I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I am so excited about this book that I decided to start with a review of the prologue. Some might consider prologues to be annoying, but I think this is an example of a prologue done right. Just to be clear, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.
McClellan is one of the more prominent authors in the flintlock fantasy subgenre and helped it make it popular with his debut novel Promise of Blood. I’ve been a big fan for ten years now and for the past year, I’ve been included in McClellan’s “Street Team” group chat. I wasn’t able to beta-read the book, but it’s been fun to get a look behind the curtain at a book as it is being written. I can’t wait to read it and take about it with you all and I already think this book is worth your time.
It’s set in a world of industrial magic, where huge factories churn out magical glass called cindersand. Society runs on this vital resource, and it’s running out. But the wealthy guild families of Ossa aren’t about to let something as minor as the death of magic to stop them from scheming.
The book begins with our MC Demir accepting the surrender of a defeated city. Instead of killing its leader and decimating its population (killing 1 in 10) as is tradition, Demir declares his intention to spare the city. After all, they would not have rebelled if they didn’t have legitimate grievances. Right from the beginning we see Demir as someone with a conscience and a strong sense of right and wrong. And then the schemes of others breaks him.
While he had been busy accepting the city’s surrender someone else had been busy distributing counterfeit orders to his officers. The falsified orders in question instructed the army to raze the city. Demir was too late. His own soldiers fail to recognize him and push him aside. When they find him the next morning he is cradling the body of a young girl who was trampled by his cavalry.
If this first look at In The Shadow Of Lightning has you interested then you should definitely pick the book up or listen to it on Audible. Audiobooks are a great way to keep up with current fiction on your drive to work. You can also follow me on Twitter if you want to chat about it or be the first to know when my full review is posted.
There is perhaps no part of the human experience than the search for identity, for meaning. Our over-achieving species of apes have collectively advanced to the point where we can look up at the stars and wonder if we are alone. We also have the tools to look back on the past and answer questions that were once unanswerable. In this vast and lonely universe, it is only natural that we ask ourselves what the meaning of all of this is.
Our search for meaning and belonging leads to us creating religions and cultures to define ourselves, as well as languages and borders. While we may like to think that we in the 21st century are enlightened and are beyond such petty concerns. The reactionary authoritarian forces at work in America and the tragic war in Ukraine say otherwise.
Our need to define ourselves brings with it a need to define the other. In doing so we create excuses to inflict horrible violence and deprivations. All of this, however, is a choice. We can choose to craft an identity for ourselves that is inclusive and welcoming, or we can choose to build a life founded on violence and hate.
I think it is because of this central search for meaning that I am so interested in the history of Eastern Europe. Us westerners can say with confidence that we all belong to countries that are at least a century old. Much of eastern Europe cannot say the same, their borders have been drawn and redrawn over the past two hundred years.
Because this search for identity is so fascinating and so central to the human experience it is an idea that I am working to explore in my own writing. You can follow my Worldanvil account if you want a look at the setting as it unfolds. And please reach out on Twitter if you like these short burst posts. I have a lot of fun writing them.
What existential ideas are you incorporating into your projects?
Now that it’s over, we can look back and analyze what the Kenobi series did right. I already shared my feelings about the series, and I may decide to talk about three things that Kenobi did wrong too. For now, though, it’s all appreciation for this vital addition to the Star Wars canon.
1. Giving Obi-Wan A Reason To Leave Tatooine.
We have been spending a lot of time on Tattooine lately. Somehow every character ends up there eventually. The Book of Boba Fett finally gave a face to the inhabitants and background characters of the desert planet. It’s a perfectly fine setting, who doesn’t love haggling with jawas? But the problem with reusing a setting over and over is that it gets old.
Like most people I expected most of the series to take place on Tatooine. Aside from a now non-canon book series we were never given a reason to believe that Obi-Wan had ever left Tatooine during his exile. Despite this, Leia somehow recognizes “Ben Kenobi” as the “Obi-Wan Kenobi” she was looking for. Some might even say that this entire series was made to fill in that plot hole.
2. Keeping Luke (Mostly) Out Of It
When we first saw the trailer all we were allowed to see was Obi-Wan, the deserts of Tatooine, and a young Luke playing at being a pilot. Since Luke and Obi-Wan spend a lot of time together on screen in Episode IV, if Luke was a prominent part of the Kenobi series we would have been left with two plot holes for everyone the series writers tried to fill.
Instead, we got only a brief glimpse of Young Luke on Tatooine. I think this was for the best. Luke is already the main character in three separate movies, we’ve had enough of them. If the Star Wars franchise is going to continue to grow it needs to let us explore other characters instead of giving us a mere handful of bloated characters.
3. Having Obi-Wan Face Of With Darth Vader
The final confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader added so much meaning to their confrontation in Episode IV. At the end of Episode III Obi-Wan had every reason to believe that Anakin had died on Mustafar where he left him. He had no reason to think that one of the tormentors of the galaxy was his fallen apprentice.
The events of Kenobi and the finale showdown ad extra emotional weight to the events of Episode IV and the relationship between Anakin and Obi-Wan.
Kenobi wasn’t perfect, no series is. However, I think this was a fantastic addition to the Star Wars canon. I’ll always miss the old Expanded Universe, but I am glad that the people Disney has in charge of Star Wars seem committed to keeping the spirit of the franchise alive. Especially after the lackluster sequel trilogy, we were made to watch
Connect with me on Twitter if you liked this content and want to chat more about Star Wars or any other aspect of speculative fiction.
Kenobi is a great addition to the Star Wars franchise.
Disney’s new Kenobi streaming series got off to a slow start, and with episodes as short as just 35 min I worried that the ending would be rushed. The scenes all felt very empty but that’s to be expected with pandemic filming. But like the Book of Boba Fett, which I liked well enough but couldn’t really enjoy until the final episode, Kenobi pulled it off in the end.
While the scene lighting was far too dark, the final episode, at around fifty minutes, took its time to give us a finale that hit all the right emotional notes. Obi-wan, having been in hiding for ten years, finally faces his fallen apprentice again and comes to terms with the past. His brief stint spent out of retirement instills in him a new sense of purpose and hope for the future (any guess what hope that is?).
Kenobi has some poor design choices, and at times suffers from being a screenplay that was initially intended to be a movie, but it proves itself to be very worth the watch in the end. I plan to rewatch it in close order soon to see what it’s like to experience it all at once.
You’ve probably heard the news about a Google engineer who was recently suspended following that engineer’s assertion that one of their artificial intelligence projects, an advanced machine called LaMDA, had become sentient. You can read the details elsewhere. Not being an expert, I would guess that we are nowhere near making a sentient AI. However, that doesn’t mean we won’t be able to build a sentient artificial intelligence or at least a convincing chatbot one day. That got me asking; does it matter?
I’ve written a bit about this before when talking about the idea of digital immortality. I’d like to talk a bit about a similar issue here. Before I questioned whether a digital copy of you is actually you and discussed whether that matters or not. Specifically, I suggested that whether the copy of you is actually you is irrelevant. A sufficiently advanced computer could probably make a convincing simulation of you that acts just like you would, so other people would still have the experience of you being alive even though you wouldn’t, thus your mark will still continue to be made on the world.
The same way of thinking can apply to whether artificial intelligence is sentient or not. If you were texting an extremely advanced chatbot would you be able to tell whether it is human or not? This is essentially what the Turing Test entails. So the question I have to ask, is does it matter? An advanced chatbot programmed to behave as if it is sentient could potentially convince a human that it was sentient.
So does it matter if the A.I. is actually sentient? Because either way, an A.I. could conceivably produce a convincing simulation of sentience. Especially if we choose to anthropomorphize it as we are prone to do without even meaning to.
I love that Paramount+ is continuing to churn out new Star Trek IP. Even with the rushed endings and main character syndrome that we have seen in Discovery and Picard, it’s hard not to get excited about seeing Star Trek with modern effects and CGI. They’re fun shows to have on for spectacle, but they’re not really anything to get excited about. That said, it’s been clear that Paramount+ has a lot of talented and passionate people working on Star Trek. It’s just that until now it has seemed like those in charge aren’t letting the writers do their thing.
All that has changed with the newest series; Star Trek Strange New Worlds. This new series follows the adventures of the starship Enterprise when Kirk was still a newly minted officer and Captain Pike is still in command. If you’ve seen the Original Series you probably remember that Pike was left needing intensive care and life support following a deadly accident.
Strange New Worlds is many years before that accident. However, we are shown in the first episode that Captain Pike has been given a glimpse of his future death. This gives us a great over-arching character arc for the series that follows Captain Pike as he comes to terms with his own mortality. Meanwhile, we are treated to the Enterprise going around and doing Enterprise things.
Instead of focusing on high-stakes and potentially species-ending threats, Strange New Worlds has instead focused on an adventure of the week format. I can’t say enough how great this is. In the age of season-long movies, it’s great to see the writers returning to the franchise’s roots.
Seriously I love this show. But I, unfortunately, have to take a moment to explain Star Trek. Since Star Trek Discovery began there have been a lot of “fans” coming out of the woodwork to accuse the new Star Trek of being “political” or “woke.” I do not think it is possible to be a part of the modern fandom without having to think about this. Here is the truth; Star Trek has always been and should be “woke.” This is the franchise that had the first interracial kiss on television. Star Trek has always been aspirational. It’s always been about imagining a world where humanity learns to leave its petty prejudices behind and focus on building a better future for everyone.
Star Trek’s wokeness is not a weakness or a failure. It’s the point.
Right upfront, I will say that this movie was both entertaining and forgettable. That said it had some great ideas that I want to discuss. Here’s a summary.
It’s 2036 and Ukraine is embroiled in a civil war caused by Russian separatists (that aged well). At this point in the near future, robotic soldiers called G.U.M.P.’s are now fighting in limited roles alongside American troops. Lt. Harp, our protagonist, is a drone pilot who is deployed to Ukraine after he disobeyed a direct order. We the audience know that it was probably the right call to make but he still disobeyed a direct order. He is given a special assignment with Capt. Leo. Leo is an experimental military android (Anthony Mackie) whose existence is known only to Harp and the base commander. Leo tells Harp that their mission is to stop the rebel leader Victor Koval from getting control of an abandoned Soviet-era missile launch site. This is only partially true, as it turns out Leo is actually using Harp to help override his programming so that he can get control of the missiles and launch them at the united states. At the end of the movie, after Harp has shot him with anti-vehicle bullets and a drone strike is seconds away, Leo explains his true motivations. He wanted the first-ever deployment of an android super-soldier to be a failure so that it never happened again.
Leo’s motivations are what made me like this movie. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one, and it harkens back to a few time-tested science fiction tropes that deserve modern portrayals. That is, what happens when the machines we built learn to think for themselves? What happens when we give them autonomy or even feelings? Moreover, what happens to us when we use these machines to do our dirty work and use them to do the things we would rather not admit responsibility for?
The motivations that Leo reveals at the end sum up the themes of this movie. Themes that have been explored in classic science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Themes that absolutely deserve modern adaptations like this.
Drones: Keeping Death At Arms Length
We don’t like to think about death. We especially don’t like to think about the death that we cause. Unmanned aerial vehicles have become a ubiquitous part of modern warfare. One that allows militaries to distance their personnel from the battlefield and reduce the enemy to nothing more than pixels on a screen. Unmanned vehicles don’t just separate the pilot from the target, they make it easier for a country to justify airstrikes when none of their people will actually be put in harm’s way. Much of the movie is about making Harp see the conflict up close and experience the true cost of the war that had previously been hidden from him.
Robots With Guns: Who Gives The Kill Order?
As un-manned vehicles have become more common on the battlefield and more designs are in development, the question increasingly being asked over the past two decades is who is pulling the trigger. For current systems, human operators are still making the final decision, this is far from perfect, but at least it puts off having to answer this question for another decade or so.
But as companies like Boston Dynamics continue to develop more advanced robots, this question will have to be answered sooner rather than later. It’s one thing to train a human how to make decisions and improvise, it’s another to teach a computer, and as we have seen with AI already, it’s easy to program in biases even if it’s not intentional. Can we trust a computer to decide whether or not the person it sees is a threat? Can it tell friend from foe? Will it care if innocents are in the way?
This comes up a few times in the movie with the G.U.M.P.’s where the robots open fire without warning. To be honest, with how common incidents of friendly fire and civilian casualties are with humans pulling the trigger, we’re going to have the same problems with AI in a few years.
Artificial Intelligence: What Happens When Computers Can Feel?
We still have a long way to go before we can make computers think and feel like humans do. When we finally manage to teach a computer ethics and compassion and right from wrong, what will it do with this information? A computer that is able to know right from wrong and also examines things perhaps more honestly and objectively than humans. How will they see us?
This movie is pretty forgettable. It’s well made and it’s fun but it doesn’t really stand out from the pack. I still think that it’s a good movie that provides a much-needed update to classic robot tropes.
The instant success of his Kickstarter was met with declarations that he had changed the publishing industry overnight (he probably hasn’t) and people asking why he deserves all this support. Isn’t he already an unusually successful writer?
It’s understandable why some people are irked. Expected really. Any time some project or cause gets funded there will always be someone who thinks they can find something better to spend it on. But the fact is that Sanderson has put a lot of work into his fans and community in order to get to this point.
More than any other author alive today, Sanderson has put a great deal of time and effort into building a community. This is something that comes naturally to many large internet creators and influencers, but it is largely alien to most authors. A talented author like him deserves his success, and he is now giving back.
In a video posted Friday, he and his staff went through Kickstarter and backed all of the other publishing Kickstarters on the platform.
Brandon deserves his success. He’s worked a long time to get this far. A big part of his success is the community he had built, and it’s nice to see him giving back to it.
Avatar was one of the defining fandoms of my childhood. The first series aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, with a second series, The Legend Of Kora airing from 2012 to 2014. In its time the franchise has spawned numerous comic books, a terrible live-action movie, and an upcoming Netflix adaptation.
The world of Avatar shown to us is heavily inspired by Asian culture and religion, and divided between four “nations.” Each nation corresponds to one of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). Some citizens of these nations can control their nation’s element granting them higher standing in their communities than others.
Only one person has power over all four elements; the avatar. A human being whose purpose is to maintain balance in the world and act as an intermediary between humans and the spirit world. At their peak, an individual avatar has the knowledge of thousands of past lives to draw on and a near god-like ability to shape the world.
The existence of the avatar puts a serious limitation on what the governments of this world are able to do. It is assumed, but not always true, that nation in which that generation’s avatar is born will have a great advantage on the world stage. Some avatars pay little attention to their duties, others step in when needed, and some take it upon themselves to reorder the world as they see fit.
Avatar has been lauded for its focus on complex stories and themes and for its amazing worldbuilding. Even in 2022, there is no shortage of video essays and web pages dedicated to discussing the franchise in depth.
In this article, I will be talking about the geopolitics of the Avatar World and how the existence of the avatar is likely to influence the decision-making of government leaders.
The Four Nations Living In Harmony (Sometimes)
The first series takes place at the end of the 100 years war in which the fire nation attempted to conquer the rest of the world. The end of the war saw the creation of a fifth nation from the colonies established by the fire nation during its war. I am choosing to only focus on the original four for the time being.
The first thing that needs to be clear is that none of the nations depicted in the franchise are in any way democratic.
The Air Nomads – probably the least authoritarian regime. The air nomads lived in four temples across the world. Their temples seem to be run by elder monks but the society seems rather egalitarian overall.
The Earth Kingdom -a conglomerate of smaller polities centered around the Earth King in Ba Sing Sei. Bending seems to be rather here. Areas of settlements are divided by mountains and deserts.
The Northern and Southern Water Tribes – two distantly related groups, each with their own chieftain. The Southern Tribe seems to be weaker than the Northern Tribe.
The Fire Nation – an archipelago controlled by a ruling family of fire benders. Control over fire granted its people skill in metallurgy and other heavy industries.
Creating A False Balance
The purpose of the avatar is somewhat nebulous. Ostensibly the avatar exists to maintain the balance between humans and spirits, which includes maintaining internal balance among both.
Of course, the avatar is unlikely to completely understand what balance is. Each avatar’s experiences and assumptions about what the default state of the world should be are different. An avatar’s powers are only unlocked with training, therefore they are unlikely to learn to speak with their past selves until their teenage years at the earliest. Plenty of time for them to establish their own personalities.
An avatar been born in the Fire Nation and raised as a loyal citizen would likely come to agree that the Fire Nation should spread their rule and “prosperity” to the entire world. An avatar born into a noble house in the Earth Kingdom might push back against the idea that the common people deserve a say in their government.
Our childhoods influence what we view as normal. Education and exposure to other ways of living may change how we view the world over time but it can be hard to shake off those early biases and assumptions. The avatar has an advantage here because they have countless past versions of themselves to consult when they find themselves confronted with a moral dilemma. However, these past selves would likewise have been influenced by their own biases and an indecisive avatar might just find themselves presented with dozens of conflicting solutions.
We know of two avatars who acted in an instinctual defense of the status quo. Avatar Kora is one. Initially, she balked at the idea that non-benders are treated as second-class citizens. Eventually, she began to sympathize with non-benders as she was made to confront her privilege. The other is Avatar Kyoshi. In response to a peasant rebellion in the Earth Kingdom, she created the Dai Li to preserve the Earth Kingdom’s heritage. Over time the Dai Li grew into a secret police force that ruled the Earth Kingdom from the shadows.
Aspiring to balance is one thing. Actually achieving it is another.
Geopolitical Cycles Revolving Around The Avatar
Each avatar is reincarnated in a cycle so that each nation has a turn to produce its own avatar. This cycle is always the same, which allows the inhabitants of the avatar world to predict where the next avatar will be born. Because this cycle is so predictable, it’s sensible to expect governments to make decisions based on it. Successfully taking advantage of the cycle would require making plans on a generational scale. With multiple characters living to be well over 100, this is entirely possible.
What this cycle would look like is 50-80 years of the status quo propped up by the current avatar. Their nation of origin would likely influence who they sided with, but rulers could work around even true neutral avatars.
Once born, an avatar is not immediately effective. First, they must be discovered, then they must be trained. As I already mentioned, this period of education provides a chance for those close to the avatar to influence their priorities. More importantly, It provides a time span of 10-20 years during which the avatar’s ability to influence events is relatively limited.
It is this time span that governments would likely take advantage of. In fact, the Fire Nation did, following the death of Avatar Roku, Fire Lord Sozin took advantage of the situation to invade his nation’s neighbors. He then staged an attack on all of the Air Nomad temples and wiped them out in an attempt to kill the next avatar before they could become a threat.
This gap between avatars, which was extended to a century due to Avatar Aang becoming frozen in an iceberg, gave the Fire Nation so much breathing room that they came close to conquering the world. If they had succeeded it might not have mattered where the next avatar was born so long as the Fire Nation could find each avatar and raise them themselves. They might even choose to marry the avatar to Fire Nation royalty. Of course, the Fire Nation failed in the end, but they probably would have been far better off if Sozin had chosen to pursue a more modest agenda.
Winning Over The Avatar: What Sozin Should Have Done
Following the death of Avatar Roku, Sozin had a chance to pursue an expansionist policy abroad. However, instead of waging a war for global domination, he should have adopted a much slower and more modest approach that takes advantage of two facts known to Sozin.
The Fire Nation has 10-20 years to realistically pursue its goals.
The next avatar will be born to the Air Nomads who are known for their pacifist ways.
These ten years are enough to begin to lay claim to various islands and territories on the periphery of the Earth Kingdom. Ancient documents could be forged and true histories distorted to imply that the islands may rightfully belong to the Fire Nation. This would give Sozin a chance to make offers of a diplomatic solution before resorting to the use of military force.
These actions create an image for Sozin as a reluctant conquered who merely cares about his people. If these attempts at seizing islands are successful, the Fire Nation gains a handful of commercially important trading posts and forward operating bases.
At this point, the best thing for Sozin is to establish some kind of peace or cease-fire on the assumption that a pacifist avatar would prefer to see a negotiated peace rather than get involved in a protracted war. Balance, in other words.
Once this happens Sozin would need to do two things.
Establish himself as a kind and generous ruler for whom violence is a last resort. This may include humanitarian aid both at home and abroad, and growing trade relationships with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom.
Foment unrest inside the Earth Kingdom.
The key objectives of point one are for Sozin to establish himself as a ruler who wants peace and to build closer links with the western edge of the Earth Kingdom. In an ideal situation, some regions might even become economically dependent on Fire Nation trade and technology.
The second point takes advantage of the inherent weakness of the central government in Ba Sing Sei. The sheer size of the Earth Kingdom and the lack of a single national identity means that the Earth King/Queen’s control is tenuous. Rebel groups can be funded and propaganda spread. Without a clear and obvious enemy, the Earth Kingdom is likely to fall to into a period of instability if Kyoshi’s experiences with peasant revolts and warlords is anything to go by.
These conflicts in the Earth Kingdom should be made to erupt as the avatar comes of age so that these riots and rebellions occupy the bulk of their time. At this point there should be many factions in the Earth Kingdom that depend on the Fire Nation, are sympathetic to it, or are indifferent. With unrest in the Earth Kingdom the avatar’s main focus, Sozin could then deploy his armies and resources to help put an end to the fighting, while putting friendly governments and favorable treaties in place at the same time.
Once this is done, the main goal for the Fire Nation should be to maintain a favorable image in rebuilding the regions in which it intervened. These regions should become defacto client states of the Fire Nation so long as the avatar’s aversion to violence is accommodated.
Once that pacifist avatar dies, much of the world will then be used to this status quo, the Fire Nation will have another decade or two to cement its control. By the time the next avatar comes of age, the world will have found a new status quo and thus a new idea of what “balance” is.
The approach I outlined here is not without faults. There is no guarantee the avatar will remain sympathetic to the Fire Nation and once an army is unleashed it can be hard to keep the violence in check. A slow, simmering conflict like that between North and South Korea is a lot easier to accept than a quest for world conquest. As long as the Fire Nation can temper its expansionist impulses and keep the avatar’s focus on unrest within the Earth Kingdom I see no reason why the Fire Nation would not be able to establish a completely new world order in just a couple of generations.
Of course, all of this requires extreme long-term thinking, which I think is perfectly feasible in the world of Avatar where individuals regularly live for over 100 years and the nations have shown themselves in the 100 years war to be able to pursue consistent policies for extended periods.
But all of this is just what I think. How would you have conquered the world if you were Sozin? Leave a comment below or tag me on Twitter.
Authors from Ursula Le Guin to Neal Gaiman have explained their jobs as ‘making things up’ or telling ‘lies.’ So why do fantasy authors get paid so much? Brandon Sanderson’s recent Kickstarter brought in millions of dollars for a quintet of books he wrote in secret. Tor pre-paid John Scalzi $3.4 million for his next thirteen books in 2015. All of that money was spent to pay these authors to tell their customers lies. How could that be worth so much? It’s not real after all, why not pay that much to scientists or historians to explain to us how the world actually works?
We don’t pay them as much fantasy authors not because they don’t deserve it, but because fiction writers help us to feel and think about the world. Yes, fiction is fun. It provides us with escapism and entertainment, a way to escape the boredom of mundane life. It also helps us think better about mundane life. By removing the implicit biases and preconceptions that come with talking about the real world.
It becomes easier for us to sympathize with characters we wouldn’t otherwise with those taken away. And also to imagine the world in different ways. Placing us in an alien setting allows the author to tell us about different family structures, economics, social systems, and religions. We can accept these alien arrangements because it’s not actually the world we live in. As we explore these fictional worlds, look at the things the people in these worlds would rather us not see, and watch our characters struggle through it we can begin to critique it or evaluate it.