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The World in the Satin Bag

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  • Shaun Duke
  • September 11, 2007 07:19:13 AM
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A Blog and Novel by S. M. Duke. Writing discussion, genre fiction, reviews, tips, and more!

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I Have A Mouth, and I Want to Scream

If there’s one thing that I’ve been trying to do in the last three weeks of self-isolation, it’s doing almost anything to distract myself from the nightmare timeline that we’re living in. While everything has been chaos in the United States since at least 2010 (probably as early as 2000), the alternate timeline in which...

If there’s one thing that I’ve been trying to do in the last three weeks of self-isolation, it’s doing almost anything to distract myself from the nightmare timeline that we’re living in. While everything has been chaos in the United States since at least 2010 (probably as early as 2000), the alternate timeline in which all reason has been purged from U.S. society began in earnest in 2016 and has reached astronomical proportions of absolute batshittery since the emergence of COVID-19 as a major threat to our way of life. Everything from the administration refusing to take it seriously, failing over and over again to get the ball rolling on creating more supply to meet medical demand, the absolutely mind-boggling audacity of the admin telling state governors they shouldn’t get aid because they weren’t nice enough to the Orange Mussolini, to states outright declaring the need for inter-state collaboration because the fed refuses to do its job, and on and on and on. It’s honestly impossible to keep up with the absolute shitshow that is this administration and its response to the pandemic.

In the last three weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to find literally anything else to pay attention to because looking at what is happening in this country fills me with such rage and dread that I worry I will just start screaming into the void. We should not be here. We should not be in a situation in which states are being forced to “figure it out on their own” or everyday citizens are shoved into isolation without financial relief. We just shouldn’t be here.

So, the game has been distraction. I can’t fix literally anything happening around me. I’ve already voted in my state’s primary, and outside of my extremely limited influence to get students to register to vote (no, I don’t tell them who to vote for even if it’s damn obvious who I’m voting for) and generally telling people to stay safe, there’s just nothing I can do. Like so many Americans, I am virtually powerless in the face of this historic catastrophe. Like so many Americans, I have a mouth, and I want to scream even if screaming will do little.

Thus far, distractions have come in the form of watching Star Trek, setting up writing groups for fiction, talking to my girlfriend who lives on the other side of the world, reading, trying to blog 5-6 times a week about anything else but the real world (this post being an exception), and scrounging around to find any other kind of distraction I can. And, phew, do I need more distractions…

Distraction is, at this point, my only coping mechanism. It’s the only thing to keep me from going absolutely out of my mind. This pandemic mixed with overt corruption on unprecedented scales mixed with greed and a horrific lack of empathy and a total abdication of responsibility to lead… This is so much. It’s too much. And if I’m here, as a person who just over a year ago achieved a small measure of privilege that includes semi-financial security (with debt, heh) and access to resources I can afford, I cannot imagine how so many others are feeling. Many of my friends are authors, adjunct instructors, graduate students, freelance editors, or, in some cases, now unemployed. If it feels like I’m standing in front of a freight train, paralyzed and horrified, I cannot begin to understand what so many others in less privileged positions must feel. So, in a way, there’s this immense feeling that maybe I need to be vocal. Maybe I need to scream, because I can scream at all this. But there’s also this feeling that if I do, I’ll just unravel. If I keep watching, the chord of sanity will come undone and I will collapse in some metaphorical puddle of human nothing (drama!).

So, I turn to distractions. And I turn to things that are productive. I turn to things that allow me to give a little back (got a live event thing I’m working on). I buy books. I share joy…sorta. Like a lot of Americans, I feel like I’m just surviving…

And I’m rambling.

So, look. If you’re where I am in your head, and you’re doing what you can to distract yourself from all of this, let me ask: what are your go-to distractions? Share them in the comments if you can. Give people ideas on how to distract themselves.


A Not Quite History: The Great Courses’ “The History of Ancient Egypt”

For the past week, I’ve been listening to a series of lectures from The Great Courses on the history of ancient Egypt, which I must have grabbed on an Audible sale many moons ago. The series is presented by Dr. Bob Brier, a notable Egyptologist and mummy expert. I say notable because much of his...

For the past week, I’ve been listening to a series of lectures from The Great Courses on the history of ancient Egypt, which I must have grabbed on an Audible sale many moons ago. The series is presented by Dr. Bob Brier, a notable Egyptologist and mummy expert. I say notable because much of his popularity stems from his extensive popular work with mummies, including reconstructing tombs for museum exhibits, reproducing the Egyptian mummification process, and other mummy-friendly things; he also has some 30 years of experience “in the field.” Given that the presenter of these lectures is most notable for his popular work, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the lectures themselves are packaged accordingly. Yet, in listening to these lectures, I found myself wondering about those credentials. An ardent fan of ancient Egypt and apparent mummy expert Brier certainly is, but do these lectures represent someone who could be called an expert of ancient Egypt’s history?

The answer is “not really,” and I don’t know if that’s due to The Great Courses’ educational philosophy (this is my first TGC experience) or Brier’s insistence on a casual, heavily anecdotal, and meandering series of lectures. Whatever the reason behind it, I have to say that I have been greatly disappointed in this series. I assumed going in that I would get a comprehensive history of ancient Egypt with at least a degree of scholarly depth, but overall, the lectures are devoid of what I’d call “useful material.” Indeed, I don’t know that I’ve learned anything I couldn’t have easily picked up by reading the wiki page (Brier’s personal anecdotes aside), which to me seems to decrease the value of these lectures as a “history of Ancient Egypt.” Mind you, Brier is noticeably enthusiastic about his subject; indeed, it’s clear from his voice and anecdotes that he absolutely loves ancient Egypt. Yet, that enthusiasm, for me, doesn’t translate to a history of an entire culture.

As a so-called history, much of the lecture series begins by outright discarding the things you’d expect from a history: dates are discarded from the start and generally ignored throughout (except when modern Egyptology is thrown in); almost all of the historical discussion relies on who built what and what made that building different from another; and little is really told to us about the relationship between the ancient Egyptians, the world around them (setting aside loose discussions about religion and culture, who married who, etc.), and their neighbors (except to tell us who they liked to fight). The more I listened to these lectures, the more frustrated I became. To me, it felt like I were listening to something recorded for middle school, not a general adult audience. Brier repeatedly wanders into tangents — especially ones set in modern times — and avoids telling us anything of substance about almost anything. He even has entire lectures about modern Egyptology discories, which, in my view, are not a “history of ancient Egypt” at all. If you want to know how the pyramids and obelisks were built or what Egyptologists discovered, then you’ll find plenty of general information here, but if you come in expecting a comprehensive history of ancient Egypt, you’ll probably end up where I am: frustrated.

Yet, Brier’s greatest offense throughout the series is his endless reliance on speculation and guesswork. Over and over, Brier offers his hypotheses for all manner of things, at times even asserting, tongue-in-cheek, that his hypotheses are right, but little real evidence is given to substantiate any of these or the hypotheses of others that he puts on offer; certainly, Brier doesn’t give us the kind of detail we’d need to find most of these hypotheses convincing, this despite Brier having written an entire book arguing that a pharaoh was, in fact, murdered.

All of these “issues” led me to begin to question myself. Perhaps we just don’t know a whole lot of anything about the ancient Egyptians. Maybe Brier’s lectures are basically *it.* This led me to reach out to a colleague who, while not an Egyptologist proper, has made a career studying ancient cultures. The more we talked, the more I realized that my high standards are not the problem: these are just not properly packaged lectures. If anything, this entire series should be repackaged as “An Egyptologist’s Guide to Pharaohs, the Things They Built, and the Discoveries We Made.” As a history, it falls abysmally flat. As a popular, mostly chronological wandering through the major figures, construction projects, and discoveries, it, I suppose, fits the bill. But that’s just not what I expect from 48 lectures on an ancient culture about which we certainly know considerably more than presented.

So, if what you want is “An Egyptologist’s Guide to Pharaohs, the Things They Built, and the Discoveries We Made,” then pick up this lecture series. If you want a more in-depth history of ancient Egypt, I’m afraid you’ll need to skip this series and read a 500+ book instead.


Academia During a Pandemic: Hunker Down Philosophy 3A

Today marks the resumption of classes at Bemidji State University, all of which are now housed online. Many of my colleagues around the world have come up with a variety of different ways of flipping their classes over. My focus has been on enhancing online interaction and replacing face-to-face interaction as much as is reasonable....

Today marks the resumption of classes at Bemidji State University, all of which are now housed online. Many of my colleagues around the world have come up with a variety of different ways of flipping their classes over. My focus has been on enhancing online interaction and replacing face-to-face interaction as much as is reasonable. And as I mentioned before, the former involves discussion threads and the latter involves Zoom conferences!

Monday and Tuesday encompassed the bulk of my Zoom meetings. One of my classes will meet for a second time tomorrow (their request); otherwise, every class has met, giving me a little insight into how this is all going to go. TL;DR: yeah, it’ll work.

Here are a few observations after running 4 sessions:

  1. Small classes, in general, translate better to online conferencing software. This is probably a big old “duh.” The more people you pack into one place, the more things you have to do to keep things organized. For my larger classes, that has involved using Zoom’s built-in “hand” system to avoid having folks turn one another into robots by attempting to talk at the same time. I use the same system for small classes, but when you have 6 or 8 people doing that, you still get most of the fluidity of in-person classes; the same is not true of larger classes. The pace is noticeably slower and clunky. Currently, I have no solution because I don’t think there is one; you just have to adapt.
  2. Conferencing software is pretty neat. The fact that this stuff exists makes my life as a teacher a hell of a lot easier. For one, it’s easy for me to display PowerPoints, web searches, and anything else I think students need to see. You can do that in person, too, which just means that I rather appreciate the functionality of this software in 2020. Kudos to the folks working on this stuff.
  3. I’m not convinced that “lecturing” in this manner really works. I gave a lecture on evaluating sources to my Argument and Exposition students. While I think most of them got what they needed out of it, I’m going to pay careful attention to how useful any sort of lecturing will be for the remaining weeks (about 5-6). This is the only class in which I have lectures of any kind, though I am not a “lecture heavy” instructor by default. For the most part, I manage classes through conversation.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say in the weeks to come. More sessions = more data points.

The big takeaway for me is that the existence of these technologies does make it a lot easier and more enjoyable to teach online. In other words, it’ll work. But I still think that these technologies are insufficient substitutes for in-person learning. As much as I’m trying to go all out for my students to give them something to look forward to (oh how optimistic I am), it’s likely that these tools are little more than a stop-gap. It’s a very nice band aid on a wound that needs stitches.

Anyone else up to anything exciting? What nifty things have you been playing around with in your classes?


Joy to End Your Evening

I have nothing really to say today. It’s been a long day… So instead of trying to say something interesting about teaching or research or pandemics or nerd stuff, here’s a music video that continues to bring me absolute joy. I hope it brings you joy,...

I have nothing really to say today. It’s been a long day…

So instead of trying to say something interesting about teaching or research or pandemics or nerd stuff, here’s a music video that continues to bring me absolute joy. I hope it brings you joy, too!


Unsolicited Class Board from Before the Pandemic

A bit of fun from my Rhetoric of Social Media Class: This board covers some of the thoughts the class had about several mobile games, including how they encourage play, social activity and interaction, etc. Also: there are some lyrics to brighten your day. You’re...

A bit of fun from my Rhetoric of Social Media Class:

This board covers some of the thoughts the class had about several mobile games, including how they encourage play, social activity and interaction, etc.

Also: there are some lyrics to brighten your day.

You’re welcome.


Struggles in Heroism: On the (New) Star Wars Expanded Universe

It’s probably not a big secret that I have had “issues” with Star Wars in its Disney years. There are a lot of things I love about the direction things are going — a more diverse cast, the emphasis on big sprawling adventure, etc. — but there are also problems I have with the cohesion...

It’s probably not a big secret that I have had “issues” with Star Wars in its Disney years. There are a lot of things I love about the direction things are going — a more diverse cast, the emphasis on big sprawling adventure, etc. — but there are also problems I have with the cohesion of the stories, the structure of the narratives, Disney’s treatment of character, etc. Yet, it’s still Star Wars, and even when it’s not quite on the mark, it’s still enormously fun.

However, there’s something a tad “off” for me about Star Wars, especially the new Expanded Universe. Recently, I’ve been listening to several audiobooks of new Star Wars novels — Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath and Rebecca Roanhorse’s Resistance Reborn — and it got me thinking a lot about some of the things that have made the Disney era so difficult for me as a Star Wars fan. To be clear: I have zero intention of bashing Star Wars here; rather, I want to talk a bit about what I have found less enticing about this new era while still keeping my love for this franchise.

To start, let’s aside all of the usual arguments you hear from people who apparently hate Star Wars with the passion of a thousand suns. Mary Sues. Nonsensical plots. Magic not making sense. Physics not making sense. Space not making sense. I hate women. I hate people of color. I am the new Sith, and I am filled with so much rage that I am mere inches from harassing someone into a mental breakdown. These are not my arguments, and I’m not interested in them, even if I kinda agree with two of them — physics and space — in totally minor ways that do not make me a monstrous anti-fan.

Instead, the thing I’ve struggled with most with these newer novels (and the films) is the structure of the books themselves and the treatment of characters in the franchise as a whole — two things tied together.

Star Wars has always had a problem with its presentation of characters, new and old, but one thing I have always appreciated about its pre-Disney narratives is the way it introduces side characters without trying to make the narrative about them when their involvement in the whole will remain as extras with lines. I’m thinking of characters like Boba Fett, Dexter Jettster, Wedge Antilles (who gets his due in the original EU), and a whole host of characters who may or may not appear in future stories. When classic Star Wars does introduce a new character who will be important to the narrative, that character actually sticks around and is actually important to the story — or at least sticks around to serve as recurrent background characters who don’t get fully realized backstories. Think Lando Calrissian or Yoda for the former.

One of the things this made possible for the Expanded Universe was access to a whole host of curious and unusual characters — background, one-liners, etc. — who could make great subjects for books. To be fair to modern franchises, Lucas couldn’t have predicted that fans would have latched on to Mos Eisley Cantina background characters or Boba Fett with such passion. Still, the way those classic stories mostly handled characters outside of the main cast was to put them in positions where the real strength of progressing the story rested in the hands of our main heroes. The EU, however, had other ideas, giving entire novel series to Wedge Antilles or other characters so we could learn about their heroic adventures, too.

Disney-era Star Wars, however, often introduces characters, implies their significance in the narrative, and then ignores them. Rose Tico is the most obvious example of this; she plays a significant role in The Last Jedi, but she is virtually pointless in Rise of Skywalker (she had about 1 minute of screen time), something I found to be an absolute waste of a character. If not for The Last Jedi, you’d have no reason to think she was any more important to the overall story than Snap Wexley — someone who clearly does something useful, but mostly is just there to remind us that there are other people doing important stuff for the Resistance. And, yeah, maybe she’d get a cute line or two. Like Snap. Or look at Jannah, one of the Company 77 folks who appears on the back of a Orbak in Rise of Skywalker; we get all this time with her character, but none of it actually matters to the story beyond the simple fact that she becomes the basis for a really cool scene on top of a Star Destroyer. Or look at Zorri Bliss. (Note: Babu Frik actually follows the class trilogy model.)

Part of my issue is the transparency of these moments. They’re clearly (for me) setups for Expanded Universe material, but they are also absurd distractions in the mainline narratives (films). Rather than spending time with our heroes, whose narratives are the most important component of the entire sequel trilogy, we spend lots of time trying to create meaningful connections between the heroes and random new people — and lots of time trying to make those new people feel like fully realized characters whose histories matter even though they really don’t matter in the story all that much at all. None of this is to say that I dislike these characters. I am still deeply annoyed that Rose didn’t get her Lando moment because she should have been a major part of the heroic center cast. I think Jannah is super cool and deserved more than just a meaningless blip, too, though maybe as a character in a different movie. But this new universe doesn’t seem to allow for it.

The novels follow a similar pattern, though to a lesser degree because novels do allow for more space to explore these introduced characters. Many new Expanded Universe novels frequently present us with far too many POVs, some of which are essential to the story and some of which could be dropped without significantly impacting the main narrative. Aftermath, a book I think is generally pretty decent by an author I think is actually really great, does this quite a lot. There are so many POVs, and the impact is a narrative that drags on and on — and, honestly, sometimes makes for a plot that feels bloated by too many subplots. Part of me thinks this is designed to make us think that the story we’re reading is “much big,” but when you boil down the plot of that novel to is base components, it’s really small potatoes from the perspective of Star Wars. And that’s OK. Some EU books in the past have dealt with this sort of small potatoes stuff before to great effect. Indeed, some of the most intriguing parts of Star Wars EU work (Legends especially) is the small potatoes stuff that appears in all varieties of Star Wars stories. But small potatoes books should read like small potatoes books.

What I’m getting at here is the singular problem I think I have with the Disney era of Star Wars: it doesn’t seem to understand fully the interconnection between character and plot. And that makes for stories that are often bloated, filled with excess characters who are largely irrelevant to the greater story but still take up space, and, frankly, missing a lot of the heroic focus that makes Star Wars what it is. Much of that can be blamed on the incoherent mess of the prequel trilogy, which provides a fairly direct map upon which the rest of the EU is built. Ultimately, I’m getting a lot of what I want out of Star Wars stories in all versions of the EU, but I’m also getting a lot of stuff that detracts from that.

None of this is to say that the Legends universe is perfect. It’s not. It is also bloated — largely as a result of its incessant need to fill every gap imaginable — and full of extraneous material that doesn’t really add to anything. But the one thing I can say about Legends that I can’t say about the Disney era EU is that one has stories that define the EU ouevre and the other doesn’t. You can tell by the fact that the new EU has mined some of the most important figures from Legends for its own versions. Thrawn is the most obvious example — and, in my view, the single most important un-filmed character in all of Star Wars.

That statement should be a “yet.” Maybe this will change. After all, as Mike Underwood and I discussed in a recent Star Wars retrospective episode on The Skiffy and Fanty Show, the conclusion of the Skywalker Saga opens up enormous opportunities for Disney. It can tell any story it wants now, and it can invent any number of new and amazing heroes. My hope is that they learn a lesson from everything thus far and make the right choices. Focus on the stories that matter and ignore the ones that don’t — or, at least, push them into their own stories so you can make them matter.

Whether Disney will do this, I don’t know. I hope so. But we shall see.


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