With my daughter home for the summer, I end up actually watching visual entertainment. We browse Amazon Prime for movies that include topics I can use to highlight conservative principles and the values I want them to learn.
But we also encounter movies and television shows I’ve never heard of.
This one just looked stupid. I had to watch the trailer to see just how stupid it was.
Surprise! It wasn’t stupid.
It was actually a very enjoyable movie, with a solid premise, good writing and decent acting.
It’s always hard for me to do a review without giving away spoilers, so I tend to focus on descriptions of what the author (or movie, in this case) does well, what it doesn’t do well, and my reaction to various extremely-generally-described elements.
I’m probably going to have to do that again. But bear with me. And see the movie, if you can (free on Amazon Prime).
The premise of this movie is that orcs are real, but they’ve been bottled up (suspended animation? Dimensional portal?) in a subterranean realm since mythical times. They nearly obtained their release decades ago, but were stopped by chance. Recent activities have opened their path to the surface Earth again, and the orcs are now making their best attempt to destroy or subjugate the human race.
What this movie is not:
A comedy, although the trailer makes it seem like one (the canoe seen isn’t as funny in context as it is in the trailer). But it is funny at times.
A campy movie, although it has some camp. The movie escalates in seriousness and in the stakes as it runs, as a good story should.
A professional movie, although the special effects were better than I would have expected. But they were clearly on a tight budget to get things done.
A goad Bad movie. Because it simply isn’t a Bad Movie. Okay, okay, it could be seen as a bad movie due to its production values and lack of brand-name actors. But if you can suspend your disbelief for the cheesier aspects, honestly: the stronger elements of the movie make it a good movie. Not a great movie, but a good one.
What this movie is:
A very well-written, decently well-directed, decently-well acted movie. It has a decent premise, and takes the premise seriously. The actors over-act at times to fill space. The moments they try to conceal their limited budget are obvious (“thousands” of orcs marching by seems likely to be a half-dozen running in a circle with obvious sound effects), but done as well as you can expect. The overall impact is better than most of the fanfic movies I’ve seen on YouTube. It drew me in, made me care about the outcome. The climax battle wasn’t over as quickly as you might expect, heightening the sense of dread from the orcs’ overwhelming force. The writing, plot, and acting made me care about the actors. The characters had depth (the GS-9 rivalry was spot on), and the main character grew/changed throughout the story in a plausible manner.
A fairly good Pulp Revolution movie.
I’ve often run to IMDB to find out what other movies a set of actors have been in. This is the first movie I’ve ever watched that made me run to Twitter immediately after to find the main actors’ twitter handles to praise them.
Watch it as soon as possible, and leave your comments.
I wrote this on 27 November 2012. It has some minor inaccuracies, but it was what was known at the time:
Here is what is known about the Benghazi slaughter. There is no dispute at all on these points, they have been supported with testimony and eyewitness statements to the press:
1) There were threat streams based on actionable intelligence:
a) Ambassador Stevens knew he was on a target list
b) The head of security wanted more security, and protested when security was reduced
2) the Obama administration claimed there was no actionable intelligence
a) 9/11 is still the anniversary of a successful attack on the US that Islamic terrorist organizations are proud of and wish to emulate/perpetuate
b) President Obama did not attend Presidential Daily Brief meetings to go over intelligence and provide guidance for addressing threats
3) Requests for increased security, and requests to not reduce security were denied
a) repeated requests for increased security were rejected, culminating in someone in the chain of command saying “Stop Asking”
4) CIA agents (former SEALs) heard of the attack on the consulate
5) They were ordered to stand down
6) The CIA says orders to stand down did not come from anyone in the CIA
7) Several CIA agents did not stand down, but attempted to rescue
8) After failing to rescue, they retrieved one body, but failed to retrieve Ambassador Stevens’ body
9) In the rescue/retrieval attempt, they came under attack
10) the attack proceeded for 7 to 8 hours
11) This attack was observed/recorded by two intelligence drones using Full-Motion Video
12) The CIA Agents under attack were in contact with others not in the same location (unknown what level they were in contact with and where: Tripoli? Italy? CIA HQ?)
13) The CIA Agents expected support. They were using laser target identifiers on targets [saw this in a report. It wasn’t supported by what was shown in 13 Hours movie, so maybe this part wasn’t correct]
14) The video of the attack was available to the President stateside
15) By law, the President is to be informed within 15 minutes of an attack on any Ambassador (among other events). This is not a law the President can sidestep or ignore. The President is the senior Executor of Laws, but is not above the Law himself.
16) The Intelligence Community correctly identified this as an organized attack, with no connection to a protest
17) The Obama Administration claimed the attack grew out of a protest of a YouTube video
18) The Obama Administration told relatives of the dead CIA agents that they would “get” the person responsible for the video
19) Relatives of the dead CIA agents have been told provable lies by the Obama Administration
20) The Obama Administration continued to claim that the attack on the Ambassador was related to a YouTube Video. This was known to be false before the attack was concluded. The Obama Administration has never adequately explained why they blamed the attack on the YouTube Video.
21) The Obama Administration has attempted to explain their focus on the video as based on the Intelligence known at the time. This has been proven to be 100% false. The Intelligence Community knew the attack was an organized assault. The intelligence drone FMV shows that there was no protest, and that it was an organized assault. The Intelligence Community has clarified that their talking points never mentioned a protest, and specifically mentioned an organized assault by known terrorist organizations.
22) The Obama Administration has offered the only explanation as to why the reference to an organized assault by known terrorist organizations was removed: they claim it would have tipped off the terrorist groups. This explanation has never been mentioned by the Intelligence Community. The Obama Administration has still not explained at all what they were trying to conceal from the terrorist organizations, or what negative result would have occurred from the terrorist organizations being “tipped off” that we knew it was a terrorist attack.
Those are the known facts.
They paint a clear picture of an Administration that deliberately lied to US citizens. With President Obama making specific references to his actions having put al Qaida on the run during his campaign speeches, and the temporal proximity to the Presidential Election that was extremely close at the time and extremely close in the results, it is an obvious conclusion that the Obama Administration concealed their actions and statements in order to preserve their political future. The conclusion is so obviously apt and probable that President Obama should either provide an explanation to the contrary, or resign. Absent such an explanation, the media and the populace should be applying pressure for one outcome or the other.
Since the election, the Obama Administration has refused to provide any answers to the questions that existed since before the election. The only explanations given have been inadequate or ridiculous even at first glance (specifically: pushing the video angle so as to not “tip off” the terrorists).
For example, President Obama has attacked the character of those who criticized UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and said that they should “come after” him. But he has refused to answer even the most simple questions about his actions on 11 and 12 September 2012, and why his administration pushed the notion that the video caused protests that resulted in the deaths of the 4 Americans.
Obama has the information that would answer almost all the questions about the issue:
1) Why was security reduced despite actionable intelligence threat streams?
2) Why did the administration initially claim there was no actionable intelligence, when it has been proven there was?
3) How did skipping the PDBs impact security levels in Libya before the attack?
4) What preparations were taken to heighten security on the anniversary of 9/11?
5) Did Obama watch the video of the attack? If not, why not?
6) What orders did Obama give while the attack was going on? To whom? Were they carried out to his satisfaction? If not, was anyone punished?
7) Obama claimed that “as soon as he found out what was happening” he gave orders. What time was this, exactly? If it was not while the attack was occurring, why not? What does the President define as “what was happening”?
8) Was an order given to stand down?
9) If so, who gave it?
10) If not from the President, was that authority delegated, or arrogated?
11) What consequences have been imposed for the stand down order?
12) If no stand-down order was given at all, why were the CIA agents under the impression they were told to stand down?
13) Were there any standing orders to not attempt relief in the case of an attack?
14) If so, why?
15) If not, why were no assets activated to attempt a rescue or combat support?
16) Why did the CIA agents expect combat support (actively designating targets with a laser)?
17) Why did the Obama administration blame a video for protests when Intelligence informed them it was an organized assault by a terrorist organization? Blaming the Intelligence Community for bad Intel or trying to conceal information to not tip off the terrorists are inadequate explanations, already disproven as justification.
18) Why did Susan Rice go on five television shows to push the video angle? Who told her to do that? Who authorized the information she delivered? What wording was written down, and who wrote it, and based on what information? Who participated in the development of the talking points she delivered?
19) Why is the Obama administration not cooperating with investigations into the matter (specifically: why is the President declaring his chosen spokesperson as off limits, why did the SecState visit friends in Australia instead of meeting a scheduled hearing, and why did the Obama administration choose to bring revelations of Petraeus’ affair to light days before a scheduled appearance at a Congressional hearing when the information had been known for at least 6 months?)
It’s unfortunate that certain SFF properties have become somewhat politicized in recent times. Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the Hunger Games are favorites of the Left. I mean, isn’t Trump just like Voldemort/the First Order/President Snow? Alas, Star Wars can’t just be a fun, conservative morality play anymore.
There have been a number of decent Lord of the Rings memes in the years since the production of the Peter Jackson films. You may remember this golden oldie:
Lately I’ve noticed that the Right has begun to adopt LOTR to convey its own political messaging – not so much to make outright moral indictments (most conservatives wouldn’t be so crass or facile as to compare, say, Obama to Sauron), but to skewer the ridiculous and illogical arguments coming from the Left.
So apparently there exists some heartburn within Speculative Fiction circles about Hard SF versus Soft SF.
Perhaps Hard SF writers and fans are a little too smug about the scientific aspect of their designated works.
Perhaps Soft SF writers and fans are a little sensitive about having to live with the connotation of being “soft”.
Some, like the esteemed PCBushi (The Couch: “…esteemed by who?” Me: “Whom.” The Couch: “Fine. …esteemed by whom?” Me: “Dunno, but there’s gotta be someone who esteems him. It just stands to reason.” The Couch: [shrug] “It’s your fantasy conversation sequence. Also, you probably owe Jonah Goldberg royalties.”) say that labels are unimportant, and only confuse the issue. He has somewhat of a point, in that there is no reason to entrench ourselves into hostile, opposing camps. We all love Speculative Fiction, and the categories shouldn’t be limits.
For instance, I really enjoy Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, who are some of the best Hard SF writers in the business. But my favorite author is CJ Cherryh, who writes Soft SF.
Still, I think the category is helpful.
Let’s say you want to watch a Rom-Com on Netflix. I’d say you need to review the life choices that brought you to that point, but wouldn’t you want movies grouped into some sort of category to help you find what you want?
But, you say (and, yes, please say this out loud. Google is listening through your mic, and it will eventually get back to me), why would it matter? Is anyone ever really in the mood for Hard SF rather than Soft SF, or vice versa?
Okay, that’s a good argument, too. Yes, I’m padding the length of this blogpost.
So let’s look at a deeper argument.
We have grown accustomed to certain aspects of Western Fiction (Aside: if you think these things are universal, try reading Asian fiction). One aspect is that the story should signal what type of story it is from the beginning, by setting up the problem.
In a character story, the story begins when it becomes obvious the main character needs to make a change, and ends when that change finally occurs. In a milieu story, it begins when the main character is transported to the new world. A milieu story can end in different ways (by fully exploring the world, by the character returning to the “normal” world, by covering the issues the author wanted to cover in their compare/contrast effort), but if the character never goes anywhere, never explores the new world, and works on changing their character, you’d feel disappointed. An Event story begins by establishing the normal life of characters, then introducing the Event, then showing the impact of the Event on everyone’s life (like a Stephen King novel or Niven/Pournell’s “Lucifer’s Hammer”). An Idea story starts when the idea is introduced, and then ends when the idea is fully explored.
You can tell what kind of story you are reading from the first few pages. If you can’t, you probably won’t keep reading. And if the book doesn’t fulfill the expectations you have when reading, you’ll be dissatisfied with the book and either stop reading, or never recommend it and perhaps never purchase the author’s book again.
For all that I don’t really like ERB, I admit he has top-notch milieu skills. The story of a Princess of Mars certainly brings John Carter through a wide span of territory, encountering different societies and people.
And this is the reason I find Jack Vance disappointing. In Cugil’s Saga, he clearly intends to write a milieu story, but I can’t see why he chose what he did. It doesn’t seem to have much application to our human, earthly lives, and it almost seems like the only point is to show off Vance’s imagination.
But I digress. Again.
Larry Niven likes milieu stories. He’s pretty good at them. He doesn’t do much character development, really. He also combines Milieu stories with Idea stories. One of his most common Ideas is that when given an opportunity, sub-groups of people will seize the opportunity to make themselves Elite and exploit their monopoly over a scarce vital resource to enforce their status. And a Milieu story is a great way to explore the entire society of all the various ways an Elite Caste can come about and maintain itself.
In Larry Niven’s “Destiny’s Road,” he posits a partially terraformed world that restricts mobility due to geography and native flora/fauna threats. Add to that a dearth of natural appearance of a vital nutrient, without which you are permanently brain damaged. The Elite manage to control the harvesting and dissemination of that nutrient. The Hero goes on an unintended journey, and, well, I don’t want to ruin the story with spoilers. The point is, there are scientific elements behind many of the world’s aspects. The plot is driven by the scarcity of the nutrient and the main character’s dilemma, as well as the Elite control of technology spread. A writer could have written the same story as a Soft SF novel, but it wouldn’t have been the same…and quite probably wouldn’t be anywhere near as good. Niven makes a scientific assumption, and then *rigorously* applies it. That means that certain choices are closed, but other choices are open. It helps the reader suspend disbelief…this is a story that *could* happen, based on our current understanding of science.
Or perhaps a better example is the Ringworld Series. He posited an artificial world, made by technology much greater than we have, but still feasible, that actually uses planetary material volumes more efficiently, giving the inhabitants the right amount of heat, day/night cycles, but nearly endless room to expand. It was written during the era of real fear of overcrowding and insufficient resources on the earth, before we proved that human ingenuity provides enough resources that we can pack several billion more people on the planet. It was also in response to a scientist’s theoretical exploration of constructing more efficient land space, called a Dyson Sphere.
But I digress. Again.
The point is that Niven thought of every possible thing he could, and then wrote the novel, and many aspects of the novel were dictated by the science and math behind his imagined world. Then readers wrote in with complaints, questions, and scientific holes.
He wrote another book answering some of the objections and challenges. This spurred more challenges, complaints (and some readers suggestions on how to resolve issues). Result: another novel.
All Hard SF.
What about Soft SF?
Two of my favorite series are CJ Cherryh’s Merchanter Alliance books and Lois McMasters-Bujold Miles Vorkosigan books.
There is little verifiable science behind either of their series.
However, once they posit things (like Cherryh’s method FTL travel, or Bujold’s high-tech handweapons), they rigorously apply the rules to add to the drama. I can’t consider them Hard SF, but once they built their world, they applied the rules of Hard SF to add verisimilitude. Their books would certainly be the poorer for having an “anything goes” attitude.
Since the focus of Cherryh’s and Bujold’s books isn’t the exploration of technology, the resolution to the problems usually don’t involve their non-scientific technology. The tech can provide limits and add tension (as in Cherryh’s FTL travel depends on destructible ship attributes, and imposes costs), but they are never the crux the way they are in a Hard SF story.
Or another comparison:
Terminator is Hard SF. With the exception of Time Travel, everything described is within the realm of plausible future technology. The focus is on how the technology itself is advanced enough that it is a threat to the protagonist and, eventually, the entire human race. And in the end, the Terminator is defeated by current technology. Compare that with Predator, which is Soft SF. No attempt is ever made to explain the technology we see. No attempt is made to fill any plot holes possibly created by the technology we see. The focus isn’t on the technology at all, it is on the struggle between two beings. Aliens is also Soft SF, because while there is high technology present, it is all incidental. The focus is on the interaction between the people, and the impact of alien rapaciousness.
I think most would agree that the stories use the Hardness and Softness of their science fiction effectively and appropriately, and the stories are better because of it.
I think we need both kinds of stories. I think Hard SF already borrows from Soft SF in that sometimes the Hard SF writer fudges over scientific details. I’ve seen some compelling explanations that a lack of the rare nutrient wouldn’t impact humans the way Niven described in “Destiny’s Road.” And that’s okay. And I already showed how two writers borrow from Hard SF’s discipline after they created their Soft SF Universes.
So all this is to say that I don’t think there should be this opposition between Hard SF and Soft SF camps. I’d like to write Hard SF, because I like the way they come up with fascinating worlds, more compelling in their application of science than something just made up from imagination. But I don’t have the education to do it. So I will write Soft SF, but I wont’ feel inferior for that. It just means I’ll develop my stories more like Cherryh and Bujold than Niven.
I still think we need the separation and designation of sub-genres, however. Just as I think there is a need for the separation of Science Fiction from Fantasy. One is not better than the other. A few more of my favorite writers are Steven Brust, Emma Bull, and Fred Saberhagen, who are all known mainly for their Fantasy stories. Brust included some science fiction explanatory hand-waves in the backstory of his world (the races are all genetic experiments by a race of super-high-tech aliens), but I think that may be more just playing with the trope of “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, because there are too many non-scientific aspects of Brust in the form of Gods, souls, reincarnation, etc. Cherryh and Bujold have also written some excellent Fantasy.
Still, Fantasy is developed differently than Science Fiction. It has different tropes, and different payoffs.
We need the designation of genres and sub-genres to help us, both as writers and readers.
We should stop fighting and learn to appreciate the differences.
A couple weeks ago, I was reflecting on the role of the peasantry in fiction. This is in the context of having just watched a couple of Scandinavian films, I suppose. In The Salvation, a Dane in America’s wild west finds himself up against a ruthless gang lead by Negan. Really.
I don’t want to get spoiler heavy, but you’ve got two types of villagers here. The sniveling coward appeasers, who refuse to stand up to the lawless cowboys, and the real common men.I think this is a common motif in Western stories. Sometimes it takes a leader to marshal the townfolk into fighting back against the bad guys. The protagonist and his brother were once soldiers, so we are told, so I suppose they don’t count as “peasants” in this musing.
The other film I watched, The Last King, tells the story of a Norse king who is assassinated so that those close to him can seize the throne. It is soon discovered that he had an illegitimate son – an infant who is being protected and hidden away by babe’s mother and some men loyal to the king.
Ultimately, a showdown between the usurpers and those truly loyal to the rightful king becomes inevitable. The two soldiers guarding the royal baby wind up marshaling a gang of farmers to arms.
Though they know the odds are stacked against them, the Dane peasants ski in YOLO -style to kick some ass.
This is what got me thinking. I’m going to make a big generalization here – different cultures have wildly different perceptions and portrayals of their villagers. Specifically I was thinking of most of the Japanese films I’ve seen.
Part of this, I’m sure, if explained by the histories of the different countries we’re talking about. In feudal Japan, peasants would have maybe had pitchforks and other farming implements. They were forbidden to own swords for a good chunk of time. And I guess the strict class structure of Japan would have been another strike against badass fighting peasants.
I don’t really have any solid explanations here. Just my half-baked thoughts. Still, this is an interesting element for DMs and writers to consider. Can PCs and baddies just come waltzing into town and expect everyone to lay down for them? Or is the populace going to fight back if pushed? This could be a neat way to draw a distinction between different peoples and cultures, too.
Lately it seems like every time PC Bushi mentions a book, I have to respond I didn’t like it very much, or at all.
That made me ask, what doI like?
Here’s a partial list:
I like 50s Heinlein, but not 60s.
I like 60s, 70s, and 80s Larry Niven SF, but not his fantasy (mostly).
I like 80s and 90s Cherryh, but to the best of my knowledge based on a brief research attempt, not her 70s and by the ’10s, start feeling meh
I liked Bujold until recently
I liked Brust’s early works, but the later his work, the less I like it.
I used to like Hambly, but she wasn’t re-readable.
I like Saberhagen, but sometimes he just kept digging in played-out mines
To be honest, I guess, I’ve read a lot that was worth reading, but not worth re-reading or recommending.
As such, there are probably more books and authors I have complaints about than I enjoy. That’s the nature of the beast, I guess. Most things fall along a bell curve, and truly excellent books are one or more standard deviations above the mean, and the mean of all SFF novels/stories ever written includes some poor writing.
The rest of this post includes some musing on elements that make a good story. It is also intended to be a continuation of thoughts from this post, and inspired by the very excellent posts by my good friend and consummate gentleman, PC Bushi, found here and here.
I like conflict. I’d like to say allreaders do, but maybe all I can actually insist is that all readers should. It can be internal conflict, or opposed action, but I want there to be some doubt about how things are going to turn out.
Yes, yes, the hero is going to win. That’s the point of reading a book, I guess. The good guy losing most of the time is called “life”. We consume fiction because it provides the comforting illusion that there is some overall, overarching narrative to the vicissitudes of life.
For me, the interesting thing is how is the hero going to win?
The very first thing to do, then, is make me care about the character. If I don’t care about the character, how he wins isn’t going to interest me.
There are many different ways that you, as an author, can make me care about a character:
make me see the issues he struggles with are the same ones I do
make me see him wanting reasonable things/goals, but being thwarted…particularly unfairly thwarted
make me see him really committed to success, perhaps well beyond what I would do (that way I can be inspired to persist in difficulties myself)
Next, give him conflict. They type of story you are writing dictates the type of conflict they have. Or, alternatively, the type of conflict they encounter dictates what kind of book it is:
If he is going through an unfamiliar world or society, then the conflict is the hero trying to return to the normal world, and his efforts to escape let you show me the world/society you thought up. Alternatively, the hero might need to explore to figure out aspects of this new world/society to find happiness or even just survive. Either way, it should show the reader some subtle truth about the world we live in, in contrast. The struggle is in dealing with new and unexpected aspects in each new encounter. This is a Milieu story.
If he is dealing with a disrupting occurrence, then the conflict is obviously trying to deal with the disruption. It can be personally disruptive or disruptive to society, or even existence of humanity. An asteroid strike, or perhaps an earthquake or zombie apocalypse are good examples of this. Alternatively, the hero could be the disruptive force, trying to impose his will on the world, like in a caper movie like Ocean’s 11 or Kelly’s Heroes. Either way, the conflict comes from the obstacles the hero encounters in trying to resolve the issue or impose his will on the universe. This is an Event story.
You, as the author, might also want to explore a concept, like: what if teleportation were reality? How would it work? In this sort of story, the conflict is in dealing with unexpected or non-obvious impacts of the concept. This is where Hard SF really shines. Poor examples of this are when someone sets up the world, then lets the Hero “discover” all the exploits. This was handled really poorly in the “Golden Age of the Solar Clipper” series (first book: Quarter Share by Nathan Lowell). The hero “exploits” a labor system that apparently was used by idiots for at least a generation. He succeeds at everything he tries, the things he “figures out” that impress everyone else are sophomoric in insight, and there isn’t even an antagonist. The best conflict is when the antagonist is exploiting the idea to the protagonist’s detriment, and the protagonist has to figure out how to stop it…preferably without just using another exploit…at the very least, the exploit should not be obvious. This is an Idea story. I think many “serial killer” stories are Idea stories: “What if someone developed a way to exploit society to murder/rape/assault people without being caught/stopped?”
The final type of story depends on conflict internal to the character. The protagonist needs to change, and it has only recently become obvious. The process of changing, of figuring out what to change into, and the normal human resistance to changing oneself are the conflict that drives the story. This is a Character story.
Obviously, these four concepts can arc beyond just one book. The Jhereg series is someone what of a character concept, although individual books seem to be more Event stories. The whole series is, of course, a milieu, and the milieu being explored is not just geographic (Dragaera) but societal/racial, as each book explores some inherent aspect of a Dragaerean house.
But this is all science fiction.
I also really like the Jack Reacher series.
Jack Reacher’s character really doesn’t change over the stories. The milieu he’s exploring is modern-day United States, so it isn’t a milieu story. There is a “What if?” concept of, “what if there were a sort-of modern-day Super Hero who went around the nation solving problems that the law couldn’t solve?” But it seems to me to be, at its core, an event story. Something happens, and Reacher tries to figure out what is happening, then once he figures out the mystery, he acts (often very violently) to impose his will and stop the bad guys from doing bad guy stuff.
Good stories often combine the elements. There are Milieu, Idea, and Character concepts included in the Event Story movie Die Hard. There are Milieu concepts in Titanic. I think Cameron wanted it to be a Character story, but in my opinion, it failed at that, but succeeded by being so strong as an Event story.
Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series is really good, too.
They are all Event stories. Like Reacher, either the protagonist starts ignorant, or what the protagonist thinks is the original premise often turns out to be false. The conflict comes in the protagonist collecting clues about reality, then responding to those clues, then acting. And much of the conflict also involves not knowing how the problem will be solved, as initial plans go wrong and the protagonist deals with the unexpected. You know the hero isn’t going to die, of course, but there is often a cost the protagonist pays to succeed: damage, or a supporting character important to the protagonist is killed.
The Matt Helm series is interesting in that the protagonist’s character doesn’t really change over time, but still is a character story in that Helm seems to have normal human emotions and desires, yet is forced to do some fairly brutal things to accomplish the mission. The reader (or, at least, the continuing reader) doesn’t lose sympathy for Helm not just because Helm’s character trait of Commitment to Duty is shown as being incredibly strong, and not just because that commitment to duty is shown as necessary to preventing catastrophe, but because the author shows us the emotional price Helm pays for that commitment.
In contrast, in ERB novels Princess of Mars, the Land that Time Forgot, and the People that Time Forgot, there never is any character conflict. They do the right thing because it is the right thing, with hardly a thought. It ends up leaving the impression that because the hero does it, it therefore is the right thing.
I’m not saying a protagonist must have a desire to be a cad to be sympathetic, but humans are selfish, and shortsighted, and petty, and often ignorant of the implications of their decisions. A good book with good conflict acknowledges those issues.
It doesn’t mean that I favor character over plot.
It does mean that the reasons people do things are important to whether a character is likeable or not, and believable or not, and these reasons often provide motive force to the plot. Why does a character want to do things? Absent any internal conflict, authors too often rely on plot devices to keep the action going. “I saved Tarkus’ life, so Tarkus will save my life” seems more like a plot device. The author knew he would need Tarkus to save John Carter’s life to resolve some conflict and needed plausible motivation for Tarkus to do so, so had Carter save his. It seems too obvious, like it happened because the author needed it to. In contrast, in Jhereg, Vlad wants to avoid taking an action that would cause Morollan to break his oath. Placing a friend’s value system above your own life is an admirable loyalty that drives the plot and increases the reader’s commitment to the protagonist and the story (although wanting to find a way to preserve both is still expected, normal, and included). It is a character element, sure, but it not “characterization over plot,” but rather an effective plot rather than just a plot device.
It means that a story with weak characterization is also going to suffer in plotting.
It means that among the five elements of character, plot, pacing, dialogue, description (some people identify different elements), a novel can be saved by excellence in just one element, but it can also be killed by incompetence in just one element. Most likely, a story that does one or two elements very well will make the other elements more effective. Good dialogue helps in making character and pacing better. Better pacing helps plot. Good description helps everything. And yes, good character helps make plot development more intuitive.
There is room for a difference of opinion over what is “plausible”, and consequently, what is an effective plot vs what is a clumsy plot device.
This probably needs editing for coherence, but I’m not going to do it. For good or ill, this is my stream-of-consciousness, non-exhaustive explanation of why I like some books and don’t like other books.
Cute Knight, for PC, looks to be a quirky anime-style RPG with a number of tried and proven mechanics (e.g. dating sim style stat and money balancing activities). Alex shares his thoughts after three play-throughs, and though this particular one won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it does sound worth a look.
In what looks to be a multi-part series, Oghma tells of how he became acquainted with the works of Manly Wade Wellman – a great blend of personal anecdote and appreciation for another great writer we’d do well to check out. “Silver John” – what a cool-sounding character!
In honor of Women’s Day, Jon M. decided to highlight one of SFF’s most underappreciated (and hottest) strong women – Dejah Thoris. *Trigger warning: this post contains a delicious steak sandwich recipe. You may not want to read if you’re hungry and have no steak on hand.
Indie publishing seems to have really taken off, especially among the Pulp Revolution crowd. But outlets like Cirsova can only fit so much. What’s an aspiring short fiction writer to do? Well, there are other outlets out there. Jon shared one recently – StoryHack Action & Adventure is currently accepting submissions, and it’s worth checking out if you’ve got something you can send in by April 1st!
Over at SupervisiveSF, Anthony looks at Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky and concludes that Sheeta is a much more attractive and effective strong female character than many in contemporary storytelling. As he points out, a well-done woman character can be brave, competent, and feminine. Humility is an attractive virtue, not a weakness, and a good woman should be complementary to a man, not overtly usurp his role or compete with him. Double thumbs up for the Rey-bashing.
I must confess I haven’t read either of these books, but HP does a commendable job looking at two Young Adult SF stories – one very recent, and one over half a century old. The bottom line seems to be that while there are many imitators, it’s hard to match Heinlein at his best. Lest you think that’s all there is to HP’s review, though:
“Have Space Suit—Will Travel and Martians Abroad couldn’t be more different. The former is emphatically blue SF and the latter is emphatically pink SF. They aren’t even in the same sub-genre.”
I must confess I was a little skeptical at first; I’m a fan of Princess Mononoke, but it might not even be in my top 10 animated film picks. Still, Malcolm makes a great argument for the depth and supervisiveness that many viewers may miss. Game of Thrones grayness but hopeful instead of nihilistic? That’s actually some pretty potent stuff.
There’s a great post over at Tribality with twenty ghosts and spirits from various cultures that don’t get much play (literally). Some time ago Jeffro noted an observation by game designer James Raggi: “Because monsters should be unnatural and hopefully a little terrifying, using stock examples goes against the purpose of using monsters to begin with.”
So why not spice up your game with some more obscure or unique demons and specters? Of course we’re most likely all familiar with the banshee, but personally I had never heard of most of these.
Poul Anderson is another awesome old SFF writer that I had never heard of before diving into the pulp scene. It’s great to see him getting some play! Jon Del Arroz recently read Fire Time, and shares his impressions.
It’s hard to cover everything, so I don’t even try! Be sure to check out Jeffro’s latest sensor sweep over at the Castalia House blog for some more noteworthy articles. There may be one or two overlaps, so feel free to read those particular posts twice!