Friday, April 29, 2022

Bon Mots - A Phone Call from the Joker

BATPHONE - Ring ring!

BATMAN - Hello?

JOKER - Ha ha! Greetings, Batman! It's me, your old pal, the Joker!

BATMAN - This is an unlisted number.

JOKER - Just calling to let you know I've broken out of Arkham again! Ha ha! Next time you should try locking me up in a wet paper bag! By the way, I hope none of those guards had families! Ha ha!

BATMAN - Dammit, Joker, they all had families.

JOKER - Oh good! You see I dosed each of them with a time-delayed chemical, coordinated to the time of my breakout and the length of their shifts! Right about now, each of them should be murdering their spouses and children! Ha ha! 

Don't worry, none of them have control over their actions, and here I am, a known criminal, confessing to poisoning them in a recorded call with a sworn officer of the court! I'm sure the prosecutor won't hold them responsible! Of course nothing will save them from the guilt, or the drug-induced PTSD flashbacks! Ha ha!

BATMAN - What makes you think I'm recording this call?

art by Jonathan Case for Batman 66 #1

JOKER - By now you're probably wondering why I've phoned you! I wanted to let you know that I've decided to play a little game with your sworn oath to never kill anyone under any circumstances ever! Ha ha! My recent flooding of the entire Gotham subway system with poison gas during rush hour, killing thousands, apparently didn't provide you with enough motivation!

BATMAN - I won't stoop to your level, Joker.

JOKER - That's too bad for the people of Bludhaven, Batman! I've stolen a nuclear bomb, and I'm going to detonate it downtown! Millions will die! Ha ha!

BATMAN - I'll never let that happen, Joker. I'll find you before the bomb goes off. I'm the world's greatest detective, don't you think I can find you in time?

JOKER - Perhaps you plan to find me by tracing this phone call? Let me save you the trouble! This phone is the detonator to a bomb vest I'm wearing! Ha ha!

As soon as I hang up, all you have to do is call me back, the phone will ring, and I'll die in a fiery explosion! The bomb vest only has a single stick of dynamite and I'm nowhere near any other people! The bomb will kill me and me alone and won't cause any structural damage to any bridges, roads, or buildings! There'll be no collateral damage of any kind! Ha ha!

Of course that means if you don't want to kill me then you can't risk calling me back after I hang up!

BATMAN - I don't need to find you, Joker, I just need to find the bomb.

JOKER - The bomb? The nuclear bomb? The nuclear bomb hidden somewhere in the heart of downtown Bludhaven? A city of millions? Millions who will die by being blown up by the nuclear bomb hidden by me, the Joker?

BATMAN - Yes, that bomb.

JOKER - You should know, Batman, that there's no way to disable the bomb on-site! Ha ha! It's connected to a remote detonator, and if you disable or remove it, it'll blow up immediately, which, I'll remind you again, will result in the deaths of millions! 

BATMAN - I understand the threat, Joker.

JOKER - What's the remote detonator you ask? Why it's a simple countdown timer, but instead of being linked to a clock, it's connected directly to my heartbeat! Ha ha! The only way to stop the countdown is to stop my heart!

By the way Batman, I hope I haven't given you the impression that you're going to have enough time to stop me any other way! Ha ha! After I hang up the phone you'll have about 3 minutes before the nuclear bomb detonates, less if I get excited and my heart starts racing while we talk!

BATMAN - . . .

JOKER - So what's it going to be, Batman? Lift one little finger to kill me? Or by your inaction allow millions to die and suffer? There's no other way to solve this!

You're trapped in a no-win situation specifically designed to show off the limits of your never kill anyone no matter how much they deserve it policy! A better, or at least more unified team of writers and editors would either allow you to kill or avoid putting you in situations like this one that make you look foolish! 

No one minds a Batman who doesn't kill as long as he only fights bank robbers with silly costumes! But try explaining why you won't execute a war criminal who has wiped out whole neighborhoods, entire cities, and will keep doing so again and again until you put him in the only place he can't escape!

BATMAN - . . . 

JOKER - What will you do? Police can't arrest me, prisons can't hold me! If you capture me, my next crime will make this one pale in comparison! How many lives are you willing to sacrifice just to prevent me from committing suicide?

You can't get to Bludhaven, and couldn't stop the detonation there if you tried! You don't have time to drive or fly here! You don't even know where I am! 

Even your other old pal Superman can't help you! Metropolis is basically Manhattan, Gotham is Brooklyn, and Bludhaven is essentially Queens! And everyone knows Superman never crosses the East River!

BATMAN - Actually, Gotham is canonically in New Jersey.

JOKER - Ha ha! You're almost out of time, Batman! 

By the way, if the millions of lives at stake aren't enough to sufficiently motivate you to take decisive action, let me remind you that your son and heir Robin, under his new nom de guerre Nighwing is in Bludhaven, and will certainly perish along with the others! I don't know your real name or his, but I know he's there, along with his adorable little pet dog Bitewing! Ha ha! 

You have less than 3 minutes, Batman, and then everyone in Bludhaven dies in a nuclear holocaust, including your protege!

BATMAN - No, not Robin!

BATPHONE - Dial tone.

art by Dick Dillin for Amazing World of DC Comics #14

Friday, April 15, 2022

Science Fiction Remix - Baron Harkonnen

My first introduction to the world of Dune happened years before I read the book, when I saw Wayne Barlowe's illustration of a navigator who was mutated by consuming Spice in the quantities needed to allow interstellar faster-than-light travel without the benefit of computers.

The illustration is colorful, and seemed to promise a setting filled with post-human beings, descendants of Old Earth who had gone so far, adapted so much, and been apart so long that they were effectively aliens. 

image from Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials

Frank Herbert offers us just the barest glimpse of this. Spice consumption allows the Steersmen to navigate between the stars, the Mentats to remember and calculate at a level akin to the real world computers of 1965, and grants the leaders of the royal houses a superhuman longevity. 

The text also gives us an interstellar society that's halfway between the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch East India Company - great houses, supposedly peers within the Landsraad beneath an elected emperor who is like the first among equals, all squabbling and jockeying for position and control and a larger cut of land and money and power and influence and Spice, the most valuable resource in human space, Spice, the whale oil or petroleum of its day, the source of the best medicines, the fuel for all travel, the thing that the shared economy cannot function without.

I imagined the costumes in Dune as being modeled after 18th and 19th century European military and nobility, Ruritania in space, and to a greater or lesser extent, both the David Lynch film and the Sci Fi Channel miniseries gave me back some of what I'd imagined, with costumes inspired by Moebius and HR Geiger and probably Star Wars, whose look was allegedly inspired by Moebius and Geiger anyway by way of the unproduced Alejandro Jodorosky version.

The recent Denis Villeneuve Dune film certainly plays up the militarism of the houses, but it also might as well have been filmed in black and white for all the color that Villeneuve allows to appear onscreen. The recent Apple TV version of Foundation probably looks more like my dream vision of Dune than any of the adaptations that actually exist. (The plot modifications probably make Apple's Foundation closer to Dune than to Isaac Asimov's Foundation anyway.)

I'll admit that I might like the world of Dune, with its psychics and mutants, its Great Powers competition that's equal parts espionage and economics, better than the story of Paul Atreides gradually accumulating various Chosen One statuses until he is the Duke of House Atreides, and a trained Mentat, and a trained Voice user, and the culmination of the Bene Gesserit eugenics program, and the leader by marriage of the Fremen of Arakis, and the fiancé of the daughter of the Emperor of Space, and and AND! Paul is the ultimate of what C Wright Mills calls the "power elite," combining military, political, and economic power; he accumulates every possible type of what Max Weber calls "the sources of legitimate domination," hereditary, charismatic, meritorious in every way.

Look - color! Look - costumes that visually distinguish the different factions!
image from Foundation

In contrast to Paul's over-determined heroism, Herbert poured a super-abundance of "villainous" traits onto his chief antagonist, Baron Harkonnen. It's not enough for him simply to be the enemy of House Atreides, or for him to be a sore loser about being forced off Arrakis and away from the most lucrative part of the Spice business. No, Herbert REALLY wants you to know that he's a bad person, so the Baron is fat, so fat he can't support his own bodyweight without antigravity devices, and he's gay, and he's a rapist of adults, and pedophile, AND, because this somehow wasn't enough, the Lynch film also covers him in scars and boils and other skin ailments. 

There's maybe some message in Baron Harkonnen's traits about how unchecked autocratic power allows a person to indulge and over-indulge in every possible kind of appetite, and how people who derive pleasure from pushing past limits and boundaries need to keep escalating, keep doing more and more extreme versions of whatever it is they enjoy if they want to keep one-upping the severity and outlandishness of their own past endeavors. There's maybe a warning about what happens to a person when no one else can say no to them for fear for their lives.

Okay. But like, real talk, it certainly seems like Frank Herbert wrote the Baron as fat and gay because he's the villain.

Apparently one of the prequel novels claims that Harkonnen isn't fat because of overindulgence, but because the Bene Gesserit give him a venereal disease that causes obesity and muscle wasting. This is a retcon that I actually think is worse than the original interpretation.

image from National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe

The thing is, the larger setting of Dune is one where, kind of, everyone is a villain. Everyone the audience is likely to meet, anyway. The emperor assigns each great house a planet to govern; the locals have no say in who governs them or how often new regimes are rotated through. The houses themselves are absolutist monarchies with a single, superannuated hereditary ruler. The economy is colonial and feudal, with the resources of entire worlds getting funneled inward to purchase of Spice and other luxuries, which the houses use to keep their members young and healthy, and to allow themselves the interstellar travel that makes the whole system possible. This is a morally abhorrent society, which means its leaders can be interesting, compelling, captivating characters, but they can't really be good in any meaningful sense.

And while the elite of this society may designate certain of their members as being on the margins of acceptability, its more likely to be for violations of etiquette and decorum as it is for anything the rest of us would consider wrong or cruel. The leaders inherently cannot be criminals, both because they make the laws for everyone else, and because they themselves are explicitly above them. Baron Harkonnen is more interesting to me when he's not THE singular villain, laden down with so many cartoonishly evil characteristics that he needs his antigrav harness just to support the weight of all those tropes, he's more interesting when he is both flawed and, in some small ways, admirable or sympathetic, when he's A bad person in a setting full of bad people. A Harkonnen who's not pure evil is also less likely to make his enemies seem good just by virtue of opposing him.

Let's start with Baron Harkonnen's sexuality, because I'm intrigued by the idea of the head of one of the planetary governments being an out, proud gay man. While I'm sure he has as many consorts, courtesans, and flings as any other house leader, I would prefer to avoid any implication that his homosexuality gives him a special taste for nonconsensual encounters.

In Dune, in addition to the Emperor and his house, and the other great houses that make up the Landsraad, and whatever indigenous political structures exist on the planets underneath the colonial rule of the houses, you have a few major non-governmental power centers. You've got the Guild of navigators who control space travel, CHOAM, which in my limited understanding serves as the equivalent of both the stock market and the marketplace for the sale and trade of Spice and manufactured goods, and the Bene Gesserit, an all-female organization of geneticists and eugenecists devoted to increasing human psychic potential by selective breeding, who hide their scientific prowess beneath a religious mystique, and who have enough social power to insist that every house leader take a Gesserit consort and participate in their breeding program.

Arranged marriages, obligatory consummations, tracking "matings" and "pairings" with the obsessive attention of a zookeeper trying to revive a near-extinct species, and really the whole idea of mandatory "breeding" of human beings are already incompatible with the idea of consent as we understand it. None of the other parts of the history of eugenics are any more palatable. The Bene Gesserit have unlocked humanity's latent psychic potential, but those born with powers just become the psychic bureaucrats so necessary to keep the imperial system running, and the Gesserit themselves are a secondary source of tyranny, alongside the empire. 

Remix Harkonnen has no interest in "doing his duty" to the species, "lying on his back and thinking of the empire," or any of the rest of it. He is an open critic of the Bene Gesserit and their eugenics program, opposes their attempts to arrange marriages and breedings, not just for himself, but for everyone, and he will eventually pass rulership of his house down to a protégé rather than a child. Remix Baron Harkonnen might still be a reprehensible bastard on other issues, but let's let him be right about this one thing.

Next, the Baron's size and weight. The detail I keep thinking about is his antigravity device. What if Remix Harkonnen isn't simply a fat man, but truly someone who can't move around, or perhaps even survive, under Earth-normal conditions? I imagine that he's basically spherical, and looks like the illustration of hypothetical Venusians from the old Our Universe book, seen above. His body has been adapted to survive in an atmosphere that is incredibly thick, heavy, and crushing, and simultaneously very buoyant, like the deep ocean. The inside of any House Harkonnen building recreates this atmosphere, and requires pressure suits for anyone who looks like the humans of Old Earth to survive inside. But when the Baron travels to other houses, he needs a forcefield bubble to protect himself from the same effects you or I would feel in a vacuum.

Why do the members of House Harkonnen look like that? I think that an earlier era of space exploration relied on direct genetic engineering to produce durable, post-human bodies, rather than the combination of Gesserit eugenics, Spice, and high technology that are used in the current age. (As an aside, maybe the natives of each planet have been engineered to survive their specific conditions. This permits them to live openly and in poverty on the surface, rather than requiring specialized and luxurious habitats like the great houses. It also means they can never leave, unlike the comparatively hyper-mobile ruling class, who jet from planet to planet as the Emperor demands. The Fremen would likely be another example of this type of engineering.)

As the product of this prior regime of human improvement, Remix Harkonnen has yet another reason to oppose the Gesserit and their way of doing things. His body is visibly different from the Old Earth phenotype that most of the other ruling houses wear - although perhaps the Harkonnens are not the only ones who have been engineered rather than bred. I imagine he comes from a trash planet that falls outside the empire's direct sphere of influence, meaning that no great house is ever required to relocate there. 

Like some ambitious combination of Kingpin and Jabba the Hutt, Remix Baron Harkonnen started out as one gangster among many, became the don of dons through a combination of smarts and ruthlessness, and graduated to the interplanetary and interstellar big leagues, forcing his way into great house status and a seat on the Landsraad. The other house leaders dislike him for his disreputable origin, post-human appearance, and perhaps for refusing to hide his thuggishness behind the veneer of respectability the rest of them maintain. 

I suppose I ought to consider what sort of economic resource the Baron brings to the table that requires the others to offer him a seat. Perhaps a metal that can only be mined on his planet, or technology from before the AI wars that can no longer be replicated, or knowledge of genetic engineering that can produce results that the Gesserits can't reproduce in the short term. Or maybe he's just that good at bribery, coercion, extortion, etc. Or maybe his knowledge of the above makes his house ideal for rooting out local corruption and slapping the hand of any other great house that sticks their wrist too deep into the cookie jar. 
My remix version of Baron Harkonnen is more like Magneto or Killmonger - a man with a sympathetic origin and understandable agenda, who is nonetheless still deserving of condemnation for his actions. If your Remix Dune coexists in the same setting as a Remix Legion of Superheroes, then I have to assume that Bouncing Boy is a do-gooder outcast from House Harkonnen. If your Remix Dune is also a Solar Dune, then Harkonnen might come from Venus, or perhaps from a cloud city on Jupiter that's deep enough beneath the "surface" to require his distinctive body modifications to survive.