Storytelling and Imaginary Worlds

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy isn’t very fun and that’s largely because it’s a trilogy. Lawrence Dodds claims this unnecessary expansion of a very short novel into a very long, three part film results from giving in to desires of nerds. Dodds’s article is interesting and worth reading, but also rather confused. He makes two claims when he thinks he’s making one, and it’s not clear either is to blame for the turgid storytelling of Jackson’s films.

Here’s Dodds’s first formulation of the problem:

This is what British sci-fi author M. John Harrison called “the clomping foot of nerdism” – and, unfortunately for all of us, it has taken over. In an essay which caused a storm in sci-fi’s teacup back in 2007, Harrison criticised the urge, felt by both authors and fans, to exhaustively catalogue every detail of an unreal world as if it were a real place rather than a literary device.

Nerds like heavily detailed worlds. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was heavily detailed. His novel The Hobbit was not. The former, in Dodd’s opinion, lacked a good story. The latter exemplifies the “spirit of the storyteller.”

But does a world rich in detail get in the way of telling a great story? I’m not so sure. I can think of many examples of wonderful stories set in exceedingly detailed imaginary worlds. Dune, for instance. And let’s not forget that our own world is pretty detailed–“a real place rather than a literary device”–and yet we manage to tell good stories set within it all the time.

The problem with the Hobbit movies isn’t the exhaustive detail. It’s that Jackson can’t seem to figure out what the story is. In fact, most of what’s wrong with the movies isn’t the constant mention of world details. It’s the other stories Jackson piles in and the unnecessary action sequences he “contributes” to Tolkien’s tale.

That nerds like exhaustively detailed worlds isn’t a problem so long as nerds like good stories told in those worlds, too. And they do! Because everyone likes good stories and dislikes bad ones, and people generally agree that Jackson’s Hobbit movies lack something when it comes to storytelling.

Dodds’s goes on to raise another concern about nerd culture, as if it were the same as the first. But it’s not.

What nerds are chasing when they get passionate about canon is a fantasy of purity – the idea that a fictional world could be solely dictated by its own internal consistency and not by real-world demands. But they are forgetting how the original, Biblical canon was formed. Like some humming simulation, fantasy canons can be quickly snuffed out if their owners in the real world decree. Star Wars is changing because the people who own it want JJ Abrams to make a new movie and make them more money. They believe he can’t do that if he’s bound and encumbered on every side by the intricate designs of its previous stewards. That, in the end, is that.

Here he has brought up something weird about (some) nerd culture. It’s the Trekkie profoundly upset by inconsistencies between subsystems in the warp drive between episodes. It’s the tendency of a certain sort of nerd to blur the line between fantasy and reality.

But I’m not sure what this has to do with level of detail or how the two are necessarily linked. Look at cannon debates about old 80s cartoons with only a handful of episodes. Look at bronies.

For certain breed of nerd, system clarity matters more than it does to most. They like the world–or a world–to be comprehensible. It’s why they’re drawn to computers, which are unambiguous. It’s why they embrace utilitarianism, with its algorithmic approach to human morality. It’s why they dig Star Trek’s federation–with its clear rules and uncomplicated dress code–over the messy world outside their door.

But that’s its own issue and has little or nothing to do with the difference between Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

The Rot in America’s Soul

It’s difficult to overstate the evil of the acts documented in the torture report. To see the evil of the men who oversaw those acts, read through Dick Cheney’s Meet the Press interview from Sunday. Conor Friedersdorf has a good overview. Cheney sees nothing wrong with committing horrific acts against human beings, so long as doing so somehow, possibly leads to fulfilling his objective. Writes Friedersdorf,

That exchange leaves no room for mistaking former vice-president Cheney’s position: better to chain a man to the wall of a cell, douse him in cold water, and leave him there to freeze to death, even if he later turns out to be innocent, than to release that same man and risk not that he detonates a nuclear bomb in Manhattan, but that he ends up “on the battlefield,” where there’s a chance he could harm Americans. What if fully one-in-four prisoners tortured by the CIA were innocent?

Dick Cheney belongs in a cell. That much is obvious, and no reasonable, moral person can disagree. The trouble is, it’ll never happen. Cheney will live out the rest of his life free, getting paid for speeches, talking at conservative think tanks, and appearing on TV. He’s a war criminal who will be defended by partisans and will escape justice because of politics. America prides itself on its values and lectures the rest of the world about theirs. And there’s much to admire about American values. But how we treat evil reflects on our values, too. Especially when that evil used to have an office in the White House.

A Reply to My Essay on the Immorality of Voting

My friend and colleague Jonathan Blanks has written a response to my essay yesterday on the morally troubling aspects of voting. In the delightfully titled “Pay No Attention to the Man Who Won’t Stand Behind the Voting Curtain,” Blanks takes me to task for putting philosophy before practicality.

Philosophy has its place, as it informs our beliefs and ideals. However, removing yourself—and, more damning, those whom agree with you most—from the election process eliminates the largest incentive for politicians to care what you and those like you believe.

His argument is that even if my vote doesn’t decide the election–and the chance of it doing so is so small as to effectively not exist–government still pays attention to voting collectives.

But in toss-up districts and states, enough people who vote libertarian can, by shifting the margin, change the outcome of an election. A party that is on the losing end of that would be wise to cater to libertarian issues in the future.

Whether he’s right is a political science question, not a philosophy one. And he may be right that there are times practicality trumps moral purity. (Though if and when that’s true is, of course, a philosophical question!) But I think this is a case where we can both be right. As I wrote at the end of my piece,

If you cast a vote today, there’s a pretty high chance that in morally significant ways you’re acting just like those friends mugging the old man. You may think there are good reasons for doing this, that a world where you vote for violations of basic human dignity and autonomy will be more livable—happier, freer, wealthier, more equal—than one where you don’t. But you’re still party to countless immoralities.

Sometimes committing a moral wrong is justified. Sometimes we have very good reasons to do something unethical. (The inability to recognize and shed light on these situations is one of the chief reasons utilitarianism remains an unsatisfactory moral philosophy.) But that doesn’t mean they’re not still, to some extent, immoral.

A Quick Take on Peter F. Hamilton’s “The Reality Dysfunction”

Summer before last, I finished the Mass Effect trilogy and it left me wanting more space opera. I’d read a ton of science fiction in high school and early college, but then drifted into crime novels. Mass Effect gave me a newfound appetite for spaceships, galactic mysteries, and epic storytelling.

This took a bit of research, given how out of touch I was with the space opera genre. But I found Peter F. Hamilton, decided his Night’s Dawn trilogy was the place to start, and ordered The Reality Dysfunction. That was in July 2012. I finished the book this week. It’s a long book, but not that long.

Thing is, between starting my first Hamilton novel and finishing it, I read five-and-a-half more of his books: the two books of the Commonwealth Saga, the Void Trilogy, and the first part of Great North Road. In fact, from the time I picked up The Reality Dysfunction and today, Hamilton has accounted for a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. I’m hooked. I’ll likely polish off his entire corpus soon enough.

This book has everything that makes Hamilton great. Amazing world-building, economically-defined but still intriguing characters, terrific plotting. The pacing’s good, too, if you aren’t turned off by setting detail. (As a guy who grew up reading fat RPG books obsessively, I dig the stuff.)

But Hamilton made a poor decision in structuring the book, and it’s what caused me to take so long to finish it. While his later books feature lots of characters, he puts the focus on typically three or four. In The Reality Dysfunction, I lost count. Often, a lengthy section will be from the point of view of a character introduced for that section and then never seen again.

Anyone who played the Mass Effect trilogy–which, again, are what prompted my plunge into Hamilton’s books–knows that beyond anything else those games worked because of their characters. No matter how strange events got, they were grounded in a group of people you came to care about. Hamilton’s later books are the same. After finishing the Commonwealth Saga, I didn’t realize how much I missed some of the characters until they reappeared in the The Dreaming Void and it felt like bumping into old friends.

That’s what’s missing from The Reality Dysfunction. The world is excellent, the plot engaging, and I want to know how it all ends. But it reads like a series of events instead of the experiences of people. We’re not with any particular character enough to feel attached. Which made the book easy to drift away from. I liked it while I was reading it, but when I put it down for something else (a habit I appear completely stuck with), I didn’t feel much draw to go back. It’s one thing to find out what happens next. But what makes a book un-put-downable is wanting to find out what happens next to characters you care about.

Buy The Reality Dysfunction from Amazon

The Moral Ambiguity of Voting

For election day, I’ve published a new column at on the morally troubling aspects of voting.

When we vote, we aren’t just deciding for ourselves. We’re attempting to decide for others, too. We’re not just expressing a preference (“I prefer traditional taxis to ride sharing services.”), but also expressing a desire to see that preference made, through the application of violence or the threat of violence, the law of the land. We’re saying our opinions are so informed, correct, and important that we’re willing to have men with guns make our fellow Americans obey them, even if our fellow Americans also believe their own opinions are informed, correct, and important.

The Corrupt Pleasure of Politics

One of the most troubling things about living in Washington, DC, is witnessing how many people find politics fun. These are the people who get super excited about a political candidate, talking about the chance of her winning with the same glee others discuss their team’s shot at a Super Bowl or World Series. These are the people who read Politico because they love the soap opera of Congress and the horse race of campaigns.

But it’s a corrupt pleasure and those who seek it ought to knock it off. Because politics is always and everywhere a failure of humanity. If we were better people, if we were of higher moral character, we wouldn’t need the state. We wouldn’t need, or feel the urge to, use the state to beat our neighbors into going along with–or at least paying for–our preferences, passions, and whims. We’d live our lives and let others do the same.

Thus the celebration of politics is the celebration of failure. It’s the celebration of our chronic inability to live up to the standards we ought to strive for. You can participate in politics because you want to make the world better. But you must at all time be aware that “making the world better” means making the world the sort of place where politics is recognized as the dirty and degrading business of people who are capable of so much better. It’s never something to be proud of, and it sure as hell isn’t something you should find fun.

Star Wars Rebels

Star Wars Rebels feels like Star Wars. It looks like Star Wars. And it’s a whole lot more fun than The Clone Wars.

Which isn’t even really The Clone Wars’s fault. Very nearly everything about the prequels was terrible. And so the show got dragged down by having to be about Anakin and Obi-Wan—who Lucas, over three movies, had developed into utter dullness. It was burdened by those silly battle droids, who never felt like a threat—and didn’t even have the good sense to look cool while being non-threatening, like the stormtroopers managed so well. And it suffered from the banality of the clones themselves, carbon copies with all the personality that phrase implies. The Clone Wars did the best it could with what it had, but what it had was terrible.

Star Wars Rebels, on the other hand, gets to riff off the original trilogy. That means it’s Star Wars through and through. An Empire that feels dangerous. Glistening stormtroopers and lots of TIE Fighters. Jedi who come off as mysteriously powerful instead of dime-a-dozen cartoons. It’s about a band of misfits and outsiders struggling against impossible odds, not a bunch of cardboard cutouts from the heights of power (Jedi council members, queens, senators) blowing up an enemy that never seems to have a purpose and is lead by villains as clueless as their droids. The crew of the Ghost would fit right in at the Mos Eisley cantina.

I admit not expecting to enjoy it. The previews of Rebels didn’t inspire confidence, with a tone more approaching Lego Star Wars than A New Hope. But fortunately, Rebels isn’t much like its previews. Nor does it confirm the fears of many that it would, as a result of the Disney connection, be “for kids.” I mean, of course Rebels is for kids. But then so was A New Hope. But Rebels doesn’t come off as juvenile. The plot has decent depth, and so do the characters. About the only way to see is as “for kids” in a negative sense is if you insist on your Star Wars being as grim and dark as the final act of Revenge of the Sith.

So, yeah, this new show’s pretty good. If Star Wars Rebels represents what we can expect from Disney, then we can expect pretty good things.

Video Games Should Always Let You Win

Well, maybe not always. And maybe not every type of game. But, still, imagine this: You’re reading a super terrific novel. The setting’s wonderful, the characters demand attention, and you can’t wait to find out what happens next. The thing is, at the end of every chapter there’s a puzzle. Complete it and you get to keep reading. Fail and you can try again, but until you solve it, you can’t progress any further in the story. Never solve it and you’ll never know how the novel ends.

That’d be crazy, right? Because what if you’re really bad at puzzles? Or what if you could solve them but it’d take a ton of time and effort and you wouldn’t enjoy any of it? Why should not finding difficult puzzle solving fun–or being so bad at it that you’re unlikely to ever solve such puzzles–mean you can’t finish the narrative? Especially if it’s the narrative, and not the puzzles, that brought you to the novel in the first place? Put another way, a novel should always let you finish it. Even if it means skipping a section you can’t understand or don’t like. Just turn the page and keep going.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about now that I’m two-thirds of the way through the video game Dragon Age 2–and stuck. Even with the difficulty level set to “Casual,” I’m at a fight I can’t figure out how to win. (I’m really bad at video games.) What this means is that, engrossed as I am in the story and its characters, I’m unlikely to see the end. That’s really a bummer, too, because not only am I keen to see it through, but “experiencing the world and story of Dragon Age 2” is why I bought the game in the first place.

Sure, I could practice–and practice, and practice. I could read strategy articles, focus on perfect timing, and maybe redo my character to optimize his power. I could go back to an old save game file, replay a large chunk of the game, and make sure I don’t miss finding the power-ups I did the first time around. I could, in a word, get better at video games.

But I don’t want to because–as shocking as this may sound–I don’t find that sort of thing fun at all. Stuff like that isn’t why I play games in the first place, especially games like Dragon Age 2. Rather, I play them as narrative mediums. I love the storytelling. I love emersing myself in the world, discovering its interesting bits, and seeing what happens as epic events play out. A game like this is an interactive novel or movie for me. Except it’s a movie or novel where I have to occasionally mash buttons during silly action sequences in order to advance the story.

Which means parts I can’t beat–acknowledging again my rather low degree of “skill” at game playing–are like those puzzles at the end of every chapter of a super engaging book. They’re the designers saying, “Unless you can perform this very specific sort of task, you can’t see everything we’ve designed.” They’re saying, in effect, “Our narrative is not for you.”

But it is, because I bought it and now it’s mine and I should be able to enjoy it however I’d like and enjoy as much of it as I’d like.

I grew up with PC games. It was only recently–long after switching to a Mac and so giving up most video games, and then years latter getting back into them after I bought a PlayStation 3 in order to stream NLF Sunday Ticket–that I transitioned to consoles. And the most obivous difference between the two, given my tastes and play style, is that PC developers get this need for catering to the range of players in a way console developers don’t. (Which is particularly odd given that, for many games, they’re the same developers.)

Take a look at a page of PC cheats for Dragon Age 2. That’s what I was used to as a kid. Open a console window, type in a few characters, and you’re invincible or have infinite ammo or something else that pretty much means you can’t lose. PC games let you win, no matter how much you suck them.

Now here’s that same page, but for the PlayStation 3 version. No invincibility. No cheat codes. Just some hidden items and some glitches the player can exploit to get minor benefits. The console version won’t let you win if you’re bad at button mashing and character optimization. Don’t like it? Go play something else.

Of course, these barriers to narrative didn’t matter much when video games were very new because the early games didn’t have much in the way of narrative. They were nothing but action sequences or puzzles, tied to the thinnest story and most minimal world. If you couldn’t beat the third level in Super Mario Bros., you weren’t missing out on anything meaningful.

But video games today aren’t like that. Instead, they’re like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, L.A. Noire, etc. Epic stories–and with the epic story the focus of the game.

Does it make the experience of the story pay off more if you had to struggle to get to the end? Probably, sure. If that final boss fight was a beast, what comes after may hit harder, the story beats stronger. But why can’t we let the player decide that? A minimally diminished payoff is better than no payoff at all. Console games ought to be at cheat friendly as their PC peers.

Or we should bring back the Game Genie.

The Incoherence of Denying Thick Libertarianism

If political philosophy is a branch of moral philosophy (and it is), then to have a political philosophy assumes having–even if only in an inchoate form–a moral philosophy.

If that’s true, then the claim (and it’s a rather common one) that libertarians should only concern themselves with permissible state action and take no stand on relationships and power structures outside of the state’s control is, I fear, rather incoherent. Because being a “thin libertarian”–as this view is called, in opposition to “thick libertarianism”–means (1) having a moral theory justifying your libertarianism but (2) believing that moral theory doesn’t also have something to say about relationships and behaviors outside of (the proper sphere of) politics.

Put another way, anyone who claims to be a libertarian (or claims any other political philosophy, for that matter) is a libertarian because she holds certain moral views about how people should–or are permitted to–interact with each other. Views such as, “Initiating aggression is always wrong” or “People have equal moral worth, and so should be treated equally or given equal say.”

Those moral beliefs then lead the libertarian to hold certain political beliefs about the legitimate role of the state–or, for some, beliefs about the state’s inherent illigitimacy. But if those moral beliefs are strong enough to motivate a political philosophy, they also must be strong enough to lead to conclusions about human interaction outside of the political sphere.

This means that anyone who is libertarian because of foundational moral beliefs (which is most of us who have thought deeply about our political views), must be a thick libertarian–even though they (likely) believe that the state should not enforce many (or most) of the conclusions their moral philosophy leads to. Because the very nature of a moral belief is that, if we believe something to be a moral truth, then we believe people ought to follow it. And if we believe people ought to do something, then we ought to want them to follow it. Or, at least, think the world would be better if they did follow it.

Of course, just because two different moral philosophies may both lead to libertarianism, it doesn’t follow that their non-political views (the “thick” part of their “thick libertarianism”) will be identical, or even compatible. That’s okay! But that pluralism should not lead us to think that libertarians should remain silent about moral questions outside of the (proper) realm of politics.

Hockey, Violence, and Sportsmanship

I don’t like hockey. That’s because, of the popular sports, it’s the only one that discourages sportsmanship.

We all know what sportsmanship is, because it’s so bound up in the culture of sports. Play fair, don’t cheat, respect your opponents, and respect the game.

Hockey doesn’t encourage this sort of virtuous behavior. Instead, it encourages its players to stop the game and punch each other in the face.

Here hockey fans typically respond that, “Fighting’s part of the game.”

If “part of the game” means only that fighting’s something common to hockey games, then fighting surely is part of hockey. But this sense of “part of the game” doesn’t lead to the conclusion that fighting ought to be encouraged or even tolerated. So something can be part of the game even if we believe that the game would be better if it weren’t. Concussions are common to football, but football would be (unquestionably) a better game without them. Personal fouls are common to basketball, but nobody thinks basketball would be worse if everyone played a clean game.

The other way of looking at “part of the game” is to claim that fighting plays a key role in what it means for a game to be hockey. Remove fighting and you’re still playing something, but not ice hockey. Clearly this is the case for a sport like boxing. But hockey games get played all the time without fighting. We don’t cheer when elementary school kids pummel each other on the ice.

I think hockey fans generally use “part of the game” to mean both “something common to” and “something essential to” the game of hockey. It’s “common to” hockey when they’re telling people like me that it shouldn’t be a knock against the virtuousness of hockey as a sport. But when they think about fighting themselves, when they talk about it with other hockey fans, when they turn on the TV hoping to see a good fight, they mean “essential to.” Hockey fans want fighting, or else the NHL would suspend players–like every other major sport does–instead of merely telling them to sit out for a couple of minutes. And it’s difficult to reconcile that with sportsmanship.

We teach our kids this important virtue. We should demand the same of our professional athletes. Every sport struggles with this, but every sport holds it up as a worthy goal.

Except hockey.