The Thrawn Trilogy

Today, I finished the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. Overall, I really enjoyed the books and feel like it was a great introduction to the Extended Universe/Legends. I like the Star Wars Universe, but I’m coming to realize that it isn’t really a sci-fi series, it is more like a religious fantasy series than anything. Instead of swords, magic, and dragons you have lightsabers, the Force, and aliens. The Force plays a dual role; it is both the source of magical powers for some people as well as an independent omnipotent(?) being that seems to guide the action.

It is the latter part of the Force that kind of bothers me. I’m not big on a god-like being interfering in the character’s lives. Within the trilogy there were several Deus Ex Machina moments that could all just be blamed on the Force. People were so often “coincidentally” (thanks to the Force) in the right place at the right time in a way to stop Thrawn’s plans that is started to bug me. I started to realize the good guys would win no matter what, even if they didn’t deserve to.

I think that is part of why I started to like Thrawn. He was certainly a bad person in a lot of ways, particularly the way he handled some of the incompetence in his ranks and the way he dealt with the Noghri people, but he was also an incredible tactician and not evil like Vader or the Emperor. Thrawn worked hard at studying his opponents and coming up with unique battle plans, he was an incredible leader who his soldiers trusted and he worked to minimize casualties. Without any Force powers of his own he was more of a character out of a Tom Clancy novel than fantasy.

Much of his hard work and intelligence was a waste because he wasn’t defeated by a superior tactician or someone who worked harder, he was mostly defeated because the Force wanted him to be. Sure, many of the final events were a result of his mistakes (the Noghri and handling The Mad Jedi), but the New Republic wouldn’t have had a chance without a long string of coincidences that the Force put into play. I guess I would have rather seen the groups that combine creativity, hard work, perseverance, and ingenuity have a chance of winning instead of knowing ahead of time that the “good guys” will be victorious by the end of the series.

I know it sounds like I am bitching about the series, but I actually really did enjoy it. Maybe I just need to get used to the Star Wars Universe, read more, or stop taking things so damn seriously. If you haven’t read this book you really should, it is enjoyable fiction and the audiobook version on Audible is phenomenal.

Dark Force Rising

I just finished listening to “Dark Force Rising” (the second book in the Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy) and oh man, I fucking loved it. I haven’t been listening to a lot of books lately, partly because I’ve been on a podcast kick and partly because there is a weird sort of guilt that I feel for listening to a lot of fiction. I feel some need to counter it with non-fiction even when I’m not in the mood for that. A lot of my Facebook friends consume non-fiction like animals and I kind of feel like I am wasting my time with fiction. Even as I write that I realize how shitty that argument is and I should just do what I want.

Anyway, finishing Dark Force Rising brought two things to my mind. First, I am beginning to understand Star Wars fans anger (fear? hatred? suffering? some path to the Dark Side…) at Disney for turning all the canon novels into “Legends”. Before starting the Thrawn trilogy my only interaction with Star Wars was the films and I didn’t really realize how rich of a universe had been created by so many collaborative authors. Previously minor characters (like Wedge Antilles) get more depth, and established characters become even more humanlike. To have all the adventures you loved, the characters you cherished, and the universe that was a part of your life for decades, wiped out by Disney had to be painful. I am just beginning my adventure into the Star Wars (non)canon and I’m annoyed that the universe of Thrawn isn’t the universe of Rae, particularly since it wouldn’t have been difficult to integrate the movies into the same universe, or even adapt some of the previous material to the big screen.

Second, I always thought Star Wars (and really Sci-Fi and Fantasy in general) handled different species poorly. There seemed to be this idea that an individual could be evil based purely on their species, except for humans who could vary widely in their ethics and abilities. Now that I’ve started reading the books I realize that I wasn’t being fair. The movies may not have the opportunity to dive into much depth for most non-humans (except Chewie and Jar Jar) but the books allow for that The Star Wars universe is made richer by being explored through different artistic means… films, tv shows, graphic novels, books, and video games all provide a different way to explore the art. Destroying that seems to be a terrible mistake.

Prelude: On The Mountaintop

What follows is my first draft of the Prelude for my upcoming book, tentatively titled “Mostly Flat: <something something something>”. If you have any thoughts or recommendations about clarity, grammar, etc please feel free to email me at pjneiger@gmail.com or Facebook message me. I will add chapters as I produce them and then, after some editing and such, make my book available to purchase. 

 

It started on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, as these things often do.

I guess a mountaintop in Afghanistan is specific to me, but the planting of a seed in the mind needs fertile soil, and fertile soil is often found in those moments of peace and serenity amidst chaos. When the mind has been occupied and the body afraid there is no time to think or plan or dream, but when the fear of imminent death slides away you can take stock of your life and how short it is.

My mind turned towards the future as I was laying on that mountaintop, my automatic rifle laying loosely on my lap, my helmet on the ground, and my eyes closed as the summer sun tried to pierce my lids. The men around me, my brothers, were discussing the same things we always discussed when we had spare time in a warzone. We chatted about the food we wanted to eat, the beer we wanted to drink, and the girls we wanted to sleep with. On that final point I had little to contribute, I was a virgin at the time and had sworn to my God to wait until I was married before bumping uglies.

We also talked about home and the places we wanted to go. This conversation required the help of a translator due to the regions of the US that were represented on that mountaintop. On one extreme we had Gagne, a young boy from rural Maine. Slim in stature and prone to embellishment his excited tales of his time in Maine were some of our favorites and always brought ruckus laughter. We knew his stories of competing in destruction derby’s or driving a car without a windshield or hood so that he could pour oil into the engine while he drove were likely not true, but they made us cry with laughter every time he told them. I like to believe they are true.

Gagne, being ever the story teller, was the polar opposite of Harding. Harding is a southern-boy from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and he fit every stereotype. He was big, both in height and weight, and spoke slowly with a deep southern drawl. He rarely spoke except to ask what Gagne was saying, the two couldn’t understand each other, and because of this I became the default translator. My upbringing on the west coast and neutral/boring accent allowed me to understand and translate Yankee and Redneck.

Discussing the all the towns we came from planted a seed in my mind. This seed was to see the country that I was fighting for and, in a way, pay tribute to my unit, the 82nd Airborne Division, the All-Americans[1]. Seeds in the mind are tricky things. They aren’t like physical seeds you get to plant a garden, they don’t come cleanly labeled with species and growing instructions. You may have a general idea what a mental seed will look like but as it marinates in your mind, just below the surface, it mixes with other ideas and evolves into something you couldn’t predict. Then, when the time is right, it springs forth from your mind. It may be months, years, or decades later, and you may have forgotten that the seed even existed. For me, that season for growth started when I attended Burning Man for the first time in 2011.

Burning Man is hard to describe because it isn’t one thing. At its foundation it is a community of people who gather together for a week to build a society based on 10 Principles[2]. The beautiful thing about these principles is that people apply them in different ways and to different degrees, and everyone is accepted as long as they don’t harm another person. The biggest influence for me was meeting people who had taken charge of their lives. They had decided they didn’t want a normal, stable, monotonous life, and they took action. I camped with entrepreneurs, artists, and adventurers. It was hard not to be inspired and, during a particularly pleasurable night of rolling on Molly and exploring The Playa, the seed that was planted in 2004 started to bust forth.

When I returned to DC I tried to ignore the plant that had sprouted forth. It was easy at first, it was small and existed only in my periphery. But as time went by the plant began to grow. Ignoring it became more difficult. The beauty of the idea took up more and more of my mental space and I found my mind wandering to the plant as I worked. In many ways it was like a mirror, showing me how unhappy I was living in Washington DC, working 40-50 hours a week, and buying into the system. I tried to make changes in my life by working from home and taking on hobbies, but the idea kept growing and as it grew it began to take a more solid form.

Not only was I going to explore the United States, I was going to do it by bicycle, and it would start with a solo cross country ride.

Eventually, I got to a point where I had to make a choice. The idea could not be ignored any longer and I either had to destroy it or I had to embrace it. Destroying it would have taken mental effort, but it could have been done. There were all the logical reasons in the world to destroy it. I had a good job with a bright future in an economy that was weak and I had loads of debt. There was no job waiting for me on the other side of the country. I knew nothing about cycling long distances or bike maintenance. It was a crazy idea to abandon all stability and cross 3,000 miles of unknown land on two wheels. I didn’t destroy the idea, it was too beautiful and inspiring to destroy.

Instead, I destroyed all the poisonous things in my life and used them as fertilizer for the idea. My job, stability, the doubts from friends, and my inexperience all became strengths. I quit my job, bought a $100 bicycle at target, strapped everything I owned onto the back with bungee cords, and hit the road with one paycheck in my bank account. I knew there was a good chance I would fail, but damn it, I was going to try.

 

[1] What is now the 82nd Airborne Division received the nickname “All American” from Major General Swift because it had soldiers from every state at the time.

[2] The principles are Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommidification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, and Immediacy. You can find out more at burningman.org/culture/philosophical-center/10-principles/

“The Man in the High Castle”

I just finished reading “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. Dick.

It was not what I expected. After watching the first season of the Amazon adaptation earlier this year I was excited to read the book, I wanted to know what was going to happen in the show. Personally, I like “spoilers” for movies and tv shows. If I know the plot before watching the show then I can really appreciate the other artistic additions that are unique to the visual arts. The acting, sets, CGI, etc. are all things that I can appreciate more when I am not worried too much plot.

Anyway, the book didn’t spoil anything. The tv adaptation seems to be only very loosely based on the book. The basic universe (what if the Japanese and Germans won WWII?) is the mostly the same and many of the characters have the same names, but the plot is different and the character’s personalities are different. Generally, I don’t mind when tv/movie adaptations of books or comics play a little loose with the story details. It is a different medium after all, and that requires focusing on different aspects of the story than in a book. I don’t expect movies to stay true to the book and I actually don’t think they should, books are different than movies and we shouldn’t try to tell the exact same story using both formats. The argument about whether the book or the movie is better comes off as unnecessary to me, it is like arguing whether flour is better used as an ingredient in a cake or as batter for fried chicken. They share a common element, but they are different results for different audiences and different occasions.

Okay, sorry about that tangent, back to the book.

The book was okay. It was a decent thought experiment and the anthropomorphized I, Ching was interesting, but the over-all plot and characters weren’t that interesting to me. There were some fairly racist comments and thought patterns, but that could be chalked up to portraying the characters as real humans. It seems possible (probable) that there would be a lot of racist tones in the United States towards the Japanese in the 1960’s if they took over half the country.

There was also a tone of sexism there that seemed more a reflection of the author’s views than an accurate portrayal of how people would act. The one female protagonist is often displayed as shallow, stupid, flighty, and prone to just following emotional whims. She lacks much depth besides a few facts about her physical appearance and her Judo abilities. The males in the story generally view her as superficial and a tool to be used or won back. I guess this was written half a century ago, so maybe I shouldn’t expect much gender equality in the book.

I did enjoy the book a little bit as an Audiobook. It was good background distraction while biking, and it was a pretty quick listen. If someone is interested in exploring the source material for the TV version and don’t want things to be spoiled they can definitely check out the book.

The Souls of Black Folk

Today, I finished “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. Du Bois.  2016 is a year in which I am trying to broaden my horizons a bit and read books by authors who are very different than me. February was Black History Month and in honor of that I started with Du Bois.

This book, written at the beginning of the 20th Century, still rings important today. There are lives and institutions discussed during the reconstruction era that could have been written today about race relations in the United States. In a sense, the country is still reconstructing from the Civil War. Much of what was discussed was very new to me, in part because my education on this subject was woefully inadequate. It was barely discussed at my high school in the Pacific Northwest, and even my American history course in college in South Carolina it was passed over quickly.

There were times while listening to this audiobook that I felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation that wasn’t meant for me. As a white man a century removed from Du Bois I felt like the personal stories and criticisms he directed at the black community were not mine to hear. But I kept listening, and because of that I am able to understand the black community just a little better. It is a small step, but one in the correct direction.

As is often the case with primary sources from other eras I had a hard time following a lot of the book. My mind began to wander as Du Bois detailed houses and families in regions unfamiliar to me, and I will likely need to revisit this work from time to time so that I can gain more wisdom from it. The real benefit to me was the way it started to chip away at the barrier (or “veil” as Du Bois called it) between myself and people different than me. I hope this will broaden my mind and make me more empathetic to others. It is so easy in this day and age to trap ourselves in a bubble, to feel loyalty to a tribe and view everyone else as an outsider.

The struggle I will face (as many people do) is to continue my education on this subject beyond one book, and really beyond books in general. Taking classes and reading books can certainly create a greater understanding, but moving beyond the books is what I need to do to transform my life. It is fitting that as I write this I am on the Texas/Louisiana border and am only days away from entering the deep south. Over the next two months I will be biking through the rural counties and cities of Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. As I enter this world that is very different from the one I grew up in I hope Du Bois words stay with me and I can appreciate the culture and history that took place here. I’m not sure what to explore next in this area, maybe something during the Civil Rights era.

Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head? The Secret World of Sexual Fantasies

As is often the case on road trips and long flights I was able to get some good reading and writing done… maybe I need to find a way to do this more. Anyway, I finished reading “Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head?” by Brett Kahr. This 400-page book is the culmination of a multi-year study conducted primarily in the UK (though there are some US participants) about people’s sexual fantasies. These fantasies are what goes through a person’s head during masturbation and sex with a partner. The research was conducted through online surveys completed by over 23,000 people and 122 intensive face-to-face interviews with volunteers. It appears to be the most comprehensive attempt to catalog and interpret human sexual fantasies that anyone has ever done.

While I found the intentions of the study and premise of the book fascinating my feelings towards the book are bitter-sweet. As a Freudian psychotherapist Kahr spent much of his time focusing, analyzing, and, in my opinion, unjustifiably fishing or hoping for childhood trauma to explain sexual fantasies that people had. He mentions alternative approaches like evolutionary psychology only twice and only in passing. I understand that he is a Freudian but if his attempt was to objectively or comprehensively attempt to look into sexual fantasies and their foundation (if one exists) he should have brought in some alternative view points. To him humans seem to be born as a blank slate with no genetic predispositions or tendencies in place from evolution.

Kahr often at times come off as a bit judgemental and sex-negative, and even a bit LGBTphobic. He focuses several times on homosexuality possibly being linked to childhood trauma and child rearing but little acknowledgement of a biological aspect. He also seems to see all cross-dressers as “transvestites”. It also seemed like a negative judgement when he penned the term “intra-marital affair” to describe thinking about someone other than your spouse, as if thinking of another is a form of cheating. Some may agree that fantasies are cheating (but if they really are based in trauma or evolution it is cheating we have little to no control over) not everyone does and I think it weakens the betrayal of true affairs if we attach that phrase to a passing thought during masturbation.

Clearly, I have some problems with Kahr’s approach, but I want to give him some benefit of the doubt, it is possible that there is a generational gap and cultural one between he and I. He is British and a bit older than I, while Americans and our friends across the pond are similar in many ways I can’t help but wonder if the stereotypes about prudish non-sexual Brits might have some truth to it. It has also been almost a decade since this project started and a lot has changed in sexual research and views on fantasies in the last 10 years, particularly with the exponential growth of internet access and the pornography that comes with it.

There were also some wonderful things within the book though, and I actually very highly recommend it. Kahr’s analysis later in the book provides a lot of great information and provides some support to his hypothesis in some of the cases. There clearly can be a trauma at the foundation of sexual fantasies, and many of these trauma fantasies are causing great distress and harm to the individuals. In cases where people can’t live the lives they want or have the relationships they desire it is a problem, such as the case of “Julius” who has only been able to masturbate to mental images of a girl who tormented him in his adolescence and he has not had a long-term relationship in nearly 50 years.

I would have loved to see more research and questions about the ramifications of opening up about your fantasies to your significant others. Kahr mentions a few in one chapter but for the most part glosses over any potential benefits and instead focuses on trauma and harm. In my experience being open and honest with your partner about desires and what goes on in your head can have a bonding effect and open the door for new real life experiences. If we decide to enter into a partnership something as intimate and important as sex should not be a taboo subject. Much of the negative aspects seem to come from our social stigmas against sexuality as much as childhood events. As a culture if we can admit that sex is a healthy and enjoyable part of the human experience we can reduce the pain, suffering, and shame that seems to accompany so many fantasies.

Kahr does admit that this is just a beginning, and like a good scientist he hopes others will dive into the data, conduct their own studies, and come up with alternative hypothesis. I would love to see a larger sample size of humans from more diverse backgrounds. What is true for Brits (and in this case a few Americans) may not be true for Australians, Italians, Russians, Kenyans, Colombians, Thai, Egyptians, etc. The more information the better and it looks like this is a field ripe for research and exploration.

I definitely recommend this book for many different people. If you just have an interest in sexuality there is a lot to love about this book, as well if you are interested in seeing how a Freudian interprets things, though I would recommend skipping or skimming Section II if you get bored with it. You can only read poorly written erotica for pages and pages for so long before it becomes a blur. It is also a good resource for people who have anxiety about what goes on in their own heads. It will become quickly clear that “normal” fantasies don’t exist, and because of that there is really nothing that is “weird” or “abnormal”. Some people don’t fantasize at all, some think only about their spouse, some focus more on feelings while others have elaborate situations they play in their head, some people think of college professors, siblings, strangers, movie stars, and inanimate objects. Some people like to be raped, piss on people while they are shitting, or change genders. Some like to be whipped while others like to be bought a nice romantic dinner followed by a massage and some cunnilingus. The limits to human sexual fantasies are only restricted by the combined imagination of billions of people.

Perv Part 1 – “We’re All Perverts”

After a little break from any type of serious reading or writing I decided to pick up “Perv: The Sexual Deviant In All Of Us” by Jesse Bering. I am only through the first chapter but I can already tell I am going to enjoy it. Instead of only diving into the quirky physical nature of humans Bering wants us to both be more comfortable with the sexual deviant in each of us, and more understanding of others. He wants a world where people are judged for their actions, and not their thoughts.

Bering sees a problem with a world where we hide our fetishes. When we hide what we feel and crave we are putting on a mask, the same mask as everyone else, but we are pretending the masks are real. Our realities become a lie, a lie that we have all tacitly agreed to honor even though underneath the masks we are suffering. To ignore what you feel, to pretend it isn’t there, to act “normal” all the time bears a significant cost on your mind and can be harmful. And we go to great lengths to keep this sexual facade up, to the point where we work to dehumanize anyone with sexual perversions, we compare them to animals when they are very human.

Bering points out that all too often we fall into the “naturalistic fallacy” when discussing sexual norms. I know that I’m guilty of this in my defense of polyamory. We turn to nature and point out that other animals have open sex, homosexual activities, and multi-partner relationships, therefore it is not unnatural for humans to do this. Unfortunately this puts us in the same category as fundamentalist religious people who make the “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” comments… basically they say sex is naturally for reproduction therefore if the act doesn’t lead to reproduction then it is unnatural. They are wrong when they resort to nature, and so have I been in the past. It may have strong rhetorical value but, as Bering says, “invokes a moral judgement against those whose sexual orientations are not found in other animals. Furthermore, even if we were indeed the lone queer species in an infinite universe of potentially habitable planets, it’s unclear to me how that would make marriage between two gay adults in love with each other less okay.” When we resort to the nature we spend so much time trying to defend it from an evolutionary point of view and stop asking the important question: is it harmful?

Sexual desires themselves to not cause any harm. They are firing neurons, a mental movie theater, an internal thought. Treating someone poorly or differently based on thoughts and urges that are beyond their control is a gross form of discrimination. We can’t help what we are attracted to. We should only pass judgement when someone acts on urges that cause harm to others, and maybe we should even congratulate the “perverts” who are open about their desires but don’t act on them if they are harmful.

We are all sexual beings. The lady at the grocery store, the old man on the park bench, your parents, grandparents, and siblings… they have all likely pleasured other people into orgasmic bliss. There is a serious danger when you criminalize thoughts or criminalize acts that do not have any proof of harm. Allowing governments to use force as an agent of morality means that someday those moral police may be turned on anyone if public opinion shifts.