

      The trailer for the adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is now released, and has sparked the predictable outrage of the few, the loud, the keyboard warriors. One of the objections is the change in race and sex of Gaal Dornick and Salvor Hardin. No one denies that Asimov’s world is a sausage fest, not even the author himself, who admitted that his science fiction lacked women because he didn’t know how to write them. Susan Calvin, as much as I love her, has the personality of “emotionally lonely nerd” rather than “real woman.” Arkady Darrell is a plucky Heinleinian teenager. Dors Venari, whom I am sure will appear, was based on Asimov’s wife, but she appeared in the prequels published at the end of Asimov’s life rather than in his early days.

     What I find more interesting about the online uproar was the concern over race. The depiction of race was a valid concern then just as it is now, but the depiction of race within Asimov, or rather the lack thereof, requires contexualition. Asimov’s editor was John W. Campbell, a former writer and formidable editor, who was a racist. He apparently did not care that Asimov was Jewish (and who would with Asimov’s sales figures?), but he did insist that aliens could never beat humans and that heroic space adventures must be blonde and blue-eyed. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s episode “Far Beyond the Stars” portrayed this attitude with excellence. Much like the comic book market, there were few options for writers of science fiction, so Asimov decided that he would omit that part of physical description altogether. The culturally imposed racial divisions of the far-flung future would not be the same anyway. Heinlein experienced this also and hid hints of race and sexuality within his books.

      Changing Salvor Hardin to a woman, especially one of color, is a big middle finger to John W Campbell’s racist editorial decrees. Canonical Hardin is the very model of a backroom politician, not traits normally associated with “feminine” characters, but perhaps this attitude leads to television Hardin feeling more at home on Terminus than in the center of the Galaxy. This “tough gal” attitude worked for Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica reboot! Hardin’s presence on Trantor is probably a concession to a compressed time scale for at least the first two seasons and the reality of actors. A more radical interpretation of Hardin would be that Hardin is transgender: he presents as female, but he identifies as male. Given how rigid Imperial Galactic society is, that would both provide him with outsider status similar to the rest of Seldon’s merry band of misfits, but still permit him to be or become the cynical and manipulative character necessary to the survival of Terminus. Or perhaps the reveal of the true goal of the Encyclopedia Foundation will be the turning point for Hardin’s character. Adaptation opens up possibilities, not all of them negative.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Formula IN SPACE!

        The first few chapters of Andrew Moriarty's Trans-Galactic Insurance: Adventures of Jump Space Accountant resembles nothing so much as the first three issues or episodes of a mini-series which one would drop and later, after the series was complete, revisit now that one understood the importance of the interminable exposition to a serviceable but hardly exciting mystery. The initial reference to Belters suggested a story that was Solar rather than Galactic. The characters were sufficiently fleshed out to serve the plot but scarcely more than that, as is common espionage plots. The implication of a plucky girl who aids the protagonist also being a minor in modern Western sensibilities, and therefore a nod to Heinleinian heroine, was well executed by a single line. The portrayal of the ideal spy as too boring to cause casual notice was a relief from the flashy action heroes of so much science fiction.

               The greatest blemish in the plot-driven world-building is the use of the term ‘credit’ as a basic fiat unit of currency in a book starring an accountant investigating fraud! I realize that credit is a generic science-fictional unit of currency, but one would think that a story about financial fraud would be more aware of the specific financial meaning of credit and debit in balancing accounts. It is not that Moriarty should have chosen some exotic name for the currency, such as ‘quatloos'; but he should have used something other than ‘credits’ when the fictional economy uses a double-entry system. This must be the way that physicists and engineers feel about gross ‘errors’ in other science fiction novels. If you are looking for a series that begins with a space-based human civilization cut off from its parent, you should go read John Scalzi’s latest series, The Interdependency Trilogy, instead.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Back to the Brigade?

Written on June 19, 2018. A follow-up post will arrive after sufficient research.

In recent years, there have been numerous groups that have claimed that the Boy Scouts of America have lost their claim to be "morally straight" and formed their own organizations. This is, of course, their right. The phenomenon is fascinating, but scarcely new. One feature I have noted that these organizations share are that they are implicitly or explicitly religious-based, specifically Christian, if not even more narrowly denominational. These groups are, in fact, correct in claiming that they hearken back to the early days of youth organizations, but they are wrong (for the most part) in claiming that this Christian youth group mentality was the purpose of the BSA.

Many of the original troops were groups of boys from the YMCA, which at that time was a Protestant organization, but the primary motivator here was threefold: first, that's where the boys were; second, that's where pre-built facilities were; third, the YMCA was already an organization committed to the moral improvement of young men. This was functionally no different than the current reasoning that encourages troops and crews to use church basements and social halls as meeting spaces. The perceived Protestant element was so strong, however, that the Catholic Church forbade its boys from joining until 1913.

The Scouting movement already established in England had addressed this issue: although the initial testing ground for the Scouting movement had been the resolutely Presbyterian Boys' Brigade, of which there were Anglican, Catholic, Jewish, and Pacifist iterations, the Scouting method was designed as a religiously neutral method of training boys, and the Boy Scouts, once founded, maintained that neutrality. The self-organizing principle ensured that many groups were religiously homogeneous, often because they were also units of the Boys' Brigade or equivalents. This was also a reflection of the more segregated religion of the day, except in the military, from which Baden-Powell came. Baden-Powell and Brigadier Smith, the founder of Boys' Brigade worked together for many years, but the split, one of many among the promoters of the booming youth program movement, was on the relatively passive role of religion with the Boy Scout organization. Baden-Powell was adamant that duty to God was a matter of individual conscience and therefore could not and should not be administered by external forces within the Boy Scout organization. Smith, whose initial inspiration to form the Boys' Brigade had come from the union of Sunday school and military drill, could not countenance such sloppiness. This was hardly the only ideological rift among youth leaders, but the military and political aspects are topics to be discussed another time.

It is worth noting that neither of the predecessor organizations in the United States, the Sons of Daniel Boone and the Woodcraft Indians, placed explicitly denominational requirements on their members. This ecumenicism (for non-denominational, sadly, has now come to mean "very specific denomination") carried over to the BSA, although it seems that many people could not wrap their minds around the concept except in terms of military training.

Nowadays there is an organization called the Troops of St George. It is Catholic, somewhat military ( partly through expediency of Army/Navy store supplies in Texas), and incorporates father-son elements similar to the YMCA's long-defunct Indian Guide program. The truly distinguishing paraphernalia, however, is the Rosary. Although the organization is not linked to the military, nor are troops within the organization required to practice drill, the assumption of a military rank system and the explicit religious element are a return to the days of the Boys' Brigade, or in this case, the Catholic Lads' Brigade.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Right Place, Right Time

After a disastrous evening, full of painful walking through the dark of an unfamiliar town, in which so far the only bright light had been a pleasant surprise encounter with Grayson, I made it back to the San Leandro BART station. A man approached me from an angle I could not see well, and addressed me. I responded with the prudent reaction when a stranger approaches on BART - cautious hostility - but when I saw him, I realized that he was a Kaiser employee. He had recognized my Scout uniform. He wanted to know if the council office was still there, and if so, when it was open. I sympathized; it is nearly impossible to tell when the council office is open from an occasional glance from the street. Some buildings look open in all circumstance; others appear closed when they are not. He had been s Scout in Troops 313 and 247, an Arrowman, and a camper at Royaneh, but had lost his insignia in a house fire. I encouraged him to talk to the council about replacements, at least for 247 and Order of the Arrow insignia, and to see if any of his old friends were in the Royaneh volunteer corps.

If my evening had not gone sideways, I would not have been there; but if I had not been there, I would not have been able to help a man who truly valued his Scouting experience. I cannot prove it, of course, but I am inclined to believe the Great Master of All Scouts wanted me there at that time.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Afar: Dreams of Distant Lands and Times

Afar, written by Leila Del Duca (Shutter, Scarlet Witch) with art by Kit Seaton (The Black Bull of Norway, Otto the Odd and the Dragon King), is a post-apocalyptic tale that feels more fantastic than scientific and more adventurous than cynical, pessimistic, or grotesque. The setting is post-apocalyptic, but in the period when society has recovered sufficiently to have medieval tech cities along with the requisite scavenged and jury-rigged “tech” from the bad old times.  The mix of styles and the chimeras that replace the creatures of our era give a flavor of cosmopolitan fantasy. The art is gorgeous, neither too cartoony nor too realistic. The various worlds featured all feel different, even the one most similar to that of the protagonists’.

This is a character-driven book centered around our protagonist, a girl named Boetema, and the deuteragonist, her younger brother Inotu. There are five threads: the departure of the parents to become “salt shepherds” and their subsequent absence; Inotu’s tendency to get in trouble and force the siblings to move again; Boetema’s narcoleptic astral travel and speaking in tongues while asleep; Boetema’s possession of an alien girl, Lindu, and her attempt to repair the damage she caused during her first trip; and training in the astral plane under what (somewhat troublingly) seems to be the trickster spirit of the post-apocalyptic future. The thread with the parents is unlikely to be resolved until the end of the series. Inotu’s attraction to trouble is necessary to start the action, but his role is sidelined to that of narrator and interlocutor to illustrate the reconciliation and growing bond between the siblings. The possession of Lindu and the quest to fix the initial damage provides the requisite love interest (Inotu’s love interest is sidelined within the first act, but she does get a name!), and the astral travel possession sets up a love triangle that could be messy. Lindu’s boyfriend (and therefore that of Boetema possessing Lindu) is certain that the unpossessed Lindu will be fine with Boetema periodically possessing her, but Lindu herself has not spoken. In this universe, an astral traveler can only possess another astral traveler, including those not yet aware of their power. It seems likely that the similarity of the two damaged worlds will somehow allow knowledge of the other to benefit the other. The fifth thread, that of training in the astral plane, has barely started. None of the restrictions of astral travel have been elucidated and the appointment of a trickster god, who in lore led a boy to his death in the desert, does not inspire confidence – or, at least, suggests that Boetema should temper her enthusiasm and exercise caution.

The characters in this graphic novel are black, but race is not a theme. The action is present, but not overwhelmingly grim. Even the necessary parental abandonment is downplayed. Afar is recommended for 11 to 14-year-olds, leaning towards girls, but not necessarily, given the preponderance of female leads in YA books.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Filling the Void

“There’s Nothing There”

Created by Patrick Kindlon & Maria Llovet
Art by Maria Llovet
Letters Jim Campbell

This is a selfie celebrity take on demonic summoning and possession. Emptiness and voyeurism are transformed into something meaningful.

Reno Salletti is a rich party girl known for being a rich party girl. But when she is invited to a party that proves to be an occult summoning, she becomes a target. Befitting the subject, the initial characterization is slight, but Reno gains some character through the conflict. The extent to which she grows would spoil the ending.

There are graphic sex scenes, hardly surprising for a story that starts with an orgy, but all sex and violence depicted is in service to plot and characterization.