Review: A Two-for-One

One of my popcorn guilty pleasures has for the last several years been David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, which with spinoffs and what-not is now quite a large number of books.  I have read most of them, I think, and while at this point the continuing series is beginning to drag quite a bit, I have this thing about finishing books I start, at least eventually.  So when I went to the library and noticed a new pair of titles in the series I figured I’d read them.  One of the causes of the series getting quite so large was that Weber started doing collaborations on side-stories with other authors.  At this point I think the other authors do most of the writing for their particular bit, and Weber mostly checks it over for consistency – more or less – with the main story.

Cauldron of Ghosts with Eric Flint

Eric Flint is another sci-fi author who mostly deals in time-travel scenarios and whose writing is not very good.  This particular book is a touch above his regular stuff, but in the end it’s pretty much the same kind of thing.  Flint doesn’t provide much substance – his characters, much like the stereotypical American movie-going public, mostly all seem to like sex and stuff blowing up.  His plots, such as they are, are wildly implausible.  His heroes are basically superheroes in all but name.  It’s hard to find much of a redeeming factor to his work – about the only thing is that he makes it clear that he, the author, knows exactly what he’s doing.  He also writes some very funny scenes, with a tendency to slapstick.  I don’t know that the book’s much good, though.

A Call to Duty with Timothy Zahn

Zahn, on the other hand, is a fairly solid writer – stylistically better than Weber, let alone Flint.  He’s best known for a pair of series in the Star Wars “expanded universe”, but his own stuff is also pretty good most of the time and usually fairly interesting.  He writes mostly sci-fi, with a lot of aliens.  Commonly he features characters with technologically enhanced abilities (for good and bad), and his plots tend toward mysteries and spying, though often with a background of, as the phrase goes, galactic unrest.

Almost all of Zahn’s protagonists, though, tend to be practical, not to say hard-bitten, type who know how the world works and just want to get their job done.  So it was a little bit of a surprise to find that the lead here is a kid just out of high school; and the setting, years before Weber’s main timeline, back near the beginning of Manticore’s history.  (The series – this is apparently going to be a series – is called “Manticore Ascendant”, so that’s not a spoiler.)

Anyway, this one doesn’t quite work.  Part of it is the problem of trying to write a protagonist who doesn’t quite know what he’s doing and still make him out a hero.  Part of it is a general lack of detail in explaining how various things work – an odd complaint when Weber is usually criticized, and rightly, for putting in too much detail, but true all the same.  Mostly, though, the pacing of the book doesn’t quite work.  The thing is spread over several years, and yet the characters – and situations – don’t develop much.

So neither of these books was particularly good.  Cauldron was more entertaining, taken by itself, but I’m rapidly running out of patience with Flint’s schtick (and with the whole Mesa storyline, for that matter).  A Call to Duty was a weak book, but the story might have some promise going forward.  At least it’s a newer (to the reader) setting.

An Example of Bad Teaching

This post, by way of a surprise, actually has nothing to do with any of my own various failures in the classroom or meditations upon improving future endeavors.

Instead, making the rounds of the conservative facebook-o-sphere today is this picture, allegedly from a “school textbook” entitled Is Everyone Equal?.  I say “allegedly” because a quick search on Amazon does not turn up that title, though the top hits are Is Everyone Really Equal? and Everyone Is Equal, one of which may be the culprit here.  Or the thing could possibly be a fraud.  Or this could be a draft edition of something still in progress.  I am saying this up front before we get to the problem.

The problem is that this textbook, assuming it exists, includes a blurb reading, “STOP: There is no such thing as reverse racism or reverse sexism (or the reverse of any form of oppression).  While women can be just as prejudiced as men, women cannot be “just as sexist as men” because they do not hold political, economic, and institutional power.”  There are several issues with this statement.  I want to focus on two: its various problems of linguistic inaccuracy, and its failure as an instructional tool.  I am not going to address the gross idiocy of only associating misbehavior with, and applying negative words to the behaviors of, the groups perceived as powerful.

First of all, this statement is not correct on a dictionary definition, in which “racism” is not generally connected to power.  For instance, “1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others. 2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.”  (American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed.)  The second definition does hint at the fact that racism as a practice is generally a fault of those in power, but to limit racism only to practice and ignore the underlying belief is a faulty approach.

Additionally, the explanation in the textbook fails as soon as a woman does in fact hold power.  Even if an “oppressed” minority might be unable to be racist on this view, Justice Sotomayer is now firmly “in power” – and so her opinion about a “wise Latina woman” suddenly becomes just as open, on this definition, to charges of racism as any politician who a century ago would have declared the opposite, that an Anglo-Saxon male with the rich tradition of English and Roman law clearly would make a wiser decision than an immigrant woman with only a normal life to draw on.

Finally, it fails a common sense test.  It is entirely true that in the American and European context, “racism” has acquired a connotation of being the attitude of the powerful towards the powerless.  But this being the case, “reverse racism” is an entirely reasonable description of prejudices the powerless may have – either latently or as a reaction – towards the powerful.  It would in fact be difficult to come up with a more exact term.

Almost more important than the semantic failure, however, is the educational one.  The student – or at least the reader, if this is not actually a textbook – is not asked to consider anything, but instead instructed that a particular line of thought is simply not allowed.  It is not even the failure of the reason for the prohibition that makes the prohibition objectionable.  Such an apparently random prohibition might be acceptable in a discipline with clearly defined rules: for instance, in mathematics the notation 0! ought by the normal definition of factorials to be undefined but is instead defined to be equal to 1, in defiance of all common sense and mostly to make a certain set of formulas work.  (It gets more complicated than that, though I cannot say I understand it on a level much beyond that.)  But in a subject where much is – even by plebeian judgment – uncertain and properly subject to light treading, and in academic circles widely considered subject to – well, much subjectivity, ruling out a line of thought (especially with bad reasons given) is surely to be frowned on.

Much better would be – even accepting the author’s apparent convictions for the sake or argument – an information box reading something like this: “It is also obviously possible for people without power to be prejudiced, especially against those they perceive as oppressors.  Some people refer to this sort of prejudice as ‘reverse racism’ or ‘reverse sexism’.  Does this seem like a reasonable label to you?  What are some of the problems it might create when talking about the subject?”

Review: Appleseed

This should catch up my backlog of things to review.  Appleseed is a Japanese animated film from 2004 which I was first introduced to as an example of a trend towards newer, shinier, and most especially more detailed animation from Japanese studios as their style evolves.  Stylistically it’s quite interesting, as a result.  The backgrounds and scenery are hugely detailed and have a somewhat “realistic” feel; but the actual characters are portrayed in the traditional “anime” style.

Plot-wise, it’s an adventure story with questions raised about the nature of life, human ethics, what it means to be a person, and so forth.  The actual adventure is unremarkable: find the special person, rescue the gadget, save the world.  Yay!

The film owes a lot to Blade Runner, with the major ethical question being the treatment of a race of totally-not-replicants-we-swear – you can tell they’re not because they’re considered (at least by the people in charge) to be a valuable part of society, though subjected to various stigmas, subject to potentially short lifespans, and not allowed to reproduce because of social stability or something.  So some people want to wipe them out, some people want them to integrate better with society, and a (human) lunatic fringe wants humanity gone and the “Bioroids” to take over.

The question is – let’s say, not sufficiently addressed.  As a result, it’s a momentous bit of philosophy hanging over a cheesy blow-’em-up film which muddles the tone severely – especially the five minute or so segment in which the problem is attempted to be addressed, but nothing particularly substantial is said on either side.

It looks good, but despite pretensions there’s not much substance to it.  I’ll give it a C, since I seem to have started grading everything.