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The Solo Paradigm

Upon the advent of the latest Star Wars Trailer, I feel this is apropos.

Auston Habershaw

Tell me you don't miss him. I dare you. Tell me you don’t miss him. I dare you.

There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest…

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Doing Star Wars Right

It should come as no surprise to any of you that I love Star Wars. It has shaped me as much as any other work of art or literature I can name and viewing its films (specifically episodes 4-6) count among my oldest and fondest memories. Which is why I want you to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say to you:

90% of modern Star Wars franchises are no good.

This was a seriously great season finale. So much fun.

This was a seriously great season finale. So much fun.

Yes, yes, yes–there are notable exceptions, and I can’t claim to have read all or even most of them. That said, since Return of the Jedi, though, I have only seen/read a tiny handful that do true and honest justice to the original. Of those, the best I’ve seen is a current Saturday morning cartoon on the Disney Channel called Star Wars Rebels.

What does it do right, exactly? Well, to do that, perhaps it is easiest to explain what I think everything else has done wrong.

Misconception #1: The Star Wars Universe is Inherently Fascinating

Incorrect. Sorry guys, but it just isn’t. One of the errors made by most of the Expanded Universe and by all the prequels is the presumption that we actually care that much about the continuity and complexity of the Star Wars Galaxy. Folks, there really isn’t much there to be fascinated with.

No, I mean it! What’s the one thing that everybody complains about in Episode1? It’s that the primary conflict is over a trade dispute. “Trade Dispute?” we scoff, “how boring is that?” Well, you know why it’s boring? Because we don’t give a crap about the Star Wars Universe. We. Don’t. Care. If we did – if we actually found the Star Wars Universe interesting all by itself – we would be riveted by a tale about a trade dispute. We would be aghast at the predations of the Trade Federation and proud of the noble people of Naboo. However, since we don’t know these people from Adam, we don’t give a shit.

The world of Star Wars has always been one of larger-than-life stories and over-the-top settings that really require no practical explanation. It’s a city in the clouds – that’s all that really matters! The world is just a colorful, exciting backdrop to what happens with the characters, which is really where it’s at. The good Star Wars out there knows this.

In this regard, Star Wars Rebels does a great job – it gives us fun and engaging characters with just enough backstory to make us love them and keep us watching. The world exists only as backdrop, not as main show. You don’t need to know much of anything about Star Wars to enjoy it, and those things it does reference are only relevant to the characters themselves.

This. Always more of this, please.

This. Always more of this, please.

Misconception #2: The Rebellion Against the Empire is So Done.

No, no it is not. Star Wars was made great by telling the story about a team of underdogs who took down a big evil Empire. Every other story that has tried to tell something else has been missing something essential. This is related to misconception #1: we thought the Star Wars universe has other, better stories in it, but it doesn’t, or not really, anyway. It always, always comes down to stormtroopers bearing down on our heroes as they try to find some desperate avenue of escape. The Jedi of the Old Republic? Boring. The Clone Wars? Boring. The New Republic and its flavor-of-the-month villains? Boring!

Every one of those stories is trying to recapture that lightning in the bottle when it was Han and Chewy and Leia and the droids against the whole Imperial Fleet, and it never quite works. Star Wars Rebels simply shows us the rebellion again, except from an earlier point in its history and with a different group of freedom fighters. It works, because it is doing what we originally loved all over again.

Misconception #3: Lightsaber Battles are Inherently Interesting

I sometimes wonder if people who say this actually watched Episode 2 at all. There were about a billion lightsaber duels in that movie and they were all spectacularly dull. The reason? You need context for battles to be interesting. Just fighting some random guy for the heck of it is not interesting. Darth Maul? Who is that guy, anyway, and why do we care that they’re fighting with him? We don’t.

Go back and watch the lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke in Empire. It wholly lacks the kung fu acrobatics of the modern lightsaber fight, but it is twenty times more riveting than any other. Why? Because we desperately care about Luke and we are actively terrified of what Vader has planned. Without that context, we just don’t care.

Again, Star Wars Rebels does this well. We come to care about the characters before they go into deadly duels with the villains (whom we also know and despise).

All this, coupled with solid characters and fun action sequences and broad, larger-than-life storytelling makes Star Wars Rebels my favorite Star Wars franchise in ages, despite the occasionally clunky dialogue and mid-level CGI animation. It’s fun, and that’s what Star Wars is supposed to be: fun and fast and painted in broad strokes.

You know, just like a Saturday morning cartoon.

The Mythology of Exceptionalism

Okay, nerds, get ready to be offended. Ready? Go read this post by David P. Goldman. Deep breaths, folks.

Let’s skip past the bit about “obese, pimply-faced losers” and the fairly childish vitriol that accompanies it. The guy doesn’t like Harry Potter – fine. It doesn’t make him Hitler. I’ve ranted at length about such snobs and their churlish insistence upon their flavor of storytelling’s superiority over some other version, and I’ve no need to do so again. What I want to focus on here is the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance of Goldman’s central thesis.

Goldman takes aim specifically at Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as espoused by his classic work The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Goldman dislikes it, and in his article he claims the following:

Skywalker/Potter/Siegfried are a carryover of the pagan idea of heroes, which is simply the pagan idea of  a god: a being who is like us, but better. Campbell claimed that the “hero” of this ilk is a universal myth, but that is plainly false.

He then goes on to claim that both the Bible and Chinese narrative lack heroes in this sense – in that latter instance, they are instead “a humble lad who works harder than anyone else, and isn’t too proud to start by carrying slop buckets in the kitchen of the martial arts school.” Goldman seems to insist that China, rather than being ruled by a hereditary aristocracy, was instead ruled by mandarins (bureaucrats) and compares it to being ruled by the equivalent of the Havard faculty. This dovetails nicely with his opinion of the Biblical “hero”, who is not god-like, but rather earnest and hardworking and hardly qualifying as heroic.

Okay, so first off, this entire premise of the argument is bunk, pure and simple. The supposition that Campbell’s thesis is plainly incorrect and that his heroic mythology

Nope, no god-like power here! No siree!

Nope, no god-like power here! No siree! Just a hard-working schlub like you and me!

isn’t found in the Bible or in Chinese folklore is patently false, demonstrating both a misunderstanding of Campbell and betraying a blind prejudice on Goldman’s part. Not only is the Campbellian monomyth entirely supported by both the Bible and Chinese folklore, the latter is directly cited in Campbell’s work on many occasions (it seems as though the depth of Goldman’s knowledge of Chinese myth is limited to kung fu movies). In the Bible’s case, the monomyth is repeated time and time again. Take the story of Moses: Moses is called to adventure when he flees into the wasteland. He crosses into the magical world at the foot of the burning bush, and he returns later to Pharaoh’s court bearing knowledge and power. This happens to Jonah, to Abraham, to Job, to Paul, and to countless other prophets and heroes that fill the Bible through both testaments. To say Campbell was antisemitic is fine (he was disdainful of the Jewish religion, certainly), but he did insist upon the power of their folklore, which is in large part what the Bible is made up of.

Goldman, here, is quibbling over the details and missing the larger narrative. Yes, Moses doesn’t have god-like power himself – he is granted it by God. That, however, isn’t substantially different from the power granted to King Arthur when he draws the sword in the stone or to Theseus when he takes Ariadne’s string into the labyrinth. In all monomyths, the power granted to the heroes does not originate in themselves, per se, but rather are rewards granted to them for their behavior and, frequently also, their lineage. The fact that Moses is a descendant of Abraham, though, and therefore special by blood (and this is of significant import in Exodus) seems to elude Goldman. We could play the same game with Chinese folklore and myth (fact: the Chinese maintained a hereditary aristocracy from about 1000 BC until 1911), but I feel I’ve made my point here.

The underlying reason for Goldman’s distaste for Campbell and, by extension, modern fantasy literature has less to do with Campbell’s work and more to do with Goldman’s willful blindness to the clear and apparent similarities Christianity has with other stories. Goldman wishes Christianity to be special and unique and, while it certainly has unique qualities, it is structurally similar enough to all other mythology to make it part of the broad tapestry that makes up Campbell’s theory. Heroes are us, only better. Period. The only thing that changes is what constitutes “better.” For the ancient Greeks, they wanted heroes of strength and cleverness who were willing to stand up to the tyranny of their capricious gods. For the Chinese, they want humility and filial piety, which means their heroes follow slightly different paths, but all well within the bounds of the monomyth. In the Bible, the Christian hero is selfless and faithful, obeying their God and sacrificing their well-being for the well-being of their people. It’s the same sales pitch, just with a different product to sell.

That, though, is upsetting to guys like Goldman – real America’s Americans who believe in Jesus and Built the Railroads (on Irish and Chinese backs). The theory that their deeply-held stories are, in actuality, just another version of a story as old as humanity itself and in no way exceptional, is hard to swallow. Why, then he’d be no better than we “obese, pimply-faced losers,” clinging just as tightly to his own personal fairy stories to make him feel better about himself. We can’t have that, now can we?

Practical Lightsaber Dueling 101

Folks, the new Star Wars Episode VII teaser is out. The real one. Attack Plan Delta – go now!

If you’re like me, the thing that caught the most attention was the lightsaber crossguard on that guy’s lightsaber. Of course, being me, while everybody else is saying “that was so cool!,” I am saying “interesting – does that make his lightsaber a better weapon or a worse one?” In the “better” column, we can see that this guy now has the theoretical capacity to trap his opponent’s blade (well, assuming the hilt has ionized plasma in the corner rather than just on the blade and tines); in the “worse” column, he has a thing that, if pressed, might chop off his nose, thumb, or burn a hole in his clothing.

Very cool--no contest. But Jedi would behave a little differently, I think, were it not for the need for flash and glitz.

Very cool–no contest. But Jedi would behave a little differently, I think, were it not for the need for flash and glitz.

I’ve thought a lot about lightsaber dueling. Too much, really. Part of it comes from my nerdish obsession with detail and part of it comes from my brief 2-year stint on the varsity fencing team at BC (it should be noted that I was awful – I think the coach just recruited me as a living practice dummy for the much more talented fencers), wherein a learned a lot about practical swordplay. Anyway, by the end of things, I have two things to say about lightsaber duels in Star Wars:

  1. They are really cool.
  2. There is no way, if a lightsaber existed, people would fight with them like that.

I’m going to expound upon that for a bit. If you don’t like me getting all literal in the midst of the flash and boom of your glee, then you might want to stop reading.

Some Assumptions

Okay, so my analysis of lightsabers is based upon a couple assumptions of what they are and how they work. The blade is formed by a loop of plasma (superheated gas) trapped in a kind of magnetic bottling-field technology. It is the magnetic bottle that repels other lightsabers as well as blaster bolts (which are also plasma-based – they are not actually lasers). The density of the plasma in the blade is relatively slight, meaning the blade itself is virtually weightless, and the magnetic bottle is sufficiently rigid as to be similar to thick steel in stiffness (i.e. the blade doesn’t bend easily when pressed). All of these facts are clear from observing the films.

What This Means When Wielding One

Well, if the blade is weightless, rigid, and will burn through anything it touches, one of the first things you probably want to learn is how not to cut off your own arm or burn yourself or your clothing. Furthermore, if it cuts through whatever it touches, that means you really don’t need to put much muscle behind the thing to injure somebody – touching them lightly will do.

Given all this, your strategy when using a lightsaber would be to keep the blade away from your body and aim to injure the enemy with a quick touch. Given that, all the swinging around and acrobatics would be counterproductive. Lightsaber duelists would not slash much, but rather concern themselves with thrusting or quick, short cuts, therefore maintaining control over their weapon at all times and keeping the maximum distance between themselves and their opponents (better to lose a hand than a head or arm, right?).

Wait, Why Wouldn’t They Slash?

Well, a slash is slower than a thrust. Try it out – get somebody else and get two pencils of equal length. One of you hold the pencil with the point sticking at the other and the other hold it so that you are going to whack the other with the side. See who hits first – given approximately similar reach and reflexes, the thrust will strike home first, as there is less distance to go, less energy needed, and less dexterity required to pull it all off. Slashes are easier to dodge, are more likely to miss, and so on.

People slash with swords because the slash (or “blow”) carries behind it more force. That makes a straight-blade more likely to punch through armor or cut through bone and flesh. Also, it uses the weight of the weapon to its advantage. The thing is, though, if your weapon had no weight and needed no force to cut through things, why would you bother with slashing about when you could just dart in and poke them in the chest and kill them outright.

Sure, some slashing would happen (good for scything through a bunch of lightsaber-less enemies, for instance), but in a duel, you’d see the two Jedi suddenly become very compact and tight in their movements – more like an epee fencer than a Viking warlord.

How Would The Duel Look, Then?

Lightsaber blades would probably be as long as could be managed (which they may very well be – we don’t know). The Jedi would likely stand sideways with the blade in one hand, orienting his whole body behind the lightsaber. He would keep the point at his opponent, protecting his hand. Each Jedi would aim to strike the closest body part they could (ideally the sword arm of the other), thus disarming or stunning him, which would then allow a follow up and likely fatal blow. Bladework would be fast and not all that flashy to the untrained eye, all of it happening in a fairly compact 18″ by 18″ square in front of them. In brief, it would be every bit as deadly, but half as fun to watch.

The good news, though, is that they would still wear those flowing robes, as they would help hide the exact location of their body. This would make them a harder target for the enemy. Of course, those robes had better be flame retardant, or else that is one robe that is going to go up in flames as soon as it gets hit.

As for that crossguard, it’s clearly a good idea (everybody would probably have one), but it would probably work better as a basket-hilt configuration, curling over the hand and protecting the arm in a circle, in the manner of a rapier. So, yeah, basically it would be less Samurai/Kendo and more 3 Musketeers/Fencing.

That’s my thoughts, anyway. For the record, I am rather glad this isn’t what the lightsaber duels look like on screen, since that wouldn’t be half as much fun.

Sword Vs Gun

When it comes to duels, two weapons rule them all: the sword and the gun. For all Legolas did for the bow, for as much stick-fighting as there was in Pacific Rim, and no matter how many fireballs Goku conjures from his hands, nothing will ever beat these two weapons in terms of ‘cool.’ Also, interestingly enough, they seem to be somehow opposed to one another. Guns and swords do not mix, nor do their aficionados. Nowhere is this more clear than in the contest for Luke’s affections in Star Wars. Obi Wan decries blasters (guns) as clumsy and random; Han points out that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” It is as though these two means of dispensing death were somehow at odds with one another, at least thematically. Why is that?

Your Weapon: Control of Yourself

Your Weapon: Control of Yourself

We can perhaps take some of our cues from Star Wars itself. The sword is the weapon of the Jedi – an “elegant weapon from a more civilized age.” It is used by the forces of good to defeat evil and for the forces of wisdom and order to impose peace in realms of chaos and madness. It is metaphorically significant that the Jedi reflect back the blaster bolts of their foes: they turn the violence of their enemies back upon them. Their defense is sufficient to destroy their enemies, since it is their enemies’ aggression (the Dark Side) that ultimately consumes itself. The sword is a symbol of control over oneself, of a kind of spiritual unity between the body and the physical world that combines to become a perfect weapon.

This metaphor is borne through a lot of heroic movies and literature. It can be seen that Inigo Montoya cannot defeat Count Rugen until and unless he can control his rage and focus on his swordsmanship – his initial chase of Rugen and frantic attempts to catch him almost kill him. It is only when he achieves a kind of spiritual peace in the form of resignation (“I am sorry, Father. I failed you.”), that he again regains control. Likewise, the blade of Isildur, Narsil, is not re-forged until the race of Men is once again ready to take control of themselves (in the form of Aragorn) and restore order to their fractured kingdoms. In the reverse, we see Conan bound by his obsession to regain his father’s sword and learn the riddle of steel. It is only when he realizes that the sword is no more important than the spirit that wields it (i.e. when he gains control of himself and marshals his rage to serve his purposes) that he can use the Atlantean blade to defeat Thulsa Doom.

The sword is an implement of separation, in a certain literal sense. In this vein, it is the tool by which the hero chooses and categorizes the world around him. It is power, but the power to control both oneself and others. It is defense and offense balanced and necessarily shackled to the will of the wielder. It is personal. This is even recognized in cultures as ancient as that of Japan, where the concepts of zanshin and kokoro paint a picture of a way of combat and swordsmanship that center less on the sword and more on one’s ability to control and be aware of the world and themselves in it.

Your Weapon: Raw Power

Your Weapon: Raw Power

The gun, meanwhile, is something different. The gun represents not control but power, raw and unfiltered. It is, furthermore, power that is not tied to the wielder, but to forces outside the wielder’s scope of influence. In literal fact, guns harness the powers of physics and chemistry – the forces of nature itself – to destroy the enemy. To be sure, physical skill is required to use the gun well, but not to the level of the sword. Guns are loud, destructive, indiscriminate, and volatile. They are not defensive in nature – they do not protect except if used preemptively to destroy. If the sword symbolizes civilization and order, the gun symbolizes chaos and barbarism. This is not to say the gun is morally inferior – I’m not necessarily ascribing to Obi Wan’s distaste for firearms – but it is an indication of their symbolic purpose. The gun is nature – a forest fire, a storm, the raging sea. All that chaos and destructive disorder is harnessed so that it may be used by humanity to destroy its enemies. The gun is black sorcery; it is the ultimate power trip.

Again, such a use for the gun can be clearly witnessed in so many stories and, indeed, in historical attitudes towards them. In westerns, for example, the gun is a fearful tool. It takes skill to wield, but the true challenge is not so much in the wielding as it is in how fast one may choose to deploy it. In this sense, the gun is only the tool and the real conflict is a moral one – to destroy or not to destroy, and how soon. It is not accidental that the Matrix films used guns to destroy the nobodies yet opted for martial arts to face the true foes. There is no moral challenge in gunning down the unnamed cogs of a soulless machine network, but to face Ultimate Evil, one must master themselves and therefore hand-t0-hand combat (the realm of the sword) is more dramatically appropriate.

In instances where the gun is used as the final arbiter of the conflict, there is a fatalism and suddenness to the exchange. When William Munny faces down Little Bill in Unforgiven, the true action is in the dialogue preceding the end, not in the series of explosions that follow. Why? Well, the gun lacks the physical language of the sword to express the combatants’ experience of the conflict, for lack of a better description. When in a gunfight, it is not so much the fight itself that matters, as the weapons employed are not extensions of themselves but rather representations of elemental forces.

It is part of this that once tarnished the gun when it first became common in any given society. The sword was a weapon of honor, requiring devotion and control to master, wheras the gun was (and is) a kind of power that could be distributed evenly to everyone, controlled or otherwise. The democratization of deadly power was resisted by those who wished to maintain control (if any fool with money could equip the peasantry with firearms, what would become of the Samurai or Knight or Cavalier?), as they saw in the gun an opposing viewpoint to their understanding of warfare. It was no longer one-on-one, skill against skill alone. It was a free-for-all, decided by fate as often as skill. The wisdom of the gun is not how to fight, but whether to do so at all and when. Violence was no longer a gentleman’s game.

Now, as to which I prefer, I am torn. I feel both have great symbolic weight, and I find myself drifting between the two. In the end, it is important also to remember another kind of metaphor they both symbolize: that of the male phallus, and the corresponding ‘male’ desire to dominate his surroundings. Whether shooting or stabbing, Dr. Freud still has the last word, I’m afraid.

What’s in a Geek-Off?

Everybody knows the answer is 'Batman'. If it weren't the answer, geeks would have to concede that brawn beats brains.

Everybody knows the answer is ‘Batman’. If it weren’t the answer, geeks would have to concede that brawn beats brains.

The comic book store argument is a staple of the geek subculture. You’ve seen it on The Big Bang Theory dozens of times: Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard sitting around their living room, arguing until they’re blue in the face over whether Thor’s Hammer can penetrate Cap’s Shield, or what the difference is (or ought to be) between zombies and mummies. As much as I gripe sometimes of the stereotyping of geekdom by that show, I do have to admit in that one respect they are generally spot-on. It is a thing. It happens all the time.

But what is the point? They aren’t real, so why bother?

Why do I bother critiquing things like zombies, giant robots, and mermaids? As one (unusually offended) commenter asked:

Do you go around telling kids there’s no Santa Clause [sic], too?

Let’s ignore the spelling error for a moment and take for granted that the commenter in question is not referring to the Tim Allen film franchise, both loved and admired by all humanity (he gets fat by magic – comedy gold!). Let’s engage the essence of the critique here: why ruin all the fun? It’s a worthwhile question, and it does deserve an answer.

Geeks have these conversations because they are fun. They are fun in the same way that analyzing literature is fun, or critiquing the fashion choices on the red carpet is fun, or really any act where you pass judgment on something is fun. It isn’t just geeks who do this – we all do this. Having opinions and backing them up with arguments is part of the deal with being able to think. Can such arguments go off the rails? Sure they can. Conflicting opinions can often be confused with personal rancor, feelings can get hurt, and all enjoyment can get sucked away by some guy crossing the line. Most of the time, though, this doesn’t happen.

Part of what makes these geek conversations unique is the fact that their subject matter is often entirely fictional. There is no empirical definition for the weight of Thor’s Hammer, only what can be inferred by circumstance. I once had an argument with a guy about how lightsaber duels weren’t reflective of what a duel with a plasma sword would really look like. My critique was oriented around the supposition that the plasma wouldn’t have the same mass that the sabers seemed to when fighting – less mass means less inertia, which means a whole different set of fighting techniques become possible, thus changing the duel. His argument was that we had no way of knowing how densely packed the plasma was in the blade, therefore it may have the same mass as a lightweight sword of the same length. I came back by citing the conservation of mass – if the plasma had that much mass, where did it go when the blade retracted? Lightsaber hilts do not get visibly heavier when shut off, therefore…

You get the idea.

These conversations are often fun. They ask us to think and analyze what we observe and to draw conclusions from it. This is how human beings learn. This is how we adapt and change. If nobody asked such questions, nothing new would happen. Now, granted, science fiction and fantasy franchises aren’t the most important thing in the world to debate, but to equate critiquing their conventions with ruining Santa Claus for little kids is unfair. For one thing, that implies that scifi/fantasy is only for children, which I object to in the most strenuous terms possible (I mean, have you even read Freud or Jung?). For another, that suggests that we are having this conversation for the express purpose of ruining something for someone else. Not true. We’re trying to change it, in our small way. We’re trying to say it can be better. We try not to have these arguments with people who don’t care or don’t want to hear them (at least the more socially facile of us do) – the last thing a geek really wants to do is ruin somebody’s fun. If you like the old thing, well fine – opinions differ. If you have such a problem with my disagreement, offer me a robust defense. Debate it.

It should be fun.

The Movies We Play in Our Heads

Ben Affleck is going to be Batman. Get over it.

Nobody is making you give them your money, folks.

Nobody is making you give them your money, folks.

No, seriously, just shut up. You’re being a giant child. Seeing as there is presumably nobody pointing a loaded weapon to your head and forcing you to go see this movie, you have two adult options here:

  1. Go and see the movie and see what happens. Life goes on.
  2. Don’t go and see the movie. Life goes on.

It’s not like Ben Affleck gassed kidnapped children in an abandoned coal mine. Calm the fuck down.

There is a bizarre cultural weight given certain fictional universes by the assembled masses of geekdom. A casting choice goes awry or so-and-so does such-and-such to Super-Guy’s underroos, and somewhere somebody is throwing an almighty hissy fit. I’ve done it, admittedly – I’ve done it here on this blog. I like to think my major objection in these instances isn’t to the choices made, though, as it is to the execution of said choices. If you want Gotham City to go into a kind of fascist lockdown, then fine. You need to have it make even a remote amount of sense, though. I object less to the ‘bat nipple’ than I do to the fact that Batman and Robin was a stupidly executed plot with poorly drawn characters and awkward performances. I also didn’t write the studio any hate mail.

When people start ranting about things like this, I like to ask them a question: What would you prefer? They inevitably produce a laundry list of things they would do differently – different actors, different costumes, different plots. Fine. The follow-up question is this:

Do you honestly think people wouldn’t get pissed at you, too?

If you grew up to become a hardcore geek, you also developed deep attachments to various characters. You loved Captain Kirk. You dreamed about fighting alongside Aragorn. On the playground, you were Han Solo’s niece with a blaster and a knack for fixing droids. I get it – I grew up the same way. These characters and these things stuck with you for a long, long time. They were folded into your personality, into your sense of self. I think this happens to everybody, geek or not. There was the kid who grew up wanting to be Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan, the guy who carried a copy of David Copperfield all through college, the girl who couldn’t stop watching My So-Called Life – all of these people have wrapped their self-image in with their heroes and heroines and stories. This is a fine thing to do – normal, even.

FettDeadAt some point, though, you need to know that somebody’s going to come along and try to capture the magic again. There are lots of reasons to do this – money, a love of the material, a desire to surpass what has been done before, etc.. In any event, they’re going to try. No matter how good it is, too, they’re probably going to fail with somebody. To some people, Michael Jordan is always going to be better than <whoever>, no one will ever capture the scope of Dickens in any other form, and all those other teen-dramas are just knock-offs. I met a guy once and we got to talking about James Bond. He hated Daniel Craig as Bond. His favorite? Roger Moore. Why? Roger Moore was cheesier, and that was what he liked. Seriously, that was his argument.

All of us have our ideal movie playing in our heads. It’s the thing we grew up with, it’s part of who we are. We can’t expect somebody else’s little movie in their head to match our own all the time, or even most of the time. What you consider ‘getting it right’ is inherently subjective. Will you hate Ben Affleck as Batman? Yeah, maybe. Maybe not – I bet you hated the idea of Heath Ledger as the Joker, too, and that was pretty stupid, wasn’t it (or do you think Mark Hamil is the perfect Joker? Jack Nicholson? Cesar Romero?)? In any event, the whole affair is no reason to get so upset. Just don’t go see the movie. You know you’re allowed to do that, right?

In the end, the thing I really want to tell people who get up in arms over how Hollywood ruined <blank> involves two additional things: First, that it isn’t like Hollywood erased the old thing (unless you’re George Lucas, but he gave us the originals back eventually), so just go back and watch that. Second, if you don’t like how they’re telling this story, tell it yourself. Nobody is ever going to make that movie you have in your head except you.

That’s half the reason I write, after all – nobody tells stories quite the way I would, so it’s up to me to tell them myself. Of course, being a writer isn’t for everybody – I understand that. You would think, though, that with that understanding people would elicit some degree of restraint in their criticism. If anybody ever asks you ‘could you do better’ and you can’t honestly say ‘yes’ (emphasis on honestly), maybe you shouldn’t be bitching so loudly. Furthermore, if the answer is yes, then go and do it.

For my money, I’m going to wait and see what Affleck does with the role. After all, you just never know and the worst that could happen has already happened. It’s called Daredevil.

A Ship of One’s Own

You can't have this one. Make up your own.

You can’t have this one. Make up your own.

Imagine a starship. Your ship. The steed that shall bear you to the stars and beyond, upon which you will rely for safety, comfort, support, and escape.

What does it look like?

Science fiction has given us a broad range of different designs and styles, but I think a lot of the ships we see boil down to a few riffs on the same couple variables (and a lot of them owing their origin to the difficult-to-escape legacy of the Star Wars universe). So, let’s run through them, bit by bit.

Size

How big is this ship going to be? Is it a stunt fighter some psychic midget can yank out of a swamp, or is it some thing everybody will confuse for a small moon? The smaller ship is easier to maintain, but the larger ship has a bit more heft, has room for more options, carries more stuff, and is probably more comfortable.

Quality

Does your ship have the newest gadgets built into the fanciest hull yet devised by modern engineers, or is it a throwback – a hunk of junk that’s seen its share of battles, weathered a radiation storm or two? The new ship gets new toys – it cloaks, it has super-tractor beams, it goes faster than anything ever before, and so on. The old ship, though, has character. It’s more like a person than a vessel, from the way it creaks during re-entry or the way it pulls to the side when you try to climb out of the gravity well.

Crew

Do you fly this thing by yourself, or do you need friends? How many friends? You can have ten kilometer long starships run by one guy and his AI companion, and you can also have a ten meter ship that needs five people to operate its manually cranked solar sails (or something). Less crew gives you more freedom, but it also exposes you to the risk of being overwhelmed by space pirates or invasive aliens or whatever. More crew means you’ve got to manage personalities on long voyages, but at least you won’t be lonely and any trouble you run into will provide you with a bunch of folks to help you out. Heck, get that crew big enough, and soon they become redundant – lose an engineer? Well, there’s seventeen more where she came from!

Speed

Well, if it’s a starship, it has to be fast (interstellar distances don’t cross themselves, you know), but how fast? This one sees the greatest variations between vessels, ranging from telephone booths that teleport instantly to generation ships that take decades to reach their destination. Ultimately, though, any ship goes just about at the Speed of Plot, which is to say it goes just fast enough so that things happen and it doesn’t get boring. So, in other words, completely at odds with all other forms of travel known.

Weapons

Is this a military vessel? A pirate ship? A smuggler? A garbage scow? Does it mount guns? How many? Where? Why? Some folks like their spaceships packed with phasers, proton torpedoes, railguns and the rest of it. Others prefer to use their wits and their diplomatic skills to avoid danger. After all, if you don’t carry guns, you are less likely to be shot. Then again, if you don’t carry guns and you are shot, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it. Invest in escape pods.

Well, what did you come out with?

For me, a ship is a story. It has to be. The age-old comic book store questions about ‘what ship would you rather have–the Enterprise, the Falcon, or Serenity?’ are filtered through a couple artificial lenses. I mean, if we were really handing out starships, I’d want one to myself that could travel instantly, never break down, and that could allow me to go in the backyard, have an adventure, and be back by suppertime (so, in other words, the TARDIS). That, though, isn’t a story by itself. It’s not interesting because there is no conflict, no problems, no difficulties – the story isn’t about the ship.

If we’re talking ‘what is cooler in the context of a story’, then we get into a more interesting conversation. I’m split down the middle between ‘big military ship’ and ‘speedy, characterful smuggling ship’. In other words, I’m split down the middle between the Enterprise and the Falcon. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since almost every central starship in scifi history falls into one category or the other, with an honorable mention going to the starfighters/giant space robots of the universe (and they’re mostly extensions of the big military ship, anyway).

Why is this, anyway? I’m not sure, but my gut says that our starships are just reflections of our heroes, ultimately, and our heroes in these kind of stories so often are split between those that uphold the existing order (Captain Kirk) and those who seek to change or topple it (Han Solo) and, therefore, we get our ships – mobile symbols of our heroic ideals. Like so many tropes, though, it doesn’t need to be this way. The galaxy is a large place, after all. Let’s branch out and see what other stories our starships can tell us.

15322_3d_scene_spaceship

Of Han and Luke…

As usually happens with me, I just saw the movie Red as its sequel hit the theatres. Enjoyed the hell out of that movie, so I’ll probably go catch Red 2 by the time the third one is out or they’re releasing the 25th anniversary edition or something.

Anyway…

+25 Badass points, right here.

+25 Badass points, right here.

It occurred to me in watching this movie that one of the things that I loved about it is that all the heroes were old hands at their profession – they were the best of the best, with decades of history, coming out for one last hurrah. This always plays well with me and, indeed, it occurs to me that those are the kind of heroes I love. I like veterans, old pros, grizzled campaigners; I like to watch the young whipper-snappers underestimate how badass they are and get their butt handed to them. Most of my stories and novels feature such characters prominently, often in the starring role. When I play an RPG, I often play a character that once had their heyday, but now are fading with age or disillusionment or injury. I love giving them that leg-up on the opposition and I love all the trouble that having that many enemies (or friends!) brings with it.

It occurs to me that, to some extent, our heroes are often struck in one of two molds, of which the above description is one. They are either young, scrappy up-and-comers (Luke Skywalker) or older, more experienced, more cynical veterans (Han Solo). Granted there’s a lot of variation in there (more a spectrum than a dichotomy), but I do think the basic distinction has a lot of legs.

Lukes

54Your Luke Skywalker types have their future ahead of them. They are often thrust into a world they barely understand, but there’s something special about them that sees them through. We identify with these characters readily – they’re the underdog, and besides they seem so nice. We struggle along with them to retain their values and their heroic nature in the face of evil. We know they have great things in store for  them, and so we want to be along for the ride. We can see this in Rothfuss’s Kvothe, in Jon Snow, in Harry Potter, and in just about every other YA Fantasy hero/heroine on the shelves.

For me, the drawback of the Skywalker approach is that one builds from the ground up. There seem to be fewer surprises hidden in the characters themselves and that makes them a little more predictable and gives them a little less depth. Of course, they trade this for clear goals and bold purposes. They are less hampered by cynicism.

Now, as somebody who struggles with cynicism myself, it is small wonder that I find the frequent optimism of the Luke character frustrating. Perhaps because I, myself, am somewhat embittered at the weight of the world, I find it easier to identify with someone who already knows this. Then again, I cheer just as hard for the Skywalkers when they do things right (Kvothe’s victories, especially, strike a chord in me that has me on my feet clapping). Still, I feel a disconnect with them. I don’t see myself as them. Oddly enough, I never did.

Hans

Look, kid, I've been from one side of this galaxy to the other and I've seen a lot of strange stuff...

Look, kid, I’ve been from one side of this galaxy to the other and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff…

The Han Solos of the world, on the other hand, are right up my alley. I love their history. I love their old friends popping up. I love it when a character says ‘I know a guy who might be able to help’, since that guy is always going to mean trouble. The Hans get the best one-liners, romance all the more interesting women, and have the coolest mystique about them. People roll their eyes at Luke – he has to prove himself. Han just jerks his head at Chewie, and people shut the hell up.

The struggle of the Han Solo hero is the struggle of redemption. It’s the story of the comeback. What they’re coming back from varies – from the loss of their conscience or from the weight of age, or the like. Still, it’s a story I love watching. Here is where you find Conan the Barbarian, James Bond, Unforgiven‘s Ed Munny, Druss the Legend, Kvothe (oddly enough – read Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and you’ll get it), Tyrion Lannister, Locke Lamora, and so on.

For whatever reason, nothing makes me smile more than the veteran proving he still has it, or the retired assassin finding something to be hopeful about, or the old soldier putting together his life after the long war. I want them to fight their way out of the pit they dug themselves. I find that fascinating.

So, where do your favorite heroes lie on the age-and-experience spectrum? Are they more a Han or more a Luke? Why?

My Space Opera Disconnect

...because Toni Morrison or F Scott Fitzgerald never wrote about Space Valkyries leading war androids into battle. Duh.

…because Toni Morrison or F Scott Fitzgerald never wrote about Space Valkyries leading war androids into battle. Duh.

A lot of times, when people learn I write scifi/fantasy, one of the first questions I get is ‘why that genre’. It’s a pretty deeply personal question, though I don’t think most people realize this. Asking somebody why they create a certain kind of art is sort of like asking ‘why’d your brain wind up so weird?’, except cloaked behind more trivial and superficial kinds of curiosity. For a long time, I answered that question with the answer to the question of what I think people really meant to ask, which is ‘what is interesting about scifi/fantasy as a genre’. This is a different question entirely, in that it doesn’t really have anything specific to do with me.

Now, though, I give them what I think is an honest answer: I write scifi/fantasy because the real world is a place I don’t particularly like most of the time. This is not to say I’m a lunatic who only finds joy in his ‘delusions’ (to use the pejorative term), but rather that I have difficulty keeping an even temper and a positive outlook the more I wallow in the present and the real. When I was a kid, my younger brother was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder (Batten Disease, if you’re curious) that slowly killed him over a period of twenty years. During my formative adolescent years, I got to watch my brother and best friend slowly sink into a vegetative state, piece by piece, first losing his eyesight, then his fine motor control, then the ability to walk unassisted, then his ability to speak, and so on and so forth. Slowly. Year by year, month by month. I still have nightmares about it. They are the very worst kind, trust me.

Add to that all the usual horribleness of the real world. War, death, famine, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, and on and on and on. The kind of stuff that ordinarily makes your average teenager upset with the world. You can see now that fanciful alternatives held a certain appeal, yes?

Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve lived a particularly tough life. I haven’t. I have wonderful parents, a loving family, and, in many ways, luck as smiled on me in most of the ways that count. That said, my heart went through the wringer in a way I desperately hope most of you never experience.

Plot holes or no plot holes, it's perhaps exaggerating to call this series 'high art'.

Plot holes or no plot holes, it’s perhaps exaggerating to call this series ‘high art’.

Enough about me; let’s bring this back to speculative fiction, now. For a long period in my life, I read almost nothing other than space opera. Star Wars, of course, got me started, along with Star Trek and some other things (Babylon 5, Farscape, etc.). Over recent years, however, as I’ve been cultivating myself as a Serious Writer and Professor of Literature, I’ve been eschewing the ‘lighter’ stuff in favor of harder scifi, cyberpunk, and other styles that are more serious, more realistic, and, honestly, more grim. To be perfectly honest, most of these stories are better literature than much of the space opera sub-genre–there’s more interesting work being done about human nature, about what happens to us as a species, about what we need science to do or what we need it to stop doing, etc.. At the same time, though, they are also deeply tied to the real world. To ourselves. To all that ugliness and heavy-duty cynicism we fight with each and every day. It grows tiring after a time.

So, it’s with this running in the back of my mind that I stumbled upon what I think is a really, really cool idea for my own space opera universe. Alien species, improbably fast spaceships, laser beams and blasters, hell, maybe even psychic powers (silly as those are). High art? Maybe not, but who says everything has to be? Further, who says those things that aren’t high art don’t have something worthwhile to say? The challenge becomes, ultimately, to find something to say that all the other space operas haven’t already said (and boy do they ever repeat themselves). I’m in the middle of writing a different novel (urban fantasy) just now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tinker and develop and tweak and build. I want to see if there’s something cool and interesting I can do in this genre that I leaned upon for all those years. Can I do it?

Well, hell, stay tuned. If I do, you’ll hear about it here.