Saturday, May 21, 2011

Luck and Wonder

Seeing as how real life almost never throws up unexpected surprises, this one really was unexpected. A couple of months ago, on a whim, I decided to try and purchase a subscription to this magazine online. The billing page clearly mentioned that only credit cards would be accepted for payment, and I being of the noble ilk of financial pragmatists did not possess one. But I went ahead and entered my debit card’s details, fully expecting a big, red sign to pop up, politely asking me to stop wasting their carefully rationed time. And thereby ending my spot of whimsical summer pastime of course. Instead, to my utter horror, a pleasant green icon lit up the screen the moment I was done with the done button, informing me of the success of the transaction. My shock seeped away quickly, once my brain clicked into gear and I started on the fine print.

“They didn’t ask for my password/PIN, did they? Ha!”

“Your subscription will be activated once your credit card is verified, and the transaction completed.”

I promptly forgot all about my little dalliance. A couple of days later, I received an email telling me how sorry everyone at Kalmbach Publishing was that they had to cancel my subscription as my ‘credit card’ had failed verification. There was an attached offer to get myself an account with Kalmbach to track all my subscriptions (or it could have been about buying garden fresh pink roses for all I remember), but the sense of closure was so complete that I ignored it and promptly forgot about promptly forgetting all about my little dalliance.

... Until one fine rainy day in the heart of the Deccan, when I stepped out of the house on my way to work. There were two shiny tan envelopes lying there, unceremoniously dumped in Tommy’s half of the portico. If your heart just skipped an expectant beat, that’s just me playing with your mind, because the sight did nothing for mine then. My father had subscribed to every single finance magazine on the planet, and this was probably just one of them. Curiosity (there’s a reason they always wrap interesting stuff in the dullest of envelopes) made me open one of them, and then the other, quickly, because I was to find these inside.

I spent all of five minutes staring at wondrous pictures from the bottomless gallery of the cosmos, before my conscience caught up with me. (I know, I know. I tried the Chinese water torture on the pesky little thing. It didn’t work. It’s probably already barking mad.) I already knew that no money had been deducted from my account because I had checked already, parsimonious twerp that I am. So, it really was an issue of conscience, not enlightened self-interest. Shooting off that polite errata-kind-of-email (“Sir, there seems to have been a mistake...”) to the folks at Kalmbach was easy. I half hopefully wondered if the mail would go into someone’s junk folder and be not read at all, and if I’d get to keep the cake and eat it.

Actually, I still hope that happens, and I will continue to do so until Mr. Year decides to shuffle off into 2012. The many delightful hours I have spent with my two free copies of Astronomy magazine have reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about astronomy. I don’t want to write about sky watching again (this post’s already dragged on, I don’t want to make it a novella), so I’ll make do with a little dash of the something that makes astronomy endlessly fascinating for me.

For me, the most wondrous description that I’ve ever read can, fittingly, be found in a Stephen Baxter novel. I don’t recall which one exactly, but I know it was one of the Manifold trilogy (all of which I encourage you to read). I could wax lyrical on what it is, but I’ll leave that bit to yourselves, pointing you instead to a factual Wikipedia entry on the topic. One of the characters, a sentient squid if I remember correctly, actually gets to see what you’ve just read about, and I’ve been jealous ever since. If only, if only, if only, if only, if only. It would be wondrous, awe-inspiring, humbling and crippling, all at the same time.

Ever since I discovered this site – if you’re interested in the breadcrumbs it was through the description of a Topcoder development contest backed by NASA – I’ve spent many hours just looking at it, and obviously many more monkeying around inside. Again, I won’t bother describing it – check it out for yourselves. The media player takes an inordinate amount of time to load but I promise you it’s worth the frustration.
In the May edition of Astronomy, there was an article on detailed simulations of asteroid strikes. A bunch of astrogeeks at Purdue have made this site, and the article had distilled down two of the simulations into a descriptive piece. Here’s a sample: If you were to be about 30 kilometres from the impact site of a 2.4 kilometre wide comet, you’d see a fireball about 60 times the size of the sun. For context, that’s about a third of the sky from the horizon to the zenith. You’d be hit by a wind of speed 1,900 km/h about 4 minutes later. For context, that’s about 6 times 1.5 times the speed of sound. You wouldn’t hear a thing as waves of silent destruction would strip the flesh from your bones.
That’s all for now. I enjoyed those wonder pieces so much though, that I’m sure you’ll find me returning to the theme again in the future. If you aren’t gobsmacked out of your pants, and if you aren’t feeling really, really tiny right now, then sorry, you’re way too self-centred to ever be an astrogeek. I mean that in the politest sense of course. :)

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Until not too long ago, it made perfect sense. I was secure in my knowledge of its utter stupidity – even entertaining half a debate was this close to insanity. It was so nonsensical it made perfect sense. I knew all those people who were railing against immigration in the U.S. were blinkered fools because, because... Where do I start? To me, the average stereotypical anti-immigration crusader was a blustering, red necked Great White (Fat) Male. (I’ll apologize for the blatant stereotyping later. Can’t you see I’m working on an apology already?) Just another European, with a fondness for guns and the rhotic R, if you compare the tiny sliver of time that America’s been America with all that time we’ve spent not being apes.

By way of researching this blog post I read this section on Wikipedia, and I was astounded to discover that pre-Columbian Americans predated European colonizers by 30 times as many years. There were more culturally diverse Native American groups wiped out by European diseases than political lobbies exist in the USA today. How can, just how can anyone have the gall to even consider turning away immigrants, talking about that shadow thing called American culture?

I read a forum post somewhere ( I looked for it, but I rarely ever bookmark things I’m going to read again, and Google failed me with its over-helpfulness) that almost exactly spelled out the view I held but had never seriously debated with anyone. The first ‘anti-immigration’ response that couldn’t be discarded as a rant simply asked this question:

‘How long do we have to wait, as a nation, before we get the right to define our own identity?’

A fascinating question, one that I failed to wish away with hand waving and bluster. While I don’t particularly care for patriotism as I believe that its unambiguous moral rightness is dangerous and almost inevitably mutates into jingoism, I recognize that people need, and have the right, to choose an identity for themselves. So, yes, American people need an American culture so that the notion of being American becomes something more than just empty words, something more tangible. (But do Americans have the right to censure people who don’t conform to their idea of American-ness?)

My riposte to that riposte though was simply: Already? It’s only been a fraction of a second that they’ve been, cosmically speaking. Should they be already freezing their cultural evolution? They had great intellectuals who drafted what’s perhaps the most forward thinking piece of legislation ever written, in the American constitution. But it’s not perfect and while it tries, admirably, it cannot fight off the creeping lure of religious parochialism. It should be allowed to evolve, and in the direction of greater tolerance.  Only new ideas foster evolution, and new cultures bring bagfuls of new ideas with them.

I’ve been banging on and on about America having existed only for a cosmic jiffy, but is that really right? Most free nations as we know them today have been around much less. India, as the slow, lumbering machine that’s always, but not quite, on the verge of grinding to a halt, has only been around for a measly 60 years. And we already seem to have our own idea of a ‘shadow’ Indian culture, an intangible web of intolerance that will find millions of defendants, but only a few who can tell you what it really is. Are we better? Not really. In fact we’d probably fare much, much worse if we were to become as much a hotspot for illegal immigrants as America.

What’s that I can take away from the assortment of thoughts I expelled from my system? That immigration is a more vexing issue than it appears at first glance, and that it's not just unthinking, gibbering morons who advocate stringent laws against it. It is important though that people don’t get sucked into narrow minded rhetoric disguised as American culture because, sadly, most of the self-professed warriors against the blight of immigration that have taken to haunting the Interwebs generally spout various varieties of the very same rhetoric. Being white, Christian and male is not what American culture is exclusively about.

There are many things that we, as a nation, could take away from the American search for identity, because I’m convinced this is a battle that has to be fought in our country, and in the not too distant future. I hope their war ends well, and I hope we take away the right things for our own.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Friend Mary Sue

I met someone new recently, and I made a brand new friend. Her name is Mary Sue. Mary Sue is not a person. Mary Sue is a form of literary criticism. Despite the best efforts of their creators, critical diatribes have (mostly) failed to achieve auto-sentience, and so Mary Sue narrowly missed out on personhood. Mary Sue is very, very unpopular. That’s strange because she’s just about perfect. But she is. She’s not just unpopular, she’s reviled. She’s so reviled she has a whole Wikipedia article discussing her flaws.

“A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader.”

But she’s a friend, and while I don’t particularly like all my friends, I like her. How can I not? How can I dislike someone who has a perfect body, perfect face, perfect hair, perfect <you get it>, wears perfect clothes, speaks perfect circa 300 BC Greek, knows twenty three forms of jujitsu and hundred and two languages, someone who beats Olympic swimming record times for a spot of exercise, likes to call herself Ophelia and is all of twenty three? I fear that some hitherto unknown cosmic mechanism to hoover out monumental stupidity will switch on and pop me into a handful of spacetime nothings if I don’t.

Right, now that I have established my firm logical grounds for supporting the delectable Ms. Mary Sue, let me trot out all those hackneyed criticisms and stomp on them. Squash them like bedbugs, and if possible throw them back at the original critics. Make them squirm uncomfortably until they admit to being kind of Mary Sue-ish themselves, and immediately commit suicide on an overdose of principle.

Author self-insertion.
I thought it would be a good idea to get the criticisms I partially agree with out of the way first, so that I’m free to build up my unassailable arguments later. So, I sort of agree with this. Budding authors find it hard to dream up completely new characters, so they take the ones they already know and change a feature or two here, and a name or two there. Who do we know better than ourselves? Actually, scratch that. We barely know ourselves, and that is where the problem of wish fulfilment comes in. Ain’t I irresistible as a slab of chocolate? Look at me, I’m tall, handsome, I’m smart, hunky, I’m funny and I can sing Cannibal Corpse in my sleep. Darn, who put that mirror there? Ah, not a disaster, there was that story I was working on that’s nearly complete, except for the minor matter of er... a protagonist.

I don’t unconditionally go with the criticism however, because of two seemingly contradictory reasons. One: authors have only themselves, their minds to work with. Everything a writer brings out is necessarily a depraved fantasy born in his mind. The devil’s in the details, however, and the talent’s in the obfuscation. How well can you mix and match your characterizations? A good author will still use a character sketch of himself, but he’ll probably patch a sketch of a childhood rival on to it to sow some novelty. An even better author will probably have the ability to portray slices of himself, allowing him to create many convincing characters simply by altering the ‘honesty’ filter he uses to evaluate himself. So, I would argue that it’s not only not better to avoid self-insertion, it’s often wrong. Don’t make it obvious though.

The second reason: people misinterpret all the time. Do you see Palestinians and Israelis sitting together on a beach smoking pot and singing along to Pink Floyd? Do you see bible thumpers and homoseksuals hunting quail together? There, somebody misinterpreted something somewhere. The moment our discerning reader detects a minute sniff of partiality towards the story’s hero, a little hint of favouritism shown by the author, he’ll slam the book shut faster than you can say ‘Wait... !’, absolutely convinced that he’s now reading a touched up autobiography. 

On general fantasizing about something or the other
This is an extension of the ‘self-insertion’ criticism, and Mary Sue haters generally club the two points together and simply call them ‘wish-fulfilment’. (I picked up the politest of the lot. Wankery is a cruder but often clearer term.) Remember that little speech I gave when you asked me to describe Mary Sue? Wankery. Good old fantasizing. Again, it’s a really, really fine line. All fiction is fantasy, and an author has no source but his own mind. (There are of course revealed truths which float in from the ether, but I’ve politely decided to refrain from discussing religion, so.) 

Do I think anything should fall on the wrong side of the fine line? I’m not really sure - because the things that critics generally put in that basket are things I don’t really mind – ostentatiously exotic things, for example. Like my friend Mary Sue who can speak hundred and four languages. Did I mention she’s one heck of a CS player? People are not really irritated with the idea of Mary Sue in these cases: they don’t like it that despite their best efforts they’ve gone on to finish the book. It’s OK, folks. It happens to the best and the bravest. It happened to me. Fantasy is fine.
Goody Two-Shoes-ness
I know people don’t like perfect people, but in the real world it’s called pettiness and is definitely not a sign of refinement. On the other hand, it appears that when it concerns fictional ‘people’, it’s supposed to ooze sophistication. You absolutely cannot have ‘good’ characters of any flavour in fiction. Goodness is boring. Give me serial killers, rapists and conmen. I don’t care about that guy who’s so snow white he’s never even bribed a cop. Pah! Mary Sues! My immediate reaction to this was (and still is): What?

I don’t want to appear as black-and-white as the evil side, so I’ll bring out the different-people-like-different-things argument: Different people like different things! For every flawed, insecure person out there who wants to read about other flawed, insecure people so that he can feel good about himself, there is a flawed, insecure person who wants to read about perfect people so that he can experience in fiction what he can never achieve in real life. I’ve firmly entrenched myself in the second camp. (Even if I’m rather more perfect than normal humans, my perfectness encourages modesty and so I cannot claim it. Sigh, now I’ll have to strike through this whole confession.

What is so wrong about people reading about people they aspire to be like? Having read through many a thread on this topic, I’m convinced that if someone were to write up the story of Jesus Christ and post it to a critic who’s lived in a hole and not heard of the great man, he would get lambasted for not working on his character development, and the word Mary Sue would inevitably figure at some point. Everything’s relative and one man’s impossible perfection is another man’s triviality.

I’ll make a minor concession: Even I get put off by absolutely perfectly perfect perfectness. Everyone has a flaw, but it need not always be apparent. The devil is - it always is - in the details. If the author actively tries to impose the idea of his character’s perfectness on us either through omniscient narrative, or through every other character fawning all over our man (or woman), the reader has every right to switch off. The author’s inserted himself into the story again. But what if the perfection is inferred? The author merely narrates all the good things the guy has done, and you, good reader, start to resent his Goody Two-Shoes-ness. You need to get used to yourself. Good people exist. Deeds of great nobility are as readable as deeds of great evil, at least to a not insignificant number of people out there.

Author propaganda
If there’s one thing unequivocally criticisable about a classic Mary Sue, it’s this. Ironically, this is one point that’s almost never raised when Mary Sues are criticized. It’s either so widespread, or people don’t think it’s a bad thing at all. I hope it’s the first.

What do I mean though, by author propaganda? I dislike characters that only exist to transform into words the author’s narrow viewpoints and generally parochial mindset. Let me qualify that: I don’t dislike such characters by themselves, because I know that all sorts of people exist in the world and the author has every right to make a gun-toting drug lord his protagonist. I have no right to draw inferences on the author’s personal life based on merely one errant character, and it’s an even bigger crime to call this propaganda. But when you see a book with twenty five characters, characters from all over the world and various walks of life, and every single one of them agrees wholeheartedly with every single thing our hero has to say, I get put off. I can’t help but trace it back to the author. In Philip K. Dick’s works (his later works, to be fair), Christian theology is correct. It is axiom. It is always vindicated in the end against perfunctory doubts.

It's a Predictable/Boring Story...
Now this is one point that really bugs me. People rail against Mary Sues because they think Mary Sues destroy stories. If there’s a Mary Sue there’s a sense that all confrontations are redundant because she'll win them all anyway, and that’s no fun. 

My immediate reaction when I first read something like this was to draw an analogy to the story of life itself. Life starts with birth and life ends with death. There’s never any variation there, the story is always about the journey. Are all lives boring then? Not everyone wants stories that have unpredictable endings. I don’t know how my own life is going to turn out – there’s enough chaos there for me, I want at least my fiction to show some stability. I know real life has no true good and evil, and it’s difficult to point fingers and not become aware of your hypocrisy at the same time. But I crave the guarantee that Good is going to win out over Evil in the end, and it’s only fiction that can offer it. Yes, it is not realism. Of course, it isn’t! It’s all about one man and his depraved fantasies, remember? Some people want endings they can’t guess. Some people don’t.
Harry Potter’s been called a Mary Sue. (It was on a manga fan forum, but in my defence the arguments were reasonably erudite.) Why? Because everything always seems to work out for him just in time, it’s so boring. (Let’s drop the fact that his parents were murdered while he was still a baby. That must have been fun, knowing that he’d have no parental pressure for the rest of his life.) I find the argument cyclic, and I’ll respond in kind. How is it that he always gets to survive? Because it’s his story, friend. Why (or how) would you write a long running novel series about a thirteen year old whose greatest adventure was slipping on a banana peel and whacking his head on a lamp post? We’re writing about his story because it’s remarkable. We’re writing about him because he’s overcome ridiculous odds and emerged triumphant in the end, because he has greatness around him, for whatever reason. We’re chronicling his story as it happened in the past: we’re not blogging about it live. If only everyone learnt to admire greatness, instead of letting their insecurities develop into poisonous cynicism, the world would be a better place.

On the theme of Harry Potter, I find it astounding how many people ‘like’ Severus Snape and ‘dislike’ Albus Dumbledore. Come on, strip away all those cobwebs you’ve build around your convictions, isn’t it just pettiness? Is Dumbledore a Mary Sue? His character certainly seems to tick most of the criteria used to identify one. His perfection is resented, although he isn’t really, if you see the backstory. Isn’t a man who can’t seem to do no wrong more admirable than someone who does, and corrects himself? Maybe not, but I argue that the point is at least debatable. 

Look, mama, the world is helping Mary! 
Character development, character development. Where would the art of criticism be without you? Because although this criticism is outwardly directed against everything-working-out-for-Mary-Sues-all-the-time, the real gripe is always about some form of character development.

“She's perfect, everything always works out for her, she never learns from failures because she never fails, and that’s boring, and I so hate Mary Sues!”

Yes, if you have a character who knows everything, does everything right, beats everyone and walks away, there’s hardly a story there, so it’s a wee bit boring. But this criticism is often applied to stories where the character already has a more or less well-tuned moral compass, and the story is about his journey in discovering the system, and his own abilities/skills/powers. It is character development, only not the sort you’re expecting, dear haters.

There are people out there who are plain lucky, people to whom good things happen despite their best efforts to mess things up. I have had occasions when this has happened to me, I'm afraid. If it happens in real life, why can't it happen in fiction? Suspend your disbelief, step out of that little pond you think is the ocean. Strange things happen all the time. Take a deep breath, and enjoy your fanfic. 

The End
Ultimately a Mary Sue is a stereotype, and like all stereotypes it’s just a handy stick to beat people you don’t like, which is disappointing because some of the criticism has merit. Now though, Mary Sue has accumulated so many traits that there’s hardly any character out there that you cannot call one. And beware! A few even seem to have crossed over into non-fiction. :)