Episode eight of House of the Dragon showed us the end of Viserys’ reign. A frail and pitiful old man, he proved to be a feckless king who would have preferred a quiet life with his family.
Paddy Constantine gave an outstanding performance of a man who knows he has just one more chance to make things right. This episode was the end of House of the Dragon’s introductory period, and that means we now finally have an end to the constant recasting that was made necessary by the frequent time skips between episodes.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the time skips were a necessity writers handled well. My only issue with them is they can make the show harder to follow for more casual viewers. Now with Viserys’ reign over, that won’t be a problem, and we can look forward to watching the Dance of Dragons unfold in season two.
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.
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.
I was torn when I did this for Zima Blue. I understand that movies will always be different from the stories they are based on. These differences are completely understandable in many cases. Some things don’t translate well, would be too expensive to depict, or need to be cut for the sake of time. In Love, Death & Robots, the screenwriters only had about ten minutes for each story. That isn’t a lot of time to portray the complexity of even a short story. With that in mind, I think Netflix could have done a lot better with this one.
Beyond the Aquilla Rift is about a starship that finds itself light years off course. The ship’s captain emerges from hibernation to find that he has traveled so far for so long that everyone he ever knew back home is long dead. But it’s not all bad because at this remote outpost, he meets an old flame by the name of “Greta.” Greta changes her story a few times but eventually tells him that her ship became stranded in this remote locale through a mishap similar to what stranded his. This is also a lie. His ship is, in fact, the first human ship to ever arrive at this remote station. The captain, we learn, never woke up from hibernation. Everything he experienced was a simulation fed to him by the entity that took care of all the lost souls that came to it.
The animation LDR’s version is gorgeous, and like all good sci-fi, the ending both answers questions and introduces new ones. But I can’t bring myself to hold both versions at the same level as I did with Zima Blue. They are different, and that is okay, but the adaptation makes too many jumps. The protagonist’s realization that things are not as they seem is far too abrupt. Rather than spend as much time as they did on a gratuitous sex scene, I think the writers would have done the story better justice if they had shown us some of the inconsistencies in the simulation, the little details that hinted that something just wasn’t right.
If I had to give both a rating, I would say the LDR’s version would get a 2/5, and the original written version would get a 3.5/5. I am not a fan of this kind of story in general, but I think it is well done. LDR’s version is visually stunning, but it doesn’t show us enough to really understand the predicament the protagonist finds himself in.
I hope you liked this review. Because I just found out that all the short stories that inspired season one is available as a single anthology, so there are going to be a lot more posts like this.
I’ve been on a bit of an Alastair Reynolds kick lately, mainly centered on the author’s revelation space books. As usual, whenever I get invested in a new series, I seek out more in search of more doses of dopamine, which led me to purchase a collection of short stories that Reynolds has written over the years. This endless search for dopamine brought me back to one of my favorite Netflix originals; Love, Death & Robots.
Love, Death & Robots is a Netflix original series consisting of short episodes that bring science fiction short stories to life. Alistair Reynolds had two stories featured in the first season, one of them being Zima Blue.
The story is about a cyborg artist in the far future named Zima. It is told from the perspective of a journalist who has finally been granted an interview with the reclusive artist on the eve of the unveiling of his final work. Zima, we are told, began his work in painting portraits of the cosmos before graduating to increasingly abstract works featuring his trademark blue color, works so large that a single mural could encapsulate a planet. But the story is not so much about Zima’s art as it is Zima’s search for his truth, and in the written version, it is also about how Zima inspires the journalist to search for her own truth.
Both versions of the story are good. Netflix’s version portrays Zima’s story in a much clearer fashion than Reynolds did. However, I can’t help but feel that the story’s message is lost in the retelling. The story is not just about Zima’s search for truth; it is also about his interviewing coming to grapple with what the truth is. Zima, for example, asserts that the falsehoods created by our imperfect memories are what allow truth to come about. Truth in art anyway.
Both versions of the story are great, and I recommend both. Both make the audience ask questions, but I recommend reading the original for a complete formulation of that question.
I grew up with shows like the Gilmore Girls playing in the background. My mom really liked the show when I was younger and I don’t think she realized that I was actually paying attention. Then, a few months ago, I was looking for a new series to watch with Emily and my mom decided that it should be Gilmore Girls.
Emily was unsure, but I know a trick that works every time. All I need to do is put the first episode on and Emily will watch it. She wont say anything, she might even pretend not to be interested. But then I let a day or two pass and before too long she asks if we can watch another episode. Works every time.
So that’s what we’ve been watching on and off the past several months and we’re on season three now. Although the show was aired in the early 2000s, which is basically forever ago, it’s still a good show if you are looking for something fun to watch that wont force you to pay too much attention.
Here are some reasons.
It’s About A Single Mother And Her Daughter
Gilmore Girls is unique because it follows a single mother (Lorelai) and her teenage daughter (Rory). They are also best friends, and this is really the main premise of the show. The important thing about this is that they are independent to a fault. Both of them are completely comfortable being themselves and the people around them love that for that (although the grandparents do get annoyed).
Dating comes up frequently, but it’s not the focus of the show. Mother and daughter try to help each other navigate various social and romantic situations but there is never a need to have “man of the house.” In fact, both characters chaff when male characters try to assume that role.
The Grandparents Are Hilarious
Richard and Emily Gilmore are Lorelai’s wealthy and oftentimes estranged parents. In the very first episode Lorelai is forced to her parents to ask for money for Rory’s education and in exchange her parents require her and Rory to visit them for dinner every Friday.
At first their relationship is very antagonistic but later evolves as the elder Gilmores learn to be more accepting and a little less stuck up all the time while still making it clear how they think that Lorelai should be living her life. On second thought, no they don’t act less stuck up, but they have their moments and are endearing in their own way.
The dynamic between the two when Lorelai first asks for money is what I enjoy most. For the most part Richard Gilmore has a friendly demeanor and rarely gets as involved in the family bickering. He is more than happy to write Lorelai a check, it’s Emily Gilmore that wants conditions placed on the money. I like the idea that he and his newspaper are just along for the ride.
Kirk Will Make You Grateful You Don’t Know Him
Kirk is a reoccurring character who does all sorts of odd jobs around town. At various times he works as an exterminator, amateur photographer, skin-care inventor, and a lot more. He is also insufferable. Everyone in town is annoyed with him about 95% of the time.
Every time Kirk makes an appearance you just know that he’s about to make someone uncomfortable. He’s the kind of character that is fun to watch and great to not know in real life.
Luke Has The Best Tantrums
Luke owns the local diner and is a close friend of the heroines. Lorelai and Rory go to his diner just about every day so that Lorelai and Luke and can verbally abuse each other while Lorelai drinks what Luke is sure is too much coffee.
Luke serves as Lorelai’s “love interest” for much of the show. Or at least he’s the one everyone thinks/knows should be her love interest. More important are Luke’s constant fights with Taylor. Taylor is the man who owns the local grocery store who is far too uptight and has far too much influence in town. Luke hates everything Taylor represents, or at least acts like he does. I’m not sure. Doesn’t matter really as long as the fights are fun.
I like serious shows. Emily doesn’t. I probably watch too many serious shows. Gilmore Girls is a great show to relax while watching. It’s a nice slice of life that lets you follow the characters’ ups and downs. It’s also a lot of fun. Stars Hollow, where the story takes place, is a quirky small town that the show makes you wish it exists.
Really though, just watch it. The troubles and anxieties of the characters are endlessly relatable and entertaining. You wont regret it.
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