Glutton for Punishment: Hard SF vs Soft SF vs Fantasy

– by Gitabushi

There is a commercial running during NFL games by a satellite TV company, with the premise that there are some people who still like cable, but there are also some people who really like things that normal people hate, like painful, frustrating, or irritating things.

Well, I like igniting arguments over literature.

Let me put it up front in black and white: THERE IS NO VALUE JUDGMENT ATTACHED TO CLASSIFYING FICTION AS HARD SF, SOFT SF, OR FANTASY.  If you attach a value judgment, your problem is you, not me.

Some may retort: Why do we need to classify literature at all?  There is no benefit in creating divisions where none need exist!

I disagree. Let me explain. No, that would take too long, let me sum up. No, wait, when have I ever cared about talking too much? I’ll explain.

There are probably many reasons to classify our literature, and perhaps there are reasons to not classify our literature.  Offhand, I can think of two major reasons to do it, and just one to not.

First, the main reason to not classify literature is because in the end, it’s a story we enjoy, or not.  If a story is good, it doesn’t matter whether it is Fantasy, Hard SF, or Soft SF.  If I hand you Dragon’s Egg, I can tell you that it is one of the hardest SF stories out there, but that tells you nothing about whether it is a good story or not (I liked the concept, but the execution did not please teenager me. I stopped reading less than a third of the way through, and it left such a poor impression I’ve never picked it up again).  So perhaps the main reason to not classify stories/books along these lines is if someone does think there is a value judgment that makes Soft SF inferior to Hard SF in some way, or if a reader thinks there is an arrogance aspect to the Hard SF mantle, since it is all Fantastic Fiction in any case.

However, I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

I think there are two main advantages to classifying speculative fiction along these lines, one for the author, and one for the reader.  I will probably repeat some concepts, but I think I have some new ideas to add.

First, I think the main benefit is to the author. As a writer, you have to use skill and discipline to tell a good story.  You need to know what kind of story you are writing, because that will help determine how you develop the story.

What I mean is, Arthur C. Clarke said that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  FTL travel is still pretty much magic, as is youth regeneration, storing personality in an electronic matrix, time travel, etc. Yet these are still mostly in the realm of Science Fiction, not Fantasy.  Why?

With that in mind, I would like to propose a new classification system for Science Fiction vs Fantasy.  Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things.  Oh, sure, I know there are a million examples that you could use to argue with me on this, but don’t.  Just accept it for now as you encounter fiction in the future.

In fantasy, you have people that have powers that don’t exist in the current world.  They can impact reality through will alone (sometimes with a device, sometimes with innate ability). But that ability to impact reality is limited.  No one else can use that ability, or can only do so by taking the magic device away.  And while the impact may be fantastic, their goals are usually mundane. In the end, Frodo was merely walking a distance and throwing an object into a fire.  Yes, it was a special object, a special fire, it was unimaginably difficult to arrive at his destination, and it saved the world. But the actions themselves were mundane.  When you have fantastic powers, you have to make the goals more mundane so that readers can relate.  The point of Speculative Fiction is to explore what it means to be human…the point of Fantasy is to show how power doesn’t really change basic human instincts, desires, and character.  The power tempts, and corrupts, and enables, but the feelings, desires, goals, aims, flaws, weaknesses, and temptations are always that of a normal human.  And if you are writing fantasy, there must be limits on the power, usually in the form of costs of using the  power.  Otherwise, you have a boring story.  The conflict that drives the story is the limitations on the power. That’s why the best Fantasy stories have a world with complex-but-knowable rules of how power is exercised.  One exception: The Lord of the Rings…but that was a story about normal individuals caught in power struggles beyond their ken.  The viewpoint and protagonist had no magic of his own, and the only magic he had access to was cursed/poisoned…each use brought him closer to full damnation.  Those were the limits of power that drove the narrative in the Lord of the Rings, and those limits were both clear and understandable to the reader. So there is some wiggle room in the restrictions I insist exist.  But again: know what you are writing, and why, and it will help you develop your story more effectively.

So if my assertion has utility, and Fantasy is fantastic people doing normal things, and Science Fiction is normal people doing fantastic things, why do we need a division between Hard and Soft SF?

I think we need the division because it all goes back to the reader.  For a reader to enjoy a story, they must be able to suspend their disbelief. They must care about the characters, and must be able to relate to them in some way.

How you handle the fantastic elements in your story has a huge impact on whether your readers can suspend their disbelief or not.

In Soft SF, pretty much anything goes.  Most of the normal laws of physics are suspended.  That gives you lots of freedom to play around with all the elements of the story.  But there is a double-edged sword there: with that level of freedom, you need to address so much more about the laws of your universe. If you don’t, your readers will feel cheated and dislike the story.

To explain, I must digress. I’ve been mentally chewing on a concept for several years now. Every story is really just a variation on limited knowledge/communication.  If all your characters knew everything that was going on, they would be in the right place and do the right thing, and the story would be over.  To add conflict to the story, your characters have to encounter limits on information, they have to not know the antagonist’s plan, or location, or powers, etc.  It is the quest to gain this understanding, and the obstacles they encounter in that quest, that makes the story interesting.  Or if not communication, then distance and transportation. As has been pointed out, if the Fellowship had used the Eagles to drop the ring into the volcano, the story would have been over quickly and much less interesting.

So in Science Fiction, the first thing you need to determine is: what is your transportation technology, and what is your information technology?

Faster-than-light needs to have some sort of cost…maybe the cost is in time, maybe in damage to health, but there must be some cost to help build interest in the story. Communication has to have some limits, as well.  Perhaps information is limited to those with resources, perhaps there is false information and the cost is having to sort through it all to find the real stuff.  But you can get a great deal of conflict out of limiting communication.  That’s why cell phones ruin horror movies, and one of the first things a writer does to create suspense is find a way to take away their phone service in a plausible manner.

In Soft SF, you make things easier on yourself by suspending/ignoring the laws of physics.  But you then make it harder on yourself because you have to explain what laws do still exist, what don’t, and perhaps why. Then you have to figure out how those impact your society and what it means to be human.  And then you have to be careful to not make the resolution of your story be the discovery of some aspect of your new rules that  anyone who grew up with those rules should have known.

For example, although the resolution of the story didn’t hinge on this cheat by Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was ignoble of him to make John Carter be the first person on Barsoom to realize that if you treat an animal with care, it returns loyalty to you.  The entire story didn’t hinge on that point, but it did resolve an obstacle.  The thing is, this is an obvious point to anyone who isn’t a complete psychopath.  If *no one* on Barsoom understood this, then even Dejah Thoris is an evil bitch not worthy of love. Since that is obviously not true, then it was a cheap device ERB used to get John Carter out of a jam, and it made the story worse. The inability for Martians (Barsoomians?) to recognize the value of treating animals with care never has any other impact on the story.  This is not fair to the reader.

On the other hand, Hard SF makes many things easier on the writer and reader: the reader can assume that with the exception of one or two aspects not currently within our technological grasp, the fictional world is exactly like the world the reader inhabits.  The writer doesn’t have to explain all the differences. The reader doesn’t have to consider as many changes to life and decide whether to suspend disbelief or not.  The world *is* as it *is*, and that adds verisimilitude.  One thing that makes Jumper and Wildside so enjoyable is Steven Gould changes just one *little* thing. He gives his main character one tiny resource, and then does everything he can to fully explore the impact of that ability on the character and our world. Now, the nature of those resources is never really explained, and so could be considered Soft SF or even Fantasy.  After all, in Jumper, the main character is a person with a Fantastic ability, trying to do mundane things (escape an abusive father, find love/trust…the Do Great Things comes later in the story). But I think the approach is much more Hard SF: change as little as you can about the world and laws of physics, and then play out all the impacts of that change.

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But I would be remiss if I didn’t admit: by putting Jumper and Wildside in Hard SF because of the approach, I am either destroying my thesis, or rendering the judgment fully subjective.

I want to argue for the latter.  Hard SF, Soft SF, and Fantasy might be a bookshelf categorization, but it has little utility there. In the end, they are three different approaches to writing a story, and the writer has to know what they are writing, and why, and then signal it to the reader, who will then be more able to enjoy the story on the basis of the system the writer put forth.

Because Postman by David Brin was a disappointment to me.  It started off merely as a Post-Apocalyptic Novel.  A normal guy is transformed by merely adopting the trappings of minor authority of bygone days.  That’s Hard SF, and good Hard SF: there is nothing that violates any laws of physics, the world is merely changed by the use of currently-existing weapons. But then two-thirds of the way through the book, it changes.  The author introduces technology that doesn’t currently exist.  Even worse, it seems to be technology that *can’t* exist, pushing it into the realm of Fantasy…but that’s not where Brin started the story. It feels like a betrayal, and made me stop caring how the book turned out.

Don’t do that to your readers. And if you are a reader, don’t accept that from your writers.

One final note: Based on this system, I have to consider John Carter to be Fantasy, not Soft SF.  Then again, I still insist that the classifications are subjective, so if you disagree, that is the correct classification for you.

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One Deck Dungeon, a Game Review

  • by Gitabushi

I stumbled across this game on Amazon. It sounded good, so I bought it.

Let me take a step back and ramble. Nothing better than a good, rambling post, right?

Games are fun. I’ve heard it explained that games are mind hacks, going back to the original notion of a hack being something bad, as in a process that hijacks normal processes to exploit the target for specific purposes, usually material gain. I’m convinced men are biologically programmed to achieve things. Games give men the sense of accomplishment of achieving something, and we pay money for that sense of accomplishment. But we don’t actually succeed at anything.  Which is why males who do nothing but play video games are generally looked down upon.  They are caught in an addiction of useless “accomplishments”, the game companies are making money off that addiction, and the most successful games are those that parcel out accomplishments regularly, and tying them to payments to make the “successes” slightly easier.

But that being said, when you do have a normal life with normal accomplishments, it can be harmless fun to play a game or two.

I’m old.  I still remember when Pong came out, and I remember getting the chance to play it.  We were early adopters of the Atari 2600, and I played all the old games.  I rolled the score on Missile Command, and then rolled the score on Chopper Command (Defender-like game) while drunk on Christmas Eve.

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Being this old, I was also an early adopter of Dungeons and Dragons, Gamma World, Boot Hill, and other role-playing games.  And more than that, I was into Avalon Hill in a big way.

There is nothing like playing a live opponent in a complex strategy board game.

Sure, video games have gotten better. I’ve seen League of Legends, and you have live opponents there, too.  AI has gotten great on some of the video games, making strategy that much more challenging and fun.  And there are plenty of Rogue-like games where you aren’t playing an AI, but facing off against a randomly generated series of obstacles, like in Desktop Dungeons (free download of the fully-playable beta version is available if you look around for it).

But there is still nothing like the thrill of a tabletop game.

One Deck Dungeon is much like Desktop Dungeons: you don’t face off against anyone, you overcome a series of randomly-generated obstacles.

There are so many ways this could go wrong.  It could be predictable.  It could be too easy to win, or too difficult. Winning could be based simply on the random generation, rather than your skill.  There has to be a challenge, but there also has to be a sense of progression in skill, the feeling that the more you play, the better you get at it.

One Deck Dungeon has this.

The random generation has two aspects. One is simply the cards you lay down as opponents. The other is the dice.

So much more of the game, however, is in your choice.  Obviously, you have the choice of what character class to start with, and you have the choice of what card to turn over, and whether to engage after you see what the card is.

But from there, you need to assess whether you have enough dice to defeat the obstacle. You sometimes have a choice of the tactic to use. Once an obstacle is defeated, you have the choice of using the card gained (and you get the card whether you win or lose the encounter…that’s a nice touch) as experience toward leveling up, or as an item that increases your basic ability dice totals, or as a skill that can improve the rolls you get on the dice, or as a potion that provides a significant (and instantaneous) boost in power.

With these choices, you really have a great deal of flexibility in how you play.  The very first time I played, I made it to the boss, thought I was going to lose immediately, but thanks to two sets of unusually good rolls, I lasted until the 3rd round, where an unusually bad roll sunk me.

Still, I didn’t feel frustrated or screwed over by the dice.  There are always different choices I could have made that might have meant I didn’t need the above-average rolls, or that could have defeated the boss before getting to that third set.

The next 5 games, I lost on the first level.

The game after that, I won.

I’ve learned that leveling up is the last thing you should do: always go for abilities or skills, because when you reach your limit and overflow, you can choose a less-helpful one and it becomes experience for leveling up.

One other thing: you also have multiple methods of generating wild-card dice to defeat monsters, and of healing yourself.  But there are restrictions I hadn’t mentioned, like how you have to “fill out” the card by applying your dice to each block on the opponent card.  Some blocks require agility dice results, some strength, some magic. Some dice totals can be achieved with multiple dice, but others require a single dice. It can be tough when you see you need a 6 and a 5 of agility, and you are rolling just 4 dice.  And it is even more distressing when the 5 cannot be filled with a wildcard dice.  How did I defeat it? I had a skill that let me turn one agility dice into a 6 at will.  So I knew that every time I had to roll agility, I was going to get at least one 6, which meant that I would always be able to fill at least one box each time agility was required.  And the 5?  Well, if I didn’t get the roll, perhaps all I needed to do was spend “time”.  Or just take one hit of damage, which I could heal one of several different ways.

Oh, yeah: time.  One other unique aspect of this game is you are often required to spend “time”. I use the term in quotes because “time” is flipping over cards into the discard pile. There is somewhat of a race against time, because the longer you explore (the more cards you get to challenge and win), the more items/skills you obtain, which then turn into experience to level up, which gives you a larger capacity for items and skills, which lets you overcome obstacles easier.  When you reach the end of the deck, you can always descend to the next level immediately.  But if there are 3 more cards, and you need just a little more experience to level up before facing the more difficult challenges of the next level?  Well, you start taking damage.  At what point is the damage you take worse than the additional skills/items you pick up?

Only you can decide.  And that’s what makes it fun.

Finally, I’ve played this nearly 10 times on just the first boss level.  There are 4 more bosses I can take on, all of them harder than the level 1 boss. And then I can teach a friend to play and we can take on the dungeon together, completely changing the dynamics of skills, items, experience, and damage…who takes the damage, who gets the item (the game requires mostly even damage-taking, but you still have options of who takes it first).  If that ever gets bored, buy a 2nd set, find two more friends, and try it with 4 people (to the best of my understanding, you can’t play it with 3 people).

Now that you’ve read the review, here’s a video explanation!

For $25, it seems extremely re-playable.  There’s an “expansion” (stand alone, basically just another version of the game with a completely different deck…no idea whether you can combine, but I doubt it) called Forest of Shadows, and I think I’ll get that and keep it in reserve.

5 stars.

UPDATE: I can’t reach any of the items on Amazon right now. They were available when I started this post. I don’t know if Amazon is now sold out, or there is some sort of temporary error.  Probably the latter.  Let me know in the comments whether the links work or not.

Frustrations with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  • by Gitabushi

I’ve been reading more slowly lately. Life, plus an obsession with a mobile game* as a stress reliever.

I am really trying to like Pulp. There is much to like about Pulp. But there is also much to dislike about Pulp.

Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) provides some good examples of both.

I’ve read enough of ERB and Robert E. Howard that I can get into a pulp mindset where I turn off my writing critic and just enjoy the story.  And *still* ERB annoys with some of his poor plotting mechanics.

I have to conclude that ERB was great at coming up with an amazing archetype of a hero, and then just writing about his bad-ass character. His fame comes from being the first to have such a bad-ass character, rather than from actual writing talent.

Maybe that’s harsh. I know it’s going to irritate some people. But look, I’ve read The Monster Men (which was one of ERB’s later works, and an attempt to be more literary), and while it still had some problems, it was actually a fairly well-written book, with some twists, some character complexity, proper foreshadowing, etc.

But I’m still in the midst of slogging through Gods of Mars, and there are just so many examples of poor writing.

I feel like nearly every 3-4 pages there’s an example of poor writing that jars me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Sometimes it is having incredible luck that saves John Carter from failure/death or otherwise continue the narrative. One would be irritating, but there have been at least 10 so far…way too many.  Examples: How was it John Carter to Barsoom returned just in time to encounter Tars Tarkas? How was it Tars Tarkas wasn’t the Green Warrior surprised by the unexpected jumping tactics of the Plant Men? How did Thuvia and Tars happen to be right at the location where the damaged air car of John Carter, Xodar, and Carthoris comes to ground?  Why does Thuvia have the ability of nearly perfect telepathy with beasts? Is this something other Barsoomians have? The answer seems to be that ERB needed something to get the characters through a nearly-impossible situation, so he just pulled something out of the air and ran with it.

Or the characters encounter an obstacle, and what do you know, they just happen to have the ability/item they need, right at that moment, but ERB just forgot to mention it before then! This is probably the most irritating, because it gives an impression of first draft writing: if your writing leads you to put your characters into a difficult situation, you go back and add the solution earlier in the work, at a time that it won’t seem unusual or significant.  Call it effective foreshadowing, call it effective preparation to  avoid a deus ex machina, I don’t really know the right way to put it. But ERB completely misses the mark for this in A Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars.

One that bothers me even more, however, is when ERB is inconsistent with the world and the rules of the world he himself set up.  In A Princess of Mars, he explains at length that the Green Men have rifles capable of amazing long distance accuracy, and the marksmanship skills to use them at incredible ranges. Yet when the Green Men would reasonably use that advantage in a way that might hurt the main characters, the Green Men conviently forget to use them.  A prime example of this (which I just read, and pushed me over the edge to needing to write this complaint) is when the Warhoons are chasing John Carter’s band after he rescued Tars Tarkas, but the Warhoons merely pursue them instead of shooting their mounts from underneath them. Another example is several pages earlier when John Carter merely follows Tars’ escorting guards through the dungeon, intead of attacking them immediately to free Tars. And immediately following when John Carter regretfully feels forced to ambush Tars’ guards, clearly feeling it was not up to his standards of fairness.  This bothers me because John Carter had not hesitated to attack far more than just four Green Men warriors previously, and he had killed one with a single blow from his fist before. Why would he hesitate in this situation, and why would he finally decide on a somewhat-dishonorable ambush? Inconsistency.

There are other things to like about the book, but this isn’t really a book review. I like it better than the Land that Time Forgot, because when I put The Gods of Mars down, I do want to pick it up again.  But it isn’t compelling me to reach the finish like The Monster Men did.

I’m not saying the book sucks.  But it does spur contemplation on the nature of successful writing. Should I sacrifice quality for speed in writing? Should I just come up with a great character and not stress plot and consistency?  Why does the best of SFF pulp have this many problems, but the best of Western and Detective Noir do not?

Okay, come at me.

* Kingdom Rush. My obsession is finishing every level without using any of the one-time use special abilities you can purchase with diamonds.  I’m almost done. I’m stressed because the new job I mentioned on Twitter as getting hired for FIVE MONTHS AGO still hasn’t given me a start date. Long story there.

Guitar Lust: Why Don’t They Make More “Blackout” Models?

  • by Gitabushi

Okay, maybe “blackout” isn’t the right term.  That’s part of the problem: there is no name for the style of guitar I like best. What I’m talking about is a Stratocaster-style guitar, with black hardware, black pickguard, black headstock, and black fretboard, and just about any body color, combine to make what is, in my opinion, the most beautiful guitar imaginable.

Let me pause a moment and discuss taste.  Specifically, my taste. I’m kind of a rebel. I like what I like, and it seems like I always like the things that are a little different. Okay, a lot different.  For instance, I genuinely like the movie “Orcs!” (2011).  I love listening to Chinese pop music; but my wife tells me that even for Chinese pop, I like the songs most other people have never heard of. When I’m not listening to Chinese music, my favorite band is Styx, which garners more than a little derision. I like 80s hair metal, too, which would be embarrassing enough, except that I like Giant and Loudness, two of the least-popular hair metal bands that were just popular enough you might have heard of them.

But I’m not a hipster. I’ve never stopped liking someone or something because they got popular. In fact, I’m usually very eager to share the things I like with other people, in hopes of it catching on.

I would like everyone to watch and like Chuck and Flash Forward. The more people that like Chinese pop music, Chuck, CJ Cherryh, etc., the more people I have to talk with about my passions.

Alas: my tastes are apparently weird.

So getting to guitars, here’s what I like:

This is Brad Gillis’ guitar. Er, a guitar made by Fernandes in the style of Brad Gillis’ guitar.

It is, quite simply, bad ass.

(the opposite being found here)

And yet, it is very difficult to find many guitars that have all those elements. I had to search for quite some time just to find these pictures:

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And to be honest, there is no telling what the headstock looks like in these photos.  Too often, they go with a plain headstock or a body color, instead of plain black.

If I want to get really picky, I’d insist on a strat style headstock, which leaves this one out:

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But I think I have to allow it, just because there are so few examples that meet all my criteria.

Too often, the manufacturer changes one thing that just makes the guitar fall short of perfection, like a chrome bridge, or light colored fretboard, or the aforementioned headstock color mistakes:

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Close. They just *had* to use a chrome bridge, didn’t they?  Bastards:

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Just imagine how gorgeous this red guitar below would look with a black input jack, black bridge, and black tuners!

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This is so close to perfection, I could almost cry. Or grab a brush and some black paint:

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And Charvel is an interesting case.  The orange guitar above is rare, in that it has a rosewood fingerboard.  Charvel comes the closest to what I want with black hardware and beautifully-painted bodies.  But they insist (or their buyers insist) on maple fretboard and unfinished headstock.  It just ruins it for me.

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These would all be better if they just had an ebony fingerboard and black headstock.

Interestingly, this one works pretty well for me:

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I guess I’m okay with a gray pickguard.  It still looks better than white, or tortoise, or any other color.  Black would still be better.

This guitar I have is the closest I’ve been able to get so far.  The headstock isn’t black, but at least it isn’t a light maple:

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So now you have an idea of what I like in guitars.  Why aren’t there more of them? Or at the very least, why isn’t there a name for this color combination to make it easier for me to search for them on guitar selling websites?

 

MUST READ SFF: Replay, by Ken Grimwood

  • by Gitabushi

It should be no surprise by now that I like books with good stories, good characters, and ideas that challenge me.  Who doesn’t want to be entertained?  But there are so many options for entertainment, so when I read, I want my mind to get a workout.

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This book does that.

To be honest, this book may be generation-locked.  The main character was born in the 1940s, and so is in college in the 1960s, and the culture of the 1960s has an impact on the plot. Growing up in the 1970s myself, I didn’t live 1960s culture…but most of the books I had available growing up were written in the 1960s or early 1970s, and set in the late 1950s and 1960s, so I was familiar with the culture.  For someone who never had to dial a rotary phone or never lived before there was cable TV or microwaves, maybe the book will lack some impact.  I don’t know. If you are one such reader, try it out and let me know.

However, Grimwood does an excellent job capturing the normality of those early times.  The protagonist goes back to his youth, but brings his adult sensibilities with him. And if you can imagine how society has changed just from the introduction of widespread use of the birth control pill, you can imagine how his mature assumptions clash with the culture and society of his youth.

The entire book is written with bedrock-solid descriptions of mainstream life in the United States. It feels real. The characters actions and reactions seem real. The author thinks of aspects I didn’t (and maybe couldn’t) and plays them to the hilt. The result is a book that makes it extremely easy to willingly suspend disbelief. It is easy to get drawn in, to care about the protagonists, what they want to do, and why.

It is also intersting to see things fall apart when the main character gets to experience one of the most common wishes of humankind: “If I knew then what I know now.”  Jeff gets several lifetimes of that wish fulfillment, and it still never turns out like he expects.

From that point of view, the book can be seen as a comfort: you are already doing pretty much the best  you can. More knowledge wouldn’t make your life better, it would just move you along to encounter new problems. Life is life. Stop pining for how things could be different, and start appreciating what you actually have.

In the end, you may get a “Groundhog Day” vibe out of this book, but rest assured: this preceded Groundhog Day by several years.

In fact, I would like to challenge all writers: Take the premise of this book, or Groundhog Day, or Flash Forward, and write your own stories. We have endless takes on zombies, vampires, young adult dystopias. Enough!  These three formats are crying out for additional exploration.

But first, you have to read this. Find it and read it. Let me know if you think I steered you wrong, but I think you’ll love it as much as I did.

Oh, and give me a review of the review. Did it make you want to read the book? If not, what else should I have included to help persuade you?

Replay Radar

 

Writing: Three Elements

  • by Gitabushi

Here are three elements of writing I haven’t seen discussed much before, but are currently at the forefront of my mind.

  1. Tropes. You are writing within a genre. As Daddy Warpig said, genre can be defined by a collection of tropes. You don’t need (or want!) all of them, but you need enough of them to set some parameters for your reader. Your task is then to balance your use of tropes (formulas) against innovation.  Too many tropes, and your work will seem hackneyed, derivative, and boring, and your reader will no longer be willing to Suspend Disbelief.  Too much innovation, and your reader will feel jarred, cheated, and will no longer be wiling to suspend disbelief. I’m still trying to work on how to know if you’ve over- or under-used tropes.
  2. Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Get it from your readers. With it, and you can have plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc. But plot holes, weak dialogue, unrealistic character actions, etc., destroy your readers’ willingness to Suspend Disbelief.  Make it easier for them to Suspend and stay Suspended: perfect your craft.
  3. Provide a satisfying ending to everything you write. Make every work be self-contained. Even if you plan on writing a trilogy, make each book have its own arc that resolves most of the issues.  See “Chuck” or “The Man in the High Castle” (not until the end of the 2nd season, but we’ll grant them this one) for excellent examples of how to do this.

Discuss

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MUST WATCH SFF Television Show: Chuck

  • by Gitabushi

chuck

tl;dr: “Chuck” is quite simply the best television show in recent history. Maybe in television history, but that is a little more subjective.

Okay, let’s get into it: I hate incomplete stories. Hate hate hate hate.

I know stories are fiction.  But once I suspend my disbelief to start to enjoy a story, I want it to end.  In the interest of extending this introduction, let me point out that I hated the ending of Wayne’s World, because giving multiple possible endings left me feeling like it didn’t actually end at all.  And I hated reading The Princess Bride, too, because of the book ending subverting the typical fairy tale storybook tropes.  Bah.  Bah, I say!

But I understand that the television business is a rough world.  You have a great premise, but you can’t pay writers until you have a contract.  So you often don’t know for sure how closely the actual filming will stay with the originally-planned storyline, even during the first season. And since subsequent seasons aren’t a sure thing unless the series gets renewed, future storylines aren’t even planned out, and maybe not even considered.

One way to keep your television series on the air is to, just like in writing, raise the stakes.

You already have the premise. People are hooked. Now start complicating things. They are invested in the characters, so put the characters through hell. Set up cliffhangers, particularly about the most popular characters. Leave your audience begging for resolution.

But don’t make it so complicated your audience gives up and ratings plummet.

You can add more and more spinning plates. Kick the resolution down the road.  Tomorrow will take care of itself.

The problem with this short-term thinking?  Sometimes stories never get finished. When things get too complicated, there is no satisfying way to wrap up all the issues, the audience leaves, and the show gets cancelled.  It happened with the X-Files (I’m *so* happy I never started with that). It happened, to an extent, with Lost. It is happening with Game of Thrones, although George R. R. Martin has apparently given an outline to the showrunners so they can finish the story that he can’t seem to.

These sorts of things leave me unsatisfied.

The way to resolve it is to have story arcs. Each episode should be self-contained, for the most part, with an arc that completes at the end of the episode. The season should also have a story arc that wraps up the issues introduced at the beginning of the season and were developed throughout that year.  And then you have an overall series arc, bookended with a resolution.

“Chuck” did those things.  It might have been by accident; I certainly don’t think “Chuck” was able to hire writers significantly better than anyone else in Hollywood. It might have been because they were always hovering at the brink of cancellation, so they felt less at liberty to introduce elements that couldn’t be resolved within one season.

In any case, “Chuck” is a true rarity in American television: a story-based show with nested arcs that actually wraps things up tightly.

The show starts with Chuck having failed at life, having been thrown out of Stanford, dumped by his girl, working at a Big Box store that is beneath his abilities, and lonely. It ends with him accomplished, having developed his many different talents and abilities, retained his humanity despite difficult circumstances, and with the love of his life by his side.

It even bookends locations, (sorta). It doesn’t end at the same location it begins, but the final scene of the last show is at the same location as the final scene of the first show, and for similar reasons.  It was actually masterfully done.

The fact that “Chuck” completes the story is reason enough to watch it.  Writers should study it for structure, characterization, foreshadowing, etc.

But that isn’t all “Chuck” is.

It is a science fiction story: a guy has a supercomputer downloaded into his brain. It’s a comedy: there are some great laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a love story. It’s one of the better assembly-cast works out there: the side characters add so much depth and interest to the story, to include Casey, Morgan, Jeffster, Captain Awesome, and others. It’s a character-growth story: all the characters grow and develop throughout the series.

Another reason to watch is just all the little Easter Eggs and references to past works. There are references to Dune, Spies Like Us, The Terminator, Die Hard, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Charade, and more.

And the Guest Stars! Scott Bakula, Linda Hamilton, Brandon Routh, Summer Glau, Kristin Kreuk, Dolph Lundgren, Richard Chamberlain, Tony Hale, Chevy Chase, Robert Englund, Carrie-Anne Moss, Reginald VelJohnson (in a Die-Hard-ish episode), Bruce Boxleitner, Christopher Lloyd, Morgan Fairchild, Robin Givens, Rachel Bilson, Gary Cole, Nicole Richie, Armand Assante, John Larroquette, Steve Austin, James Hong, “Louis Litt” from “Suits”, Robert Patrick, Fred Willard, Craig Kilborn, Cheryl Ladd, Michael Clarke Duncan, Andy Richter, Mark Hamill…

Okay, now even I’m getting bored of the list.

I was also impressed by how the show surprised me at times. Chuck was a bumbling dork in the first few episodes, but even very early on, the writers were actually able to have some surprisingly good problem resolutions, where Chuck did something intelligent and innovative to solve a problem that didn’t involve his Intersect ability, but merely his native cleverness.  The resolution in the circumstances I’m thinking of were foreshadowed earlier in the episode, but perfectly set up: they seemed like throwaway humor points, yet Chuck was able to apply them perfectly to win the day.  Little moments of skillful writing like that go a long way to earning my Willful Suspension of Disbelief at other moments.

And it does need your Willful Suspension of Disbelief.  It isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a perfect series.  It’s merely the best one humanity has ever produced to date.  But that still isn’t perfect.

Still, I urge you to stream it, or better yet, purchase the entire collection from Amazon.  It’s worth it. It’s a great show.

Don’t believe me? Read this review:

Chuck is the most entertaining show on TV. It’s shot well and the writing is smart and quick. The acting is superb from the extras to the main characters.The story is dramatic and visionary where the character dynamics can be turned on a dime. Love and romance, an agent searching for a good fight, an average guy tossed into the world of espionage; this show has it all.

You will laugh and cry, rejoice and be frustrated because of character depth and great acting. All the characters are lovable and relatable.

NBC has found a hero in Chuck, who as a typical guy, inspires us to be better. The creed of the show is to take care of your family and friends. Simply Chuck calls to do right even in tough times.

It’s certainly a show that will keep you on your toes throughout. Without a doubt this is the best show I’ve ever seen.

At first I was skeptical but after two or three episodes I was hooked because its funny and exciting with a great story to it. I implore you to take a chance on Chuck, trust me its worth it. Regardless of anything else there is nothing else on TV like it.

And no, that wasn’t me that wrote it.  But it captures the show perfectly.