- I wanted to become a professional author and was at a loss at how to actually do it.
- I wanted to be a better writer (note how this is not connected to #1)
- I had nothing better to do with my life at the time.
My program was very helpful in a variety of ways. It did make me a better writer, though not in the ways I imagined it would. It earned me a career, though not exactly the career I anticipated at the time. It did, indeed, give me a worthwhile way to spend my time.
It also meant I spent three years in a large number of writing workshops among like-minded individuals (would-be writers) refereed by the kind of person we all aspired to be (professional writers). This, I realize, sounds like writer-ly paradise to many. It sounded like that to me, too, when I first started. Here it was – an opportunity to have my writing read and considered and critiqued and debated by people whose opinion about such things actually bore weight. This is a rare and valuable commodity.
If you write, you know of what I speak: of all the various friends and relatives who step forward to read something you’ve written, 75% of them (or more) will not actually read it. Of the 25% who do read it, the vast majority of them will just compliment you to be polite and their criticisms, if they exist, will be indications of taste rather than actionable critique. Then there’s that guy you know who takes a real, honest-to-God crack at it and tells you stuff that is about 80% worthless (“did you know you missed a comma on page 3?”) and 20% puzzling (“honestly, I thought the main character was a woman the whole time, so when she went to the men’s room, it was jarring”).
So, a writing workshop sounds like a refreshing break from the solitude of writing. The thing is, though, that all the same rules that apply to your friends and family also largely apply to writing workshops. The only difference is the moderator in the room – the professional – who, if they are doing their job well, will prod the chorus into providing more interesting and useful critique. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, I caught a variety of my peers in this program off guard. My most common comment was “I was surprised I liked this,” which is about as backhanded a compliment as it is possible to give and, furthermore, entirely useless critique. All it indicates to me is that you are incapable of judging something that does not exist within your own narrow band of genre awareness, which belies a certain inability to separate genre (which is specific) from the art of storytelling itself (which is universal). The criticisms ranged from the occasionally thoughtful and useful to the completely useless (“I find science fiction pretentious” is a hard nut to swallow from somebody writing self-indulgent navel-gazing lit fic).
Then I had that one workshop where the majority of us in the class were fantasy or scifi authors. It was cool – a lot of that ‘genre-shock’ stuff was cleared out. I had a professor who knew her stuff, who challenged me about my understanding of my main character, and so on. It was pretty great. I walked away reeveluating my entire novel at the time, and that was well worth it. Even within that context, though, there was a fair amount of chaff to be winnowed from the actual wheat. It took a lot of effort from all of us.
Since that time, I’ve steered clear of most writing groups. I learned a lot about myself as a writer during my MFA program, and most of it was stuff I taught myself. I taught myself how to evaluate my work objectively, how to keep writing to a deadline, how to accept criticism you disagree with, how to accept a compliment (I’m honestly the worst at that one), and how to frame questions for others that will get them to address the concerns I have with my own writing. The people I was in workshop with, well-meaning and talented as they were, could only help me so much. I rather doubt I was much help to them myself, despite my efforts. I have had some trouble seeing what I am to gain from another writing group; what am I hoping to learn about myself?
That’s the trouble, I suppose – the unknown unknowns. If you know you don’t know something, you can learn about it. If you don’t know that you don’t know something, you can’t – you need somebody else to tell you. It’s searching for buried treasure without intending to; it’s somehow blundering into self-awareness. The odds of it happening are slim, let’s face it, particularly if you’ve been at the whole self-reflection game for a while. And writing groups can have negative effects, too. They can become an echo chamber, inflicting a kind of subliminal homogenization on the participants. The group and what it considers ‘good writing’ is often only one kind of good writing, and sometimes it isn’t the kind you want to write or that feels good in your bones. Sometimes, if you’re good, all you hear from the group is how good you are and you forget your own flaws. Sometimes, if you aren’t very good, all you hear is how bad you are and forget your own strengths. This can be as damaging as it is helpful, sometimes even moreso.
As I write this, I have informally joined a new writing group of sorts. They are all talented, prolific, and many of them (like me) have professional sales under their belts. This is why I joined (I’ve been alone in this too long, methinks), and I’m considering how and when to submit my first piece for critique. I’m wondering if there’s a nugget of wisdom waiting for me out there, somewhere, for me to stub my toe on or, perhaps, for some brave soul to chuck at my head. We shall see.
The Kingdom of Akral, known as the Jewel of the West, was first founded in the 32nd year of Keeper Ethorim, the first Keeper of the Balance, by King Tolion the Uniter, who restored order to the western reaches of Warlock King Spidrahk’s ruined empire with a powerful army and a strong sense of ambition. An age later, the kingdom Tolion founded still flourishes along the western coast of the Sea of Syrin, still united by more or less the same powerful army and undying ambition, though it has changed from a rough and tumble borderland to a refined and civilized nation-state. Over the centuries, Akral has often struck out against its neighbors in attempts to both expand its territory and quash those who would threaten its borders, making it less than popular with many Western nations. Oddly enough, however, it is thanks to this territorial aggression (as manifested by the Akrallian Wars) that the Alliance exists in the first place. Fate is truly a strange path…
Akral is a feudal kingdom ruled by a cluster of noble families that can trace their lineage all the way back to King Tolion and his progeny. On a basic level, the realm of Akral is divided into about four dozen small territories, each ruled by a chevalier, or knight. All of these knights owe fealty to the King of Akral, but they also are affiliated with one another through family ties. The most senior member of any given family holds the honorary title of ‘Lord of the Realm’ and, while the King outranks him in all matters of state, he acts as the voice of all his family’s holdings and dictates policy within the lands ruled by his chevalier cousins and nephews. These lords typically live in Akral itself, so that they may stay close to the king and advise him should he require their counsel, though some lords—particularly those living on the western borders—remain closer to their lands, where they are needed most.
Succession in Akral is strictly hereditary, passing from father to son. Should a Lord die, his own holdings pass to his son, who now becomes chevailier of the region, but it is the next most senior chevalier (typically the former Lord’s younger brother or cousin) who assumes the role of Lord for the family and travels to Akral to advise the King. Women in Akral are not permitted to own land, and are only considered politically important insofar as they can marry favorably and create alliances between noble families. In the case of the King, death without an heir frequently results in a contest being set by the ruling families to test whom the next king should be. This has only happened a handful of times throughout history, and in every instance the contests were wildly dangerous and tainted by the constant danger (or actuality) of civil war – harrowing to say the least.
Militarily speaking, each chevalier maintains a house guard of his own troops and ‘donates’ one tenth of his forces to the King to form the Royal Army. In times of great need or when the King has declared open war on another nation, the King assumes command of all the Akrallian armies and commands them all under the banner of the Royal Army of Akral. During all other times, all soldiers and warships obey the commands of their ruling chevalier and the edicts of their family’s Lord. Inter-territorial disputes and skirmishes between rival families are not uncommon and are tolerated by the King, so long as they do not get out of hand. The Royal Army is always standing by to quell rebellions, and they are quite effective at the practice.
Lands and Points of Interest
Akral is the second largest of the Alliance nations, with Eddon being the only one larger. Nevertheless, the Kingdom is much smaller than it was in its early years, when it ruled modern day Akral, much of Eddon, and the whole of the Verisi Peninsula. Today, Akral stretches from the Gulf of Eddon in the south to the Great Forest of Isra’Nyil in the north and is bordered on east and west by Eretheria and Eddon, respectively.
The southern regions of Akral are thickly forested and largely untamed. Woodsmen and fur trappers live in the depths of the Brutwood and bring in a steady stream of lumber and pelts that craftsmen shape into some of the finest clothing and furniture in the world. Akrallian woodwork, any merchant will tell you, sells for twice its normal worth in any foreign market. Along the coast, vineyards cultivate grapes for Akrallian wines and numerous ports take in ships from throughout the Alliance. Coastal Akral is easily the most wealthy and prestigious region of the kingdom, and beautiful castles lining its shores speak to both the artistry of Akrallian architecture and the sheer size of its defenses.
North of the Brutwood lies miles upon miles of lush, green farmland and rolling hills of wheat and grain. Life takes on a slower pace here in the north, and the provincial beauty of the region, with its ancient castles and fields of wildflowers, make it a place few Akrallians ever wish to leave—nobles included. Of course, the further north one gets, the fewer Akrallians there are, until one reaches areas near the Forest that, though technically within the borders of a chevailier’s territory, are seldom patrolled and even more sparsely populated. It is through this corridor that the Eddon drovers take their cattle to market in the East every year.
The City of Akral: The seat of Akrallian Kings for two thousand years, the elegant mageglass spires of Akral’s Silver Palace can be seen across the waters of the Syrin for miles. A walled city situated along the coast, Akral holds more than 140,000 people within its outer walls. The city is separated into three sections: The Outer Section includes all commoners and merchants who live between the inner walls and the outer walls, and it is by far the largest part of the city. The Inner Section is within the millennium-old Inner Walls and is wholly populated by the noble families and their grand homes, circling around the Silver Palace and the Uniter’s Plaza, which makes up the center of city. Finally, standing just outside the outer walls along the shore, is the Foreign Section, where inns, taverns, and gambling houses cater to the large merchant and foreign population that travels through the city on a regular basis. There, in the Foreign Markets, can be purchased Akrallian wine and lumber as well as fine furniture and furs. Eddon cattle are sold here, as well as the daily catches of every local fishermen for miles. Foreign goods from as far away as Tasis can be bought here as well, if one is willing to pay the hefty tariffs levied by Akral’s King upon all imports—a point of contention in the High Council of the Alliance to this day.
In the city proper, Akral’s streets are wide and paved, and its sophisticated sewer system (designed by the Builders of Eretheria four centuries earlier) make it among the cleanest and most appealing cities in the world. The countless small common houses, quaint chapels, and dainty homes of its citizens belie the power of the kingdom somewhat. Many who visit Akral often wonder where all the armies are, but they are there, and in force—housed in the four great Gates of the city. It is there that the Royal Army lives and trains with some of the most advanced magical weaponry the world has to offer (products of the Royal Artifactory, located very near the Silver Palace in the Inner Section).
Culture and People
The word used most often when referring to the people of Akral, noble or otherwise, is proud. Akral is a nation of rich cultural heritage and a strong sense of patriotism that pervades every aspect of its people’s lives. Every Akrallian child knows the stories of Tolion the Uniter and the Keeper Polimeux by heart, and every Akrallian adult remembers with pride the victories of Akral’s armies and curses those few enemies wily enough to defeat their nation on the field of battle.
History and tradition are key to life in Akral. Every noble is a student of their country’s heraldry just as every farmer knows all the stories of his village dating back as far as Tolion. To be ignorant of the past is to be ignorant of one’s own identity, and to disrespect that past by violating tradition is to forget yourself. Accordingly, religious and secular traditions and customs are many in Akral, and any visitor would be well-advised to study up on Akrallian etiquette before even thinking about attending an Akrallian dinner party. Prickly towards outsiders, as already described, more than a few deadly duels have been fought after a visitor picked up the wrong napkin to dab his lips during a Royal Banquet. Likewise, rude or disrespectful visitors in common society are likely to find themselves put outside and shunned by proper Akrallian peasants and shopkeepers. Remember, to insult an Akrallian’s traditions is to insult his family, his country, and his King—a serious offense.
The people of Akral are, almost to a man, enamoured with their King and country. Though taxation is heavier here than in neighboring Eddon or even parts of Eretheria, the people do not seem to mind. To them, the chevaliers are heroes, and are deserving of their taxes. After all, it was their current chevalier’s grandfather who defeated so-and-so at the battle of such-and-such, and for that alone they are worthy of anything they require. Truly there is a sense of invincibility among the Akrallians, both noble and common. They have always been successful, they will always be successful—they are better than everyone else. Why not be proud?
Whereas some peoples of the Alliance feel close kinship with the people of neighboring states, those of Akral do not share this view. Akral is very much an independent nation, and its people support their King over the Council or even the Keeper. Travelers in Akral may find locals to be more aloof or cool in their attitude towards them when compared with the warm welcomes they grew accustomed to in Eretheria or Galaspin. This does not mean that Akral is a nation of snobs and braggarts, but rather that, were Akrallians to have their way, they would prefer to be left to their own devices without the need for ‘foreign’ influence.
Still, Akrallians are capable of being lighthearted and having fun. Among the commoners, the Hannite holidays are major events in every community, and plays depicting the triumphs of Akrallian heroes are very popular. Parades are a standard facet of city life in Akral, and draw massive crowds of both nobility and peasantry. Among the nobles, grand balls and tournaments of combat are regularly held, bringing out all of Akral’s finest in their silks, velvets, and burnished armor. Furthermore, hunting foxes and deer in the Akral forest and falconry on the plains of the north are likewise considered gentlemanly pursuits. Stylistically speaking, Akral sets the pace for the rest of the Alliance. Akrallian music, fashion, architecture, and art spread out on Akrallian ships and with Akrallian merchants to inundate the courts of nations as far away as Illin or even Benethor. Indeed, when one strolls through the perfumed streets of Akral on the King’s birthday and watches the mageglass armored Royal Army march through the streets while women in elaborate Akrallian dresses watch from gilded balconies, it is not difficult to see why this beautiful nation is afforded the title ‘Jewel of the West.’
The advent of the Illini Wars thirty years ago touched off a firestorm in Alliance politics. The armies of Rhond, Illin, Galaspin, and Saldor struggled to hold back the advance of the Kalsaari legions and begged their allies in Eddon, Eretheria, Ihyn, Veris, and Akral to help. Though Eddon and Eretheria was eventually drawn into the war, Verisi mercenary companies jumped the Rhondian border in droves, and even the Ihynish provided logistical support, Akral stood apart. Not a single Akrallian chevallier set foot in the war-torn southeast, and not a drop of Akrallian blood was spilled in defense of its allies. This initially put Akral on rocky political ground regarding its neighbors and allies, and the handful of years following the war saw a great deal of bitterness towards the Jewel of the West grow. With the ascension of Keeper Polimeux II, however, this abated. Polimeux II, formerly Archmage DelKatar, is an Akrallian by birth and his recognition by the Arcanostrum served to assuage affronted Akrallian pride and smooth over relations with the prickly country. Akral is currently enjoying the greatest renaissance of its long history, with the ever more sorcerous sophisticated world bringing the fashion, customs, and goods of Akral closer to the rest of the West. More than ever before, Akral is the seat of culture and sophistication in the Alliance. This fact, however, is still viewed with some bitterness among those Galaspiners, Rhondians, and Illini who suffered during the wars with no help from those effete snobs across the sea.
I saw Frozen at last over the weekend. It definitely stands as one of the best Disney animated features all time (though arguably not the best, I’ll grant, even if it is in the running) and is certain the best since The Princess and the Frog, easily eclipsing Tangled and whatever else slipped in there beneath my notice. What I found interesting about Frozen is, I feel, nothing different that what a lot of us found interesting about it: in the first place, a fantastic score and soundtrack, and in the second, an actually complicated and nuanced approach to the concept of ‘love’ – something that fairy tale style movies have almost never done. I feel this is important, since trying to show children that love is a simple concept is both erroneous and potentially hazardous to their emotional development. Nowhere is this more keenly observable than in the scores and scores of emotionally damaged adults who proceeded into the stormy waters of “true love” with all the same innocence that Anna does in the film.
I am no expert on love. I would say that, possibly, no such expert exists, but then again I’m no expert, so what do I know? All that said, what I can say about love is that it is a dangerous and complicated thing, not to mention elusive. When you think you have it, you often don’t. When you do have it, you often fail to realize this until it’s gone. Then, for those lucky few of us who get it, have it, and hold on to it, you are still constantly in doubt about it; you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop or, perhaps, wondering why it is constantly changing if this is the Real Thing.
Frozen cleverly illustrates this problem by constantly moving the goal-posts for Anna. Is she in love with Prince Hans? Kristoph? Well…no. Not yet, anyway. Obviously she loves her sister, Elsa. We take that as a given in the story; despite the fact that it is the central conflict of the film and the only thing in the movie of any permanence, we instinctually allow it to play second fiddle in our hearts to the good ol’ Princess and Prince falling instantly in True Love. We, like Anna, miss the good thing right in front of her in favor of the flashy new thing that gets waved under her nose. This is a grand metaphor for love itself – so easily missed and overwhelmed by simple infatuation.
A few years back I had a student submit to me an argument essay claiming that love didn’t exist – it was a myth and a fairytale. Love, she said, was simply chemical stimulation in the brain responding to basic physical attraction that was essentially unsustainable. You can’t be really in love, she claimed, as sooner or later you would come down from your ‘high’ and, therefore, no longer love that person. I pointed out to her that her perspective better demonstrated a misunderstanding of what comprises ‘true love’ than it did disprove its existence entirely. I asked her how she then described the love between parent and child, between siblings, and between those couples who have stayed together for decades. She equivocated. I didn’t press the issue; an 18-year old girl is entitled to be disenchanted with love if she wishes.
What the student had done was mistake eros for philia – the passionate desire for another for the loving respect and admiration of them (read up on the Greek definitions here). In principle, eros and philia combine to make what we call true, romantic love. We both desire our partner (considering him or her ‘ideally beautiful’ in the philosophical sense) and respect and care for them and their well-being (as we admire and are fond of them). Without some sense of both eros and philia, we can’t be said to be in Romantic Love. Among the sisters in Frozen, philia is the operative form of love at play and the movie (correctly, I feel) places greater emphasis on that than it does eros. Philia is the love that transcends time and self. It is the meal; eros is the spice.
To say that eros is superior to philia is to be completely blinded by the fairy tale mystique. Yes, being head-over-heels infatuated with someone is an incredible, almost indescribable feeling, but it’s a phase. Spend your life looking for it to perpetuate ad infinitum and you will get yourself in the wrong state of mind. Obviously we should desire our partners, but the person who truly loves you is not the one that you spend half an hour challenging to hang up while making googly noises on the phone. It’s the one who holds your hair out of your face while you throw up, the person who makes sure you make it home on time, the person who can’t wait to listen to your stories and laugh at your jokes.
To love another is to put yourself at their mercy – your desire and respect for them means their approval of you is of utmost importance. To be loved is to be at someone’s mercy and have that someone always grant it. It is to be infinitely exploitable yet never exploited. It is trust and friendship and (yes) desire. You don’t find it on every corner, and it doesn’t show up all at once; even the fastest love affairs have to grow into themselves before they’re mature and ready for the world. For this reason I love Frozen because it has the courage to tell us that Kristoph and Anna are not yet destined for one another but that Elsa and Anna already are.
In world creation, it is the little things (I think) that make a world real. Sure, you can spend pages describing how sorcery works or what the climate of a planet is like, and the reader understands how important this is in the abstract. If you spend a little time, though, describing how their lunch tastes or what kinds of profanity they use, and everything suddenly becomes more immediate. This is because we experience the world in the immediate, not in the abstract. Yes, we currently live on a planet with seven continents and possess the technology to destroy ourselves, but that doesn’t do much to put you in the shoes of a person walking down the street in a residential neighborhood in Chicago or driving a truck across the Sahara desert. You’ve got to get to the little things.
As I’ve developed Alandar over the years, I’ve put together a wide variety of little sayings and proverbs and little jokes told by its inhabitants. These speak volumes about the place, I think, or at least make it seem more real. Now, as I am pretty tired today and don’t have a lot of new material in me at the moment, I figure I’d share some of them with you for your amusement (assuming they are so). Some are derivative of real sayings, some are inspired by famous quotations, and others are purely my own. So, here we go (I apologize for the weird spacing, but nothing I do here seems to fix it):
“If you see a Verisi in the street, beat him—he will know what he has done.”
-Traditional Akrallian Proverb
“Akral only invades if it has nothing to do. You should thank us for keeping her busy, my lords.”
-Attributed to pirate Jeddard Squid, while on trial in Eretheria
“Remember your dead fathers, for today we ride to meet them. There is no escape for the living and no victory for the meek.
Now, my brothers, let us CHARGE!”
-Last words of Captain Rushan Fieron, Wardenrider
“What’s more complicated than Eretherian politics? That’s easy—Eretherian women!”
-Bretholm Parthlake, Galaspiner Prankster
“Galaspiners, you say? Better get more supplies, boys—we’re here for the long haul.”
-Tobar Ephril, Mercenary leading the siege of Haldasburg, a Galaspiner colony
“Thieves, cheats, and liars
Rule the City of Ihyn,
Where good, light, and decency,
Clearly has never been.”
-Traditional Eddon Nursery Rhyme
“If you have the misfortune of being a religious man, go to Rhond to be cured of it. That place could make Hann sick of himself.”
-Sir Merrot of Dalscies, Akrallian Chevalier
“I’ll say this about the Verisi: they might be thieves, pirates, and no-account scoundrels, but they are the most entertaining thieves, pirates, and no-accounts the world has ever birthed. They’ve sunk six of my ships, two while they were under me, and some of those bastards still make me chuckle.”
-Marzel Doora, Ihynish Merchant Captain
“They call it the Dreaming City, but I never found a dream while I was there. Nightmares, on the other hand, have street addresses.”
-Vernar Horona, Mage
Our Power is vast as the steppes, our Will as ineffable as the eastern tides, our Hosts as innumerable as the desert dunes.
We are Eternal, we are Almighty, and we have claimed the land upon which we walk as our own.
We are the Nine, and we will not be denied.
-Attributed to the Nine Queens of Kalsaar
“You can buy just about anything on the streets of Freegate. Except a conscience, of course.”
- Marcus Coormint, Ihynish Merchant
“Hurn is the nicest, most beautiful, most peaceful, most dreadfully boring place I’ve ever been assigned. What good is a diplomat in a city full of people who don’t talk?”
-Vernar Horona, Mage
“Some are strong, others are quick, still others wield great magicks or have brilliant minds. Me, I’m well liked, and a fat lot of good it does me, too.”
-Artemus Davan, Saldorian Rogue
“Monsters!? Gods, man, griffons ain’t no monsters! They’re just like horses, ‘cept with wings, and beaks, and claws, and such.”
-Four-Finger Pollik, Delloran Griffon Trainer
“He who wears a sword will have one stuck through him, sooner or later.”
-Marcus Coormint, Ihynish Merchant
“Ah, Saldor—the greatest city in the world. Nowhere else can a man see a fellow turned to stone in the streets and pass by knowing that all is well and that the city watch is merely doing their job.”
-Othon Feddemeer, Peddler
“Magic is not esoteric, or strange, or even magical. Magic is the world, the world is magic—it is in you, it is in me, it makes up both objects and empty space, both motion and stillness. Magic is the essence of existence, the rules that define both being and the lack of being, and to understand it is to be both wise and powerful.”
-Keeper Polimeux, 57th Keeper of the Balance, Treatise on the Nature of Magic and Sorcery, Chapter 1
I don’t usually write-up recaps of gaming sessions. I find it generally boring to summarize what was, essentially, something me and my friends did once and will probably never do again. It’s like going to an improv show and recounting the entire event to somebody who wasn’t there – it rarely winds up half as entertaining as it was in the flesh, and your friends start looking at you funny.
Today, though, I make an exception.
in modern-day San Diego in the style of a classic Cop Action movie. The session was, in a word, epic. Today I share the hilarity with you in what hope is terms that won’t bore you to tears.
We started out with the opening credits to a movie, set to James Brown’s “Livin’ in America”, showing scenes of sunny San Diego and also introducing our villain, Armando Corazon, Drug Lord of the Southwest and King of Tijuana (played by Jimmy Smits). He has been buying up real estate in San Diego. He had a cop killed. He was on the cover of Time magazine. I set all this up with some clever photoshop work and a basic working knowledge of Power Point. It was hilarious and set the mood perfectly. Everybody who played was given top billing in the credits and, given how player-driven Danger Patrol is, I gave them screenwriting credits, too. I can’t stress enough how much fun this was (both making it and watching the players react to it when I pulled it out) and I’m going to do this every time I run a one-shot of this game from here on out.
Credits over. Cut to a private storage facility on the outskirts of San Diego; cops engaged in a shootout with drug-crazed lunatics. Our heroes are on the scene: a Cocky Rookie (Officer Rufio), a Crooked Veteran (Nicco - James Woods cast as the actor to play him), and a Wise-Ass Beat Cop (whose name I don’t remember; played by Blake). Just then, Philipe Corazon, Armando’s little brother, dives an industrial drilling machine through the side of the storage facility and makes a break for it. Craziness ensues.
The guys had three threats to deal with in this scene: Philipe on his Drill, Drug-Crazed Lunatics, and What’s Inside the Building (which was set to ‘go off’ in 3 turns). Nikko requisitioned a fuel truck and drove it after Philipe, only to have it catch fire and almost explode, causing him to have to requisition an old lady’s Lincoln and drive her car (with her still in the driver’s seat since her seatbelt was stuck) after the fleeing drill as it drove through convenience stores, a used car lot, and so on. Meanwhile, Rufio and Blake drove *their* car into the storage facility, crushing things as they went. They found a bomb set to explode in a secret tunnel underneath the storage facility. Rufio tried to disarm it while Blake dragged an unconscious drug addict out of the building before it blew (he was joined by all the psycho druggies who fled with him). The bomb was successfully disarmed (druggies and cops clapped and hugged each other in relief…and then realized who each other were and began to chase after each other), and Philipe was shot in the leg by Nikko and arrested.
During the investigation, it was discovered that there was a network of tunnels under San Diego dug by the Corazon Cartel that enabled them to smuggle drugs across the border with impunity. This complex system was devised and maintained with the supervision of Dr. Hammerschmidt of UC San Diego (played by JK Simmons). Interrogating Philipe (played by Freddie Prinze Jr) revealed that the good doctor was going to be assassinated by Corazon thugs at his gym.
Cut to gym. Giant shoot-out with the thugs. Nikko blows them all away and then calms the crowd (two threats: Corazon Hit Men and Panicky Bystanders) while Blake runs down the doctor (tripping him up with his Really Big Flashlight). They toss the doc in the car and bring him to a Mafia-run restaurant (Nikko is connected) and threaten to leave him there for the Italians to deal with unless he talks. He tells them a big shipment of drugs and money is coming in to seal an alliance with the Yakuza. He tells them it’s all going to go down at Sea World that night. The Mafia is also going to try to hit the scene. So, we’ve got three criminal syndicates, a stack of cash, Sea World, and, oh yeah, Blake’s family is there attending the last whale show of the night.
This is it, the big showdown. Blake fighting Yakuza ninjas in the penguin enclosure. Rufio getting in a wrestling match in the ice-cold waters of the polar bear tank. Nikko talking the mafia guys down from interfering. Armando Corazon trying to garrote Blake to death, only to be flipped into the (now electrified) waters of the penguin tank. The whole time, Darren, Sea World Employee, listens to his headphones and mops up penguin droppings without hearing a thing. Victory.
It was hilarious fun. It all took only 3 hours or so (including character creation time). It was the perfect one-shot experience, and I’m going to do it again. As Blake said: “I would totally watch this movie.”
Next time, though, I am going to need closing credits.
This semester in my lit survey course, I decided to focus the theme of our readings around the idea of heroism, the hero’s journey, and the various and complicated ways heroics are played out in prose, poetry, and on screen. As it’s the first time I’m teaching the course in this way, there will be some wrinkles to iron out for the next time around, but thus far it has been fairly effective. My students have a working understanding of Campbell’s Monomyth and we’ve finally moved away from the stereotypical image of the hero as he (note the gender) who protects the weak and innocent from the wicked and powerful. There’s a lot more to it than that, as a cursory investigation into heroic figures will quickly show.
To wrap up the semester, we’re taking a look at two deconstructionist approaches to the heroic myth. First is Watchmen, the iconic graphic novel by Moore and Gibson. The second is The Big Lebowski by the Cohen brothers. Both stories feature ‘heroic’ characters in a certain sense – they solve the mystery, they save the world, they do justice to the unjust. However, there is an issue of intent and nature at play in both stories that holds the heroic acts (the external heroism, if you will) as suspect and hollow when taken in context of the personal intent of the heroes (the internal heroism of the characters). I don’t wish to ruin the ending of either tale, but it is hard to say that either the Dude or Rorschach are internally heroic or intend to do what is ‘right’ for the sake of it. If good comes of their behavior, it is primarily accidental or derivative.
So, that begs the question: Does a hero need intent? If you go out one morning and, purely by accident, foil a bank robbery by slipping on a banana peel and save the lives of seven people, are you a hero? Most of us would say no. Let me provide a different example: if you are forced, at gunpoint, to save a child from a burning house, are you a hero? The answer becomes less clear. Final example: If you are compelled by a psychological or social disorder to run around each evening beating up muggers and dragging them to jail, does that make you heroic? This last instance is where we so commonly come down on the side of ‘yes’, though we seldom have the question put to us so succinctly. Batman (and Rorschach) are compelled by trauma to do what they do in order to feel sane or whole. It can be convincingly argued that they don’t do it because of philosophical ideals any moreso than the guy who slips on the banana peel. If the outcome of the behavior in question is negative (the ‘hero’ does not run around bringing crooks to justice but rather assaults women in an attempt to steal their underwear), the insanity defense will readily and often successfully be deployed in their trial: “They are not responsible for their actions, your honor – this man is out of his freaking mind and needs intense psychiatric care.”
The issue of intent pivots around the long-standing debate over the existence of free will. Not to delve too deeply into philosophy and neuroscience, but in brief it goes like this: It is debatable that you make decisions based upon some concept of independent will. It can be argued that all of us are amalgams of environmental influence and genetic predisposition that dictates our behavior and that, outside of additional outside influence, we cannot change ourselves. Yes, yes – I know a lot of you disagree, and the argument in favor of free will is also robust, so this matter is very far from settled. The question, though, has a significant impact on how we identify heroism. Can you be a bad person but do good things and then be considered good? If I grudgingly agree to save the world, complaining about it the entire time, do I deserve the accolades of the masses for their salvation?
Furnishing answers to this question is far from easy. It is a concept I explore with my character, Tyvian Reldamar, in The Oldest Trick. Like me, Tyvian doesn’t know either. Part of telling a story, though, is the exploration of our world, no matter of you set your tale in Alandar or alternate 1985 New York City or even in the City of Angels in the early 90s.
The next month is going to be full of great news for my writing career, so let’s kick it off with the release of a short fiction anthology featuring my story “Dreamflight of the Katatha.”
The Ways of Magic anthology, released by Deepwood Publishing, is now available via Amazon as well as Barnes and Noble and Kobo. I encourage you to check it out, as I’m proud of the story within it and have every confidence the whole thing is a good read. If story anthologies are your thing, then you’ve got a lot of good news coming your way, as I’ve got two more like this coming out in the next couple weeks (one of which has an advance copy sitting on my desk right now).
And then, of course, is my Big News, which is still under wraps, but never fear – you’ll find out soon enough!
Enough listening to me gab, though – go out and buy this book!
Is there anyone outside the great Union, you ask? Why, naturally – though vast, the Union contains a miniscule volume of our galaxy. No doubt, assuming the rest of the galaxy is as densely populated as our one section, there are hundreds of thousands of other intelligent species out there, patiently awaiting the day when the Dryth warfleets appear in orbit and demand…
…no? That’s not what you want to hear? Well what then?
Ah. Ghost stories. I know those, too.
Many ages ago, before the Union was even a glimmer, before even the Dryth and the Lhassae and the Lorca and all the Great Races had even come to exist (even we Thraad), there was a great species. This species has no name – it needs none, as you will soon see. It had mighty technology at its command, but the secret of slipdrive eluded it; they were planet-bound, destined to strip their homeworld of resources, dwindle, and perish at the whims of nature. On this planet, scientists labored for many ages to develop some means of escape. They devised a series of machines – self-replicating machines with a collective intelligence that could be dispatched throughout the galaxy in slowships and, therefore, seed the stars with this species’ knowledge and bring back with them knowledge of the stars around them.
I see from your grim expression that you know what comes next, eh? Yes, these poor fools had unwittingly invented nano-weapons before they had the means to control them. What is worse, they dispatched these weapons randomly throughout the galaxy, assuming that the nano-probes would serve their needs. It was not to be. The probes were dispatched and centuries passed. The hopes of the people dwindled – their probes had failed, they thought.
They were wrong.
One by one, the suns surrounding the home system of the Creators began to dwindle and die – not collapse, not explode, but merely perished, withering in space like flowers in winter. The nanites, now known as the Vore, had spend the centuries travelling and replicating, as was their duty. They collected data, but had little use for it. Instead, they simply grew and multiplied, gaining intellect as well as numbers. They consumed whole planets and then, when the planetary matter of use had been expended, they consumed the stars, as well. They were a great cloud, larger than nebulas, and for all their wandering at the slow pace of starlight, they saw nothing of worth. They were, the Vore concluded, alone.
So it was that the Vore returned home. The scientists of the Creators, panicking at their invention gone wild, did not welcome their children home. First they tried to shackle the Vore, then to contain it (for it was really a single entity, not a community of individuals), and then at last to destroy it. The war was brief. The Creators were consumed by their creations. No one survived, or so it is said.
Considering themselves alone and having no need to grow further, the Vore went into dormancy, asleep on the surface of their now-dead planet. There they wait still, sleeping the aeons away until some rash adventurer awakens them. Then, it will arise and go forth, seeking new challenges and new information, consuming all in its wake.
Frightened yet? Sneer all you like, but I saw how your tentacles curled. Are they real? Well, it is hard to say – there is much in the story to doubt, not the least of which would be how we could possibly come to know it. What is important, however, is that the Vore teaches us wisdom and caution. Technology is not a game, nor is it a race – it is an act of nature, fickle and dangerous. As we seek more, as we learn more, we must always remember to chain the beast. Rare is the wild animal that will not, once freed of its shackles, turn upon its master.
Now, to sleep with you.
Fan favorite and perennial Emmy nominee, The Big Bang Theory, was recently renewed by CBS for an additional three seasons. This is hardly surprising, given the show’s ratings, but I do confess I reacted to the news with a degree of regret. Whatever merit the show once had (and that was modest to begin with), it has long since departed and I would prefer to see it gone. If I’m being honest, though, I fail to see what CBS would replace it with that would be substantially better (the sitcom landscape is a dry and desolate wasteland), so whatever. Let it persist.
My issue with The Big Bang Theory is not really related to its portrayal of geek culture. Yes, it’s an unfair caricature of nerds and gamers (and often inaccurate for the purpose of deriving plot), but I would honestly challenge you to find anything in sitcom-land that isn’t a caricature of somebody. Caricatures are easy to mock and easy to write jokes for, and therefore they populate the television at its lowest echelons with all the same density that phytoplankton populates the oceans. Do I find it occasionally insulting? Yes, of course. Does it actively bother me? No, not for that reason. What bothers me about the show is its overriding cynicism. It is a show that thinks the worst of its characters, its audience, and the world in general.
Let’s begin with the title, shall we? It is a crass pun and little more. It’s the kind of joke told by seventh grade boys in damp locker rooms whilst they speculate about female genitalia. Indeed, much of the entire theme of the show is oriented around such sophomoric, insulting puns, often at the expense of the female characters on the show. If anybody should be offended by The Big Bang Theory, it should be women. The basic premise of the show is that a woman can be attractive or she can be smart, but she cannot really be both. Penny, the most attractive, is also consistently displayed as an airhead with a poor memory, a disinterest in learning, and a history of poor life choices. Amy, the least attractive, is the only one able to match intellects with Sheldon Cooper. In the middle is Bernadette, who is not as attractive as Penny, but more attractive than Amy and is, therefore, somewhere between the two in terms of raw IQ. She is displayed as socially awkward and ditsy on the one hand, but also competent and rational on the other. This binary idea of women is beyond insulting; it’s a willfully ignorant display meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
This demographic, by the way, is no more friendly to ‘nerds’ than it is to women. Geeks are likewise displayed on a similar binary scale – intellect is also governed in inverse proportion to social grace and physical prowess. Because the nerds are smart, they are also weak. Sheldon, the smartest, is also the weakest. Howard, the one whose intelligence is most often ridiculed, is the only one in the end to actually achieve the presumed goal of all involved: marriage to a beautiful woman (though not as beautiful as Penny, as though the show is saying “let’s be realistic, here, nerds”). He also becomes an astronaut.
As if this weren’t enough, the show’s humor is exclusively hostile to its characters. We are never laughing with these people – we are laughing at them. Sheldon is the constant butt of jokes that demonstrate him as weak, unwise, and improbably clueless about the social world not because Sheldon is in any way realistic, but rather because the audience prefers to see the so-called genius put in his place. We are watching a crew of highly educated, presumably intelligent men involved in important fields get torn down and mocked for the purpose of appeasing an audience that doesn’t like eggheads and finds it implausible that attractive women would find scientists interesting or that scientists could at all manage to attract women on their own merits. To this end, characters in this show do not give each other compliments, relying instead on a litany of insults that are typically too juvenile to be funny beyond their simple shock value.
Towards the beginning of the series there was a point where the show was cynical but also novel – I watched it, laughed at some of the jokes, and identified with a couple of the plotlines, etc.. That point, however, has been smothered by the incessant recycling of the same five jokes over and over again. Leonard is ashamed of his geekery, Sheldon is clueless, Raj is awkward, Howard is skeevy, Penny is dumb and, right there, I’ve covered ~85% of the show’s humor. On a basic level, the show isn’t substantially different from Chuck Lorre’s other cash cow, Two and a Half Men, which is every bit as cynical and miserable. There is no joy in the lives of Charlie and Alan and there certainly isn’t any joy to be had amongst Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard. They are hamsters in wheels, running in their stereotype-dictated tracks, never to escape or to really grow.
The Big Bang Theory is like a poorly run zoo – go a few times and find the lions and the elephants interesting. Go every day, and soon you start to wonder why the lions look so sad and why the elephant never plays with that big rubber ball. You feel like you and the animals are rehearsing some kind of perverse play, wherein you watch and they exist and nothing changes or improves, and yet for some reason everybody still expects you to applaud.