When it comes to duels, two weapons rule them all: the sword and the gun. For all Legolas did for the bow, for as much stick-fighting as there was in Pacific Rim, and no matter how many fireballs Goku conjures from his hands, nothing will ever beat these two weapons in terms of ‘cool.’ Also, interestingly enough, they seem to be somehow opposed to one another. Guns and swords do not mix, nor do their aficionados. Nowhere is this more clear than in the contest for Luke’s affections in Star Wars. Obi Wan decries blasters (guns) as clumsy and random; Han points out that “hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” It is as though these two means of dispensing death were somehow at odds with one another, at least thematically. Why is that?
We can perhaps take some of our cues from Star Wars itself. The sword is the weapon of the Jedi – an “elegant weapon from a more civilized age.” It is used by the forces of good to defeat evil and for the forces of wisdom and order to impose peace in realms of chaos and madness. It is metaphorically significant that the Jedi reflect back the blaster bolts of their foes: they turn the violence of their enemies back upon them. Their defense is sufficient to destroy their enemies, since it is their enemies’ aggression (the Dark Side) that ultimately consumes itself. The sword is a symbol of control over oneself, of a kind of spiritual unity between the body and the physical world that combines to become a perfect weapon.
This metaphor is borne through a lot of heroic movies and literature. It can be seen that Inigo Montoya cannot defeat Count Rugen until and unless he can control his rage and focus on his swordsmanship – his initial chase of Rugen and frantic attempts to catch him almost kill him. It is only when he achieves a kind of spiritual peace in the form of resignation (“I am sorry, Father. I failed you.”), that he again regains control. Likewise, the blade of Isildur, Narsil, is not re-forged until the race of Men is once again ready to take control of themselves (in the form of Aragorn) and restore order to their fractured kingdoms. In the reverse, we see Conan bound by his obsession to regain his father’s sword and learn the riddle of steel. It is only when he realizes that the sword is no more important than the spirit that wields it (i.e. when he gains control of himself and marshals his rage to serve his purposes) that he can use the Atlantean blade to defeat Thulsa Doom.
The sword is an implement of separation, in a certain literal sense. In this vein, it is the tool by which the hero chooses and categorizes the world around him. It is power, but the power to control both oneself and others. It is defense and offense balanced and necessarily shackled to the will of the wielder. It is personal. This is even recognized in cultures as ancient as that of Japan, where the concepts of zanshin and kokoro paint a picture of a way of combat and swordsmanship that center less on the sword and more on one’s ability to control and be aware of the world and themselves in it.
The gun, meanwhile, is something different. The gun represents not control but power, raw and unfiltered. It is, furthermore, power that is not tied to the wielder, but to forces outside the wielder’s scope of influence. In literal fact, guns harness the powers of physics and chemistry – the forces of nature itself – to destroy the enemy. To be sure, physical skill is required to use the gun well, but not to the level of the sword. Guns are loud, destructive, indiscriminate, and volatile. They are not defensive in nature – they do not protect except if used preemptively to destroy. If the sword symbolizes civilization and order, the gun symbolizes chaos and barbarism. This is not to say the gun is morally inferior – I’m not necessarily ascribing to Obi Wan’s distaste for firearms – but it is an indication of their symbolic purpose. The gun is nature – a forest fire, a storm, the raging sea. All that chaos and destructive disorder is harnessed so that it may be used by humanity to destroy its enemies. The gun is black sorcery; it is the ultimate power trip.
Again, such a use for the gun can be clearly witnessed in so many stories and, indeed, in historical attitudes towards them. In westerns, for example, the gun is a fearful tool. It takes skill to wield, but the true challenge is not so much in the wielding as it is in how fast one may choose to deploy it. In this sense, the gun is only the tool and the real conflict is a moral one - to destroy or not to destroy, and how soon. It is not accidental that the Matrix films used guns to destroy the nobodies yet opted for martial arts to face the true foes. There is no moral challenge in gunning down the unnamed cogs of a soulless machine network, but to face Ultimate Evil, one must master themselves and therefore hand-t0-hand combat (the realm of the sword) is more dramatically appropriate.
In instances where the gun is used as the final arbiter of the conflict, there is a fatalism and suddenness to the exchange. When William Munny faces down Little Bill in Unforgiven, the true action is in the dialogue preceding the end, not in the series of explosions that follow. Why? Well, the gun lacks the physical language of the sword to express the combatants’ experience of the conflict, for lack of a better description. When in a gunfight, it is not so much the fight itself that matters, as the weapons employed are not extensions of themselves but rather representations of elemental forces.
It is part of this that once tarnished the gun when it first became common in any given society. The sword was a weapon of honor, requiring devotion and control to master, wheras the gun was (and is) a kind of power that could be distributed evenly to everyone, controlled or otherwise. The democratization of deadly power was resisted by those who wished to maintain control (if any fool with money could equip the peasantry with firearms, what would become of the Samurai or Knight or Cavalier?), as they saw in the gun an opposing viewpoint to their understanding of warfare. It was no longer one-on-one, skill against skill alone. It was a free-for-all, decided by fate as often as skill. The wisdom of the gun is not how to fight, but whether to do so at all and when. Violence was no longer a gentleman’s game.
Now, as to which I prefer, I am torn. I feel both have great symbolic weight, and I find myself drifting between the two. In the end, it is important also to remember another kind of metaphor they both symbolize: that of the male phallus, and the corresponding ’male’ desire to dominate his surroundings. Whether shooting or stabbing, Dr. Freud still has the last word, I’m afraid.
The comic book store argument is a staple of the geek subculture. You’ve seen it on The Big Bang Theory dozens of times: Sheldon, Raj, Howard, and Leonard sitting around their living room, arguing until they’re blue in the face over whether Thor’s Hammer can penetrate Cap’s Shield, or what the difference is (or ought to be) between zombies and mummies. As much as I gripe sometimes of the stereotyping of geekdom by that show, I do have to admit in that one respect they are generally spot-on. It is a thing. It happens all the time.
But what is the point? They aren’t real, so why bother?
Do you go around telling kids there’s no Santa Clause [sic], too?
Let’s ignore the spelling error for a moment and take for granted that the commenter in question is not referring to the Tim Allen film franchise, both loved and admired by all humanity (he gets fat by magic – comedy gold!). Let’s engage the essence of the critique here: why ruin all the fun? It’s a worthwhile question, and it does deserve an answer.
Geeks have these conversations because they are fun. They are fun in the same way that analyzing literature is fun, or critiquing the fashion choices on the red carpet is fun, or really any act where you pass judgment on something is fun. It isn’t just geeks who do this – we all do this. Having opinions and backing them up with arguments is part of the deal with being able to think. Can such arguments go off the rails? Sure they can. Conflicting opinions can often be confused with personal rancor, feelings can get hurt, and all enjoyment can get sucked away by some guy crossing the line. Most of the time, though, this doesn’t happen.
Part of what makes these geek conversations unique is the fact that their subject matter is often entirely fictional. There is no empirical definition for the weight of Thor’s Hammer, only what can be inferred by circumstance. I once had an argument with a guy about how lightsaber duels weren’t reflective of what a duel with a plasma sword would really look like. My critique was oriented around the supposition that the plasma wouldn’t have the same mass that the sabers seemed to when fighting – less mass means less inertia, which means a whole different set of fighting techniques become possible, thus changing the duel. His argument was that we had no way of knowing how densely packed the plasma was in the blade, therefore it may have the same mass as a lightweight sword of the same length. I came back by citing the conservation of mass – if the plasma had that much mass, where did it go when the blade retracted? Lightsaber hilts do not get visibly heavier when shut off, therefore…
You get the idea.
These conversations are often fun. They ask us to think and analyze what we observe and to draw conclusions from it. This is how human beings learn. This is how we adapt and change. If nobody asked such questions, nothing new would happen. Now, granted, science fiction and fantasy franchises aren’t the most important thing in the world to debate, but to equate critiquing their conventions with ruining Santa Claus for little kids is unfair. For one thing, that implies that scifi/fantasy is only for children, which I object to in the most strenuous terms possible (I mean, have you even read Freud or Jung?). For another, that suggests that we are having this conversation for the express purpose of ruining something for someone else. Not true. We’re trying to change it, in our small way. We’re trying to say it can be better. We try not to have these arguments with people who don’t care or don’t want to hear them (at least the more socially facile of us do) – the last thing a geek really wants to do is ruin somebody’s fun. If you like the old thing, well fine – opinions differ. If you have such a problem with my disagreement, offer me a robust defense. Debate it.
It should be fun.
Ben Affleck is going to be Batman. Get over it.
No, seriously, just shut up. You’re being a giant child. Seeing as there is presumably nobody pointing a loaded weapon to your head and forcing you to go see this movie, you have two adult options here:
- Go and see the movie and see what happens. Life goes on.
- Don’t go and see the movie. Life goes on.
It’s not like Ben Affleck gassed kidnapped children in an abandoned coal mine. Calm the fuck down.
There is a bizarre cultural weight given certain fictional universes by the assembled masses of geekdom. A casting choice goes awry or so-and-so does such-and-such to Super-Guy’s underroos, and somewhere somebody is throwing an almighty hissy fit. I’ve done it, admittedly – I’ve done it here on this blog. I like to think my major objection in these instances isn’t to the choices made, though, as it is to the execution of said choices. If you want Gotham City to go into a kind of fascist lockdown, then fine. You need to have it make even a remote amount of sense, though. I object less to the ‘bat nipple’ than I do to the fact that Batman and Robin was a stupidly executed plot with poorly drawn characters and awkward performances. I also didn’t write the studio any hate mail.
When people start ranting about things like this, I like to ask them a question: What would you prefer? They inevitably produce a laundry list of things they would do differently – different actors, different costumes, different plots. Fine. The follow-up question is this:
Do you honestly think people wouldn’t get pissed at you, too?
If you grew up to become a hardcore geek, you also developed deep attachments to various characters. You loved Captain Kirk. You dreamed about fighting alongside Aragorn. On the playground, you were Han Solo’s niece with a blaster and a knack for fixing droids. I get it – I grew up the same way. These characters and these things stuck with you for a long, long time. They were folded into your personality, into your sense of self. I think this happens to everybody, geek or not. There was the kid who grew up wanting to be Bo Jackson or Michael Jordan, the guy who carried a copy of David Copperfield all through college, the girl who couldn’t stop watching My So-Called Life – all of these people have wrapped their self-image in with their heroes and heroines and stories. This is a fine thing to do – normal, even.
At some point, though, you need to know that somebody’s going to come along and try to capture the magic again. There are lots of reasons to do this – money, a love of the material, a desire to surpass what has been done before, etc.. In any event, they’re going to try. No matter how good it is, too, they’re probably going to fail with somebody. To some people, Michael Jordan is always going to be better than <whoever>, no one will ever capture the scope of Dickens in any other form, and all those other teen-dramas are just knock-offs. I met a guy once and we got to talking about James Bond. He hated Daniel Craig as Bond. His favorite? Roger Moore. Why? Roger Moore was cheesier, and that was what he liked. Seriously, that was his argument.
All of us have our ideal movie playing in our heads. It’s the thing we grew up with, it’s part of who we are. We can’t expect somebody else’s little movie in their head to match our own all the time, or even most of the time. What you consider ‘getting it right’ is inherently subjective. Will you hate Ben Affleck as Batman? Yeah, maybe. Maybe not – I bet you hated the idea of Heath Ledger as the Joker, too, and that was pretty stupid, wasn’t it (or do you think Mark Hamil is the perfect Joker? Jack Nicholson? Cesar Romero?)? In any event, the whole affair is no reason to get so upset. Just don’t go see the movie. You know you’re allowed to do that, right?
In the end, the thing I really want to tell people who get up in arms over how Hollywood ruined <blank> involves two additional things: First, that it isn’t like Hollywood erased the old thing (unless you’re George Lucas, but he gave us the originals back eventually), so just go back and watch that. Second, if you don’t like how they’re telling this story, tell it yourself. Nobody is ever going to make that movie you have in your head except you.
That’s half the reason I write, after all – nobody tells stories quite the way I would, so it’s up to me to tell them myself. Of course, being a writer isn’t for everybody – I understand that. You would think, though, that with that understanding people would elicit some degree of restraint in their criticism. If anybody ever asks you ‘could you do better’ and you can’t honestly say ‘yes’ (emphasis on honestly), maybe you shouldn’t be bitching so loudly. Furthermore, if the answer is yes, then go and do it.
For my money, I’m going to wait and see what Affleck does with the role. After all, you just never know and the worst that could happen has already happened. It’s called Daredevil.
Imagine a starship. Your ship. The steed that shall bear you to the stars and beyond, upon which you will rely for safety, comfort, support, and escape.
What does it look like?
Science fiction has given us a broad range of different designs and styles, but I think a lot of the ships we see boil down to a few riffs on the same couple variables (and a lot of them owing their origin to the difficult-to-escape legacy of the Star Wars universe). So, let’s run through them, bit by bit.
How big is this ship going to be? Is it a stunt fighter some psychic midget can yank out of a swamp, or is it some thing everybody will confuse for a small moon? The smaller ship is easier to maintain, but the larger ship has a bit more heft, has room for more options, carries more stuff, and is probably more comfortable.
Does your ship have the newest gadgets built into the fanciest hull yet devised by modern engineers, or is it a throwback – a hunk of junk that’s seen its share of battles, weathered a radiation storm or two? The new ship gets new toys – it cloaks, it has super-tractor beams, it goes faster than anything ever before, and so on. The old ship, though, has character. It’s more like a person than a vessel, from the way it creaks during re-entry or the way it pulls to the side when you try to climb out of the gravity well.
Do you fly this thing by yourself, or do you need friends? How many friends? You can have ten kilometer long starships run by one guy and his AI companion, and you can also have a ten meter ship that needs five people to operate its manually cranked solar sails (or something). Less crew gives you more freedom, but it also exposes you to the risk of being overwhelmed by space pirates or invasive aliens or whatever. More crew means you’ve got to manage personalities on long voyages, but at least you won’t be lonely and any trouble you run into will provide you with a bunch of folks to help you out. Heck, get that crew big enough, and soon they become redundant – lose an engineer? Well, there’s seventeen more where she came from!
Well, if it’s a starship, it has to be fast (interstellar distances don’t cross themselves, you know), but how fast? This one sees the greatest variations between vessels, ranging from telephone booths that teleport instantly to generation ships that take decades to reach their destination. Ultimately, though, any ship goes just about at the Speed of Plot, which is to say it goes just fast enough so that things happen and it doesn’t get boring. So, in other words, completely at odds with all other forms of travel known.
Is this a military vessel? A pirate ship? A smuggler? A garbage scow? Does it mount guns? How many? Where? Why? Some folks like their spaceships packed with phasers, proton torpedoes, railguns and the rest of it. Others prefer to use their wits and their diplomatic skills to avoid danger. After all, if you don’t carry guns, you are less likely to be shot. Then again, if you don’t carry guns and you are shot, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it. Invest in escape pods.
Well, what did you come out with?
For me, a ship is a story. It has to be. The age-old comic book store questions about ‘what ship would you rather have–the Enterprise, the Falcon, or Serenity?’ are filtered through a couple artificial lenses. I mean, if we were really handing out starships, I’d want one to myself that could travel instantly, never break down, and that could allow me to go in the backyard, have an adventure, and be back by suppertime (so, in other words, the TARDIS). That, though, isn’t a story by itself. It’s not interesting because there is no conflict, no problems, no difficulties – the story isn’t about the ship.
If we’re talking ‘what is cooler in the context of a story’, then we get into a more interesting conversation. I’m split down the middle between ’big military ship’ and ‘speedy, characterful smuggling ship’. In other words, I’m split down the middle between the Enterprise and the Falcon. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since almost every central starship in scifi history falls into one category or the other, with an honorable mention going to the starfighters/giant space robots of the universe (and they’re mostly extensions of the big military ship, anyway).
Why is this, anyway? I’m not sure, but my gut says that our starships are just reflections of our heroes, ultimately, and our heroes in these kind of stories so often are split between those that uphold the existing order (Captain Kirk) and those who seek to change or topple it (Han Solo) and, therefore, we get our ships – mobile symbols of our heroic ideals. Like so many tropes, though, it doesn’t need to be this way. The galaxy is a large place, after all. Let’s branch out and see what other stories our starships can tell us.
As usually happens with me, I just saw the movie Red as its sequel hit the theatres. Enjoyed the hell out of that movie, so I’ll probably go catch Red 2 by the time the third one is out or they’re releasing the 25th anniversary edition or something.
It occurred to me in watching this movie that one of the things that I loved about it is that all the heroes were old hands at their profession – they were the best of the best, with decades of history, coming out for one last hurrah. This always plays well with me and, indeed, it occurs to me that those are the kind of heroes I love. I like veterans, old pros, grizzled campaigners; I like to watch the young whipper-snappers underestimate how badass they are and get their butt handed to them. Most of my stories and novels feature such characters prominently, often in the starring role. When I play an RPG, I often play a character that once had their heyday, but now are fading with age or disillusionment or injury. I love giving them that leg-up on the opposition and I love all the trouble that having that many enemies (or friends!) brings with it.
It occurs to me that, to some extent, our heroes are often struck in one of two molds, of which the above description is one. They are either young, scrappy up-and-comers (Luke Skywalker) or older, more experienced, more cynical veterans (Han Solo). Granted there’s a lot of variation in there (more a spectrum than a dichotomy), but I do think the basic distinction has a lot of legs.
Your Luke Skywalker types have their future ahead of them. They are often thrust into a world they barely understand, but there’s something special about them that sees them through. We identify with these characters readily – they’re the underdog, and besides they seem so nice. We struggle along with them to retain their values and their heroic nature in the face of evil. We know they have great things in store for them, and so we want to be along for the ride. We can see this in Rothfuss’s Kvothe, in Jon Snow, in Harry Potter, and in just about every other YA Fantasy hero/heroine on the shelves.
For me, the drawback of the Skywalker approach is that one builds from the ground up. There seem to be fewer surprises hidden in the characters themselves and that makes them a little more predictable and gives them a little less depth. Of course, they trade this for clear goals and bold purposes. They are less hampered by cynicism.
Now, as somebody who struggles with cynicism myself, it is small wonder that I find the frequent optimism of the Luke character frustrating. Perhaps because I, myself, am somewhat embittered at the weight of the world, I find it easier to identify with someone who already knows this. Then again, I cheer just as hard for the Skywalkers when they do things right (Kvothe’s victories, especially, strike a chord in me that has me on my feet clapping). Still, I feel a disconnect with them. I don’t see myself as them. Oddly enough, I never did.
The Han Solos of the world, on the other hand, are right up my alley. I love their history. I love their old friends popping up. I love it when a character says ‘I know a guy who might be able to help’, since that guy is always going to mean trouble. The Hans get the best one-liners, romance all the more interesting women, and have the coolest mystique about them. People roll their eyes at Luke – he has to prove himself. Han just jerks his head at Chewie, and people shut the hell up.
The struggle of the Han Solo hero is the struggle of redemption. It’s the story of the comeback. What they’re coming back from varies – from the loss of their conscience or from the weight of age, or the like. Still, it’s a story I love watching. Here is where you find Conan the Barbarian, James Bond, Unforgiven‘s Ed Munny, Druss the Legend, Kvothe (oddly enough – read Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and you’ll get it), Tyrion Lannister, Locke Lamora, and so on.
For whatever reason, nothing makes me smile more than the veteran proving he still has it, or the retired assassin finding something to be hopeful about, or the old soldier putting together his life after the long war. I want them to fight their way out of the pit they dug themselves. I find that fascinating.
So, where do your favorite heroes lie on the age-and-experience spectrum? Are they more a Han or more a Luke? Why?
A lot of times, when people learn I write scifi/fantasy, one of the first questions I get is ‘why that genre’. It’s a pretty deeply personal question, though I don’t think most people realize this. Asking somebody why they create a certain kind of art is sort of like asking ‘why’d your brain wind up so weird?’, except cloaked behind more trivial and superficial kinds of curiosity. For a long time, I answered that question with the answer to the question of what I think people really meant to ask, which is ‘what is interesting about scifi/fantasy as a genre’. This is a different question entirely, in that it doesn’t really have anything specific to do with me.
Now, though, I give them what I think is an honest answer: I write scifi/fantasy because the real world is a place I don’t particularly like most of the time. This is not to say I’m a lunatic who only finds joy in his ‘delusions’ (to use the pejorative term), but rather that I have difficulty keeping an even temper and a positive outlook the more I wallow in the present and the real. When I was a kid, my younger brother was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder (Batten Disease, if you’re curious) that slowly killed him over a period of twenty years. During my formative adolescent years, I got to watch my brother and best friend slowly sink into a vegetative state, piece by piece, first losing his eyesight, then his fine motor control, then the ability to walk unassisted, then his ability to speak, and so on and so forth. Slowly. Year by year, month by month. I still have nightmares about it. They are the very worst kind, trust me.
Add to that all the usual horribleness of the real world. War, death, famine, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, and on and on and on. The kind of stuff that ordinarily makes your average teenager upset with the world. You can see now that fanciful alternatives held a certain appeal, yes?
Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve lived a particularly tough life. I haven’t. I have wonderful parents, a loving family, and, in many ways, luck as smiled on me in most of the ways that count. That said, my heart went through the wringer in a way I desperately hope most of you never experience.
Enough about me; let’s bring this back to speculative fiction, now. For a long period in my life, I read almost nothing other than space opera. Star Wars, of course, got me started, along with Star Trek and some other things (Babylon 5, Farscape, etc.). Over recent years, however, as I’ve been cultivating myself as a Serious Writer and Professor of Literature, I’ve been eschewing the ‘lighter’ stuff in favor of harder scifi, cyberpunk, and other styles that are more serious, more realistic, and, honestly, more grim. To be perfectly honest, most of these stories are better literature than much of the space opera sub-genre–there’s more interesting work being done about human nature, about what happens to us as a species, about what we need science to do or what we need it to stop doing, etc.. At the same time, though, they are also deeply tied to the real world. To ourselves. To all that ugliness and heavy-duty cynicism we fight with each and every day. It grows tiring after a time.
So, it’s with this running in the back of my mind that I stumbled upon what I think is a really, really cool idea for my own space opera universe. Alien species, improbably fast spaceships, laser beams and blasters, hell, maybe even psychic powers (silly as those are). High art? Maybe not, but who says everything has to be? Further, who says those things that aren’t high art don’t have something worthwhile to say? The challenge becomes, ultimately, to find something to say that all the other space operas haven’t already said (and boy do they ever repeat themselves). I’m in the middle of writing a different novel (urban fantasy) just now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tinker and develop and tweak and build. I want to see if there’s something cool and interesting I can do in this genre that I leaned upon for all those years. Can I do it?
Well, hell, stay tuned. If I do, you’ll hear about it here.
Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ’life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ’something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.
There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest of it, come what may, because Han and Chewie and Luke and Leia are your friends.
It happens again, at least for me, in Willow. There is Mad Martigan, still partially in drag, still loopy from the brownie’s true-love dust, getting screamed at by Willow (again), being charged by Nokmar soldiers…
…and then he gets a sword. Magic happens.
It happens with Indiana Jones running through the South American jungles in Raiders, it happens with Tyrion when he walks out of the Eyrie with a smile on his face, it happens with Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver, with Mal Reynolds and Buffy, with Kirk and McCoy – that single, almost unquantifiable thing that happens when you discover that you really do love these people. You could read stories about them forever, or so you think.
Yet, it isn’t really true.
How we fall in love and out of love with characters (or how we never manage to) is the sort of bottled lightning that probably every author seeks to capture. You try to make your characters relatable, flawed, but also idealized and perfect (somehow). You give them senses of humor, you have them complain about stuff just like a regular person, and then, once you’ve tied the audience to them as tightly as a ship to its anchor, you heave those characters overboard and watch the people squirm. When you watch Han let Lando borrow the Falcon to fly in the Battle of Endor, your heart is in your throat. You can scarcely look as the flames burn up around the cockpit as the ship is trying to make it out of the Death Star and then, for that brief fleeting moment that you think Lando is gone, your breathing stops. You’re frozen, almost as in grief for a real person, but before you can figure it out the ship shoots out into space, the music rises, and you’re there cheering.
Then, wierdly, you can find yourself down the road a bit and looking over the latest atrocious Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and find you no longer care. They lost you. You couldn’t care less if (Captain) Jack Sparrow is tossed over the side with cannonballs around his ankles ten minutes into the movie. Whatever. He’s just some fictional character now; you don’t know him from Adam.
What is the magic formula, then? How can you whip yourself up a batch of loveable characters and keep them that way? The fact is that the answer isn’t an easily quantifiable one. If it were, movies like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra or Cutthroat Island, which try so very hard, wouldn’t fail so miserably. If once you made it you kept it by default, I wouldn’t find myself reading A Dance with Dragons and deciding I don’t really care what happens to Tyrion anymore. There’s a kind of storytelling alchemy at work here, a theoretical paradigm we are all trying to achieve, and there seems to be no sure way to pull it off. Like the perfect game or the hole in one, it only happens once a career if you’re lucky.
But we all keep trying, don’t we? We want that moment where the audience cares for our characters as much as we do, but, like any loving parent, it is sometimes so very hard to see the flaws in those you love with all your heart.
You may have heard that there was a petition to the White House recently to advocate the construction of the Death Star. It received so many advocates, the White House was compelled to respond, and they produced this little gem.
This got me thinking about the purpose of building the Death Star in the first place, and whenever I do this, I invariably start wondering ‘why would the Empire do this?’ The Death Star would be enormously expensive to build, staff, maintain, and operate. It is essentially guaranteed to be plagued with design flaws, since what you’re doing is taking a design originally devised by Geonosians (who are hive-oriented, flying insectoid creatures) and adapting it to human occupants and then building it under contract from the lowest bidder. Also, if you find yourself in the midst of trying to quell a burgeoning rebellion, making a super-weapon that blows up planets is more likely to increase the sympathy for the Rebellion than decrease it.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go through this more methodically.
Blowing Up Planets? Why?
Okay, so the Death Star has the destructive power to blow up a whole planet’s mass. Fine. Here’s my question: Why is this necessary?
You don’t particularly need to destroy the actual physical mass of the planet, do you? Wouldn’t wiping out all life on the surface be sufficient? I would think so, since the thing you object to is not so much the sphere of matter upon which your enemies walk, but rather your enemies themselves. Killing everything on the surface of a planet isn’t really all that hard, when you consider that the Star Wars universe has access to things like tractor beams. Why shoot a super-laser when you can just get together a couple big tractor-beam ships and drag a huge asteroid on a collision course. Hell, you could just drag the asteroid over there, let her go, and BOOM–planet is screwed. This is bound to be cheaper and less prone to catastrophic failure. I mean, worse case scenario is your giant asteroid floats off and doesn’t hit the planet and you lose a few capital ships. You’re the Galactic Empire–you can soak that loss.
Then, even supposing you can blow up the planet and want to do so, that still makes it rather a bad idea. Planets, you see, are fairly useful entities to have around. Not only do they tend to contain things like minerals and water and so on, which are handy, they also act as good places to hide, establish bases, and are in all ways more useful than the massive debris field you’re seeking to replace them with. Seems like not the most efficient use of resources.
What About the Doctrine of Fear?
The whole reason the Death Star was built, though, wasn’t a tactical one; it was a political one. The idea was to create a weapon so damned scary that the whole galaxy would do what the Emperor wanted except without the need of a Senate to inconveniently disagree with him. It sounds okay on the surface, but it doesn’t actually work in practice. Never has. Sure, when the Death Star is in the neighborhood, folks will behave, but when it flies off somewhere, they’re still going to hate Palpatine’s guts. In fact, they seem all the more likely to help out (secretly of course) that rebellion that’s trying to overthrow the Empire. Why? Well, perhaps Machiavelli put it best:
…so long as you do not deprive [the people] of either their property or their honor, the majority of men live happily; and you only have to deal with the ambition of a few, who can be restrained without difficulty and by many means.
~Machiavelli, The Prince
What Machiavelli is getting at here is that you can do a lot of shit to people as their ruler and nobody will give you crap, but if you touch their homes or their families (specifically their spouses), they will go from simply being afraid of you to hating your guts. This a very, very important distinction. People who are afraid of you see there as being some chance of remaining on your good side indefinitely by simply listening to you, which will then allow them to live in relative peace. People who hate you have decided that there is no way they can live under your rule because they cannot tolerate your existence anymore. This happens if you blow up somebody’s planet (or somebody’s sister’s planet, or cousin’s, or wife’s, or if your kid was vacationing there).
Of note, most real-world despots who attempted to operate by the Doctrine of Fear have not come to good ends, and the speed with which they came to those bad ends was directly proportional to the amount by which the collected people of Earth hated their guts. The entire idea of rapacious tyranny has a long history of terrible, awful failure. It’s hard to imagine the Star Wars universe is substantially different.
Honestly, there is nothing wrong with the Imperial Fleet by itself. A fleet is hard to blow up all at once, you need it for a variety of purposes (not all of which are oppression related), it can do a number of things at the same time over a vast area, and, most importantly, you’ve already got one. The Death Star probably cost the same as, what, 150 Star Destroyers? Wouldn’t 150 additional Star Destroyers been a better buy? 150 Star Destroyers can destroy planets (or everything on top of them, and that’s what counts), they can be scary, and they are unlikely to go kablooey from one errant proton torpedo.
I imagine there were a couple accountants and high-level Imperial Bureaucrats who were thinking this, too. Of course, since they didn’t particularly relish being strangled by the Force, I’d bet they kept their mouths shut. Just goes to show, you should always ask your accountant’s honest advice before making massive investments like this. Then again, if Palpatine didn’t catch the hint the first time the Death Star exploded, I think we can safely say that a long and fruitful reign wasn’t in the cards for him.
Lots of people freaking out about Lucasfilm being sold to Disney today. Not that you asked, but here’s my take:
Everybody needs to chill out.
Seriously, this isn’t the end of the world. My argument goes as follows:
Disney Isn’t Such a Poor Steward
Disney, particularly in the last decade, has produced a lot of quality. You probably can’t accuse much of it of being ‘high art’, but neither is Star Wars, when you come right down to it. It’s space opera, which isn’t exactly rocket science (get it? No? Well…study your sub-genres, nerds) and is, exactly, melodrama. Do you know anyone consistently better at melodrama than Disney? Show of hands for all those who cried during Up (a Disney property)? How many of your hearts go all a-flutter when you hear the opening bars of “Circle of Life?”
Star Wars is melodrama; Disney has made melodrama a science. They got you covered.
It Isn’t Like Star Wars Was Doing Anything Good, Anyway
Let’s face it, George Lucas has become more machine now, than man. Twisted and evil. Is the Mouse better? I don’t know; I don’t really ascribe to those who accuse Disney of being the Great Satan. It’s a giant production company that churns out feel-good stories about self-discovery and adventure, that’s all. Lucas, however, has degenerated into ‘that guy who shoves more and more random effects into his otherwise decent movies.’ He hasn’t made a good movie in decades and I rather doubt he has one in him. What he has spent most of his time doing these past few years is seeing who will pay him to use his Star Wars franchise. We were never going to get an Episode VII out of the guy, so why are we complaining that someone bought him out and is now going to give us what we (presumably) want?
What’s that? You’re worried it might suck? Well, yes, it might. Then again, Star Wars sucks right now. Are you going to try and sell me on the argument that the prequel trilogy hasn’t already bled away any warm feelings we still had towards the original trilogy? Bah. Stuff and nonsense. I would provisionally make the argument that Star Wars hasn’t produced a top-of-the-line entry since Return of the Jedi. Some of the books were okay, the Clone Wars cartoon series was fun, but nothing has successfully caught that lightning in the bottle since. Disney probably can’t, either, but so what if they don’t? Disney can’t do any worse than has already been done.
It Is Physically Impossible For Star Wars to Become Any More Commercial
If you want to make the argument that Disney will ‘cheapen’ the Star Wars brand, you need to throw yourself out a window. That simply isn’t possible. Star Wars has sold itself out in every single conceivable way it can think of. Hell, that’s probably much of the reason Disney bought it; they looked at it and said ‘hell, our work’s already done!’ You’ve eaten the breakfast cereal, worn the underoos, and bought all fifteen versions of the same damn movie; you have no dignity left to sell, guys.
It Might, Maybe, If We’re Really Lucky…Be AWESOME.
This is a new day for Star Wars. Change for this bloated, stagnant, decaying franchise is a good thing. All of that nostalgia we feel for Lucasfilm is just so much rose-tinted glass and all-too-human fear of change. Get past it. If you really love Star Wars, you know something like this was bound to happen – had to happen, dammit. Yeah, we would have preferred Lucas, in a fit of socialist madness, made the whole damned thing Open License (then I’d get to do this or this), but we all know that was about as likely as Santa Claus kicking in our door and giving us an actual flying pony for our 40th birthday. Passing the torch is the next best thing. There are talented people at Disney and it’s affiliates – young, hungry people with stories left to tell and the imagination and funding to make it happen. Let’s sit back and watch – it may just be the best thing ever.
Now, if you want to argue about whether Disney owning all the fun is a good idea in general, that’s a slightly different discussion. Just because they have all the good IP, that doesn’t mean they’ll mistreat them while under their care. It just means they’ll sue us if we mess with them.
Or, I guess, unless we pony up 5 billion dollars and put in a phone call.