Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Republic (Part III)

Pompey was on top of the Roman world now, and all he needed to stay there was for his colleagues to stay out of sight. But his colleagues wanted a chance to earn some military glory on their own, too, so the three divvied up the Republic: Crassus was assigned Syria, Caesar got southern Gaul*. Pompey got Spain, which in practical terms meant he could stay in Rome and keep an eye on things. Pompey's ideal scenario was for his colleagues to stay busy in the provinces, enriching themselves and fighting minor frontier wars, while he ran the Republic.

Crassus obliged handsomely. For the first seven years of his term in the east he squeezed the place dry as he had done back west, and indeed as was typical for governors; but as his term grew old he grew impatient and eager for glory, and invaded Parthia with the entire Syrian army (53 BC). The Romans had had no real disputes with the Parthians since Pompey had conquered Syria a decade before; Crassus was indifferent, and started the war anyways, confident that Pompey would force the Senate into declaring war for him. But despite his involvement in the defeat of Spartacus in 71 BC, Crassus was no real general; he marched his army straight at Parthia, across the least hospitable corner of Mesopotamia, and when the Parthians finally met up with him (at Carrhae, just barely across the actual frontier) he dug his soldiers in and held steady under endless volleys of Parthian archery. By the evening Crassus was dead, killed in an ill-planned attempt to negotiate, and the few survivors of his army had surrendered, handing over their standards and legionary eagles with them. It was the greatest Roman defeat since Cannae, but it had surprisingly little effect - the Persians were content with prying Armenia out of the Roman orbit, and Pompey and the Senate hastily disavowed Crassus' attack. Pompey and the Senate had issues closer to home to deal with, anyways: at the age of 42, and to the amazement of just about everyone, Julius Caesar had turned out to be the military genius of the age.

In 58 BC the tribe of the Helvetii**, pressed by German migration from their north and east, tried to cross into Roman Gaul. Caesar met them on the Saone river and defeated them decisively. The next year, on the grounds that they had supported the Helvetii, he defeated the Belgae in the north of Gaul***; the year after that, the Veneti in Brittany on the grounds of supporting the Belgae; the year after that, across the Rhine to shock and awe the Germans. In 54 BC he invaded Britain, more for the mystique of that semi-legendary isle than for any real strategic aim. In 53 BC the Belgae rose against the garrisons Caesar left behind and Caesar put them down again; in 52 BC the entire country rose under the great chieftain Vercingetorix. Caesar eventually trapped Vercingetorix at Alesia in central Gaul and after Caesar defeated the Gallic relief force Vercingetorix surrendered. In six years Caesar had conquered all of Gaul, written a memorably unmodest book about it, and made himself the hero of the Roman world.

Well, most of it. The Senate was now far more scared of Caesar than it had ever been of Pompey and Pompey was getting worried too - glory fades quickly and Pompey's great conquests were a decade gone, now. The Senate voted thanks to Caesar but no Triumph, as such a massive victory would normally have been due. This was a distinct mark of displeasure (or fear) but an even more obvious one was their demand after Caesar's governorship had expired (50 BC), that he disband his army and return alone to Rome. Caesar decided that this was the obvious prelude to arrest and execution that it looked like and in 49 BC crossed the Rubicon River into Italy at the head of his most loyal legion.

Pompey, still confident in his reputation, had promised the Senate that he need only stamp his foot and legions would arise to defend them; instead, troops flocked to Caesar. Pompey and the optimates fled in some disorder down the Italian peninsula and then to Greece. Caesar swung around into Spain****, defeated an optimas army there, then came back again to Greece; at Pharsalus (48 BC) he decisively defeated Pompey and his army. Pompey fled again, to Egypt, where the boy-Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, fearful of sheltering the loser of the civil war, had him assassinated as he stepped off the boat. Caesar, following again, supported Ptolemy's sister and rival Cleopatra VII in her struggle for the throne anyways. The reasons are unknown but perhaps fairly obvious: Caesar's only known son (Ptolemy XV Caesarion) was with her.

The next few years saw Caesar crisscrossing the Republic, putting down optimas forces in the East (47 BC)*****, Africa (46 BC), and Spain again (45 BC). In the following year he returned to Rome and celebrated a Triumph for his victory in the Civil War. The Senate, somewhere between terror of him and gratitude for his quite general amnesty, elected him dictator in perpetuity - an unprecedented and illegal title, if hardly unexpected at this point. But if his amnesty and patronage of the populares' causes made him the idol of the people, it left many alive who still hated him for his overturning of the Republic. On March 15, 44 BC, in the midst of preparations for an expedition to Parthia to avenge Carrhae, a group of optimas senators surrounded him in the Senate building and hacked him to death with knives.

The assassins had hoped their tyrannicide would restore the Republic, but within days the anger of the mob, whipped up by Caesar's longtime lieutenant Marcus Antonius, had forced them from the city. The stage seemed to be set for a replay of the Civil War of 49-45 BC, with Antonius facing off against the last remnants of the optimates; in fact, there was still one player left to take the stage.

*The south of Gaul (still called Provence after its Roman nickname, "the Province") was technically largely run by the Greek city-state of Massilia (present-day Marseilles); but in practical terms Massilia was the most devoted imaginable client-state to Rome, and Caesar was able to run things there almost as smoothly as he did in his own province of Transalpine Gaul ("Gaul across the Alps"). Cisalpine Gaul ("Gaul this side of the Alps") was the Po valley, inhabited by Gauls before the Roman conquest. It was annexed to Italy in 42 BC, at the very end of the Republic.

**The latinate name for Switzerland, Helvetica, comes from the name of this tribe, but they were essentially unconnected to the modern Swiss; they were Celts just like the Gauls were.

***Belgium is named after them - a consciously neutral choice in a heavily divided country - but again they were Gauls with no distinct ethnic successors.

****En route he took Massilia, which had finally guessed wrong by supporting Pompey and was subsequently incorporated into Transalpine Gaul.

*****His conquest of Pontus in this campaign was the victory that came so quickly he dismissed it as "veni vidi vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered).

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sherlock Holmes


- The soundtrack is great.

- John Watson is a clever fellow. He's a war vet and an MD, for Pete's sake; he's not some bumbling nincompoop who follows Holmes around, he's just a bright guy who invariably looks less so by comparison.

- Holmes is out of his gourd half the time, which also is something that tends to get washed out in most adaptations.

- Mary Morstan, Watson, and Holmes play off each other just perfectly. Holmes and Watson, obviously, are the backbone of the movie, and their relation is perfect, but Mary's relations with Watson and Holmes is also just where it should be.

- The boxing scene was a good idea; it's a big Victorian sport and it gets across Holmes' physical skill well. (The Holmes VOs, not so much. Ugh.)

- The Canon references (Mycroft, the bullet-hole VR, Adler, and even (I guess) the sequel-bait at the end) are reasonably restrained and well-done.

- Holmes explains it all at the end, and it makes perfect sense. Admittedly, most of it relies on making up chemicals with just the right (implausible) properties, but that's a long and cherished tradition in Sherlock Holmes stories, so it gets a pass. And the explanation for surviving the hanging was so elegant that it pretty much makes up for that.


- The bit ten minutes in where the movie ground to a screeching halt for the director to say: "Look! The Tower Bridge under construction! We'll be having a climactic fight scene there! On the Tower Bridge! The climax! Right there on that bridge!" was a little unsubtle.

- Irene Adler should not be a badass action girl, and there is nothing romantic between her and Sherlock. Weird friendly-antagonistic tension, yes. But there's nothing sexual about it.

- The random heroic American. Uh...?

- The mysterious cult in general. It's way to prominent in the movie to be left vague, and introduced from out of nowhere, and just generally not well fleshed out or thought out. All of the kabbalah stuff meant that I spent pretty much the whole first scene with them wondering whether they were actually a magical cult per se or just some benevolent version of the Elders of Zion. Frankly, I'm still not entirely convinced they weren't.

- The crime is way too large scale, IMO; Holmes deals with things as they interest him, not by importance. Which isn't to say he wouldn't take it, just that it didn't need to involve "the fate of the world hanging in the balance!" And, again, it didn't need that much action. Holmes gets where he does by thinking, not by blowing things up.

- The sequel-bait at the very end is kind of in-your-face.

Overall ranking: It's not great, but still a reasonable movie, and the fact that it gets right what a lot of Holmes adaptations get wrong largely makes up for the fact that it gets wrong what others get right. 3/5

Monday, December 21, 2009

Rejiggered Avatar plot

So, the plot of the new version of the movie. Our protagonist arrives - the original plot device of having him drive his dead scientist brother's Avatar is not so plausible anymore, but the idea of having him be a marine rather than a scientist is a good one: let's say he's the first marine to get an Avatar, because the procedure has (for obvious reasons) never been popular with the troops, but the Colonel finally decides he needs a man on the ground and newly paraplegic Jake volunteers and is brought to Pandora. As much of the basic setup (marines and scientists, Avatars seem to slowly drive people crazy) should be conveyed to the viewer in the first section, since the mystery of what is going on? is what will be driving the plot.

Jake arrives and gets put in the science team. The original point of having him be the Colonel's man on the inside can stay - what conflict this plot has is going to be between the humans, since the Planetmind is too big to engage in any visually effective way, and the intrahuman conflict seems perfect for this setup. The marines are not bad people in any sense - certainly not the genocidal maniacs of the original movie - they're just soldiers dealing with a situation they don't understand and which makes their ostensible job very, very hard. They're there to be bodyguards for people who they aren't very similar to to begin with* and who will slowly but inevitably go off the deep end down on the planet. The marines go out in HEV kit and hardsuits; most of them have probably never touched a native Pandoran lifeform with their bare skin, let alone started channeling the Planetmind. The Colonel, in this story, doesn't have to be the bloodthirsty maniac of the original movie, he's just legitimately worried about what is happening down on the planet. The people behind the expedition back home think getting the transferal technology working reliably is worth a little temporary crazy on Pandora, and if all else fails it has been demonstrated the weird can't get off-planet; the Colonel probably agrees with the former but since it's his brains the zombie hordes will be eating if things go south, he's understandably less reassured by the latter. He doesn't start blowing things up in the climax because he's being paid to, or because he likes to do it; he's blowing things up because his first and most vital priority is to defend humanity, and when things speed up in the third act he's honestly afraid that this thing is now able to jump planet, get back to Earth and destroy civilization as we know it. In this context, Jake is not an intel source in the Na'vi - who cares about the Na'vi? they have stone knives and bearskins - but is the Colonel's own personal attempt to feel out what is going on the planet and just how dangerous it is. He's long since stopped trusting the scientists** but a marine, more psychologically distant from the planet to begin with and loyal to the Colonel, not the project, is a perfect tool for this job.

Finally, the real plot of the movie gets started. On his first trip out he gets separated as originally, runs into Neytiri, who thinks "huh, he's a hunter. Sexy", which feedbacks into Jake, who looks at this three-meter critter with secondary eyes and four shoulderblades and also thinks "sexy" as well. When he gets back, this freaks him out a lot, freaks out the scientists not at all (the Na'vi don't think science is sexy in particular, but they've all had similar inexplicable emotional reactions) and the Colonel is worried that Jake is going downhill so fast but also interested in the fact that it happened so fast around the Na'vi specifically. Jake gets sent back out.

Jake comes back with Neytiri to the village and starts acclimatizing as in the original movie. This part can run essentially the same, although we need to get rid of the mobile Avatar lab - that's certainly not happing in this set up - and add some more of Jake having trouble dealing with everyone back at base. The videologs should not just get increasingly sympathetic to the Na'vi - they should get increasingly disjointed and irrational as well. The Colonel, with the "help" of Jake and some figuring about data transmission rates, adds the big trees to his contingency plan of Things To Blow Up When it All Goes To Hell.

Jake gets inducted into the tribe. This involves linking him into the tribe and (since it hasn't been done to an Avatar before) Grace comes along to watch, as do a couple of marines. Jake links in and Gets It: he figures out the whole planetmind thing and, before he goes completely around the bend, manages to convey enough of this to Grace that she gets it, too. Unfortunately for them, the marines and Na'vi are already keying each other up to a ridiculous degree and violence breaks out. Jake and Grace join in because, after all this time in the field and this close to the big tree, neither of them can think of any good reasons not to. The marines are killed. The Colonel hard-unplugs Grace (who's trying to explain things but the Colonel, for obvious reasons, isn't listening) and Jake, who's human body is now braindead. Between the fact that Jake is gone, he's murdered two marines, and Grace's ravings about the planetmind, the Colonel decides it's time to go to Plan Z.

The Hometree gets blown up as in the movie, which causes pretty much all of the scientists to freak, so the Colonel (ostensibly and possibly even actually for their safety) ships them up the Elevator. Grace, the other recent-arrival avatar-driver, and the pilot escape, Grace gets shot, and they all take off to meet up with the Na'vi, who of course (along with everything else) are riding the ragged edge of going absolutely berserk. They try to transfer Grace, fail, and then decide to go on the warpath. (This means we can drop the "Jake rides the giant bird" subplot, and good riddance, too - Mighty Whitey is a pretty sketchy trope to be playing straight these days.) The Na'vi attack, synched up with the giant horde of animals, hits the compound. We have the main climactic battle again, although kind of different - the Pandorans have the giant animal horde but the humans are defending a fortified point, not attacking without electronics. Call it a pyrrhic victory for the natives. At the climax, Sully and the Colonel fight, Sully wins (of course) and then cuts the Cable. There's nobody left down at the bottom, and the cable is slightly unstable now that it's not quite as long as it used to be (the center of gravity is barely above geosynch now, but it is a little), so Sully (although given his state, more probably other-Avatar-driver guy) negotiates with the guys at the top****.

Since the humans have finally figured out what's going on, they (or at least the scientists) have had an aha moment where everything makes sense, and since the military types are in a pretty terrible strategic situation, they negotiate. (It's probably not necessary to actually show the negotiations - just have the Cable get cut, Jake gets on radio, "I think we need to talk", jumpcut.) Then we go to the denouement/epilogue, with Jake's v.o. explaining how things have been patched up with the humans, who still have a small presence here but a lot more careful about not ticking off the Planetmind. Jake runs around happily with the Na'vi, roll credits.

So that's my version of Avatar. As you can see, it drifts a lot in theme and message from the original, and really by the end probably owes as much to Stanislaw Lem's Solaris as to the actual movie Avatar. But I certainly think it would make a good sf movie.

*The marines are jocks, the scientists are nerds. That's not enough to cause movie-worthy conflict between grown adults, but it's enough to start off some baseline tension; these people are from different tribes. Example: the marines probably r&r with typical space-marine movie r&r, drinking and arm-wrestling and whatnot; the scientists mess around with the computers and play games (which has the added bonus that when you start losing badly at chess because you can no longer strategize well, its time to start watching you; when you stop connecting with the concept of "board game", it's time for a brachial full of tranqs and a fast ride into orbit). Another example, even if it would take some good writing to convey it in the movie: the marines are based out of orbit and think of themselves as being on tour on the ground even if they spend weeks at a time down there; the scientists are based out of Base Camp and think of themselves as taking trips into orbit even when their time is distributed the other way around. The scientists driving the Avatars - even before the psychological changes set in - start to think of themselves as living in the woods and occasionally stuffing food into the body back in the prefabs.

** The main problem with this setup is it leaves no room for Grace***. She's not that important plot-wise but is very important in providing exposition for the planet and a voice for the project, and somebody with that much Avatar time in the new setting would have long since been shipped back home. My best guess is that she should be the head of the main science team - the ones who don't use Avatars, since they need some science types to stay stable, run the machines and psych tests and so on. If they treat Avataring like radiation poisoning, she might also just be severely rationing her time out in the field, showing each team of new arrivals around but only briefly.

***As the Calvinist said to the Roman Catholic.

**** Negotiating an ending is important, since otherwise another starship shows up in 12 years and drops depleted uranium rods the size of telephone poles on every large tree on the planet.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar retuning

Or: if you take it apart and then stitch it back together, would it better be called "Frankenstein"?

Let me just say first that despite the fact that this post will dismember the movie, it was very good and very well-realized. The spaceship at the beginning is a rod with spheres and centrifuges -centrifuges!- attached. It drops spaceplanes rather than landing. The marines act like soldiers. There is a hell of a lot of life on Pandora, much of it sort-of implausible but all nicely designed. The bird-things use a unique wing structure, amazingly*. One part that struck me well was that all the vertebrates have a similar structure: two back legs, four front legs, tiny secondary eyes, frontal snouts that kind of fold the jaws into each other, two tentacle-ear things that hold the nerve-bundle endings. The obvious exception is the Na'vi, which are gratuitously humanoid; but early on you see this lemur-like primitive primate, which has vestigial secondary arms, almost nonexistent secondary eyes, and frontal main eyes, a flattening snout and quasi-nose. Even though they couldn't or wouldn't make the Na'vi as inhuman as the local body plan seems to demand, they nevertheless figured out a developmental path for humanoids and even put it in the movie to be seen if you want to bother looking.

So: plot holes to fill. We'll do a little one first, before obvious disaster #1: They need an Elevator. They're moving bulk resources, they have spaceships, a Space Elevator is a necessity. Admittedly, they're still out of current materials-science reach, but so are the spaceplanes they use, and people are going to stop laughing at the concept within a decade of them becoming common movies, just like rockets in the 1920s and 30s. I still can't think of a movie with an Elevator in it.

Now, the big one: Unobtanium. Ungh. In The Core, they had unobtanium, but when that movie introduced it, you could hear the writer telling the audience: "Look, for the plot we need a plot device. Here it is. I know it's a plot device. Let's move on quickly." In Avatar, they move on just as quickly, but the implicit admission of MacGuffinhood by this movie gels far less well. Another option we saw might be to just have it be iron or tungsten or something, which would be less jarring at the cost of painting a far grimmer picture of the resource situation on Earth. (I have since found out that the unobtanium is room temperature superconductor, which is why the piece in the main office floats, and why the Hallelujah Mountains over the sacred tree and its big EM field float, and why its so valuable. That, said, I still think my idea is neater.) But there's an even easier solution: biologicals. We're already searching our disintegrating rainforests for chemicals and production methods, an alien jungle world like Pandora would be a goldmine far exceeding any rocks you could haul out. (Not to mention, unique biologicals will always make more sense to go space traveling for than bulk metals.)

The swap of "unobtanium" for alien biologicals tightens up one small but oh-so-glaring flaw in the movie, but if you follow the train of logic it really makes a difference to the movie**. First up: the Avatars. So humanity has this make-a-new-body technology, which (since the original has to still be alive to function, isn't quite immortality) but still seems pretty game-changing to me. David Brin wrote a book, Kiln People, about the effect this one technology alone would have on society. Also, towards the end it becomes clear that the Avataring tech synchs nicely with the preexisting Pandoran neural-interface tech. So why not have them linked? The Avatar technology isn't an unrelated feature, it's the first big dividend the planet has paid and we're trying to find out if it has more.

Form here, in turn, you can tighten (or at least rejigger) the character set a little too. In the original movie, there are three groups of humans: scientist, soldiers, and suits/miners. the last is largely superfluous in the ore plot, and can be dropped entirely in the biologicals one. (The fact that the only speaking suit or miner is Burke, who I've renamed out of laziness after an identical character in a 20+ year old movie says something about their contribution to the plot.) So now we're down to the scientists and soldiers, and instead of a giant industrial base we have (let's say) a little prefab compound at Elevatordown, and that's it. The Na'vi don't have the original reason to fight the humans (although if you want to stop here you could easily splice in something about the Na'vi home-tree secreting or containing something blah blah fight scene.)

All right - here's two more things from the movie to add in. Jake goes native far more than any other Avatared scientist ever has, but he also is linking with the animals (and thereby the Planetmind) far more than anyone ever has. Possibly, if dubiously, he is the first to do it ever. Now, I'm not suggesting he gets brainwashed and reprogrammed (although that makes for one hell of a dark possible interpretation) but he's way more in tune with it than anyone else. So why not take this and run with it? Also - it bugged me how human the Na'vi were. They were biologically weird, but despite this they thought a basically like people - give some New Guineans a holistic nature spirit that responds like the Planetmind does and they'd be indistinguishable, culturally. The most glaring example is Jake's initiation ceremony: it looks pretty generically tribal, despite the fact that they can link minds with stuff and it has been demonstrated linking is not even as personal as sex to these people, and this is obviously the most complete and biologically sensible initiation ceremony, they don't link up with him.

So let's take these points about linking and the Planetmind and go with them. The Na'vi can start to be smart like people without thinking like people because they no longer are people in the complete sense. They are sentient, yes, and individuals, but their culture is literally inhuman because it revolves around things people can't physically do and can barely comprehend on an academic level, once they figure out what's going on at all. And the Na'vi are always in low-level contact with the rest of the ecosystem and the Planetmind - this last is already implied a bit by the movie. Now, when the humans come down, the first encounter-suited guys are going to weird the heck out of the Planetmind***, since they're not connected or related to it at all. The Na'vi, when the humans run into them, are going to be incomprehensible: they sometimes act like reasonably human hunter-gatherers and sometimes are totally alien. One Na'vi will meet a party and be entirely docile. Another will meet the same party and, because one of them stepped on a beetle thirty seconds before and the whole forest has suddenly tensed up, will murderize them unprovoked. The first will agree, on later encounters, that the party were all fine fellows, and at the same time that the second's attack was also entirely fine, on the basis of sub-subconscious feelings that neither can explain or understand why they would have to explain.

As this goes on, some scientist figures out a fraction of the neural connectivity of Pandora and figures out an Avatar-making process. They test it and it works beautifully: they have a human inside a Na'vi body, but it doesn't work on non-Pandorans (they can't do human to human, which is obviously what they would want) and even worse, it doesn't work off-planet. They can gat all the obvious parts set up but without the permeating and enabling Planetmind (which no one knows about or has even really imagined yet) nothing moves. So they now have this Avatar system, which think they only barely understand and don't really understand at all, perfect for exploring the planet and (on encounter with the Na'vi) something the Na'vi trust to a degree that makes no sense (even when the Na'vi know it's really a human they trust it almost implicitly). They start using it.

Now the crazy-fun begins, because once people start wearing the Avatars, they're in contact with the Planetmind too. Because they're not really Na'vi they don't go quite as far as the real Na'vi do in acting on it, but Avatar-drivers start to develop what look like psychological problems after a while: they start getting erratic and emotional - more, they start getting emotional weirdly, having increasingly incomprehensible reactions to regular events. After a very long time, they start losing rational reasoning ability - they still think, but in ways that look schizophrenic to normal humans. Cycling them out, to everyone's great relief, brings quick recovery, but putting them back in an Avatar in turn brings immediate relapse. The people in charge figure out a "safe time" - probably somewhere between weird emotionalism and the complete "schizophrenic breakdown" and start cycling people through. Figuring this out is still obviously valuable enough to cover some temporary psychological disturbance (certainly all the volunteers think so).

At this point, enter hero.

*For reference - each time vertebrates have evolved flight on Earth, they built the wing slightly differently. Bats stretch membranes between the fingers. Birds hang feathers off a simplified arm. Pterosaurs hung membranes off the arm and lengthened fourth finger, with the other fingers a tiny claw halfway down. The Banshees in Avatar use pterosaur-like arm/fifth finger arrangement, except the other four also extend out to form little adjustable surfaces at the outside edge.

**Not least, which is probably why they didn't do this, it shoots the message in the head. The strip-mines, hauler trucks, and industrial plants that show up early on form a pretty impressive visual contrast to the eco-friendly Na'vi, and backs up Cameron's Industry V Nature theme beautifully. My McGuffin doesn't allow this and by the time it graduates to the status of plot point down the article a bit, the theme is more Man and the Alien anyways. Which is a nice theme which (surprisingly few, given their ostensible subject matter) sf films do, but it's not Cameron's point.

***In the movie it's never made clear whether the Planetmind is sentient - you can read the evidence plausibly either way. My personal preference is that it isn't - it's smart in an inhuman fashion, but isn't what we would think of as conscious. The Na'vi are, but as individuals, not as part of a larger conscious entity.

Avatar review

So, I just saw Avatar. It was a fine movie, with a high level of thought put into it, spoiled only by a bit of copout (and a lot of unnecessary violence) at the end. In the hour or two walking home afterwards, my friends and I took it apart to an atomic scale, saw a lot of well-done fine detail we initially missed, and realized that most of its flaws could be removed with a little fine-tuning of the concept (and all of them with a lot).

Summary next - obviously, what follows will be full of 10 kilo Bouncing Betty anti-personnel spoilers. Read at own risk.

So, the plot. In the future*, Earth is undergoing unspecified but vaguely grim environmental concerns. The planet Pandora contains a resource - unobtanium, God help me - which is, if not necessary, at least extraordinarily valuable. So a company - not Weyand-Yutani but "RDA" - come in to extract it from the lush jungle via open-pit mine. The problem is that there are locals (the "Na'vi", the stone-age blue-skinned locals on all the ads) who are vaguely-pantheistic peace-with-nature types and so obviously not impressed. Relations start out OK, at least, with some efforts at diplomacy, but as it becomes clear that the company's interests and the Na'vi's intersect nowhere, things have degenerated into essentially open war, with the anthropologist-scientist types increasingly outweighed by the aggressive and ever-more numerous PMC troops defending the company installations.

At this point enter our hero. Jake Sully, paraplegic USMarine vet, get a free job offer from the company. His twin brother was signed up to go do science on Pandora, but died shortly before the boat left. His brother's DNA had been used to build an "Avatar" - a Na'vi body with some human brain parts that can be remotely meat-puppeted for exploration of the (unbreathable) planet and diplomacy with the Na'vi. Since this was hideously expensive, and since, as his brother's twin, he is the only one who can run the (DNA-specific) Avatar, and the company gives him the chance to join in. He does, delighting the Colonel, the head of the PMC, who now has a man in the science team, even if the scientists hate him for the same reason.

Jake gets enrolled as bodyguard for Grace Augustine, head of the science team, but on his first real trip outside the compound is cut off from the group and nearly killed by a local, Neytiri. She stops when probably about a hundred blooms from their sacred tree land on him, which convinces her to instead take him back to their giant home-tree-village. There she turns out to be the chief's daughter and convinces everyone else to take him in as well**. Grace is ecstatic when he comes out of the Matrix - er, Avatar - and so is the Colonel, who now has the intel source he couldn't even plausibly fantasize about a year before.

Jake acclimatizes. He gets into, if not the good graces of the Na'vi, at least their toleration, and starts picking up Na'vi skills. The Na'vi - and the Avatars - have this funky thing where they splice this nerve-bundle at the end of their hair-braids into a similar bundle on various animals, and can ride horses (or, occasionally, birds) with preternatural skill, since they're not so much riding them as merging with them and hauling their bodies along for the ride. Everyone except Neytiri's intended ends up liking him, and he because he implausibly - if, somewhat squickeningly, accurately - is afraid Jake is stealing her from him.

Then Jake's day job interferes. The Company suit-on-the-ground, whose name I forget and so I will refer to as "Burke", after the identical character in Aliens, has decided the time has come to go after the motherlode, which lies (of course) under the Na'vi village. Jake tries to negotiate their withdrawal from the tree, which was probably going to fail even before he reveals he knew this day was coming from the beginning and turns them all against him. The marines slag the tree with napalm and the Na'vi flee to their sacred tree (the one with the blooms, not the one they live in). Grace, Jake, and a B-scientist and the speaking-role pilot freak at this and take off together to remote and mobile Avataring station from which they can get back to the Na'vi. Grace is shot in the escape. The Na'vi, understandably, want nothing to do with Jake, so he links with an untamable giant bird and rides it in to convince them all he is special***. He rouses the tribe, and their neighbours, to attack the human base camp; he also convinces them to try and use the tree to move Grace's consciousness from her dying human body to her Avatar, which fails, but leads to (the completion of) the movie's big reveal. The whole planet is quasi-linked through the trees; the linking the Na'vi do with the horses and birds is an expression of the fact that the whole planet shares a consciousness (sort of, not really, but a bit). The Na'vi aren't just pissed because the company is blowing up their sacred forest; they're pissed because by blowing up the forest, the company is (in a nebulous but demonstrably real sense) hurting them.

And so but anyways. Here the plot flies off the rails. The Colonel decides to blow the sacred tree and Jake's assembling army off the map before the do it to him; there follows half-an hour of essentially plotless explosions. The marines, to my quasi-amazement, actually massacre most of the Na'vi army, including Neytiri's intended, with their massively superior firepower, but then an enormous frickin' horde of animals, directed to the army by the Planetmind****, arrive and more or less literally stomp them into the dirt. The Colonel, because he is a stupendous Batman-grade badass, is of course the last to go down, fights Jake mano-e-mano (well, mech-e-Avatar) and dies. Jake uses the tree to transfer himself to the Avatar for good, and the surviving humans at the camp are forced offplanet. (In a bit that shows how much Jake has gone native, but also manages to be a bit disturbing as well, Jake v.o.s that "they" are going back to "their dying planet", which implies some rather sketchy inferred holocaust back on Earth when the resource tap from Pandora runs out. Uh, nice job, Jake?)

So that's Avatar. As you can see the plot isn't half bad, but the last half hour cops out on the ideas of the first half for a solve-all-woes-with-fireballs ending. How to fix this? Well, I have some ideas.

*The exact date is understandably hidden, but judging from their relatively low-grade improvements in military design, I would guess it's the "near future", in the science fiction sense - maybe 2050s or 70s. About all they have that's not plausible in the distant soon is (possible) FTL and cryo, both of which are inevitable sf concessions to the plot, and the Avatar system itself, more on which later.

**This is where my friends began whispering "Pocahantas" at each other. This turned out to be largely accurate, only less the truce at the end.

***Yes, it's the "Native tribe, at one with the land, defeats imperialist industrialist white folk. Because of the white guy who leads them." Sigh. The movie isn't as formulaic as those two sentences would indicate, but the trope at its heart is a little dirty.

****Term unashamedly cribbed from Sid Meyer's Alpha Centauri which admittedly greatly resembles this "character".

(4/5 stars; 5 for the first three quarters but the climax drags it down a lot.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Republic (Part II)

With the deaths of the Gracchii, the Senate had managed to stonewall reform attempts at the cost of most of its moral authority as a representative of the Republic, and with the even more worrying precedent of introducing legislation-by-mob-violence into the republican system. Troubling, too, was the fact that the Senate was no longer united - most of them, the optimates ("good men") were still in favour of the status quo, but some, the populares ("populists") desired land reform, if only as a safety valve. The optimates' nightmare scenario was a popularis general returning with his army to enforce his troops' demands; there would be little the Senate could do to stop such a combination.

In the actual event, the general was named Gaius Marius. The popularis Consul for 107 BC, he enacted a reform abolishing all land requirements for military service. This eased the manpower shortage that had been tightening around the army for the last half-century, but at the cost of setting up the army in utter opposition to the optimates. The Roman Legions of the fourth and third centuries had been composed of peasant farmers, really a (highly trained) militia. The legionary would go out to fight the Samnites or Epirotes; he would return in time for the harvest. The new army was recruited from the landless underclass springing up in Rome and its colonies, and what it wanted was cheap food for the cities, and land for the returning veterans. The soldiers, recruited direct out of the slums of Rome, would return to nothing if their generals couldn't get them land to retire on; and a general who promised this to his men was guaranteed their support in Republican politics. The Senate could not help but see the dangers of this, but their foreign enemies were on the move again and keeping the army up was vital.

Case in point: Marius' first two Consulships saw him overseas, putting down the Numidians, and then his next four saw him in northern Italy, stopping the invasions of the Cimbri and Teutones*. His unprecedented six terms as Consul, and the popularity he had gained in fending off the Cimbri and Teutones, deeply disturbed the Senate, which henceforth resolved to make the least possible use of his services. They managed to associate the credit for defeating Numidia to one of Marius' more conservative lieutenants, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, and when Rome's Italian allies, looking to get a little more of fruits of empire, revolted in 91 BC, Sulla was put in charge of that too. The causes of the war were pretty straightforward to solve; once the Senate offered to grant all Italian allies Roman citizenship, the war was pretty much over, and the only real result of this "Social War" (apart from the widening of citizenship) was the enhancement of Sulla's reputation.

The same year the Social War ended (88 BC), a new war began in the east. The century of instability in Anatolia that had followed the defeat of Antiochus was coming to an end; the Kingdom of Pontus, under Mithridates VI, had conquered most of the surrounding kingdoms, including a few that had been put under Roman protection. But - distracted by the Social War and its own rapidly mounting social stresses - Rome's warning to him was uncharacteristically soft-spoken. Encouraged, Mithridates invaded the Roman province of Asia** in 89 BC and Greece in 88 BC.

This demanded a Roman response, of course, but the Republic was divided on who to send. The Senate voted for Sulla but the Popular Assembly - still remembering him as the saviour of Italy a decade earlier - voted for Marius. Sulla took matters into his own hands, took command of the army, and - to the horror of everyone, including the optimates - marched it into Rome. Marius attempted briefly to defend the city, failed, and barely managed to escape to Africa while Sulla's troops massacred Marius' supporters. Sulla's command of the army was hastily confirmed, and he marched back out again to Pontus. But, for the first time, Roman troops had fought each other in the field, and even more ominously, a Roman general had used his army to enforce his will on the city. It was all downhill from here for the Republic.

Sulla's war in the East ran smoothly, with Mithridates being pushed out of his new conquests in a couple of short campaigns; but the treaty they signed in 85 BC was again notably lax; Mithridates was required only to disgorge the Roman protectorates he had conquered and was permitted to keep the enlarged Kingdom of Pontus independent. Sulla swung his army around and sailed back to Italy: while he had been off fighting Mithradates, Marius had returned to Rome.

Marius' coup - enforced by an army he had raised in Africa - was surprisingly bloodless; he proscribed*** a few of the more conservative senators but for the most part kept his troops in check. But only a month after his return to Rome, he died of a stroke and without the great general his troops were easily defeated by Sulla's. Sulla's takeover (82 BC) was far bloodier than Marius' had been. Hundreds of Senators and thousands of people in total - anyone of any prominence whatsoever who could plausibly be connected to Marius or his rule - were proscribed and executed. Sulla was made Dictator for life by the cowed Senate****. He extensively revised the government, stripping away most of the reforms that had outlived the Gracchi and greatly reducing the power of the Plebeian Tribunes. With everything the populares had ever accomplished destroyed, along with most of their membership, Sulla retired (79 BC) and then died.

Sulla's retirement (and, even more, his death) restored Senatorial rule. But even compared to the half-century after the Gracchi, it was an unstable, tottering thing. Marius and Sulla had opened the door and now the Republic was a prize for anyone with an army and the ambition to use it. The most the Senate could reasonably do now was appoint conservatives as often as they could and hope none of them got too ambitious anyways.

While Sulla had been conquering the Republic, the situation out overseas had been deteriorating again. There was a general, Quintus Sertorius - not so much popularis as Marian - holding Spain in opposition to the Senate; Mithradates was on the move in Anatolia agian; and there was piracy. The Republic had long since removed any opponents capable of policing the seas but with its attention turned inwards, piracy now ran rampant. This was a particular problem as Italy had long since become insufficient for supplying the food needs of Rome; the city was now fed from Sicily, Africa, and Egypt. For dealing with these, the Senate turned to the competent (and more importantly, loyal) Gnaeus Pompey. Pompey reconquered Spain (helped along quite a bit by Sertorius' convenient assassination) in 71 BC; returned to Italy to mop up the rebellion of Spartacus (along with a man named Marcus Licinius Crassus, more on whom later), then headed east to deal with the pirates. In three months in 67 BC he cleared them out; he was then given command of the army facing down Mithradates. He defeated Mithradates (64 BC) then moved south, conquering what was left of the Seleucid Empire and making a protectorate of the little Jewish Kingdom (63 BC; the Jews had become independent in the chaos following the Syrian War a century before).

Pompey returned to Rome again, having, in his words, "made the center of the Republic what I had found as its frontier". But in the course of the war he had promised his soldiers lands on their return***** and in any event his reputation was now too much for the Senate, who were now as afraid of him as they had been of Sulla. They waited for him to disband his army, then turned down his soldiers' demands and even refused to ratify his settlement of the east. Pompey took this smiling, and then mounted a constitutional coup. He got Crassus on his side for funding: Crassus was the richest man in Rome and more than ambitious enough to side with Pompey. For a front man, he picked a middle-aged playboy Senator named Gaius Julius Caesar, who was in charge of what was left of the populares. Between the three of them, they took the Consulate of 59, handed out offices to their supporters, and generally ran the Republic: much to the surprise of the Senate, which suddenly found itself powerless.

Nobody knew it then, but the Senate had now exercised its authority for the last time; the clock was ticking down fast on the Republic.

*Despite the fact that "Teutonic" has long been a synonym for "German", the Cimbri and Teutones were both Gallic, not Germanic, tribes.

**Consisting of westernmost Asia Minor, this had formerly been the kingdoms of Pergamum and Bithynia.

***Think "Stalinist purge" and you won't be far wrong.

****The Roman constitution actually contained a position for a Dictator (lit "one who speaks", since his every word was law). However, he was explicitly limited to a single term of six months; Sulla's unlimited Dictatorship was essentially a suspension of the constitution and Republican rule. (Just to note, the last Dictatorship had been during the Second Punic War, when it was feared Hannibal would attempt to take Rome.)

*****This rapidly became a necessity for post-Marian generals; even Sulla had done it (and, as dictator, was able to get it for them in the Po Valley).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Republic (Part I)

Why? Because I wanted to.

As the third century BC came to a close, the Roman Republic was the power to watch in the Mediterranean world. The preceding quarter-century had seen it engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Carthage, the other great power of the Western Mediterranean, and after 17 years of close-run fighting, Rome had emerged absolutely triumphant. Indeed, the Second Punic War* may well be considered the Republic's high point; through crushing defeat after crushing defeat, the Republic had never faltered in its efforts for absolute victory, or in its confidence that it would achieve it. Hannibal, the greatest general Carthage ever produced, could defeat the Romans in the field time after time after time, but the Romans never ceased fielding new armies and by 201 BC they had forced Carthage to a humiliating peace. Rome took all Carthage's overseas empire; Carthage itself was reduced to a dependency.

Rome had acquired by this time a rather patchwork empire. Italy from the Alps to the heel and toe was Roman, or subservient allies; Sicily, Corsica-Sardinia, and Near and Far Spain** were all provinces. In between, the tributary Greek colony of Massilia held Provence; on Africa, the Roman ally of Numidia ruled most of what is now northern Algeria, and Carthage was left with Tunisia. The strange thing was, the Republic had not particularly wanted any of this; Italy had been picked up piecemeal in the process of defending the city itself, and the other provinces had been taken from the Carthaginians during the wars. But the Empire proved so profitable - Sicily alone was almost as rich as Roman Italy - that more expansion suddenly seemed more attractive to the Senate.

The Senate - despite its name, the Roman Republic was a rather oligarchic state. The Senate, an unelected council of the richest and most noble citizens, held the legislative power. The people of Rome, through their popular assemblies, held the power to elect most officials, particularly the executive, the two co-Consuls, but in practice most of these were from the Senatorial class. The one real check the plebeians had was the office of the Plebeian Tribune, a position which held the power of veto (from the Latin veto, "I deny") over the Senate and Consuls; but in the first years of the second century, even they tended to at least passively support the aristocratic program.

However oligarchic it was in effect, though, the Roman Constitution supported the of separation of powers, at least within the Senatorial class. Early on, the Senate held less of the power; the Consulship, with the power to lead armies and the responsibility for the administration of government, was where the real interest lay. But the acquisition of empire changed this; the people might have the ability to elect the magistrates of Rome, but the Proconsular*** military commands and provinces - and the opportunities for wealth and power they provided - were the gift of the Senate. And the Senate suddenly had a plethora of military commands to hand out.

With the western Mediterranean at Rome's beck and call, the direction Rome looked now was east. Right next door to the new Roman empire was the Hellenistic world, the richest and most cultured part of the Earth. In the century or so since the death of Alexander the Great, the Greeks had spread across most of the eastern Mediterreanean, which in turn was now divided amongst a number of Greek principalities of varying size and power. First up on Rome's list was Macedon. The state which had once conquered the known world was now reduced to the confines of Greece, but it was still bar none the most powerful state there. Macedon's king Philip V ruled, more-or-less directly, most of the peninsula; and after a brief war in the 200s, he took most of the Aegean too. The last few states left outside Philip's hegemony - the Ionian city-states of Pergamum and Rhodes, and the mainland Greek Aetolian league - appealed to Rome for help. The Senate, always eager to pick up a new causus belli, agreed; but there was another reason, too. Philip had been an ally of Carthage in the last war; Rome had a score to settle.

The ensuing war was short, sharp, and decisive. The Macedonian phalanx had been a war-winning weapon on its lonesome a century before, but times had changed; the Roman legion was the new military trump card. At the battle of Cynocepahalae in 197 BC the Roman swordsmen got in amongst the tightly packed Greek spearmen and from there the victory was quick. Philip sued for peace, with the end result that he was restricted to Macedon proper (northern Greece) while the rest of the Greek states formerly under Macedonian hegemony were now under Roman. The Aetolians - who hadn't started the war just to trade one set of masters for another - promptly called in the next power over, the Seleucid monarch Antiochus III.

The Seleucid kingdom was the largest - and as a result, the most troubled - of Alexander's successor states. Like the others, it was the creation of one of Alexander's generals, in this case, Seleucus; and its name tells its story. The domain of General Ptolemy, Egypt, is sometines referred to as the Ptolemaic Kingdom; the domain of the Antigonid Dynasty was never called anything but Macedon. By contrast, the Seleucid Kingdom - most of Asia Minor, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Iranian Plateau - was never called anything but the Seleucid Kingdom, because there was nothing behind it but "that area currently ruled by the descendants of General Seleucus". Its history is nothing but the struggle against the centripetal forces slowly ripping it apart. Antiochus III had, in his 31 years on the throne, proved particularly capable holding it together. When, in 192 BC, he entered Greece at the plea of the Aetolians, he had no doubt he could successfully add Greece to his domains.

The Romans, of course, had other plans; and the fact that Antiochus had given refuge to Hannibal after his Roman-enforced exile from Carthage only added fuel to the fire. In the event (Magnesia, 190 BC) Antiochus' phalanxes proved no more able to defeat the legions of Rome than Philip's had; at the treaty in 188 BC he was forced to renounce all interest in the Aegean and hand over most of western Anatolia to Rome's loyal allies Pergamum and Rhodes. The treaty was not unduly harsh - Rome's direct domains expanded not at all**** - but the fact of his defeat undid Antiochus' life-work. The Parthians overthrew his rule in the east and rapidly overran most of the Iranian plateau; Anatolia disintegrated into a mess of principalities, largely Greek but none of them Seleucid. Antiochus was left with merely Mesopotamia and the Levant.

In less than two decades, then, Rome had defeated most of the states of the Mediterranean world and put the fear of the Republic into the rest. Of the fully-independent states remaining, Ptolemaic Egypt was a Roman ally paralyzed under a series of weak kings and regencies, the Seleucids were still trying to salvage what little they could of their humbled Empire, and the Anatolians were too small and unestablished, the Parthians too far away, to pose much of a threat. The next two generations would see mainly peaceful consolidation overseas and violent instability at home.

For the famous partnership between Senate and People, which had handed Rome control of the western Mediterranean world, was coming undone. The backbone of the early Republic had been the yeoman farmers of Latium, who had formed the army in its early wars and whose implacable determination had won them. But as time went on the Senatorial class became more and more powerful, and more and more rich, and began to acquire larger estates, at home and abroad, in the process squeezing out the smaller landholders, who moved discontentedly into the cities. This process also began to erode the army; without the farmers from which it had traditionally recruited, its manpower pool began to slowly dry up.

But for the time being, the process wasn't seen as a threat by the Senators, who were more concerned with their own aggranizement. From the end of the Syrian War with Antiochus, through to the end of the century, there were no major wars either, which helped. In the Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC), the Republic finally reduced Macedon to a province; they did the same to the rest of Greece in 148 BC, Carthage in 146 BC*****, and Pergamum in 133 BC. But for the most part the trouble Rome was going through was internal. The decades of peace in the mid-second century saw the Senatorial classes accumulate more and more land, at the expense of the traditional yeoman farmers that had supported the early Republic. The impoverished and the dispossessed filtered into the cities, where, in 133 BC, they elected a Plebian Tribune in support of them. Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, a member of one of Rome's more prominent families - his grandfather, Scipio Africanus, had been the one to finally defeat Hannibal in 202 BC - started on a program of land reform, breaking up the Senatorial estates and distributing it amongst the landless. The Senate blocked this, Gracchus used his veto to effectively shut down the government, and then was murdered by a senatorial mob. His program was revived a decade later by his brother Gaius; Gaius added cheap food for the rest of the urban poor and tried to bring the middle classes onboard by offering to widen the qualifications for magistracies and provincial positions. But in 122 BC he too was killed in mob violence and most of his reforms were shut down by the Senate.

A crisis was now inevitable.

*Second, because of a first some three decades before; "Punic" is a synonym for Phoenician, from whom the Carthaginians were descended.

**Despite the name, "Far Spain" is not the Atlantic coast or even the interior, but merely the southern half of the Mediterranean coast, roughly the valley of the Guadalquivir. Near Spain is the valley of the Ebro.

***Literally "for the consul"; a military command assigned by the senate to someone who acts in place of the actual consul. As the frontiers moved out, the consuls tended to stay at home more and let the Senate delegate generalships to professionals. More on this later.

****The Senate, despite all the opportunities for personal aggrandizement annexation provided, were never actually that big on it; they always preferred to set up tributary allies. The Republic then tended to squeeze their allies until they revolted, and only then would they set up provincial governments.

*****The defeat of Carthage tells a lot about Roman feelings towards that city. It was the pet project of Marcus Porcius Cato, an early-second century politician best-known for the phrase "Carthago delenda est" ("Carthage must be destroyed") which he famously ended his every speech with, no matter its subject. He pushed for war for most of his career, but it was not until 151 BC that the notoriously legalistic Senate was provided with an excuse. The treaty that ended the Second Punic War held that, amongst other things, Carthage could not go to war without Rome's permission; in 151 BC the Roman ally of Numidia finally upped its raiding of Carthage to the point where the Carthaginians felt obliged to respond. The Senate seized upon this as a breach of the treaty; the ensuing war amounted to a siege of Carthage in which the city held out for three years but the final outcome was never in doubt. In 146 BC the Romans breached the walls, sacked the city, burned it to the ground, sold its surviving inhabitants into slavery, and plowed salt into the ashes.