An Illustrative Lesson on the Importance of Stories

I didn’t plan on making this post today, but then I saw the news and some social media from friends and family, hit a quick Google search because I was reminded of something … and well … Here we are. It’s definitely political in its own way, so far warning, but there’s a moral of its own by the end.

One of the Calvin and Hobbes story arcs that I remember very vividly from my youth is the story of Calvin and the Traffic Safety Slogan Contest (which starts at this link, and ran for several weeks in newspapers at the time). The story itself is amusing as any of Calvin’s adventures, the school opening up a contest with a $10 prize ($20 in today’s money) for coming up with the best traffic safety slogan on a poster, and Calvin sabotaging himself while being utterly convinced, as his six year-old mind often is, that everything about the contest is a forgone conclusion, especially his victory. The moral explored by the end—which utterly baffles and bounces off of Calvin, something Watterson himself noted in the anniversary collection—is that you may try your best, but victory is never assured, so gain confidence and satisfaction from having tried and put your best foot forward, not from winning and being declared better than everyone else.

Naturally, Calvin doesn’t win, his slogan of “Be Careful or Be Roadkill,” on a poster splattered with chunky spaghetti sauce for a “patent-pending 3D Gore-o-rama,” isn’t exactly a hit with classmates or the judges. However, when his poster doesn’t win, Calvin refuses to accept that he has lost, instead declaring the contest a “miscarriage of justice” and stating that the judges were “biased against us from the start.” He then goes to his father and tells him it was rigged and that “I want you to call the school board, have them declare fraud, and make them take the prize away from [the winner] and give it to me!”

Calvin, of course, refuses to accept or understand his father’s attempts to talk sense into him, mocking his father’s answer that winning and losing is part of life, to which his father dryly observes that Calvin’s been learning too many morals from ads for athletic shoes.

It’s a fun story, but it was also interesting to me decades later how absolutely directly—and here come the politics, which many of you probably already saw—it paralleled the 2020 election results, Calvin’s mocking words and dismissive attitude perfectly reflected by nearly an entire party who refused to believe that it was possible THEY could lose. Ever. “Take the prize away from the winner] and give it to me! indeed.

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The Lessons Hollywood Won’t Learn From the Halo TV Show

Well, we’ve reached that point, now. The Halo TV show has run its course of a full season, the last episodes being in May, the public has had time to digest and deliberate, and now we see the trickle-down effect of how people refer to it in casual conversation.

Oh, my mistake. Did I say “refer to it?” I meant shred it without an ounce of remorse.

Yes, the consensus of the real world is in, and it is cruel. Past the paid critics, past the hopefuls who insisted that the absolutely awful first two episodes were just the show finding its feet, we now have the reaction of ordinary people online, gamers and non-gamers both, who have sort of settled into a common pattern for how the show is remembered.

To give another example of what I’m talking about, let’s look at another show with real cultural zeitgeist: Community. Community is very well-favored, as people will often quote the show, talk about it fondly, share jokes from the show, and harp on Netflix’s idiotic decision to censor the DnD episodes.

Zeitgeist reactions to things when they come up in casual conversation can be a pretty solid indicator of a bit of entertainment’s real value, impact, or staying power. Especially in a situation like the one around the Halo TV show, where the production clearly spent a vast amount of its budget on “selecting” reviewers for maximum praise as well as a solid amount on a legal department that would go after anyone saying anything negative (one reviewer repeatedly found their reviews taken down and hit with copyright strikes for using promotional footage Paramount had sent out, all because they rightfully criticized a frankly awful show).

So, in a situation where the creator has abused legal powers to make it as difficult as possible to determine if something is actually good or not, what’s been the public impact of the long-awaited Halo TV show?

Well, from those who’ve watched it … it’s another steaming pile of junk television that once again serves to checkbox Hollywood’s biggest flaws.

That may seem harsh, but have you seen this show? Even those with no familiarity with the source material online have constantly noted that it did nothing to feel exemplary, the story, characters, and plot were trite and inconsistent, even the most positive defenders giving it responses of ‘At best, it’s poor Sci-Fi television’ or ‘It’s a decent time-waster, but lacks any redeeming qualities.’

That’s at best. Many reactions seem fit to compare it to the utterly iconic 1993 “so bad it’s kind of good” adaptation Super Mario Brothers: The Movie. With some of those comparisons arguing which movie was more accurate or had the better similarity to the original product (which, if you know anything about that 1993 blunder, is not an act of praise). A lot of comparisons are also touted that at least Super Mario Bros: The Movie can be watched in a fun capacity, what with the actors being infamously drunk during shooting and the movie being worthy of a watch if you’re looking to laugh at how bad it is, while most seem to agree that the Halo show does not earn this distinction. There’s no “It’s so bad it’s good” moment for the Halo show, according to the internet. It’s just … bad. Even if the viewers happen to be drunk.

Sands, the watch group I initially saw the first two episodes with even fell apart for this reason. The majority of them were not players of the Halo games and knew little about the series, but when confronted with the TV show, none of them felt that watching something so poor even for the “fun” of mocking it was worth the time.

Okay, you get it. Halo, the TV show, is a pile of steaming streaming garbage. The consuming public has spoken, and reacted with a nigh-universal retching.

How? How did one of the most successful video-game properties of the last twenty years, one that has grown into successful books, comics, and other forms of entertainment, covering a sprawling universe that sees constant audience engagement, something that should have been a cinch to create a well-regarded TV show for … create this steaming pile of drek that’s now so thorough lambasted that users on social media feel the need to note that the regular Halo universe and story is fine, just the show is a pile of poo?

Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about today. But in a slightly different manner. We’re going to look at this from a learning perspective. What are all the common mistakes that the Halo TV show made that the show’s creators will refuse to learn from?

See, there’s the catch. Halo’s mistakes aren’t new in the slightest. In fact, they’re the same mistakes that plagued Super Mario Brothers: The Movie, almost thirty years ago. Once again, this is a case of Hollywood refusing to grow up, of making the same mistakes over and over again, which sure as the sun will rise once again on another day, they’ll make again because they refuse to believe they’re wrong.

So, let’s talk about some of the lessons we should learn—but won’t—from the utterly awful Halo TV show. Hit the jump.

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OP-ED: In Defense of the “Fiction” in “Science-Fiction”

“I can state flatly that heavier than air flying machines are impossible.”

—Lord Kelvin, not long before the flight at Kitty Hawk.

So for starters, I’m not sure how long this post is going to be. Additionally, it was sort of unplanned and very spontaneous (definitely a clear target for the “Disorganized Thoughts” tag).

But … I wanted to say it anyway. Some of you might be curious as to where this post is coming from, and so I’ll start there. In what I’m sure is a surprise to almost no one, I do tend to frequent or at least dwell occasionally in online Sci-Fi hangouts. I’ve talked about r/PrintSF before here on the site (at least, I’m fairly certain I’ve mentioned it at least once, but I know it’s been brought up in the Discord), and it’s not the only location I’ve spent time on online that discusses Sci-Fi in all its various forms.

As I said, I’m sure none of you are surprised by this. But in my spending time in these locations, discussing books, films, games, and other Sci-Fi, I have run across a number of opinions. Most of these are the fairly classic fare, such as “Kirk VS Picard” and “Peaceful aliens VS hostile aliens VS unknowable aliens.”

But there’s one particular crowd, a very vocal and outspoken crowd, that always irks me a little. In fairness, I think some of you will agree. But this group is … Well, they remind me of flat-earthers or climate-change deniers. Not, I stress, because they believe in a flat-earth, but because they display a parallel sort of thought process.

Maybe the best name for this group would be the “anti-fiction crowd.” Anti-science works too, as could anti-progression. The mindset behind it probably fits “anti-science” a bit better, but since we’re talking about Science-Fiction, we’ll stick with “anti-fiction.”

This crowd operates under two principles:

  1. No Science-Fiction book should writen about anything that is not 100% provable or capable by today.
  2. Science is absolute, and cannot be considered incomplete.

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OP-ED: Don’t Ban Things Just Because You Don’t Like Them

This post has been on my mind for a few months now. Like others, it’s being written in advance for posting. But in a way I’m glad, because I’ve already written it once and retooled it. After some consideration, I think the best way to go with this post is to be short and sweet.

There’s been a real rash in the last decade or so of folks seeking to “remove” what they don’t like from the public sphere. Various methods are being used, from twitter mobs that go after creators to try and get them removed or banned from communities or positions, to the latest incarnation, which is to use politicians and laws to block or remove things simply because one disagrees with them.

I wish I were joking. Kentucky just passed a law that, as I understand it, gives state politicians ultimate say over all public library funds and what they go toward. The implication made by the supporters of the bill is that it will allow them to examine what books are on public library shelves or requested by readers and then block all library funding until the “problematic” titles are removed. A similar bill is being pushed in Idaho that would launch an investigation into public libraries of that state to find “problematic material” and remove it from the library (likely, from what I’ve gathered, along with punishments to the library and staff for offering such “problematic” literature).

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Things I Miss from Covid

I realize that title sounds a bit strange, or maybe even upsetting. Just bear with me for a moment. There were good things about the Covid-year, by which I mean 2020.

Yes, I know that Covid-19 isn’t gone yet. It’s still sweeping through places—even my hometown—leaving pain and sadness in its wake. We’re still not through this. Not entirely.

But a lot of people are content to pretend that we are. And while there are good reasons for the pandemic to be over … there are bad ones as well.

Yesterday, I was out for a bike ride. Long-time readers know that I’m a regular bike rider. I live near a river trail that runs through a good chunk of the city I live in, and it’s a great way to get some fresh air and exercise.

But I noticed something as I was shooting along this trail. Something that took my brain back to some comments I’d made during 2020, at the height of lockdown. See, this trail takes its course past several very nice parks, each of which has playground equipment such as swings and slides.

And I noticed, with a bit of sadness, that a decent amount of this equipment was, in the early evening, unused.

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OP-ED: Not Every Popular Thing Goes with Every Other Thing – Or Why We Should Stop Shoving Dark Souls into Everything

This piece is going to aggravate a few people. I’ll state that up front because I know it’s going to aggravate them because I’ve already expressed this opinion elsewhere and had some people express very much that they disagreed with it.

But it’s a pretty straightforward opinion, and I’ll back it up as best I can. It basically boils down to a recent gaming experience (a rare reminder of one of my hobbies) that could be best summed up as “Stop shoving Dark Souls into everything, especially where it doesn’t fit!”

If you’re not familiar with the title offered there, I’m going to note that I don’t have a problem with the game itself. Dark Souls is a series (as well as a style) of game developed by FromSoftware that’s built around a very punishing, precise, methodical style of play. Your character is not agile and limber, but stiff and committed, unable to break free from an action they’ve committed to. Enemies are tough and on equal or better footing to the player. The result is a gameplay style where you must make very concise, clear, methodical choices—usually about when to roll, block, or strike—with a very limited window for error and even less leeway for actually making an error.

Effectively, every enemy is a sort of “trial and error” experience of learning when to strike and when to roll out of the way, with the message “you died” being a frequent companion to the player. You learn to watch every enemy’s tells, and you learn precisely when to counter, dodge roll for i-frames, or attack … or you’ll die. Again and again.

Here’s the thing: FromSoftware has devoted a lot of time to making this punishing, methodical style of gameplay work. It’s a game style that lends itself to a lot of rough edges, from cheap shots to badly designed combat encounters. And I make this bit clear: FromSoftware has worked very hard to make these rough edges as smooth as possible, taking out cheap shots, making sure enemies fall victim to the same physics that the player does, etc. The result has been a very successful series, to the point that a lot of players who are fans of it consider it the “original” hard game (to which those of us who played something like Ninja Gaiden Black just chuckle and roll our eyes). If you’ve heard anyone talking lately about Elden Ring, well that’s because it’s FromSoftware’s newest release in the market, and it’s tearing up the charts as it is a very well-realized evolution on the formula that’s made them such a success. Millions and millions of copies sold, the latest in a line of popular stylized combat games.

Now, I’ll state something up front before diving into the meat of this discussion: I don’t mind that these games exist. Dark Souls and the like are certainly not my cup of tea, with their slow, plodding combat, i-frame design (a practice I’ve never liked in almost any game I’ve played) and the design of being locked in whatever action you most recently set out to do. But I don’t mind that others enjoy the polished experience that FromSoftware provides. That’s fine. You play Dark Souls. I’ll play the liquid smooth, tough-as-nails Ninja Gaiden Black instead.

What I do have a problem with is every other developer out there going “Hey, this game is really popular. Why don’t we shove that gameplay into a game that has no reason to have it? It’s popular, right?”

It stinks of executive meddling or developers not understanding their own game, and I hate it.

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OP-ED: Labor and Ownership

Hello there readers! I’m taking a bit of a momentary break from Starforge editing to write this post and give myself a bit of time to decompress (though don’t worry, I’ll be back at Starforge shortly). This is a topic that’s been on my mind, coalescing, for several months now as shortages, particularly of the “worker” variety, have continued to make the news day after day.

Today’s particular musing comes from an actual—if short—conversation I had the other day with an individual who was very angry about the “worker shortage.”

A little bit of background for you; basically what they offered to me: This individual owned a local small coffee shop/kiosk, and was very angry about their current inability to have someone staff/work it. Apparently it was small enough that it could be run by just one worker, but they currently couldn’t find that worker. No one wanted to work for them.

Wait, it gets better. See, their little rant volunteered the information that they considered the job “minimum wage.” After all, they explained, it’s ‘just a coffee shop. No one should be making a lot of money from that. But now,’ they continued, ‘thanks to the laziness of entitled workers who think they should earn more, I’m not making my money from the coffee shop!’

As this was a group discussion, several people quickly asked questions which led to more information being offered—though based on the reactions that occurred, I believe this individual thought things were going to go very differently. Among this information we were given the following:

  • The owner made quite a bit more per hour just owning the shop than the lone worker did. In fact, they seemed to consider it a large portion—based on their wording, I’d guess at least half—of their yearly income, which was again, from their words, at least six digits.
  • Despite this, they refused to work in the shop itself, to the point that they would rather have the shop closed and be losing all that income than go work the position themselves because ‘it’s a low-tier position, I can’t be expected to degrade myself with that.’ It was also suggested among their words that they didn’t know how to do the job either: They’d just bought the setup and expected someone else to do it.
  • The owner themselves had no interaction with the shop other than paying the bills, the paycheck, and collecting the majority of the money.
  • They used the phrase ‘unAmerican’ to describe the concept of having to work at their own shop, and used the specific phrase of ‘it’s my right‘ to describe their relationship with employees and not being required to labor with the business.

After volunteering this information, they were both shocked and a little offended when few took their side. Instead of pity—though a few like minds did offer that—they instead found themselves challenged. My own voice was one of them calling out to the contrary to their claims, and I made a very pointed statement: Was it not entitled to own a store that they believed should only pay minimum level wage, that they themselves refused to work at, yet demand more than a minimum level wage for in essence, doing nothing other than throwing money at the place to start existing? I compared this to the concept of “The world owes me a living,” as this business owner believed it “beneath them” to be the one working the store, and yet wanted the majority of the reward for someone else doing that work.

I never got a response. The owner just left, apparently realizing that the particular audience they’d found was not sympathetic to his desire to be, in effect, the lazy grasshopper from The Ant and the Grasshopper.

But something they’d declared did stay with me. Not because I think it’s correct, but because I think it does serve as a source of so many of the problems facing the United Stated (and, by cultural extension, a lot of other countries). This concept that simply having “ownership” of a thing means that one is “owed” everything that comes from it … even if they’re not at all willing to put in any of the work or requisite knowledge.

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OP-ED: The Limping Engines

If you’ve been in any stores lately, or tried to buy something, or even just listened to the news, you’ve probably heard the term “supply shortage” thrown around. The supply shortage has dominated much of the public sphere lately, much in a manner similar to the fictitious “worker shortage.” People on the news won’t shut up about it, fingers are pointing every which way, and the average person listening to those sources will probably have an opinion about what the true cause of the supply shortage is.

We have facts. We know that hundreds of container ships are backed up outside US ports. We know that there’s a complicated system (in hand changes) that this cargo must go through, from longshoreman, to truckers, to railway workers.

But it isn’t. And a lot of people are wondering “Why?” as every step of that chain does its best to point fingers at the other. The Port of LA says that the truckers, the railways, the laws, and the ships are at fault. The truckers say that the railway, the port, the ships, and the laws are at fault. The railways say … eh, you get the idea.

Increasingly, people are coming up with their own theories and ideas on “Why?” Just this week, in a conversation that inspired this post, someone told me that they believed the whole thing was a conspiracy. By who they weren’t sure (or they didn’t want to say), but their logic behind such a determination I found quite interesting. They stated the following: ‘Well, it worked before. Why isn’t it working now?’

The answer, which I wasn’t given the chance to give them, is complex. But it boils down to this simple summation: It didn’t work before. It hasn’t for years. What we were seeing was the result of momentum from when it did work, slowly grinding to a halt as each error accumulation built up. So that when a big error came along and finally brought the whole system to a start, we discovered that it was too broken to start again.

Hit the jump. We’re going in.

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OP-ED: I Have a Confession to Make – I Can’t Stand Dragon-Rider Books

So the other day I was on Amazon, doing the usual bit of browsing, when I spotted one of those little advertisement bars that Amazon uses to get eyeballs on products by advertising things “like” what you’ve purchased or are interested in. To what should be no one’s surprise, Amazon has figured out that I like the book Axtara – Banking and Finance. Which isn’t exactly true, since I love that little book and its characters. Like isn’t a strong enough word.

Anyway, naturally I browsed this little recommended section because hey, I love Axtara, and Amazon thought these books were similar. It’s not always right, but I’m always down for a good dragon book, so I gave it a look. Even clicked on one that from the title, looked a little promising. Lots of reviews, high rating, all about dragons—

Oh wait. Scratch that. It wasn’t about dragons, but about dragon riders. That’s right, yet another book where dragons, intelligent or not, are reduced to glorified flying horses for a surely-not-just-like-every-other-fantasy-protagonist human.

To borrow from River City Ransom: BARF!!!

Look, I’ve always enjoyed dragons, ever since I was a kid. But I never enjoyed books about dragon riders (with one exception) because, well, honestly they never go past the trope. Again, with that one exception. The dragons are just mounts. Spiny, scaled, flying mounts that may or may not breathe fire. Worse, often they’re intelligent, as in fully sapient, but just fine living in a stable, being treated like a beast of burden, and generally only talking so that the protagonist has someone to talk to to reassure them that they’re “doing the right thing” or whatever.

Does it not bother anyone that a massive swath of dragon books involve treating a sentient being like a piece of property? If the dragon were human, we’d call it “slavery” and YA Twitter would descend with torches and pitchforks to burn that author’s career to the ground … even if the book were about how wrong it was and how the cast overcame it or fought against it.

But hey, if they’re not human, that makes it “okay” I guess. Sure, buy and sell the sapient species. They’re made to be mounts anyway! It’s what the universe intended!

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Why You Won’t Be Seeing My Work on Serial Story Sites

Hey readers! Really quick, before I get started on this post, don’t forget that if you’re a Patreon Supporter, there’s a poll going right now to determine the name of a new arms manufacturer in Starforge! Go vote!

Okay, now that you’ve done that … So yesterday someone upon encountering my work for the first time asked a question that I’ve heard before, which goes a bit like this: “Hey, is any of your work on any of those episodic release writing websites where I can just read a chapter a day/week for free?” For those of you who’ve never looked at or for such a thing, yes, these places exist.

And no. None of my work is on any of them (and if it is, it’s been stolen). Nor do I plan on having my work on any of them.

Now, some of you might be asking “Why?” and that’s a fair question. I had one individual (not a writer, imagine that) suggest that all the “real” writers were on Royalroad because that was “where the money was” and if I was ‘serious” about this writing thing, I should look at going there.

Well, they were correct about one thing. That’s where the money is. Just … not for the creator.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with services like RoyalRoad or the newly-arriving Vella (Amazon’s service which they’ve several times begged me to join) they’re basically a serialized story service. Think of the basic setup a bit like a fanfiction site (though with a lot more money at stake) in terms of delivering readers categorized content, easy to search and find.

But now take it one step further. Rather than one-off stories or completed work, the goal here is to hook readers on serialized content that’s produced as rapidly as possible. So a reader comes to the site and finds, for example, a romance story that updates with a new chapter every day or every week. The goal of the site is to get that reader coming back every day or every week and reading the new chapter, which triggers their ad revenue. Or better yet, said reader can become a premium reader and pay a little bit each day to read ahead, as the story itself is usually a couple chapters ahead. As long as the reader is willing to pay a fee (a buck or two, usually) for that story each week, they can read the next chapter “before” the rest of the world.

And when you look at it like that, it doesn’t seem that bad. Not from the reader’s perspective. They can log in, read their new chapter each day on their phone, confirm that they’re paying for it, and come back again the next day.

But here’s the thing … If I wanted to do that system … I could do it right here on my website. In fact, I did, except that it was free entirely, with no fees or ads, with Fireteam Freelance. Of course, it wasn’t identical. People had to load my webpage rather than an app to check the latest chapters, and there was no way to become a “premium” reader and pay money to look ahead.

Outside of me being able to set up the same process on my website, however, there’s another reason you’ll never see me on sites like RoyalRoad or Vella.

They’re made to bleed money to the siteholders. Not to authors/creators.

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