Monday, February 18, 2013

The Trouble with Zombies in The Walking Dead

Zombies are a great metaphor for ceaseless, senseless violence.  An expert in all things pop-cultural, Simon Pegg has an excellent introduction to Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead Volume 1, in which he makes the case for the extreme metaphorical malleability of zombies.

Unlike other supernatural undead creatures in fantasy fiction, there is no clear consensus as to the properties of zombies.  Unless you are reading Stephanie Meyer, vampires are always pale night dwellers who drink human blood and can be defeated by a quick stab to the heart with a wooden stake.  They generally represent things like sexual desire, coming in through the windows at night and draining people of their innocence.  Zombie, though, are much simpler and thus more problematic as metaphors.  As the title of the above mentioned comic and TV show simply puts it: zombies are the walking dead.  Reanimated corpses that simply consume until their brains are completely destroyed.  

Beyond being dead and needing a brain, there is not much consensus as to what a zombie can do.  Some can run, some just stumble along; some have increased senses, some are essentially mindless killing machines; some are unnaturally strong, some can be wrestled down by an average man or woman.  And this is not necessarily across media, but within one work.  

For example, take arguably the most popular piece of zombie fiction, AMC's adaptation of Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic.  In the first season, some of the original camp has made their way to the top of a building in Atlanta (a department store, if I am not mistaken).  There are two sets of glass double doors between the Rick and company, and the horde of undead (and it is a horde) outside.  Eventually, the horde pushes through the doors and gains access to the building.  It's not shown exactly how they gain entrance, but it can be assumed they pushed hard enough to either crack the glass or to rip the door off it's hinges (or break the locks, though that seems less likely, since locks are meant to precisely not do that).  

Later in that same season, when T-Dogg (may God watch over his soul) dropped the keys to Merle's handcuffs, leaving him trapped on the roof, he barres the heavy metal door with a chain.  When the company returns to the roof to rescue Merle, the chain remains unbroken and the door on it's hinges.  Apparently, these doors are more difficult to break.  Or Merle, who cut his hand off, escaped before they could.  When T-Dog was explaining himself to Daryl, there was a note of concern as to how well the door would hold up.

In the second season, Lori flips her car when she madly searches for Rick, Glenn and Hershel.  While passed out, a couple of zombies find her trapped in the car and attempt to make a meal of her.  One finds a hole in the tempered glass of the windshield and pushes so forcefully against it that his face rips off and the glass starts to shatter further.  Again, this is not just any glass, but the treated glass used for windshields, which is meant to take quite a beating.  That the zombie has pushed through is fairly impressive, not just as a feat of strength, but also a sign of how determined they are to reach living flesh.  

In this season, what remains of the small groups has made their way to a prison.  Behind two chain link fences, the survivors can leave in relative safety from the walking horde of ever-consuming zombies that stumble around the edges.  This, though, is problematic: the zombies have shown that, as a horde, there are few things that can stop them.  Their hunger for flesh supersedes their pain tolerance (which as dead things, is remarkably high).  They will just push and push and push until they get where they want to go.  Especially if there is something tasty living thing to eat on the other end.  It would seem to me that the horde would bunch up at the entry point and the sheer mass of the zombies pushing against the fence (a chain link fence, mind you, which does not secure the doors deep into the ground) would cause it to break.  The glass of the department store and Lori's car window couldn't stand up to the walkers, but suddenly a chain link fence can?  As this video shows here, even the weight of one heavy set teenager who makes bad decisions in his life can bend the support posts of a fence.  The combined weight of several dozen zombies unceasingly pushing against a similar fence, even one fortified against outbreaks, would eventually bend.  

Also, in the prison, Rick and the other survivors manage to lock the fence using carabiners and chains (not particularly strong chains at that).  At one squeeze point in the prison, there is a sliding chain link fence (probably the weakest of the fencing options) held closed by just such a contraption.  Now, assuming they did find climbing grade carabiners in the zombie infested wasteland of Southern Georgia, these would be able to hold, for brief periods, around 21 kN or 4,725 lbs.  As this article from Boy's Life notes, though, carabiners are not made to withstand constant pressure and are more for safety sake, such as when rock climbing.  In the prison, these are as good as fortified steel doors, tightly padlocked shut.  

Which, then, is it?  Are zombies so focused on eating humans that they will literally walk through doors to get at anything alive?  Or can you simply hold them off with a good fence, some chain and some carabiners?  As metaphors, they certainly can still be useful.  What The Walking Dead needs to remember is what their zombies can do.  This is why the Twilight books upset so many vampire fans: they bucked convention when it complicated the plot.  That is, it would be hard for Bella to meet Edward in high school if he couldn't go outside in the day time.  In a similar vein, if a horde of zombies can push through anything, then they shouldn't be stopped simply by latching a gate shut.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The White TrailThe White Trail by Fflur Dafydd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I bought this book for my sister as a Christmas present this past year.  I was studying in Wales at the time, and as I like to get books for her, I felt something particularly Welsh was a good fit.  That was really all I knew about it.  After she finished, she passed it along to me.

So, to say I was surprised is a bit of an understatement.  I really knew nothing of this book, this author, or the original story that it re-imagines.  What I found was a really engaging story by a really talented author.

The whole series, New Tales of the Mabigonion, is a collection of medieval Welsh fairy tales reshaped for a modern audience.  That is, the old characters are given a modern face-lift with new settings, new jobs and new(ish) stories.  Their core, however, was meant to remain the same.  The core of the story - the moral of the tale, if you will - remains the same.

What I was most impressed by was Dafydd's voice.  There is a poetry and ease of narration to the book.  Some of the descriptions are elegant and well-formulated, the word choice is immaculate, and the narrator easily slips and moves through time and space.  I felt like the narrator was genuinely concerned for the central character, Cilyiad, and that the narrator did a good job of showing the lost befuddlement which he seemed to walk through life covered in.  In short, the story was quite engaging and quite well-written.

I have two concerns: 1) The book had a lot of Welsh names in it which I was not really sure how to pronounce.  This is my own fault, mind (it's not the author's job to know that I can't read Welsh names), but a pronunciation guide would have been helpful.  I'm sure that, even to some native Welsh, Gwelw is a hard name to pronounce (and that was one of the shorter ones).  Yes, I get that the book was to be connected to the original tale and I am sure the names were left unmolested.  I understand that choice artistically; I just would have liked a little help is all.  2) The book was not very long, I found myself tearing through the book, due in part to the author's style and in larger part to the generous margins and spacing.  At £8.99 (or roughly $14), I felt like I was owed more to read.  With George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones books, I was given over 800 pages for about $9.00 (¢1.125 per page).  It might have been nice for the publisher, Seren, to lump some of the books together and package them so that the reader gets more for the dollar (or pound, as the case may be).

In the end, though, I was neither too put off by the use of old, hard to pronounce names, nor the price per experience.  I was really pleased, pleasantly surprised even, by the book, and I would read more from this series and from Fflur Dafydd.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Thing About Feminism

So, today on Twitter, thanks to @, the hash tag #TellAFeministThankYou was trending.  For the most part, the tweets associated are fairly benign, with honest thanks given to women and men who have, in a personal way, taught people that it was okay to be a woman and not to accept less than anyone else gets.

Then there are, as there always are, trolls who look to derail the conversation with knowingly offensive rhetoric (or maybe not knowingly, but that is ever worse...).  Such as:

And probably my personal favorite asinine comment so far today:

What I love about these frankly idiotic tweets is how far off they mark they land.  It seems to me that the underlying argument here is that feminism, in arguing for equal rights for women, has undermined other's agendas/natural rights/what-have-you.  It would seem feminism can be blamed for the unnatural act of speaking a woman's mind, wearing pants, divorce, abortion, failing families, etc. etc.

Obviously, this is wrong, particularly the evils in society that are blamed on feminists, like divorce and abortion.  To claim that feminism causes divorce and leads to women wanting abortions fails to remember that abortions and divorce have been happening for quite a bit longer than people have called themselves feminists.  Or maybe we can retroactively declare anyone who wanted a divorce is really a feminist.  Henry VIII is thrilled, I'm sure.  He held the tenets of feminism close to his heart.

That's an interesting point here: the tenets of feminism, like those of the Occupy Movement and wide-reaching philosophies, are often misunderstood, and actually a difficult thing to discuss.  There are a lot of different feminists and each prescribes to a different type of feminism.  There are feminists that are interested in equal pay for equal work; there are feminist interested in reproductive rights for women (both nationally and internationally); some are more interested in other forms of subjugation, such as the use of burkas in some Islamic communities; some are interested in recognizing that motherhood and maternal work as an equal and valid form of contribution to society (since most things valued in capitalist society have a direct monetary value, this is a worthwhile cause); and so on and so on.  It simply is invalid to blame all feminists for what any one feminist believes, just like it would be wrong to blame all Americans for what one American has done, or all Republicans for what some Republicans believe, etc.

There are as many central tenets to feminism as there are feminists, but the core value is equality.  No feminist worth her (or his salt...but, for the sake of brevity, I will generally use "her" as a pronoun here, where that encompases all feminist of any gender) salt honestly argues that women are superior to men, and that the patriarchy should be substituted for a matriarchy.  There are some who make such obviously asinine claims, but their connection to the feminists is tenuous at best (much like the KKK's connection to the "American Dream" is tenuous, or the connection between German nationalism and the Nazis).  Feminism is interested in shedding light on the inequalities faced by women, and how those inequalities could be balanced.

Now, I'd like here to state, for the record, that I don't necessary count myself a feminist.  It's also important to remind you dear readers that this is not a binary opposition; that is, because I don't count myself a feminist doesn't mean I associate myself with anti-feminists (or that I am against feminists).  I am uncomfortable with the label is all.  I consider myself more of a secular humanist (or a Humanist) or an egalitarian, since my interest in equality has less a focus on gender and more on the indifference between people of all stripes.

That said, I can respect and appreciate what the feminist do.  After all, when we argue that one section of society needs to be treated fairly, that sheds light on some imbalances felt across gender, racial or religious lines.  For example, by raising the debate that women are not treated fairly in the work place, it also raises the question of who else might not be treated fairly (such as racial or sexual minorities).  After all, if society can accept that women should have an equal voice, then similar arguments can be made for others.

Equality for one is equality for all.  (Did someone famous say that?  It sounds like something someone smarter said.)

Actually, it's only by recognizing are enforcing differences that the turmoil mentioned in the tweets above really rises to the surface.  It was by treating black people as inferior people that lead to the slave uprisings and the disputes central to the Civil War; had men offered women equal voices long ago, the Women's Suffragists would not have had to rise up as they did.  In fact, a lot of problems in the world would simply dissolve if, as a common people sharing one planet, we recognized the rational ability of all people.

That sentiment above can slip down the slippery slope of bad rhetoric towards some sort of social relativism, where people will wrongfully claim that if everyone is equal everyone's opinion is equally right.  To be sure, such a relativistic claim would lead to the anarchy of too many cooks in the social kitchen.  Luckily, like all slippery slope arguments, there is no basis for it.

Again, what I am stressing here is that all people have the ability to think critically and analytically about the given problems in society.  That does not mean that everyone is equally trained to do just that.  I've spent the better part of 26 years in school (i.e., my whole life save those first five lazy ones where I learned to walk and talk outside of any institutional support).  I've studied the English language extensively, and can speak with great authority about literature in English.  What I can't do, though, is explain why I universe works the way it does.  Any argument or solution I pose to the problems of the universe is invalid because I cannot buttress my claims with well-reasoned supports.   The same is true of profoundly difficult economic theories, the traces of history, higher order mathematical issues, and so on.  Certainly, in day-to-day conversations, I can talk about why supply-side economics is problematic as a national economic model based on the populist research I've done, but that hardly makes me an expert and hardly supports my bid to be Chief Economic Adviser of the Universe.

What feminism suggests is that women should not be excluded from any conversation simply because they are women.  A well-trained woman is equal to a well-trained man when the chips are down.  And thus by extension, the reverse (or any other well-trained person of any persuasion).

Everyone should thank the feminist, as well as any other group which struggles for the acceptance and equality of minorities, for paving the way toward equality for everyone.  It would seem to me the only ones resisting that notion are people who sit in power now and would like to hold it without explaining why.  Or in other words, lazy bullies.

Thanks feminists.  Keep doing what you do so well.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the interest of full disclosure, I really like the HBO series of the same name, and have seen all of seasons 1 and 2, eagerly awaiting season 3, before I read the first book. Generally, that's not how I like to do things, but...well...these books are long.

But, I finally got around to reading the first book of the series, and I honestly was not much surprised. The book and the TV show are very similar, though, like in most things, the book offers more detail in places, and a different, often shifting perspective. The major plot points are all there and all the same. So, in the end, I was not surprised.

That said, I liked the book. What I think Martin has done with this series is marry the mystery novel to the adventure novel, and he's done so in perfect harmony. There is a lot of intrigue as to what has happened before the novel starts and a lot of clues that the reader has to follow to piece together some sort of agenda for the characters. This book is one hard-boiled detective away from a Raymond Chandler novel. And it's none the poorer for that. A lot of adventure novels, like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Hobbit, lack surprise. Certainly, we all hold our breath and wonder how the assembled armies at Helm's Deep are going to survive the massive onslaught of orcs, but most adventure novels end with the characters winning. The book would have taken a much darker, nihilistic turn had the Rohirrim and Elvish armies had been slaughtered, leaving only the intrepid Hobbits to stand against the combined forces of Sauron and Sauroman. In these fantasy novels, the point is not so much the struggle, but the toll that struggle takes on the characters. Frodo is a changed Hobbit at the end of that quest, like Bilbo before him. The loss of innocence is the greatest loss of that adventure, and now he can never go back.

In Game of Thrones, the adventure is there (armies, fighting, etc.), but there is also this looming mystery: why did John Arryn die? What about the Baratheon bastards frightens the Lannisters? How long has this plot been going on to seize the throne? What are these dragons? The reader has to put these things together while reading about the adventure of the Seven Kingdoms. And again, there are plenty of those: Robb leads the Northern Armies, Arya trys to escape the city once her family's favor collapses, John's struggle against the Others, Tyrion's escape from the Eyrie, and so on. What is not clear is why all of this is happening.

Another of Martin's strengths is how fully realized his characters become. In the end, these characters were not just flat stereotypes fulfilling roles to advance the plot; these were well-rounded characters who I felt almost friendly toward. I could identify with Ned's struggle between honor and friendship, I could understand Tyrion's conflict between family and doing the right thing, I felt Robb's hesitance at leading an army all he wanted to do was be a kid. Martin has a way of connecting and humanizing characters, even though they all fight with swords, live in castles and exist in a world where dragons, magic and giants are all real things.

But, all of this aside, the book was not the most elegantly written. For all of it's strengths, and there were a lot, Martin's style left a lot to be desired. He often just told you how character's felt rather than developing these feelings through action. There is an odd focus on the clothing worn and the decorations on armor. There seems to be a lot of superfluous sex scenes (particulary with Daenerys and Drogo and even more particularly near the end of the book). But these minor issues did not really get in the way of my enjoyment of the book. That is, though I felt like the book could have had a more sophisticated syntax and style, I didn't feel that Martin's style detracted too much from the text (unlike in the books of Dan Brown, where I felt like he has tons of interesting ideas and stories, but the writing is so bad I couldn't stomach the narrative).

I know that fantasy novels aren't for everyone and that my soft-spot for the genre leads me to like this book more than some might (after all, when I was a kid, I almost exclusively read D&D novels), but I would still suggest this novel to anyone. Not just fans of books with knights and dragons, but anyone who likes a good story. Underneath all the armor plating and intrigues of court, this is just a good story about how people's conflicting desires will often put those around them in horrible situations.

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