Friday, February 5, 2016

Should Police-Flight Video Shock?

A video shot in Mexico depicts police officers fleeing, despite the pleas of onlookers, shortly before a murder.  The much-watched video has attracted comments, naturally.  But what does American law say?

According to the United States Supreme Court's majority decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago Co. Department of Social Services, law enforcement officials have no duty to rescue members of the public from the violent attacks of third parties, even if they know about it.  Maybe shame would induce police to thwart attackers, but if a citizen's bid to plead for protection fails there's no federal remedy against the government or its officers for electing to leave you to your own devices.  If you think police should have a duty to rescue people from harm, you'll need to agitate for local law to require it:  federal law doesn't.

Since, the news is replete with stories about people killed directly by police with no consequence, there's no point in advising people to trade a fight with local murderers for a fight with the police, on the theory the government will be held to a better standard.  Expecting police to police the police leads to frustration (based on whistleblower-retaliation accounts from California, Georgia, Maryland, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, etc.;  Kansas legislators went so far as to threaten whistleblowers with special felony charges).  The West Coast is pretty good at offering pro-consumer law, but as of this writing California leads the nation in civilians killed by police during 2016.  It's not a pretty picture.

The police-flight video may be offensive, but it ought not be surprising.  The government message to citizens appears to be: if you want safety, take care of it yourself.

That's not to say police can't send a message of competence, loyalty to the community, and faithful service beyond the call of duty.  But the inconsistent message threatens public confidence and undermines faith in the rule of law and those sworn to uphold it.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Jessica Jones Gets Second Season

The News
At of this month, the second season of Marvel/Netflix production Jessica Jones has the green light.  (Daredevil's second season will be released March 18 at 12:01 AM, also on Netflix.)

Why To Be Optimistic
What you may not know is that Jessica Jones' writers include the show's creator, Dexter alum Melissa Rosenberg, who gave an interview here. (Spoilers are pre-announced so you can skip ahead to miss them).  The second season will have the same quality of writers Disney

One strength of the Netflix-only delivery is that the season isn't subject to being manipulated halfway through by pressure from advertisers or studio execs looking over the makers' shoulders.  The shows are ad-free, and the whole season drops at once so viewers can consume episodes like novel chapters as quickly as they have the time.  Shows like Jessica Jones can revel in mood-building scenes longer than an ad-interrupted show could manage;  they can, for example, focus on character for whole minutes at a time without necessarily pushing plot to regain eyeballs after the next commercial.  A second strength is that with a known-length season – no 12-episode deal with an option to 18 or 23, just one fixed season at a time – writers can craft stories that fit the season length.  Story can fit the medium instead of being torqued into weird shapes to fit the evolving demands of advertisers and waffling studio execs.  Netflix-only shows like Sense8, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Defenders, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist will have the freedom to take their time building the characters' world and story in ways that weekly episodic ad-funded television do not allow (while addressing subject matter and situations broadcast television would not presently allow in the United States – more on that later).

Another fun factor in the upcoming show's new seasons is the interlocking nature of Marvel's stories.  Daredevil makes reference to the rebuilding of New York following Loki's alien invasion in Marvel's The Avengers.  At the end of Jessica Jones' first season, Daredevil's nurse Claire Temple treats a major character who, presumably, is known to her and therefore potentially available to Daredevil in his second season.  By using different series to flesh out backstory of complex characters, Marvel gives viewers more and more excuse to see more Marvel properties.  When the intertwined properties are both available at the same time ad-free on Netflix, all the better for viewers.  I mean, you have netflix already right?

And you're asking: so what?

Why Jessica Jones Rocks
Rosenberg is right: it'd be nice to live in a world in which Jessica Jones is a "superhero" – and not a "female superhero" – but we're not there yet.  It's important the character is a woman for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the dearth of female superhero leads.  Of course, Jessica Jones is a superhero – but she's much more believably flawed than, say, Wolverine can be depicted in a two-hour movie.  A 13-episode series allows more backstory visits without distracting from the overall story arc, and the development of supporting characters in depth unimaginable in a two-hour flick.  And what has this delivered?

Jessica Jones has revealed a handful of Hell's Kitchen's neighborhood supers – some of them, with enough suggested backstory to ensure their re-appearance in other shows will draw viewers to Jessica Jones for the completeness.  But the Season One plot arc is primarily about the villain Kilgrave's re-appearance in Jessica's life.  Killgrave plays with her mind, sending her clients only to toy with them, their daughter, and Jessica herself.  To fight him, Jessica Jones draws on all her support structures at work and in her personal life, pulling out all the stops to solve the problems she chooses to fight rather than flee.  As others have pointed out, Jessica Jones' response to Kilgrave's re-appearance squarely addresses the aftermath of the rape he commits with his superpower.  But Jessica Jones' character offers something much broader and deeper than a victim reacting to one character's despicable assault.  The show explores more kinds of abuse, and from more angles, than one simple backstory-of-victimization character would normally provide.

People Abusing One Another
Sure, Jessica Jones is hired to rescue a client's daughter following an abduction and rape like her own.  To do it, she has no compunction about using her superpowers to frighten people into submission (a trend that eventually has viewers asking about her entitlement to use force to compel others to submit, and exactly where it ends).  And Jessica's allies all have experience with abuse.  She's got no boss – she won't submit enough to be anyone's employee – but the lawyer Harper (Carrie-Anne Moss) refers process-serving work to her, and becomes entangled in the story when she represents another Killgrave victim (and is herself tempted by his power, and commits abuse to benefit from it).  Even with no powers at all, Harper abuses her own lover while mistreating her wife, whom she hires Jessica Jones to serve legal papers, and whom she later hires Jessica to coerce into capitulation in the unexpectedly rancorous divorce, using an escalating succession of blackmail efforts and physical threats.  Killgrave's backstory is filled with abuse, and Killgrave naturally abuses everyone within reach with his power – forcing them to commit acts that horrify them when they come to their senses.  Jessica Jones' bestie Trish dates a man whom Killgrave tried to have kill her, but when he is drawn into solving the story problem we see the limits in his willingness to take orders:  his go-to move is physical coercion, and he's soon lying, murdering, and manipulating minds (not, by this time, under the influence of Killgrave but the combat drugs he got from his black-ops military unit – and he doesn't even really need those to be a violent, controlling abuser as we learn … but they don't help de-escalate things).  Jessica Jones' complex experience as abusee, (occasionally paid) rescuer, and abuser connects her to multiple victim/abuser/rescuer triangles and shows her (and others) in each role. We're shown a complex, nuanced look at how abuse looks from different angles, and different possible responses.  We feel it from all sides, sympathizing with characters who turn our stomachs as they turn, even if momentarily, into monsters.  Others have written persuasively about Jessica Jones' portrayal of PTSD, and they're right.  Jessica Jones doesn't minimize the effect of violence, it depicts the invasive way traumas can impact so many aspects of one's daily life, and it shows lots of different coping mechanisms (some less counterproductive than others).

I'd especially like to draw attention to a form of abuse this show depicts particularly well: gaslighting.  The gaslighting is illuminated wonderfully.  Abusers' projected entitlement to steer, pressure, undermine, reprogram, manipulate, and blame their victims is depicted so intimately the audience itself doubts what the characters believe.  It's the best depiction of gaslighting I've seen onscreen.  It's a work of art.

Conclusion
Jessica Jones' writers aren't busy trying to write a political screed (check out the Rosenberg interview), but characters whose inner selves are hidden beneath fronts designed to armor them against the world.  They're not all-good or all-bad, they're caught between looking out for themselves and acting in support of their values – and some of them haven't got much in the way of values.  Over the season they develop a 3-D feel that's hard to build so deeply for so many characters in a more frenetic format like a one-off movie or episodic television.  For all that, each episode of Jessica Jones is a discrete story segment that, like a chapter of a well-crafted book, provides an immediate problem while advancing the overall story and delivering a disaster viewers will want to see resolved.  Jessica Jones is strong fiction, well-crafted storytelling at its best.  For a nuanced look at nontrivial characters engaged in complex relationships in a world that's rarely fully black and white, check out Jessica Jones – and look forward to the second season.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Review: Myke Cole's Javelin Rain

Myke Cole's military fantasy novel Javelin Rain follows Gemini Cell in continuing the story of the dead-but-not-gone Navy SEAL Jim Schweitzer, a product of America's secret government program that uses contractors to animate super-operatives.  Schweitzer's story takes place prior to Control Point, which opened the Shadow Ops series Cole concluded in Breach Zone.  Fans of Gemini Cell, interested in what follows Schweitzer's escape from his government masters, won't want to miss the answers Cole offers to questions about the background and organization of the unit that animated Schweitzer, or the next segment of Schweitzer's doomed quest to fulfill his roles as a husband and father following his untimely death.

Background

In Cole's prior Shadow Ops novels, each volume followed a different protagonist, so prior knowledge wasn't terribly important to seeing the world through the protagonist's eyes: the protagonist's individual outlook was built from the ground up in each book.  Javelin Rain is different: it continues Gemini Cell's story of Jim Schweitzer, and opens promptly following that volume's final scene on the predicament readers understood would naturally follow the Gemini Cell's conclusion.  Prior knowledge of the protagonist's predicament, and the background of the actors, will help make the most of what Cole presents.  That background will help give perspective to the choices characters make – especially non-POV characters developed primarily through prior action in Gemini Cell. Gemini Cell is well worth reading even if you aren't holding a copy of Javelin Rain – but if you're looking at Javelin Rain, consider picking up Gemini Cell first.

In Control Point, magic powers manifest by U.S. citizens are subject to government regulation – and public service campaigns admonishing individuals with powers to register.  However, at the time the action in Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain is underway, the U.S. isn't there yet.  Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain take place in a U.S. whose public is not yet unaware magic has begun to manifest.  But elements of the government know, and are willing to kill to keep the secret.  By the end of Gemini Cell, the protagonist's family learns what's become of him – and are thereby marked for death.  Schweitzer, a SEAL in life and well-educated in government application of force, is unwilling to stand by while those he loves are murdered.

Open Javelin Rain.

Complexity

As in Gemini Cell, the story's major players are complex humans rather than paper-cut-out actors in a budget Western shoot-em-up.  Schweitzer's antagonists are depicted not as a unified front of faceless villains (e.g., storm troopers from Star Wars) but as an internally diverse group of individuals with motives and values that place them in conflict as much with their fellows as with their nominal enemy, and who have the power to decide for themselves not to perform heinous acts on command (e.g., storm troopers from The Force Awakens).  Individuals' capacity to learn and make decisions and change course – a major factor in humanizing the actors in Gemini Cell – remains on show in Javelin Rain.  Readers familiar with the Shadow Ops world in the time of Control Point will understand how different government's relationship with the arcane is from that on display in Gemini Cell – and Myke Cole shows through Schweitzer's story why prior regulatory relationships were discarded in favor of the schemes that won out by the time of the first Shadow Ops series.

Evolution

It's tempting to view the prequel trilogy – Schweitzer's story – as another step in the transition of powered individuals from nonpersons to full citizens.  In Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain, supers are depicted as government property, classified assets that cannot be disclosed upon pain of death, never allowed to retire while they can be made to function.  In the first series' open in Control Point, supers are publicly known but the government curtails their rights and imposes compulsory military service.  By the end of Breach Zone, supers have demonstrated their worth and negotiated a state of moral equality, and stand ready to participate in the formation of regulations to protect the public from uncontrolled powers (just like citizens theoretically can participate now in how we want government to regulate dangerously uncontrolled citizens).  The rest of Schweitzer's story will reveal whether it's Schweitzer or some successor to Gemini Cell who finally makes public that powered individuals exist in the world.  Cole has another volume to show how it comes to pass that the government registration program is instituted so that the events in Control point will be set up.  Even knowing where the world goes, one can't help wondering about the fate of the individuals caught up in the action:  Control Point doesn't spoil Javelin Rain at all.

The conflict in Gemini Cell between Schweitzer and the djinn that re-animated his corpse is replaced in Javelin Rain by the conflict between Schweitzer's need to employ his professional, calculated, mission-directed outlook to resolve problems, and his distraction by his emotional responses to the successive hazards directed into the path of those he loves.  The conflict between Schweitzer and the government continues, and broadens: his old unit makes new enemies even as it risks more assets hunting Schweitzer and expanding its secret program to build and improve its undead strike force.  Fans of military fantasy will enjoy the technical details: how mortal soldiers arm for battle with an undead killing machine, how technology impacts Schweitzer's supernatural efforts, and how enemies and allies alike track a zombie on the run from the government.  Watching high-tech equipment and magic collide is fun; the fights are fun and fast; and the stakes include real consequences that follow the protagonist.  In Gemini Cell we learned the animated dead could perform some limited battle shapeshifting to add bone spikes to their bodies at will – and it wasn't hard to imagine that such shapeshifting might with practice be employed to repair damage that, in Gemini Cell, was depicted as a one-way street when it occurred in zombies entirely governed by hungry djinn bent on killing.  But, no.  Schweitzer doesn't learn to use the spike-extending power to regenerate or re-grow a damaged body.  Every time he slips up and allows himself to be injured, he becomes less capable and more helpless before an enemy that is only getting better and better at fighting him, and never runs out of fresh uninjured bodies to move into position for the next attack.

Schweitzer's internal evolution in Javelin Rain differs from that in Gemini Cell; he doesn't go from living to dead, he doesn't gamble his immortal soul on a bid to take control of his body to save his family, he doesn't lose his self-defining career.  However, he does move from a loner fighting to discover the truth to a person trying to cooperate to accomplish something too big for him to do alone.  The decisions he's made – not to allow the government to use him as an indiscriminate killing machine, to seek out and protect his family – carry him forward from the first pages of action.  He learns about non-soldier allies making sacrifices for him and the risks others will accept to further a mission bigger than himself.  It's chaotic, and he's not in charge.  Even as his unhealing body is ground down in capability, Schweitzer is forced to adapt to a world that's growing darker and more dangerous.

It's a story of sacrifice and suffering that looks pretty grim as it progresses.  Schweitzer will have to change the quality of his confrontations at some point if he's to get ahead – and we don't see exactly how that will happen.  It's a good reason to see the next installment of the story, which presumably will be released next year.  It's a fun story, full of excitement and action and a decent handful of characters to worry about.  Cole uses close-third-person point of view to show readers not only his main protagonist in action, but the actions of major players still in action from Gemini Cell – and their own opponents.  We get a much better idea what's behind Gemini Cell, and a clearer idea who the enemy is.  Well, enemies;  readers can have their choice prioritizing who's most to worry about as the tale advances.

Process

As described in the Gemini Cell review and in an interview with Myke Cole, Cole's work is not a seat-of-the-pants lark but a work that results from deliberate and process-driven craftsmanship.  Readers can rest assured that the Schweitzer story has a known destination, and won't be derailed by some midway misstep that paints the author into a corner, and causes an improvised, unsatisfying tack-on ending.  Myke Cole is laying out all the elements he requires to get the story where it needs to go.  Readers leery of series must rejoice to see authors like Cole and Butcher who know where they're going and methodically drive the boat where it needs to go.

Conclusion

Javelin Rain is a must-read for anyone who's seen Gemini Cell, and wants to know how an undead super-soldier is going to make good on his mission to protect his family when the government's painted a target on their heads.  Javelin Rain exposes some of the machinery that Myke Cole left hidden behind the wizard's curtain in Gemini Cell, and it reveals the kinds of schisms within the government that allowed the events in Gemini Cell – and what levers may be pulled to effect change.  Worldbuilding questions raised by Gemini Cell are answered as the second phase of Schweitzer's escape unfolds – and he sets up his counterattack.  Like The Empire Strikes Back, this installment isn't intended to offer a feeling that the series has closed, but to reveal key backstory while showing the characters' limitations that will require they change their strategy before they can finally prevail (in the next volume).  At least, we can hope they prevail.  Half the fun is imagining what that will look like: you've seen stories that get grim before they get better, but Javelin Rain gets pretty doggone grim.

If you like a Tom Clancy/Zombie mashup, this book is for you.  If you like craft-driven storytelling that's going someplace, pick up a copy.  If you want to know what the government is REALLY doing with your tax dollars, Javelin Rain is the documentary you've been waiting for.

While you're waiting for your copy of Myke Cole's latest work to arrive, consider reading what the FBI is doing about the paranormal threat in the Emma Bull production Shadow Unit, which you should read in this order.  (Nowhere else will you see Steven Brust write about a hero in the FBI, as he does in the series finale "Something's Gotta Eat T-Rexes.")

Friday, January 22, 2016

US Air Strategy: Did They think This Through? (Update: Warthog Saved till 2022)

CNN is running an article that says Daesh may have saved the A-10 "Warthog" close-air support (CAS) craft, which flies at slow speed and can linger over battlefields to deliver precision fire on targets too close to friendly forces to employ artillery or guided bombs (e.g., within twenty meters).  For the uninitiated, the A-10 is essentially a Gatling-style cannon with stubby wings, capable of shooting through tanks with depleted-uranium rounds with which it can strafe at 65 rounds per second.  It has a reputation for being extremely resilient to enemy fire (can return to base having lost an engine, or having lost half a wing), and pilots have used its resilience to advantage by, for example, intentionally attracting enemy fire to protect embattled ground forces.  The Warthog protects its pilot with a 1200-pound titanium-armored cockpit, which reduces pilot risk while operating (if needed) below 1,000 feet in altitude – below cloud cover in foul weather or into the teeth of small arms fire, places where other craft tasked with CAS could not or would not venture but Warthogs did.  Defense One reported the Air Force had not planned requesting funds to operate A-10 units when it presented its 2017 to Congress in February of 2016.

The A-10's close-air-support won't even be tested until 2018.  One wonders how the Air Force planned providing CAS between 2016 (when A-10 money would have run out) and 2018 (when the Air Force first learned what further help the F-35 would need to accomplish the CAS mission) before it suddenly noticed ground forces remained in danger from active hostiles. Does Air Force budget brass care if ground forces survive what they prefer to send as a CAS substitute for the proven A-10?

UPDATE: The first week in February, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter confirmed the Air Force would continue to fly, and week funding for, the A-10 "Warthog" for another six years until 2022.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Whistleblower Cop Fired, Of Course

Lest anyone mistake police for a body dedicated to upholding the law, or even referring criminal activity to a District Attorney for prosecution, we highlight Kentucky's New Albany Police Department.  An officer identified that its employees – other officers – were lying about their overtime and performing work for third parties while on the department's clock, all resulting in theft of public funds for "work" they were not in fact performing for the community.  Was she given a medal?  Did she get a promotion?

Of course not.  This is an American police department, dedicated above everything else to making sure its own members never faced the consequences of the law they swore to uphold.  Their first move was to fire the woman.

If you're thinking the District Attorney will prosecute the corrupt cops, leading to the vigilant public servant's reinstatement, don't hold your breath.  There's little hope for police who want clean departments in Missouri (demoted for truthfully answering questions about an in-custody death), New York (committed following crime-stat fudging report), Maryland (branded a snitch after "ratting" out police brutality, and harassed), Illinois (harassment and death threats after reporting corruption, and instructions not to provide backup to rat cops in danger), Washington (officer was abandoned and allowed to be shot, despite calling for backup, because he reported excessive force, then was disciplined on pretext; his shooter was allowed to plead to "attempted assault"), or pretty much anyplace else they might report wrongdoing.

It's corrupt, and we don't have enough democracy in this country to get departments that will reflect our hunger for real justice.  We need more democracy.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

New Lesson: Don't Wave To Police

Not posting on police violence toward U.S. civilians isn't because there's been none.  Now, when you wave to police, it risks provoking the kind of escalating confrontation that got the unarmed 17yo Deven Guilford shot seven times and killed after flashing his headlights to alert an officer that his high-intensity headlights appeared to be set on high-beam.  And don't expect the district attorney to do justice:  you and your mom (whom the police beat while tazing you) will be fed to the local prosecution machine and driven to penury fighting fabricated charges.

Apparently the only safe strategy is not to be noticed at all.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Butcher's Graphic Novel DOWN TOWN

Jim Butcher, author of the Dresden Files, Codex Alera, and the Cinder Spires series, has just released a Dresden Files story in the form of his Down Town graphic novel collection from Dynamite Entertainment.  Fans of the Dresden Files (worshipfully reviewed here since 2008) will want to read them for completeness, but they contain enough backstory that one need not already be a fan to follow and enjoy.  (The backstory isn't heavy, and doesn't distract.)  Readability for those who don't already know the novels is an improvement from War Cry, in which prior knowledge of Harry's allies is important when help arrives in the nick of time.  Down Town feels the most solid Dresden Files graphic novel so far.  The art by Carlos Gomez gives a distinct character to everyone readers have only imagined from the novels, and co-writer Mark Powers has helped craft Butcher's concept and outline as a fully-developed graphic novel.

Down Town opens a few months after the close of White Night.  This is important, as it drives the story villain and forces Harry into confrontation/cooperation with the gangster Marcone, whom Harry just helped become a signatory to the Unseelie Accords (a treaty between the world's major supernatural forces).  Now that Marcone is the "Baron" of Chicago, and his protection rackets include guarantees against supernatural threats, he's attracted a new class of adversary.  When the action begins, Molly is giving Harry attitude about his instruction methods while, unbeknownst to most of Chicago, an awful menace threatens the city.  Mostly, because Marcone has claimed it.  Which, of course, Harry's signature made possible.

Oops.

Readers of the books will immediately discover something the books don't offer: omniscient perspective.  The main story line in the Dresden Files is all first-person from Harry's perspective, which limits what Butcher can show the reader (by limiting what Harry can know without spoiling the story solution).  While this means developments can be a surprise to the reader, they limit the things the story can do to build suspends.  Remember how much more exciting it was to see a Hitchcock scene when you knew about the bomb ticking beneath the table?  Omniscient perspective lets Butcher show you what in a Dresden Files book would be the villain's off-screen action.  It helps paint the villain's perspective and motives when they're not immediate and personal.  In a work this length, it aids the setup so the story feels believable while making sure the reader doesn't miss any of the mayhem occurring anywhere in town.  Although the short stories from secondary characters' perspective offer a view into their minds, Down Town offers a view into Harry's mind, then Molly's, during the same story arc.  It's fun to watch how they (mis)understand what's going on about them and haul themselves out of one jam after another.

As with the Dresden Files novels, Down Town depicts the secondary characters with all the strengths they possess:  Marcone's iron will, Molly's quick-thinking use of less-flashy magic, and Murph's heroism in the face of unreasonable circumstance.  Down Town provides enough disasters, twists, and reversals to keep readers on the edge of their seats, and as with the Dresden Files universe when it's at its best the solution to the story's problem isn't more force but more finesse.  It's a fun story, showing Harry and his friends and frenemies pitted against a supernatural threat perfectly suited to the Dresden Files universe.

Although the story is solid enough to entertain those who aren't established fans of the books, the additional color on Molly's apprenticeship, Muphy's off-screen police work, Bob's local spirit contacts, and so forth will especially endear the story to fans who can't get enough of the characters and their world.