Adult Onset Atheist

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lending Rainbows

With all the rainbows lighting up the world it is strange to suggest that all in rainbow land is not sparkling in the afterglow of universal love, since such a condition is not uncommon in true rainbow land even when the rainbow nozzles are not turned up full power. The SCOTUS has re-affirmed marriage as a gender-combination-independent Right. Facebook profiles have been rainbow hued to celebrate the SCOTUS decision as the direct result of an app that only colors photos in rainbows. Flags festooned with rainbow-colored bears have sprung up in unlikely places to announce the “final” concert celebrating 50 years of music by the Grateful Dead. Rainbows are everywhere these past few weeks; good rainbows.

The finality of the Grateful Dead concert is hardly the cause of the rainbow problems. Age has unsurprisingly set the parking brakes on the Magical Grateful Dead Bus. Baby-faced Bob Weir will be 68 in October, bass guitarist Phil Lesh celebrated his 75th birthday back in March, and Jerry, who died a couple of days after his 53rd birthday in 1995, would have turned 73 on the first of August. I predict that, within the coming decade, some former deadhead will get a walker and name it “roll away the dew”.

The rainbow problems I speak of are happening within the rainbow family of living light whose annual gathering ended today. It was held this year in the Black Hills National Forest near the Pine Ridge reservation. The Black Hills have been identified as sacred land by members of various Native American tribes; most notably Lakota Sioux from the Pine Ridge reservation. All of the black hills (including almost half of South Dakota, and large chunks of Wyoming, North Dakota, and Nebraska) are also identified as belonging to Native American interests by the treaty of Fort Laramie which was signed in 1868.

In 1980 SCOTUS (United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371 ) awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to the fort Laramie treaty signatories for the land (and years of compound interest at 5%) illegally confiscated since signing the treaty. They did not give the land back, and the bulk of the money has been sitting in an account unclaimed since the award as a statement towards promoting the return of the land.

Due to continually compounding of interest it is estimated that the settlement amount is now worth just north of a billion dollars. This makes the Lakota some of the wealthiest Native Americans in North America. Unfortunately the fact that they do not spend any of the money does little to improve the living conditions on Pine Ridge, and it continues to be one of the poorest places in the United States. Needless to say the decision to keep a billion dollars locked up while many people who could lay claim to the benefit of that money live in extreme poverty is not a universally supported decision.

Days before the Rainbow gathering was to begin a handful of Lakota headed by James Swan and Duane Martin served a legal-looking document to members of the rainbow family claiming that they were not to be allowed to gather in the sacred black hills as defined by the Fort Laramie treaty. This came as a bit of a surprise as Rainbow representatives had gathered permits and permissions from recognized representatives of the Lakota as well as the Forest Service (which currently administers the land).

There are undeniably sacred sites in the black hills. The big ones, like devil’s tower, are on protected federal lands. There are also many little ones; like individual burial sites. However, the Fort Laramie Treaty land mass is huge (millions of acres) and most of it is not a specific sacred site. The Rainbow Family gathering site had no specific sacred sites on it, and so may not have been any more sacred than anywhere in Rapid City or the town of Sturgis (where, for the past 75 years, there is a huge motorcycle rally in August).

It may actually trivialize the problems in the government of Pine Ridge to state that there are long-standing and severe divisions and disunity within it. However, it is difficult to really map the frontlines of the internal political struggles as the federal government is called upon as the root cause somewhere in almost every discussion on the topic. The fact that the federal government’s special relationship with Native American Reservations often makes it the root cause of very local issues does not help defuse those instances where paranoia or simple scapegoating uses the spectre of the “Feds” to displace blame.

In most of the world even the most severe of local political infighting does not usually involve death squads. In 1973 a group of activists took over the historical site of the Wounded Knee massacre in the Pine Ridge reservation. Some were protesting the Federal Government, but most were attempting to oust the tribal president (Richard Wilson). Wilson held the office using actual paramilitary GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation ) to intimidate and even assassinate opponents. Many Lakota died in unexplained car crashes, and as many as 60 of Wilson’s opponents were violently murdered between the Wounded Knee incident and Wilson’s re-election in 1974. To put this into perspective it is more than ten times the violence rate per capita as that seen at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Pine Ridge Reservation was at war with itself. Many blame the federal government for either not doing anything or instigating the problems to begin with. The conflict did not go unnoticed by the Feds, and the United States Civil Rights Commission stated that Wilson’s 1974 re-election was invalid because of widespread fear, abuse, and intimidation.

In order to fight in and survive the war that the Pine Ridge reservation was in the mid-70s took conviction and an ability to be violent. It was probably inevitable that the violence from one of the sides would strike out at the Feds. On June 26th 1975 two FBI agents who were performing what regular police would perform anywhere else (attempting to locate a robbery suspect for questioning) were ambushed on the Pine ridge reservation. The two agents radioed in that they were taking automatic rifle fire and were unable to defend themselves adequately with their 38 special revolvers. When their bodies were recovered there were over 125 bullet holes in the agents’ cars. FBI agent Jack Coler was killed by two execution style bullet wounds to his head received after being incapacitated by other wounds in the gunbattle. Agent Ronald Williams had powder burns on his hand where he attempted to shield his face from the gun muzzle from which came the bullet that killed him.

It took hours for the Feds to put together a force of sufficient strength to approach the ambush site. They came under fire, but most of the ambushers had already fled. One ambusher died, and his body was discovered clothed in one of the dead agent’s jacket, which he presumably took as a souvenir. The dead shooter was not one of Wilson’s GOONs. He was a member of AIM (The American Indian Movement). AIM, with its actual movie-star leaders, was the major opposition to Wilson, and lead the Wounded Knee takeover. Suspicion was immediately cast upon Leonard Peltier who coordinated some aspects of AIM security.

Leonard evaded authorities until February 1976. In September of 1975 he narrowly avoided being caught when his RV was pulled over in Oregon. After a brief gun battle Leonard ran away on foot; Jack Coler’s service revolver was found under the front seat of the RV. In his 1999 memoir (I have not actually read the memoir) Leonard admitted to firing on the two agents, but denied firing the close up shots that killed them.

Leonard Peltier’s 1977 trial is widely denounced as a sham. Amnesty international called it an “Unfair Trial” as late as 2010.

Just a few short days after Leonard was apprehended a badly decomposed body of a woman was discovered on the Pine Ridge reservation. It would eventually be identified as Annie Mae Aquash; the highest “ranking” woman in AIM. She had been killed by an execution-style 0.32 caliber bullet to the back of the head. The federal trials of the two men who would ultimately be convicted of Annie’s execution stretched from 2003 to 2006. In 2012 what may be the last state trial for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Annie upheld the conviction for John Graham; formerly a member of AIM. Annie was allegedly on her knees praying for mercy when the bullet entered the back of her skull.

It is widely believed that Annie was either killed by secretive government agents who framed AIM, or conversely, that she knew too much about Leonard’s involvement in the 1975 ambush. Several people have testified that Annie was with them when Leonard allegedly boasted about his involvement in the FBI ambush by saying: “The mother f***er was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.”.

Out of this madness of violence sprung a collection of –now aging- young activists who are formulating their positions now that the actual leadership of that time are aging out of power. Any threats of violence coming from these people, even indirect threats (like: “If you don’t do what I say I’m not responsible if something bad happens to you”), cannot be easily ignored as bluster.

At the same time that Pine Ridge was experiencing some sort of modern gangster version of the old west the Rainbow Family of Light was beginning to develop. The first national gathering was held at Strawberry Lake Colorado over July 4th weekend in 1972; over 40,000 hippies showed up to that event. First approximations suggest that only a couple thousand may have braved the threats of violence to attend this year’s gathering in South Dakota; better numbers will take a bit of time to develop.

Hippies have even been a part of the evolution of Pine Ridge from hyper-violence to the current status of more simplified abject poverty. The Rainbow Family gatherings are always alcohol free, and hippies helped block roads during protests of reservation border liquor stores (the reservation is removing its anti-alcohol laws). The last treaty council Epyapaha (I think Alex White Plume was the last as it does not appear as if Epyapaha is an official position) famously leveraged the “Lakota Nation” status of the Pine ridge reservation to begin the commercial growing of marijuana.

Native American culture has been an integral part of the Rainbow family since it emerged from the vortex. Teepees are iconic location points at the gathering sites, and many rainbow children profess a strong, if only imagined with good intent, bond with what they think Native American spirituality is. The rainbow gathering is a gathering of tribes, and those tribes are a lot like a conceptualized image of Native American tribes. If there was an actual threat to a real Native American sacred site most rainbow people would walk the long way around.

None of the potential violence materialized. The most vocal Lakota aggressor –Duane Martin- spent a bit of the weekend in jail for unpaid child support. Many more level-headed Lakota activists, a couple wearing t-shirts advertising for the release of Leonard Peltier, actually attended the gathering to build the bridges which will probably result in the kind of non-violent activist alliances that will benefit the future. Unfortunately however, the family’s light was dimmer that it could have been. Many actively avoided this year’s gathering in South Dakota because of the intimidation, or because they did not want to accidentally trample a sacred spot.

Or…. maybe the real reason that so many avoided this year’s gathering was to lend the family’s rainbows to the rest of the country which so desperately needed to borrow them for a bit?

Thursday, June 4, 2015

SNARL: The Journeyman: In the Stone House

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella, the five Short Story Nominees, The Five Best Dramatic Presentation Long, and the five Best Dramatic Presentation Short-form nominees .  This is the second of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "Novelette" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of “The Journeyman: In the Stone House” by Michael F. Flynn

I really wanted to like this story. It had some fun characters engaging in delightful dialog. It even provided some jokes for the reader to enjoy at the expense of the characters. I hope the author had fun writing this, because it read as if he did. Unfortunately this does not have enough story in it to make it a great story, and some of the failed experiments the author tried do hold it back from even being a good story. However, I had fun reading this story, and that should count for something; actually it counts for quite a bit, and this story will get five stars (out of ten).

The protagonists are a Mutt and Jeff styled pair of affable primitives called Sammi and Teo. They joke their way through life-and-death situations usually involving their enemy primitive called Kal which is short for Karakalan or Karakalan sunna Vikeram of clan Serpentine. The infusion of dialog humor –especially from the otherwise stoic Sammi- could have pushed this into the realm of reading like a passably entertaining television script, but it did not. Two… no three stars for these entertaining interactions.

The heroes basically become conscripts of a tribe living in a castle. They are taught how to be ass-kicking scouts, and hilarity ensues.

Unfortunately the author’s fetish for long alien words –especially names- grinds some of the dialog down. The author also likes to jump between monikers in a single dialog. It only requires a momentary adjustment to deduce that “The Serp” is “Kal” who was called “Karakalan” in the previous sentence, but it is a moment stolen from otherwise flowing dialog.

The author’s alien word fetish extends beyond names. Luckily he italicizes most of the made-up words. Here is a probably incomplete list: Sawak, schmuck, sprock, plavver, yuke, kospathin, elik, gristlebar, fodanny, valadenny, bo-yashiq. Three of these words are actually names of languages, and one is the name of an honorary title. Some of them sound real enough that I wasted some time trying to look them up; there should actually be something called a gristlebar. When I was done with the list I was struck by how short it was. Reading the story I felt like every-other word was made up.

Looking up words from this story was not always fruitless. Kraal is a South African word for village, and Subedar is a Pakistani name for a military rank that falls between lieutenant and Master Sergeant. The use of somewhat arcane military terms displayed a depth of knowledge by the author that was enlightening. I was left, however, wondering how, given one interesting angle to the novelette, the primitives knew those words.

I do like the ancient astronaut mythos. At some point before the story begins the two protagonists stumbled upon the ancient, but not completely dead, wreckage of Shuttle Starbright-17. The computer (“Ghost Jamly”) makes them “Authorized Personnel”, gives them a quest, and off they go; hilarity and ass-kicking ensues. I love it when an author stitches together spaceships and primitive culture; one more star for this.

Unfortunately the inclusion of the spaceship appears to only be the mechanism for sending up a rather week joke. The people of the castle worship the mythical space-farers, and have a funny holy relic from them. The author provides a picture of the sign from the relic. It includes the rather universal Men’s Bathroom man and some words in three languages including a couple characters in classic Chinese. Are they really worshiping a bathroom door? Google translate tells me the Chinese translates to “Male Toilet, so, yah, I guess so.

A swordfight between Teo and Kal takes up what seems like a lot of the story. I am going to give the author a full star for this fight simply because it is interesting, although somewhat tedious, to read a detailed description of a sword battle.

He stepped out in the batter’s stance, made a right passing step forward and settled the blade onto his upper right arm as he turned his body into a left “augur.” From there, he lifted the hilt up, over, and behind his head to settle into a left-handed batter; then took a left passing step backwards, settling the blade on his left arm in a right augur as he turned.

In the final analysis the author loses more than he gains in his word swamp. For instance I read the term “batter’s stance” and knew what he meant; I pictured a batter at baseball holding his bat. Then I wondered why anyone in this singularly thesaurized story would know what baseball was? And then I began wondering how arcane words had been preserved to accurately describe the items they are used for when people did could not even figure out what a bathroom door was given a choice of three languages and a universal symbol.

The ending would have been a better ending for a chapter than a novelette, but it was a real ending.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

SNARL: Championship B’tok

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella, the five Short Story Nominees, The Five Best Dramatic Presentation Long, and the five Best Dramatic Presentation Short-form nominees .  This is the first of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "Novelette" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of “Championship B’tok” by Edward M. Lerner

This novelette lacks several of the critical elements that any string of words needs to tie it up into a story; the most glaring of these exposes itself as a regular disregard for continuity. It is impossible to tell if this story is actually a chapter of a larger story, or it is just half-written. I get the impression that this author may be able to write, and write stories, but this is not one of them. I will eventually pull out a reasonably good excuse for awarding one whole star to this novelette.

The first 1300 words or so (about 10% of the median length for a novelette) is a little character introduction for Captain Lyle Logan and his AI pilot Corrigan. They play chess, and bond, and then set out to investigate a downed MS129 autonomous mining spacecraft. Lyle suits up and examines the crash site to discover what might be a precision attack only to feel something poke him in his back and then “On the emergency radio band, a synthed voice directed, ‘Do not move.’”. Then Lyle and Corrigan are never heard about again, we also never hear anything described as an MS129. We have moved on, or at least the story has, and we don’t need to concern ourselves with those details anymore.

Next we are treated to the first of two chapters from the “Internetopedia”. In it we are introduced to an entire race of aliens known as Hunters or Snakes or K’vithians. We learn they have an “enclave” on a moon of Uranus as a result of some incident. We learn where their home-world star is in the earth’s night sky. We learn they evolved from pack-based carnivores and that because of this they have “developed an economic system of pure laissez-faire, caveat-emptor capitalism, centered on competing clan-based corporations.”. We do not, however, learn what they look like or are we provided any clues as to how they might interact with simple elements of a story, like characters. At first blush this might appear to be done to provide some expert reveal later on in the story, but no, eventually the author just tells you what they look like so you can catch up to what is going on.

“Snakes: Two arms, two legs, and a head. Upright posture. And there any resemblance to humans ended. Whippet-thin. Nostrils set flat in the plane of the face—and a third, upward-gazing eye set near the apex of the skull. Hairless and iridescent-scaled. Glimpses of retractable talons in each fingertip (and, as they wore sandals, each toe). The tallest Snakes stood a quarter meter shorter than she—“

During the course of this novelette we are also “introduced” to the mysterious “Interveners” . This species can apparently look like either Humans or Snakes (and probably whatevers) and have been intervening in Human development through undefined mechanisms for hundreds of millions of years, at least. The Interveners caused the Cambrian explosion of species. They whispered in Marry Shelly’s ear to help create the novel Frankenstein, and by the time this novelette rolls around they are planting bombs and making bad art.

There is something potentially interesting about reading a novelette about aliens where it is revealed that aliens influence the writing of books in order to change the future in which this novel about aliens is written. Unfortunately the author does not develop that spin well, and we are force-fed the notion that the novel Frankenstein prevented Humans from developing certain fruitful types of technology; the fact that I find such a premise preposterous may have made it difficult for me to understand it. Perhaps the author literally meant that the aliens “whispered in Mary Shelly’s ear” and simply wanted to infer that Lord Byron was an alien, and that, by inference, the Intervener aliens were “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know”?

One thing the author did treat well was the idea of boredom. Some of the more exciting elements of the story occurred when the characters were either really bored or feigning boredom. I really got the feel that boredom was in the air when the author brought it into a scene. This is where this story will earn its star.

The titular game of b’tok is described as if it is a war-simulation video game. The last game is even a simulation of the WWII battle of Midway. Championship b’tok is played “with distraction” and so is “more Machiavellian” than normal b’tok. They play the battle of Midway simulation in a cafeteria for the championship effect the other diners provide.

I’m also not too pleased with the use of the word “Machiavellian” to describe the game. Certainly an AI could be Machiavellian, and there are enough game-play-capable AIs in the story, but b’tok is played between two meat-bag players each time it is played in this novelette. Certainly one, or both, of the players could be “Machiavellian”, but the term is not used to describe the players. Certainly a player’s strategy or tactics could be “Machiavellian”, but the game board is described as being equally difficult for both players. Egalitarianism, even some highly challenging form of indifferent egalitarianism, is not well described using the term “Machiavellian”.

Despite the fact that I eviscerate this novelette I can’t help but picture it as part of a larger story that might work. That larger story may even work well. However, this novelette does not work.