Review: Avengers: Infinity War


Robert Downey Jr., who portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man, at San Diego Comic Con International in 2014. (Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore). 

By William H. Stoddard

The films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe are an unusual, and possibly unique artistic project: a cinematic series set in a shared fictional universe, one that develops from film to film, with later films referring to earlier. Of course there have been trilogies and other series of films, but this design not only is at a greater length, but has multiple branches following different groups of characters. There’s a main storyline that began with The Avengers and progressed through Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, and The Black Panther, but other films have told different types of stories: a mock epic in Guardians of the Galaxy, a caper film in Ant-Man, and a story of supernatural initiation in Doctor Strange, for example. The latest film, The Avengers: The Infinity War, attempts to bring these all together into a climactic story—or at least, the first half of one; it ends with a cliffhanger. I went into the theater not sure this film would be worth seeing, and I can see some flaws in it, largely reflecting the vast differences in tone among the earlier films; but the overall result was impressive and moving. And I think this largely reflects the central role of theme in the script.

An immediately evident theme of Infinity War is environmentalism: Its antagonist, Thanos, is motivated by a fear of overpopulation, for which he envisions consequences much like those Paul Ehrlich warned against—and apparently, in this world, those consequences actually came about. Now, there are valid environmental concerns that it’s prudent to address—and there have been libertarian proposals to address them at least since R.H. Coase’s 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost.” But some versions of environmentalism treat it as a new justification for economic central planning, despite the dismal environmental record of planned economies; and a few more radical versions call for things such as the end of economic growth or the reversal of past growth, for an end to human reproduction, or even for outright human extinction. Thanos’s draconian solution to population growth puts him in this last small group of green fanatics.

What makes the difference among these variants? The last two are utilitarian (note that Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, advocated giving equal weight to human and animal feelings of pleasure and pain—akin to current “animal rights” thinking, though Bentham rejected any kind of rights as “nonsense on stilts”). That is, they thought it was legitimate to trade off different people’s pleasure and pain: To inflict suffering on one person in order to give another person a greater benefit, or to bring small benefits to a large number of other people. In the words of one of the early Star Trek films, utilitarianism says that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” In contrast, many versions of libertarianism reject such thinking as collectivist, and call for what Ayn Rand described as a “non-sacrificial ethic,” one in which no person can be deprived of life, liberty, or property for another’s gain. And this idea, too, shows up in Infinity War, notably in Steve Rogers’ statement, “We don’t trade lives.”

Of course, Rand’s concept of “sacrifice” is narrow: Her characters are prepared to risk their lives to save a factory, to rescue a benefactor, or to serve justice, and her quintessential self-interested hero is ready to commit suicide rather than see the woman he loves tortured to gain his cooperation, acts that most people would call “sacrifices.” And this sort of choice is seen all through Infinity War. In fact, the entire film seems to be about the theme of sacrifice: On one hand, Thanos’s sacrifice of others’ lives, extolled by his henchman Ebony Maw as “the privilege . . . of being saved by the Great Titan” (but a privilege Thanos seemingly doesn’t plan to share, even when his work is done), is coerced sacrifice, imposed by force on terrified victims. On the other, Thanos’s adversaries voluntarily give things up, or endure suffering, to attain something they value: Thor goes through an ordeal to make a new weapon, Groot gives part of his body to provide it with a handle, the Black Panther leads his entire kingdom into a battle against Thanos’s forces that may destroy it, and the Vision—who has consistently advocated “the needs of the many”—urges the destruction of the Mind Stone that animates him to keep it out of Thanos’s hands. Even Thanos himself has to make a sacrifice, to give up what he loves, as the price of his gigantic quest. These and other scenes all reflect that common theme, which gives unity to the entire film. And at the same time they cumulatively show the difference between paying a high price for something you value, and being made use of to serve someone else’s ends, even if those ends are presented as a noble purpose. All of this makes Infinity War not simply an action story, or melodrama, but a drama, whose characters have to make hard choices, choices that reveal what is truly important to them.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been amazingly successful. I think this latest film helps show why: Their films aren’t just action and violence and special effects, impressive though those are. They’re about something. When one of their characters goes into combat, the audience almost always knows what they’re fighting for and who they are. And this has a big payoff in audience involvement, one that lets them bring together a huge cast of characters and have the audience already prepared to care about what happens to them, and how they face this new ordeal.

Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz (Creative Commons photo)

By William H. Stoddard

Annalee Newitz has had a successful career as a print and online journalist, and has published several books, but until Autonomous, all of these were nonfiction. It was a happy discovery for me that her first venture into fiction showed real mastery of the craft. I laughed at her epigraph from “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate,” and promptly tracked the song down and bought it; and the opening page of her narrative hooked me and kept me reading. Both her handling of characterization and plot, and the quality of her prose, were the kind of thing I hope for when I glance at a new book and ask if I want to read it.

The title Autonomous refers to one of the novel’s plotlines and themes: an examination of the ethical and legal rights of artificial intelligences, through the struggles of various robots to deal with their “indentured” status. Ingeniously, Newitz envisions a future society where human beings, though born free, can also become indentured after falling into debt, or take on indentures to finance education and training. The complexities of the resulting laws affect a number of significant plot points, including a subplot about an indentured human being. Newitz has ingeniously combined a social satire on the problem of educational debt with an exploration of the ethical status of nonhumans.

However, the primary plot reflects a different issue: intellectual property. This has been much debated both in public policy and among libertarians; the emergence of the online world has heated up the debate, as copying and sharing texts, pictures, music, and videos has become all but costless. Libertarian views have ranged from support for indefinitely prolonged intellectual property rights to complete abolition of copyrights and patents. Newitz’s protagonist, a smuggler who sells pirated drugs to people who can’t afford to pay what the patent holders are asking, discovers that one of her products has seriously destructive side effects; ironically, it’s her efforts to set things right and make amends that entangle her in a struggle with the company that holds the patent, and with the covert operatives who try to enforce it on their behalf. I think libertarian readers will find this thought provoking. Both in the case of indentures and in the case of patents, Newitz’s story explores the possibility that some things that are called “property rights” may be unjust and exploitative.

It appeals to me, too, that Newitz’s protagonist is an entrepreneur; and that,  having discovered a problem with one of her products, she promptly sets out to make things right for her customers. Everything else follows from that, in the same way that everything in the Iliad follows from Achilles’ anger with Agamemnon. So the whole story is one of virtuous entrepreneurship. Autonomous doesn’t show us a large-scale transition to a free society, but it gives us a protagonist who has the qualities we would like such a society to nurture.

Futures in Collision: Firefly’s Divided Society

Actor Nathan Fillion, who played Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds. Creative Commons photo by vagueonthehow. 

By William H. Stoddard

In the decade and a half since Firefly came on the air, it’s emerged as one of the high points of television science fiction, both for its characterization, and for the unusual depth in which its setting is imagined. In fact, that depth helps explain the characterization. The crew and passengers of the Serenity come from different places in a complex world, and their motives and relationships reflect this. On a first viewing, they’re inevitably two-dimensional, inviting the watcher to see them as dramatic stereotypes. Fitting the description of Firefly as a “space Western,” they often seem like Western stereotypes: the cynical veteran, the glamorous dance-hall girl, the preacher, the naïve city dweller out of his depth. But over the course of the first (and only) season, viewers came to know their backstories, and to see their actions in more depth, in relation to their pasts as well as their presents.

Their society is an internally divided one. Unlike Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, it isn’t a unified organization with only external foes; unlike Star Wars, with the Empire facing the Rebel Alliance, it isn’t neatly divided into heroes and villains, who see each other only from a distance. Both sides are represented on board the Serenity: the Alliance by Inara Serra, Simon and River Tam, and probably Derrial Book, as part of his mysterious past; the Independents or “Browncoats” by Malcolm Reynolds, his loyal ally Zoe Washburne, and Kaylee Frye. The two main romantic tensions within this group, between Mal and Inara and between Kaylee and Simon, both cross over this split.

The situation can be read as part of the “space Western” aspect. Many of the classic Westerns took place in the years following the American Civil War, a struggle between the central authority of the Union and the rebellion of the Confederacy. The Independents could very well have adopted the motto of the American South, “All we ask is to be left alone.” It’s noteworthy, though, that Whedon has inverted one aspect of that struggle: His Alliance, after the war is over, maintains what amounts to slavery, with many people held legally in bondage (at one point Inara claims Mal as her “bondsman”), whereas the Browncoats appear to have defended independence for others as well as themselves. This allows Mal to be a sympathetic figure, and helped lead to the show’s fans calling themselves “Browncoats.”

But there’s more to it than that. The ‘Verse, the setting of Firefly, also reflects a quite different conflict, one within science fiction itself.

How do we envision the future? Much of science fiction is set in imagined futures. Of course the human imagination can produce all sorts of things, and science fictional futures are diverse. But are there common patterns?

One common pattern can be seen in the fiction of H.G. Wells. Wells is a deeply ambivalent writer at times, one whose work often is deeply pessimistic, as in the grim visions of humanity’s evolutionary future in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (where the vampiric Martians are described as the inevitable end state of intelligent life) or of the imperfectly humanized creatures of The Island of Dr. Moreau. But he also hints at a different future in novels such as The Sleeper Awakes and A Story of the Days to Come and in the final paragraphs of “The Star.” This Wellsian future is highly urbanized, with large, centralized populations sustained by advanced technology. At his most optimistic, Wells hoped to see this technology developed and controlled by scientific elites, such as the “samurai” of A Modern Utopia. Visually, this is a world of clean, well ventilated, brightly lit cities, usually with urban planning that ensures a consistent architectural style – in other words, it’s what James Scott (in Seeing like a State) calls “high modernism,” as exemplified by Le Corbusier.

Wells’s vision was picked up, after him, by Hugo Gernsback, who made it part of his vision of the future. Isaac Asimov portrayed several such urbanized futures—in the Earth of The Caves of Steel, for example, and in Trantor, the planet-spanning city of the Foundation stories; he also portrayed scientific elites, such as the Council of Science of his juvenile “Lucky Starr” series, the Eternals of The End of Eternity (though they were a deeply flawed elite), and the psychohistorians of the Second Foundation. Disney’s Tomorrowland started out offering a similarly shiny high-tech future, and the original Star Trek helped bring it to a mass audience: The Enterprise’s voyages might take it into all sorts of dark, dangerous places, but the ship itself, with its clean, brightly lit corridors, was like a Wellsian city of the future in miniature.

At the same time, a different image of the future was emerging. If space really was “the final frontier,” as Star Trek described it, its people could be envisioned as frontier dwellers—explorers and colonists struggling for survival and perhaps wealth in a rough, dangerous environment. E.E. Smith hinted at such a vision in his Lensman novels, with their portrayals of “meteor miners” and of a uranium mine on a remote planet (with two different heroes assuming the role of miners during undercover investigations); but it was Robert Heinlein, in his juveniles, and later Poul Anderson, who gave us a fuller vision of space travel as a continuation of the American westward movement. Their stories also reflected American ideas about constitutional government and free enterprise, in contrast to the more planned worlds that Wells and Asimov thought were inevitable.

What’s striking about Firefly is that its setting combines both visions of the future. Most of the episodes take place in “frontier” worlds, with relatively small populations leading hardscrabble lives and having little access to technology on a day-to-day basis. But elsewhere in the same interplanetary community are the wealthy, high-tech, shiny worlds of the Alliance. Alliance military ships travel the same regions of space as the Serenity and other beat-up small spaceships, imposing the authority of the central government. And the political and cultural elements of both futures are also present, perhaps best captured in the opening of the film Serenity, which shows a very young River Tam in a high-tech classroom questioning the rationale for Unification, the Alliance’s imposition of its control over the outer worlds.

Curiously, Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, is definitely progressive politically, and opposed to the libertarian or conservative ideas the “frontier” setting suggests; and it’s not uncommon for the show’s fans to share his political outlook. But Whedon made Malcolm Reynolds, a staunchly libertarian independent, the show’s hero, and the “Browncoat” fans of the show largely seem to identify with him. Firefly seems to offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, not allegory, which imposes an interpretation on the viewer, but applicability, which sets views free to find their own understandings of it, and to like it even while disagreeing with aspects of it. And this is also the case for libertarian viewers, who can appreciate Whedon’s making such an eloquent case for values he doesn’t entirely share. (The Libertarian Futurist Society awarded Whedon a Special Award in 2006, for Serenity.)

As for the “science fictional” aspect of Firefly, here, too, its two colliding futures embody two different understandings of science itself. The Alliance reflects science as an organized body of knowledge, on whose basis rational plans can be made and order imposed on the world, in Scott’s “high modernist” style. This is science as the application of existing knowledge. But frontier settings, which the independent worlds represent, confront things that aren’t yet known or ordered, that have to be discovered, and thus reflect science as a process of discovery, one in which we don’t yet know what we’re doing. And at the deepest level, the revelations of Serenity show that the Alliance, in important ways, didn’t and doesn’t know what it’s doing, and needs to be open to discovery, and to the free communication of what has been discovered.

Review: Drug Lord by Doug Casey and John Hunt

By William H. Stoddard

Drug Lord is the second volume in the authors’ High Ground series about international entrepreneur and libertarian idealist Charles Knight. I can’t fault it as a libertarian work; of course, libertarians disagree about a lot of specific issues, but any libertarian reader will recognize the basic point of view. And I didn’t bog down in reading it, or find it a struggle to turn the next page.

Nonetheless, I have to say I’m ultimately not satisfied with it as a book.

To start with, the authors seem insensitive to prose. I was struck by one passage where a secondary character, an overtly gay man, makes a joke about being turned on by naked power—“Not so much the power, but definitely the naked part”—in what the authors describe as a prominent lisp. I’ll accept that as a deliberate mockery of the stereotype. But the sentence only contains one sibilant! How can anyone lisp words without sibilants? Casey and Hunt seem to have put words down on paper without thinking about what they sound like. There’s nothing else quite that striking, but the style throughout the book seems flat and unmemorable.

The presentation of libertarian ideas is handicapped by a tendency to present the authors’ evaluations to the reader, rather than showing people and events and letting readers reach their own conclusions. That may appeal to some libertarians (though it doesn’t to me personally), but it’s an obstacle to readers who don’t already share those ideas.

Beyond that, this reads to me like a conventional mass market bestseller. The characterization and motivation don’t seem very deep; I mostly don’t get a sense for why the different characters are doing what they’re doing. The protagonists succeed at most of their actions, even when their approaches look poorly thought out and could plausibly fail; on the other hand, when an action fails, it’s not because there was any deeper error—it reads as if the authors decided they needed a reversal of fortune there and put one in without showing why that specific plot twist would happen. I read through all the action scenes without getting into the heads of the characters, and without any sense of tension about the outcome . . . and that’s really not a good thing in an action novel, such as this sets out to be.

Perhaps the big issue is that I don’t have enough sense for what’s at stake in these novels. We see the libertarian ideas. But we don’t see Charles Knight starting a radical movement to defend liberty, or the antagonistic characters engaged in a sinister plot to annihilate it once and for all. The story goes through the motions of struggle and crisis, but the liberty that’s its nominal theme never really seems to be at stake. I think that above all is why I don’t feel strongly involved in this series.

Review: Freefall, Chapter 1, by Mark Stanley

By William Stoddard

Mark Stanley has been writing and drawing Freefall for nineteen years now, making it one of the longest-running Webcomics ever. He officially announced the completion of its first chapter on July 11, 2016. Stanley has just been awarded a Special Prometheus Award for Freefall.

The core of Freefall is character-driven comedy. Its three core characters are Sam Starfall, a ship captain; Helix, his assistant/flunky; and Florence Ambrose, the ship’s engineer. None of them is human! Sam is an intelligent alien, of a race evolved from land-dwelling cephalopod scavengers, the only member of his race on the colony planet Jean (though he wears a humanoid exoskeleton). Helix is an Asimovian robot. Florence is an uplifted wolf with intelligence equal to that of a very bright human, but with different underlying instincts—probably the only one on the planet, and one of the few in existence anywhere. Many of the secondary characters are human, but not all; Jean’s robot population is vastly larger than its human (450 million vs. 40 thousand), and we’ve also met Florence’s designer, Dr. Bowman, an unplifted chimpanzee with rage issues. A great deal of the comedy is driven by the tension between Sam’s love of chaos, rulebreaking, and petty crime, and Florence’s conscientiousness and naïveté.

Having made created beings a big part of the setting, Stanley follows Chekhov’s advice about the gun on the mantelpiece: He makes them a major focus of his story. While a lot of it is episodic, over the course of the chapter a continuing plot emerges and becomes central, one whose focus is conflict over the rights of robots. It’s to Stanley’s credit that he doesn’t go in for straw man villains. The immediate threat comes from a corporate executive who has come up with a way to enrich himself; but his actions aren’t corporate policy, and another executive opposes his scheme. The resolution of the conflict brings in Jean’s court system and planetary government, whose mayor is initially opposed to the rights of robots—but other officials have different views, and the mayor’s position becomes more complex over the course of the story.

As a libertarian, of course I find the idea of the universal rights of sentient beings (starting perhaps in #714 with “Intelligent beings should not be property!”) an appealing theme, if one whose appeal isn’t limited to libertarians. But Stanley also inserts a number of other comments that libertarians will applaud:

  • References to the failings of bureaucracies, from inefficiency to manipulation and abuse
  • The idea that government officials need to be restrained by fear of the people rising against them
  • The idea that disobedience and resistance to authority are praiseworthy
  • Elements of free market economics, including a discussion of why it’s more efficient for robots to have control of their own earnings than for maintenance to be centrally controlled (#2432) and a clear explanation of gains from trade based on differences in what is scarce (#1252)
  • Approval for spontaneous order (#2518)
  • At the most basic, repeated celebrations of the virtue of free choice

Stanley also shows a consistent appreciation for diversity. This starts out with his basic cast of characters: Florence’s respect for the law and sense of duty are profoundly different from Sam’s dishonesty, trickery, and love of chaos, but each of them learns from the other, and in fact a running joke is the two of them thinking that they’ve set good examples for each other. (For example, in one strip (#855), Sam laments, “I’ve allowed the prospect of short term profit to endanger my long term goals,” and Helix comments, “That sounds like something Florence would say.”) Other strips have Sam reflecting on liking human beings but finding their behavior and their ethics incomprehensible. His different beliefs are tied to the evolutionary history of his species, in a classic science fictional style.

At still a deeper level, Freefall is often philosophically sophisticated. Sometimes this shows up in the form of jokes and allusions, as when Florence faces a conflict between conflicting moral values, and asks herself, “What would Jean Buridan do in this situation?” (#1803), or as in a strip that says that robots work by clever programming with no “ghost in the machine” (#1328). But these jokes point at a more serious theme: A nonmystical, nonsupernatural explanation of “free will,” or self-direction—as the contemporary philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it, a theory without “spooky stuff.” Stanley envisions both Florence and many of the robots on Jean as having a neural architecture that doesn’t depend on rigid, pre-programmed algorithms, but on complexity and flexibility, letting it arrive at decisions autonomously. In fact, his account of the brain as a self-organizing cognitive system parallels the concept of markets as self-organizing economic systems. And most importantly, he suggests that real virtue has to originate in autonomous choices, and not in imposed “laws.”

Beyond these philosophical and political themes, Freefall is also quite good science fiction. In fact, it’s toward the hard end of the SF spectrum; it assumes that faster-than-light travel is possible, but all its other “miracles” are plausible speculation based on present-day physics and biology. And Florence Ambrose is a classic Astounding-style engineer hero—even though she’s a genetically enhanced wolf, and many strips turn on peculiarities of canid behavior. And even beyond those aspects, Freefall is fun! How could anyone not love the sequence where Sam gets the mayor to say, “This is a direct order. Hit me with a pie!” in the presence of five AIs who are programmed to obey her implicitly?

William Stoddard is the president of the Libertarian Futurist Society, and is a professional copy editor specializing in scientific and scholarly material.