Dead Not Dead – a Trope that Needs to Die

This article contains spoilers for Jurassic Park, The Rise of Skywalker and The Last Emperox. You’ve been warned.

There’s a trope that appears in fiction that drives me crazy, but I’m not sure I don’t violate it myself. So let’s deal with some examples, then I’ll let you know what I’m trying and you can decide if I’m being hypocritical.

Many years ago, I read Jurassic Park before I saw the movie. There’s a mid-point in the story that everyone knows: the T-Rex attacks the jeeps for the first time. In the book, the narration keeps shifting perspective so that you never see the attack from the person being attacked, but from the eyes of someone else present. Because of this slight of hand, Crichton appears to have killed off four or five people, including the children.

At that point in the book, I thought, “wow, what a brave writer, killing the kids!” Of course they weren’t dead. He spent the next fifty or so pages revisiting the scene to explain how just about everyone you thought he’d killed actually lived (except the lawyer).

I was so disappointed.

Fast forward to 2019 and what would turn out to be a very disappointing end to the Skywalker saga. The Rise of Skywalker contained a scene at around the forty minute mark where we believe that Rey has accidentally killed Chewie.

Hey it was the last episode in the series, and Chewie had been killed once in Star Wars canon already (now “legend” and no longer canon) so why not be bold and do that? I was thrilled to see that moment with all its emotional impact on both the audience and Rey. Not two minutes later we learn that was on a different ship. Yep, he was dead, not dead.

I love Chewie, and feel that The Force Awakens was the best presentation of him as a character, but killing him in The Rise of Skywalker would have given so much more weight to the fact that this was truly the end of the journey, that everything was on the line (Esquire agrees).

To the present: So I’ve been reading John Scalzi’s The Last Emperox, the final book in the Interdependency trilogy. I honestly haven’t enjoyed it as much as the first book, and have been struggling to complete it. Then, Scalzi “kills” the second female lead. I was skeptical. He doesn’t often kill off characters, they tend to have too much plot armour*.

Sure enough, two chapters later, she’s alive. Her enemies have conspired to fake her death and kidnap her, although exactly why doesn’t seem to be clear or sensical.

Now, a little further into the book (I haven’t finished it yet) Scalzi appears to have killed off the lead female protagonist. I’m skeptical about this one, too**. She’d just been talking with a shape-shifting AI about giving it a more prominent role in the current crisis. Her funeral was a closed casket, Scalzi makes sure to emphasize this.

Yeah, I’d bet dollars to donuts that she’s not dead either.

And I’m getting tired of this.

– – –

Now let’s look at what I’ve done and see if I’m not the biggest hypocrite going.

Two of my second tier characters, let’s call them T and M, get kidnapped by a ruthless enemy. One, M, is graphically tortured in front of the other, T, dying gruesomely for the pleasure of said enemy. That enemy then looks at T and says, “you’re next.”

We never see or hear about T’s fate after that. Nobody even claims that he’s dead. He’s just missing, lost, presumed dead. However, in the sequel we learn that he was never tortured, but kept prisoner to be used as a bargaining chip.

I don’t think this fulfills the “Dead Not Dead” trope because he’s never seen as dead, just threatened with a very powerful existential threat of death by torture.

What do you think, am I being a hypocrite?

——

* Plot armour is the trope that you can’t kill the star of the show, no matter how grave the danger appears to be. It’s very common in episodic TV shows, and when violated, like the death of Lt. Col. Henry Blake in M*A*S*H, can be shocking.

** I’ve finished the book. No spoilers for this ending, as the book’s only been out a few months. The more I think about it the less I like the twist.

The Many Levels That Dune Can Be Read At

sandworms

Hey, if you haven’t already read Frank Herbert’s Dune, then:

a) Shame on you. And
b) I’m going to spoil the crap out of it for you.

Go read it now.

Then come back here.

I believe that there are at least four ways that you can interpret Dune as you read it (I have a fifth, but it’s kind of trite).

The first, and easiest way to read Dune is as a traditional coming of age story, the Campbell myth. Young Paul Atreides must grow into manhood when his family is attacked and his house scattered. Paul grows from a soft young boy to a militant leader, and eventually the emperor of all humanity. It’s a long story arc and it necessitates a long book length.

The second common interpretation of Dune is the environmental one. Dune is ravaged by harsh deserts in an age where we can control the weather. Why is Dune left that way? So that the local natural resource, Melange*, can be exploited. Do the locals have any say in this? No they do not. Their colonizers have decided their fate and will continue to to do so?

Which takes us to the third interpretation – the nascent Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s. The Arab nations of the Middle East were discovering that if they took control of their local resource, petroleum, then they could control the world’s economy.

Which leads us four: interpreting it through religious extremism. I’m not sure that Herbert comes down against this, not in its totality. On the one hand, he gives us the Bene Gesserit – secretive, extreme, pushing their own agenda throughout history towards the goal of creating a Kwisatz Haderach**, a male supreme leader of their order. Supposedly this man will put humanity on ‘the golden path’ and ensure our future, but within the structure of the story, there is no real threat to our future that needs to be overcome. On the other hand, Paul taps into the Fremen’s religious belief in a saviour and uses that to give himself a power base and get revenge upon his enemies. There are points in the story when Paul regrets his actions (more so in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune) but by then it’s too late – he’s started something that he can’t stop. his only hope is to ride it out and guide it where he can.

There is at least one final way to interpret Dune, a cautionary tale about using drugs or medicine for performance enhancement. The Guild Navigators pay an incredibly high price for their use of the spice, transforming from a human form into one that is not only not compatible with us, but not compatible with our environment. The whole human society has become reliant upon this one drug (again the petroleum oil analogy) for their economy to function. Bene Gesserit pay an incredibly high price, as to become a full member (Reverend Mother) one must drink a poisonous form of the drug and survive.

There are probably others: Human capacity for specialization versus reliance on AI; Fear of innovation (fear of IX and its products); Racism (The lack of acceptance of the Fremen, the Bene Tleilax, forcing them into poor economies or dangerous power plays); Classism/Feudalism (Chani can never be Paul’s wife, only his concubine).

What do you think? How else can that story be interpreted? (Or should readers just shut up and read the book without forcing an interpretation?)

NOTES:
* Melange is the French word for Cinnamon, FYI.
** Kwisatz Haderach is awfully close to Kefitzat Haderech, which Wikipedia calls “a Jewish Kabbalistic term that literally means contracting the path.”

10 Novels that have stayed with me

David Gerrold*, noted science fiction writer, had an interesting article on his website, 10 Novels that have stayed with me. One thing that amazed me is how much of a crossover there was with his list and my (then hypothetical) list. One thing that saddened me was that he gave the list (2 actually, one of books and one of authors), but no rationale for how they had impacted him. I thought I’d make my own list, but giving rationales for each.

So, let?s break it down! Ten novels that have stayed with me:

Dune
by Frank Herbert
Before we even get into this, I want to state that for me Dune and Dune Messiah should be treated as one book, perhaps titled The Rise and Fall of Paul Atreides. I?ve read Dune enough times that I have favourite editions (each edition has a slightly different edit – sometimes correcting elements, occasionally deleting scenes.) I like the earlier versions that include scenes where Count Fenring is fully explored as a failed Kwisatz Haderach. He sympathetically discusses Paul?s fate with his wife, even as he plans how to kill him.

As my knowledge of the Middle East has grown, I?ve re-read this story with very different eyes. It seems prophetic if you think draw parallels with the pre-Arab Spring Middle East and Mahgreb. I can?t help but wonder what if any inspiration T. E. Lawrence was on Frank Herbert.

Under Pressure
by Frank Herbert
Not all Frank Herbert stories were good. I?ve read a few that made me wonder how they got published (Hellstrom’s Hive anyone?). But this is one of his better. Also released as Dragon in the Sea, this is a good, suspenseful story. There are four men on a sub during wartime. One is a traitor, but who? Can the sub finish its critical mission before the traitor sabotages the sub? (Also of note, Herbert’s ConSentience books – Whipping Star and Dosadi Experiment)
The Chrysalids
by John Wyndham
This is one of those stories that throws you in and expects you to swim. You?ll discover as you read this that there has been some kind of holocaust, probably a nuclear war, and that survivors have fallen back not only on older agrarian ways, but also on a strict set of laws and guidances to ensure that humanity remains pure (it?s not stated why, but many children are born with deformities. Such children are banished to semi-arable radioactive zones.) Against this background, a generation of telepaths is born. They try to hide and fit in, but any conspiracy is only as strong as its weakest member, and one of the telepaths is only a baby and can’t comprehend the danger.
The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien
I don?t have to explain the plot, but it?s the visual imagery, so adeptly captured in the first movie, that drove me to continue reading even when it meant immersing in elvish and dwarfish lore that didn?t really interest me. The man knew how to write.
The Lord of Light
by Roger Zelazny
Another story where you need to figure it out as you go? There are gods living among a pre-industrial society. But it turns out that they are all descendants from a crashed spaceship, the ?gods? from the crew, the rest from the passengers. The ?gods? hoard technology and suppress societal development (going so far as to blow up a house in which someone had built a toilet) but now one of the ?gods? wants to change all that.
Nova
by Samuel R. Delaney
Set in the far distant future, this story, partially told in flashback, deals with a feud between two very wealthy families, one of old-money and from Earth, the other nouveau riche and located in a colonized world. This is a rich story of cruelty, obsession, and wealth gone awry. It?s also a lyrical story about music, tarot cards, cyberpunk-style technology and a star about to go boom.
The Naked Sun
by Isaac Asimov
This is a sequel to Caves of Steel, and reunites the two main protagonists, an Earthling named Elijah Bailey and a robot named Daniel Olivaw. While the first story was set in the cave-like cities of a futuristic, poor, and fearful Earth, this story sees the characters solving a murder on a much richer and more sparsely populated world, one where people still go outside, much to Elijah?s horror. His agoraphobia is a constant throughout the story. This one was much more memorable than the first, and I find I come back to it. Asimov later expanded this series with a third book, Robots of Dawn, and later still even tied this series to his Foundation series.
A Deepness in the Sky
by Vernor Vinge
While this story is technically a prequel to A Fire Upon the Deep, the stories take place 20,000 years apart and have only one character in common. Simply put in the distant future two human cultures are competing to make contact with an alien species that hibernates for centuries at a time. Vinge writes aliens as common but different people better than most, and I prefer his telling here to the first book.
The Mote in God?s Eye
by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
First contact with aliens, but we?re the spacefaring ones and they?re planetbound. The story is fun enough that I?ve read it a half dozen times. Truthfully, the aliens aren’t alien enough for me, but the strength of the story is in the world-building and the human cultures – a mixture of WWII American naval and pre-Soviet Russian cultures, with a sense of British aristocracy thrown in. And Kevin Renner, can’t forget Kevin Renner.
The Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams
There?s now five or six books in this ?trilogy? but really the first book is all you need. I?d like to call this post-modern absurdist science fiction, but I?m not even sure what that means. However there is something inherently Monty Python-esque about this story of the last human alive. If you don?t know the story, and don?t have time to read it, try to find the BBC TV series, not the movie.

David Gerrold also did a list of 10 authors, and like his, my list of authors does not completely match up with my list of books (Hello Terry Pratchett!). But that?s a post for another day.

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*David Gerrold has written many good books, including A Matter for Men and When HARLIE Was One, but to my mind he is best known for his breakout TV script “The Trouble with Tribbles” for the original Star Trek TV series.

Here’s the original “Next Week on Star Trek” trailer. The episode is much better than the trailer:

As always, feel free to disagree below!

Artificial Intelligence: Malicious in Movies, Benevolent in Books

Why is it that the portrayal of artificial intelligence in movies and books are contradictory? Almost universally, movies portray AI as adversarial to humans.

Recent movies such as this year?s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ex Machina each offer their own interpretation of the idea that AIs can’t be trusted. In both, humans become the victims of AI free will, although the scale is vastly different. There have been hints of this malevolent interpretation in movies for some time, and can invariably be traced back to Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And between then and now, we’ve had The Matrix and the granddaddy of all malevolent AIs, Terminator.

One of the few examples that breaks that mould, showing AIs as victims of humanity’s baser impulses, is AI: Artificial Intelligence. Here we have an AI that wants nothing more than to be loved by a human and is rejected repeatedly. Another exception that I can think of is War Games, where the AI realizes that total nuclear war is unwinnable and refuses to play.

But what’s most interesting is I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov’s ‘robots’ series of books. The books explicitly and repeatedly state that in that future, all AIs will adhere to three laws that are destined to keep them from harming humans. The movie subverts this, and its robots can certainly hurt people.

Yet many successful utopian book series have benevolent AIs as an underpinning of that very utopian-ness. Think of the Culture series by Iain M Banks, or the Commonwealth Series by Peter F. Hamilton. True, Dune talks about the banning of thinking machines because they once rebelled against humans, but I wouldn’t call Dune’s post-AI existance utopian anyway.

I think the argument is more muddled for TV, probably because there is invariably many more hours of it.

Classic Star Trek had many episodes about bad AI, from Dr Daystrom’s M5 to the Serpent that kept people innocent and free of sin, to Landru and Nurse Chapel’s lover/android, Roger Korby. AI was rarely if ever seen as benevolent. Now, there’s a TV show called Person of Interest in which not one but two AIs are trying to control humanity. In between, there’s been a lot of hours of a bit of both:

  • Battlestar Galactica, both versions, were clearly about AIs wanting to exterminate pesky humans, although the reimagined series complicated the question by having them interbreed.
  • Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation represents a more benevolent AI, one that although superior in almost every way still choses to participate in life’s social and moral uncertainties.

I’ve noticed this disconnect between how books and movies portray artificial intelligence but I don’t have a clear explanation for it. Perhaps I have an observer’s bias and this is completely wrong. If you could use the comment space below to help me flesh out either this obvious disconnect or my obvious bias, I’d appreciate it.