Fanfiction – The Parselmouth of Gryffindor

Today, I have a new fic, that I enjoyed enough to share on my first read-through.

The Parselmouth of Gryffindor by Achille Talon

The basic premise of this story is not, as you might first guess, that Harry Potter’s ability is more widely known and accepted, but, rather, that Hermione Granger is also a parselmouth.

Novel concept aside (the author even mentions the rarity of such fics), it derives two further advantages from it:

First, we see a Hermione Granger who is different, yet the same.

On the one hand, her outlook has more of the practicality and unique “snake logic” that she was exposed to while growing up.

On the other hand, having “what makes her special” be something others can’t take from her, like they would a title of “the smartest”, has led her to have more self-confidence.

Second, it provides a good reason to mix up the plot.

That does introduce one downside that’s somewhat apparent in the first few chapters, though. The author has a tendency to use her to avoid mistakes the canon cast made. (A pattern exacerbated in the first few chapters when first-year Ron is holding his own in a prank war with the twins without any hint that it will be explained a few years later.)

That issue is resolved once the story drifts more firmly into a lighter, less serious tone, but, until it does, it cheapens the first impression the story makes.

On that note, what makes the story really shine is the humour and how the author expands the setting… and they often blend together.

For example, Hermione’s first encounter with a goblin has the goblin wondering if she thought he was a hippogriff because the one thing she’s certain about from her fairy tale books is to never disrespect a non-human sapient.

…or Hermione managing to get past the gargoyle guarding Dumbledore’s office by poking it until it gets so annoyed it can’t play dumb, then suggesting that it ask the The Hat whether she should be allowed up.

In fact, that touches on another nice detail about this story. Just as the original books followed Harry, this follows Hermione to the same degree and it’s really entertaining to see this Hermione’s take on canon events… such as accidentally discovering the Chamber of Secrets and befriending Slytherin’s basilisk. (Which is quite an understatement for how much effect it has on the plot.)

I’ll offer one quick example to that:

“Well, Potter?” sneered Professor Snape. “Would you mind explaining how in Pyrrhus Ocelot’s name you and your toothy muggle-born girlfriend somehow found yourself in the same room as a petrified hybrid of the Dark Lord and one of your own teachers?”

Harry was obviously about to lash out against the recently-arrived Snape, who was, to be fair, clearly looking for friction. Hermione, recognizing the warning signs, answered in his place:

“Well, it all began with Professor Quirrell’s turban giving Harry a headache.”

That said, before I drift too far away from the topic of the Sorting Hat, I need to say that this is only the second story I’ve ever read, after The Lie I’ve Lived, where I truly enjoy the Sorting Hat as a character, so keep that in mind.

More generally, the story has a recurring theme of there being more sapients in the Wizarding World than canon acknowledges, and exploring the origins and implications of that fact. The nice part is that, aside from how it ties in with the general “only believable because this is light comedy” aspect of the story, it actually feels like it fits. (Unlike so many other fics which fall down because they tried to mix in species with an air of high fantasy and messed up the setting’s atmosphere.)

That includes an entertaining original character… a boggart who through the “proximity to a light, comic main character” effect, tried to copy a human fear a little too closely and gained sapience, eventually befriending Hermione and becoming a Hogwarts student.

Later in the narrative, it also develops another recurring theme: Hermione “overachieving at solving things” to the point where she finds herself becoming the puppetmaster behing Minister Fudge and Lucius Malfoy.

On the downside, for as much as I like it, I do get a sense that the story could have been so much more if the author had taken the setting more seriously. Anyone with this kind of skill level can pull off a light, comic Harry Potter story, but being light and comic like this so also limits how much depth the story can have. (ie. The same “not taking things too seriously” that excuses implausible things also limits the ability of the story to explore deeper, more complex narrative elements.) That leaves me feeling as if the tone is acting as an artificial cap on what the author could have achieved with the concept… which is a real waste for a concept as un-explored as Hermione Grander, the parselmouth.

I also worry about whether I’m sensing that, as a side-effect of the whole “Hermione, the puppet-master” becoming a little too dominant, the story’s quality might have peaked and started to decline as a result of the narrative becoming a little too shallow for the “it’s light, silly comedy” to justify it.

Either way, time will tell. As of chapter 49, I’m giving it a 4.4 out of 5. The hiccups in the initial stuff before it hits its stride pin those chapters to a 4.0 rating, while the later chapters deserve a 4.7 once they hit their stride.

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Fanfiction – Harry Potter and the Champion’s Champion

How about something that’s a guilty pleasure of mine and memorable for how well it pulls off a running fart joke, a comically Too Stupid To Live™ Ron Weasley, and a half-senile Dumbledore?

Harry Potter and the Champion’s Champion by DriftWood1965

Yes, this is a guilty pleasure. It focuses heavily on very low-brow humour, it bashes the most cartoonishly flanderized Ron Weasley you’ll ever see, the treatment of the Malfoys is excessive, and it freely uses caricatured parodies of secondary characters for comic effect… but I can’t help that it makes me laugh out loud at times. Because of that, I’ve re-read in the many years since I discovered it. (Definitely a sign that it’s doing something right.)

When the story starts out, it’s pretty clear that the author knows how to write good Harry and Hermione characters for the romantic elements and the comedy clearly shows creativity, but, at the same time, the story quickly chooses to focus primarily on the cartoonish, low-brow comedy instead. (And, in what is clearly an intentional set up for said comedy, it sprinkles caricatures around liberally. Most notably, the change to Ron Weasley that I mentioned at the beginning.)

McGonagall stared at the ginger-topped Gryffindor as she pondered whether overeating could cause brain damage.

The basic plot is that Harry and Hermione discover a loophole which allows Harry to appoint a champion to go through the Triwizard Tournament on his behalf . They give it to Ron to try to curb his jealousy but, in the process, Harry has also realized that he’s attracted to Hermione and they start dating… something which also makes Ron jealous.

That’s where the running fart joke comes in, because Hermione, feeling vindictive at Ron’s behaviour and echoing her canon self’s idea for the DA, had worked up a magical contract for the champion substitution that included a vindictive punishment clause for jealous thoughts.

The punishment is flatulent, it can’t be cancelled until the contract runs its course because Hermione underestimated Ron’s capacity for jealousy, and a large part of the running gag has to do with the various inordinately amusing approaches taken over the course of the year to deal with the smell and their side-effects.

Of course, what really makes it is the author’s use of phrasing and imagery with lines like this:

Seeing them in the common room, he turned and stormed back up the steps with a minor “pbrrrrrp” trailing him, leaving an odorous barrier at the entry to the staircase.

…and this:

The mixture of Gillyweed, Canary Creams and Horntail Honey’s turned the fourth champion into a five and a half foot tall, fire-breathing duck which had to keep ducking its head under the water to breathe.

That said, it’s not purely limited to that and attempts to broaden the scope of the humor around the first Triwizard task. (Personally, I think the task is memorable for its creative events but not that funny, but it is a transitional period.) For example, that’s when Dumbledore starts to come into play and and we start to see Crouch Jr. driven mad by how stupid this Ron Weasley is.

Through the pain, only one thought emerged. ‘How can there be this much stupidity locked inside of a single mind?’

Ron watched his defense teacher slump to the ground and smiled. ‘He’s amazed at my ability to solve it without his help. He’ll never underestimate me again.’ He trotted off down the hallway headed for the kitchens while wondering what prospect tasted like.

As for the romance, when it’s actually focused on, DriftWood1965 does put the effort in. In the very first chapter, there’s some nicely satisfying interaction between Harry and Hermione and I especially like how readers get to see signs that the relationship has promise, with both Harry and Hermione demonstrating how well they already know each other when they decide to become a couple.

(To be honest, it reminds me of Ranma ½, where Season 1 of the anime and the portion of the manga it’s adapted from feel more romance-oriented than the later stuff. I’ve often mused on how the series might have unfolded if that had continued on.)

All in all, it’s a cracky comedy with some flaws and some legitimate romantic scenes and it’s one of those stories that you’ll either love or hate. If, like me, you’re willing to accept huge deviations from canon characterizations as long as the overall effect is entertaining, and you’re not above laughing at crude humour, then you’ll likely enjoy it as a well-done source of “cheap fun”. Otherwise, it won’t be your thing.

It’s 108,953 words, it’s complete, and, based on my overall experience of reading it, I’d rate it at 4.0 out of 5… though, given how much that relies on the humour connecting, you might rate it as low as 2.5 out of 5.

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Fanfiction – A Thin Veneer

Ironically, I still haven’t reviewed the fic that usually comes to mind when I think “memorable sci-fi crossover fanfiction”, so let’s remedy that now.

A Thin Veneer by AlbertG (Albert Green Jr.) et al

This crossover between the original Star Trek and Babylon 5  is part of a larger universe of stories by the authors in question but I consider it a good thing that you can ignore that. I’ve always found that Comic Book Multiverse™-style writing interferes with the process of immersing the reader even in original works, where the fanfic “all deviations from canon should ripple out from a single ‘freebie'” rule of thumb is in effect.

The part of the plot that’s relevant to this story is that the Minbari stumble upon a hyperspatial wormhole of sorts while chasing some human refugees and almost interfere with the events of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Upon reading their report, the Grey Council decide that it’s too dangerous to leave what must be a small lost colony to eventually seek vengeance when they discover the extermination of Earth humans and, in the process, also give the Klingon Empire a slap on the wrists (two destroyed patrol ships) to warn them to never attack a Minbari ship again.

Needless to say, both efforts backfire when the Federation declares war on the Minbari for the murder of over 20 million civilians and the newly allied Klingon Empire refuses to let the insult and associated destruction go unpunished. Basically, this is what you get when you want to write an “X curb-stomps the Minbari” fic, but you can’t because you have standards.

For example, the story gives the federation a handicap, by setting this during the 23rd century and, while they’re technologically behind and tactically complacent, the Minbari aren’t stupid. Sometimes, the Minbari do discover effective counters or take prisoners, so the Klingons, the Federation, and the readers aren’t allowed to get complacent.

However, the thing that gives the strongest sense of “this is making a good effort to be quality writing” is the recurring theme that the title alludes to: The nature of civility in society, as first confirmed when the ever-eloquent General Chang delivers the first title drop in chapter 5. While the story touches on this from various angles (eg. the Klingons get plenty of story time), one of the more notable avenues it explores is using Admiral James T. Kirk to explore wartime morality and the boundary between righteous and monstrous as he prosecutes a war against the Minbari, having had no prior experience as a wartime commander and just coming out of negotiations that reminded him of the death of his son.

Diplomacy, tactical combat, curb-stomps, philosophy, interesting secondary characters, and more. This fic has a bit of everything.

On a less uncommon note, I also like the ways in which the two settings were merged. For example, it’s already known that, in Star Trek, the Preservers transplanted humans and terraformed planets… what’s one more Earth that’s unusually far and an unusually perfect copy of ours?

Likewise, if the Vorlons and Shadows are shepherding their little group of species, what’s stopping them from mucking with ours? Why, a collection of more hands-off, balance-oriented species such as the Organians, Metrons, and Medusans that won’t allow immature stagnancy-chasers to throw tantrums in the territory of others and will send ambassadors to sway misguided chaos-seekers if necessary. (An uncommon but pleasing twist, to have the “evil gods” swayed by reason while the “good gods” are revealed to be petulant children.) Best of all, what they see in accelerated transit across the galaxy suggests that the Preservers are still actively shuffling around planets, but working behind the scenes.

The other two reasons this probably sticks with me are:

  1. Star Trek and Babylon 5 are two series I perceive as “proper sci-fi” moreso than many others I’ve reviewed good things in, such as Stargate: SG-1, Battlestar Galactica, or Star Wars. I think it’s that the latter examples just feel too focused on some blend of contemporary-ness, personal stories, and fantasy-esque simplified morality to live up to the sense of exploration, scale, and/or philosophical depth that I look for in sci-fi.
  2. Despite being unfinished, it’s 445,720 words long and very close to the end of its story arc most of the way to completion, so it still satisfies. (And it may still get completed.)

That said, it also has its fun moments that aren’t memorable, so I re-discover them anew each time. For example, managing to find a way to make a meme reference work through a similar approach to Tom Paris’s love for old sci-fi:

“We get signal!”

Acaltha turned in his chair and directed a sharp look at his communications officer. “Mr. Vickers, I believe I mentioned something previously about a certain officer trying break the tension on the bridge by reviving three hundred year old Terran jokes?”

…or some delightful exchanges between old friends that I’ll leave you to discover on your own.

I’d say it definitely earns a 5 out of 5 rating for how it blends cathartic curb-stomping, enough challenge for the Federation to keep things interesting, and a lot of detail in the philosophical and character elements of war. That’s a combination you just don’t see every day, and I enjoy it very much.

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Fanfiction – Moving Sci-Fi MLP Oneshot Fics

While I do try to minimize the amount of MLP fic I post here, rather than in my recommendations group, I just re-read a couple of short fics that really go above and beyond.

One of the interesting details about the MLP fandom is that, as far as I (and various other commenting readers) can tell, it has a higher than average proportion of authors who are also into science fiction (and the proportion of those who are into more than just the most common pop sci-fi like Star Trek, Star Wars, Mass Effect, etc.).

I could write an entire blog post about great crossover fics like The Maretian or elegant non-crossover first-contact fics like Arrow 18, or even stuff that barely got started, but is noteworthy just for existing, like The Long Trot but, today, I felt like talking about fics that give you the feels.

For this, I’ve chosen two which cross over with real life, so to speak. They’re quite short and their impact is the sort of thing that is best experienced fresh, so I’ll be brief in my descriptions this time:

Voyage’s End by The DM
This is a little 7,205-word story which could be thought of as two oneshots, each with a “punchline” designed to make you tear up. In the first one, Equestrian ponies catch one of the Voyager probes as it serendipitously passes through their solar system and then discover the golden record. In the second one, they follow the “map” on the record cover back to Earth.
One small step
In this 4,262-word story, written as a memorial to Neil Armstrong, contact has already come and gone (I’d assume, via trans-dimensional means) and Rainbow Dash is used as a vehicle to try to bring some of the wonder and emotion of the Apollo 11 mission to a generation who grew up reading it as history like any other.
It helps that the author embedded illustrations of the launch to drive the experience home further (one of the benefits of posting a fic to a site other than Fanfiction.net), but there’s a minor detail which could easily have been left out which spoils the second chapter for me. Thankfully, the first chapter was written to stand alone.

I think the first is the most powerful, but I’m not sure I can remember running into anything that hit me this hard in other fandoms… I’m sure that’s partly because I’m unmoved by the more personal, more TV-like means authors in other fandoms tend to prefer.

(Though there is one very un-TV-like fic in another fandom which I’d likewise recommend for its very distinctive style: A Ranma ½ oneshot named Elegy for a Golden Youth by Reid Carson. It’s been years but, if I remember correctly, it was inspired by Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter.)

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An Improved QPlainTextEdit for PyQt5

TL;DR: Code here

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently is a proper replacement for the hacky way I handle desktop notes and “scratch paper”. (Abusing Leafpad windows as pseudo-sticky notes so I have things which are proper windows which show up in the taskbar because I almost never see my desktop.)

Well, one thing that I’ve always wanted was as-you-type spell checking in my stickies and scratch spaces, so I got to Googling and found this bit of code for PyQt4 by John Schember.

I liked where it was going, but realized I could do much better. (eg. It shouldn’t be meddling with the visible cursor and selection to do background processing.)

The changes I made as of this post are as follows:

  • Brought the declaration of MIT license terms up to my standards.
  • Reformatted it to satisfy PEP8 and match my preferred code style.
  • Ported it to Python 3.x and PyQt5
  • Refactored the code to be cleaner (Both the fix from Jonas F. Jensen’s comment on the original and many fixes of my own.)
  • Reworked things so the user’s cursor and selection are left un-touched. (Qt supports having additional ones which aren’t shown to the user.)
  • Switched to using PyEnchant’s tokenizer for both highlighting and generation of spelling suggestions to minimize false positives.
  • Reworked the API to better support dropping this code into a larger application, unmodified, rather than using it as a starting-point to be copy-pasted.
  • Added context submenus to allow changing the spelling language or ignoring HTML tags.
  • Enabled the PyEnchant tokenizer’s URL filter to avoid false positives.
  • Added a workaround for a cursor-focus bug I observed in Qt 5.2.1.

It’s not yet perfect, but I think this is as far as I’ll go with the MIT-licensed version. (eg. I’m using a version of PyEnchant which doesn’t yet include an implementation of levenshtein distance, I don’t feel like writing one from scratch, and none of the ready-made ones I could embed have MIT-compatible licenses.)

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A Musical Sampling of Subcultures With Feels All Their Own

There are various subcultures I’ve dipped my toes into, but not all are created equal. Some have that “wherever you go, there you are” feel about them (eg. the otherwise excellent fan-music scene for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic), but then some produce cultural artifacts that have a strong, distinctive feel all their own.

…so I decided, why not give a sampling of songs which were not only produced by a distinctive subculture, but manage to evoke such feelings in me:

Pushin’ the Speed of Light by Julia Ecklar & Anne Prather
This song evokes a feel that I associate with sci-fi from the middle of the 20th century. Maybe the 1940s through the early 1980s. New enough to have evolved beyond “cowboys in space”, yet old enough to not have lost the adventuresome spirit embodied in books like Niven’s Ringworld and the poignant humanity so well embodied in the song. (I also like the fact that it’s a minstrel ballad.)
Sam Jones by Leslie Fish is another song which evokes this sort of feeling in me. (For comparison, The Horse Tamer’s Daughter is an amazing ballad from the same subculture and it checks off the boxes necessary to be called an epic, but, if anything, it evokes feelings of Darkover, rather than the subculture the novels existed in.)
Sadly, I suspect that the essence of what I love exists only as fading wisps and the only place I’d be able to truly experience it was a 1980s sci-fi convention where the original casette tape releases of these songs were sold.
307 Ale by Tom Smith
This song about sci-fi booze speaks to me because it feels like it carries a lingering trace of a subculture I caught the tail end of in amateur fiction. It’s the distinctive style I recognize from various authors in places I wandered into during the early 2000s. For example, the archive for the rec.arts.anime.creative Usenet group and Sapphire’s Place.
I also get the impression that I’ll find more of it once I have time to get into some of the old Infocom and Legend Entertainment adventure games I’ve picked up. (It’s been a long time, but I seem to remember the Ditch Day Drifter game included as an example with TADS having at least a whiff of the feel to it.)
For that reason, I suspect that what I’m picking up on was the college nerd/geek culture of the 1980s and 1990s, and that it’s also long gone.
Various anime intro songs (and a few endings)
Back in the early and mid 2000s, I spent several years obsessed with anime and manga and, despite my interests having shifted over the years, I think I’m entitled to eulogize the market shift away from what I loved so much.
Back in the 80s and 90s, TV animation both in North America and Japan experienced a boom and, discovering anime in the early 2000s, it seemed like, no matter where I looked, Japan had done something that appealed to me, where they now drive me away.
I could check out weird and cheesy things targeted at teenage males, like Maze: The Megaburst Space or Steel Angel Kurumi, without learning just how many different excuses the production company could find to sell softcore pornography to teenage males. (And, in some cases, I’d be surprised at how much work was actually put into giving the female characters depth in a “harem” anime.)
Likewise, what was popular seemed to line up more with my tastes, with series like the original Neon Genesis Evangelion, .hack//SIGN, and Slayers (2) as opposed to things like Attack on Titan, Fairy Tail, the later seasons of Naruto. (Regardless of the quality of their intro songs.)
In fact, I can do one better. I can provide a glaring comparison of how much the industry chased the lowest common denominator in one of the genres I loved:
In the 1980s, Rumiko Takahashi gained a ton of acclaim. Two of her biggest successes were romantic comedies named Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½. In Urusei Yatsura, a candidate for the world’s most lecherous teen winds up with an unwanted suitor who is an alien oni girl in a tigerskin bikini. In Ranma ½, the main character is a macho jock who’s cursed to turn into a girl and has an unwanted engagement set up by his buffoon of a father. (Ranma ½ is noteworthy in that some issues of the manga and the corresponding anime episodes have fanservice-y scenes involving bare breasts, but they’re implemented by finding a reasonable excuse to set an otherwise ordinary scene in a location where nudity is expected.)
In 2009, To Love-Ru came out (a pun on how both that and “Trouble” turn into “Toraburu” within the limitations of the Japanese writing system). It’s a rehash of the Urusei Yatsura concept, with the lead picking up a troublesome suitor who is an alien devil girl instead of an alien oni girl, and, on more than one occasion, a story arc revolves around one of her gizmos leaving the main character stuck as a girl for long enough for titillating mishaps to occur. Where Urusei Yatsura and Ranma ½ tactfully couched their fanservice in terms of “Well, it’s relevant to the plot, so keep filming”, this… well… watch the intro. Tactless and blatant fanservice galore and the broadcast version required the addition of glows and steam clouds to censor things in some scenes.
It may not be the same kind of fall from grace that western animation experienced, with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic being the exception that proves the rule, but it fell at least as far, if not more so.
Gentle Arms of Eden by Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer
This one’s a bit more of an anomaly, because I get the impression that what appeals in it is less a fandom and more a community… something which I’ll have to clarify.
For the fandoms, yes they’re communities, but they’re communities which exist and survive in a distributed fashion. You can make and keep friends online, with the occasional visit to a convention or a local meeting place and you’re not missing out on anything because that’s how it’s supposed to be.
Here, it feels more like I’m picking up on what Americans mean when they say they moved to states like California or Oregon or Washington “for the culture”… a sense of “wouldn’t it be refreshing to live in a place with more of this mindset floating around?” …and I’m not in a position or mindset to do something as drastic as moving for something as nebulous and un-guaranteed as this.
That said, it’s still a shame that we seem to have moved away from this kind of folk music in a more general sense. So many of my favourite songs are either by the folk and folk-inspired bands of the mid 20th century (Peter, Paul, and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Chad and Jeremy, etc.) or their covers of earlier folk songs (eg. Pete Seeger’s Turn Turn Turn [1] [2] and Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda.)
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Thoughts on National Anthems in the 21st Century

While I was adding I Am Australian to my list of songs that moved me, I got to thinking about the sentiment by many Australians that it would make a much better anthem than Advance Australia Fair and, in the process, I got to thinking about what would actually make a good national anthem in the 21st century.

Well, what is the purpose of a national anthem to begin with? According to Wikipedia, it’s a patriotic song which “evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions, and struggles of its people”.

In other words, it’s a song which embodies the nature of the nation and evokes a sense of national identity and loyalty.

The problem is that, when I look at national anthems and how they’re used, it feels like they’re products of their time to the point where, in the 21st century, that adherence to tradition is becoming detrimental to their core function.

As a Canadian, I suppose it would be most appropriate for me to break down O Canada, but I don’t have a more effective alternative to contrast it with, and that would really weaken the communicative power of my argument.

Since this post started with “I Am Australian”, let’s look at “Advance Australia Fair”. It’s a beautiful song, but it was written in the latter half of the 19th century (first performed in 1878) and it’s very much a product of its time.

It’s an ode (in the relaxed sense of the word) to the virtues of the nation, written in the characteristic musical style of its time period and meant to be sung with the kind of decorum that was common in high society of the period.

While that’s all well and good, I argue that it has the same flaw as the school systems which we inherited from that time, designed to train factory workers: It inculcates obedience and duty on the promise that “you’ll discover its relevance later” and is incredibly “leaky”. (I don’t have a citation handy, but I remember reading that students tend to retain only about 5% of what they are taught in school and have a problem with sandboxing knowledge, such that they never try to apply teachings from one class to the next class of the day.)

If your primary goal is to teach knowledge, rather than to teach conformity and obedience, experts agree that the most effective approach is to give relevance first, then give knowledge. This is a specific instance of a more general pattern which also comes into play with national anthems.

In short, make people value their nation and true respect will come, rather than commanding the trappings of respect and trying to inculcate it through some pavlovian response.

I’ll come back to that when I get to how anthems are used but, first, I’d like to talk about the content of the anthem.

The Song

One of the our biggest social problems at the beginning of the 21st century is a pathological lack of empathy, which the homophilic effects of social networking sites exacerbate. Anthems traditionally haven’t helped here, because this problem is the remnants of cultural trends which were even stronger in the past. Segregation, apartheid, class warfare, slavery, etc.

While “Advance Australia Fair” certainly salutes the beautiful attributes of the Australian land, with passages such as “with boundless plains to share”, it does nothing to counter the tendency among some to believe that they are worthy of that beauty, but others are not… and why should it? It was written by a white man, born in the British Isles in the 19th century. He was a product of his culture and wrote a song which embodied that.

In fact, it explicitly says that the aforementioned boundless plains are for “those who’ve come across the seas” and speaks of the bounties of the lands as gifts to be used.

Now, let’s compare “I Am Australian”.

Right from the offset, it respectfully and poetically acknowledges the culture of the aboriginal people and their original claim to the land. It then adds to (not replaces) the atmospheric music from that first passage with the more European strumming of a guitar. Before the lyrics can say a thing about it, the instrumental lines are already expressing the hybrid origins of what Australia became. The second passage then speaks from the perspective of Australian settlers: Convicts and farmers. People who worked hard to earn their place in Australia and who became Australian. Again, focusing not on the virtues of the land, or the joys of the cultural identity, but on the relatable, historical reasons that these people have earned their place in the cultural milieu.

It then moves to the daughter of a digger (in context, one who “sought the motherlode”, but also Australian and New Zealand slang for a soldier which carries a connotation of “egalitarian mateship”) and, in a twist of lyrics which can evoke both a personal journey and a metaphor for the nation itself, “the girl became a woman, on the long and dusty road”. Then, as a bridge into the chorus of the song, she is joined by a chorus of voices as they sing together that “I’m a bushy, I’m a battler. I am Australian.”

Taking the song in this direction may also have a less overt benefit: By encouraging people to focus on the aspects of their identity that can never be taken from them, it may make conservatives more open to the unfamiliar.

Finally, we get to the chorus. “We are one… but we are many. And from all the lands on earth we come. We’ll share a dream… and sing with one voice. I am. You are. We are Australian.” Not only is this a powerful thing to encourage a crowd to join in singing, but, again, it focuses on what unites everyone in the nation, be they aborigine, settler’s descendant, or recent immigrant and whether they’re at home or abroad: Having and pursuing a dream for a better future. (Rather than scarce resources which one might want to hoard.)

…but the song’s elegance as a potential anthem doesn’t stop there. I don’t know whether it was an intentional effort to check off each thing an anthem aims to do, but the second verse is focused on extending the “I am …” pattern to various Australian historical figures, including Albert Namatjira (a pioneer in popularizing the art of his disadvantaged minority) and Ned Kelly (A murderous outlaw who became seen as folk hero for opposing the government… which I think is a good choice as, depending on how you look at it, it’s either an inclusion of another folk hero, or an implication that your status as “one of us” is not something decided by the state).

The second half of the second verse finally starts to describe the land itself and I love the sense of priority that implies. Our own struggles, then our history, and then our lands. Of course, this still isn’t Advance Australia Fair. No bland serenade to the gifts given to the Australian people. I’ll quote this entire stanza verbatim:

I’m the hot wind from the desert
I’m the black soil of the plain
I’m the mountains and the valleys
I’m the drought and flooding rains
I am the rock
I am the sky
The rivers when they run
The spirit of this great land
I am Australian

Two things stand out to me about this assessment of the land:

First, it has shifted from the 19th-century Christian view that all around us has been placed here for us to exploit, to a more poetic, more aboriginal perspective that we and the land are part of the same connected whole and that, like doctors, we are duty-bound to preserve its health. (Not a surprise, given that the song was written in the late 1980s when other songs like “We Are The World” were also being written.)

Second, while Advance Australia Fair focuses on the good things, I Am Australian embraces the land for what it is, both good and bad. If the former is teenage infatuation, then the latter is adult love. To quote My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, “You don’t love someone because they’re perfect, you love them in spite of the fact that they’re not.”

Finally, the note they end on. Both songs end on a variation of their title… and what message would you want to leave the people of your country with? “Strive” (which is a pretty instinctual thing anyway) or a message of unity and inclusion (which has to be learned, because of our in-group/out-group instincts)?

The Usage

Now, let’s look at how anthems are actually used and how that can help or hinder their purpose.

I didn’t grow up in Australia, but, here in Canada, we were required to stand while our anthem was played over the school’s P.A. system every morning before classes. Judging by what I’ve seen of American and U.K. culture, that seems to be a safe thing to assume as a minimum for mandatory participation… at least for sake of argument.

This is another decision which seems counter-productive to me. If the purpose of your anthem is to engender unity, loyalty, and appreciation for the nation, you want to work with human instincts, not against them.

When I was in school, students (myself included) didn’t really feel much respect. We saw standing for the anthem as a chore to be gotten out of the way. Likewise, the students in charge of announcements tried their best to find various different recordings of O Canada to avoid us getting completely and utterly fed up with it. (Contrast that with the “Stop the Bop” fundraiser they did, where they played the same recording of Hanson’s Mmmbop every morning to annoy people into meeting their fundraising goals.)

In fact, I once read that the reason you hear so many Christian choral pieces in music by composers like Beethoven is that, having heard them every Sunday for their entire lives, the audience would tune out the meaning of the words and focus more on the acoustics of the voices and how they interacted with the music.

Humans like novelty within our comfort zones. That’s why we love fireworks on national holidays and going out to special events. We also like to be engaged. That’s why you see things such as bands encouraging concert-goers to take a turn singing the chorus of a song.

…so, if the goal is no longer to inculcate human robots to obediently work in factories and fight wars for the privileged classes, why in the heck are you forcing people to merely tolerate their national anthem, when singing along to it should be a treat, like fireworks on the day your country was founded or a half-time show at a football game?

(And who knows. Maybe singing a song with lines like “We are [insert country name]” before a team sport might tweak the audience’s mindset enough to measurably reduce the chances of fans rioting afterward.)

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