Archive for September, 2012

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes to us from Don Gomez, who blogs at Carrying the Gun and tweets @dongomezjr

Warning: Spoilers about the ending of the Mass Effect in this post.

The Reaper fleet begins to reap.

The Reaper fleet begins to reap.

The fate of the galaxy rested on this decision. Human, Asari, Salarian, Turian – all life in the galaxy. My decision. I was sent here to destroy them. But everything I thought about my mission just changed. New information. By destroying them, I am assured that this will result in our ultimate destruction at the hands of uncontrollable synthetic life. Now, I have the opportunity to turn the enemy into my ally, or to uplift all life to the “next step” in evolution. To advance all civilization. To unlock the true potential of life, and, perhaps, go a step further in discovering what it all means and answer the ultimate question – why are we here?.

It took me about two seconds to process this information and make a decision.

Severely injured, I began hobbling forward as I thought about what was going on throughout the galaxy. An alliance of aliens, fighting together against the Reapers. The first time true cooperation had been realized in thousands of years – maybe ever. These soldiers were fighting and dying next to one another, holding out long enough to give me – me – the chance to fire our secret weapon: The Crucible. 

As I reached the junction, I stopped for a second and turned around to look at the strange hologram that just fed me this information on which I was to make my decision. Last chance. I can be the one that takes us to a new level. To win the war and merge life with synthetics. 

I kept moving.

I stopped in front of the pod and without hesitation, raised my pistol and fired until it exploded.

I destroyed the Reapers.

I played the entire Mass Effect series over the summer. I played the game “natural,” meaning the decisions I made were made as if it was actually me making them, without regard to how it would affect my paragon or renegade points or any other game mechanic. If a character died because of my decision, I didn’t reset the game to try a different option. I did what I thought was right given the situation and the information I had at the time.

I thoroughly enjoyed the game and thought that it represented the realism of modern military life more than something like Call of Duty. The nuance of interaction, relationship building, and tough choices with no good outcomes are much more in tune with modern military leadership than simply blasting your way through a sandboxed first person shooter.

So it was with great surprise that I experienced the controversial end of Mass Effect. At first, I was just as dismayed with the ending as many fans of the series were. For all of the choices I made throughout the games, few would genuinely effect the actual ending of the game. After a couple of months of thinking about it though, I’ve come to appreciate the ending, and especially the choice I made and why I made it.

The deluge of information received in the game’s closing moments seemed too much, and out of left field. “The Catalyst” provided three options. Destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers, or merge life with synthetics. As it was described by the “Catalyst”, it seemed that the “destroy” option was the most reckless, the “control” option the most risky, and the “merge” option the most noble.

I dismissed the “control” option almost immediately. I didn’t believe that Shepard could actually control the Reapers, and even if he could, eventually, I think he would have them continue their mission of collecting and destroying civilization to preserve order and continuity.

The two seconds I spent debating concerned the idea of merging life with synthetics. Clearly, this would be the most beneficial for the galaxy and the net result would certainly be positive.

I dismissed that too though. Why?

Because I was a SPECTRE. I had a mission: Destroy the Reapers. I couldn’t help but imagine those fighting on Earth, looking up to the sky wondering what was happening on the Citadel, waiting for the Crucible to fire and bring them salvation. I could imagine their surprise when it eventually did fire, and without explanation, some weird merging between life and synthetics occurred. Although I was able to understand how the “merge” option was the best and most noble, I could not make that decision because it was not for me to make. I was one man, a human, representing a galaxy of different species, all with different thoughts and concepts on right and wrong, morality, and good versus evil.

Decisive in-field strategic decision making.

Decisive in-field strategic decision making.

I did pause for a moment, remembering that my status as a SPECTRE allows for a degree of independent decision making. But on such a scale and with such consequences, it felt “above my pay grade.”

The choices presented at the end provided for an interesting ethical dilemma: duty versus “doing what is good.” In this case, the duty being to destroy the Reapers, and “doing what is good” being the merge option. What is a commander to do when he is given a specific mission coupled with relative autonomy to act. What should be done in the face of rapid and new information that completely changes the calculus for action?

If it had been possible to contact the Council (the intergalactic body that governs inter-species relations), I could have asked them what decision to make. Thinking about how awkward that call would be, I can’t imagine the Council saying anything other than “complete your mission, destroy the reapers.” Or, given the desperation of the moment, “do what you think is best.” That option, at least would have provided some moral cover to choose one of the other options.

Still, I think the “destroy” option represented the right option for those bound by their duty to complete the mission. When I run into other soldiers who have completed Mass Effect, I high five the ones who destroyed the Reapers and shake my head at those who chose otherwise.

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The Star Wars “Expanded Universe” (EU) – that is, the incredible wealth of fiction, stories, and other new material set in the Star Wars universe but outside of the events of the three real six films – generally gets a bad rap. And it’s not wholly undeserved. The various young adult series, The Crystal Star, everything Kevin J. Anderson has ever written – I get it. But there are some true gems in the EU, the pinnacle of which is Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy.

Zahn created a number of characters that would go on to become long-running franchise favorites in their own right, like Mara Jade, who many books later marries Luke Skywalker. One of his most iconic creations was an embodiment of the most dangerous (and least cartoonishly evil) aspects of the Empire, a man who posed possibly the greatest threat to the fledgling New Republic in the wake of the Rebel Alliance’s victory at Endor: Grand Admiral Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or more commonly known as Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn

Here it should be emphatically stated that what follow are pretty major spoilers, if you have not yet read the series. So continue, but be warned…

(more…)

The Jedi Council’s Reading List: Part 1

Posted: September 11, 2012 by kdatherton in Uncategorized

Over at leading sci-fi blog io9, Charlie Jane Anders has compiled a list of the 12 Greatest Science Fiction War Stories. There is much in the list to like. We’ve already delved into the strategies of Alliance vs Browncoats in Firefly and the approaches of Sith and Jedi in Star Wars, and intend to touch on many of the other properties mentioned in the future. As it must be, the list was incomplete, and if one is to fill a library with political science fiction, there is much more to add. Consider this the first part of an ongoing effort to compile a proper syllabus. (To see a similar attempt, John Robb has compiled a list of science fiction aimed at Global Guerillas.)

  1. The Mass Effect Series. Already featured on Blogtarkin, this is too time-intensive to assign as reading, but the epic scope, durable consequences, and  emphasis on the back end of getting ready for battles makes it the most worthy video game to include.
  2. Robotech. Jon Jeckell writes:

    Robotech should’ve been high on the list. Humans suddenly drawn into conflict far beyond their tech level when a ship containing key tech crashes on earth. Humans poorly reverse engineer and poorly use a tech far beyond their understanding to defend themselves. A vastly more powerful enemy must exercise restraint to avoid damaging something they desperately need war has dramatic effects on human social & political scene; tech & social regression as population devastated.

    One major plot element from Robotech I’ve not seen in other sci fi war stories is demobilization and post war stabilization. The second half of Robotech Macross era is all about dealing with marooned ex-soldier Zentraedi warriors who know no other life than fighting. Combine this with being 60′ tall, enhanced aggression, lack of any other useful skills (they don’t even have the ability to fix their own equipment, or logistics) and severe resource constraints from Earth’s devastation from the war, and you have a powder keg. Add xenophobic vets and civilian survivors of the holocaust these guys perpetrated on them, who keep egging them on and cynical politicians, and things get really volatile. Both sides face great pressure to complete the genocide of the other. Some humans, however, know the Zentraedi are basically slaves sent to fight them, with false memories implanted to make them aggressive and obedient to their masters, and potentially irreconcilable with peaceful coexistence with a former enemy. Humans lack the technology to do anything to help them though, and many wouldn’t even if they could.

  3. World War Z: as pointed out by Jedi Councilor Brett Friedman, zombie survival strategies lack a focus on taking initiative against the undead threat. World War Z, cycling as it does through the stages of such a conflict, shows an evolution of active counter-zombie tactics, weaponry, and most importantly grand strategy. There are lots of stories that focus on human adapting to an apocalypse, but fewer that show humanity actively working against it.
  4. The Matrix: Friend of the blog Andrew Welleford wrote in favor the Wachowski’s opus, saying

    “With the lack of a “Man vs Machine” example in the list, I think The Matrix would be a valuable addition. The first (and best) [Ed: only] film mostly focus on the actions of a group of guerrilla zealots, but the scale of the conflict is expanded on in the sequels. In addition, the backstory provided in the Animatrix highlights the uncomfortable idea only implied in the live-action trilogy: humanity was the original antagonist of conflict. Motivated by fear for our own creations we lead an aggressive and unprovoked attack against the autonomous Machine State. Facing defeat in the subsequent retaliation, humanity made another short-sighted gambit (blacking our the sun) that led to our own downfall and near extinction.”

  5. Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon. The primary Ender’s Game series deals with the consequences of war across galaxies, and Ender’s Shadow offers another examination of this reality from a character not forced to adhere to childlike innocence. More importantly, it sets the stage for Shadow of the Hegemon, which skips the inter-species conflict of the main Ender’s sequels and instead deals with the awkward and messy breakup of a coalition following victory. It is not terribly advanced IR theory, but I’m including it because the relation between warring nations on Earth and the multinational interstellar fleet that suddenly lacks focus are a good civ-mil/coalition politics discussion fodder .
  6. Superiority” by Arthur C Clarke. The tale of defeat by a technologically inferior foe in the face of hubris, mishaps, and a constant refusal to understand the enemy is as vital to the student of PoliSciFi as it is to the Moff’s acquisition department. Maybe if it’s lessons had been headed, the Ewok Insurgency would not have been as successful as it was.

Commenters: what other works would you add to a course on PoliSciFi? Any pressing questions of interspecies/interplanetary/technological conflict that has been left out? Is there a work of science fiction that itself gets at the heart of war in a way nothing mentioned in either list has approached? Let us know!

Drafting your Zombie Apocalypse team

Posted: September 5, 2012 by caidid in Uncategorized

[Editor’s Note: Caidid is one of the editors for Gunpowder & Lead, writes Clausewitz for Kids, and is one of the driving forces behind Twitter Fight Club. We’re honored to have her here, even if only one of the Jedi Council qualified for her survival team.]

First off, thanks to the crew at Grand Blog Tarkin for having me. I know this is a bit off the usual scifi path, and I appreciate them giving me the venue. I hope this will be only my first of many contributions to the site.

Last night/this morning @UnaDispatch tweeted out 20 #recessionlessons (which, by the way, are totally worth reading for serious) one of which was about befriending people with practical skills because “do you really want to face the Zombie Apocalypse with a bunch of social scientists?” Which begs the important question: who do you want to face the Zombie Apocalypse with?

I set myself the problem of drafting my Zombie Apocalypse (ZA) team from Twitter. I decided to go with a team of nine, because baseball is my first reference, plus nine is a magic number in Norse mythology (which I love). So if I’m a manager looking to field a ZA team from Twitter, who am I taking? There are many candidates who are qualified in many ways, so this is just one possible permutation off the top of my head. In addition to their individual skills, I’m looking generally for people who are smart and adaptable. (It goes without saying, I think, that this is all in good fun).

1) @petulantskeptic No question. He’s a doctor and a soldier. He hikes and shoots and back-country skis and camps and all that survival-y good stuff. Plus, he’s thought more about the ZA than anyone I know, so I know he has plans within plans for how to face it. The ZA hits, my first play is to get myself to where he is.

2) @abumuqawama A social scientist, yes, but also a Ranger. No one can question that he has all the lethal skills required for zombie disposal. He’s extremely competitive, a helpful mindset in this case: this is a man who will not be defeated by a few stinking zombies. He has combat leadership experience, and have you met the guy? Oozes leadership. I’ve told him before – and I’m quite serious – that if he ever runs for office, I’m quitting whatever jobs I have at the time and working on his campaign (if he’ll have me). No-brainer. This is a guy your whole team will follow into the teeth of Hell, no questions asked, and even better, this is a guy who won’t waste that team once he gets them there.

3) @FrostinaDC She travels all the time, all over the world, so she’s clearly adaptable and familiar with a variety of terrains. She’s a hiker, a climber, and a diver too, which could be quite handy. She works at the Pentagon, so she has a lot of experience figuring out how to cut through the crap to get things done.

4) @BrettFriedman There are a number of reasons, but really it’s all encapsulated in this tweet:

This is a guy who’s ready to make sure you don’t just survive the ZA, you dominate it and put it down.

5) @guinpherson She’s got the military background (bit of a theme, I realize, but hey: lot of handy skills there). She’s a fitness and nutrition enthusiast, so she’ll know how to keep everyone fueled. Crucially, she is also an aviator. If the team can get access to a chopper and some fuel, that will be invaluable.

6) @RBStalin Two reasons: 1) I know he’s fully capable of cracking zombie heads (the helpfulness of this is obvious); and 2) he makes me laugh (the helpfulness of this should never be underestimated).

7) @cjchivers A Marine who has survived I don’t even know how many war zones in his next life as a war correspondent. Patient, observant, smart, and knows everything there is to know about small arms. You always want Chivers on your team.

8) @securityscholar She speaks six languages, has a military background and martial arts training, has traveled extensively, and she’s tough as nails.

9) @qtu There were a lot of contenders for the last spot, but I’m going to follow the advice of @brettfriedman who recommended her saying, “an integrated obstacle plan and explosives expert will be key.” Plus, she went to my high school, so I know she’s smart. (Sumus primi!) 😉

Other individuals I considered include linguistics expert @justaddnotes@UnaDispatch who inspired the whole exercise, @wjrue@timmathews@dianawueger@jeffemanuel, and dark horse candidate @atavistian who made a compelling case, saying “I used to teach survival skills and I can sew like a mad bastard,” any of whom I would be happy to have on my ZA team.

So what do you look for in a Zombie Apocalypse team? I might be overly relying on the military types, but I can’t say for sure whether that’s totally appropriate, or a sign that I’m putting too much of a premium on zombie-killing skills, or just a reflection of my Twitter circle…I’d love to hear what other people’s teams would look like, and why.