Rhythm: The Enemy of Story

Zzzzz…

This is going to be partly a writing post, partly a gaming post, and partly a literary post. I don’t outline these things, so who the hell knows what’s going to happen next. Let’ start with… (throws dart) literature. Okay, so the past few years I’ve themed my Lit Survey class around the Hero’s Journey (mostly Campbell’s Monomyth, etc.). Inevitably, we start talking about superhero movies in the class, as superhero tales are the ones most recognizably Campbellian in form. While I do like these movies (overall), after reading hundreds and hundreds of pages of student work on Calls to Adventure, Crossing the Threshold, the Normal World Vs the Special World and so on and so forth, I tend to get bored with the whole thing.

Now, as it happens, it’s rather difficult to escape the basic rhythms of this story form, particularly if you intend to tell a story involving a protagonist intended to be even vaguely heroic – this stuff is deeply ingrained in our collective unconscious and our ideas of story. Inevitably we wind up following some variation of this path – both in our reading, our own writing, and even at the RPG table.

The challenge, though, is to resist the urge to paint by the numbers – follow the journey, step by step, like a kind of roadmap. While you can tell some very competent tales that way, you also fall into being predictable. Spend enough time with this structure, and things cease to amaze you, which is, frankly, a terrible loss.

Of course, totally diverging from this format has its own problems – the story becomes unsatisfying or strange to the point where you no longer connect with it. Kafka, for all his brilliance, isn’t telling stories that delight and engage so much as confuse and confound. This has its place and its own appeal, naturally, and I’m not suggesting the avant garde, post-modern, or abstract tale is a worthless endeavor. It’s that if you want to tell a heroic story but you also want to make it new, you need to find variations of the monomyth that are poorly traveled. There are many ways to do this, of course – shake up who your hero is, shake up the setting, shake up the stakes, and resist hitting the steps of the story “cleanly.” If you want a master class in how this is done, watch any given Cohen Brothers film – they are regularly, consistently unusual and amazing, even though, in broad terms, they are (usually) telling the story of a central character who is yanked from their normal world, sent through an ordeal, who then returns to the normal world somehow changed and enlightened. They just do it in the messiest, most bizarre way possible.

Oh great, more piles of gold…

In tabletop RPGs, there are dangers in rhythm, as well. The standard form is this: Players receive a call to adventure, they delve into the dungeon and slay monsters, and they are rewarded with treasure. In D&D in particular, this is what we sign up for, right? But there is only so long this can happen before the game gets old. Too many gaming sessions can be described as “role-play, role-play, kill little thing, argue, big battle, treasure.” I fall into this routine myself. There are plenty of games out there that don’t lend themselves to this, sure, but plenty more that do, I’d argue. Even in those games that don’t do this, the danger of routine still looms large, it’s just that the routine changes.

I say routine and rhythm is “dangerous” because it risks, to my mind, what is ultimately fatal to a book or game alike: becoming boring and predictable. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants things to go smoothly and perfectly all the time (even when they say they do) because it kills the excitement of the unknown. For gaming, as with storytelling, this requires you to consciously seek variations on a theme. Break the mold. Have the dungeon be empty, but have it lead players on some different, deeper quest. Have the monster be absent – it’s back at the village, killing and eating all those people your players are sworn to protect. Never forget the narrative fun that can be had with a cursed item (note: not for making players look stupid, but for giving them benefits that have extreme costs. Yes, that’s a +5 sword. No, you can’t ever sheathe it or wipe off the blood. Enjoy visiting the orphanage.). Have the players be wildly overmatched to the point where they need to flee the dungeon (and make it back through all the deathtraps backwards). Have the adventure involve no dungeon AT ALL. Have the players save the town from a flash flood. Drop them in a desert with no food or water and watch them scrabble to survive. Make one of them king for  a day.

The point here is that, as important as the forms and rituals of our storytelling world are to making our stories satisfy, we also need to remember that variety is the spice of life. Break the mold. Change the dance. Improvise.

Good luck!

Tolkien in a Time of Strife

Last week, whilst snowed in with the kids for a day, I decided to introduce them to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. We watched Fellowship, which is about as much as one can ask of a 7 year old and a 4 year old in one day. They liked it and were very engaged in the battle scenes and loved Galadriel and Arwen, especially. I liked it more.

Ohmygod, cut away! Fade out! WHY ARE WE STILL WATCHING THIS? AHHHHHH!

It’s always been my favorite of the three films. It’s the one I think deserved all the Oscars, not the bloated 3rd Act with all the incessant monologues and that damned ship that we watched sail away for, like, ten minutes or something. The Fellowship of the Ring really conveys the full strength of the novels in miniature, and does so with artistry rather than with brute SFX force. I’m not here, though, to debate the films’ comparable merits. I’m here to tell you how the movie affected me this last time in a way it hadn’t before.

Our society – by which I mean the United States – has taken a pretty sharp left turn into dark, disturbing, and destructive territory (yeah, yeah – there’s some politics here. Feel free to tune out.). Times are uncertain. People are uneasy, the world stands on edge. A dark power has arisen, one seeking to devour all that the free peoples have built over the ages. One that sows lies and deceit with every breath. One that values wealth and power above all other concerns – a Dark Lord.

And so here we are. The analogy is pretty clear, and it’s notable that Tolkien wrote these books with this loose analogy in mind. The One Ring was always the symbol of greed and domination, of deceit and lies. It is the Machine – the modern world Tolkien saw as antithetical to everything he loved. Everything green and quiet and simple and good. It doesn’t take a lot of prodding to slip the Trump administration, with its desire to obliterate the EPA and its oil tycoon Secretary of State, neatly into place. We can even see the conservative wing of our government, sitting there in their studies, hugging a book, whilst some disembodied voice whispers “BUILD ME AN ARMY WORTHY OF MAR-A-LAGO.”

As in Middle Earth, the human race (the “Race of Men”) is rolling over before the might of the Ring. As Galadriel says:

And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else desire power.

…but the hearts of men are easily corrupted. And the ring of power has a will of its own.

Saruman’s betrayal: Fake News! Sad!

Enter Boromir, who may as well be wearing a Make Gondor Great Again hat, pissed off at the elves for not doing enough to save his people, pissed off at Aragorn for shirking his duty, pissed off that they have this super-weapon ring that might turn the tide and they’re just gonna throw it away.
So the guy is a hand’s breadth from betraying Frodo, stealing the Ring, and ruining them all. But, for all this, he is not a bad guy. He’s just a human being, trying to get by in a world he doesn’t fully understand, observing it through unavoidable filter of his own experience. One can (and I have) written essays on understanding Boromir’s motives – he is the symbol for humanity more than any other in the trilogy. But, of course, he’s still dead wrong. He still seeks to betray.

Here’s the thing, though: he realizes he was wrong. He redeems himself, fighting to defend his friends and dying in the attempt. There – right there – is the cause for hope. The hope that he himself could not see even as Galadriel told him of it. He cannot see it because he is blinded by his own struggles and lashing out at what he thinks are their cause. But he’s wrong.

Boromir joins a long list of hopeless people giving in to darkness for the lack of hope. Saruman is a great example, as is Theoden before Gandalf’s intervention. Even Smeagol/Gollum falls on this spectrum – a being so poisoned by his own greed that he loses all sense of self. There is no hope beyond which the Ring might provide him – that Sauron might provide him. But, of course, Sauron has no intention of doing so. As Gandalf says:

There is only one lord of the ring, Saruman – only one. And He does not share power.

So, okay – what are we to do in the face of all this? We feel powerless to affect the destinies of nations, of peoples, of the world. We, like Frodo, wish it had never happened to us. We are angry with the ones whose fear has brought us to this pass – Frodo wishes Bilbo had killed Gollum when he had the chance. Again, though, Gandalf demurs:

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them. Frodo? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

We are left, then, with two pieces of wisdom, one from Gandalf and one from Galadriel, to guide us. On the one hand, Gandalf tells us that all people who live in such times wished they were not so, but we cannot make such choices. All we can do is decide what to do with the time that is given us. And then, Galadriel:

Even the smallest person can change the course of history.

I take great comfort in those words. I must – we all must – endeavor to maintain hope in the face of despair and loss. We must seek to be unafraid before that which is fearsome and terrible to behold. Small though we are, we must believe. Because if we give in to fear and lose our hope, if we (to paraphrase Aragorn) sever all bonds of fellowship, then the Dark Lord will have won.

The Horrible Ordeal of Prince Adam’s Servants

As Disney is releasing a live-action version of Beauty and the Beast this weekend, I felt it pertinent to revisit this post from a while back. I’m curious to see how (and if) the new movie addresses this.

Auston Habershaw

Now comes the time where I once again journey deep into the land of Disney and discuss how ultimately screwed up it all is. Today’s topic: the servants in Beauty and the Beast.

THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH! THEY HAVE NO FEET, PEOPLE! AHHHH!

Have we ever paused for a moment to contemplate how utterly horrific their transformations are? I mean, sure, going from stuck-up boy prince to giant beast monster is bad for the self-esteem, but what the hell happens to you when you are (1) not guilty of any crime against any enchantress and (2) sentenced to ten years as a sentient teapot.

Holy shit, people. Think about it. TEN YEARS.

Ten years between the last time Mrs. Potts could hug her own kids and that hug on the balcony.

Ten years of Lumiere constantly, consistently burning away. How does he get a new face in a new candle? Does he even remember what…

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Where Have All the Good Guys Gone?

I was watching CNN’s documentary on the 1960s last night (which is interesting viewing, incidentally, if you want a quick overview of the decade), and in this particular episode it discussed how television (to paraphrase) was an escape from the darkness, fear, and unease that permeated the society at large. It was an age of zany sitcoms and upbeat variety shows while, on the evening news, the lists of American’s injured or killed in Vietnam was top news, college campuses were rioting, and black people were getting shot, bombed, sprayed with hoses, and assaulted with attack dogs all because they wanted basic human rights.

Ah, yes…that old “feel good” escapist series about the good guy serial killer…

Now, everything in the latter half there should sound awfully familiar in our current era – the dead soldiers, the riots and demonstrations among the youth, and the mistreatment of African Americans marching for basic equality. What doesn’t sound familiar (at least to me) is the characterization of television as “zany.” Sure, there’s a docket of late night variety shows (though how much “variety” is present is debatable), but few of them are “zany” (with the possible exception of Jimmy Fallon). We’ve got sitcoms, too, but they have a lot less in common with The Dick VanDyke Show and Gilligan’s Island – with their “wholesome” and harmless optimism – and rely, instead, on cynicism, sarcasm, and insult comedy (look at any Chuck Lorre sitcom and despair).

As for dramas…yeesh. You know, when Dexter is one of the more optimistic offerings out there, you’ve got to step back and wonder what on Earth is wrong with us. Game of ThronesBreaking Bad, The ExpanseThe Magicians, The Walking Dead, The Blacklist, Man in the High Castle – we’re looking at a veritable who’s-who of dark, depressing, morally ambiguous, and emotionally wrenching stories that catch our collective attention. How many millions of people tuned in to watch Negan swing a baseball bat into somebody’s head, anyway?

What exactly does this say about us?

Now, mind you, I enjoy a lot of these shows. I like moral ambiguity and complex stories without clear resolutions. I do wonder, however, if all this misery, pain, and negativity saturating our entertainment is good for us on an emotional level. As the world gets darker and more disturbing around us with each passing year, wouldn’t it be more natural for us to go all-in with shows like The Good Place, which aspire to a generally positive tone and outlook? It seems this is what Supergirl and The Flash are trying to do, anyway, but (at least personally) something about those shows leaves me flat. They just lack a certain…darkness that I’ve come to expect.

And that last there is what vaguely worries me. Granted, it isn’t like I’ve performed an in-depth survey here and my sense is only that – a sense – but one wonders if we’ve become inured to the horrors of the world. That we don’t have the heady optimism of the post-war boom to ride on to remind us that life doesn’t have to suck and that America can, indeed, be a good place again. When was the last great era of American optimism in our collective lives? The 1990s, right? That’s twenty years gone, folks. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a barely remembered dream. Now it’s all zombie apocalypses and post-modern deconstructions of old sitcom tropes. It’s beheadings and ritualized cruelty. Our “escape” isn ‘t so much an escape as it is a funhouse mirror reflection of our real lives.

Then again, you could make the argument that this is actually healthy. That we aren’t sticking our heads in the sand; that we’re going to face our problems head-on for once. It could go either way, I suppose: either we will face down the dangers of our era with greater passion than before, or instead we will merely shrug and say “that’s life” and let the machine grind us up.

I got in one little fight and my mom got scared.
She said, “You’re movin’ with your auntie and uncle in Bel-Air.

OR maybe I’m just hand-wringing over nothing. I am sure of one thing though: nobody wants or needs a Suicide Squad sequel. Nobody.

The Writer’s Cycle

ACT 1: THE IDEA

Writer: Wait…wait a minute. What’s this here? Why…why it’s a little idea!

Idea: (tiny voice) Water me, and I shall grow!

Writer: LET IT BE DONE!

(weeks of obsessive scribbling in notebooks pass)

Writer: THIS WILL BE THE GREATEST OF BOOKS!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACT 2: THE DRAFT

Writer: There…outline finished.

Idea: That doesn’t really look like me.

Writer: It does if you tilt your head a little and squint.

Idea: Ummmm…

Writer: Let’s just start writing this thing and bring it to life. Then you’ll see.

(months later)

Draft: HELLO! I AM DRAFT!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idea: That looks nothing like me.

Writer: NO SHIT.

Idea: This is a violation of your promise to make me beautiful.

Writer: IT’S A PROCESS, DICK!

ACT 3: REVISION

Writer: Maybe if we hacked off its arms….

Idea: My arms are my best feature.

Writer: Okay, well, then I guess you’ll have to be purple.

Idea: Gross.

Writer: WORK WITH ME, IDEA!

Idea: I will not compromise my integrity.

Writer (brings out chainsaw): Get on the table.

Idea: But…I…

Writer: DO IT!

A BRIEF INTERLUDE

New Idea: Hi there! I’m a new Idea!

Writer (stooping over bloody corpse of old idea) GO. AWAY.

New Idea: Uhhhh…this seems like a bad time.

Writer: (points) GET IN THAT NOTEBOOK, SCUM!

ACT 3: SECOND DRAFT

Writer: (throws switch) There! LIVE LIIIIVE!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.

Writer: (frowning) Nope. Back on the table.

Idea/Draft Hybrid: WE. OBEY.

ACT 4: COMPLETION

Writer: There! All done!

Idea: …

Writer: What? What’s wrong?

Idea: Why am I purple?

Writer: (looks at chainsaw) Hmmmmm…

Idea: No! Purple! Purple’s fine!

 

FIN

 

I’m Gonna Be On TV – TONIGHT, 8pm EST!

Watch it live! Or taped! Or whenever!

Hey, gang! I’m going to be interviewed on the Steve Katsos Show tonight at 8pm EST. Short notice, I know, but very exciting! If you’ve ever wanted to hear me talk or watch me be a real, live person, tonight is your chance!

I’ll be talking about my books (current and upcoming), my journey as a writer, and other things of (hopefully) popular interest.

It should be a fun time! Tune in!

Rogue One and World War 2

Note: The movie’s been out a few months now, so any spoilers you stumble across herein are your own damned fault.

I loved Rogue One. It is my favorite movie in the Star Wars franchise short of Empire Strikes Back, just edging out Return of the Jedi for the second spot. A lot of people didn’t like it as much though. They are, of course, entitled to their opinion, but I think the movie deserves an explanation for the root of my glowing praise. So, let me answer the movie’s criticisms with why I feel those perceived weaknesses are actually strengths.

Critique 1: It Didn’t Feel Like a Star Wars Movie

Not an action adventure romp. War movie.

Not an action adventure romp. War movie.

Okay, so Rogue One does not have the same tone or style of the other Star Wars movies. This, of course, was intentional, as this movie is not meant to be exactly like the other Star Wars movies. This is one of its chief advantages, in my opinion.

First off, last week I explained how I felt that Lego Batman was a miserable slog primarily because the source material has been permitted to stagnate. Same thing has been happening to Star Wars for some time now. My chief criticism of The Force Awakens is that, while I love the characters, the plot of the movie was formulaic, dull, and often nonsensical – Abrams is just pushing the buttons labelled “Star Wars” and not really doing anything new and interesting in terms of plot, setting, or even dramatic tension. Star Wars, it is assumed, has to be a family story about the mystical struggle between the Light and Dark Side. Throw in an alien monster (at least 1 per movie, every movie), one lightsaber duel, one space battle, and one commando raid of some kind and I’ve just described every single Star Wars film with two exceptions: Empire Strikes Back and Rogue One.

Rogue One is not a family story. It’s not even a tale of good vs evil. It’s a war movie – specifically, a straight up homage to World War 2 movies like The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare, and The Guns of Navarone.

rogue-one-ww2

Left: Guns of Navarone; Center: The Dirty Dozen; Right: Rogue One Seem familiar yet?

This is a story about a bunch of rag-tag commandos with conflicting priorities who team up to to take out a fascist superweapon and, in the process, almost all die. They gun down stormtroopers. They go undercover. Get locked inside restricted facilities. They fight on top of high towers and/or mountains. They have a sniper. There’s always one dude you aren’t sure you can trust. The mission seems impossible. No one will remember their names. And on and on and on…

We always knew the Empire was the Nazis, but this is the first movie to actually show what that means.

Yeah, it’s not your average Star Wars story, but it’s a story that makes all the other Star Wars stories (1) make more sense and (2) gain a greater sense of what’s at stake. The Empire is depicted in its full brutality here in a way the other films don’t bother. We get a broader sense of the scope of the world and the risks people have to take. So, no – there are no Jedi, no Skywalkers, no glorious victories, no larger-than-life stunts. It’s regular people trying to do incredible things. I love that.

Critique 2: The Characters Aren’t Greatly Developed

Okay, on the one hand I can see what you’re saying – they could have done a better job in some spots of making these people more rounded and involved. That said, I actually liked the stripped down character development they got. First off, I don’t think the character development was weak, in particular – it just asked you in many places to draw your own conclusions. These aren’t people who discuss their feelings regularly anyway, so there was no Luke-and-Leia-on-the-Forest-Moon confessionals. For what it’s worth, I understood their motivations just fine. I know why Cassian didn’t shoot Jyn’s father. He wants to believe Jyn is right – he doesn’t want to kill innocent people anymore. It eats at him the whole movie. Does he come out and say this? No. He never does and, yeah, its unclear. Hell, I could be wrong (though I don’t think so).

Then again, what is gained her is that this movie allows us to connect with the characters not as characters but in the sense that they can (and are supposed) to be ciphers for us to occupy. This was the same tactic used in those World War 2 raid movies – character development was always sparse, and it was sparse to allow the audience (many of them actual WW2 veterans) to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. You don’t really give a crap what Clint Eastwood’s character’s name is in Where Eagles Dare. You just want to picture yourself with the MP40 gunning down Nazis.

In this same way, I submit to you the following: Rogue One is the film impersonation of every single time you and your friends pretended to be soldiers of the rebellion on school playgrounds from around 1980 until 1990 (with some variation given your actual age, of course). I know me and my friends used to play as rebels getting blown up (and blowing up) stormtroopers in my backyard for years and years. Did our “characters” have names? Not really – we were “the guy with the super-huge gun” and “the guy who knows jedi powers but isn’t a jedi and, oh yeah, he’s blind and really cool.” It’s that. They made a movie about that. Yeah, the character development isn’t super deep, but it doesn’t have to be to get the job done.

Critique 3: The Whole “Death Star Plan Transmission” Was Silly

Okay, first off: debating “realism” in Star Wars is a ridiculous place to start from. I’d follow up with this: if you gave this movie crap but didn’t get frustrated by The Force Awakens, you’re being a raging hypocrite, because this movie made vastly, vastly more sense than any single part of that movie.

But okay, let’s entertain the debate for a moment. Why is it so hard to get the Death Star master plans, anyway? Here are my suggestions:

  1. They are made deliberately hard to transmit because they are super-secret plans.
  2. There is no precedent for nor is their evidence of any kind of “Galactic Internet.” Transmission of incredibly complex and dense data across interstellar distances is likely very, very difficult.
  3. The world-shield on the data haven planet made it hard to get the data transmitted.
  4. The data could not be instantly copied and distributed to multiple Rebel ships because of how large the files likely were and the rebel ships were not equipped to transmit such data easily.
  5. They had to keep it on that one chip because that chip represented the easiest, most secure method of transport for the data which, again, was of such size it could not be easily contained on the Tantive IV.
  6. R2-D2 is magic.

There, settled. Now it’s your turn to explain to me how the Starkiller Base is supposed to work, how some fringe group built it, and why it’s so damned easy to blow up, and the astrocartographical phenomenon that allowed people in star system A see the explosions in system B as two distinct points of light rather than one tiny blip.

Overall, I loved this movie. It was tense, it was different, and it makes me like all the other movies more, which is itself a reward for watching that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I hope to see more like this – more departures from the Star Wars script, more risks being taken to make the franchise last and be fresh and interesting. More franchises could use such treatment.

 

Lego Batman: Symptom of an Illness

I took my kids to see Lego Batman a week or so ago, and I’ve been turning the movie over in my head ever since. It’s a weird one for me: while I recall laughing and finding aspects of the film clever, I very much did not like it, and I’m trying to pin down exactly why. I think, in its broadest sense, this movie represents the death of the Batman character for me – the point at which the character becomes a parody of itself.

Parody turned in upon itself.

Parody can kill the source.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, while there was nothing expressly wrong with Lego Batman, it made it very, very clear that there is something very wrong with Batman himself. The parts of the movie I liked were the parts that broke apart the Batman mystique and myth – the parodic elements, basically. Batman heating up his Lobster Thermidor in the microwave. Batman’s ridiculous outfits. Batman’s improbable 50 year history in film. I even got a kick out of seeing Sauron and Voldemort and the rest of them bopping around. What I hated – hated, hated hated – was the actual story. Which is weird, right? It was the classic Batman story. Hell, it’s a classic story full stop – my own Saga of the Redeemed has elements of that story in it. And yet I very, very much did not want to see any of those scenes. None of them. I squirmed in my seat as I was watching Batman go through his emotional arc. I literally thought to myself, with a sense of dread, crap, do we actually have to *watch* him develop a relationship with Robin?

This semi-instinctive revulsion is indicative that I no longer actually like the Batman character. We’ve seen all his stories, we’ve played out all the rope we can, and now he’s just…dreadfully dull. Lego Batman makes this really clear, actually – Batman is, in reality, boring. I’m watching the movie and realizing, albeit belatedly, that I totally agree. Batman is done to death – there is nothing more to say. For all the zaniness and crazy action and wild jokes and bizarre plot twists, that movie was utterly predictable. What’s more, we all knew it was predictable. We knew exactly what was going to happen, when it would happen, and why it would happen. We only had to sit back and wait for the inevitable. The excitement from the movie was entirely generated by the peripheral, surface-level effects of cool vehicles, sight gags, and visual effects – in other words, the shallowest kind of storytelling. The meat of the story was as overcooked and shoe-leather gray as a steak at the Cracker Barrel.

The movie knows all this, by the way. Egg Man?

The movie knows all this, by the way. Egg Man?

What else can we milk from Batman, exactly? Anything? The same tired villains, the same dull monologues, the same staid Alfred, the same basic style…ugh. We are all going through the motions, now – there’s nothing left interesting to delve into. So, you know, it might as well be funny in the same way that Airplane! made airports funny or Caddyshack made golf-courses funny – because, by themselves, those places just aren’t that entertaining. It’s not the same kind of parody that is done out of love for the source material, either (the Star Wars episodes of Family Guy come to mind), but rather the kind done because every other thing has already been said and we are all collectively tired of it. Is anyone out there actually looking forward to the next Ben Affleck Batman movie?

Didn’t think so.

What a sad fate for a character I used to love so much. I wonder how this happened, but I think the answer is rather complicated: a combination of over-saturation and over-reliance of formula are the primary contributing factors. And, you know, maybe I’m wrong – maybe ol Bats has a few tricks left. I do know, though, that we’re gonna have to wait a while before we can appreciate it and, when they do get around to it, they are really going to have to break the Bat-mold wide open.

The Radicalization of Anakin Skywalker

Author’s Note: Before I get into the main topic here, let me just give a shout-out to Out of Stock, which has published a little flash piece of mine titled “For Consideration” – go check it out! And check out the rest of the site, too – lots of cool stuff in there, all inspired by weird stock photos.

Each spring semester for the last few years I have themed my Expository Writing 2 class around the idea of heroism and the hero’s journey. I feel it serves as an accessible and (hopefully) interesting avenue by which my students can learn how to do in-depth literary analysis without resorting to the tired old Literature Anthology and the incessant blizzard of 19th century short fiction and lyric poetry.

Anyway, just this past weekend I had a paper submitted to me regarding Anakin Skywalker and his status as hero figure. I will decline to discuss the precise particulars of the student’s work here (inappropriate violation of his privacy), but in conversation with this student regarding the paper, I found myself revisiting the character of Anakin and the interesting parallels one can draw between him and many contemporary phenomena.

The Star Wars prequels get tarred for being shallow, awkward, poorly paced, and suffer from poor dialogue and stilted performances – all this is deserved – but at their root, they are describing a pretty interesting thing: a good guy (Anakin) becomes a bad guy (Vader). How the films accomplish this change in practice is too rapid (Anakin’s turn is too sudden to be believable), but the idea in theory is actually quite astute. What the prequels are trying to demonstrate – what they are saying is the thing that changed Anakin from a good man to a genocidal lunatic – is that Anakin lacks any constructive outlet for his emotion and, suffering from emotional trauma such as he is, he is easily radicalized by a manipulative ideologue.

Consider this: Anakin lives the first years of his life as a slave. For all his brusque exterior, he is still just a little boy living in bondage in a harsh environment. He is made to take part in terrifying death races for the amusement and profit of his master. He is taken from his home, from his mother, at a young age. This represents enormous emotional trauma for a child and it is trauma that he bears throughout his life. We can look at little Ani and say “hey, this kid seems fine – look, he saves the day!” but that isn’t how emotional trauma works. People can act fine, but inside they are suffering.

They seriously have no idea what to do with this kid.

They seriously have no idea what to do with this kid.

Accordingly, throwing this kid into the arms of the Jedi is very, very bad for him. The Jedi don’t do emotional trauma. They seek to suppress, neutralize, and erase strong emotions, preferring instead the peace and balance of the Force. This is all well and good for small children who grow up in the context of the Jedi temple, but for a kid with Anakin’s background, it is the very worst environment. Yoda is the only one who realizes this – he is against training the kid, against the kid being taught in the way of the force. He’s too angry and the Jedi can’t deal with this. Yoda himself, throughout the prequels, is the only Jedi who sees things going wrong but he is completely at a loss at how to help. This, of course, is the great flaw of the Jedi, noble as they are – they expect spiritual perfection and have no tools to help the hurting. Telling Anakin to “learn patience” and telling him “it will all work out in the end” just comes across to this angry young man as the voices of people who cannot sympathize with his problems.

And that, of course, is even presuming he is able to recognize his own problems. Since the Jedi don’t appreciate or understand the power of emotions, how could they hope to approach the complex problem of deep-seeded childhood trauma? Their solution is always to push it away, plow it under, erase it under a wave of peaceful contemplation. Ani, though, is too damaged for this to work. Of course, rather than thinking they are failing him (which is true), he develops believing he is failing them (which only exacerbates his problems).

Enter Palpatine. The Sith, of course, understand the power of passion and emotion and trauma quite well – it is their exclusive domain. Ani is a ripe target for his manipulations because, for once in his life, Ani finds himself faced with somebody who actually seems to understand his problems. Palpatine, of course, uses this connection to mislead Anakin and warp his understanding of the world: it’s not you, it’s them, Ani. Your failures are their plan. They are holding you back. They need to be removed from your way.

The Angry Young Man

The Angry Young Man

There is just enough truth in all of this to actually work. Anakin believes him. Now, granted, the films do a pretty poor job of actually expressing this phenomenon, but I really do think this is Lucas’s actual intention. The fall to the Dark Side is simply another word for something we hear in the news all the time: Radicalization.

These young men who join ISIS, these kids who tattoo swastikas on their biceps, these angry loners who go in and shoot up their high schools: these are as much victims as villains. These are kids who are, in many cases, angry at the world around them. This may be as a result of trauma or economics or circumstance, but nevertheless, they are wounded individuals. They also live in societies that cannot and will not allow men to explore their emotions or traumas in healthy ways – the only suitable response is anger and the only satisfactory catharsis anger affords is violence. Somebody has only to whisper in their ears and say “that pain you’re feeling? I understand. I can help. I can tell you who is to blame.” Of course they jump at it. Who do they have to balance them? What do they have to lose?

This is the ultimate tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, and it is a tragic fate he shares with an all-too-long list of young men who succumbed to their hatreds because of the wicked words of someone far, far more evil than they are. Leave a wound untended for long enough, and it will fester, and then there will be lightsabers and assault rifles and the blood of innocents.

This failure, I believe, is what Yoda contemplates on Dagobah. He has no answer for his failure until Luke – another angry young man – comes along. Luke breaks the rules, though, and Yoda is concerned this is yet another failure. He thinks Luke will succumb to the same radical poison that turned Vader. But it doesn’t. Why is probably a different post for a different day, but it is the root of Yoda’s line on his death bed:

No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need.

Luke has figured out something that not even Yoda was able to puzzle out – how to take a wounded heart and make it healthy and whole again.

Given the world we live in, it is a secret we should all spend a long time seeking to uncover.

The Politics in Writing

Trouble in the Galactic Senate...

Trouble in the Galactic Senate…

Okay, okay – everybody is talking about politics lately. Kinda hard not to, right? The world is freaking out, opinions are being expressed, people are upset, and so on and so forth. So what’s a writer (or any artist in general) supposed to do, here?

On the one hand, I have the advice of Kevin J Anderson, who told me and the other guests at the Writers of the Future workshop a few years back that political discussions by an author were unwise. “There is no sense,” he said, “to alienate half your audience.” He suggested we stay out of it. Do our talking through our writing, essentially.

On the other hand, we have a cadre of very politically vocal authors such as John Scalzi, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, and others besides. Notably, I recall a tweet from Ann Leckie who said, essentially, that politics is present in our lives and in our writing, no matter what we think of it. To ask that an author alienate politics from their public discourse is to ask that the author alienate a significant part of themselves. What are the odds that if you don’t like my politics, you are going to like my writing, anyway?

In balancing these points of view, one has to admit that Anderson has a point: why alienate potential readers if you don’t have to? Of course, it is notable that Scalzi, Wendig, and the like are hardly suffering as a result of their political opinions. One might argue that for every person who puts a book down thanks to politics, another picks it up for the same reason.

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

Because this was *just* about robots and humans fighting in space, right?

It’s Leckie’s view that sticks with me, though. How do you even avoid politics in writing or in social media? The avoidance thereof is, itself, a political statement. Your writing is going to espouse political viewpoints, no matter how apolitical you seek to be. Politics is important. You ought to have opinions about it. Lack of opinions about it signifies privilege, which is a side-effect (or even a goal) of particular political views. So, okay, sure – you can tiptoe around this stuff for years on end and act like you have no opinions, but you do. We know you do, you know you do, and we can even find your opinions in your writing no matter what you think. So why not just be honest? Speak your mind. Will it piss people off? Sure. But they probably weren’t going to like you anyway.

Now, for my own part, I have tried to keep overt political statements off this blog. I haven’t always been successful (I’ve had one or two people ragequit over some idle quip here or there), but I think I’ve made this a fairly “safe” environment for fans of my work to read what I have to say on the subject of scifi, fantasy, writing, and other geeky endeavors. But on Twitter, I just speak my mind. Because if you’re following me on Twitter, that implies you want to know me, not just read my feed for book ads. Now, back before the political world went batshit insane, my Twitter feed was a pretty dull, sedate place. These days not so much. You don’t want to know my political opinions? Don’t follow me.

Of course, if you wind up reading my books or stories, you’re going to get my political opinions anyway. You just might not realize it, I guess. In thinking about this post, I debated whether or not to discuss or reveal what I feel the true, underlying meaning of some of my work is in a political context, but I eventually decided against it – Foucault’s author function and all that. I will point out, though, that everything in scifi and fantasy has contemporary political meaning, whether you like it or not. There’s the obvious ones, sure – Star TrekStar Wars, and the like. But then there’s others, too. Game of Thrones is about us and our political systems, not the middle ages. The Walking Dead, likewise, is a story about our own political terrors. The Martian? Political, though indirectly so – a love letter to government workers and federal systems, to international cooperation and technological advance through capitalist means. The Expanse? Obviously. Colony? Hell yes. Even American Horror Story is rooted in political discourse. You can disagree, but it’s all there. Even the MCU can’t escape. Books, comics, movies, video games – they are caught up in it.

This is because politics is the stuff of life, like it or not. We authors (and artists) are engaged in the study and exploration of life and, therefore, we are inevitably drawn to discuss politics. So, yeah, I guess I could be all coy about it and resolve never to speak a political word in public, but then I’d be wearing a mask over my true self. I’ve never been much good at that; neither have a lot of good authors. Will it hurt my career to be so open on Twitter? That remains to be seen, I suppose. I just can’t fully imagine being any other way, though.

This, ironically, would probably make me a poor politician.