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The Stories We Leave Behind

You ever seen that movie Big Fish? It’s about an estranged son coming back to his hometown to help his father as he is dying of cancer. His father, an inveterate teller of tall tales, has long frustrated the son with his “bullshit,” but we get to see just how important those stories are to the son’s image of the father, and how those stories are important to the father’s own sense of self. And then, in the movie’s last shot, in the parking lot at the funeral, we pan up to see all the father’s friends standing around, talking to each other, telling stories about their friend they have lost. The stories are big, energetic, funny.

When I first saw that movie with my wife, I turned to her after that scene and told her, “that – that’s how I want my funeral to be. People telling stories about my life, laughing and smiling.”

1445687313836And so that brings us to Muhammad Ali. And Prince. And Bowie. And all the famous people (and non-famous people) we’ve lost this past year. Ali, though, looms largest for me. Over the past day or two I’ve heard dozens of Ali stories, all of them wonderful and amazing. About how he talked a man off a ledge in 1980. Or how he was asked for a signature while deep in the grip of Parkinson’s Disease, and though it took him 15 minutes, he signed the damned paper anyway, refusing to give up. Or this beautiful obituary in the New Yorker, in which we learn how baby Ali knocked his own mother’s two front teeth out, or how he became a boxer to avenge the theft of a bicycle. I’ve got my own, too. Heard it on the radio some years back. A local radio station was interviewing George Foreman, and his fight with Ali came up. It went something like this:

Radio Host: That was the rope-a-dope, right?

Foreman: (laughing) And I was the dope!

Radio Host: What did you think about that? Do you think about that fight?

Foreman: Man, you gotta understand that I hit people hard, right? I used to hit guys so hard I’d feel bad afterwards. Was in a match once, knocked a guy down, and I remember saying to myself “aww…please get up.” Swung at one guy and missed, but he felt the wind, see? He decided to fall down right there and I was there sayin’ “get up, man – this is embarrassing,” and he’s like “no way, man.”

So, when I’m fighting Ali, I’m hitting him as hard as I can, right? And I’m hitting him and I’m hitting him and he’s just smiling at me. I hit him with everything I had for like ten rounds, and then he gets me in a grapple and while he’s hugging me he whispers in my ear, (imitates a low, mean sneer) “that all you got, George?”

Radio Host: (laughing) Really?!

Foreman: Man, I still have nightmares about that fight.

But, when they asked him if he felt any animosity for the Greatest, all Foreman would say is that he was a great, great man and that he loved him. The whole time, Big George was laughing, the hosts were laughing, and we all had a smile on our faces.

This – the stories we leave behind us – are our most enduring, our most important legacy. If we seek immortality, this is how we can achieve it – be being a person who makes such a mark on others’ lives that they cannot help but tell the world about it. Even after we are gone, the stories travel onwards, illuminating and amusing and encouraging our descendants for years to come. So, while there is a lot to be said about how one ought to live their life, I think this is always best to keep in mind: when you are gone, what stories will others tell about you? Is that how you wish to be remembered? If not, start living your life in a way that makes you proud and that touches others in positive ways, because while all your wealth and all your success and all your victories will vanish with time, it is the stories you leave behind that will persist.

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A Genie’s Free Advice

maagic Aladdin genie lamp with genie arising from blue smoke

Got a story for you. It’s an old one; maybe you’ve heard it.

A wealthy merchant is walking through the streets of Baghdad when he sees the Angel of Death. Death recognizes him and seems very interested in him. The man concludes that Death is in Baghdad to take him and, unwilling to die, he expends all his vast wealth in one day to secure the service of a genie. “Genie,” says the man, “I’ve no wish to die. Transport me to Damascus in one night, so that I might evade Death’s embrace.”

And so the genie did as was asked of him and worked great magic to transport the man, along with all his family and home and livestock and servants, far away to Damascus in the space of a single night. The merchant slept easily, knowing he had fooled Death.

The next morning, however, the man went into the streets of Damascus to find Death waiting for him. The man was aghast. “What? How did you find me?!”

Death shrugged and said, “That is why I was so interested to see you in Baghdad. You see, I had an appointment to meet you today in Damascus.”

Heard that one? Well, it’s true, let me tell you. I was the genie.

You would imagine, as an immortal being whose task it is to grant wishes, I would have seen more than my fair share of happiness over the millennia. Not so, though. I have some thoughts on the subject.

You people – you mortals – you can never figure out what you actually want. I mean that, too – you cannot, as in you are not capable. A man wishes for wealth and dies alone. A woman wishes for beauty only to drown the next week. A boy wishes for power only to pine for his mother. On and on and on it goes. You don’t know what tomorrow brings and, so terrified that Death might have penciled you in for Friday, you pick the absolute worst thing for you at the time and think it solves all your problems. It is so consistent as to be actively tragic.

Had a guy once – sometime in Ancient Babylon – wish to be an invulnerable warrior. Easy enough, right? How can a guy go wrong with that? Simple: his tribe, the people he wanted to protect, drove him out of their lands claiming he was a demon. So he was the world’s biggest badass with nothing to fight for. He died of old age as a hermit. Blamed me, too.

I don’t trick people, okay? Not my thing. I’m a servant of the lamp and that’s it – you rub, I appear, and we do business. I am not “imprisoned” in the lamp – it’s just a convenient hole in space-time for me to zip through. I’ve got a life outside of this one. I mean, not one you’d easily understand, but it’s there. Had one lady wish to have me explain it to her once. She went insane.

So, yeah, I’m not upset when somebody rubs the lamp and pops me out. Not a big deal – less than an eye-blink in the breadth and depth of the cosmos, understand? You really cannot waste my time, since I have as much of it as I want. When you wish for something, I give it to you – no judgment, no tricks. Do I sometimes screw up the details? Yeah, sure – some of you guys are damned unclear. I mean, how am I supposed to interpret “I wish for the world?” Go on – I dare you to figure out, in concrete terms, what that means exactly. That guy’s name was Atlas and man, was he pissed. Not my problem though – if you can’t be bothered to read the fine print on the lamp itself, don’t come crying to me.

Anyway, where was I? Oh, right – wishes. Let’s get this out of the way: You can’t wish for true happiness, okay? You can’t have it like that. I cannot give it to you, much as I might want to. You mortals are always thinking in external terms – give me gold, give me power, give me land, give me love – and that’s missing the entire point. Happiness comes from within.

Oh sure, the occasional wise-acre wishes for internal happiness, but it doesn’t work. I just have to turn them into different people. Is that success? You want to know what really happened to Attila the Hun? They say he died of a brain hemorrhage while doing the wild thing after deciding not to sack Rome. What he did instead was take the lamp, given him by Pope Leo I (who had used it to become pope), in exchange for sparing the city. So he did. And then he wished to be truly, permanently happy. I turned him into a friendly dog – best I could do. His followers did the rest.

Happiness is something that people who seek me out are never going to find. Happiness is contentment, understand?  To be content with your lot, no matter what your lot is. That is true, contemplative happiness. If you got it, what do you need me for? What can I possibly give you to get you there? No, all wishes – all rewards and triumphs – are things you need to have grow out of yourself, not have dumped on you from on high. Give a fish shoes and it’ll have no idea what to do until it grows some feet.

The best wish ever? Oh, that’s easy: fella name of Lao-Tzu, ancient China. Summoned me up and chatted with me for a little while on a road in the middle of nowhere. When I asked him what he wanted, he said, “Only to talk. Thank you.”

He meant it, too. I still think about that sometimes.

Anyway, enough about me. Let’s whip you up that private island, okay? Did you have a hemisphere in mind, or am I just gonna get creative?

In Memoriam: Tasha Yar

I suppose we hardly knew you. Or maybe we knew all about you. Hard to tell...

I suppose we hardly knew you. Or maybe we knew all about you. Hard to tell…

Today, I saw Lt. Tasha Yar of the USS Enterprise get killed by an evil alien oil slick. The event was every bit as lame as I remembered it. It wasn’t so much that it was sudden – I have always been somewhat pleased that the evil alien oil slick just killed somebody to start off, since that makes sense (if only the Daleks were so direct) – no, my problem was that it was pointless and arbitrary.

Though, now that I’m thinking about it, her death was not significantly more pointless or arbitrary than Tasha Yar’s character as a whole, so in this sense, the death was fitting. Tasha’s character was sketchy at best; she came from a dark past, but we never really believed it. There was nothing about her that indicated a childhood of fear and anger and aggression. Yes, there was a lot of talk about ‘rape gangs’ (she was always itching to tell the bridge crew about the rape gangs), but her smiles were a bit too sunny and her personality just a bit too balanced to fill out the character. She was a woman who was good at martial arts and…well…something about rape gangs.

Denise Crosby, who portrayed Tasha, wanted off the show before a season was out since her character was not being developed, and I don’t blame her. I mean, what was she given to do, exactly? It almost seemed as if the writers got this novel idea for a (hold on to your hats, folks) woman who (get this) knows aikido and runs security! Then, after creating this character, they thought to themselves “well, jeez, any woman who knows aikido probably didn’t have parents and had to dodge rape gangs!” Shortly after this conversation, they ran out of ideas and then just had Denise Crosby talk about…well…nothing for twenty-some-odd episodes. Occasionally she lamely shot something with a phaser.

Tasha Yar, to my mind, was a victim not of an oil slick monster, but of two things:

  1. Screenwriters in 1987 had no idea what to do with a woman who could beat up men, so they didn’t bother trying.
  2. Gene Roddenberry couldn’t write believable ‘gritty’ characters if they wore skull necklaces and ate babies.

Apparently, according to the internet, Tasha Yar was supposed to based on Vasquez from Aliens – the tough chick with the giant machine gun. The thing is, though, while Vasquez was able to out-macho the guys in an environment full of machismo, Yar is stuck in a world of gender neutral clothing and a complete lack of the crass, devil-may-care attitude our culture assigns to ‘manly-men’. So, if your point is to introduce a female character who can keep up with the guys in the combat arena, but you stick her in a society where they don’t believe in fighting and do not indulge in the typical male posturing around warrior-hood, you quickly find that your character isn’t edgy or groundbreaking or even interesting. She’s just part of the furniture.

But, you know, that should be good, right? Tasha was so believable as security chief that it was never a big deal that she was security chief. Well, if they had played it straight like that, maybe it would have worked. Instead, though, they always had her obsessing over her femininity and went out of their way to show her as feminine (1987 keeps nudging you and saying “guys, she’s a girl! Get it! A GIRL!”). This starts to get weird and confusing. You, the viewer, start saying things like “look television, I understand that Tasha is competent and tough and am totally okay with that…but why are you having her complain about not having pretty clothes like Troi?”

In the end, the character was a hot mess, and not in the good way. She just didn’t seem to make sense; she was an incomplete sketch, more so than any other character on that show in the first season. The only real character hook she seemed to have was the possession of breasts, even though the whole point of the character was that it didn’t matter that she had breasts. What’s an audience supposed to do with that? What is an actress supposed to do?

Well, apparently, what is done is see to it that you are killed by an evil alien oil slick.

Fare thee well, Tasha. You set the stage for Ensign Ro Laren and, later, Major Kira in DS9, so you can be said to have not lived in vain. You also have the distinction of being more interesting than almost every character on Voyager. That, though, isn’t saying very much.

 

Character Death Calculus

You know when you’re reading a book or watching a movie/show involving beloved characters and it’s all coming to a head and you know somebody’s probably going to die, but you aren’t sure which one? Well, I’m the guy who usually knows who it’s going to be. I’ve got a system, you see, and it’s relatively foolproof (though not perfect). Let me show you how it works:

Step 1: Who Has Plot Armor?

Can’t touch this…

Writers have characters who are essential to their story. If they kill them, they risk breaking the story or ruining the good thing they have going. These characters, if they ever die, will only die at the very end of the story arc, whenever that is, after they are no longer needed, since the story is about to end, anyway. Such characters are referred to as having ‘plot armor’ – they are, essentially, immune to death. Good authors, of course, keep you in suspense over this, anyway, but you all know, in you heart of hearts, that Luke Skywalker isn’t going to die.

These characters are usually fairly easy to spot and you can eliminate them as possible character deaths in most instances. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but they are rare.

Step 2: Which Characters Have Reasons to Stick Around?

Thank you both for helping the main characters develop. You may go now.

Secondary characters are usually the ones lined up for the firing squad, but not all secondary characters are created equal. Ones that have essential purposes to the conflict or plot can’t die until that duty is fulfilled. If that duty is ongoing and they cannot be replaced, they cannot die. Now, once they reach that expiration point, their purpose is fulfilled and they are immediately candidates for termination, provided a few other factors are fulfilled.

Very often, it becomes apparent that particular characters, while they had been interesting, compelling, and important to the plot, are no longer in that category. The writers have milked their usefulness to the fullest and, they discover, (as per Step 3) that the character would be more useful dead than they would alive. As soon as this happens, boom – no more character.

To take Lost as an example, Boone was handy for a little while as a protegé to Locke and as a point of conflict for Shannon, but this got stale. After that, they needed him to help the plot but didn’t want him hanging around gumming up all their scenes, so *splat* – no more Boone.

By the transitive property of Character Death, Boone’s death meant Shannon was much closer to the chopping block, since her character had one less thing to keep her around for. Oh, and thank God they killed her, too – damn, she was annoying.  

Step #3: Which Characters are More Useful Dead than Alive

Guess which guy is the guy they shoot. Go on, guess…

 Once you’ve established whom you can kill without derailing the plot, then it becomes a matter of ‘which character is better off dead’. This, ultimately, comes down to a certain degree of taste, and the best way to predict is to try and figure out what kind of story the writer is going for. The death of a beloved sidekick is a great motivator for the hero, but the death of the comic relief can take a lighthearted adventure and make it grim. The death of a beloved, comical sidekick does both things, which automatically bumps them ahead on the hit list, provided that the author needs to motivate his or her hero and wants the story to take a grim, frightening turn. Then again, there might be characters that are simply a drag on the plot and, by killing them, you kick the story out of a rut and start hurtling towards your third act.

Point in case: Joe Pesci in Goodfellas had it coming from a mile away. They needed to keep him for a while to give the movie some spice and, even, some cruel levity. However, there came a point when it simply would be too arduous to keep the character present and have Henry Hill do what he had to do. Bam! Dead Pesci. Now, granted, Goodfellas was based on a real-life story, so I doubt the *actual* mob killed the *actual* Joe Pesci character for the sake of plot development, but, then again, I don’t know if that part is factual, either.

Step #4: Which Character Will the Audience Miss the Most?

Admit it: you’re getting a little misty *right now.*

Okay, once we’ve narrowed down our list of characters to those non-essential, secondary characters whose deaths will actually help the overall plot somehow, we might still have two or three guys standing around. Who to pick? Well, the one that will hurt the worst, of course. Writers want to evoke pathos, and you don’t evoke pathos by killing Jar-Jar; nobody will care or they will be actively pleased, which is the opposite of what you want. You want tears or anger or bitter snorts and shakes of the head. You want people to feel it in their gut somehow. If you don’t, why are you killing a character at all? So, you pick your crowd favorites. You pick the nice, fat geeky kid (sorry, Piggy from Lord of the Flies) or the kindly old tutor (eat it, Dumbledore) or the positive father figure (here’s a bullet just for you, Willem DeFoe in Platoon). That way, while Charlie Sheen is weeping in the Huey on his way back to the States, the audience is weeping, too. Pathos. Catharsis. Yes.

Exceptions

Now, good writers wouldn’t be good writers if they weren’t inherently aware of this equation. Some of them buck the trend intentionally, killing off the characters you least expect when you least expect it (George RR Martin, looking at you), or decide they aren’t going to kill anybody at all, after all (let’s face it: Lando Calrissian dodged a bullet in Jedi, and you know it). Sometimes, breaking the equation means ‘breaking’ your story just to begin telling another one–a kind of plot calculus bait-and-switch. This is a risk, of course, and it doesn’t always pay off (looking at you again, George RR Martin), but it is bold storytelling. All that said, there is nothing wrong with the equation above, just so long as you are careful in managing the variables and keeping the audience guessing until it’s too late.

Killing Their Babies: RPGs and PC Death

Violence, battle, and peril are a constant in RPGs. I’ve explored the why of this elsewhere on this blog in various places, so I won’t go into it here, but suffice it to say that such things are what make the genre tense and exciting in many ways. Few are the games that don’t involve some kind of man-eating monsters, bloodthirsty villains, perilous cliffs, and exploding doomsday devices. It stands to reason, then, that death and, particularly, the deaths of the occasional PC are bound to occur. When this happens, however, it can be a bit of a shock to the players. It can, if mismanaged, create bad feelings between the players and the GM. Of course, if the GM never allows it to happen, bad things also happen. So, how to manage this? Well, here’s my advice on the subject. 

Why it Needs to Happen

At some point as GM, you probably need to step up and kill a PC. The reason you need to do this is the same reason that cliffhangers and adventure stories have a tendency to kill characters from time to time: it makes the danger more real. If every time a player gets his or her character in a fatal predicament they are allowed, somehow, to escape it (through the GM fudging the rules, through random deus ex machina, and so on), the party is going to catch on that they are, in essence, invincible. This is very bad, and for several reasons. 

Firstly, the players will cease to feel threatened by the dangers that the GM places before them. Just like in a bad adventure novel, the GM has given the players ‘plot armor’ that they know to be impenetrable. This makes the game boring, suddenly. Obviously they’ll be able to jump over that chasm as the castle is collapsing around them. Clearly they can live through their death duel with that vampire lord. How do they know? Well, they know the GM hasn’t the guts to do anything about it.

Secondly, and derived from the first problem, the GM can suddenly become ‘bullied’ by their players. The players can have their characters do outlandish things in the utter confidence that, even if they don’t work, there is little risk their characters will suffer for it. This can begin to break the mood of the game (unless the *point* of the game is to be invincible and do outlandish things, like Toon and the like), and things rapidly become more and more absurd. The game begins to morph from a stylized, internally consistent story to a bad improv long-form show. As someone who has been in his share of bad improv long-form shows, they might be funny, but that’s about all they have going for them. The game goes from adventure to joke. I’ve played in campaigns like this in my time, and the novelty wears off quickly. 

Of course, how often and why to allow PCs to die depends greatly on the style of the game. Gritty, violent, and noir settings obviously feature death around every corner, and PCs become much more cautious in their play and less attached to their characters. Heroic or swashbuckling settings feature death much less often, and when it happens it represents a serious dramatic event. Still, even with the most heroic settings, death should be possible and it should be clear that they are possible if things go wrong. Even if the GM doesn’t really want to kill the character if they do something stupid, they should seriously consider permanent disfigurement, maiming, or similar permanent consequences. Consequences are important to create tension; tension is essential for adventuring fun.

How to Manage It

As mentioned above, how to handle killing a PC depends greatly on the mood of the setting of the game. The likelihood and frequency of fatal situations should be made clear to the players prior to the beginning of the campaign. The GM shouldn’t be setting quotas or anything (i.e. I intend to kill one PC every three sessions! Mwa-ha-ha!), but she should say things akin to ‘there will be no holds barred in this game–if you screw up, you’re dead’ or ‘I don’t intend for characters to die for stupid reasons, but they will die if dramatically appropriate or compelling’. This gives everybody a good idea of how dangerous the campaign is, and this is very important for the players to know when constructing and playing their characters. It also should preempt some of the bad feelings that might develop otherwise should a player lose his or her favorite character.

Beyond this, I have a couple rules of thumb:

  1. The Good Death: Unless the game you are running is exceptionally dark, grim, or violent, PCs should never be killed due to silly accidents, random events, or simply poor luck. They should be killed by important villains, by exceptionally deadly traps (that they are aware of and attempting to evade), or while knowingly placing themselves at fatal risk due to their character’s traits or behavior. In short, they should die thanks to their decisions (good or bad), not due to their luck. Their death should be dramatic, motivating to the other characters, and serve as a significant plot point for the campaign. It should mean something.
  2. Get Them Back in the Game: Unless the death occurs at the very tail end of a campaign (where it would be silly to introduce a new character that would be played for 2-3 sessions tops), always allows the player to make a new character and introduce them into the game as soon as possible. Death should not be a punishment of the player.
  3. It Isn’t a Punishment: This bears repeating–PC death is never, never a punishment. If you are a GM forced to use it as a way to regain control of a campaign, you have done something wrong and haven’t correctly set up the expectations of danger in the campaign in the first place (leading to bullying by your players, necessitating death). This is bad news. Ideally, players should think their PCs’ deaths are cool–they get a cool death scene, and they should be allowed to play it up. Then, they get to play a new character (that is every bit as advanced and powerful as their last character, more or less).
  4. Make the Death Matter: This is the hardest of the rules to manage, but also very important. A PC should not die and be forgotten. Their death should have a major effect on the campaign and the other players; when they die, something new should be revealed, they should be contributing to the story somehow, and something interesting should happen. Don’t kill for no reason (unless you’re running one of those super-deadly games where life is cheap, and then everybody should be on board with that so it shouldn’t be a big deal).

Beyond this, if you find your players getting into circumstances where they really should die, but it wouldn’t fit with the campaign and wouldn’t make much sense, really consider simply maiming them or otherwise afflicting them with a kind of permanent consequence that makes the character interesting to play, but doesn’t allow them to get off scott-free.

Anyway, whatever the circumstances, one cannot run a campaign without the possibility of fatal consequences. If you are GM-ing such a game, it is your narrative responsibility to allow it to happen. You should do it, however, with caution and care to guard the player’s expectations and to maintain the fun they’re happening. If you’re a player, you should also understand that the death of your favorite character is as important as his life in contributing to the fun of the game. Don’t get upset, just roll with it; after all, it’s just a game.

Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam!

"What, we lifted *another* idiom from humans? Dammit!"

For those of you who don’t speak Klingon (don’t worry, I don’t either), the above translates as “today is a good day to die”. It is a battle-cry, meant presumably to show the warrior’s willingness to die in the pursuit of victory. The funny thing about it, though, is that Star Trek isn’t where the phrase originates. Supposedly it was first spoken by Crazy Horse, the Sioux war leader. Under what circumstances he said it, I’m not sure. I’m betting it wasn’t just before taking a nap, though.

Along those same lines, I’m reading Beowulf again, in preparation of teaching it to my lit survey class over the next few weeks. I just recently gave them a rundown of Anglo-Saxon culture during the Dark Ages. It involves a lot of war, a heavy emphasis on a warrior’s code of honorable conduct, and a preoccupation with dying in battle. Chiefly, in accordance with most Norse and Germanic tribes, they needed to die in battle (eg: with a sword in their hand) or go to hell. If you’ve ever seen pictures of medieval knights being laid out in tombs with swords on their chests, that’s part of the cultural mythology that placed them there, even after the rise of Christianity. They, of course, had their own traditions of chivalrous conduct in war and so many battle-rituals that it boggles the mind.

Throw on top of this the warrior mystique of Japan’s samurai, the harsh martial customs of Sparta, the glitter and glory of the Roman Legions, and even the romantic and frightening popular image of modern special forces teams like the Navy SEALS and Green Berets, you gotta ask yourself a few questions:

  1. Who are the real Klingons, here?
  2. Why the love affair with a violent death?
  3. What’s this have to do with geeky things like video games and RPGs?

Whaddya mean we're a warrior culture? It's not like we entertain ourselves with...oh...nevermind.

Who are the Real Klingons, Here?

Science Fiction and Fantasy is filled with ‘warrior cultures’ because we humans are, in the end, made up of a bunch of warrior cultures. Granted, many of us have sort of moved on from that idea (though by no means all of us), but the mystique of living as though death is waiting around every corner and we are ready for it is still powerful. What is important to remember about those old warrior cultures, though, is that the reason they believed those things isn’t because they were awesome, but rather it was because life sucked.

Do you know what the average life expectancy was during the Dark Ages? Around 35. It wasn’t a hell of a lot higher in medieval Japan and certainly not much higher in Sparta. War was commonplace. Strange, bearded men might stumble out of the dark, wolf-infested forest and slaughter your whole clan on any given day of the week. Disease, starvation, exposure and more made it rather unlikely for you to make it to your golden years unless, of course, you were one mean son of a bitch. So, what’s a successful culture to do? Train people to be mean sons of bitches. Next thing you know, you and your badass Zulu buddies are kicking butt all across South Africa. Do you keep it up? Hell yes. Does this make it a form of behavior we ought to emulate or admire? Well, not really.

Why the Love Affair with a Violent Death?

In the historical sense, this is pretty easy to manage. If you died violently in battle, you did a couple things:

  1. You have successfully evaded a long, agonizing, and demoralizing death from disease, age, starvation, or infection. Yay!
  2. You protected your way of life to the bitter end. Kudos to you.
  3. You earned a little piece of immortality for yourself in the form of one crazy story. (“Hey, remember when Hrothgar went up against those six Romans with nothing but an axe-handle? What a badass!”)

Some that stuff still holds its appeal for us today in certain circumstances. More generally, though, the idea of the heroic death against impossible odds appeals to something quite primordial in all of us: the Fight or Flight instinct. By choosing Fight, you are throwing your cards down on the table and calling the other guy’s bluff. You are drawing a line in the sand. You are making a gamble on the future–you win, and everything is yours; you lose, and you’re dead. In a culture as heavily based on competition and shooting for the stars as ours is, there’s a certain animal thrill in watching somebody take that risk that we never could. Even if they die, you can stand there and whistle under your breath and say ‘there was one brave guy/gal.’ In a sense, it’s that same ‘immortality’ that drove the Anglo-Saxons and Achilles–you will speak their name again.

(cue theme music to Fame)

What’s all This Have to Do With Geeks?

Well, in my experience, most geeks are also dreamers. They want to shoot for the stars. They aren’t settling for what’s readily available, they’re going for what might be. They’re pushing the envelope, whether it’s in art, science, medicine, academia, or what have you. How did they get that way? Hell if I know–it’s a unique road for all of us, and I think a little bit of every person understands the geek desire to change the world around them and, thereby, earn its respect. In a very simple way, the Battle or Thermopylae or Beowulf’s clash with Grendel is an ego boost, a rush–the metaphorical representation of their own battle against their High School (or their Job, or their Love Life, or whatever it is that has them down). In a video game or when you’re in an RPG, you want your character to look danger in the eye and spit. If you lose, well, you gave it a shot.

But if you win…

There are two instances in which I have witnessed grown men get up and jump around hugging each other. The first is a sporting event and the second was during a variety of RPGs I’ve run during my life. I’ve already explained the first one above. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out the circumstances of the other one.

It’s a Hell of a Thing…

An acquaintance of mine, author Rich Steeves (check him out here), drew my attention on facebook to this post by comic writer Jim Shooter regarding violence, killing, and heroes. His overall thesis, in brief, is this:

My feeling is that each heroic character should be true to his core concept. Some few will not kill.  Period. Most, I think, will kill in extremis. Some, of the new bad-boy “hero” ilk will kill when it is “fair” enough, but not really unavoidable.  Some kill seemingly callously or carelessly. “It’s okay, they’re bad guys.”

Whether the characters at any particular level on the killing scale are “heroes,” I suppose, is up to the beholder. To me, the latter two categories might be protagonists, but aren’t heroes or heroic in my book. Doesn’t mean they aren’t legit protagonists, or can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done. Do them well, I say. True to their core concepts.

But be conscious of consequences.

I think this is both very true and something to keep in mind anytime we are writing about violence, heroic or otherwise, or even playing violent characters in RPGs. Killing–murder, by any other word – is a heavy and significant thing for a human being to undertake. It has weight – moral, psychological, perhaps even physical – and that weight ought to be taken into account.

If you’ve got a character who can blithely kill and then go about their business with no repurcussions, you are either dealing with a sociopath or someone who, through a variety of factors and psychological defenses, has somehow inured him or herself to the act. That’s a big deal from a characterization point of view. There are, of course, lots and lots of ways to interpret it, but I think forgetting about it or glossing it over is a bad idea. In the first place it portrays killing people as ‘no big deal’ – this isn’t true at all in the real world and, provided we are writing about worlds that are close parallels to the real thing, it should be the same in our own fantastic and speculative realms. In the second place, it’s lazy characterization. You mean your 18 year old protagonist just shot some gangsters with her father’s shotgun, and she’s not thinking about it afterwards? Really? It doesn’t have an effect on how she talks to people? How she feels about guns? How she feels about gangsters? Come on!

I very much agree with Shooter’s assertion that we must be aware of our characters’ ‘core concepts’. These kinds of things are easily violated or changed – the fundemental moral makeup of who you are isn’t under as much of your own control as you think. Yeah, Conan doesn’t give a damn how many fools he kills in bloody fashion – it doesn’t phase him. Do you know why? He has lived a life of constant hardship and pain and been forced to adapt. He is a damaged person, fundamentally. That doesn’t necessarily make him an evil man, or even perhaps keep him from being a hero (depending on your definition of heroism, naturally), but it is an aspect of his character we need to understand and appreciate. If we are portraying characters killing people, it’s something we, as writers, actors, players, or whatever else, really need to give some thought. If you ever want to see how it’s done, just look no further than Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven.

We all have it coming. Think about that.

The Impossible

Author’s Note: In the interest of completeness (backwards, but still complete) here is an excerpt from the first chapter of  The Rubric of All Things, the book  which precedes the book from which “Hond’s Interrogation” was taken. I’ve been shopping this book around for a while now and had a few nibbles (two full or partial manuscript requests), but no full-on bites yet. I’m putting it here because, well, it can’t hurt and hopefully can give interested parties some idea of just how far the reader is taken from here to Hond’s non-room. Anyway, hope you enjoy it:

Cal’s heart pulsed in his chest like a diesel engine. The sweat on his face mingled with the cold March rain while his lungs, like a pair of steel-mill bellows, fed oxygen to the fires in his quads and calves. He was going full speed along the Charles river, blazing past casual joggers in an intimidating display of athletic prowess. He was the fighter jet and they were the two-seater prop-planes and ponderous jet-liners. They stayed out of his way.

            It was early, and the gray waters of the river shuddered and leapt with each rainy gust of wind.Calfelt good, even considering the miserable weather. He was on pace for a four-and-a-half minute mile, he guessed—not a personal best, but the best he’d done in a while. More than the time, though, was the feeling of getting back into the regimen of his morning run. At this speed his whole body felt like a well-oiled and tuned device, as simple as it was elegant. He wasn’t some messy pile of meat and juice wrapped around a jigsaw puzzle of bone struts—he was a functional, precise thing, like a watch or a bicycle. It meant a lot to him to feel that way. Things had been crazy lately.

              Cal’s cell phone broke into the first few bars of Suicide is Painless. It was the kind of sick joke a homicide detective would find funny, particularly one like Cal’s partner, who had selected it. Slowing to a manageable pace,Cal answered. “Lyons here.”

            “Morning, Superman!”Cal’s partner, Detective Theodore O’Brien, or ‘OB’, sounded cheery, which was generally a bad thing.

            “What’s up? I’m not on duty for another hour.”

           OB’s chuckle was mostly static over the phone. “You’re on duty now, buddy. We got us a good one.”

            “What is it?”Cal inwardly hoped it wasn’t messy—he and OB had just finished working a murder-suicide where an old woman had strangled her husband, drowned herself in the bathtub, and wasn’t found for two weeks. He had only just gotten the stink out of his jacket, and he had to buy entirely new shoes.

            “Well, see, that’s the problem—we haven’t decided what it is, yet.”

           Calblinked. “Whaddya mean? Have we got a corpse?”

            “He ain’t dancing, if that’s your question. Look, just get your spandex-clad butt over to Charlestown. You’re gonna have to see this for yourself.”

           Cal memorized the address.OB hung up with a giggle and a “We’re gonna love this one, Supes.”

 

* * * * * * * *

 

Cal sprinted home and changed without showering. Altogether, it took him a little over a half hour to get to the scene. It was on a narrow side-street, where the roads coiled around Bunker Hill like so much discarded rope, and the blank granite face of the obelisk that stood there watched over everything. The freezing rain drifted off the eaves and gutters of the surrounding buildings in misty swirls and umbrella-eviscerating gusts of wind raced down the alleys. When Cal pulled up, there was a cruiser blocking the end of the street and another parked just outside the entrance of a narrow building with worn concrete steps. This second car was parked just outside the tell-tale yellow tape that indicated the perimeter of the crime scene, which ran in a rough triangle in front of the building. Next to the second car, a huddle of uniformed police gathered around a single golf umbrella, which was doing its best to pull a Mary Poppins and sail into space. Cal got out, flashed his badge to the first uniform to challenge him, and then spotted the massive frame of OB chatting it up under the umbrella.

           OB saw him coming, and ducked out from under shelter and into the rain. His trenchcoat was sodden and his Red Sox ball cap was looking a shade darker than usual. Still, good humor was evident on his broad, meaty face. He clapped his hands together. “Beautiful morning, ain’t it?”

            “I hate this crap.”Cal said, and added, “You interrupted my run.”

           OB shrugged. “Get your high like everybody else—drink coffee. Come on.” He led him over to the two other officers under the umbrella. “Boys, you know Detective Lyons.”

            Officers Amaral and Lopez nodded. Lopez added. “How’s it going, Superman?”

            “Fine, Mike.” Cal resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He liked to think they called him ‘superman’ because of his stellar work at fighting crime, but the fact was that ever since everybody on the Boston Police had gotten wind of his competing in the Ironman triathlon a couple years back, the nickname had become permanently affixed. He tried not to let it irk him—he knew it was done in good humor—but the fact was it simply reminded Cal of how a lot of guys on the force would never accept him as one of their own. The smarty-pants kid from the suburbs turned city cop would always, in their eyes, be analogous to an alien from the planet Krypton.

           OB pointed at Amaral. “Steve found the guy this morning on a call from one of the local residents. Mike was in the area, so he helped him secure the scene.”

            Amaral nodded. “Nobody’s touched anything since we got here. There were a couple bystanders, but it’s still early and the weather sucks, so…”

             “…so what happened?”Calcut him off. “What have we got? Accident? Murder? What?”

            The three of them exchanged glances and then turned around and looked. Cal followed their gaze. Just past the tape and dead center in front of the building’s steps was a telephone pole adorned with a skirt of bright yellow police ponchos affixed at waist height. This perplexed Cal at first, but his initial confusion melted away as soon as he noticed that around the base of the pole was a puddle that was much too red to be pure rainwater.

           Cal looked at OB, who took a deep breath, reached forward, and tore back the ponchos. Then all Cal could do was stare.

            The corpse was a white man in his mid-sixties, wearing a cardigan sweater, tweed jacket, and half-moon spectacles. His lips were pulled back into a grimace, as though he had just stubbed his toe. He had not. He was, rather, impaled through the exact center of his torso by the telephone pole and was suspended three feet above the ground. A human ka-bob.

            Cal said nothing. Everything—the rain, the wind, the cold—seemed to fall away from his notice. It was just himself and the spectacle of the corpse. He scanned the telephone pole from top to bottom—no cuts, wires still intact at the top. The body was not mutilated; the man’s clothes didn’t even look mussed. It was as though he had simply materialized inside the telephone pole, realized his error, and died instantly.

Vaguely, he heard Amaral talking. “…him this morning. No witnesses—nobody was walking around in this crap. Called the coroner, but we couldn’t figure out how to get him out, so we called public works, too. Then we were waiting on you guys.”

           Cal pulled on a rubber glove, never taking his eyes from the bizarre body. “ID?”

            Lopez pointed. “We think that’s his wallet on the stairs, but we didn’t move it.”

            OB, gloves on, retrieved the sodden leather wallet while Cal gently prodded the dead man’s ribs. Amaral asked, “How do you think it happened?”

            “I have no idea.”Cal answered as he walked around the pole, looking at the corpse from every angle. “Can you guys knock on some doors and ask if anybody’s power or phone service or anything went out?”

            As the officers dispersed, he looked up at the top of the pole, twenty feet up. “Maybe somebody disconnected the wires, stuffed our man down the pole, and then re-connected them. Whaddya think?”

OB snorted. “Gimmie a break, Cal—what’d they do, rent a goddamned telephone truck? There isn’t even any blood on the damn thing above his body.”

            Cal threw up his hands. “You got another theory? Did they show up with a giant robot, lift the freaking pole out of the sidewalk, and stuff him up through it?”

           OB shook his head, still staring at the telephone pole. “Jesus. Could this be an accident or something?”

            “Yeah, sure. Telephone poles sprout up through people’s guts all the time.”Cal snatched the wallet fromOB’s hands. “Gimmie that.”

            “Easy there, big guy. Don’t have to get mad at me.” OB chided.

            “I hate when things don’t make sense.”Cal snarled.

            OB chuckled. “Cal, we’re in homicide. When does anything make sense?”

            The wallet contained a variety of paper currency from five countries, a smooth blue stone, a collection of business cards following no obvious pattern, and an expired license. It read ‘Aldous Hambury,’ and sported a picture of the dead man wearing a blue bow-tie and smiling wider than anyone in the DMV had a right to. Cal handed it back to OB, who looked himself.

            “Aldous? What kind of name is that?”

            “British, I think. Notice anything weird about that license?”

           OB held it up to the pale light. “No hologram—it’s a fake. Why would you fake an expired license?”

            “Why would somebody stuff an old man through a telephone pole?”

            OB snorted. “Screw that, Cal—how do you stuff an old man through a telephone pole?”

           Cal crouched down to get a better look at the underside of ‘Aldous Hambury.’ He was looking for…well, heck, he had no idea what he was looking for. Blood, guts, a calling card—some kind of explanation written in physical clues. What he found was that the telephone pole seemed to have neatly punctured through Hambury’s jacket, as well as his body. He shook his head. “This isn’t possible.”

           OB stepped forward and prodded Hambury’s side with a gloved finger. “Well, he’s here, ain’t he?”

            “The goddamned pole has to go through his spine, OB. The spine holds the body together. If he hasn’t got one then…” Cal trailed off, circled the body twice more, and wound up standing next to OB and staring down at Hambury’s strange grimace.

           OB nodded. “Fifteen years, Cal, and they just keep getting weirder.” He pulled off a glove and produced a small plastic box that rattled as he shook it. “Tic-tac?”

What God Needs With a Starship

Star Trek 5 is an abysmal movie. No, no, Star Trek Nation, don’t bother defending it–you only make yourself look ridiculous. The plot is stupid, the action is boring, and the vast majority of the movie is pure drivel. There are only two moments worth remembering. I am going to include them here (courtesy of YouTube) so you don’t need to see the movie.

 The first is the camping scene:

The second is this:

These two scenes, essentially, sum up what this film is about (despite the filmmakers best efforts to the contrary, apparently). It’s about death and pain and just how important they are to who we become and who we aspire to be.

One of the things that science does badly is explain motivation. Yes, it can tell us that we eat because we need materials to continue breathing, or that we are afraid because we fear harm or destruction. What it can’t do is explain to us why it should matter that we are harmed or destroyed. This is because, by every logical measure, it doesn’t matter. There are very, very few living things that, were they to die, it would actually matter. Hell, there’s even a really healthy debate to be had about what ‘matters’ at all, if anything.

Life comes hand-in-hand with pain, death and a lot of other things that we might not want. We try like hell to avoid them, but we can’t. We make mistakes, we are hurt or hurt others, we make poor decisions and are buried in regret, and so on. This stuff is inevitable. Do we wish to undo it? Are we the less for such experiences?

The pat answer, and the go-to sideplot to most if not all time travel ventures, is ‘yes, let us undo the badness that has occurred.’ Let’s go back in time and catch so-and-so’s cancer before it’s too late. Let’s patch up that relationship we had before it is irreversibly gone. Let’s go on that vacation and keep a keen eye on our passport. Let’s have a do-over and do things ‘right’ this time. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. We’ve all cursed the skies and said ‘if only I’d _______’.

The thing is, though, is that by going back and fixing those problems–by erasing them from our souls, whether actually (via time travel) or mentally (via what Spock’s Brother offers Kirk)–we erase who we are. Star Trek shows this to us time and again, and not just in Star Trek 5, but through Picard’s interactions with Q, through Sisko’s negotiations with the Prophets of the Wormhole, and in many other instances, too. Yeah, maybe you can go back and fix things, but that won’t make you any better. It probably just makes you different and, possibly, a lesser person for it.

So, Kirk’s question at the conclusion of ST5 (and, seriously, don’t see it), when he asks the ‘Supreme Being’ “What does God need with a Starship,” can be looked at metaphorically, I suppose. The starship is a journey–a promise of adventure or ordeal, depending on perspective–and God might ‘need’ it not to get around, but to show us something that we need to understand: Change is inevitable, pain is assured, and the only thing that really matters is how you chose to deal with it. Are you Captain James T Kirk, hero of the Federation and savior of worlds?

Or are you this dope:  

Doc! Doc! My world is DIFFERENT!

Who Wants to Live Forever?

 The spec-fic world, be it Fantasy, Sci-Fi, or one of its hybridized relatives, has an obsession with immortality. It’s perfectly natural, of course–death is widely considered to be the most terrifying thing one can be presented with. Humanity and, indeed, all life is obessively preoccupied with not dying; it’s hardwired into our systems. The idea of circumventing death, whether via technology or magic or deals with Below or Above seems glorious, wonderful, even ideal.

In the end, however, it isn’t all that bad to die. I don’t mean that it’s a wonderful experience, per se, or that it should be desired before it’s time, but the idea that we are mortal isn’t such a bad one. Immortality, personally, strikes me as a pretty terrible fate for a human being. This idea isn’t new, of course–various properties have explored the concept in varying amounts of detail. The Highlander television series, in particular, explores the alienation and perpetual lonliness inherent in a never-ending life, as do various vampire stories. They also couple it with a fair amount of glamorous living, richness of experience, wonder, adventure, etc..

Don't forget being hit by lightning. Major perk of immortality.

  We kind of perfer to forget the real cost of immortality, and it isn’t a permanent feeling of ennui. It’s that we will, by all reasonable measures, cease to be human. Hell, we won’t even really be ‘alive’. Think about it–death is one of the defining, constant characteristics of all living things. With the exception of certain cancer cells (which are abominations) and viruses (which aren’t even really alive), everything dies eventually of old age or wear. The idea of permanence–of never needing to contemplate mortality outside of the odd swordfight (which, as Methos shows us in the Highlander TV show, are easy enough to avoid for milennia at a time)–would change you irrevocably. You would not understand things that humans instinctively react to, as you would have no frame of reference. Even if you had one, you’d eventually forget it.

If you can’t die, how do you understand fear? Can you appreciate Shakespeare? Do thrillers remain exciting? Yes, you can understand on some level how mortals might find them thrilling, but you will move from empathy to mere sympathy to simple alienation. It isn’t simply that you can’t have friends for very long before they age and die, it’s that all of your friends suddenly become boring. The only people you can have real, satisfying conversations with are immortals like yourself, and they’re both rare and (in the case of Highlander) want to cut off your head. Vampire societies aren’t much better.

Add to that interpersonal boredom and new level of boredom–running out of interesting things to do. Give somebody eternal youth, and how much can they experience? Travel (sure!), study (yes!), have fun (probably), but just how long do you keep that up? A century? Two? At what point does everything just look like everything else. Furthermore, consider what you no longer can experience–aging, illness, death.

Sounds good, right? Well, not to my mind. Aging, illness, death, decay–these are things all of us go through. They teach us, they build us, they make us who we are. Our emotional and physical connection to death are difinitive for the human experience. What’s more, they are essential to narrative. Every story needs an end; immortals, by their very nature, are robbed of a kind of catharsis their mortal counterparts can only experience through their demise, no matter how it arrives. They trade that in for what–a lifetime of partying, learning to kick ass, and sex with a never-ending stream of comparatively shallow and clueless creatures? An eternity of solitude?

No thanks. I’d rather die.