Curse of the Pyramids

(Thoughts not yet fully formed follow. Like that’s anything new.)

When diagramming out some issue using a pyramid, we are invited (if not forced) to think hierarchically, in terms of a foundation, middle stories built on that foundation, and a crowning achievement/reward at the top:

We have food pyramids,

USDA Food Pyramid
If you carb-load, then eat your fruits and veggies and top them off with a cheese burger, you have proved your virtue and may then have sweets! 

Maslow’s Hierarchy,

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs pyramid diagram
“Breathing, Food, Water, Sex, Sleep, Homeostasis, Excretion” – Hmmm – which one of these is not like the others? (Homeostasis in this context is a largely redundant catch-all for all the others – except one.) 

Management hierarchies:

CEO Pyramid
I think this is a joke. I hope it is a joke. At the very least, except for a few very highly specialized businesses, it should be way wider at the bottom, narrow rapidly and come to a pointy-point. 

 

Even hierarchies of disagreement:

Image result for disagreement  pyramid diagram
So, we’re to base our disagreements on name-calling, and then work our way up through ad hominem past gainsaying and then finally arrive at something like reasonable discussion? Seems an unlikely progression. 

A moment’s reflection should reveal, I think, that except when applied to construction of large monumental structures, such pyramid thinking is very unlikely to apply to anything in the real world. Imagine, for example, a pyramid describing a bee hive:

Bee Hive Hierarchy

Or maybe:

Bee Hive Hierarchy II

Does either one of these make any sense at all? Of course not. Placing these relationships in a pyramid all but forces us to assume a hierarchy that isn’t there. Even the names – queens, drones, workers – are blatant anthropomorphizing. The queen isn’t commanding the workers any more than the workers are enslaving the queen.

In a similar way, all the examples given are nonsense. Our food habits aren’t hierarchical – we don’t build upon a base of carbs to support an apex of sweets and fats. Maslow’s diagram hides an important truth: that it’s belief in and desire for the good that often motivates people to accept less fulfillment or show no concern for lower levels, sometimes, because we are not defined by them. There are many accounts of brilliantly happy saints who went hungry, voluntarily eschewed sex, lived in times of turmoil, did not have a place to lay their heads, were shunned and mistreated by their contemporaries – and achieved a level of ‘self-actualization’ beyond anything known to Maslow’s philosophy.

In the flat moral universe I’m often on about here, the temptation is to see the world as a series of pyramids, where there’s a bottom level of oppression and mistreatment to be escaped, upper levels holding lower levels down with bad intent, and a struggle to invert the pyramid, somehow.

In almost every case, such an understanding is poor. Relationships are both more complex and subject to much more variety than can be even roughly approximated by layer in a triangle.

Pyramid thinking: a bad idea.

SciFi Classic Book Review: Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky

Short and sweet: this book is a good read and short and sweet – maybe 125 pages. Cool scifi ideas, and a couple memorable characters. One of the earliest stories to introduce the idea of generation ships. It explores some classic Heinlein themes of militarism, leadership and hard tech, and the idea of high adventure within a world that refuses to take its eyes off the mundane.

Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky is on John C. Wright’s list of essential SciFi reading. Grabbed a copy at Half-Priced Books, took it on last week’s trip as backup to the backup to the backup read, finished it last night. First published in two parts in Astounding Science Fiction in 1941, Orphans of the Sky was published as a novel in 1963.  Image result for Orphans of the Sky

Hugh Hoyland* is coming of age inside a five-mile long, 2,000 yard in cross section cylindrical generational ship. A mutiny centuries ago left almost all the scientists and engineers dead and ‘muties,’ short for both mutants and mutineers, in control of the upper levels near the ship’s core. Not only is the core where all the navigation and flight command centers are, it’s also the only place where there are windows to the outside universe. The non-‘muties’ hold the levels out near the hull and farm and live like illiterate peasants, ruled by the literate but not-comprehending crew and scientists. All the books left by the Jordan Foundation, builders of the Vanguard, are taken as religious and moral allegory – they pass along an elaborate mythology in which the journey is a metaphor for life, and the ship is the Universe.

Hugh is selected for his intelligence to become one of the Scientists, but, before he gets very far, is captured by the muties when recklessly exploring the inner levels of the ship. His captor wishes to eat him, but has brought him first to Joe-Jim, the two-headed leader of a powerful mutie gang. Joe-Jim takes a liking to Hugh, and spares him so as to have another intelligent person to talk to – the muties, for the most part, aren’t very intellectual if not out and out mentally deficient.

Joe-Jim teaches Hugh the truth: that the ship is flying through space, and that all those weird teachings in the sacred books were not metaphor but stone truth. Hugh is shaken to his core, and devotes himself to learning how to pilot the ship – and realizes he’ll need help.

The rest of the story concerns Hugh’s efforts to get Joe-Jim and the muties on his side, and then to get more help from among the scientists. After intrigue, bloody battles and betrayals, Hugh and a couple of his companions and a few women manage to escape the ship on its last remaining boat as Joe-Jim dies defending the door to the launch. They miraculously find a habitable moon orbiting a gas giant, and even more miraculously manage to land and find food.

(Heinlein does manage to get them all naked by the end – hey, it’s Heinlein – but nothing more is said about it. 1940s, and all.)

Joe-Jim is the most notable character, a two-headed genius with the smarts to rule a gang of muties but without the drive needed to do anything much beyond enjoying life as a petty mafia don. He dies heroically at the end. Bobo, his microcephalic muscle, is a murderous cannibal with a heart of gold, so that his death is felt as a tragedy. The other characters are pretty much perfectly functional stock, but hey, he’s got 125 pages to do this in, so two memorable characters is pretty good.

Writing aside: Orphans of the Sky is the second story featuring a generation ship I’ve read since beginning TNTSNBN, my stab at a story about a generation ship.**  The other was the first book of Gene Wolfe’s  Long Sun series. I cannot remember reading any other generation ship stories, although that says more about my memory, perhaps, and my switch to philosophy and history after age 17 or so, than about the prevalence and importance of such stories.

What attracts me is the idea of building and sustaining a culture – and the simple historical fact that virtually every culture, and absolutely any culture anyone would want to live in as anything other than a ruler, are built on families. Families are no guarantee of peace – hardly! – but lacking them gives you Stalin and Olympius. The bloody battles between families might get bad, but are nothing compared to the fighting once families have been destroyed – at least, that’s where I’m going.  The idea, expressed both in Heinlein’s novel and Wolfe’s, that people trapped in a generation ship would more or less quickly succumb to social gravity and settle at a base state of Mafia-style social organization, is my concern, too – only I’m trying to start from the position that everybody understands this and is trying to work around it. In fact, several aspects of the precautions are so antithetical to ‘enlightened’ thinking that they must be implemented on the sly….

Anyway: good book, short read, just do it!

* Don’t want to get too crazy with analysing names, but Hoyland is a town in South Yorkshire, where the English hicks live – see Monte Python’s Four Yorkshiremen – and Hugh means heart or soul. So our hero has, but rises above the, soul of a hick.

** Although, after crunching some numbers and taking relativistic effects into account, it seems there are a lot of places such a ship could get to in one very long lifetime with any decent level of continuous acceleration – so the generations in my book will include great-grandchildren of still-living members of the original crew. I guess that still qualifies as generations.

The Disaster of Success

(WordPress has decided I published this when I began writing it, which put it out of sequence, so I’m pinning it for a while.  Ah, the mystery of free blogging services!)

There’s much to be loathed and feared and fought against in the modern world, for sure, but the fact remains: in general and on a material level, things have never been better and keep getting better.  That this is treated as a disaster by some we’ll get to in a minute.

This overall material improvement, where there are now more people living better lives in safer places – and taking less of a toll per capita, and often even on a gross basis, on their environments – than ever before is the single biggest fact of modern life. It’s far from perfect, and it isn’t ‘fair’ by all definitions of fair (and wouldn’t it be nice if someone, *anyone* would propose a working definition of fair that is anything other than a stick to beat enemies with?).  But is it better? Oh, yea:

  • Infant mortality is down from up to 40% 200 years ago to low single digits now almost everywhere.

    infant mortality
    European Infant Mortality, selected countries, from THE DECLINE OF INFANT MORTALITY IN EUROPE, 1800-1950: FOUR NATIONAL CASE STUDIES p. 60. The y-axis scaling makes the drop look less dramatic than it is – from around 45% to around 6%
  • Where there is not war nor political unrest, there is not famine – this has changed radically over the last century. 100 years ago, in most of the world, famine could strike any year even where peace prevailed. Now? The world is so awash in food that any mere local problem can be and is readily addressed – if the political situation is stable enough to allow it.
famine
From Drought doesn’t cause famine. People do. 
  • There are fewer wars going on now than at almost any time in history. A lower percentage of people die in war now than ever before.
A History of Violence: Edge Master Class 2011, Steven Pinker. There are lots of charts and graphs out there showing this overall decline.  “Violence has been in decline over long stretches of time,” says Harvard professor Steven Pinker, “and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.”
  • The Amazon rainforest, to pick a poster-child for ecological destruction, is now growing back at about the same rate it is being cut down – no net loss of forest. If current trends continue, we’ll soon have increasing rainforests, not decreasing.

At least 20 percent land deforested in the Brazilian Amazon is regrowing forest, reports Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

its target of reducing emissions from deforestation 70 percent from a 1996-2005 baseline by 2018.

While the findings are a hopeful sign that the Amazon can recover from deforestation, it will take decades for regrowing forest to store as much carbon and house as much biodiversity as the original forest prior to clearing.

(from: 20% of land deforested in the Brazilian Amazon is regrowing forest  Since over 80% of the forest that was there in 1970 is still there, this would be about 4% growing back – the average losses are in range of 0.1 – 0.2%. There was no indication that these loss numbers were net. BTW: I’m trying to pick as completely non-controversial (to environmental activists) sources as possible here. No endorsement of implicit policies is to be inferred.)

  • In peaceful, prosperous countries (like ours) there’s more reforestation going on than deforestation. Vast tracts of marginal farmland – New England, for example – have returned to forest.
US forestation
From Google’s Forest Map. Note the heavy forestation from Maine to Delaware – areas that were heavily farmed 200 years ago. Also note the violet area across the southeast – there’s a ton tree farming done there, so we see “loss and gain”. Up in Canada, forests are being cut down – and there’s a lot of blue, where they’re growing back.
  • The number of blue whales is increasing, and has been for 30+ years;  there are probably twice as many polar bears now than there were 50 years ago.
Image result for blue whales population graph
Totally down with taking care of the wildlife, but we need to recognize what we do right as well as what we do wrong.  Whales & polar bears – we’re doing it right.

Off the top of my head. And so on and so forth. As we work out the implications of well-understood basic tech, like sewage treatment and water purification, power generation, and modern farming, things tend strongly to get better for more and more people. I’ve often suspected that if the money spent on iffy green projects had instead been spent on providing basic sanitation, power and food to poorer countries, we’d be far safer and better off as a species. People who have food to eat, clean water to drink and a place to charge their mobile phones are much, much less likely to want to go kill other people. Not a perfect correlation, but still.

Can it all come crashing down in a human-caused apocalypse of one kind or another? Sure, that’s always on the table, although, as touched lightly upon here and as is evident across popular culture, it seems people are fixated on only a small number of frankly unlikely disaster scenarios while ignoring the very real examples history has given us.

It’s never, it seems, an end times scenario based on the French Revolution, where a Reign of Terror is instituted by a group of maniacs calling themselves The Committee for Public Safety. Maniacs who, in the name of Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood and Atheism slaughtered at least several hundred thousand of their unarmed fellow citizens (before they started in killing each other – take note, you who would have violence!). The peace-loving French revolutionaries also started or fanned the flames of numerous wars.

Nor is it based on the real horrors of  the Soviet Union, China, Cuba or, now, Venezuela. Nope,  it’s usually a totalitarian theocracy we must worry about – and not the ones History has shown. There’s basically no chance of a Christian theocratic dictatorship, if such a thing were to arise, getting anywhere near the levels of terror the French, Russian or Chinese revolutions – at least, not based on reality, on what actually has happened. What has actually happened is that evangelical atheists, such as the French revolutionaries, the Commies,  and the Nazis, have seen it as their sacred duty to improve humanity by slaughtering millions of its members.

If you want religiously-motivated slaughter, Islam is the prime example. When government and religion are one – Sharia law, folks – and the religion promotes conversion-by-conquest – you’re going to get government-sponsored religiously motivated slaughter. This is true even where the leaders are not religious fanatics themselves – they, like all historical leaders,  will use whatever stick is handy that they think they can get away with using.  (Islamic conquest of the West began in 634 A.D., and has only taken occasional breaks since. It was not caused by Western Imperialism.)

One might think, if one had perhaps grown up in a world lit by the dolorous rays of a distant red sun, that all this good news would cheer people up. Ha, and again I say, ha! Instead, we can’t see anything good that isn’t dwarfed by the EEEEVIL lurking everywhere, like we’re randy teenagers in the second half of a horror movie. (1)

This inability to see good is a carefully-cultivated sign of refinement. We are carefully trained to accept certain content-free Newspeak phrases, phrases that can be used as both points of dogma and convenient shibboleths. Proper application of such phrases ensures that no improvement can be seen, let alone acknowledged and embraced. Expressing any doubts or reservations about, say, gay rights, microagressions, global warming, the virtues of green energy or that women are underpaid relative to men places one beyond the pale. These and many similar ideas are free of any intelligible content, or so nearly so that whatever the original ideas they were trying to capture have long since receded into the distance, and thus the slogans or catch phrases are empty containers to be filled with emotions and outrage.

The mere idea that anyone would challenge any of these ideas on the basis that they make no sense is an act of intolerable aggression, a rejection of the feelings that make people who they are. The overthrow of thought by feelings – we no longer say we think such and such, but rather that we feel the answer to the math question is 42 – being, of course, one of these ideas. It no longer matters what anyone thinks I am (even who I think I am!) but rather who I feel I am is conclusive. The nonsense that results from this irrationality is yet another thing filtered out from consideration.

Having reality defined by what we feel it is is a very useful state for a certain ambitious type of person. If fear, dread and outrage can be poured into the empty verbal shells, and people lead to feel those emotions are right –  emotions are always right. or at any rate sacred and unchallengable – then large  numbers of people can be lead about, either because they feel the truth of the emotional content, or merely fear being cast out of the cool kids’ club. Those, like the utterly loathsome Rahm Emanuel, who won’t ever let a crisis go to waste even if they have to make crises up for the purpose of not wasting them, will do their best to make sure we stay properly terrified and desperate.

Gramsci noticed way back that Italian workers and peasants really weren’t all that keen on revolting as long as they found comfort in families, church and village. Your typical Italian – your typical human being, frankly – is pretty much OK if he’s got family and friends, a roof over his head and enough good food to eat. He will tend to love the Church, which reinforces and supports these things, or at least not want to burn it down.

But a Marxist is sure such a one should be miserable, and is, in fact, miserable but just doesn’t know it. The pain and outrage a peasant might experience when, say, Spanish Marxists launch a campaign of assassination against his bishops and priests is like the pain of bright light to those who dwelt in darkness. That peasant would be pleased, heck, he’d join right in, if only he was looking at the world the right way!

Thus, Marxists believe dogmatically that people are miserable, or should be. They will support any position that increases fear and unhappiness. They may themselves believe these positions – that we’re destroying the planet, that misery is always the result of oppression, that all institutions that are not actively trying to overthrow the system are tools of control, and so on – but it hardly matters. They, and the many useful idiots and their victims will act as if it’s all true because the feelings such panic generates are the right feelings: one should be miserable! You are either an evil oppressor, the victim of oppression, or both – any way you slice it, misery is your just lot! What kind of a jerk could ever be happy is such a world! It’s infuriating!

All the good news must either be a lie, or irrelevant, or a tool of oppression. If things are getting better, if more and more people have every material thing they need to be happy, that would destroy everything such people have made themselves believe. The mere possibility of such a disaster must not be allowed to enter one’s mind.

There is plenty wrong with the world. By focusing on imaginary threats and ignoring real improvements, we reduce our opportunities to do anything anything about real, concrete problems.

  1. Or so I’ve heard. Never watched horror movies much – history and the news fulfill my daily required dose of horror.
  2. From Wikipedia: “Gramsci is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony, which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class – the bourgeoisie – use cultural institutions to maintain power in capitalist societies. The bourgeoisie in Gramsci’s view develops a hegemonic culture using ideology rather than violence, economic force, or coercion. Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo. Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.” Translation: Capitalists aren’t actually oppressing people, at least not to such a degree that people would much notice. Instead, they inflict evil institutions on them, such as family and church, participation in which often makes the peasants and workers fairly happy and thus less likely to want to throw off their chains. The poor fools think being happy is desirable, and find extended families and the church (which tend strongly to blend into and support each other) conducive. A good forward thinking Marxist (and how good a Marxist can you be if you’re not thinking way, way into the misty and fantastic yet somehow certain future?) will thus concern himself with the destruction of family and church and any other social institutions that tend to make people happy, in order to make people miserable enough that even Communism starts to look attractive. You destroy the village in order to save it.

Funsaster!

I’m coining a new word – and you can’t stop me! – a combo of fun and disaster – funsaster! It is for those cases where you do something, and turns out disastrously bad, yet was a lot of fun to do.

That fiberglass shield the Caboose and I were making? (item E) Well, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong: the gel coat on the hardboard form wasn’t thick enough (spots showed through) so we added a second coat – so far, so good. When we cut the fiberglass, it was really hard to get the sizes right because I’d already curved the board and attached support pieces, so we had to kind of wing it – the pre-cut pieces were not very close, making for a lot of hurry-up patching. We did not have enough epoxy. I may have added too much hardener to one of the batches. It got goopy too fast. We were trying to spread it and press down the glass while it got harder and harder to work with – and then we ran out. Tried to stick on the handle and strap for holding the shield – barely got the handle on before completely running out – it’s a hairy mess. Never got the strap on.

So we’re looking at this pathetic mess, wondering if we could salvage it, somehow. That evening, we removed it from the form – it kinda worked, which is to say it kinda didn’t – maybe 2/3rd of the shield came right off with a little coaxing, leaving a nice shiny red gel coat finish – but 1/3 did not, leaving either patches where the fiberglass came off the gel coat, or the hardboard did not.

Mangled-looking shield with only a handle, no strap, so it sorta waves round, and is scratchy where we ran out of epoxy and the fibers are exposed.

Ugly.

BUT! It’s a Funsaster! On the plus side, we didn’t cement ourselves or any tools, pets or wildlife to the patio, nor did we destroy any clothing we had on. I maybe ruined a pair of scissors, but even that’s only a maybe. Otherwise, we used disposable stuff and threw it out when done – easy-peasy. We had fun doing it, and learned a lot, mostly of the cautionary tale variety. Maybe next weekend, when I have 4 days off in a row, we’ll try it again.

Image result for this time for sure bullwinkle

 

Update: Writing, Reading, etc.

Finally got back into the writing groove, and finished a story. No, seriously, I, decorated member of the Procrastination & Self-Defeat Hall of Fame, finished something. It’s a trifle, really, under 3,000 words, but it’s done. Will let it sit a couple days, make a single clean-up/formatting pass, and then send it off to an appropriate publisher. THEN, I’ll read it to the family.

Time to start my collection of rejection slips.

Next up are two more stories that are almost done as well. The first is a bit more ambitious, maybe 7-8,000 words worth. Got maybe another 1,000 to 1,500 words to go.

The first two stories were begun in the last few months. The third story has been rattling around for 20 years. I’ve actually written it twice already – the draft I’m now on is #3. So, instead of continuing to rethink and over-think it, I’ll follow Heinlein’s advice and just do it.

The second one will probably take a few days; the last I can probably finish in one sitting.

Next up: I’ve three other stories that are not so close to being finished, one of which has this elaborate tense moment/flashback/even more tense moment/flashback/really tense moment/flashback/climax structure that may frankly be out of my league to pull off. Plus, if I recall (been a while since I looked at it) it’s chock full of info-dumps. Not sure if I can work it, but, again, taking Heinlein’s advice, I should just finish it and send it out. Who knows?

The second is only maybe 1/2 done, and, If I recall, ran aground on technical issues – I couldn’t see why, exactly, events would unfold as I wanted them to, given the underlying tech. Bradbury would just write the hell out of that sucker, and it would be so good that you’d not even notice that it didn’t make much sense until long after you’d wiped the satisfied tears from your eyes. If it were pure stand-alone story, I’d just hold my nose and finish it. But it’s part of the TNTSNBN* Universe, and so I want to work it out so that it makes sense, rather than having to orphan it. Heinlein would say: Just Finish It! I should not be a schmuck and listen!

The third is an attempt at humor (actually, several of these stories are funny at least to me!) that projects a cowboy attitude into space – Mike Flynn, among others, has already done this (and Flynn’s efforts should make a fellah like me saddle up and get out of Dodge, if’n I had any horse sense.) But really, if you’re imagining what kind of culture would develop or be required in space, you’re kind of limited, at least in the early going, to maritime and frontier – those are basically the types of people you’ll attract, and the culture will likely reflect what we’ve seen on earth. Cowboys in space is not really far-fetched, but almost inevitable. It’s really just a matter of degree – do you want to play it for laughs, or make it less obvious and play it straight? (And those aren’t really mutually exclusive options.) The only other is sort of barbarian migration, but that conflicts with the high tech ideas – at least, ships and cowboys were on the cutting edges of the tech of their day (think: marine chronometers and six shooters).  Maybe this one gets skipped? Is that Heinlein I hear tsk-tsking?

After triaging those 3, think I’ll start some new ones. I’ve started a folder of story ideas, many just a phrase, some a sentence or two. I’ll pick one and write it next, eschewing the tendency to think too hard about it – just gotta do it. I’m afraid my mind runs toward thinking tech/nature/politics before thinking people (Asimov, anyone? If only I were that good!) such that my characters, to me, seem a little thin. I hoping I’m wrong. The solution is to just keep cracking and hope for useful feedback.

Then, once I’ve steeled myself with ample rejection notices and, one hopes, gotten an item or two published, I’ll plunge back into TNTSNBN.* I’ve got maybe a dozen or two pages of useful introductory materials/scene setting/character introduction written, plus many pages of notes and research, and stray drafts of key scenes, written so I could focus on where the story is going.  Family trees, backstories, charts and graphs figuring top speeds and acceleration and relativistic effects, doodles of what the ships look like, descriptions of the key tech, whole planetary systems mapped out and named, screen grabs and web pages – yea, gotta stop and write the darn thing.

Finally, probably after I retire (7 years, but who’s counting?) I’ll write a book or two on education history.

Reading? Well, the pile is not getting any shorter. Have 80 pages of an early Heinlein novel to finish. We’ll be starting The Everlasting Man for the Bay Area Chesterton Society reading groups starting in July, so I’ll be rereading that.

Aaaand, this weekend all our kids are in town! Woohoo! Older Daughter and Middle Son are driving up from SoCal; Younger Daughter and the Caboose are here already! The hammock I ordered has arrived, the weather is supposed to be near-perfect this weekend, and the lemon tree still hangs heavy with lemonade-in-potentia. The shield (item E) needs to be finished, the half-finished brick oven cries for attention, and there’s a dude about 20 miles away trying to get somebody to take 1,900 paver bricks off his hands – that are still in the ground. I could use them, except I might be dead by the time I dig ’em all up.

I’m real busy, but happy about it!

* The Novel That Shall Not Be Named

One Last Thought (no, really) on Guardians of the Galaxy II

Somebody check my meds – over the last few days, I have written about 2,000 words on GotG II, and would need another 1,000 to finish off where I was going. This, while I’ve only finally gotten back to the stories I was writing  after my week-long business trip.

And it’s not even a big deal – a relatively minor point raised a couple times by Malcolm the Cynic set off my hair-trigger ‘must EXPLAIN!’ reaction, and BOOM.  Sheesh.

So, going to try to cut it down and be done with it.  This is it – no more overthinking this popcorn flick for me. (BTW: I have about, I dunno, 15,000 words on the Matrix in a folder someplace. It has some philosophical implications, ya know? I have issues.)

Related image
Drax’s backstory is even more tragic than this! And this is a pretty tragic backstory. 

 

However expertly the filmmakers have worked this – and it’s good!  – I find myself after the fact wondering about it.  That’s not good.

The esteemable Malcolm the Cynic and I agree, as can be seen here, that upping the emotional stakes was the only way to go – you’ve already saved the galaxy once, if all you do is save it again, that’s unlikely to be very satisfying. BUT – if our heroes can resolve or at least make progress on their terrible family issues *while* saving the galaxy again, that’s something! That’s what the filmmakers did, and did very well, so well that I paid to see this movie twice.

Let’s reframe my only issue with this by means of a story I read who knows where years ago, told in order to give advice to writers:

A pulp editor was buying a series from a new promising writer, where an adventurer named Flanagan (something like that, work with me) got into and out of a series of tough spots, with each instalment ending with a cliffhanger which was resolved at the start of the next.

One week, the editor gets an episode that leaves off with Flanagan really stuck – he’s been left in the bottom of a deep pit, with razor-sharp spikes lining the walls, and has nothing with him except the clothes on his back. How will he ever escape?

The editor is eagerly waiting for the next installment, dying to see how, this time, Flanagan escapes. When it arrives, he quickly reads until he reaches the part where it is written: “With a mighty leap, Flanagan leapt out!” At which point, we can assume, the manuscript hit the wall.

So, is it wrong for a hero to leap out of a deep pit? The answer is ‘it depends’. If the hero is Spiderman, Superman or the Hulk, no – they leap (or fly) like crazy. The problem in the case of those heroes is that everybody knows they can leap out of a pit, so it’s really not a cliffhanger unless the writer adds other things to the scenario: the spikes are kryptonite, or Bruce Banner is feeling particularly melancholy for some reason, or Spiderman knows that Mary Jane gets it the second he gets out.

Being trapped in a pit is only a problem if something like the normal human rules apply. Batman or Indiana Jones are not leaping out of a deep pit – their escape would have to be set up in some other way.

In short, we have expectations, that the rules set up by the writers will be followed. Hulk can throw a tank, so having him throw a mountain is really not that much of a stretch; Superman can shove a planet, because he can pretty much do anything. But Batman can’t survive a 200′ drop onto pavement without changing the rules. He’s a rich man in a cool suit, not a superhuman.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: what leaps out of emotional hell are we willing to accept? Is the leap plausible enough not to ruin our suspension of disbelief?  I say: in GotG II, in the moment, the leaps are believable, but upon reflection, at least some are not. Further, to believe them upon reflection, I contend that one must accept the modern lie that the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools *of children* isn’t all that big a deal – you can leap out of it. Like a hero falling 20 stories, you just dust those kids off and send them back into the fight. No harm done.

This – the abandonment, manipulation, torture and use as tools of children – is the heart of the divorce and hookup cultures. This is the world – Hollywood, everywhere – in which this movie is viewed. Instead of victims of such treatment being horrible outliers, they are instead everywhere. They are the norm. To recognize how profoundly traumatic divorce and abandonment are makes the emotional leaps in the movie contrived and insufficiently convincing, as if Spiderman could suddenly turn invisible or Batman had laser vision.

How is it supposed to work? Here’s Ed, from City Slickers, describing his best day ever:

I’m 14 and my mother and father are fighting again. You know, because she caught
him again. Caught him! This time, the girl drove by the house to pick him up.
I finally realised he wasn’t just cheating on my mother. He was cheating on us.
So I told him. I said “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you.”

“I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you any more.”
He made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. Then he turned around and he left. Never bothered us again. But I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.

What was your worst day?

Same day.

City Slickers is an interesting parallel: friends, each suffering wounds in his personal life, accept a journey that turns out more difficult than they could have imagined, both in terms of physical challenges and self-discovery.  An unlikely emotional leader emerges, then dies. Wounds are reopened, yet, through the love and heroism of friends and the catharsis of achieving their mutual goal, great progress is made.

The difference: in City Slickers, everybody (well, except maybe Curly) is a regular human being, and so regular human being rules apply. In GotG II, nobody is a regular human being – yet, this isn’t Solaris, we’re supposed to relate to their humanity however packaged. The path to healing and recovery must be something a regular human being could do, otherwise, it’s an emotional Deus ex Machina.

Here are the emotional journeys I find unconvincing upon reflection:

Peter: Peter is abandoned by his father, but raised by a loving mother (and her family) for about 10 years. By modern standards, that’s almost idyllic. In reality, Pete’s is probably already a somewhat emotionally messed-up dude, but not in a way he couldn’t normally overcome with the love of others.

Then, his mother dies in front of his eyes when he’s still a child. He is kidnapped, bullied (somewhat, at least) and used by Yondu for about 24 years. Those would be pretty scarring experiences by any measure. And, they do scar him: he grows up to be a free-wheeling playboy adventurer without much of a conscience. During the opening sequence of GotG I, we learn he’s willing to betray Yondu, risk the life of the blue girl whose name he can’t remember and who he’s brought along as a bang buddy.

Despite being untrustworthy in these comparatively small things, is the stuff of heroes.

Believable? Well, maybe. Part of the drama between Gamora and Peter turns on him being a charming scoundrel willing to do plenty of evil if it works out for him – the ‘a little of both’ line at the end of GotG I cements this. So, do we buy that? Upon reflection?

The stakes are raised by increasing the emotional damage. The father who abandoned him returns, talks nice, but is ultimately revealed to be more than willing to hurt, use and even kill Peter, to have used and killed Peter’s mom and be willing to  kill anyone else who gets in the way.  And to destroy the universe to remake it in his own image.

On an emotional level, is this not exactly the way divorce looks to a kid ? In any other context, it stands beyond even Greek myth in its horror, more, perhaps, like Hindu myth in embracing the unreality and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe.

So Peter turns on his father and kills him with the help of his friends. He gets a little kids’ revenge on the parent who destroyed his life. He discovers that his foster dad, who had himself been horrible abused as a child and likewise used and abused him, is nonetheless his real daddy, willing to die for him.

Believable? No.  In the real world, kids do not have a cathartic experience of killing off daddy that makes it all better. This is not so much exploring Peter’s emotional journey as it is acting out 70% of the audiences’ revenge fantasies. As a revenge fantasy, it works. As a plausible plot point, it fails – upon reflection.

Gamora and Nebula: These are the two characters who, under just about any believable scenario, should end up raging sociopaths or curl up and die. Perhaps they had a few years deeply and unconditionally loved by their parents before Thanos murdered their parents and proceeded to torture the girls into becoming killing machines? The problem here is if the girls were raised well enough by their natural parents to have any reserves of decency, love and morality, Thanos would not have been able to turn them into remorseless assassins. He would first have to destroy any residual goodness.

Nevertheless, like Finn in SW:TFA, each woman has reserves of goodness that no amount of trauma, torture and mistreatment could destroy, even as they act as assassins, even as they fight daily. While they are both cripples, they nonetheless can be launched on the road to healing by a little loving, by a boyfriend and by a sister. Harkening back to the divorce and abandonment culture, the relationship between these sisters is also horribly common – you can’t take it out on daddy or mommy, so you take it out on your sibling. Once you can come to grips that your mutual hatred is really simply redirected hatred of your parents, all is good! You only ignored and mistreated your sister because daddy was so mean to you! How could you be expected to notice the physical and emotional destruction – he’s turning sis into a machine on both levels – when daddy is being so mean to you?

All that’s left is to get revenge on the parents…. That’ll have to wait for a future episode.

Again, perfectly functional as a revenge fantasy. But upon reflection, not a plausible plot point. Emotional fantasy.

Yondu and Rocket: We are informed that they are each other. Where Yondu got his moral compass is unknown – again, maybe he had loving parents before his capture and molding into a soldier? But Rocket’s is pretty much inexplicable except by assuming his makers toyed around with giving him a conscience? If they could do that, why not make him obedient and docile?

Really, Yondu is the same as Nebula and Gamora, not Rocket. He just managed to escape earlier, and use his skills to become a captain – of pirates.

(All the pirates seem to be cut from the same mold – damaged children. None, certainly not Taserface, come off as the bloodthirsty psychopaths real pirates of necessity tend to be. They seem, rather, to bumble about like the Lost Boys until one captain or another executes them. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean all over again: they have heavily-armed ships and a homicidal code of honor in order to pick pockets and do a little light burglary? Yet, they’re the *good* guys, like Peter, just a little rakish.)

A 90-second heart-to-heart spot between Yondu and Rocket sets up the grand finale – Yondu’s heroic self sacrifice to save Peter.

Really worked well in the moment. Believable upon reflection? No.

Moral: don’t reflect much on popcorn flicks?