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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Political Themes: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games was released nearly 10 years ago and led off one of the best selling trilogies in recent years, with the three books in the series having sold more than 65 million copies. It led to a popular series of films based on the books and happened to be one of the works that inspired my own writing.

The Hunger Games series also happens to feature a number of political themes, though they may not be obvious upon first glance.

After all, the prevailing storyline surrounding The Hunger Games series is 12 districts in the nation of Panem each having to send one boy and one girl, each 12 to 17 years old, as "tributes" to participate in a battle to the death, from which only one may survive. Katniss Everdeen, the chief protagonist of the series, only volunteers to be a tribute because she wants to protect her sister, whose name was drawn to be said tribute. Along the way, she finds herself becoming the unwilling symbol of a rebellion against the Capitol, all while caught in a love triangle with her longtime friend Gale Hawthorne and fellow tribute Peeta Mallark.

But at the heart of The Hunger Games is class warfare, illustrated in terms of how the citizens are divided into districts. The residents of the Capitol are the elite of the society, decadent to the point of wasting food, speak in a different accent than district residents and have a taste for exotic fashions. But even with the Hunger Games themselves being a bloody spectacle, most of the Capitol residents become emotionally invested in the tributes.

And the districts themselves each serve a specific industry or specialty. Districts 1, 2 and 4 are dubbed the Capitol's "lapdogs" by most of the other districts. District 1 creates luxury goods, District 2 specializes in masonry and military and District 4 focuses on fishing and seafood. In the cases of Districts 1 and 4, the nature of the goods that are produced makes those districts favored above others. And because District 2 is where the military force of Panem, the Peacekeepers, are trained, it also holds special favor with the Capitol. In modern terms, you would think of District 1 as the arts, District 2 as the troops and police and District 4 as higher-end food.

District 3, which specializes in electronics, isn't considered a favored district but is implied to be on the higher end of the economic scale, along with 1, 2 and 4. The rest of the districts are considered poor, with District 5 specializing in hydroelectric power, District 6 in transportation, District 7 in lumber, District 8 in textiles, District 9 in grain, District 10 in livestock, District 11 in fruits and vegetables and District 12 in coal. As you'll notice, the bulk of the districts on the lower end of the economic scale are associated with rural industries.

In fact, another way to look at District 12 -- where Katniss Everdeen lives -- is that it specializes in goods that, in today's world, are associated with Trump voters!

Seriously, the fact is that coal mining doesn't have a good reputation among much of the elite today. And the parallels between District 12 in Panem and coal-mining towns today are pretty striking. They are both at the lower end of the economic scale, they find themselves neglected by the elite and they grow suspicious of them. In District 12, Peacekeepers look the other way when it comes to black markets and hunting activities that are illegal.

But there's more class divide than just between the Capitol and the districts themselves. Within the districts, those who hold the government positions or run the shops tend to be a little better off than those who do the laboring for the local industries. Within the Capitol itself, it's revealed that those who live on the fringes tend not to be as favored or well off as those who live toward the center. And there are a number of shops that are located far away from the main streets, where people who used to hold special favor from the Capitol are stuck working because they're no longer considered useful.

Class divide is all around throughout Panem, so it's no surprise that there is resentment building against President Cornelius Snow, who rules over Panem and lives in, by far, the largest and most luxurious of the mansions. The Hunger Games themselves are certainly not popular among most of the districts -- even with Districts 1, 2 and 4 training kids to become "Career tributes" -- but what makes Snow and the Capitol just as unpopular are the living conditions in most of the districts. The only district that is slow to come around to the eventual rebellion is District 2, namely because it houses the military operations and its residents tend to be fiercely loyal to the Capitol.

But author Suzanne Collins presents class divide in a means that people can relate to. Few, if any, people would approve of a spectacle in which people are forced to send children and teenagers into an arena to fight to the death. The totalitarian rule throughout Panem would make a lot of people suspicious. And while Katniss Everdeen makes it no secret she dislikes the way things are in Panem, her interests lie more in protecting her sister, rather than wanting to embrace a political cause. Most people are like this -- they would first strive to protect those that they are close to before engaging in political action.

Another political theme throughout the books is the usage of propaganda to advance a cause. This is first evident in how the Capitol plays up The Hunger Games as an event that has brought the people of Panem together and how tributes are coached up to present themselves as somebody the Capitol residents should root for. It is utilized by President Snow as a means of trying to keep the districts in line when tensions start to rise. And it is ultimately used by Alma Coin, president of the supposedly destroyed District 13, which has been secretly building its military reserves for a rebellion.

But what makes propaganda an effective political theme is that it doesn't always have to be political. Propaganda makes its way into how the tributes present themselves, in how they find ways to manipulate Capitol residents into rooting for them and a willingness to send gifts to the tributes when they are fighting in the arena. Compare this to how businesses advertise and promote products -- or even how an author promotes his or her books!

And alongside the political themes, there are themes that don't dive into the political realm. A big one is how people can find themselves developing relationships with others when they might not otherwise do so. Katniss Everdeen finds it hard to trust people, thanks in large part to her father dying while working in the coal mines and her mother becoming withdrawn after that. Katniss only finds comfort in her sister Primrose, though she later finds additional comfort in Gale. But there are a host of others who she is initially cold towards.

It's part of what keeps Katniss from being a likable character in every way at first. There are plenty of reasons for readers to empathize with her and, to a degree, sympathize with her. But some people may find her attitude rubbing them the wrong way. In the first book, after Peeta's father gives her some cookies, she throws them away after suspecting Peeta is doing nothing more than sucking up to District 12's tribute mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. That's not exactly the type of gesture you would think of when you want a hero to root for.

Over time, though, Katniss finds more people she connects with and, for those who she doesn't connect with at first, she learns to do so. This is how Katniss is transformed from a character people will empathize with at first, to sympathizing with as the books progress. Katniss is far from the perfect individual with no flaws whatsoever -- and, at times, may engage in actions people don't agree with. It's the type of protagonist that is much easier to relate to, rather than being a one-dimensional character who is said to always be right.

That brings us to the main antagonist, President Snow. He does hold a valid point about why he does what he does -- the nation before Panem was involved in a great war and he believes this structure must be kept in place to ensure the survival of the human race. But while the survival of the human race is a point people can empathize with, there is never a moment in which President Snow is a sympathetic character. His actions are, in many cases, impossible to defend. That is what keeps people rooting for Katniss to prevail.

The trilogy concludes with Panem taking on new leadership, though it remains to be seen how the new government will take shape and what it means for the citizens. It does provide a degree of hope, mostly for Katniss moving on to a stable relationship with Peeta and, eventually, having children -- something Katniss swore she would never do because of the Hunger Games.

But what The Hunger Games series doesn't do is provide easy answers to those political questions it raises. It only addresses the issue that certain methods will not be accepted -- namely that the Hunger Games are no more. The rest is left up for readers to decide where things will go and if Panem's leadership will show people a better path. It's best summarized in what Plutarch Heavensbee tells Katniss Everdeen after leadership matters in Panem are settled.

"Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated. But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss."

That's a question people should always ask themselves after what's considered to be a terrible regime is removed from power -- are we going to remember those horrors and not repeat our mistakes? Or will humanity fall victim to its weaknesses again?

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Arrowverse 'Other World' Chapter 1 - Supergirl

Disclaimer: This is the first chapter in a story about an "other world" based on the Arrowverse, the CW shows that focus on DC superheroes. I am writing this as my way of paying homage to my fandom for the Arrowverse. The character names Supergirl, Green Arrow, The Flash, Canary and Brainiac are trademarks of DC Comics. These chapters are free to read, they will not be published in book format, nor will any revenue be generated from the chapters. If there are legal issues involved with the usage of these characters, please email me at bwmorris at mail dot com and I will cease with the writing. Critiquing of my writing is welcomed and may be left in the comments.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Political Themes: Planet Of The Apes

Planet of the Apes was released in 1968, in a time when movie studios didn't believe that science fiction could appeal to a mass audience. It was also released during a time in which the United States was politically charged in more ways than those who reminisce about "the good old days" may realize.

The movie is a prime example of not only how political themes can be explored in a movie, but doing it with a protagonist who is not likable to start and who some viewers might have trouble sympathizing with at first. And when said political themes are explored, they are done in a way in which it's not always obvious upon first glance.

The first act of the film focuses on the plight of the American astronaut Taylor, who joins three other astronauts on a mission in space, in which their ship is traveling near the speed of light and follows the theory that, while hundreds of years will pass by, the crew will hardly age. In the opening scene, Taylor's attitude at first appears to be that of a man who engages in deep, philosophical thinking. Consider this observation he makes before he enters hibernation:

"You who are reading me are now a different breed -- I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing -- if anybody's listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It's purely personal. But seen from out here, everything's different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man's ego, I feel lonely.
"That's about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor's children starving?"

But it's not long before we find out that Taylor didn't make these observations because he is a great philosopher. He's revealed to be arrogant, cynical and often dismissive of his fellow astronauts. He ridicules Dodge for leaving a small American flag in the rocks and his heroic instincts. Taylor mocks Dodge for being the type of person who would sign up for this mission to seek out new adventures for personal glory, while considering himself a seeker of his own type. "I can't help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be," he muses.

And after Taylor becomes quite dismissive of the primitive humans that roam this planet, you wouldn't think this is the type of person you'd want to root for. Only the long journey in which it takes days for the astronauts to seek out life keeps the audience from turning on Taylor.

But when Taylor reaches the height of his arrogance, that's when the revelation that the planet is dominated by a race of intelligent apes comes about.

It's at this point that Taylor's path starts to take a turn from viewers merely empathizing with Taylor to sympathizing with him. On this planet, humans are treated as inferior. The dismissive nature of Dr. Zaius makes it clear that he has no time for "domesticating" human beings and that, while he's fine with experimental surgery on a human's brain, he wants nothing to do with studying humans to see if they can gain intelligence. Consider this quote from Zaius:

"Why, man is a nuisance. He eats up his food supply in the forest, then migrates to our green belts and ravages our crops. The sooner he is exterminated, the better. It is a question of simian survival."

Take that quote and change it around to describe any group of human beings, whether born that way or not, and you can see the immediate political implications.

There are more subtle ways of delivering political themes throughout the movie, too. As many who have broken down the film observe, the apes themselves are divided into social classes. The gorillas, who have the darkest complexion, are either soldiers or perform menial tasks. The orangutans, who have the lightest complexion, are the politicians and priests. The chimpanzees, whose complexions fall in between, are the scientists and philosophers.

But there's another way to think about the racial allegory. The orangutans and the gorillas find human beings beneath them and, while a few chimpanzees are sympathetic to the humans, hardly any want to treat the humans as equals. Indeed, the female chimpanzee scientist Zira takes an interest in Taylor and wants to learn more about him and if it is true that another intelligent race -- perhaps of humans -- existed before simian culture. But she still insists on putting a leash and collar on Taylor, making it clear she doesn't see Taylor at first as truly being her equal.

Events lead to a tribunal hearing that resembles the hearings during the rise of Joseph McCarthy in Congress, in which multiple people were continually pressed about whether or not they were members of the Communist Party, simply because these people spoke out against American policies at the time. Indeed, the hearing is revealed not to be a trial to determine whether or not Taylor has committed any sort of crime, but to portray Zira and her husband Cornelius as guilty of heresy for daring to consider that another intelligent race of beings existed before apes.

Not only are the hearing portrayed similar to the McCarthy hearing, they throw in hints of the Scopes trial, in which the theory of evolution was brought into question and how it conflicted with Biblical stories that were used to determine when humans came into existence. In both cases, there's a political theme about how government authority can be subject to abuse.

All the while, though, you don't see Zaius portrayed as a one-dimensional character. In fact, there are hints that Zaius believes Taylor's claim that he came from another planet, but is more willing to accept that Taylor must come from a tribe of mutants elsewhere on this planet. You get a sense that Zaius may know more than he's letting on, but that he must have a reason for not revealing what he really knows.

These events, along with Taylor becoming attached to the mute female Nova, turn Taylor into a more sympathetic character than he was at the beginning of the film. Viewers who weren't inclined to cheer for Taylor at first are now given reasons to do so.

Getting back to Zaius, what he really knows is revealed in the final acts after Cornelius and Zira help Taylor and Nova escape, then explore an archeological dig that suggests that human being possessed intelligence and a more advanced culture at one time. The revelation of a human doll that talks would, at first glance, appear to vindicate Zira and Cornelius about their theories. But Zaius asks Cornelius to read an article from the sacred scrolls, one that puts Zaius' views on mankind into perspective.

"Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil's pawn. Alone among God's primates, he kills for sport or lust or greed. Yea, he will murder his brother to possess his brother's land. Let him not breed in great numbers, for he will make a desert of his home and yours. Shun him, drive him back into his jungle lair, for he is the harbinger of death."

This article forces Taylor, for a moment, to reconsider that Zaius has a point, because the article sounds a lot like the observations Taylor made when he was on that spaceship. Still, Taylor insists on looking for his own answers and Zaius allows he and Nova to escape, then orders the archaeological dig sealed so that nobody will know the truth -- but as he tells Zira that he is sorry she and Cornelius must stand trial for heresy, he has good reason to keep the truth hidden, as he hints when Zira asks Zaius what Taylor will find out there: "His destiny."

And that, of course, leads to the big reveal that Taylor has been on Earth all this time, and the obvious political allegory about the dangers of nuclear war is thrown right into viewers' laps.

All the while, though, there are more political themes and allegories rolled out -- but what makes them work is that they are done without making it too obvious to the viewer. There are also moments in which humor is injected and a few tropes of adventures films are rolled out.

Most of all, the protagonist isn't always in the right and the antagonist has a valid point. But what keeps the antagonist from being somebody you would sympathize with is not his ideology, but his methods. Meanwhile, the protagonist's ideology isn't necessarily one every person who watches the film will agree with -- and while some may not appreciate the methods the protagonist employs, most would understand given the protagonist's predicament.

And in the end, viewers are left with the question: Was Taylor right about how there has to be something better out there than man -- or was he right to become mankind's chief defender?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Arrowverse "Other World" Project

I've had several story ideas floating through my mind and one kept coming back to me -- one that goes back to one of my loves as a comic book geek.

I'm a big fan of what's known as the Arrowverse on CW, referring to the multiple shows that are based on DC Comics characters. Arrow was the first of these shows, followed by The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl, and these shows have crossed over with one another several times. More recently, Black Lightning premiered on CW and, while it is not yet considered part of the Arrowverse, the show creators have left open the possibility of crossovers in the future.

And as I explored more of DC Comics and what is known as "other worlds," I kept getting this story idea in my mind about an alternative version of the main characters in the Arrowverse. I couldn't get this story idea out of mind, but knowing that the characters in question are owned by DC, I couldn't put together a novel for publication for money.

But then I thought -- why not roll out this story on my blog? I generate no money from this blog, so I figure that might be okay to do.

For those who aren't familiar with "other worlds" in DC Comics, it refers to exploring variations of DC Comics characters that don't fit right into the main continuity. Some of the examples and their "what if" situations are:

* Superman, Red Son: What if baby Kal-El's rocket landed in the Soviet Union instead of Kansas and he grew up knowing the values of that nation?
* Batman, Gotham by Gaslight: What if there was a Bruce Wayne who existed back in the later 1800s who became a masked vigilante hunting down Jack the Ripper?
* Justice League: Kingdom Come: What might the Justice League look like when the members are much older and their proteges and children are now the primary heroes?

That brings me back to the "other world" I had in mind for the Arrowverse, in which I thought about different versions of Green Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and White Canary. In my story, you don't see the versions of the characters as they appear in either the comics or the CW shows -- these are alternate versions of the characters.

My plan is to write a "chapter" at a time, let that chapter sit for a week, then go back to review and revise, before posting it to my blog. Once that's done, I'll post the chapter. Though my plan is to post chapters on Wednesdays, they may go up other days depending on my schedule.

In the meantime, you'll be able to critique and comment on the writing and what you think works or doesn't work for you -- or just sit back and enjoy what I have to share.

I do have other writing projects I hope to complete as my work schedule lightens, but I hope to fit this "other world" in as I have the time.

One heads up: I will be putting up disclaimers that I don't own the rights to the characters and, therefore, the stories will not be published in book form. I don't believe there will be legal issues from sharing a story for free on my blog, but if it there is a problem (and I hope there won't be), I may have to stop sharing these stories. Also, these will be "family friendly" stories in line with the guidelines Clean Reads, the publisher of my Six Pack series, has in place.

I hope you will all enjoy what I have planned in the coming weeks -- and you can still expect my regular blog updates on Sundays.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Works Are Political, But Not How You Think

Many believe that political polarization is at an all-time high and some believe that it's time for entertainment to stop being so darn political.

Both the critics and the defenders of political themes in books, movies, music and TV shows fail to understand some key points. The critics fail to understand that much of what has passed off for entertainment has been political in nature, but the defenders of entertainment fail to understand how political themes were handled.

For those who think entertainment shouldn't be political, it's been happening longer than you think. In books, you have 1984, Huckleberry Finn and The Hunger Games. In movies, you have Planet of the Apes and a few recent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In music, Creedence Clearwater Revival slipped plenty of political themes into their songs, ditto for John Mellencamp and Bruce Springsteen. Comic books have explored them, too, as evidenced by The Watchmen and the Civil War storyline in Marvel Comics.

But for those who point out that entertainment has been political, one needs to examine how political themes were inserted into the works. Movies used allegories to make a point. Songs were subtle with their political themes, in which you would have to pay close attention to the lyrics to notice them. Books that explored such themes used alternative realities and speculated about the future to illustrate points. Most of all, those who explored political themes in such works, while some were more obvious than others, didn't beat people over the head with them.

Sticking with books, what really makes a political theme work is when you have complexity, where your protagonist may not always be in the right but is kept relatable, where the antagonist has a valid point but his or her methods are questionable, and where you don't provide the reader an easy answer to the problems faced.

Those who do the best job at exploring political themes in their works don't make it easy for people who read or watch the products to determine who is right or wrong -- though they may find themselves sympathizing more with a particular character. And they are the type of works in which you go back and read or view them again, you might find yourself asking if the person you sided with the first time is really the person you should have sided with.

I think the real problem is that those who don't want forms of entertainment becoming political is because they are exposed to politics so much through 24-7 news media and social media, so they want to escape that. Of course, for those people, they are probably better off cutting down 24-7 news media and social media consumption instead of insisting that nobody producing a book, song or movie can ever touch upon a political theme.

And the problem with those who defend political themes in entertainment is they forget that the best way to make a political theme work is to not engage in absolutes, where one side is declared right in every way and the other side is wrong in every way. Instead, it requires making both sides people that one can empathize with, but might not necessarily sympathize with -- and though readers or viewers might sympathize with the protagonist, there can be times in which readers or viewers question whether the protagonist is doing the right thing. For those who think otherwise, they are the types that are more interested in being told what they want to hear, rather than engaging in introspection.

In the coming weeks, I'll touch upon a few works that explored political themes, how the creators pulled them off and why that's the way one should explore such a theme that way -- and why, if you examine them closely, you are forced to ask yourself difficult questions rather than get easy answers.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

From Watchmen to Doomsday Clock

More than 40 years ago, Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins introduced the world to The Watchmen, a team of superheroes that were intended to deconstruct, examine and parody the concept of superheroes.

Late last year, DC Comics rolled out its latest miniseries, Doomsday Clock, involving some of the characters that trio created, but incorporating them into its mainline DC Universe.

Starting with The Watchmen, who would have guessed that the characters Moore and company created would have become such a critical success that Time magazine would recognize the single volume edition as one of its 100 best novels published in the English language since 1923.

I have come to appreciate the introspection that Moore brought to the world of superheroes, asking the larger questions about what role do they really play in a society and how do they really benefit people, if they do at all. His characters are multi-dimensional, their flaws are highlighted for all to see, but they are given qualities that people can identify with and question who really is in the right.

Ozymandias is considered the world's smartest man and seeks to prove how brilliant his ideas are to save the human race. Rorschach is a skeptic of human nature and see no issues with going to great lengths to ensure the guilty are punished. Nite Owl longs for the days when superheroes were accepted in society. Dr. Manhattan questions whether or not life is really worth living. Silk Spectre must answer questions about her upbringing. And The Comedian is cynical yet more than happy to advance whatever cause the federal government backs.

Watchmen works in large part because it's never clear as to who is really right or wrong as events unfold. It utilizes an interesting technique, with a "story within a story" that features a youth in New York City reading the fictional comic "Tales of the Black Freighter." The fictional comic serves as a parallel to the story of Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias, and his plans for saving the world from the threat of nuclear war.

The popularity of The Watchmen was a blessing and a curse for Moore, because language was added into Moore's contract with DC that the rights to the characters would revert to him after a period of time. But as The Watchmen increased in popularity, DC continued to release bound volumes of the series, thus claiming the right to the characters as long as the series remained in print.

That has made the decision to utilize several of The Watchmen characters in the limited series Doomsday Clock a controversial move for some of Moore's biggest fans. That series has had three issues released thus far and has been interesting to see how events unfolded. There is already much evidence that Dr. Manhattan has been messing with the timeline in the main DC Universe (it's been alluded to ever since DC launched its Rebirth effort) and it appears Dr. Manhattan and Superman are due for a confrontation. The series has already presented the first meeting between Ozymandias and Lex Luthor and Batman meeting up with the second person to take up the Rorschach mantle.

Whether or not Doomsday Clock can live up to Watchmen remains to be seen, but given the way the plot is unfolding, it appears we may have yet another critical examination of what superheroes are really all about.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Book Review: Kistishi Island

Kistishi Island follows the tales of Serena Cole, who gets constant advice from two women only she can see. Her family tries to convince her that her friends are imaginary and others think she has a mental health problem, particularly with how she handles herself against bullies at school.

No longer trusting her aunt, Serena goes out to join her mother at an archeological dig, only to learn that the friends that only she can are goddesses who are native to the island. A mystery unfolds around Serena about the island, the goddesses and what her role will be in saving everyone.

Serena is a strong character, somebody who is easy to sympathize with. Author Jordan Elizabeth Mierek does a great job with Serena's portrayal, particularly how much she wants to be with her mother and how she remains convinced her friends are real (and ultimately proves that is indeed the case).

Though it does take a while for the story to get going, the latter chapters in the book are where I found it harder to put the book down. Mierek does a good job building tension in the latter half of the book, by which point I was rooting for Serena to come through on her journey.

There were a few minor characters who seemed superficial to the story, though. Otherwise, this was an enjoyable book with an interesting concept.

Kistishi Island is a recommended read.