Category Archives: Star Wars

REVIEW: LAST JEDI

REVIEW LAST JEDI (generic spoilers only):
Best Star Wars film since the original trilogy, but marred by PoMo cynicism. In the original trilogy, you could celebrate the defeat of the Dark Side unironically, shout “Harelukiah!” with the Ewoks with unmixed joy after the destruction of the Death Star. Now we have to question whether there is any real difference between Jedi and Sith, whether it really matters who wins. In one way, this is an improvement, because the original’s unironic battle between Good and Evil (as if they were ultimately really different) was inconsistent with the metaphysics of the Star Wars Universe, where Light and Dark are merely two sides of the same “Force.” The latest installment is more consistent with its own premises than the original–but less consistent with the moral order of the real universe. There are positive aspects to the new perspective: It is good for a Jedi to question his own hubris–but not to the point where he questions whether there is a real difference between Good and Evil.
 
Contrast Tolkien, who is no Pollyanna. He has good people being corrupted (Theoden almost, Saruman and Denethor finally). But he does not have Gandalf ever wonder if the battle against Sauron is worth fighting or leave the readers wondering if there is really any difference between Gandalf and Sauron. That kind of moral clarity is only possible in a universe with the biblical foundations of Middle Earth. Star Wars can only get there by cheating with its own metaphysical foundations. In the 21st Century, it remains to be seen in episode 9 whether it can get there at all.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised and expanded, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality, or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

 Also, check out Dr. Williams’s latest book:  Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016)!

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Listen Up, Readers! Emperor Palpatine and the Redemption of Milton

For the longest time, I could not stand to read two particular authors. Any time someone mentioned their names or quoted from them, I would shrug and roll my eyes. These writers are John Milton and C.S. Lewis.

The latter I couldn’t like on principle. I started disliking him in high school when I began reading the Harry Potter series, and a conservative Christian teacher recommended Lewis, not because he was a better writer than Rowling but because his Chronicles of Narnia are allegorical. Lewis wrote about the Christian story, don’t you see this? Later, I became tired of defending my love for children’s fantasy to Christians by using Lewis and Tolkien as the standards of good art that I gave up on these authors altogether. Other Christians have written wonderful works of literature. Why don’t we laud their merits? Writers like Augustine, Dante, Aquinas, Bunyan, Milton—

Oh, wait, Milton is the second guy I can’t stand. But I couldn’t like him on taste. I just never got into Milton. What’s so special about this guy? So, he wrote about the fall of man? Is this another Christian allegory or sermon masquerading as “good literature”? You could imagine my chagrin when I had to read Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost in grad school.

Then, I had to teach Milton to my high school students. I almost considered skipping him. But I had already neglected too many others, and my responsibility to these students dictated that I at least expose them to important authors, even if I did not like them.

We had excerpts of Paradise Lost in our textbook. A fellow teacher recommend my students read the selections aloud. I knew they would do better listening than trying to wade through the language, so I turned to YouTube for help.

And I found the greatest version of Paradise Lost ever. This rendition, slightly abridged in some places, was actually a BBC radio broadcast. The show had a main narrator and different actors to represent the characters. Oh, and Ian McDiarmid, the actor who plays the evil Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars fanchise, voices Satan. Very apt, no? I gained a new-found appreciation for Milton because of the experience. McDiarmid’s Satan was deliciously manipulative and appropriately conjured feelings a contempt and disgust for Milton’s main antagonist. The author’s genius with language also became more apparent as the narrator and actors read his epic with fluidity and clarity. My students also enjoyed the audio and stated they would not have understood the text if they had read it to themselves. I myself look forward to reading to the entire work in the future, if anything but to hear the slippery voice of McDiarmid.

Now, we’re studying The Screwtape Letters, and we are using audio. Joss Ackland is a enticing Screwtape. Most importantly, I have grown in my appreciation for Lewis. There are certainly aspects of Christianity and the war between Heaven and Hell for the souls of men that I have hereto never seen before. Now, I want to read — or listen — more, to add to my List of books works that not only broaden my love for literature but strengthen my faith. And I chuckle at the irony — to gain a new respect for two Christian authors I hated, all I did was listen to the devil.

In Search of the American Myth: A Galaxy Far, Far Away

star-wars-berkey“A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” I remember seeing the 1997 restored version of Star Wars in elementary school with my father and reading those lines for the first time. I think every day for recess we pretended to be Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo zooming across space and and battling the evil Darth Vader and the dictatorial Empire.

As an adult, Star Wars has become less important in my life, but I see its impact in our culture, especially to our American mythology. In fact, Star Wars and science fiction films have almost become quintessential American myth tales, though they America did not originate the science fiction story or film. Again, we can thank Europe for that. Tales by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne remain some of the best science fiction literature to date, and Germany’s Metropolis practically is science fiction’s capstone film.

luke__skywalkerBut these films, like Westerns, seem to fit well with our paradigm of expansion, progression, and independence. While Westerns look to the wild west to fulfill these values, science fiction looks to the stars. Indeed, Luke Skywalker embodies any typical young American: an average Joe who leaves his home to fulfill his destiny to become something greater. Interestingly, the story practically begins in the desert with our young hero encountering two rustic droids, a old wizard, and a space cowboy with a furry friend. They enter the cold, metallic belly of a vast space station (which represents technology and innovation put to evil purposes) to rescue a beautiful, yet fiercely capable princess, who provides female audience members a role model of aptitude and independence. The underdog rebels then turn and destroy the the same spaceship, a symbol of oppression and tyranny. Sounds like our own Revolution to some degree, right?

Speaking of another scifi-western connection, did anyone besides me notice how Avatar closely resembles Dances with Wolves?

Speaking of another scifi-western connection, did anyone besides me notice how Avatar closely resembles Dances with Wolves?

Thus, as Disney and Westerns have incorporated so well, Star Wars and many science fiction films capture the American ideal and contribute its mythology. Recent success in science fiction films is evidence of this. Avatar is the most successful film to date and the newest Star Trek films have shown that science fiction films can be stylish, yet thought-provoking storytelling. And do it need to go into detail about the moral and cerebral depth of films like Blade Runner, Brazil, E. T., Aliens, The Matrix, and Inception? Although Disney may have established the American myth and the Western may be the nation’s mythic original, science fiction films would probably remain America’s most beloved and well-received myth.

 

Message in Mass Effect: A Response to Popbioethics

Hello everyone! Yesterday was the release day for the final installment of the Mass Effect trilogy, which means that it’s quite possible that most of the people liable to really care about this topic are off actually playing the game (I would be too if it weren’t for school. Spring break can’t come soon enough). Last week  (in this post) I started into my analysis of Popbioethics.com’s audaciously-titled article “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation”, and today I will be focusing on the second major point of the argument: the message of Mass Effect, and what it tells us about the Science Fiction genre.

The Message: We Don’t Matter

Essentially, the general message that Munkittrick points to in the Mass Effect universe is that “human beings are delusional about their importance in the grand scheme of things”. We are one of many, and unlike the universes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Ender’s Game, and a great deal of other science fiction worlds, humanity has a very minor role. This is not something that tv and movies can usually do, Munkittrick explains, because they have to have appeal for their human audience. This is an important point because it explains the importance of the setting to the message (his first point to his second) and how each piece builds on the last, but I’ll get to that in a moment. According to the article, the world of Mass Effect is colored by its message in three major ways:

  • Humans are petulant: Humans may be the new kid on the block, but they tend to walk around like they own the place. They react with insolence to the authorities already in place (ones that have been there hundreds of years before humans even understood what space was), and many do not accept being treated  as second-class, even though there are many other races that are even further back in line. This somewhat justifies the feelings of the other races, and helps to put the humans’ struggle for significance in perspective.
  • The lowering of humankind makes it harder to be xenophobic: Since humans are not the most important species in the galaxy, the player is given a sense of kinship with many of the other races that are in the same boat. Many characters of other races are much more identifiable because they are similarly ‘inferior’, so that instead of focusing on what makes alien characters different, the player focuses on what makes them ‘human’. This also ensures that no matter Shepherd’s gender, race, or sexual orientation, the player is subjected to the same prejudices, based on species alone.
  • The undermining of human pride opens the door to new discussions: When the player is not focused on how great humanity is, examining the greatness of other beings does not threaten the perceived balance of power. In many other science fiction universes, beings more powerful and capable than humans are seen as a threat, or at least arrogant and supremacist, and the default reaction is mistrust. In the world of Mass Effect, humans are not at the top, and so the king-of-the-hill reaction is gone, letting the player see genuinely superior beings more clearly. Characters such as cyborgs, artificial life, and genetically engineered super beings (all of which are represented in the main cast in some way) are actually relatable, instead of being threatening.

These parts add up to a whole that works to change the player’s perspective, working with the setting to frame the philosophy of the world (which I will get to next week). It deconstructs the player’s preconceived notions about the importance of humanity and opens up the realm of discussion to themes beyond the basic space-faring hero story. But, does this all add up to something so unique that it can be called the “most important science fiction universe of our generation”?

Chinks in the Armor (if we can still say that)

Mass Effect 3 femshep female shepherd

Ok, seriously, I need to get this game. C'mon, Spring break!

While I certainly agree with Munkittrick that the way that Mass Effect’s world frames humans in an non-human world creates an effective equalizer, I don’t think it’s as drastically different from most other worlds as he seems to. Certainly, worlds that focus entirely on the human race’s actions and importance will tend to maintain an “us against them” mentality that can make it difficult to relate to non-human characters, but even if the world of Mass Effect isn’t too keen on humans taking over, they’re doing it anyway. While it may come off as insolence, the humans of Mass Effect really are hot stuff.

New as they are, humans have in only a few generations gone from isolation in their far-off system of Sol to jockeying for Galactic governmental authority. Shepherd himself is human, and has become a new symbol for human progress, becoming the first human Spectre, a sort of intergalactic secret agent with far-reaching authority and political clout. Not only that, but even taking into account the myriad ways the plot can turn depending on the choices of the player, humanity still plays extremely pivotal roles in the fate of the galaxy. Speaking in literary terms, Shepherd (and by extension, the human race), is the Hero from the Outside, the Beowolf of Mass Effect, coming in to change the status quo and place things back in the hands of mortals.

Humans may be perceived as being inferior, but they are far from actually being insignificant. This comes to a general rub of the article that motivated me to tackle it in the first place. In many ways, science fiction is about determining mankind’s place in the universe. Even in non-spacefaring stories, the world frames human limits in ways that identify the metaphysical position of the writer. Munkittrick commits something of a literary sin by reading into the world of Mass Effect an exclusively material, even secular humanist perspective that marginalizes mankind’s importance and necessarily downplays the audiences’ high notions of human grandeur. However, the world itself still assumes human significance, or else they could not be the agents of change and action in the story.

This is one of the reasons I believe Munkittrick is wrong about his assumptions. While Mass Effect’s message does allow for an interesting background for discussion, the discussions are not new, and can be (and have been) handled just as effectively in other stories. The medium (videogames) does not make Mass Effect meaningfully better at handling these themes, and neither does the message that Munkittrick says Mass Effect portrays make it the genre-definer that he claims in his title.

Does the conclusion of Munkittrick’s argument (as cumulative as it is) prove his claim? Next week I’ll take a look at the Philosophy of Mass Effect, and Popbioethics.com’s final arguments about its significance to the Science Fiction genre. Until then, you can still get the free demo for Mass Effect 3 here to play around with!

Science Fiction Problems: Guns n Ammo (Part IV)

This is the fourth part of a series. To see Part I, click here. To see Part II, click here. To see Part III, click here.

Hello sci-fi fans, and welcome back for what I think will be the last part of my series on guns in science fiction (but hey, I’ve thought that before). I apologize for the delays that have occurred in this series, and will do my best to make sure such interruptions do not occur again (if only so we can move on in a more timely manner). So, without further to ramble on about, here’s my conclusion and thoughts regarding small arms in science fiction, and the direction I think our own tech will soon be heading.

A Tossed Salad of Death

We’ve gone through several different ideas for weapons for a science fiction story already, but I did not mean to insinuate that sci-fi writers should, in my opinion, stick to one sort of weapon over another. On the contrary, just as it would be rather dull in a fantasy story for everyone to be limited to a particular make of broadsword, it would be a very bad idea to limit your weapons to only one of the types I have covered, or any others that I have not.

While it could be interesting to give specific cultures an affinity for a certain type of weapon (in fact this can be a  useful way of differentiating them), but different types of weapons should have a general presence in your world, depending on factors such as cost to manufacture, rarity of materials, and however you decide to handle the problems inherent in each weapon type. Laws and regulations would likely be different depending on where your characters go, so certain weapons could be rare or absent in any given area as you deem necessary. You should consider the implications of each weapon type in the context of the culture you have developed, as I have described here, if you want to figure out the best and most appropriate ones for each place in your story world. Ok. So, cautionary clarification communicated. Here are my thoughts on where guns will go soon, and how you could use this idea.

Boomsticks for Boba Fett, and Other Such Seeming Anachronisms

steampunk boba fett tophat

I do say, sir, have you seen any young Jedi hereabouts?

So, we’ve talked about a bunch of non-traditional guns that could be used in your story, but what about the regular kind? Can a story ever call itself sci-fi without at least one laser beam? Well, the answer to this question would be “that depends on the flavor you’re going for”, however, I am of the opinion that not only can gunpowder-based small arms be a fun addition to your sci-fi arsenal, they are probably the most practical ones.

I know what you’re thinking: “How can I make the story feel futuristic if everyone’s using modern weapons?” Well, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about. It may seem that current generation weapons are at the limits of the technology, and that is in many ways true. However, there is a particular avenue that has not yet been fully explored. The ideas regarding gunpowder-based weapons have not actually yet run out.

Caseless Ammo, and Why You Should Care About it

Currently, modern firearms work by igniting a quick-burning accelerant (gunpowder or other chemicals) in a pre-loaded chamber called a casing, which creates an expanding bubble of gases behind the bullet and propels it down and out of the barrel. The casing is then ejected, either manually or by an automatic mechanism, and a new bullet and casing is loaded into the chamber (for diagrams and some really neat flash animations, go here). The limitations of modern firearms are bound up in that process; rate of fire is limited by how fast the mechanism can load a round, fire it, and eject the casing, the casings must usually be made of metal and thus create a problem of weight and storage, and propellant formulas have more or less reached a plateau as for what kind of velocities can be achieved.

Heckler and Koch g11 rifle with caseless ammunition

Kind of odd looking, but most prototypes are.

This all means that, as far as currently used methods go, we have likely reached the peak of firearms technology. Some of these problems were addressed by an innovative idea: why not mold the propellant around the bullet, and remove the problem of metal casings altogether? Such weapons as the Heckler & Koch G11 rifle (seen right) were invented with this idea in mind, utilizing caseless ammunition without the need to manage “hot brass”. However, this weapon and its ammunition were scrapped when it was discovered that the propellant would “cook off” at high temperatures, firing randomly once the firing chamber of the weapon heated up after repeated shots. The molded propellant also proved fragile, crumbling if mishandled or jostled, which created even more problems. Caseless ammunition has thus been ignored since, thought to be too problematic. Until recently, that is.

Walls of Lead and Bullet Drills

electrically-fired caseless ammo multi-barrel pistol

A pistol using Metal Storm's stacking caseless ammo.

Enter Metal Storm, an international “defense technology company” headquartered in Australia. Their keystone product is, in fact, their caseless ammunition, which they have designed to be electronically fired. What this means is that not only do guns using this ammunition not need to eject metal cases, there are essentially no moving parts at all. Because the propellant is electronically fired, the usable chemicals can be made tougher so that they hold their shape, and are more heat resistant, so they won’t cook off.

Metal Storm currently only displays their stacking MAUL shotgun and 3GL

Metal Storm 3gl grenade launcher cutaway

Their grenade launcher with its rear-stacking 40mm rounds.

grenade launcher, but I see no reason why this technology couldn’t be utilized across the board in assault rifles, heavy weapons, and other forms, and you certainly wouldn’t be stopped from doing so in a science fiction story. So, now that I’ve introduced the idea and the tech, here are those Pros and Cons you’ve all gotten used to seeing:

Pros:

  • Low Cost: In wartime and peace, machining all those bullet casings for ammunition is expensive and resource-intensive, using up expensive metals only to be thrown away on the battlefield. Without cases, ammo could become much less expensive, especially in comparison to the other weapons we’ve already discussed.
  • Power: Weather firing explosive shells or specialized bullets, caseless ammo would have middling power in comparison to some of the other weapons we’ve already talked about, however, it does have a few tricks. Because the bullets are fired back to back at tight intervals, each shot hits at almost the same time, causing each successive bullet to “drill” further in. This means that even ordinary lead slugs gain an armor-piercing quality which can punch through thick plating and body armor. The bullets are also fired so quickly that they can be used to blanket a target, and strike at almost the same time when fired out of the barrel rapidly.
  • Flexibility: Not only is the ammo light weight, but the weapons are too, and since the charge of propellant is contained on the bullet and not in a casing, it might even be possible to make a weapon with an extendable firing chamber, meaning that one rifle could potentially fire several different lengths of round for different applications and powers.
  • Low Energy: Even if they might not seem as cool as lasers or rail guns, firearms are more efficient in their use of energy- every charge is expended directly in firing the bullet, and little is wasted in the shot. Aside from battery packs to operate the weapon’s firing system (which would need to be nothing more than conventional rechargeable lithium batteries, like what we have today), the weapon would need no external energy source to operate.

Cons:

  • Relatively Limited Power: Even with the advantages stacked ammunition would allow, the punch of one of these weapons would be limited to the size and type of round being used, and even then, a high-powered particle acceleration cannon or rail gun could probably outmatch any firearm of the same size for penetration and damage.
  • Recoil: Depending on the design of the weapon, this negative could be reduced, but with the nature of firearms, kickback is inevitable. The larger the round, the more recoil the user has to deal with, and that can be very problematic.
  • Ammunition: This could only be a relative con depending on how you choose to handle energy in your story, but firearms could potentially need to use up their ammo faster than other weapons, without the benefit of a nuclear generator or other such device to draw practically unlimited energy.
Metal Storm modular weapon pod combat weapon

Each barrel contains stacked grenade rounds, which can be fired single and rapid fire.

These are a few notes to consider, but the rest would come out in your writing process. Other than the specific problems of modern weapons that caseless ammunition solves, the pros and cons would be similar, and you should keep in mind that even if the weapons might feel high-tech, they will still feel relatively familiar to the reader, and so should not be used in places where you would want to cultivate a feeling of wonder or of the alien. These weapons would be ideal for a near-future type story, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be used in a further future or alternate history.

Well, I think that finally concludes my thoughts on small arms in science fiction, tune in next week to see what I come up with next, and happy writing!
Until then, has anyone read or seen any sci-fi that used (or tried to use) firearms as their main armament? Any with caseless ammunition-based weapons? Let me know in the comments below!