Tag: science fiction (page 2 of 4)

My Interview with Ken MacLeod

The New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy channel of the New Books Network launched today. In its inaugural podcast, I interview Ken MacLeod about The Night Sessions. From my summary:

As I hope comes through in the interview, I found The Night Sessions (Pyr, 2012) both fun to read and intellectually stimulating. It centers on DI Adam Ferguson as he investigates the murder of a priest in a near-future Edinburgh. Following the “Faith Wars” of the early twenty-first century the world has experienced a “Second Enlightenment” and aggressive secularism enjoys intellectual and political hegemony. But not every soul, whether organic or mechanical, is happy with this state of affairs….

This was my first interview, and I have to admit that I’m pretty rough (in fact, I’m still pretty early on the learning curve even now). Ken is terrific, though, and makes up for my foibles.

So, in an act of shameless self-promotion, I ask that our readers not only listen to the podcast, but tweet it, google+ it, like it on Facebook, and so forth. Ken is the first of a terrific series of guests. The only way to do justice to authors is to promote it heavily. For that, I need your help.

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Crowdsource Request: New Books in SF and Fantasy

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I am now chief interviewer for the New Books Network‘s SF and Fantasy channel. I’ve got some exciting authors lined up for launch, and a few more who have agreed to record in September. But my response rate has dropped off dramatically in the last two weeks.

In retrospect, August might not have been the best time to start interviewing.

Anyway, I’m hoping that many of the outstanding requests will come through. But I also need a longer list of authors to pester contact, especially if I’m going to bank enough interviews to start the channel at two podcasts per month. 
So, loyal Duck readers, do you have any suggestions for SF and Fantasy books and authors? Books with 2012 publications dates are best, but I can potentially discuss older works, particularly if there’s a new “hook.” How about someone you’d love to hear an interview with — and even better, have a backchannel for that question you’ve always wanted answered?

PS: I don’t know how many people have checked out the Duck of Minerva podcasts, but that side project seems to be moving along well. I’m lining up more interview subjects, including some “big names” in the field. If you have comments or suggestions for topics related to that endeavor, consider this an open thread.

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Podcasts and Space Hamsters and Shoulder Dragons, oh my!

Two items of business:

First, I am pleased to announce that the Duck of Minerva now comes with podcasts. I am doubly pleased to announce that I resisted the urge to refer to them as “duckcasts” (you can thank me in comments). I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL).

I will also make sure that links to the audiofiles appear on a new page accessible from the tab bar — a link to Podcast No. 1 is already there. In general, I will try to alert readers to the appearance of a new podcast — assuming that there are more to come — in the form of a post on the Duck; those posts will also be a good place for feedback and commentary.

Second, I am excited to let you all know that I have agreed to become the interviewer for a Science Fiction and Fantasy channel at the New Books Network (NBN). There is a stub channel already in existence (it consists of a cross-post from a different channel). The “real” channel won’t be live for at least a month, as I’m trying to “bank” interviews to provide a cushion for regular updates at launch. I’m thrilled, and more than a little humbled, by the quality of the authors who have already agreed — whether in principle or in practice — to appear on the podcast. 

I hope the synergistic character of the two items is already apparent. I’ve got shiny new equipment for the NBN interviews, and it seems a shame not to get more use out of it. At the same time, I’ve got a lot of work to do to become an effective interviewer (cf. the first Duck podcast, in which PTJ and I talk too fast and I seem to be operating with a -5 coherence penalty). Thus, the more chances I get to podcast the better. 

What do I have in mind for the Duck? Interviews and discussions among the Duck crew for a start. Maybe some interviews with authors of IR books. Perhaps we can get some of our field’s “big names,” let alone young and up-and-coming scholars, to have a brief, recorded chat with us. 

While the NBN channel will be updated on a schedule, I am not sure that this will be possible at the Duck due to the multiple demands on all of our time. Of course, this may prove another failed experiment. We will see. 

PS: if you have comments on the first podcast or what you’d like to see hear in future ones, leave them here.

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HP Lovecraft and Theosophy

Some years ago I finally got around to reading Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism: Secret Aryan Cults and their Influence on Nazi Ideology. Reading Goodrick-Clarke’s description of various forms of  esotericism and mysticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and specifically Blavatsky’s Theosophy movement, drove home the degree to which H.P. Lovecraft‘s writings — and, by extension, basically all modern horror — are a product of that milieu. Indeed, it isn’t much of a surprise that horror, fantasy, and science-fiction writers (and not a few conspiracy theorists) have been mashing up Lovecraft and Nazis for decades. 

But what really struck me is the degree to which Lovecraft’s mythos amounts to an inversion of theosophic doctrines and those of cognate intellectual currents. After all, such movements promise that decoding esoteric knowledge will lead humanity to a central, enlightened, and powerful place in the universe. In Lovecraftian writings, doing so reveals the insignificance of mankind and generally results in insanity, death, and other bad stuff. So Lovecraft provides a critical reading, of sorts, of these ideas; one with a rather ironic “reveal”: the mystical energy beings coming through that portal you invoked are going to eat your brains. 
Daniel Harms has a nice essay on this subject. 
No good reason for this post. I’ve been playing Elder Sign on the iPad and reading Charlie Stross’s Laundry books, so I’m in a Lovecraft frame of mind. 
Speaking of Stross, he recently posted an essay on the death of SF as a genre. I think he’s got it backward — genre will become more important in a world of rapidly expanding reading options, information overload, and targeted marketing. But he’s right that the intertext of SF is likely to change… but he’s also overestimating the degree to which most consumers of the genre partake in that intertext.
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Academic Rigor in the Classroom: Time to Get Serious?

Star Trek convention Las Vegas 2009
Charli, Dan and Patrick at ISA 2013?

The academics/educators who write this blog often locate their research and teaching interests in texts from popular culture. Dan has co-edited a book on Harry Potter and IR. Patrick teaches a course on science fiction and social science. Dan offers a course on science fiction and politics. Charli blogs frequently about science fiction and has a working paper on “Security or Human Security? Civil-Military Relations in Battlestar Galactica.” I’ve frequently taught a class on “Global Politics Through Film” and am working on a project about “the comedy of global politics.” I could go on and on, referencing most of the bloggers on the sidebar.

But you already get the idea. Nerdy Duck of Minerva bloggers like to think about popular films, television series, and novels through the lens of international politics. Resistance is futile. We are serious about nonsense, or at least that is likely how critics and skeptics would view these efforts. The other bloggers at the Duck have frequently explained why they do what they do, but I’d like to revisit the issue in light of some recent social science research.

So, here we go again: Given what we know about the ability of higher education to achieve its aims, are we letting our students and colleagues down by focusing on battle stars, death stars, dark materials, the dark side, hunger games, super-heroes, wizard worlds, or zombies?

I have sometimes heard colleagues in the hard sciences snicker at the unusual titles and subjects of courses, papers, and conferences in the social sciences and humanities. Many assume we are all practicing post-modernists, dedicated perhaps to the reification of fantasy. Many colleagues in IR want all of us in the field to spend much more time thinking about the policy relevance of our work. Even sympathetic friends in the social sciences fear that paying parents will be unhappy when they hear about the courses their offspring are taking next term. We had a big debate about this at Louisville when trying to name the new Peace Studies program.

Granted, much of this is familiar ground on this blog and elsewhere. Thus, I’d like to consider the topic in terms of basic student learning outcomes.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, the much-discussed recent work demonstrating that colleges are failing a huge portion of their students. Perhaps even worse, the work explains the problems Arum and colleagues identify by finding that too many college classes lack basic rigor. Long-time readers may recall that I previously blogged about Arum’s work with Josipa Roksa back in February 2011.

For those unfamiliar with their study, Arum and Roksa used “measures developed by the Collegiate Learning Association (CLA)” to determine what students are getting out of college. They tested students entering school and then tested them again two and four years later. The results were troubling as more than one-third of respondents ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.

Keep that basic point in mind: apparently about 35% of students are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives to gain almost nothing from higher education.

It gets worse.

While speaking in Louisville, Arum revealed that he and his colleagues have continued to follow the student cohort that they started studying in 2005. In other words, they have data from the sixth year after entry into college and now know more about graduation rates, (un)employment, and graduate school entry.

The results are again disturbing, especially for the students who did not significantly improve in college:

Graduates who scored in the bottom quintile of the CLA were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who scored in the top quintile on the CLA (9.6 percent compared to 3.1 percent), twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent compared to 18 percent) and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared to 37 percent).

They also found that their results had political implications, at least for those of us interested in the responsibilities of citizenship, the state of deliberation in the public sphere, etc.

Graduates who exhibited high academic engagement/growth in college were significantly more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students who displayed low academic engagement/growth. Graduates who scored in the highest quintile on the CLA in their senior year were more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students in the bottom quintile.

Obviously, the students entering college in 2005 started exiting college at a particularly bad time, economically.  Indeed, the latest  news about college student unemployment is even worse than Arum and colleagues report. From the Associated Press:

According to the AP’s analysis of government data, about 53.6 percent of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees and are 25 and under are unemployed or hold lower-wage jobs, like waiting tables or serving as office receptionists, that don’t require a degree. That translates to about 1.5 million young people who have not, or not yet, gotten the payoff they expected from a college education.

Who should be blamed for all this misery?

As they do in their book, Arum and colleagues continue to argue for more rigor in the college classroom. The standard employed in the study is not all that difficult to meet — 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course. Arum emphasized in Louisville that there is nothing magic about these particular numbers, but they they found that many students had actively sought out courses to avoid anything like this kind of workload. And generally, students had no difficulty finding plenty of courses that do not require them to work very hard. This is true even at good schools as fewer than half of seniors in the sample had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester.


To reiterate, colleges are failing their students because too many instructors fail to make their courses sufficiently rigorous — and many students are flocking to them so that they can complete degrees (and likely earn high grades).

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa point out that a liberal arts education is highly correlated with rigor and learning. Students pursuing traditional liberal arts majors showed “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time.” Oddly enough, students pursuing degrees in practical and applied fields — business, education, social work, and communications — were more likely to be at the bottom of the rankings.

So, what does this research say about the politics of popular culture? When Duck of Minerva scholars take these texts seriously, they think critically and ask their academic audience and students to do the same. Indeed, in the classroom, they ask students to read a healthy amount of material with the aim of analyzing and applying abstract theoretical ideas to texts that they might enjoy reading or viewing. The students read and write and think. Getting serious in the classroom is a matter of critical and analytical pedagogy, not a matter of studying practical and serious subjects.

According to the analysis of Arum, Roksa, and colleagues, the Duck of Minerva bloggers are apparently on the right track.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Yada yada yada.

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A Dothraki Complaint

Drogo as angry brown man.
Source: dothraki.org

Graddakh! We the brown people of Vaes Dothrak collectively curse the producers of HBO and the slanderous “creator” of our world, which you call the Game of Thrones.

We know that your people have a long standing tradition of questionable and objectionable racial imaginings in your “fantasy fiction” genre.  So we are not surprised by your ifaki ignorance of our civilization.  Anyway, we have also come to understand that much of your television programming broadcasts an unreflective and unapologetic world of whiteness, so maybe you can’t help but reduce us to barbaric caricatures. Some of your smarter viewers (and there are really so few) and scholars have been drawn to the Machiavellian elements of the series, but like Saladin AhmedPablo K, and Alyssa Rosenberg, we cannot help but linger on the way our “horde” has been depicted in the series.

We the Dothraki are portrayed as undifferentiated mass of colored people at the periphery of an otherwise lily white medieval world.  (It is not that the white characters are all portrayed in a glowing light, all the characters are obviously flawed, but the Dothraki stand in for an undifferentiated mass representing the entire non-white world.)  We are portrayed as a fierce Mongol-like people, except that these are not the historic Mongols of your world.  You know, the people who introduced your hopelessly barbaric and quarrelsome Europeans ancestors to firearms technology and whose massive naval armada twice attempted to cross the seas and conquer Japan. Rather we Dothraki are portrayed as a technologically backward collection of clod-hopping barbarians who embody a range of degrading caricatures based on your own trite knowledge of Native American, Sub-Saharan African, and Arab societies.

In particular, we Dothraki seem to be driven purely by the thymotic aspects of our soul. We seem barely able to reason and need to be guided by a foreigner who goes “native.” We are shown enjoying acts such as publicly fornicating while dancing at weddings and murdering one another on the slightest provocation.  According to the depiction on television, no Dothraki wedding is complete without at least three murders. You are even told blatant lies. Who says we “have no word for ‘thank you'” or ‘throne’?   Me nem nesa, we have those words!  And we have plenty more for idiot, choyo nerds like George R.R. Martin and the producers of the show. I would rant more, but that would only play into your lame and dismissive stereotypes about belligerent brown people.

Look if you’re going to be racist, perhaps you could show a bit more creativity? Repeating the classic mid-twentieth century American variety of racism is just boring.  Might we suggest that you overlay the racist tropes with a highly gendered discourse in the manner of the British imperialists?  Which is not to say that you’re not sexists with your whore/matriarch/whore-matriarch triads, but you don’t really combine the two discourses very well. Even the British got bored with just using a martial races trope. Or perhaps you could try hipster racism?

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SF, IR, and Pedagogy

After Charli’s video mashup this feels pretty lame, but I did promise the slides from my talk. Thanks again to all those who responded to the bleg. If it isn’t obvious, I should note that everything I said is influenced by PTJ and his course.

The basic takeaways?

1. Science Fiction (SF) has close ties with social-scientific inquiry and, in general, has lots of political and international-relations content. It is therefore well-suited for these kinds of courses.

2. We need to be less focused on using fiction to teach intro to international realism (bad isms!) and more on choosing works that communicate interesting international-political and political ideas. Teaching The Hunger Games, for example, isn’t about stretching for realism or the state of nature, but exploring ‘organic’ themes about the dynamics of empire, revolution, games and politics, roleplaying and narrative expectations, voyeurism, etc. Good novels or films, like Charles Stross’s Halting State and Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games have a lot to say for themselves. Lots of SF deals with state formation, problems of the “other,” and states of exception… so teach those things.

3. Students are smart and creative; render them collaborators in the course by letting them explore themes that they want to pursue.

4. Make the course lots of work to deter students who think that taking a class like this will be a way to bypass serious intellectual engagement.

Slides below the fold.

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Pop Culture Narratives in World Politics: A Bleg

I will be on a panel at 1.45pm in Indigo A with the following description:

There has been a growing body of work in world politics that relies on or analyzes fictional narratives. To what extent can cultutal phenomena like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter be used as for pedagogical purposes in the classroom? How useful are such narratives as data points to either explicate or substantiate theoretical claims in world politics? This roundtable weighs the costs and benefits of using popular culture narratives inside the classroom and in publications.

Charli Carpenter will be discussing her work on the intersection (PDF) between Battlestar Galactica and real-world politics. I assume that Patrick James will tell us about his forthcoming book on teaching international relations through The Lord of the Rings. I expect that you all can guess what Dan Drezner’s role on the panel will be. I’m not at all sure what Jonathan Cristol will present — perhaps something on Philip K. Dick?

Here’s my question: what should I talk about? I don’t have any interest in revisiting the substance of Harry Potter and International Relations, which leaves four options:

  1. Methods and Methodology. In essence, I could discuss my thinking — six-years on — about the framework Iver Neumann and I developed for HP&IR. If Steve Saideman will allow me to present last, this might be a nice way to close out the disparate panel presentations.
  2. The Hunger Games. My guess is that I would talk about the series from the perspective of the four  approaches to popular culture and politics referenced in the first option.
  3. Interstellar Relations: The Politics of Speculative Fiction. The substance and pedagogy of the class I teach, with ample kudos to PTJ’s influence.
  4. Strange IR: International-Relations Theory as Speculative Fiction. A discussion of a paper idea that PM came up with after we finished a brief comment on whether the nineteenth century was the most important  (.doc) “turning point” in international politics. In brief, why a number of over-the-horizon developments — the “great convergence,” climate change, the end of the “Age of Efflorescence” — might alter the constitutive rules of international politics and how coming to grips with that requires practical science fiction. 

Feedback would be greatly appreciated.

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Yes, Matt Yglesias, Panem is an extractive, totalitarian empire

[UPDATED] Yglesias asks if “any real country could have an economy like Panem’s?” His answer comes via a synopsis of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail:

The places that are rich today were poor then, while those that are poor today were generally rich in the past. This, they argue, is no coincidence. When Spanish conquistadors showed up in the prosperous areas of Latin America, they stole all the gold they could get their hands on and then set about putting the native populations to work. They set up “extractive institutions” whose purpose was to wring as many natural resources (silver, gold, food) from the land as possible while keeping power in the hands of a narrow elite. These institutions discourage savings and investment, since everyone knows any wealth can and will be arbitrarily expropriated. And while the injustice of it all led to periodic revolutions, the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.

In short, Yglesias thinks that Panem makes sense when it comes to raw-materials extraction and agriculture, but less well when it comes to the production of complicated manufactured goods.

Collins wisely avoids going into detail about what life is supposed to be like in Districts specializing in luxury goods or electronics. It’s difficult to have a thriving economy in electronics production without a competitive market featuring multiple buyers and multiple sellers. 

Absent market competition, personal computers never would have disrupted the mainframe market and the iPhone and Android never would have revolutionized telecommunications. Entrenched monopolists have no interest in developing new technologies that shake things up. It’s difficult to get real innovation-oriented competitive markets without secure property rights, and exceedingly difficult to have secure property rights without some diffusion of political power. That needn’t mean real democratic equality—a standard the United States and Europe didn’t meet until relatively recently—but it does mean fairly broad power-sharing, as the U.S. has had from the beginning.

Yglesias’ line of analysis is pretty unobjectionable, but it does run into a few issues.

First, in relative terms, Panem’s core and inner-periphery appear to have developed consumer markets.  Capitol itself is given to conspicuous consumption and its elite enjoy a particularly high standard of living, even by contemporary US standards. The low-numbered Districts, particularly Districts 1 and 2, are far more prosperous than District 12. Just because a polity engages in significant economic extraction does not mean that its metropole and more prosperous peripheries cannot produce market forces that drive at least some innovation, as was the case with European colonial empires and any number of city-state empires.

Second, the more interesting interaction is, as Yglesias touches on but doesn’t give adequate attention to, whether Panem’s totalitarian impulses discourage innovation. This is a much broader topic, but my sense is that we shouldn’t confuse the “innovation gap” between, say, the United States and the USSR with a claim about lack of innovation in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was, for much of its life-cycle, reasonably innovative on a number of scientific fronts. Given Panem’s apparent lack of full-fledged international competitors–and hence fears about a technology gap with other states or empires–I don’t see a major problem for Collins on this front.

Indeed, as one of Yglesias’ commentators points out, Panem exists at least a few centuries in our future in a post-collapse environment.

My reading of the technology of Panem is that it is largely stagnant itself, much of it the remnants of a more enlightened time before what seems to have been an somewhat apocalyptic event. What advancement their is is indulgent and trivial. It is implied, for instance, that life in District 12 has not changed much for a long time – no new ways of mining, neither more nor less oppressive than it had been, no indication of technological progression. You can imagine an electronics district that is like Foxconn etc; capable of competently creating electronics with all the necessary precision, but not particularly invested or interested in *what* they are making.

Third, Yglesias misses one of the more important consideration regarding Panem’s plausibility: the size of its population. District 12’s population is around eight thousand. One impressively obsessive estimate places Panem’s entire population at no more than four million–a number that strike me as extremely high from the scattering of information found in the novels. This high estimate would make Panem’s population roughly that of late medieval/early modern England, less than half that of New York City. This is an exceedingly small population, and one dispersed over a territory the stretches from at least modern-day Colorado to to eastern Kentucky. I am not convinced that Panem’s population, which may very well number in the low hundreds of thousands, could sustain its economy.

All of these speculations run into a fundamental problem. We are discussing a society with extraordinarily advanced genetic engineering, let alone other futuristic technologies. Moreover, Panem resides in a world with a much diminished carrying capacity. We should not assume that the economic logic of the present, let alone the premodern past, provides us with clear guidance for assessing Panem’s plausibility.

[UPDATE]: I hope that PM has more to say about this later, but one implication of Panem’s low population should be very expensive labor–which raises questions about the Capitol’s choice of labor-intensive production techniques, most notably in the Districts devoted to raw-material production and basic manufacturing. But this isn’t really much of a mystery once we recognize that Panem’s economic system is subservient to its political structure. The Capitol’s segmentation of the Districts by position in the chain of production, its creation of artificial energy scarcity, and its monopolization of the flow of resources among the Districts… these are classic, if rather extreme, forms of divide and rule. So if we want to assess Panem economics, we need to do so through the lens of political economy. Or as Aristotle might say, politics really is the master science.

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(Some of) The Politics of the Hunger Games

As regular readers know, I assigned The Hunger Games in the last iteration of my SciFi class. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about doing a short book with, one hopes, a less boring title than “The Politics of the Hunger Games.” Indeed, I just finished talking to an editor about it. Unlike the Harry Potter and International Relations volume that I co-edited, or the Battlestar Galactica volume that I co-wrote the conclusion for, this would be a short monograph intended for a non-academic audience.

So far I’ve sketched out chapters with titles like “Capitol Rules: Panem as Empire,” “Capitol Punishment: Panem as Totalitarian State,” “Playing by the Rules: Manipulation through Narrative,” “Capitol Falls: Revolutionary Politics,” “Katniss is not Bella: Class and Gender,” and “Bread and Circuses: Resources and Economics.” Obviously, some of these themes are pretty obvious (and covered in The Hunger Games and Philosophy), but for this kind of book, its less about originality than quality.

Thinking that I should probably find out what the interwebs are saying about the subject, I recently did a trusty google search. Turns out that the top hits include debates (e.g.) about whether the books are “conservative” or “liberal (uh, ok); an interesting, but rather strained attempt to link The Hunger Games to the politics of food; a somewhat disappointing New Yorker piece with “counterinsurgency” in the title; and a very wrongheaded analysis of Panem as an example of “asymmetric federalism.” So I guess there’s room here.

(Previously at the Duck, Charli talks Hunger Games.)

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Sunday Nerd Blogging

 A monologue from Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson’s fascinating novel of post-scarcity America:

You might want to consider your tone of voice, Private Commongold. May I offer you a lesson in Civics? There are three centers of power in the modern Union, and only three. One is the Executive Branch, with its supporting host of Owners and Senators. One is the Military. And the last is the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth. They’re like the tripod feet of a stool: each supports the other, and they work best when they’re equal in reach. But you’re not a propertied person, Mr. Commongold, as far as I know; and you’re certainly not a Clergyman; and the Army in its wisdom has put you in the lowest possible rank. Your position doesn’t entitle you to an opinion, much less the loose expression of it.

Upon reading this, all I could conclude was that Rick Santorum had read this passage and decided to take it literally.

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Mediocre International Relations Scholar and Prominent Anti-Nerd Hits Rock Bottom, Admits to Abuse of Science Fiction

The Canard

“All the fake news that’s fit to print”

–Los Angeles

Part-time political scientist and blogging provocateur Brian Rathbun yesterday checked himself into a rehabilitation center for addiction to science fiction. Although Rathbun’s public face was as an anti-nerd, he secretly had succumbed to the vice of Battlestar Galactica, which he watched in its entirety over the last few weeks. Reached for comment, Rathbun simply said, “I haven’t left my room in weeks. I watched over eighty episodes of BSG. Oh my god, I even know the acronym. There is a bogey on my dradis! There is a bogey on my dradis!” The academic was then escorted away by treatment professionals.

It was only through an intervention from his loved ones, including the members of Metallica (with whom Rathbun collaborated on a documentary several years ago) that Rathbun admitted he had a problem. He is now, as they say in Nerds Anonymous, “off the starship” and on the path to recovery. As part of his 12 steps, Rathbun is currently making amends to close family and friends who he has neglected for the last few weeks.

Rathbun is also engaged in a controversial anti-nerd reorientation therapy that many openly nerdy nerds object to. Charli Carpenter, a friend of Rathbun’s now considered a bad influence by his sponsor, tweeted (of course), “Being a nerd is not a choice. It is something that you are born with. Gaius, I mean –Brian, is denying his inner nature. That’s what the Sixes have taught us not to do.”

It started harmlessly enough. Rathbun had been playing Star Wars with his two sons, two and six years old. Then he became curious about Game of Thrones. Addiction specialists describe the fantasy series as a gateway for more serious nerdy compulsions. “It appears to be un-nerdy, what with the ripped chests and the swords. There are no robots around,” said Dr. Jock von Hilsbrand III, who is treating Rathbun. “But before you know it, patients’ wives find them at a Star Trek Convention wearing pointy ears. I have seen it again and again.” By the time anyone noticed that Rathbun had a problem, he was so deeply immersed in Battlestar Galactica that he could not separate reality from science fiction. He even went as far as to accuse friends like Carpenter of being machines.

Although Rathbun’s sorry state must be attributed first and foremost to his personal weaknesses, Netflix’s streaming capability certainly exacerbated his disease. “There is both a supply problem and a demand problem,” said von Hilsbrand. “We need to crack down on the filthy purveyors of this pop cultural crack. It is simply too available.” Nerds stress, however, that recreational use of science fiction is perfectly safe although it does induce a phenomenon called “the munchies.”

Rathbun seems to be feeling more like his former anti-nerd self, complaining to the nurses in the facility about the lack of creativity in Battlestar Galactica while gesticulating wildly: “So there is this other human civilization, but it looks exactly like ours. I mean they even have lap dances on Caprica. Give me a break. Be a bit more ingenious when you are creating other worlds.” Rathbun is also playing the drums again to return to his non-nerd roots. It is not clear, however, whether he is really on the path of healing or simply trying to restore his tarnished credibility with other anti-nerds. “There are metalheads, Mad Men fans, and Shakespearean actors – all counting on me. I let them down,” the recovering addict admitted.

Nerdiness is a disease for life, experts say, and Rathbun will have to follow strict protocols to prevent a relapse. He must avoid any social contact with other geeks. Just turning on his son’s play light saber could have him back ‘on the starship,’ warns Dr. von Hilsbrand. He will be avoiding places where nerds congregate, like comic book stores, video game consoles and the International Studies Association annual convention.

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Cyber Nerd Blogging: Neuroscience, Conflict and Security

Antoine Bousquet has a fascinating post at Disorder of Things on developments in neuroscience and how they are being used by militaries to 1) enhance their own soldiers and 2) degrade the abilities of their opponents. The post is in response to a report by The Royal Society on Neuroscience, Conflict and Security which outlines these developments, speculates on the future and the ethical implications of these developments.

As Bousquet notes, it’s some pretty hairy stuff:

Yet perhaps the most potentially consequential developments will be found in the area of neural interfacing and its efforts to bring the human nervous system and computing machines under a single informational architecture. The report’s authors note here the benefits that accrue from this research to the disabled in terms of improvements to the range of physical and social interactions available to them through a variety of neurally controlled prosthetic extensions. While this is indeed the case, there is a particular irony to the fact that the war mutilated (which the Afghan and Iraq conflicts have produced in abundance – according to one estimate, over 180,000 US veterans from these conflicts are on disability benefits) have become one of the main testing grounds for technologies that may in the future do much more than restore lost capabilities. Among one of the most striking suggestions is that:

electrode arrays implanted in the nervous system could provide a connection between the nervous system of an able-bodied individual and a specific hardware or software system. Since the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware, a neurally interfaced weapons systems could provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy. (p.40)

In other words, human brains may be harnessed within fire control systems to perform cognitive tasks before these even become conscious to them. Aside from the huge ethical and legal issues that it would raise, one cannot but observe that under such a scheme the functional distinction between human operator and machine seems to collapse entirely with the evaporation of any pretense of individual volition.

Noting scientific developments aimed at altering the sensory perception of enemies on the battlefield, Bousquet concludes: “The holy grail of military neuroscience is therefore nothing less than the ability to directly hack into and reprogram a target’s perceptions and beliefs, doing away even with the need for kinetic force. So that when neural warfare does truly arrive, we may not even know it.”

A couple of thoughts:

First, The Royal Society Report is interesting for its inclusion of a relatively decent overview of the applicable law that would apply to such weapons. Ken Anderson at Lawfare disagrees – suggesting that “The legal and ethical issues are of course legion and barely explored.” However, considering the report is relatively brief, the legal and ethical section does proportionally take up a large chunk of it. in addition, the report includes no less than four recommendations for suggesting improvements to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention regimes. Interestingly, they do not suggest any improvements for law of war/IHL as opposed to arms control. I find this surprising to a certain extent. While there are principles that always apply to ALL weaponry (distinction, proportionality and necessity – and, of course, prohibition of unnecessary suffering), I would argue that neuro-non-leathal weapons are a definite grey area. (As The Royal Society report notes, altering someone’s sensory perception has radical implications for notions of responsibility in the prosecution of war crimes.)

Second, Bousquet’s last point is interesting in that it reflects the constant quest over the last century and a half to develop weapons that would end the need for the use of kinetic force. I’m presently reading P.D. Smith’s Doomsday Men a social history of the application of science to warfare and weapons of mass destruction which traces the development and logic behind such weapons that were supposed to be so terrible that they could never be used – or if used, would be so terrible as to inspire an end to warfare. This was the case for chemical/gas weapons and eventually the atomic bomb – the thought behind many of their creators that their mere possession would be enough to stop countries from fighting one another full-stop because the consequences would be so terrible.

As Smith demonstrates in his book, such a theory of non-use of weapons was a frequent theme of the science fiction literature of the time, particularly that of HG Wells:

The United States of America entered World War I under the slogan of ‘the war to end all wars’. Never has idealism been so badly used. From Hollis’ Godfrey’s The Man Who Ended War (1908) to H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914), the idea of fighting a final battle to win universal peace had gripped readers in Europe and America. Wells’s novel even introduced the phrase ‘war that will end war’.
Once again, science played a vital role in these stories. A new figure emerged in pre-war fiction – the saviour scientist, a Promethean genius who uses his scientific knowledge to save his country and banish war forever. It is the ultimate victory for Science and Progress…

As James writes, these works of science fiction promoted the idea that “through revolutionary science and the actions of an idealistic scientist, war could be made a thing of the past.” In some works a terrible war is required to win the peace through science, but it is clear that in the view of many of these pre-War “science romance” novels (which would go on to inspire many of the future atomic scientists working on the nuclear bomb) that super weapons could stop war.

Should we then read neuro-weapons in this light – as part of the constant scientific quest to develop weapons which will end the need to fight?

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Friday Nerd Blogging

Last week I posted the trailer. Yesterday, Volkswagen released its much awaited sequel to its “Vader Kid” Super Bowl Commercial from last year.

The original:

Which do readers think is funnier? Personally I think the “The Bark Side” wins. NPR considers what this ad strategy tells us about the future of marketing.

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DoD’S ‘Bloodless’ Ray-Guns

The Economist reports on advances in non-lethal weaponry, emphasizing the latest line of research into electro-magnetic weapons:

BULLETS and bombs are so 20th-century. The wars of the 21st will be dominated by ray guns. That, at least, is the vision of a band of military technologists who are building weapons that work by zapping the enemy’s electronics, rather than blowing him to bits. The result could be conflict that is less bloody, yet more effective, than what is now seen as conventional battle…

The logical conclusion of all this is a so-called “human-safe” missile, which carries an electromagnetic gun instead of an explosive warhead. This gentle way of handling the enemy – stopping his speedboats, stalling his tanks—has surprising advantages. For example, it expands the range of targets that can be attacked. Some favourite tricks of modern warfare, such as building communications centres in hospitals, or protecting sites with civilian “human shields”, cease to be effective if it is simply the electronics of the equipment being attacked that are destroyed. Though disabling an aircraft’s avionics will obviously cause it to crash, in many other cases, no direct harm is done to people at all.

This rosy view assumes weapons would only affect (or be directed at) “the enemy” – the author is grievously blind to the civilian costs of messing with power grids. While it doesn’t “blow people to bits” (and is certainly a step up from demolishing concrete buildings in urban areas), sudden loss of electrical power can be deadly to civilians: depriving them of life-sustaining medical care, causing vehicular accidents, deaths from exposure to heat or cold and disease from the collapse of water and sewage systems.

Worse, the author(s?) is/are ill-versed in science fiction analogies.

Discussing the Active Denial System later in the piece (a ‘non-lethal’ weapon that roasts people with microwaves but leaves no permanent injury) the article compares such a weapon to a “ray-gun” and suggests that the decision to end its deployment in Afghanistan stemmed from public aversion to sci-fi ray guns. (Actually, the Pentagon, not known for caving to bleeding hearts at home, had decided for itself that a pain ray might not be the best way to win hearts and minds.)

Anyway: note the fallacy in the characterization of public opposition to “ray guns.” The “ray guns” of science fiction to which the authors refer – lethal energy weapons like the Star Wars “blaster,” or the Star Trek “phaser” (a non-lethal on certain settings) are designed to kill instantly or stun, not to inflict agonizing pain on the individual. (Though they can be used improperly to inflict severe burns on certain settings, they are not designed to be used this way intentionally nor are such uses typical. In fact, in the Star Trek: TNG universe, there are treaties against weapons designed to inflict superfluous suffering – sort of a 24th century version of the Hague Conventions.)

By contrast, the Active Denial System hardly fits the popular perception of a “ray-gun” at all. Indeed, it is designed not to incapacitate but to modify behavior through pain. It’s more analogous to the “neural neutralizer” or other torture devices that are depicted in the first two Star Trek series.

So to the extent that public opinion a) matters at all in weapons deployment and b) is primed by science fiction narratives (both are hypotheses not facts) I would guess that a useful first step is to understand both the weapons and the sci-fi.

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Friday Nerd Blogging

I was not inclined to see this film because the trailers made it look like a dumb comedy about an annoying Jar-Jar-Binks-esque alien with a potty-mouth and some equally dumb human sidekicks.

But having been force-fed Paul by my kids, I can now attest that it’s not actually about aliens at all. Instead, it’s about nerd culture and its antinomies in Western society. (Any film that incorporates spoken Klingon is ok in my book.)

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Syllabus Bleg: Science Fiction (Updated)

I could use some help. As I did in the spring, I’m teaching a seminar on “Science Fiction and Politics.” I’m working on some significant changes to the syllabus. The class will now meet twice a week, which has implications for its flow, and I want to teach some different works. But I’m flailing a bit about some aspects of the syllabus, particularly with respect to (1) short readings to pair with books and (2) some specific assignments. A rough outline follows, including some notes about the kinds of pieces I’m looking for. A major issue concerning the latter is that I generally want supplemental readings that are short.

1. No Class.
2. SF, Popular Culture and Politics: Jutta Weldes, “Popular Culture, Science Fiction, and World Politics: Exploring Intertextual Relations,” in Weldes, ed. To Seek Out New Worlds: Exploring Links between Science Fiction and World Politics, pp. 1-27; Iver B. Neumann and Daniel H. Nexon, “Introduction: Harry Potter and the Study of World Politics,” in Nexon and Neumann, eds. Harry Potter and International Relations, pp. 1-25. Recommended for non-genre fans: Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century, pp. 12-53.
3. Collins, Hunger Games I: paired with something on the structure and organization of empires, preferably with examples drawn from Rome.
4. Collins, Hunger Games II: paired with something on social roles, role theory, and/or performativity.
5. Banks, Player of Games I: K.M. Fierke, “Links Across the Abyss: Language and Logic in International Relations,” International Studies Quarterly 46 (2002): 331-354.
6. Banks, Player of Games II: paired with something about ritual and social order, or perhaps gender and social order.
7. Stross, Halting State I: Vernor Vingee, “Technological Singularity”
8. Stross, Halting State II: Plato, The Republic (selections)
9. Schmitt, Political Theology: paired with a short piece on securitization theory?
10. Moore, Watchmen I
11. Moore, Watchmen II
12. Heinlein, Starship Troopers I: Harold D. Lasswell, “The Garrison State,” The American Journal of Sociology 14,4 (December 1943): 627-650.
13. Heinlein, Starship Troopers II
14. Ender’s Game I
15. Ender’s Game II
16. Todorov, Conquest of America [might be moved before Ender’s Game]
17. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus I [Parts 1-2]
18. Wolfe, Fifth Head of Cerberus II [Part 3]
19. No Class: Film. Perhaps Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell: SAC (the compilation of the “Laughing Man” episodes), or Ghost in the Shell 2.0?
20. Le Guin, The Dispossessed I
21. Le Guin, The Dispossessed II
22. Herbert, Dune I
23. Herbert, Dune II: paired with a piece on jihad and/or religious warfare and/or religion and politics
24. Film.

As should be clear, I have one moveable film slot and I’m not sure what to do with it. I’m also curious about other suggestions for pairings (but keep in mind that I am not sadistic enough to pair Fifth Head of Cerberus with anything, as they’ll have enough trouble making sense of the narrative as it is).

One option that I’m considering is to open with some kind of cliched genre SF, e.g., Foundation (or at least the first novella or two). My current inclination is to keep the readings for session 2 but assign something to watch, such as an episode of ST:TNG (Darmok?) or Farscape. What I’m looking for should be (1) accessible on its own and (2) complete with all the “bells and whistles” of stereotyped SF: spaceships, strange aliens, energy weapons, etc.

Last year our readers provides excellent feedback. Let’s make that a trend!

UPDATE: Trend underway! I should clarify some things about the course and comment on some of the excellent suggestions. I’ve benefitted from PTJ’s extensive experience teaching a similar (and better) version of the class; as I’ve had one semester under my belt, I’ve also learned a bit.

Providing related nonfiction helps ground the students in terms of discussing and analyzing SF. Works we might think of as “meh” or of dubious quality can provoke terrific discussions. Even some of the students who consume science fiction lack contextual knowledge that our readership unwittingly assumes.  Standalone SF episodes are much more difficult to follow than people who’ve watched the series realize.

For example, I showed “33” last year as a means for talking about the notion of “the exception” — although we also discussed jus in bello issues and compared “33” to Watchmen. I may put it back on, but the students were really, really confused about the characters and the setting. For some of them, that overshadowed the whole experience. Similarly, Bank’s Culture universe is pretty difficult to feel comfortable in if one begins with Look to Windward. Despite the fact that it doesn’t tackle the kind of broad thematics of that book, Player of Games provides a much better introduction to the Culture.

I should also note some of the meta-themes in the course, although one nice aspect of teaching this kind of class is that the students take it in unexpected directions.

  1. The relationship between politics, roles, and games. This carries across a wide variety of the literature and bridges works that deal with different themes.
  2.  Sovereignty and the exception. Although this also cuts across a number of works, Watchmen, Starship Troopers, and Enders Game constitute the “core” of this discussion. Related, of course, is “guardianship.”
  3. The status of the “Other” in politics in general, and imperial relations in particular. 
  4. Technological shifts and politics, particularly around the idea of the “singularity” but extended out much more broadly to issues of political change. 

I eliminated a number of works that were in the previous semester.  The most difficult one to cut was Julian Comstock. I am close to pulling the trigger on a CJ Cherryh — likely Downbelow Station or Cyteen, both of which would integrate nicely. Due to their length, though, I need to think hard about how to make it work. Either gets at core themes of the syllabus, and it would allow me to add another female author.

Thoughts? Keep the ideas coming, please!

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Late to the Party (Part the Second)

We saw HPatDHpt2 (as the young’ns are calling it) this evening. It was quite good: action-packed, emotionally satisfying, and all that. We sat next to a group of hipster teenagers who were extremely psyched throughout the whole thing–they clapped, they cheered, and were very upset when my daughter interjected commentary (“That’s a lot of Death Eaters!”). This provided an important reminder of how a whole generation of kids grew up with — or, more accurately, aged along with — the Harry Potter novels. Anyway, I may be doing a review for a “real” online outlet this weekend; I’ll post a link if it comes together.

But that’s not the subject of this post. I discovered web comics relatively recently; although that makes me very late to the party, I still want to point to two superlative sf/fantasy publications available online.

First, Girl Genius. While my wife was out of the country last year, I stayed up all night reading the adventures of Agatha Heterodyne and her (ever-increasing) cast of supporting characters. Produced out of the gleefully demented minds of Phil and Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius has won numerous accolades — in this case, well-deserved ones.

Agatha lives in a “steam punk” world, but that dubious quality doesn’t overwhelm the comic. Instead, it provides a whimsical  backdrop for wacky adventures in the mold of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century fantastic adventures –albeit updated in sensibility, particularly in terms of gender roles.

In Girl Genius, “sparks” — super-genius mad scientists — are in the driver’s seat of world events. At its start, a powerful spark exerts hegemony over Europea from his “city” of dirigibles and other aircraft. His position comes as much as anything else from a power vacuum left by the departure of the Heterodyne brothers — members of a long line of “sparks” who turned from villainy to heroism, but then disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The plot becomes more convoluted every few weeks, so that’s as far as I’ll attempt to explain it. The key points: Girl Genius is more than a page-turning yarn, it is often downright hilarious. I snorted a caffeinated beverage during a certain sequence involving a coffee machine.

Second, Gunnerkrigg Court. This gem is even harder to describe than Girl Genius. A female-centric Harry Potter on acid? Maybe. Antimony (Annie) Carver arrives at the mysterious Gunnerkrigg Court. Within a few panels, she befriends a sentient shadow and builds a robot. Then the series gets weirder. Annie’s mother is dead, her father has disappeared. She becomes best friends with Katja Donlan, a scientific genius (she makes a gravity-field generator out of a thermos and coat hangers). Katja’s parents not only teach at the school, but also were schoolmates with Annie’s father and mother.

Gunnerkirgg Court’s author, Tom Siddell, pilfers liberally from Native American and European folklore, Egyptian mythology, and just about any other source you might imagine. The drawings are deceptively simple, evocative, and sometimes a joy to behold. Despite my — and particularly my wife’s — concern that some of the subject matter is inappropriate (which it is), Lyra loves it so much that she’s stolen my print version, makes me read it aloud, and reads it to herself day and night. I console myself with the fact that Gunnerkrigg Court is full of powerful, competent, and resourceful female characters. And that Siddell does a wonderful job alternating between melancholy, a little bit scary, and hilarity.

Gunnerkrigg court is also the recipient of a number of completely justified awards.

So, if you’re like me and have been missing out, go read. If you prefer print versions, there are bound collections of the comic, as well as a novel. Same goes, as I’ve already implied, for Gunnerkrigg Court, although only the first volume is currently available (at least for a reasonable price).

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Friday Nerd Blogging: Continuing the Tradition (Part the First)

When I was in graduate school I tried my hand at writing speculative fiction (SF) and fantasy. I even hung out on usenet groups and joined an online writing circle. I flatter myself that, with enough work, I might have improved the quality of my scribblings from “crappy” to “passable.”

It turns out that I chose the wrong career. It isn’t just in the social sciences that atrocious writing, wooden characters, and unimaginative plot lines present no barrier to awards and honors!

As David Moles writes:

Last month [i.e., two months ago] the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gave a Nebula award to a piece that contained no science worth speaking of. There was very little fiction in it either, if fiction is the narrative of imagination; whatever images might have been in its author’s mind, what made it onto the page was determinedly unimaginative, and less narrated than vaguely gestured at. It put forward no fantasy, unless the fantasy that the world is an uncomplicated place populated chiefly by straw men and contrived examples is a fantasy. What writing was in it was mostly bad.

Moles isn’t kidding. Eric James Stones’ “The Leviathan Whom Thou Hast Made” is just plain awful. But it has inspired some truly entertaining critical discussion. Check out Martin Lewis’ review. Also of interest: Abigail Nussbaum’s commentary on the Hugo short-story nominees.

What’s wrong with “Leviathan” isn’t just that it’s badly written and that all its characters seem to have been created either to spout talking points (the titular Leviathan just happens to say something that echoes the book of Job) or act as straw men (the anthropologist who, against her better judgment, ends up helping the narrator, and along the way lobs softballs at him and acts like a stereotype of a disdainful atheist; interestingly, the one good point she makes–pointing out that the only reason the Mormon swales care that they’re being raped is that their new religion has taught them to view sex as a sin–is completely ignored by both the narrator and the story). Worse than these is the fact that it’s not a story so much as a thought experiment that posits a situation in which none of the negative associations of Christian missionary work are applicable….

Nussbaum is certainly correct on this last point, but I think it would be a shame to the let political objections get in the way of the story’s utter lack of aesthetic merit.

Nevertheless, Nussbaum makes some other interesting ponts about replacing advanced aliens for humans.

It is a little like the way that creators of war movies have been gravitating towards the alien invasion premise (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, the upcoming Falling Skies) as a way of getting around the fact that it’s no longer acceptable to use the Russians or the Chinese as faceless hordes of evil invaders, or the way that the creators of Avatar tell the utterly familiar story of a white man who not only saves the Native Americans but is better at being Native American than actual Native Americans, but insist that they’re not being racist because the story is set on another planet and among aliens.

This all bears a family resemblance, I might add, to the status of Orcs as fit targets of genocidal eradication in The Lord of the Rings, an issue that Peter Jackson cleverly obfuscated by turning the Orcs into broadsword-wielding proto-industrial national socialists, intent on committing genocide against humankind.

Nussbaum’s post is worth reading in full. In part, it makes clear the thickly intertextual quality of speculative fiction and fantasy–and of its “involved” community. This aspect of the genres carries with it significant costs. It creates high barriers to entry. For example, I am more than a casual consumer, but I find the complexity of knowledge required for serious analysis simply overwhelming. It also place far too high a premium on originality.

Genre fiction is defined, more than anything else, by audience expectations. The best work, it seems to me, meets those expectations while also entertaining, prodding the intellect, and evoking emotion. One way to accomplish those goals, of course, involves playing with audience expectations. But there’s a lot to be said for the artistic merits of a well-crafted pop tune. Perhaps more attention to those sorts of merits would discourage the production, as well as the granting of awards to, pretentious and didactic garbage.

(For more bad SF cover art, see Flavorwire)

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Friday Nerd Blogging

minor spoiler alert

Besides some time on the paintball field, one thing my son and I did this week before my trip with his sister was watch the latest installment in one of our favorite sci-fi series. What it lacks in character development and plot, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon certainly makes up for with some of the most intense techno-masculine violence ever to land in a PG-13 film.

But what struck both of us (“Mom, why haven’t her heels fallen off by now?”) was the gender imagery. I mean, when a hero’s girlfriend can survive a collapsing skyscraper with her high heels on, looking unrumpled, only to play a decisive role in the denouement of a 63-minute urban battle by – wait for it – insulting a Decepticon’s masculine pride, you know it’s all downhill for women in action films.

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