Good Books, Good Writing

  • by Gitabushi

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 do I 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 all readers 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.

matt helm
Not this Matt Helm. The movies are crap

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.

DHSilencers3
The books are where the good stuff is found. Try and find one, I think you won’t be disappointed.

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.

Good Books, Good Writing

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

Cirsova reviews Cute Knight

ckdss3

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.

Getting to know the Man(ly)

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!

Sizzling hot princess, beef

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.

prv14853_cov

Get a’writing (via Seagull Rising)!

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!

(Japanese) picture of a good “strong female” character

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.

c2a5561fb1de9d8f94035a0dfe943844

Comparing Heinlein

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.”

Princess Monomoke – BEST MOVIE EVER

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.

1579879_orig

Some…different…monsters

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.

Potentially great inspiration for writers, too!

Getting fired up by Anderson

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.

Castalia House sweeps the scene

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!

The Kaiju

Also if you’ve been following Kaiju’s sword and sorcery tale, be sure to check out his latest installment. Plenty of action and gore in this one!

-Bushi

bushi

PC Koshinbun – Anime, Appendix N, and Strong Women

A Merry Twilight Zone Episode

Ah, the holiday season. Back in the days before one could watch a Christmas Story for 24 hours straight on TBS, there was a veritable cornucopia of Christmas fare available for holiday consumption.

1800b86f-bc6f-4eca-9728-10f43dd307ea_text

Of course there are the older classics like Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, and March of the Wooden Soldiers. You’ve got your slew of Rankin and Bass animations, a Charlie Brown Christmas, Muppet and Disney stories, and a million Frosty and Rudolph permutations. There are the Home Alone films, those ones with Arnold and Tim Allen, and all the Scrooge movies (the Bill Murray version being perhaps the best of the bunch). The Nightmare Before Christmas, Christmas Vacation, White Christmas, Bad Santa, Ellllfffffff…..

Oh, and let’s not forget that one movie that some people think is a Christmas movie because the story incidentally takes place around Christmas time.

lw1

Wait, that’s not…

returns

Hold on…

large_gremlins-gizmo

Let me just…

die_hard_christmas

There we go.

As I was saying, also beloved is the tradition of the TV show Christmas special. Do they still call them that, or are they now “holiday specials?” Regardless, I recently checked out a very special episode of the Twilight Zone (available to watch if you subscribe to Netflix) – “Night of the Meek.”

The 11th episode of the second season of the oft creepy TV classic has a bit of a heavy start to it and ends up being rather heart-warming.

santa

The episode is short enough that I’d rather not spoil its plot, but suffice it to say that there’s something refreshing about the obviously flawed but goodhearted and honest protagonist. He drinks to drown out not his own plight, the but sorrows of the world around him. What, then, will happen when he’s given the chance to bring some Christmas cheer to the unfortunates around him?

If I had to offer a criticism, it’s that like so many other Christmas shows and films, there’s no Christ here. Sure, Santa Clause holds a prominent place in Christian custom, but he’s not the reason for the season. Still, I’d say a positive Christian message about selflessness and charity is a good second-place prize.

I highly recommend checking out “Night of the Meek” if you’ve got 25 minutes; you won’t regret it. Or you could go watch a Christmas Story again.

r1lcjzmldn2ko

-Bushi

bushi

A Merry Twilight Zone Episode

Badass Womanly Women in SFF

A popular grievance of the Left is a lack of “inclusion” by either the Powers That Be or the population in general. As if we happy associates of the white, Christian Patriarchy have the time to step away from counting our piles of gold coins and smoking fine cigars long enough to actively knock the undesirables (or deplorables, if you will) down to the base of the ladder where they belong. This idea is usually born either by recently enlightened members of the aggrieved class or else sufficiently apologetic, self-appointed proxies. Self-righteous pensters have been decrying a lack of diversity in X for quite some time now.

Though it wasn’t the (original) central issue, there was plenty of talk focused on this topic during the whole Gamergate affair. Plenty of people pointed out that there are many prominent female video game characters – something easily ascertainable to those who have actually played video games or done some cursory research.

What about women in other media?

We’ve been told how great it is that we’re now finally getting some diversity in TV and film. With strong women like Rey in the Force Awakens and the Ghostbusters reboot, who needs traditional gender roles? Indeed, who needs men?

This dreck has been percolating for a while now. Is there a pushback coming?

tumblr_mxjpb0i8ee1s6l9jdo1_400

For the greater American culture, I’m not so certain. The pendulum swings both ways for sure, but it’s not easy to predict the full range of the cultural fulcrum. In a more limited arena, at any rate, the battle rages on.

To counter the cries of discrimination, I’ve noted several bloggers and online literary critics highlighting female excellence within the scifi-fantasy arena – pertaining both to writers and characters. Leigh Brackett and Margaret St. Clair are familiar names to Appendix N scholars or those fans on the farther side of the SFF Generation Gap. CJ Cherryh, Ursula Le Guin, Madeleine L’engle, Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey, and Katherine Kurtz are some other big names who have been around for decades. Hell, JK Rowling is one of the best selling authors of all time, with Agatha Christie (a different genre, but still) topping the chart in a tie with William friggin Shakespeare. There are many more to name.

In light of this topic coming to the fore, I’ve been thinking about “strong” female characters. And you know, the recent brand is boring. The Left advances the ideas that gender is fluid and non-binary, and that traditional gender roles are outdated and discriminatory. And we wind up with bland characters like Rey, who wear formless potato sacks and can do everything better than men. She is woman, hear her roar.

JC Wright has written extensively on the subject of the strong female character. Physically and psychically, men and women have different strengths and weaknesses. While social crusaders may not personally like or accept this fact, minding it goes a long way toward developing well-written characters.

I’d like to briefly highlight a number of female characters I’ve identified who serve to exemplify this point. Note that these characters range in time of origin and in source medium. We can even draw from back in the Dark Ages when the women’s voices were suppressed and they were forcibly excluded from literature.

The Blood of Heroes (1989), Kidda

4oif7wzbdxnrqtglvd0ogkgtus2

In a post-apocalyptic world, a roving team of juggers hop from town to town playing the Sport (one part football, one part gladiatorial bout) as they make their way to the capital city, where they will fight to join the League. Along the way they pick up the scrappy Kidda – a small but quick woman who becomes their quik (the runner who tries to carry a dog skull to the opposite team’s end of the field without being savaged by the enemy defenders). Rather than brutishly pummeling the much larger men, Kidda had to rely on her natural agility, speed, and size to make it in the brutal game.

 

Star Trek Voyager (1995-2001), Captain Janeway

janeway-star-trek-voyager-30990629-500-382

Star Trek Voyager gets a lot of flack, and many Trekkies seem to consider it the worst or one of the worst series. I’ll have to write a defense sometime, because it’s actually my favorite of the bunch. Janeway is Exhibit A for me. She exhibited the best qualities of Kirk and Picard. She was a skilled diplomat, leader, and scientist, and yet she was quick to kick ass and take names when shit hit the fan. I found Janeway’s femininity striking. Although she did have some romantic subplots that never went anywhere, Janeway was extremely maternalistic. When it came to protecting her crew, she was a mother bear. She was no physical powerhouse, but she repeatedly displayed great courage and emotional strength.

 

Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009)Six, Eight (Boomer and Athena), President Roslin

1ce326c52c18a6e8fdb54b47bedff8b9

There were a number of great female characters in the reincarnation of Battlestar. Of course Grace Parker was engaging as both Boomer and Athena, and Six as Caprica and other roles. Roslin was written a little unevenly, but she usually made a fine leader, relying on her forceful personality, wiles, and resilience. I’d contrast these characters with Starbuck, who was crafted to be a brawling hottie but more often came across as obnoxious and destructive.

 

Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986), Ripley

aliens-001

Ripley was another maternal female character, at her best when she was protecting Newt. She wasn’t always the strongest, but she was intelligent, resourceful, and determined, as was perhaps best displayed in the iconic Aliens scene in which she takes on the mother alien with the work loader mech.

 

Flash Gordon (1934-) – Dale Arden, Princess Aura

still-of-melody-anderson-in-blixt-gordon-1980abaff3ae47b68e078731c0b70807572f

Flash Gordon was published as a comic strip in 1934 and has been serialized in a number of different media throughout the years. Two major recurring characters are Dale Arden (his companion from Earth and main love interest) and Princess Aura (daughter of Ming the Merciless). Although on the surface they may look like typical princesses in need of rescue, they’re both strong and independent characters. I haven’t personally read the comic strip, but in the 1980s film Aura saves Flash’s life and Dale effects her own escape. They’re both capable, brave, and beautiful (I know, scandalous for me to say!) without having to usurp the role of the male heroes.

 

Willow (1988)  Sorsha, Queen Bavmorda, Fin Raziel

tumblr_n0kyw1qqxw1sg8jd1o1_128073aa8e71872e4b32a1c24043f061f7d8cherlindreas_wand

Ok, so Willow’s Sorsha wasn’t the most well-fleshed-out of characters. She went from basically being an ice cold bitch to eventually deciding to join the good guys against her mom. I guess the ladies just can’t resist the Madmartigen D.

i5kzn9bh

Oh well. At any rate, she was a decently depicted female warrior type – this is what you get when you’re not dealing with abnormal behemoths like GRRM’s Brienne. She can fight; she can stab some old robed men plenty well. But when she’s dealing with a skilled, larger male like Mad M, she’s no match. I guess this is hinted at by her prominent quiver of arrows, though I don’t think she ever has a bow or makes use of any of them.

We’ve also got Fin Raziel, the great magical old dame Willow must seek out because she’s a powerful mage and he’s just a two-bit magician. If woman are going to have equal opportunity, we also need some prominent strong female villains, and so we’ve got Bavmorda, who is probably the strongest magic user in the film. She’s vicious, cruel, self-serving, and good at being bad.

Willow is particularly notable because it gave us the old woman magic battle years before we got the old man magic battle on screen. Revolutionary!

 

The Wizard of Oz (1900), Dorothy

wiz

The story that spurred perhaps one of our most classic, iconic films, and the protagonist is a little girl. She may not have been roundhousing flying monkies or pummeling the wicked witch, but Dorothy’s kindness and charisma aided her in recruiting many friends throughout her journey (especially if you include the other books in the series). Her quest to return home required a fair amount of courage, as well, which you may notice is a recurring virtue on this list.

Again, this is just a small sample of female characters from a variety of SFF. And they were arguably all well done and strong despite not competing with men where men excel and/or just being good at everything.

star-wars-book-before-the-awakening-gives-a-vital-insight-into-rey-s-identity-rey-hasn-7920451

 

-Bushi

bushi

 

Badass Womanly Women in SFF

The secret formula of Kells

Some months ago I watched the Secret of Kells (2009) on Netflix and meant to share some thoughts about it. Actually I was hoping to pester Kaiju into making one of his rare appearances to talk about it (he being more qualified to opine on religious symbolism and whatnot than I), but alas.

Animated by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon, the Secret of Kells is a Christian fantasy story crafted around the abbey at Kells, in Ireland, during the 9th century. Although I wasn’t initially impressed by stills I had seen of the movie, it’s actually quite beautifully animated in a style that reminded me of Samurai Jack.

kells_hires_2-611

Kells incorporates many of the themes and elements that I and others have waxed about of late, regarding the shift in fantasy storytelling. The film weaves Christian history, dogma, and myth together with pagan Celtic legend in a thoughtful and effective manner. I won’t go into detailed analysis of the plot right now, but suffice it to say the setting – a secluded abbey surrounded by mysterious, magical woods, during the fearful age of the viking raids into England, is the perfect backdrop for the exciting, moving tale told here.

A young boy being raised by his uncle, the abbot of Kells, finds himself drawn to literary illumination and the legendary Book of Kells. Meanwhile the abbot is consumed with a burning drive to erect a great wall around the monastery to protect the monks and refugees from death at the hands of the invaders from across the sea.

3368_4

Aside from some breathtaking art and music, one of the things that impressed me most about Kells was the amount of research and thought that must have gone into the story and that was so skillfully incorporated without feeling forced.

For instance, the story involves a certain artifact belonging to St. Columba, the founder of Kells and at least in the film the originator of the Book. So far as I can tell, there wasn’t actually a myth about such an artifact, but Columba was the subject of other legend. St. Columba is credited with having spread Christianity to Scotland, and was said to have banished a great water monster to the depths of River Ness.

The abbey at Kells and its namesake book are real, the later currently residing in Dublin, and at some points the film shows us some animated versions of actual illuminations from the tome.

The observant watcher will also note the name of the dark Celtic god Crom, which was likely the inspiration for Robert E Howard’s Conan deity. There’s also some interesting imagery to be observed, including that of the ouroboros.

Perhaps my favorite “Easter Egg” or whatever you might call it, is a feline character belonging to one of the monks. The cat is named Pangur Ban, and was inspired by an actual 9th century poem written by a monk about his pet cat.

There’s an excellent song at one point in the film, where the character Aisling uses magic to enlist the help of the small animal. The Gealic lyrics of her singing invoke James 4:14. One theme of the story seems to be the giving way of the pagan powers to the Christian God, as perhaps reflected in Aisling’s song.

The Secret of Kells is a wonderful movie, though I wouldn’t show it to young children due to some emotionally intense scenes. It’s uplifting to observe that though many mainstream entertainment media shy away from Christian SFF storytelling these days, there are smaller outlets that do not, and they’re capable of some fantastic work.

-Bushi

bushi

The secret formula of Kells

Steve McQueen, Jack Vance, and revenge

I’m a little ways into Star King now, with a couple of initial thoughts. *Light spoilers ahoy.*

jack-vance-star-king-daw

First, I continue to really admire Vance’s writing. Simultaneously intelligent and accessible, he seemed to know how to provide enough description and exposition to flesh out characters and worlds without going overboard. My only gripe so far has to do with the prefaces at the beginning of each chapter. Much like Herbert in Dune, Vance starts each part with one (or more) quotes from books, speeches, people, etc. within the literary world. These provide context for events, locations, or peoples in the story, usually just as the reader is about to encounter them. I do like the use of these in general; I just prefer it when they’re are a few lines long, as opposed to a page or more. When they’re short, they can give a little break as the story progresses and provide some useful insights. When long, it feels to me like they upset the pacing somewhat.

Second, there’s something about the way that grandmasters like Vance, Howard, and Burroughs crafted their characters that makes them likable for me, despite coming close to Gary Stu status (as opposed to some R.A. Salvatore characters I can’t stand). Conan and Carter are charismatic, strong, brave, and honorable men who conquer foe after foe and have to beat off the hot ladies with a stick. Perhaps they’re acceptable because they suffer defeats and setbacks, and they know how to win and lose like men. Invariably it means they keep on keeping on, no matter how grim the situation.

conan

I didn’t note much description of Gersen’s physicality and I haven’t read anything yet to make me believe the womens are swooning all over him, but he is a master fighter/poisoner/killer. It’s also clear that he’s a pretty bright chappy. So he’s brave, strong, and smart at the very least. Relatively early on he proves his fighting prowess by overcoming an Earthman of considerable fighting skill, but Gersen doesn’t feel like an invincible (dark elf) killing machine. Though you know he’s going to survive at least for quite a while (after all we’ve got 4 more books in the series after this), he feels vulnerable and fallible.

Ok, so that’s Star King. That’s where my mind is these days, at least a part of it. On the classic SFF.

Last week I decided to watch something light on Netflix and it seemed time to knock Nevada Smith off my list. This one is a western from 1966, starring Steve McQueen as half-Indian Max Sand as he quests for revenge. That’s not so unusual in and of itself, especially for a western. But man, immediately I thought to myself – “Holy cow, this is the Demon Princes writ-small, except in the Wild West!” And only two years after the publication of Star King!

Well, I’m not so sure there’s any connection, but the general setup of the story sounds pretty similar. Max’s parents are tortured and killed by three outlaws, and so he sets out to seek revenge.

sm

Along the way he experiences a few hard knocks but eventually runs into a gunsmith who mentors him on how to hold his own with a firearm. Some time passes, and Max becomes more competent and prepared for his task.

One notable aspect of Nevada Smith is that the story is as much about revenge as it is the struggle to give up on that hatred and forego revenge. The first appeal to this end comes from his gunsmithing mentor, Cord. Cord offers for Max to come with him and give up on his pursuit of the outlaws, to no avail. Max passes on the offer of a new life and meaningful employ by his new friend.

The second appeal, presented twice, is new life and a family. During a period of convalescence, he is taken in by the beautiful Indian woman Neesa and her tribe. Max is asked to stay but refuses. Later on he uses the Cajun girl Pilar’s feelings for him; he recruits her to help him and his second target escape from a prison surrounded by swamp (at this point the outlaw doesn’t realize Max’s true identity). Pilar begs Max to “treat her nice” when they escape, but it’s obvious that although he bears her no ill-will and perhaps does care for her, he has no intention of giving up his mission. As his second target is getting into their escape boat, he tips it and Pilar falls into the water, where she is bit by a venomous snake. A short while later she succumbs and dies. If he had left the outlaw and his vengeance behind, he could have escaped with her. She would have lived and he perhaps could have found peace building a family with her.

The third appeal follows a while later. Injured once again, he is found by a priest, who takes him back to his mission and introduces him to Christianity and the Bible. Several times he asks Max not to pursue his final mark. Max mentions that his favorite part of the holy book was “an eye for an eye” and that the priest can’t understand. The good father reveals to Max that he too survived after watching his family tortured and killed, and knows of that hatred and lust for vengeance. But he took a different path. This shakes Max, but does not dissuade him.

padre

In the final moments of the film, Max has the third evildoer at his mercy – in a river at gunpoint. Max shoots his arm and both his legs, but struggles internally as the outlaw taunts him and exhorts him to end it. It’s at this point that our hero finally realizes how hollow his pursuit has been, and that killing his parents’ murderers will not gain him peace. He tells the dastard that he’s not worth killing, and walks away as the wounded bandit curses him, calling him a coward and yellow.

finish.PNG

worth

I’m not sure how the Demon Princes saga will progress and ultimately end, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a different course. In many revenge flicks, the bad guys are paid back for their evil ways, though often the hero pays a toll as well. It was a nice twist in Nevada Smith that after finding religion (though perhaps not the only decisive factor), the protagonist is eventually able to give up on revenge.

 

-Bushi

bushi

Steve McQueen, Jack Vance, and revenge

The redemption of Anakin Skywalker

I’ve just finished watching the Clone Wars on Netflix, and I wanted to wrap up with a few thoughts.

General Thoughts

My opinion of the show was largely positive. I thought the highs were high, and there was some quality writing going on. That said, the Clone Wars suffers the same identity crisis that so negatively impacted the prequels (especially Phantom Menace). Like many cartoons and infamously a great deal of anime, the Clone Wars possesses its share of “fluff” episodes. This is compounded by the fact that while the show touches upon some very mature and heavy concepts and themes, we still get occasional episodes featuring Jar Jar Binks or C-3PO and R2-D2.

Some episodes seem geared entirely to younger children, while some are clearly intended for teen and adult fans. Jar Jar episodes invariably include “physical comedy” scenes of the sort where he stumbles and trips and repeatedly steps on proverbial laser-rakes and somehow winds up defeating a platoon of battledroids. While I actually found Jar Jar less grating in this cartoon, these hijinks called to mind the prequel films, and that was not my desired viewing experience.

Neither was I a fan of the multi-episode story arcs focusing on astromech droid commando squads or jedi younglings encountering the seemingly only band of space pirates in the universe.

What I did enjoy were the Jedi and clone-centric stories. I also thought Ventress and the Nightsisters were interesting characters. As I’ve mentioned before, the clones are really fleshed out and shown to be more than mere foot soldiers. Big lost opportunity for the films there.

Personally I found Anakin and Ahsoka to be the best parts of the show. Not only was Anakin’s character actually likable (contrast with the movies), but with the animation in mind, one can better trace his path to the dark side. With the creation of the Ahsoka character and the development of her relationship with Anakin, the writers really added a lot of depth to the Dark Vader story.

From here on out I have to issue a **Major Spoiler Warning.** Read on at your own risk.

 

 

 

Ahsoka’s Role in Anakin’s Fall

Perhaps the heading should be “The Jedi Council’s Role in Anakin’s Fall,” as that would be more fair to Ahsoka.

ahsoka

At the opening of the show, Anakin is introduced to Ahsoka Tano, his new padawan. He stiffly protests that he does not want to be a teacher, but his excuses are rejected. After fighting alongside Ahsoka and witnessing her determination, courage, and hardheadedness, he assents to becoming her master.

From there, their relationship grows strong. As is common, they develop a special bond as master and pupil. Probably even more so than normal, as they both frequently flout rules and orders to do what they think is right, often to save each other or other friendlies. The only other Jedi that Anakin develops this close of a relationship with is Obi-wan, and considering the protectiveness he exhibits for Ahsoka, I would argue that he becomes even closer with her. Not quite a father-daughter relationship; perhaps close to big brother – little sister.

While Obi-wan and Anakin do share a bond and care very much for one another, Anakin sees much of himself in his pupil. They are both stubborn and brave and sometimes have to be reigned in. Unlike some of the other Jedi (I’ll touch on this later), they both also seem to value highly the lives of their soldiers and treat them with a notable degree of respect and care.

Now, I would note that as the seasons progress, we do observe Anakin flirting with the dark side. He uses Force choke on occasion, and there are times when his anger boils to the surface and he manhandles prisoners or defeated enemies. This is evident when he thinks Obi-wan to have been assassinated, and when he jealously beats the crap out of Clovis for making moves on Padme.

One of the most impactful events leading up to his fall is Ahsoka’s setup and expulsion from the Jedi Order. Aside from his love for Padme and desire to save her from death, his loyalty to Ahsoka is perhaps paramount to understanding Anakin’s motivations.

When Ahsoka is framed for the bombing of the Jedi temple, Obi-wan wants to stand by her, but finds himself outvoted on the Council. It is with regret that he stands by as she is cast out of the Order. Anakin, on the other hand, is furious. He simply cannot believe that Ahsoka is guilty of such a crime, and he cannot stand idly by and watch her wrongfully condemned.

It is at this point that we really see his anger directed toward the Jedi Council, and his disillusionment with its blindness and impotence. When he attempts to intercede and is denied the ability to meet with her as she is imprisoned, we see the shadow growing.

anakin angry

Eventually, after Anakin has cleared her name and proved her innocence, Ahsoka is invited back to the Order, but she refuses to return. She cannot forgive the Council who so quickly doubted her and declined to fight for her. Anakin is clearly hurt and feels that she is leaving him. His pupil tells him that she is grateful, but this is not about him.

It’s at this point that we really see how Anakin feels about the Jedi Order. He had previously voiced his opinion (specifically regarding his conversations with and about Tarkin) that the Jedi often made bad judgements and would not do what was needed to end the war. He tells Ahsoka that he understands her wanting to leave, and we see that he is not content with the current state of affairs.

I haven’t watched Star Wars Rebels, but I have read a bit further on what canonically became of the Ahsoka character, for this is the last we see of her in the Clone Wars. It appears that she later resurfaces to fight against the Empire and foster young Jedi of the nascent Rebellion. In the Season 2 finale of the show, she makes an appearance to confront Darth Vader. She declares that this time she won’t leave him. One of them will not walk away.

She fails at breaking through to Anakin; only Luke is able to eventually bring Vader back to the light. But she comes close. Closer than Obi-wan was able. For a flickering moment, Anakin recognizes Ahsoka, his pupil; his friend. But ultimately they are enemies, and as she says, all she can hope to accomplish is vengeance for her master.

The Gray Jedi

Regarding the Jedi, the Clone Wars provided me with two major takeaways.

1. Other sources, like the video games and other parts of the EU had introduced the concept of “Gray Jedi” who were either not truly Jedi in that they tried to achieve a balance between the light and dark sides of the force, or else Jedi who did not always abide by the Code or follow the will of the Council. Qui-Gon Jinn is often cited as an example of the latter. Many commenters have pointed out that Ahsoka also fits this mold, and I think Anakin most likely also would have fallen under this archetype had he remained a Jedi. Although the cartoon never busts out the term itself, I think it do think it reinforces the existence of such a “class.”

There are more nuanced factions of Force-users than just the Jedi and the Sith, as was perhaps more clearly illustrated by the inclusion of the Nightsisters and the Ones.

2. While the light and dark sides are usually portrayed as good and evil, respectively, they too are more nuanced. I felt like the games and EU also did a good job expanding upon this. If you look at the Jedi and Sith codes, which I naturally have because I’m a humongous geek, you’ll note that the immediate and primary difference is the view of emotion.

The Jedi see emotion as something to be suppressed and controlled. There is no emotion, there is peace. Now the Jedi are clearly not Vulcans or droids; they do experience emotion.

star-trek-spock1
May the force be with you.

This is viewed as undesirable, however. We are told that Jedi are forbidden to love. And yet would Yoda or Obi-wan teach that joy is a dangerous feeling to be restrained? In theory.

The Sith, on the other hand, operate on emotion. Peace is a lie, there is only passion. The Sith embrace passion and use their feelings to channel the Force. In practice, the dark side of the Force is associated with negative emotions – fear, anger, hate. And yet the Jedi swear off the good ones, as well.

All this leads me to think the light and dark side of the Force, at their roots, are not as well-defined as I once believed.

Also the Jedi Are Dicks

In one of the later episodes, one of the clones executes a Jedi when his brain chip malfunctions and Order 66 is prematurely activated in his mind. He’s taken to the clone lab on Kamino for examination, and Jedi General Shaak Ti “advocates” for him. It struck me throughout that though she didn’t want the clone trooper put down, she didn’t seem overly concerned for him. When the Kamioan doctor asserts that the clones are Kaminoan property, the Jedi counters that the clones are Republic property. Huh. She also has no problem with wiping Fives’ memory and having him transferred to custodial duty.

General Krell, a Jedi who eventually turned to the dark side and betrayed the Republic before being captured and executed, was a leader of some renown. The clones comment in one episode that he is famous for his Pyrrhic victories. He wins, but he loses huge numbers of troops. This is common knowledge, but the Jedi don’t seem to care about his lack of regard for human (clone) life. Just another day being a Jedi?

Not even Anakin, who gets a whole episode devoted to his hatred of slavery, ever seems to stop and think about the clones. They may be programmed to act as willing soldiers, but they’re still slaves. Desertion is a crime, and little thought is given to what will become of them after the war. They’re just the Republic’s version of battledroids, and even though many of the Jedi seem to treat them well, the Order never seems to question the morality of what it’s doing.

I believe this is explained in some fashion by peripheral sources – that the Jedi Temple was built upon a Sith Temple. The dark side slowly weakens and blinds the Jedi over the course of a thousand years. Whether or not this was an intentional explanation, it is certainly believable. Although they have their moments and they’re clearly preferable to the sadistic, power-hungry Sith, the Jedi are often foolish and blind. When there is risk involved, many times they will choose to abandon their own rather than fight; this occurs several times that we see on the battlefield, as well as the whole situation with Ahsoka.

Slavery may not be rampant on Republic worlds, but it is still a blight upon the galaxy, and the Jedi do seemingly little to stamp it out. Not only this, but they engage in their own brand of slavery and justify it as the only way to win the war.

I will say that I think the show ended on a good note. After his pilgrimage to learn the secrets of becoming a Force ghost, Yoda seems to realize, at least to some degree, how blind he and the Council have been. He essentially tells Mace Windu and Obi-wan that they won’t win the Clone Wars, that they’ve already lost. But that they do have one path left that may give them a longer-term victory.

Capture.PNG

This was foreshadowed in Yoda’s vision, when he had to sacrifice himself to save Anakin. And when he was told that there is another Skywalker.

 

-Bushi

bushi

The redemption of Anakin Skywalker