Archive | Science Fiction/Fantasy

Symposium on the Battle of Hoth

Following up on Spencer Ackerman’s critique of Imperial strategy at the Battle of Hoth, Wired magazine has posted a symposium on the battle with commentary from six defense policy experts. I myself commented on Ackerman’s article here.

I’m not entirely convinced by the symposium participants who argue that Darth Vader actually had a good strategy at Hoth. But I do agree that Hoth was far from the worst failure of the Imperial military. That dubious distinction belongs to the infamous debacle in which “an entire legion” of the Emperor’s “finest” troops was defeated by a handful of Rebels leading an army of stone age teddy bears. [...]

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The Catholic Church and Science Fiction

Co-blogger Sasha Volokh asks for examples of Catholic science fiction. As with the debate over Jewish fantasy literature a couple years ago, a lot depends on the definition of the relevant field. But even under a pretty narrow definition, there are many, many examples.

One of my personal favorites is Frank Herbert’s Dune series, where the Bene Gesserit order (which plays a key role in the plot) is based on the Jesuits, and the dominant religion has substantial elements derived from Catholicism. The characters even often quote from the “Orange Catholic Bible,” the result of a future rapprochment between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Another famous example is Keith Roberts’ alternate history novel Pavane, which portrays a world in which the Catholic Church managed to crush the Reformation and then went on to severely constrain social, economic, and technological progress. Roberts viewed that result as a natural outgrowth of the Church’s doctrines if it had succeeded in staving off challenges to its position as the dominant church for all Western Christians.

If we expand the focus to include fantasy literature, there are even more examples. As Tom Shippey documents in an important study of Tolkien’s work, Catholic theological concepts significantly influenced the themes of The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien was a strongly committed Catholic). Criticism of the Catholic Church and its theology are central themes of Phillip Pullman’s atheistic Dark Materials trilogy, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s well-known feminist reinterpretation of Arthurian legend, The Mists of Avalon.

It would be easy to extend this list. Overall, I would say that the Catholic Church and its theology get far more attention in science fiction and fantasy literature than any other religion, possibly more than all others combined. That’s not surprising, given that the Church has had more influence on [...]

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Criticizing Darth Vader’s Strategy at the Battle of Hoth

In this Wired magazine article [HT: Instapundit], Spencer Ackerman gives a detailed critique of Darth Vader’s strategy at the Battle of Hoth. Presented with a golden opportunity to wipe out the rebels once and for all, Vader let them slip through his fingers:

How did the Galactic Empire ever cement its hold on the Star Wars Universe? The war machine built by Emperor Palpatine and run by Darth Vader is a spectacularly bad fighting force, as evidenced by all of the pieces of Death Star littering space. But of all the Empire’s failures, none is a more spectacular military fiasco than the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.

From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.

The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself….

When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency.

Actually, Vader’s errors at Hoth are even worse than typical mistakes in counterinsurgency warfare. In this case, the insurgents were trapped, and forced to fight a conventional battle against a greatly superior force. Yet Vader still let them get away. In addition, it’s [...]

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White House Says We Won’t Build the Death Star

The Obama White House knew, of course, that creating a web-based system for ordinary citizens to call on the government to do something, and promising a response if 25,000 people or more sign an online petition within 30 days, would inevitably produce some silliness. There’s a reason we’re not a direct democracy, no matter how dysfunctional Congress has become.  There have been some serious matters raised, such as MPAA Chris Dodd’s (shocking, shocking) insinuations that the Obama campaign owed taxpayer goodies to Hollywood.  And anything genuinely offensive can simply be ignored.  We live in a knowing and ironic age, and what might once have seemed beneath the dignity of the White House can be an opportunity for some light-hearted national and, dare one say it, decently unpartisan fun.

Hence the official White House reaction to the petition calling upon the Obama administration to “secure resources and funding, and begin construction of a Death Star by 2016,” which garnered some 35,000 signatures.  As reported by Entertainment Weekly  (the only truly canonical outlets for this kind of news would have to be EW or Wired, Hollywood or Silicon Valley), here is the official administration response, from Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch of OMB (we must assume this went through the interagency clearance process and perhaps even constitutes the opinio juris of the United States for purposes of international, nay interstellar, law):

“The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense,” begins Shawcross, “but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon.” He cites a Lehigh University study that calculated that a Death Star would cost a deficit-exploding $852,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s $852 quadrillion), notes that ”the Administration does not support blowing up planets,” and rightly points out that it would be foolhardy to build a

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Review of Peter Jackson’s First Hobbit Movie

I watched Peter Jackson’s first Hobbit movie tonight. Most previous reviews have ranged from lukewarm to mostly negative. All I can say is that I strongly disagree. Peter Jackson has done a great job of capturing the atmosphere and themes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book. And the actors playing the key characters – Bilbo Baggins, Thorin Oakenshield, and Gandalf – bring them to life very effectively. You really get a strong sense of Bilbo’s transition from homebody to adventurer, and of the dwarves’ longing to recover their lost home (which, interestingly, is portrayed slightly more sympathetically in the movie than the book). The key confrontation between Bilbo and Gollum is very well done too. I also disagree with those who criticize Jackson’s use of advanced film techniques and CGI. With a few exceptions, these worked very effectively.

Like many, I was skeptical of Jackson’s decision to turn a book with less than 300 pages into a massive trilogy of three-hour movies. To do so, he included a lot of back story and parallel incidents that Tolkien developed only in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings and other later writings. There is also some added material that was developed by Jackson himself. Not all of this additional plot works well. Although it was fun to see Radagast the Brown brought to life, I’m not sure incorporating him into the The Hobbit adds much of value to the story. Overall, however, the additional plot elements mostly work well, and don’t detract from the main story.

We won’t be able to make a final judgment on Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit until the next two movies come out. But the first one is a great start. If you loved the book, and especially if you loved Peter Jackson’s earlier Lord of [...]

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Ancient D&D 20-sided Die in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

It turns out that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has a 20 sided Dungeons and Dragons die made in ancient Egypt:

The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns what may be the world’s oldest d20 die. It’s made out of serpentine and looks to be in remarkably good shape for its age.

The die is a little over an inch tall. The symbols carved into the die appear to be of Greek origin, in keeping with it coming from the Ptolemaic Period.

The symbols for eta, theta, and epsilon can be clearly seen. Maybe it was used to determine which frat the ancients were going to pledge, but I’d like to think it was used to roll for hit points for warrior and sphinx classes. Now all we need is for someone to 3D-model this so we can print it out and make up our own ancient Egyptian version of D&D.

Historical evidence validating the Lord of the Rings and D&D mythos continues to pile up. We also have evidence that prehistoric hobbits traveled half the world, probably on a quest to destroy the Ring of Power. And, as I have previously pointed out, scientific evidence for the existence of vicious trolls is readily available right here in the comments section of this and other blogs. Can proof of the existence of elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons be far behind? [...]

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Will Superman Become a Super-blogger?

CNN reports that Superman has quit his long-time job working for the mainstream media, and may well take up blogging:

Add Superman to the list of reporters leaving the newspaper business behind.

In the comic book series’ latest issue, which went on sale Wednesday, an outraged Clark Kent quits his job at The Daily Planet after his boss berates him….

In an interview with USA Today this week, writer Scott Lobdell said Kent is much more likely to start his own blog than he is to search for new work in the news business.

“I don’t think he’s going to be filling out an application anywhere,” Lobdell said. “He is more likely to start the next Huffington Post or the next Drudge Report than he is to go find someone else to get assignments or draw a paycheck from.”

Well, allow me to invite the Blogger of Steel to do a guest-blogging stint here at the Volokh Conspiracy. Perhaps he would care to respond to my 2006 post on “The Law and Economics of Superman,” where I criticize him for misallocating his superpowers and ignoring opportunity costs, or the post where I pointed out legal errors in his latest movie. [...]

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Darth Vader and the Contracts Clause

One of my few pedagogical innovations as a constitutional law professor is using Darth Vader’s “alteration” of his agreement with Lando Calrissian in the The Empire Strikes Back to illustrate the importance of the Contracts Clause, which forbids state laws that “impair the obligation of contracts.” A government that can renege on its contracts not only tramples the rights of the people, but ultimately harms itself, because many will become reluctant to work with it in the future.

Here is the dialogue from the relevant scenes. After the second scene, Lando turns against the Empire, which ultimately leads to its downfall. He helps Luke and Princess Leia escape Cloud City, thereby foiling Vader’s plan. Later, in The Return of the Jedi, it is Lando who leads the successful assault on the second Death Star. If the Imperial Constitution had had a judicially enforceable Contracts Clause, Lando could have vindicated his rights in court, and the rebellion would have been crushed:

Lando: Lord Vader, what about Leia and the Wookiee?

Darth Vader: They must never again leave this city.

Lando: [outraged] That was never a condition of our agreement, nor was giving Han [Solo] to this bounty hunter!

Darth Vader: Perhaps you think you’re being treated unfairly?

Lando: [after a pause; nervous tone] No.

Darth Vader: Good. You know it would be unfortunate if I had to leave a garrison here.

Lando: [to himself] This deal is getting worse all the time!


Darth Vader: Calrissian. Take the princess and the Wookie to my ship.

Lando: You said they’d be left at the city under my supervision!

Darth Vader: I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.

[emphasis added]

Interestingly, Goldwater Institute public interest lawyer Christina Sandefur informs me that she used the above quote [...]

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Libertarianism and Science Fiction

Many leading science fiction and fantasy writers have been libertarians, or at least significantly influenced by libertarian ideas. The late Ray Bradbury, who passed away last week, was one well-known example. In this short article published in Prometheus, the journal of the Libertarian Futurist Society, I try to explain why science fiction is so much more libertarian than any any other literary genre. The article was published last year, but only recently became available online. Here’s a short excerpt:

Libertarianism is better represented in science fiction and fantasy than in any other literary genre. From Robert Heinlein to the present day, libertarian writers have been among the leaders in the field. Even many genre writers who are not self-consciously libertarian have often made use of libertarian themes in their work.

While there is no definitive survey data on the subject, libertarian readers also seem more likely to be attracted to science fiction and fantasy than other genres. Historians of the movement routinely emphasize the role of science fiction works in helping to inspire it….

Why is science fiction so much more libertarian than other genres? The answer matters both to people interested in the genre and students of political ideology….

The combination of receptiveness to radical ideas, technological optimism, skepticism about tradition and valuing of reason over emotion helps explain the relative prevalence of libertarianism in science fiction. No other genre combines all of these attributes, and few have more than one or two.

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Ray Bradbury, RIP

Legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury passed away on Tuesday. Orson Scott Card – a famous science fiction writer himself – has an interesting tribute here. Bradbury was not one of my personal favorite science fiction writers. But there is no doubt that his books are among the most iconic in the genre, especially Fahrenheit 451. He will be greatly missed. [...]

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Stanley Fish on The Hunger Games

Big-name literary scholar Stanley Fish has an interesting column on The Hunger Games, the popular series of science fiction novels by Suzanne Collins which has recently been made into a highly successful movie:

A couple of weeks ago my daughter visited from California. She brought with her the first volume of Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games.” She read it in short order and drove to the local Barnes & Noble to get the other two. She finished them in a day, and then passed all three on to me. I devoured them and passed them on to my wife, who also read them in record time.

What accounts for three overeducated adults being so caught up in the story of a teenage girl — Katniss Everdeen — who lives in a dystopian future ruled and controlled by the decadent and cruel denizens of “The Capitol”?

Many have commented on the excellence of the pacing (you’re always on the hook) and on the inventiveness with which Collins devises the obstacles — both animate and inanimate, and a few things in between — that challenge Katniss and her fellow contestants as they play a gladiatorial, televised game whose point is to defeat one’s opponents by killing them and so be the last person standing.

But the technical skills Collins displays are only a part of the explanation of the novels’ power. The other part is the thematic obsession hinted at by the title: just what is it that the characters, and by extension the readers, hunger for? On the literal level the answer is obvious. Kept at a near-starvation level by their rulers, the inhabitants of the nation of Panem (bread) hunger for food, and one of Katniss’s virtues is that as an expert archer she can provide it.


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Podcast on the Politics of The Hunger Games

The Institute for Humane Studies has put up a podcast I recently did for them on the politics of The Hunger Games, the popular science fiction book series by Suzanne Collins, which has been recently made into a hit movie.

I previously blogged about political issues in The Hunger Games here, here, and here. Many have suggested that the series has a libertarian anti-government message, though I think it is much more ambiguous than that.

For those interested, I have also done IHS podcasts on political themes in Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. [...]

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Racial Casting in The Hunger Games

CNN has recently posted two articles about fans who are angry that black actors have been cast in three important roles in The Hunger Games movie: Cinna, Rue, and Thresh (see here and here). On the merits of this dispute, I think it’s clear that the objecting fans are in the wrong. As CNN points out, Rue and Thresh are described as having “dark” skin in the original book by Suzanne Collins, on which movie is based. A person with “dark” skin isn’t necessarily black, but being black is certainly compatible with that description. Cinna’s race was never mentioned in the books at all. So the filmmakers were well within their rights to cast an actor of any race in the role (even assuming that they had some moral obligation not to contradict the book). FWIW, I thought that Lenny Kravitz did a very good job in the role. The actress playing Rue was less effective, but that may have been because the movie cut many of the character’s lines from the book.

At the same time, I can’t help but think that these articles are making a mountain out of a molehill. The Hunger Games book series has millions of fans. In such a large group, it is inevitable that there will be some people who have foolish views about the movie, including some with misguided racial objections to the casting.

Despite the fact that at least two of these three black actors were clearly evident in the movie’s trailer and their selection was otherwise publicized in advance, the Hunger Games movie had the highest first-weekend box office receipts of any non-sequel in history. And the film is still No. 1 at the box office. So I strongly suspect that those fans who objected to the [...]

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Review of the Hunger Games Movie

My wife and I saw the Hunger Games last night. I described the core plot of the Suzanne Collins book series on which the movie is based here:

In the far future, what’s left of a post-apocalyptic United States is ruled by a tyrannical central government (the “Capitol”) that oppresses and exploits twelve subordinate districts. Every year, each of the districts must send two teenagers (a boy and a girl) to participate in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised game show where they fight each other to the death until only one survives. The government uses the Games to entertain the public and divert their attention away from its oppressive nature, while also reminding the districts that any attempt at rebellion is doomed to failure. Main character Katniss Everdeen ends up in the Games after she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, who was chosen in the selection lottery.

Overall, I thought the movie was extremely impressive. The first half – which covers the time before the contestants enter the Games arena – was almost letter-perfect. It effectively developed the characters, the tyranny of the Capitol, and Collins’ critique of “reality TV,” of which The Hunger Games is an effective parody.

There were, I thought, a few problems in the second half, which portrays the actual combat in the arena. The filmmakers cut key conversations between characters without which certain plot developments don’t make as much sense as they do in the book. But these flaws are relatively minor in scale.

They certainly don’t outweigh the film’s many strengths. Perhaps the most significant is the way the filmmakers managed to translate the story onto the screen without being able to rely on Katniss’ internal monologues, which convey many of the most important elements of the story [...]

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