COVID, Hobbits, and Intergalactic Medicine

Fear is the mind-killer.

Yes, we’re in the midst of a pandemic that isn’t to be taken lightly, but raiding grocery store shelves and hoarding months’ worth of supplies is only making things worse. Be mindful that other people need supplies too. Be civil, calm, rational, and respectful. 

This isn’t the zombie apocalypse. There’s no excuse to act like a pillaging horde. Understand that history will judge us by how we behave during times of crisis. Our neighbors will remember it, too. 

Be mindful of what you’re sharing on social media. We have enough jaw-dropping lies and misinformation coming from the White House, so let’s not add to it. Conspiracy theorists and antivaxxers thrive during times like this. Listen to actual scientists, the CDC, the World Health Organization, not Gwyneth Paltrow and Alex Jones. Let’s use our Information Age to promote facts and make data-driven decisions, instead of fomenting terror and mania. The Martians are not invading. This isn’t “The Masque of the Red Death”. We’re all in this together. We neither want to be cavalier fools nor wild-eyed end-of-worlders whose actions will harm others. Take reasonable precautions, don’t feed the trolls, wash your hands, and stop touching your face so much.

As of April 4, 2020, COVID-19 cases in Connecticut are nearing 5,000 and are expected to be the country’s next big hot-spot of infection.

As I write this, my home state is perched on the cusp of a massive new wave of infections. We’ve already made national news: some of you may have heard about how the ritzy town of West Egg Westport had a 50-100 person birthday party which became a “super-spreader event”. New York, where my brother lives (in downtown Manhattan, no less), has more than 103,000 cases.

And the situation will get worse… so much so that some aspects of life will change permanently. This may not be the Black Death, but it is serving as vivid lesson to many history-challenged people that pandemics can and do happen.

For starters, I think we may be witnessing the swan song of our anti-science zeitgeist. America in particular has been railing against science and evidence-based reasoning for decades now. We’ve put ignorance and “gut feelings” on par with expertise. It’s a direct line from Creationism to “truthiness” to “alternative facts”. The anti-vaccine movement has been especially virulent (excuse the pun) but the truthers, birthers, and flat earthers are part of the same sick family. 

Yet faced with a global pandemic, that decadent idiocy is hard-pressed to survive. The dishonesty from mommy bloggers and Wakefield disciples and certain radio show hosts can’t compete with the fact that vaccines save lives… that they will continue to save lives… and that science matters. In a way we’ve been lucky: this disease could have carried the mortality rate of Ebola. Maybe the next one will. Our scientists are therefore our front-line warriors. Investment and respect for science isn’t just the difference between success and failure; it’s the difference between life and death.

For the job market overall, we’ve seen that a lot of jobs can, in fact, be done from home. The percentage of virtual/remote workforces will permanently increase. This will bleed over into entertainment, too: my RPG tribe has already seen a number of teleconference dial-ins, along with virtual movie watching and virtual conventions. That won’t entirely go away when this is over. Will it become Snow Crash? As a GM, I’m looking forward to someday soon being able to conjure fully 3D Oculus Rift environments for my weekly gaming group. 

From a national security perspective, we’ll need to escalate our focus on cyberterrorism and bioterrorism. I have a sinking feeling that the next major pandemic will be deliberately seeded. Some nasty groups and regimes are certainly paying attention to this event and the incompetence of our current government. They won’t forget. Neither should we. 

Politically, it’s glaringly apparent that a clown show of sycophants is no substitute for a council of experts. Raw populism and P.T. Barnum-style cons aren’t a good roadmap for the country. Cultish solidarity carries a body count. Giving false information to the public carries a body count. Oh, and shutting down pandemic response teams was a monumentally stupid move. 

Economically, a lot of hypocrisy has been unveiled. We’ve seen a national relief bill that addresses homelessness and food banks and added protections for workers… which means we had the ability to do this all along (is anyone surprised?) Our politicians jumped so quickly to save our Illustrious and Sacred BankersTM; maybe we should remember that the next time we hear cries for the plebs to practice “austerity”. If we can prop up Wall Street, we can make meaningful investments in the public sector and the middle class which remains the engine of the American economy. And we should certainly remember this when horse-and-sparrow economics is trotted out again. 

Philosophically (and when I ingest enough whiskey) I can imagine that we may become more cognizant of how imperative it is to maintain global awareness, humanistic connections, and that we cannot afford the myopia of jingoism and blind partisan tribalism any longer. 

Pandemics have changed societies before. They will again. What we change into is very much up to us. 

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One of the reasons I dislike sequels/prequels in general is that they tend to tarnish the originals with thoughtless and bombastic changes. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is a perfect example. A recent rewatch only confirmed my original opinion of them as not just lesser products than The Lord of the Rings, but as downright insulting to that trilogy.

Let’s skip past the bad CGI, overtly cartoonish physics, and total lack of restraint. Instead, let’s talk about giant rabbits and giant worms.

In the film’s Battle of the Five Armies, the goblins arrive on the battlefield… courtesy of monstrously huge worms. These are creatures so big and powerful that they tunnel through solid rock. But the goblins use them… as living Ubers. They utilize these gargantuan monsters as a means of reaching the battlefield only. One worm could have nabbed Thorin’s treasure. One worm could have ended the entire fight by rolling over the opposition, yet the goblins treat them as a kind of organic subway line. 

See, giant worms weren’t featured in The Hobbit book. By inventing them for the film, it creates an illogical imbalance: why didn’t Saruman use them when attacking Helm’s Deep? How did Sauron not think to apply them at the Pelennor Fields: acquiring a few worms should have ranked as higher priority than requisitioning war elephants. By making this thoughtless change from the source material, Jackson cheapens the world-building. He creates the film equivalent of a game-breaking bug.

The same goes for Radagast and his improbable sled pulled by giant bunnies.

Let’s skip the diminishment of his character: a powerful druid reduced to a cornball imbecile with bird crap in his hair. The rabbit sled itself is the problem. If giant rabbits exist in Middle Earth, they would be breeding, well, like rabbits. Think about that. It would be the lessons of Australia writ on a planetary scale. Dealing with orcs would be the least concern in a world where super-speedy giant bunnies are devastating every crop and blade of grass. The Scouring of the Shire would happen everywhere.

This isn’t limited to The Hobbit, of course. The Star Wars prequels and sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the Star Trek film reboots, the Terminator films past T2, and (especially) Prometheus all exhibit this fatal flaw: undoing the very universe that gave rise to them. 

And the thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way. James Cameron’s Aliens meaningfully expanded the original film’s mythos. So did the much-maligned film 2010 (sequel to Kubrick’s 2001). Many MCU films pulled this off. The Toy Story series excelled at it. Halo Reach pulled it off. I can think of numerous books and games that achieved this as well. It can absolutely be done!

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Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show has made their archives public. My two appearances in that venue are therefore available for free reading: “Shadows and Shore Leave” and “Dayshift”.

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