The “What the Fuss is About” Read

My reading list is about a million miles long and never seems to be getting any shorter. When I finish a book, I often find myself at a loss for what to read next – there’s just so many things I could pick. Obviously, I should stay up to date in my chosen genre of fantasy and scifi, but have you seen how many fantasy and scifi books are released on a monthly basis? Good god. Then, of course, there’s the reading I do to research the classes I’m going to teach – studies in American Modernism, for instance, and other literary movements. I’ve got to do that reading, or I can’t reasonably teach the things I claim to know about (and honestly this reading takes up most of my reading time). Then there’s research for my writing, which often takes the form of history or philosophy (and I just simply don’t read enough of that). Then there’s the simple caveat that one should always seek to read broadly – outside the regular genres one is usually accustomed to – and so I find myself putting books of essays, poetry, plays, and other stuff on my reading list, just as a lark.

So, when the time comes to read another book…I’m sometimes at a loss. Accordingly, I’ve created a new rule: one new book, and one old one. I will read a current novel, published in the last few years. Then I’ll go back and read a book I missed – a classic, often. But sometimes it’s a book that I keep hearing about, over and over again. I keep getting the question “have you read (insert title)? No? You have to!”

They always say it that way, too: I have to. I must. It is a requirement of my existence. I cannot define myself as a reader, let alone a writer or professor, if I do not read this book. Frequently these are books I would not pick up on my own. Sometimes they are books in which I have absolutely no interest. It doesn’t seem to matter. I must read them.

As a rule, any book suggested to me this way I will take me, on average, 10 years to get around to reading. While not a conscious act of spite, it is the result of a kind of subconscious revulsion at doing what everybody else is doing at any given time. I hate being part of the crowd. In the end, though, frequently my curiosity gets the better of me and, if I have no better ideas of what to read next, I dig up that dusty old list of “must-reads,” immediately skip over Infinite Jest (screw you all – not reading that. Not ever.) and pick up some blockbuster from ages gone. I call this the “What the Fuss is About” Read. At this exact moment, I have finally gotten around to reading Gaiman’s American Gods.

Okay, okay – it’s got a TV show, so I suppose I should catch up.

I am, of course, well aware of Neil Gaiman’s work. I read the Sandman comics (or some of them, anyway) in the mid-late 90s and thought them very clever and off-beat. I liked them. But then I moved on from Gaiman onto other authors and, next thing I knew, people were scolding me for not having read his magnum opus. Of course, they all had different opinions of which book his magnum opus was, but more often than not it was American Gods.

I’m enjoying the book. It is within the wheelhouse of my favorite genres anyway and Gaiman is an excellent author. I don’t quite understand how this book (or Gaiman’s work in general) is quite as celebrated as it is. I suppose that is essentially the problem with reading a book that has this much hype associated with it: the odds of it failing to live up to whatever magical expectations have come to surround it are large. When I read them, then, and they don’t live up  to whatever it was I was expecting, I spend half of my time reading the book trying to figure out what other people saw in it. This is almost impossible to do and can be very distracting.

Such considerations are sort of inevitable for an author though, right? I picked up American Gods for the same reason I picked up The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Night Circus and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: word of mouth. All authors know that is the most powerful sales force in the world, and all authors want to know how to cultivate it. As far as I’m aware, no author actually knows. So, there we all are, reading Dan Brown and going “really? This?” We start dissecting it in our brains, like an alien on an autopsy table. What makes it tick? Where was the magic sauce? Why don’t I get it? Sure, it’s good, but…that good?

Then, of course, there are those moments where the book lives up to the hype. Neuromancer did that for me. You know what else? The Grapes of Wrath. Tim Powers. Neal Stephenson. Those books – those books are magic. And, of course, they make you feel a little terrible about yourself as an author because you know you’ll never write anything quite that amazing and isn’t that disappointing.

I guess it all makes me wonder why I do it. Why do I read books that don’t strictly interest me just because they were (or are) popular? Because I need to learn. I need to look around at the reading world and try to understand it. If I don’t, what kind of writer am I? In the end, I read these books because, well…I kinda have to.

The Union of Stars: The Thraad

And now it comes time to discuss our own species – the Thraad. If it has taken long for me to reach this topic, it is not without reason. We Thraad understand that to know oneself, you must first understand others. If this seems counter-intuitive, give it time. You are young yet.

Physiology

Thraador

We are an evolutionary descendant of gastropods, though we are a significantly more complex organism than most common snails or slugs. We have a functioning circulatory system, for instance, and a six-chambered heart. Over the aeons, we have lost the ability to grow thick shells (artificial shells are worn instead, as clothing). Our locomotion is still by means of our single, muscular foot and made easier by the secretion of waste slime to reduce friction. We have two eyes on muscular stalks that can rotate and can even look in two directions at once without distress. Beneath our chins are four tentacles we use for the manipulation of objects, both fine and coarse. We are omnivorous and are hatched from eggs.

By the standards of other species in the Union, we are foul-smelling, slow, and ugly. But they know well enough not to underestimate us. Our home planet, Thraador, is very large by the standards of the Union and we evolved in an environment of extreme gravitational forces. Though we usually stand no more than 150 cm from foot to shell, we are the tallest and largest creatures on our world, which is flat, wet, and hot. Bipeds and quadrapeds never evolved on our world, as standing upright requires too much strength and affords too few advantages. When a fall of a few meters is fatal, walking on two or even four feet is risky. We Thraad are steady on our foot – we seldom falter and we never fall (remember this always, as it speaks not just to our physiology, but to our culture and heritage as well). Furthermore, thanks to the intense environment of our home, we are extremely strong by the standards of the other species. Though slow, we are unstoppable. Though ugly, we have wisdom.

Culture

We Thraad are a more unified people than most. Long ago we cast off petty nationalistic rivalries or affiliations of House or Cartel. Introspective by nature, we seek consensus in all things. Perhaps thanks to the harsh environment of our homeworld, we are disinclined to take action unless absolutely needed and not until it has been deeply considered. We are not flighty or given to impulse.

Our government is decentralized and simplistic: a council of elders of no specific size meets to decide things and, should the deliberations be wise, the people follow. This sounds chaotic to other species, but they do not understand our temperament. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter who speaks it. If the elders are wise, and history shows that they are, then they will speak well and we would do well to take their counsel. We are not a species of rebels or petty criminals. In the rare instance that one of our number is committed to folly, they are simply ostracized and cast out of the community. It is that simple.

This, of course, has its disadvantages. Though scientifically curious and always willing to learn, our society changes slowly and our capacity to react to calamity is limited. This makes other species think of us as harmless “armchair academics.” But our anger is no less bright than others. Our weapons, though perhaps not as flashy as those of the Dryth, are no less deadly. History is filled with the plague-ridden corpses of those who underestimated us.

We do not maintain distinct family units, even though we are a sexually reproducing species. Eggs are hatched centrally in any given community. The care of young ones is the equal responsibility of all – hence my speaking to you now. It may be that some of you are my biological children, but we Thraad make no distinctions between such things. If you are young and a Thraad, you are my offspring, to be treated the same as any other. If female, you will one day make periodic visits to the hatchery to lay. If male, you will make periodic visits to fertilize. That is all.

There is a sense among us, I feel, that we are cheated by our nature. Some of us look out from our flat world to gaze with envy upon the doings of the other Great Races – the romance of the Lhassa, the passion of the Dryth, and so on. But, in the end, all Thraad return to Thraador. After some years adventuring in the light gravity of the outside world, we long to return to our swampy homes. We are sensible like that.

History

Thraad civilization began some 16,000 sidereal years in the past. There is too much to know to sum up in this precis, but suffice to say that we took our time developing our cultures, our technologies, and our knowledge. There were wars, yes, but they were primarily waged by proxy: animals and plants and microbes we had trained or engineered to pursue our interests in one way or another. We are, of course, famed for being the masters of what is called “ecological warfare.” It is a slow way to defeat one’s enemies, yes, but quite effective in the long run.

We sought the stars, as all species do in time, but not because of the damage we had done to our environment (like the Lhassa) or because of our desire for conquest (the Dryth). Rather, we left our planet to learn. To explore. The history of our species is one of slow, gradual exploration – the meticulous building of a body of knowledge. We are a curious people.

Of course, our steps into the stars were not without problems. We warred with other species and lost. We discovered that our technologies and our habits were too slow to compete with the likes of the Dryth and Lhassa and Lorca. By luck, we “met” Skennite, and found in it a kindred spirit. The period of our history known as “the Hastening” began – we discovered the secrets of slipdrive, we expanded our influence. When again war came, we were ready. Our biological and chemical weapons were terrifyingly effective, our well-planned strategies invincible. We made the galaxy tremble. Of course, we are not a warrior people in the manner of the Dryth and we are not so numerous or prolific as the Lhassa, and we in time lost again. But we had secured ourselves a place as one of the Great Races, a privilege we continue to enjoy.

We joined the Union gladly, happy to escape the endless wars that ravaged the stars. Now our role is as diplomats, scientists, and merchants, not warriors. We are happier this way. Let the Lhassa and the Dryth and the others struggle in violence and pain for their pieces of the universe. We Thraad shall stand by, patiently, for the opportunity to squeeze ourselves into somewhere essential, just as we always have.

Unsolicited Writer Advice Here, Bought and Sold!

Writing advice from successful authors can be a unique form of psychic torture. Let me share with you my own personal hell demon:

I’M TRYING, DAMMIT!

Oh, God, this one drives me crazy. The reason it drives me crazy is because I think he’s right but, by the same token, I live a life that prevents me from reading even a quarter as much as I’d like to. I would estimate I read about 10-15 books a year for my own pleasure. All of this happens during the summer. The rest of my life is spent re-reading texts I’m going to be teaching for the fall and spring semesters (approximately 20 books) and then reading all the student papers I need to grade (which works out to about 4800 pages a year, give or take a few hundred–call that another 10-15 books). So, you know, I do actually read the equivalent of 40-50 books a year, but only 25% of those are ones I actually get to pick. Therefore, I go around feeling as though I’m not able to do the thing I evidently need to do in order to be a writer.

But, of course, I am a writer – a published author with book deals and short story pubs and one award under my belt – so clearly I’m doing okay on some level.

There are literally hundreds of pieces of advice like this floating through the ether. Join a writer’s group and you’ll hear all of them. “You must write every day!” and “Write what you know!” and “Finish everything you start!” and so on and so forth. Listen to them long enough, and you’ll get it into your head that the only way to be a successful writer is to already be a successful author who can do nothing but author things all day long and, on top of that, have no real life outside of the written word (oh, wait, but that violates that rule about “lived experience is the only way to write with authenticity.”).

There is a lot of truth to a lot of these things – they can and do work for a lot of authors. None of them, though, is set in stone. To quote Hemingway:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

That, right there, is probably the best bit of writing advice anybody can give you beyond “put your butt in the chair and write.” All of us – every damned one of us – is kinda making this up as we go along. Nobody has it figured out. One of the weirdest things I’m learning as I go is that every single novel is difficult and easy in completely unique ways compared to all my previous novels. Now, does that mean it’s true for you? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Who the hell knows?

The point here is that listening to too much good-intentioned advice is a good way to scare the hell out of yourself before you’ve even gotten started. Take the recent Twitter discussion among many authors I follow regarding how old you can or should be to begin writing. The consensus is that, ultimately, you can become a writer at any age – there is no aging-out in storytelling. And then we’ve got Chuck Wendig pointing out that he published his first novel at 36 (Hey! Me too!) and now has published 20 novels.

In only 4 years.

Pictured: Me

Wait…wait…20 books in 4 years? I’ve only published two in two years! Holy shit, how much of my time have I been wasting? What is wrong with me? WHY CAN’T I ALSO DO THAT?

Okay, okay…cool it down. It’s all right. It’s not a race. It’s not even a competition. Keep your eyes on your own paper, Habershaw. Work your own problem. Wendig’s pace is not your pace. That’s not how this works.

And, ultimately, that’s my main point here. There are no rules on how to do this thing. There is no time limit, no required pace, no set reading list. You have to sit down and write, yeah, but how and when and where and how often are something you need to negotiate with yourself. That also doesn’t mean you should be so arrogant as to assume you know it all already and will discount any advice that comes your way – listen, take notes, absorb. But then, in the end, it is you doing the writing, and only you can solve that problem. And, given the drive, you will solve it.

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.