This Thursday evening, if you’re in the greater Boston area, I’ll be delivering a short talk and Q&A about science fiction and fantasy at the Ames Free Library! The event starts at 6:30; I’ll read a bit, talk a bit, and answer questions. Come on by!
A couple Thursdays after that, on Feb. 18, Pandemonium Books and Games will host a three-author event in which Charles Stross, Walter Jon Williams, and I will choose champions from the audience to fight to the death with boffer swords (it’s possible to kill someone with a boffer sword, you just have to work harder), or else possibly discuss our books, fantasy, science fiction, and whatever insanity occurs to us at the moment.
I, the World’s Slowest Television Human, am five episodes into Jessica Jones now, and still loving it. Specific greatnesses: how Ritter’s dialogue is beat-for-beat noir, the show’s constant and self-conscious gender-inversion of noir tropes, the soundtrack, Luke, Trish, Jessica, Tenant as a subversion and commentary on his Doctor… Also, I like how the show abandons the easy procedural formula for a more subtle, HBO-ish “introduce specific series relevant problem-solve specific series relevant problem” structure, to preserve tone and pacing. (Trying to feature a new case every episode would feel too tight for the noir pacing JJ wants to imitate, IMO—this was basically my only problem with Veronica Mars s1: the procedural elements frequently forced a pace too up-tempo for non-noir. Which was fine for VM, which wanted to be a combination of noir and Nancy Drew, was fine! But JJ wants to be a pure-play antihero noir, as far as I can tell, and it’s succeeding brilliantly.)
Kaitlin Tremblay’s survey of friendship in video games, and the power of lack of romance, plays into a line of thought I’ve been developing since Agent Carter blew my mind open last year, about the radical nature of friendship. One day soon, probably after I finish a draft of this book, expect to see a long essay from me on this subject.
My next few months are a little wild. I’m writing a book now; after I’m finished with a draft of this I’ll start drafting another book. I’ll keep to my once-a-week schedule, but for the near term, expect slightly fewer four thousand word pieces of RPG neepery. Apologies for that. I’m fighting to restore your regularly scheduled neepery service with all due speed.
Speaking of which, get on board with The Witch Who Came In From The Cold. Cassandra Rose Clarke’s written our second episode, out today—and the plot continues to thicken. Subscribe now!
For the last nine months I’ve been working on another Serial Box project, in addition to Bookburners, and I’m overjoyed to share it with you now: Spies. Witchcraft. Prague. 1970. Lindsay Smith. Ian Tregellis. Cassandra Rose Clarke. Yours truly. And—MICHAEL SWANWICK! The Witch Who Came In From The Cold is Serial Box’s foray into magic-and-stale-beer spy fantasy, back-alley betrayals, and occasional golem-fighting, is all-around awesome. Here’s the description:
While the world watches the bitter rivalry between East and West fester along the Iron Curtain, the Consortium of Ice and the Acolytes of Flame continue waging their ancient war of magic. Kept to the shadows, this secret contest crosses the lines of politics and the borders of nations with impunity – the intrigues of spies may know clear sides but the battles of witches spill out over all. Tanya Morozova is a KGB officer and the latest in a long line of Ice witches and sorcerers; Gabe Pritchard is a CIA officer and reluctant Ice recruit. Enemies at one turn, suspicious allies at the next, their relationship is as explosive as the Cold War itself.
And here’s the trailer!
Witch has been enormous and twisted fun to write, from the tangled feints-within-feints of the first story summit all the way through the nail-biting end. We have some fantastic villains here, and heroes I love to write for, and everything in between.
David Hartwell, giant of science fiction, is in critical condition. Kathryn Cramer announced on social media yesterday that David suffered “a massive brain bleed and is not expected to recover.”
David bought my first novel. I met him at ReaderCon in, it must have been 2010—a handshake and a smile and a shirt-and-tie combo you could see halfway across the galaxy. A friend told me about David’s first con as an editor: showing up with suitcases full of books he spent the entire weekend giving out to people. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. I’m not unique in that respect. Without him, this would be a different field. I’ve had five years of discovering new reasons, each time I met the guy it seems, to be awed by who David is, and who he’s worked with.
And he was a good human being. David told me, as I was freaking out after the release of my first book, feeling crushed and insignificant, that the best thing any new author could do was go to conventions and enjoy themselves. It helped. One of my first real conversations with him revolved around his concern for an aging friend. He’s loyal, and charming, and he builds, and he has the best damn ties.
My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family.
I tried writing this post in the WordPress app, because Apps are the Wave of the Future of course, but when I clicked *publish*, the app said “a scheduling error has occurred” and promptly ate my entire post. On the one hand, rassum frassum. (Which I had to wrestle with Autocorrect to properly type, it seems to think I really want to say “reassume Crassus.” I’m not entirely certain what that means.) On the other hand, I’m realizing just how long it’s been since a device just up and ate my words like that. Time marches on, I suppose. The question is, in what direction?
Cutting to the point: I’ll be in Boston and Detroit in Official Public Person capacity in the next two weeks! Come see me and hang out and stuff!
Arisia! Boston, MA (Waterfront Westin), Jan 15-19
I’ll be at the con Saturday and Sunday at least, and helping out at the Choice of Games booth. Sah hello if you’re in the neighborhood!
Saturday, 5:30 pm
Cultural Assumptions in SF/F – Literature, Panel – 1hr 15min – Burroughs (3E) Recent novels such as The Three Body Problem, The Grace of Kings, and Throne of the Crescent Moon join other works that challenge the cultural assumptions behind mainstream (American and English) science fiction and fantasy. How are these genres being reimagined beyond just making the space cowboys swear in Mandarin?
John Chu (m), Max Gladstone, Crystal Huff, Kiini Ibura Salaam, John Scalzi
Sunday, 11:30 am
Steven Universe: We’ll Always Find a Way – Media, Panel – 1hr 15min – Burroughs (3E) Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe has been a breakout hit for Cartoon Network. The first series on the network created by a woman, it tells powerful, funny, and moving stories in tiny doses, and has dealt uncompromisingly with issues around gender, childhood, and family in ways both unexpected and delightful. It’s also telling a great long-form adventure story. We’ll talk about all elements of this show in a panel that, like the show itself, will appeal to fans of all ages.
Cassandra Lease (m), Gillian Daniels, Max Gladstone, Juliet Kahn, Cody Mattes
Sunday, 4:00 pm
Pratchett and His Death – Literature, Panel – 1hr 15min – Burroughs (3E) Terry Pratchett, tragically lost to us this year, had a unique relationship with Death. Over the course of his Discworld novels, he created a Death who felt like a friend. Death winds through the books with a sense of comfort, showing us that we should not be afraid, we’re merely starting on a different journey. At this panel, we’ll discuss Death and the other great characters and works of Pratchett.
Christopher Davis (m), Vikki Ciaffone, Max Gladstone, Sharone Horowit-Hendler, A.J. Odasso, Sarah Smith
Sunday, 7:00 pm
Surviving Manliness: Detoxifying Masculinity – Literature, Panel – 1hr 15min – Marina 2 (2E)
Harry Dresden, James Bond and the Winchester brothers seem to suffer more from a kind of toxic masculinity than they do from their antagonists. Many characters who suffer from their manliness seem mired in the same mistakes over and over. This panel is about characters who find a healthier path. What stories and characters provide examples we can use to find a different path in a time of changing expectations on all people, regardless of gender expression?
Erik Amundsen (m), William Ian Blanton, Max Gladstone, Daniel José Older, Sarah Weintraub
Mass Tor author signing and tomfoolery! A grand slate of Tor books authors will be signing at the Livonia Barnes & Noble at 111 Haggerty Road in Northville, MI—John Scalzi, VE Schwab, Greg Van Eekhout, Wes Chu, Susan Doyle, yours truly… You can come to this event even if you’re not a member of the convention, so drop on by! We’ll have a grand time.
Saturday, 10:00 am
The Fiction of Political SF – Leelanau
Most “political” science fiction doesn’t really deal with politics, it deals with the setting out of ideologies. In other words, it tells stories that have little to do with running a government. The result is a debate of ideas where the political is described by greed and corruption, but never the merely bureaucratic. Why are these tropes recycled time and again? How can politics be approached in a more authentic way and remain interesting to readers?
Kameron Hurley, Patrick Tomlinson, Justin Landon (m), Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone
Saturday, 2:00 pm
Beyond the Hero’s Journey – Charlevoix
Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey in 1949 and it has become the default character arc of western writers for the past sixty years. But, there are many human experiences beyond heroism as narrowly defined by Campbell. What narrative types exist beyond the Hero’s Journey? And why aren’t they more widely used?
Cameron McClure, Brian McClellan, Max Gladstone, Miriam Weinberg (M), Paul Kemner
Saturday, 4:00 pm
Saturday, 5:00 pm
Generations of Genre – Isle Royale
For one reader, “traditional fantasy” is pre-Tolkienian, pre-genre, sui-generis works; for another, it’s Forgotten Realms and David Eddings. Equally, for one reader The Hunger Games is a young adult dystopia, while for another it’s science fiction. Can the evolution of such terms be mapped onto changing demographics — is there such a thing as GenX fantasy, or Baby Boomer science fiction? And do any terms retain their currency, and describe common ground across generations?
Laura Resnick, Steve Buchheit, Lynne M. Thomas, Max Gladstone (M), Stina Leicht
Saturday, 6:00 pm
It’s the Economy, Stupid! – Leelanau
National economies are complicated. Far more complicated than Dark Lords and Evil Queens. Nevertheless, books like James SA Corey’s The Expanse series and Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor manage to use economic pressures to create compelling motivations and narrative tension. What are the essential parts for a story built around economics? What’s appealing about these kinds of stories and do the resonate more today than they did a decade ago?
Carl Engle-Laird, Max Gladstone, Kameron Hurley, Ann Leckie, Brent Weeks
And that’s all, folks! I look forward to seeing some of you in the next few weeks.
Good morning 2015! I’ve been so busy vacating that I forgot to write my Star Wars Geekery post! So here we go.
To start off: Uncanny Magazine published an essay of mine about how Star Wars shaped science fiction. You can read it here; it covers a lot of ground, but it starts like this:
I was in high school when Star Wars: Episode I hit theaters.
And I was psyched.
At this point only one magic word would convince me to lay down my dish pit money, and that word was “lightsabers.” I owned every Star Wars comic Dark Horse ever published. I can still give you a beat–for–beat account of the Tragedy of Ulic Qel–Droma. I thought Nomi Sunrider was a fantastic character name. (I still kind of do.) There’s a dude in those comics who is a tree, and a Jedi who is a rhinoceros, and they’re fantastic. I owned all the EU books. I played the tabletop RPG. I watched fanvids obsessively; I still would basically melt if I ever met Kevin Rubio face to face.
I saw The Force Awakens on opening night, and the movie was enormous fun—even more fun the second viewing than the first. My Thursday evening pre-release felt incredibly stressful: having been burned before, I held each scene up to the light and turned it ’round, thinking, am I really enjoying this, or just telling myself I am? I backed away and re-approached each scene from different angles. I poked fingers through plot holes, I wondered why Starkiller Base left me cold, I critiqued cause-and-effect storytelling, and I walked away satisfied with the whole and excited by its parts (All the new characters! Han and Chewie! Carrie Fisher!). The second time through, knowing the story’s bones set right, knowing there was no Jar-Jar—using Jar-Jar here metonymically for the myriad oddnesses of the prequel trilogy—I let myself go, and felt all the rush I didn’t let myself feel the first time. Drama and emotions built! Storylines progressed! I cared. I cared enough for my storytelling hindbrain to start fixing issues I’d thought were irreconcilable on first viewing. And for the first time in a long while, I’m excited about telling stories in the Star Wars universe again.
I think part of my excitement stems from how open the universe feels. A lot of the setting power of the Original Trilogy rises from its focus on the Imperial Periphery. We see the edges of power, where the Empire projects force and interesting stuff happens, where the destinies of nations hinge on a single battle or moral choice, rather than the metropole, which corners more slowly if at all. The prequel trilogy’s political ambitions tangled its story with the engines of power that drive the Galaxy Far, Far Away—and limited its characters to maneuvering within those engines, rather than “taking the first step into a wider world.”
Of course, I’m the last person on the planet to decry storytelling about metropolitan politics—that’s the Craft Sequence in a nutshell—but itinerant adventure-having Jedi aren’t a great lens for that sort of story. The cinematic Jedi tool is the lightsaber; think about how often people in Lincoln, say, or The West Wing, draw swords. The Prequel trilogy shows Jedi crushed by a political machine whose workings they barely appreciate. (It’s been funny to read the small flight of essays that hit the web in the leadup to TFA about how “ZOMG upon revisiting the prequel trilogy Palpatine’s plot TOTALLY MAKES SENSE;” the problem with those movies was never the mechanics or inscrutability of Palpatine’s plot—I mean, weren’t its rough outlines pretty obvious starting in the Phantom Menace? The films’ problems lay in direction, storytelling, screenwriting, characterization, occasional failures of actor chemistry, a Hobbit trilogy level disconnect between the cinematic approach and the story being told… But that’s another essay.)
Anyway, my point is that stories about the workings of political machinery tend to be dense and contextual, offering little room for sideline storytelling. (Though it does exist.) By contrast, OT Star Wars and TFA Star Wars are set in Casablanca—a contorted mess of Lego blocks replete with foundations onto which we can build our own stories, an embarrassment of dramatic stakes for us to mold into new characters.
Which, of course, started me thinking about gaming. The core TFA cast stat up really easily in the old West End Games Star Wars d6 system. In fact, every dramatic beat in the story (save, arguably, one) is totally rules justifiable! I know some people have been kvetching about imbalance, specifically w/r/t Rey, so let’s walk through some of the pivotal table interactions in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and see how unfounded that claim is.
(I’m about to start in on the really detailed spoilers here, by the way. Like, beat by beat spoilers.)
(Last warning. Turn back now.)
(NB also: I played so much SWd6 that rules-as-written and generations of master-student house rules are all kind of mushed together in my head. I’m doing my best to ensure the interactions below are consistent with the system, but I’ve probably mucked something up somewhere along the line.)
Okay so, this is about to get really nerdy, even for me.
SWd6, if you’ve never played it before, is my favorite system for Star Wars roleplaying. (I haven’t played the ‘new,’ as in several years old, Fantasy Flight engine yet; I’ll pick it up soon, but I have to run a Tenra Bansho Zero game and a Night’s Black Agents game first, and maybe Primetime Adventures.) SWd6’s great strength is its flexibility: rather than choosing character classes (e.g. ‘I’m a level 7 Jedi,’ which sounds pretty goofy no matter how you slice it), you build your character with a mix of stat and skill dice. Starting human player characters split 18 dice between the following stats:
Dexterity (Everything that involves coordination and speed)
Strength (Everything that involves grit & brute force)
Technical (Fixin’ stuff)
Mechanical (Usin’ stuff)
Knowledge (Knowin’ stuff)
Perception (Seein’ or feelin’ stuff)
Whenever your character wants to do something that seems like it qualifies under a particular stat, you roll the number of six sided dice you’ve assigned to that stat. So, say, Jane wants to build her Stormtrooper, Finn. Stormtroopers are good at shooting things (they are, honest, most of the time we see Stormtroopers in the OT miss it’s because they’ve been explicitly ordered not to hit things). Human stats range between 2D and 4D; Jane starts with 4D in Dexterity, for zapping things and dodging, 3D in Mechanical, which covers using large gun emplacements, and maybe 4D in Perception, which is rolled to determine who goes first in combat. So, we’re at 11D; Finn only has seven dice left! But it makes sense that a brainwashed Stormtrooper wouldn’t know much about the galaxy, and he probably wouldn’t have much technical knowledge—that’s why the First order has an engineering corps, after all. So, 2D each in Tech and Know, and 3D in Strength, which seems about right for a stormtrooper.
Then the player splits seven skill dice among those stats, which give her character advantages in specific areas of expertise. For example, Jane thinks, Finn’s had extensive and focused military training, let’s give him and extra +2D in Blaster (Dex), +1D in Dodge (Dex), +1D in Brawl (Str), +1D in Starship Gunnery (Mech), +1D in Survival (Know), +1D in Running (Dex). So, when Jane wants Finn to shoot at someone, she’s rolling 6D (4D dex + 2D blaster).
Meanwhile, Rey’s player builds her. Rey needs Tech for scavenging, which would be a Capital Starship Repair roll, so 4D there, maybe 3D in Mech, 4D in Dex because that’s where you have running and melee combat, 2D in Knowledge because she’s lived on the back-end of space forever, 2D in Strength, to which we’ll add skill dice for climbing and jumping around old spaceships, and that leaves 3D for Perception. Rey wants to be good at thumping things with a stick, at languages, at climbing, to have a strong will, and to be able to pilot cheap spaceships, so: +1D Melee (Dex), +2D Languages (Know), +2D climbing (Str), +2D willpower (Perc), and +1D Space Transports (Mech). This is a lot of Willpower, but Rey’s player likes arguing that Willpower should let her do things like evade wound penalties. So. Hooray!
In the first session, Finn breaks Poe out, and they run for Jakku. Finn’s manning the guns, rolling 4D to hit (Starship Gunnery of 4D)—which is a decent amount, enough to hit a capital-ship scale target. Good times!
Later, when Finn and Rey are trying to escape a First Order assault, they end up in a shockingly maneuverable (given how crap it looks) YT-1300 freighter, pursued by TIE fighters. Finn’s having a much harder time hitting the TIEs than he had against the gun emplacements—Imperial NPC job-relevant skills tend to hover around 5D for convenience. Hit vs. dodge is a simple opposed die roll—so on average, the TIE pilots have no problem dodging Finn. They can even fire back at the same time, since Star Wars d6 has a permissive multiple-actions-per-round system: you just subtract 1D from each action you want to perform, for each action you want to perform beyond the first. So, a TIE fighter that wants to dodge and fire in the same round is rolling 4D for each, assuming 5D starfighter gunnery and 5D starfighter piloting. This is a good deal for Rey, since she’s only flying the space freighter at 4D!
But there are too many fighters, so Rey decides to fly toward the wreck of a crashed Star Destroyer she knows well. That way, the TIEs will have to roll piloting to evade rubble, dodge to evade Finn’s guns, and gunnery, if they want to fire. Of course, Rey will have to split her action between piloting through the rubble and dodging blasters—but Rey argues that, since she’s familiar with the Star Destroyer wreckage, she should have an easier time navigating it than the TIE pilots. The GM, feeling that this is a good argument, says Rey’s piloting roll is Moderate difficulty, while the TIE’s is Difficult; if Rey rolls an 11 or above on her three dice, she succeeds, while the TIEs need 15-20 on their three dice, which is very hard.
Hitting an eleven on three dice is a little better than average, but Rey decides to chance it, especially since one of those three dice is the Wild Die—a feature of the game. If you roll a 6 on the Wild Die, you get to roll again, and add that result to your total. So! Rey rolls well, and between the TIEs rolling 3d6 against Finn’s 4d6 Starship Gunnery, and 3d6 against the Difficult terrain, they’re left with a single TIE pursuer. Awesome! Unfortunately, one of the TIEs had an exploding wild die on their Starship Gunnery roll, and hit Finn’s gun turret; the guns are frozen in a forward position! Now the TIE is only rolling two actions: Starfighter Piloting against the terrain, and Gunnery against Rey’s piloting, 4D against 4D, with Rey’s freighter already damaged!
Rey decides this needs to be dealt with fast. First, Rey dives into the Star destroyer wreckage, which she argues increases the DC by the same amount for each pilot—so Rey’s rolling 4D and looking for a 15-20. Not easy! But the TIE, which follows, decides he’d rather roll 5D against a DC 20-25 than risk rolling 4D piloting to get a 4D shot at Our Heroes.
At which point:
Rey: “Finn’s guns are jammed forward, right?”
Jane: “I can’t move them at all.”
Rey: “Can I pilot the ship to set up his shot?”
GM: “Um. That’d be a Hard roll at least.”
Rey: “Well, that’s why I have these character points.”
Character points are a sort of player currency: they can be used to increase skills between adventures with GM permission, or spent during an adventure to add one die to any roll, and each character point die rerolls on a 6. Characters start with 3 CP; Rey spends all three, rolling 7D, for an average of ~21. One of the character point dice comes up 6, then 4, and the TIE fighter is in Finn’s sights.
Character points, by the way, are only one of the two forms of player currency in SWd6. The other, the Force Point, is much more powerful—but also riskier. Characters that are not Force sensitive start with only one; characters that are, start with two. A Force point, spent, doubles the number of dice a player rolls for her next action. But Force force points are gained and recovered in an unpredictable fashion: a Force Point spent for evil ends is lost, and the character gains a Dark Side point. A Force Point spent for selfish ends is lost forever. A Force Point spent for heroic ends is earned back at the end of the adventure. A Force Point spent in above-the-call-of-duty heroics at the dramatically appropriate moment, is earned back with interest: the player gets two Force Points back at the end of the adventure. The GM has sole authority over the Force Point economy. Players using a Force Point should feel scared, and brave, but feel what they’re doing is worth the risk.
Anyway. Here we are: Finn fires.
We’ll skim forward. (Lots of role-playing ensues; Rey rolls a 1 on her Wild Die while attempting to close the blast doors to save Han, which releases the Big Squiggly Monsters, which Finn spends several turns trying to brawl with to save himself.) The battle on Moz’s planet is pretty simple: Rey gets the drop on a Stormtrooper and hits him with her 4D Dex stat. Finn gets to use a lightsaber! Lightsabers in SWd6 are dangerous, but not impossible, for non-Jedi to use: you roll either Lightsaber combat, which is Dex, or Melee Weapons, also Dex, depending on which edition of the rules you’re playing with. A house rule my group played with was, if you roll a 1 on your Wild Die while using a lightsaber, you deal Lightsaber damage to yourself—which is Bad News Bears, since Lightsabers roll a minimum of 5D damage against your Puny Human strength of 2D or 3D, and if you fail your roll by 9-12, you’re Incapacitated. Fail by 16, and you’re killed outright.
Jedi have an edge, however: the Lightsaber Combat skill, which, well, is a bit broken. Here’s how Force Powers work: there are three Force Skills, Control (used to control your own body), Sense (used to sense the world around you), and Alter (used to control the world around you). Lightsaber combat is a Jedi power that involves rolling both Control and Sense; if the Jedi succeeds at both rolls, she adds her Sense die to her skill with Lightsaber or Melee Weapons, and her Control die to damage. So, a Jedi with Control 3D, Sense 2D, and Lightsaber 5D rolls 7D to hit and 8D damage. Which is a lot. This will be relevant later!
Anyway, Finn does fine rolling his 4D Dex with the saber, until he runs into a Stormtrooper who actually has spent points on Melee Weapons, at which point, Yipe! Things turn bad. But, like I said, skimming forward.
So, Rey’s captured by Kylo Ren. Ren’s an interesting character: he’s a powerful Dark Side Force user, but most of the cool stuff we see him do, like grabbing folks and snatching blaster bolts in midair, involves a lot of Alter. His telepathic interrogation’s clearly him being pretty good at Sense, but it’s also difficult—trembling hand, intense focus, etc, compared to the offhand way he tosses people around with Alter. The Receptive Telepathy power is actively resisted by Perception, or possibly Willpower depending on house rules; if the Jedi doesn’t double the target’s roll, she can only read surface thoughts, which explains Ren’s chatty, “Don’t think of pink elephants” approach to interrogation. Let’s give Ren a very uneven, Dark-Side-y build: say 5D Alter, 3D sense, 1D control.
Ren’s 3D sense isn’t getting much of anywhere against Rey’s 6D Willpower; it has trouble even against her 4D Perception. And, by the way—the GM decides this is a dramatically appropriate moment for Rey’s player to acquire some Force Skills, if she wants ’em. This is, after all, her first exposure to the Force!
Rey’s player has been saving up character points for just such an emergency. There’s a bit of confusion in the rules as to how, exactly, you “buy into” the Force after character creation, but let’s say the GM lets her buy 1d in each Force skill for 3 character points each. Nine CP, and Rey has 1D Control, 1D Sense, 1D Alter. And the first thing she decides to do, is use the Receptive Telepathy power to try to read Ren’s mind back. Ren doesn’t even know she’s Force sensitive, so he doesn’t actively resist. Rey spends a couple more character points to boost her Sense roll to 3D and rolls into Ren’s mind. This is awesome, so the GM gives her a character point back. We’ll say Rey is left with 5 CP; we’re three sessions into the adventure (Jakku, Han’s ship, Moz’s Place), and 5CP/session is a reasonable average.
Getting herself out of restraints is harder. Rey’s player knows the Force can have a strong influence on the weak minded, and knows that the Stormtroopers are weak minded, but Rey doesn’t know much about the Force yet; she doesn’t have a clear power list. The GM asks her to roll Control, Sense, and Alter; he makes a few notes, but says she fails: the Trooper’s mind is too strong. She tries again; she describes bending her will against him, forcing him to obey her, and spends a character point on each roll. The GM tells her she succeeds. The GM keeps his ominous smile to himself, and gives Rey a character point.
Kylo Ren has been hit by a Bowcaster bolt. Bowcasters do *serious* damage (we put it at 5D, but that might have been a house rule), and it looks like Ren’s Puny Human Strength hovers at 2D. He *should* be wounded or incapacitated, but he’s using a Force Power called “Control Pain” to, well, do exactly what it says on the tin; keeping that power running costs him 1D on every action, but at least he can act. Finn and Rey are running away; Ren follows them. Bringing up Lightsaber Combat requires a Control roll (he’s at 0D) and a Sense roll(2D), and keeping Lightsaber Combat up costs another 1D per round, but Ren figures it’s worth the extra net +1D to his Lightsaber skill rolls. He smashes Rey into a tree (even with his penalties, 5D is still a lot of Alter), and faces Finn. Let’s figure he’s rolling 8D for Lightsaber, counting the Lightsaber Combat bonus. Finn’s still rolling 4D Melee. He spends character points attacking Ren, but Ren out-averages him heavily; onscreen, Ren’s clearly dominating the fight, taking time out for blade flourishes. (Finn’s player considers using a blaster, but remembers how easily Ren deals with those.)
Ren uses his Lightsaber rolls to back Finn against a tree, and starts toying with him, wounding him in the shoulder. At the last extremity, Finn’s player recognizes that Fighting the Dark Side is totally heroic, and spends a Force Point, doubling Finn’s Melee to 8D. Finn hits! Ren Controls Pain *again*, spending his last character points to boost his Control skill from zero to 3D so he can make the check. Now he’s keeping up three powers: Lightsaber combat, and 2x. Control Pain. And he’s done toying around. He hits the already-Wounded Finn for full damage; Finn’s Wound gives him -1D to his Strength roll to soak the lightsaber. He 1s the Wild Die and goes down, Mortally Wounded. The lightsaber falls in the snow.
Kylo Ren reaches for the lightsaber with the Force, because why not? He’s at 2D to Alter, counting cumulative penalties, and he rolls low. But, who else is around to stop him?
She wakes up, spends two character points, and her 3D beats Ren’s weaksauce 2D roll no problem. The saber zips through the air to her waiting hand. This is fucking awesome. The table (Poe, Finn, BB-8) cheers!
Rey’s rolling 5D melee against Ren’s 7D saber. Tense times. They trade blows; Ren’s beating her, on average. She tries to run, using her Climbing to get better position, but Ren follows. As the terrain shifts, Ren backs her against a cliff. “I’ll teach you to use the Force.”
Use the Force. Rey’s scared. She’s angry. She closes her eyes, like Moz told her. She spends a Force point. And the Force, by which I mean the GM, offers her more power: the power to fight back, the power to stop Ren.
Rey calls upon the Dark Side.
Calling upon the Dark Side is an easy Perception roll, the first time you try it—and the difficulty increases by three each time. Calling upon the Dark Side gives you a free Force point for immediate use, in addition to any Force Points you may have spent already. The most conservative reading of the doubling rules suggest that Rey is now rolling three times her usual die codes. And she gains a Dark Side Point, which will stain her soul until she makes amends. She’s started down the Dark path, and forever will it dominate her destiny.
“But,” you say, “Rey doesn’t fall to the Dark Side.”
She doesn’t fall, no, she doesn’t turn evil. But watch that scene again. She closes her eyes. She reaches for the Force. And when she opens her eyes again, she snarls. She beats Ren back with brute strength and vicious, choppy saber-blows, like Luke used in Return of the Jedi when the Dark Side tempted him. When Ren’s forced to his knees, she circles him with the Dark Side stalk. Daisey Ridley delivers a perfect physical quote of Ray Park’s Darth Maul.
In game terms, she’s rolling 15D. She makes four attacks that round at 12D each, smashing through Ren’s defense. He falls. She almost finishes the job, but the ground erupts beneath her and she runs.
Rey carries the fight. Saves Finn. (Who gets his Force Point back, and maybe gets another one, too—fighting a Dark Jedi on your own, without Force powers? There’s a solid argument for suicidal self-sacrifice here.) Rey gets her Force point back, though she doesn’t get another one. Rey finds the map; she ventures out to Skellig Michael, climbs several thousand stone steps, and meets Luke.
Who, after years of isolation after his Academy failed and his students fell to the Dark Side, turns around to see a young Force Sensitive woman, holding out a lightsaber, desperate for training, scared and awed and eager. And in her heart: the touch of the Dark Side of the Force.
Violins swell. Credits roll.
Rey’s rule mechanics are more interesting than those of, say, Finn, or Poe, or BB-8, but they’re still clear. Everything she does fits easily within a straightforward build and a decent grasp of the rules.
Han firing the Bowcaster, though, now that makes no sense. IIRC humans aren’t strong enough to use them, the kickback alone…. But that’s another post for another day.
I’m listening to ‘A Long December’ for the first time in 2015.
I don’t let myself listen to this song much. I tend to melancholy; if I didn’t impose some rules I’d wander around in a haze of mono no aware 24/7. I’d go full Toreador, and you never go full Toreador. But if there’s a time for listening to a song about looking back, and looking forward, it’s the hinge of the year, and this has been a year of moments for holding on. A lot of what’s happened is too personal for the public space: friendships forged and built, relationships deepened, communities cultivated, and a general development in directions I’ve never moved before, even as (and possibly because) I’ve written a truly enormous amount, for me anyway.
There’s a story that before 1905, before Einstein, the scientific establishment regarded physics as essentially a solved problem. There were a few weird corners to finish filling in, some shading to correct—that pesky perihelion of Mercury, for example—but we thought we understood the world in which we lived, at the macro scale. And we understood so little! What we thought was the world was in fact the corner; what we thought was the corner was in fact the world. Adulthood, or this reasonable facsimile of it I’m growing into, feels like that for me. I keep turning around and realizing how much more there is out here. I’m thirty-one now. When I was younger, I expected to have everything figured out by this point. I didn’t even know, back then, what there was to figure out.
But all that stuff is too big to tackle in one essay, so I’ll focus on one particularly cool aspect of the year.
In June of 2014, I caught dinner with my friend Chris, who mentioned that he was taking a year to read exclusively books by women. That seemed an interesting and praiseworthy project; I had initial doubts, but I know well enough to suspect those doubts, so I sat with the idea for a while.
There were minor professional issues: I read my own books, and I receive books to review and blurb, some of which are by dudes, and I receive friends‘ books to beta read, and some of my friends are dudes. Any reading project, then, would need a touch of flexibility for professional commitments. That said, I don’t read particularly quickly—about a book a week, if they’re not terribly long books—and the dynamics of kyriarchy are such that I might find myself unconsciously prioritizing books by dudes that I “had” to read. Tack three or four “haves” together, and all of a sudden I would have abandoned my project for a month or two. Also, I wanted to read more widely across a number of spectrums, of which gender was only one.
In the end, I settled on a related project: I wouldn’t read two books by straight white cis men back to back. (I excluded graphic novels, since I read a trade paperback in under an hour.) I started late that summer. 2015 has been my first full year of this approach.
The easy executive summary is that this project hasn’t changed my reading habits much at all. I’m still reading fantastic books by authors I know and love, and uncovering new authors at the same pace. I expected I’d have to adjust my reading patterns a lot to compensate; in fact I’ve rarely had to delay reading something I wanted by even so much as a week.
But there are subtle differences, and they bear mentioning.
I’ve been slightly less likely to reread series by white dudes. Not that I go on series kicks much in general—I think my last was in college, if you don’t count a Name of the Wind reread before Wise Man’s Fear hit shelves—but I, for example, did not embark on the epic Terry Pratchett reread I considered, or my always-threatened second time through Book of the New Sun. But those books aren’t going away, and Pratchett doesn’t need to be read in a solid streak. This is, however, the reason I haven’t yet read the Iremonger trilogy, even though a great friend whose taste I trust implicitly has been urging me to for most of the year.
I regularly found myself reading some fantastic book that I’ve known for years was hugely important, pivotal, groundbreaking, and just kept putting off for, you know, reasons. “Why the hell,” sez I on the train, gasping, exhilarated, overcome with awe, “did it take me this long to read To the Lighthouse?” “The Fire Next Time is every bit as brilliant as people have been telling me for a decade, and it’s only like eighty pages long. Why did I not—” Midnight’s Children! Fucking Midnight’s Children, which is a groundbreaking, critically acclaimed literary novel about the X-Men, what was I waiting for. I knew I loved Woolf. I loved Satanic Verses. So why did I read [stack of mediocre novels] before these?
One exists, of course, within a karmically determined universe. One’s choices, even at the most minute level, are shaped by overlapping fields of power arising from the movements and injustices of history. If we’re not conscious in the way we engage with those fields and manipulate them, we perpetuate them. But it’s scary to see that face to face, to recognize its presence in one’s migration of one’s library. (I owned all the books I mentioned in that paragraph already, and had for at least five years. I just hadn’t read them.)
I became a lot more aware of authorial identity—which was great. Dumas was black! Foucault was gay! The author may be dead, but authors aren’t, and it’s cool to open up these authors as characters in history, think about who they were, who they might have been, what they saw and felt and how it shaped their work. Of course, including sexuality into the question is a bit tricky for modern authors I don’t know personally. I don’t stress about that too much.
I read a lot of recent SF and fantasy, both off the heritage genre shelf and out of YA. The field is thriving and awesome. More new great writers arise every week. I went for months reading fantastic book after fantastic book before I realized I hadn’t read a book by a straight white guy since April.
There’s a bullshit narrative about how projects like this amount to “eat your vegetables,” and nothing could be further from the truth. My reading list was enormously diverse purely from a genre perspective: formally experimental literary fiction, essays, voice-dense urban fantasy, poetry, hard science fiction whatever that is, fantasy with swords, fantasy without swords, fantasy with Regency Romance, soft SF, space opera, postcyberpunk, actually every goddamn permutation on -punk you could imagine, nonfiction of every stripe under the sun, apologetics, literary theory, historical fiction, mystery… I read books that made me cry for the first time in years, books that made me punch the air, books that made me hallucinate a heavy metal soundtrack, books that made me scratch my head, books that made me eagerly text friends quotes. I read books that changed me, books I loved, books I liked, books I shrugged and set down. In fact, one of the many ways this project helped me, was by encouraging me to think about reading as a project: what’s after this? What’s next? Why?
Nonfiction proved trickier than fiction. If I wanted to read about some particularly narrow topic, for research purposes I might find myself choosing between three white dudes—which, notes for a future discussion about authority and technocracy.
I’ve read great books this year, and I’ve had a fantastic time. I could talk about local and absolute maxima of pleasure, about the risk of reading and the gravity of power. If I had more time, or wasn’t in need of breakfast, I probably would. But the simplest takeaway’s probably the empirical one: I can name more books I’ve read from the last year that I’d stack among the best books I’ve ever read than I can from the three years before that.
I wish I’d kept a more comprehensive Goodreads list this year—for next time, certainly. But, glancing back: Read Dhalgren. Read Seraphina and Shadow Scale. Read Code Name Verity. Read Uprooted. Read White is for Witching and Mister Fox. Read To The Lighthouse. Just read, you know?
Go forth and have a pleasant holiday. May this year will be better than the last.
I have seen two episodes of Daredevil, and two episodes of Jessica Jones, and I believe the fight scenes in those episodes of Jessica Jones, all one of them, are significantly better than the fight scenes in those episodes of Daredevil.
Yes, including the hallway scene.
If you’re still here, let me clarify my position.
Fight scenes are an art form all their own, with their own poetry, purpose, and tactics. Fight scenes can captivate, exposit, terrify, entice, seduce, break, reveal, and communicate. Anything art accomplishes, can be accomplished with a fight. There’s an invisibly thin line between cinema fight and dance—both forms convey emotion and narrative through movement, both involve intense flexibility and control, both serve as proxy languages for characters who can’t communicate any other way. I’ve written about this subject before, specifically about the fantastic fight scenes in John Wick, and what their economy can teach us about prose style. But that essay didn’t dig into the question of how fight scenes are used in cinema.
One thing a fight scene does, surely, is show off. Our heroes and heroines display athleticism and skill. But the raw *doing* of awesome stuff doesn’t satisfy for long. This is, after all, cinema. The question isn’t what you can do, especially in the special effects era. The question is, why should your audience care? Every minute has to justify its place in your script, or on your screen.
This is especially true if you pit your hero against mooks. The audience is smart. They know that if the show’s name is, say, Daredevil, Daredevil won’t die in episode two. If you put your hero in a life-or-death position, we know she’s going to win. This isn’t bad, actually! Because the question is, how will she win. You, the fight director, have a chance to show us what kind of person our hero is, or what kind of person she’s become. For example, here’s a great Hero v. Mooks scene with Jackie Chan—one of the most famous scenes in modern action cinema.
See how much character we get on Jackie Chan here? We learn, over the course of this scene, that he’s a great fighter, but he’s not invulnerable; we learn that he’s resourceful and terrified, that he has a sense of humor, that for a kung fu master he’s sort of goofy and flaily and eager. The scene doesn’t present all these attributes at once; rather, the scene develops Jackie from his initial desperation and terror (the hanging-from-the-balcony beat, for example), to frenetic enthusiasm, to cheery over-the-top confidence at the very end. Each stage progresses to the next with a mixture of sight gags and awe-inspiring physicality. The scene, in short, isn’t static: every beat moves us into a new circumstance, and shows us more about Jackie. We see the same dynamism in the following famous Hero v. Mook dojo scene from Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection (or Fists of Fury, depending on where you’re from).
Bruce Lee is, well, Bruce Lee. You can’t fault his technique—but it’s easy to overlook how much acting these scenes contain. In The Chinese Connection, Lee’s playing a martial artist seeking vengeance for the murder of his master. The anger’s all through him—the speed of his movements, their precision. Watch him stalk forward at 1:44. This is a human being who wants something. He wants his master back; he wants his life back. He wants to end the institutional racism and discrimination in the foreign concessions of Shanghai. Putting his fist in your face won’t help with any of that. He knows. But he’ll try anyway, just in case.
While Bruce Lee moves through a narrower range of emotion in the dojo scene than Jackie Chan in the ladder scene, nevertheless the emotion develops. As the dojo scene begins, Lee is a well-dressed, erudite man making an audacious challenge to a dojo he believes is connected with his master’s murder. He even has a sort of dry sense of humor about it: “we could fight one at a time, or all together!” But when the entire dojo rushes him, he loses that comic veneer. He swells—I’ll put that moment at 2:33 when Bruce Lee flares his lats against any shot in cinema. The Lee vs. Mooks scrum continues in a more-or-less good natured fashion until Lee gets the nunchucks at 3:24, whereupon the Shit gets Real, and the blood starts to flow. By the end of the clip, Lee isn’t even vertical any more. He’s not in this for honor or a fair fight; he’s breaking ankles from a prone position. He wants these mooks to suffer.
If fight scenes communicate this much by pitting characters against faceless mooks, they communicate volumes more when two principles are set off against one another. The fight scene, then, becomes a vehicle for life philosophies in conflict. The Tofu scene from Michelle Yeoh’s Wing Chun is a must-watch for about a billion reasons. Here, we have Wing Chun, whose father has forbidden her from fighting, confronted by a martial artist local toughs have hired to beat her up for the crime of being a woman and better than them at kung fu. The fun of this scene isn’t Wing Chun’s victory alone, or the acrobatics on display. Yeoh displays panache, honor, pride, and a vicious sense of humor, all the while simmering with rage against the system she confronts.
Again, watch the scene develop. Wing Chun challenges Master Wong to destroy the tofu; Master Wong’s first response is to deny her proposed challenge, and pledge he’ll win by beating her up directly. Then, when it becomes clear there’s no way that’s going to happen, Wong tries to destroy the tofu; Wing Chun doesn’t let him do that either, of course, but we see in this fight a microcosm of a form of sexist goalpost shifting that’s all too common in everyday life. Also I love the point when Wing Chun shifts from defending her own honor to showing off for her friend. Basically, Michelle Yeoh is the best.
Here’s another great scene with Yeoh, facing off against Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yeoh wants to convince Zhang, who has stolen Yeoh’s partner’s sword, to return it. Ang Lee’s contribution to martial arts cinema in CTHD wasn’t actually the athletic merit of his fight scenes—it was the subtlety of his characterization within them. The duel between Yeoh and Zhang simmers and sparks with a half-dozen kinds of tension. It’s a fight between genius and experience, between maturity and youth, between social decorum and freedom, between lover and loved, between someone who’s seen death and someone who doesn’t yet believe it exists, between an older woman who’s trying to convince a younger one to just goddamn listen for a moment and a younger woman who thinks the older has nothing to teach. It’s a dialogue between characters, and god, the sheer viciousness in Zhang’s voice at 3:30 when she says “????????????” (Go ahead. Choose whichever [weapon] you like. I’ll wait.) So many shivers.
Note how many times this fight scene changes. With each weapon Yeoh deploys, we see not only a different style of fighting, but a different side of her personality: the elegance of the double sabers, the singlemindedness of the spear, the invention and flexibility of the hook sword, the ferocity of the treasure staff, even her ambition and self-sabotage when she grabs that enormous monk’s spade at 2:26. And of course, at the very end, she brings out the two-handed sword, simple, unadorned, heavy and sharp and utterly willing to sacrifice itself. The fight peels Yeoh’s character back, layer by layer. Meanwhile, Zhang’s character, for all her technical perfection, is using a style that isn’t hers, a weapon she can barely control—though its raw power more than makes up for those faults. Yeoh keeps encouraging her to reason. Zhang, again and again, turns back, with increasing ferocity.
All the character development stuff I’m discussing here is actually more important than raw athletic achievement when it comes to making a fight scene work, in my opinion. Not that raw athletic prowess doesn’t help! I mean, if you can have Michelle Yeoh in your fight scene, obviously have Michelle Yeoh in your fight scene. But Yeoh doesn’t stand out from the crowd solely for her flexibility and skill—she stands out because she can display her flexibility and skill through the lens of character. Character and drama make fight scenes compelling even when you’re not dealing with athletic talent on the level of the folks I’ve mentioned so far. Consider, if you will, one of my favorite duels in cinema, the “like that!” sequence from The Court Jester. As background, you have to know here that Danny Kaye (blond) is a bumbling jester who Evil Angela Lansbury (yep that Angela Lansbury, only when she was like twenty) has hypnotized into believing that he, Kaye, is a master swordsman—which hypnotic trance is triggered by a snap of the fingers. Kaye begins the following scene out of his trance state. He’s dueling Evil Basil Rathbone. Yes, that Basil Rathbone.
Now, Kaye is a master of physical comedy, and Rathbone, who was a championship fencer and trained Kaye for the role, claimed that Kaye was one of the most natural swordsmen he’d ever met—but this scene doesn’t display nearly the athleticism of the Lee, Chan, or Yeoh scenes above. We’re seeing character movements supported and conveyed by physicality—not physicality for its own sake. And those movements are hilarious, and charming.
Having established all that, let’s look at Daredevil’s hallway fight, and compare it with the bar scene in Jessica Jones.
Okay, so, the direction here is really solid. And I love love love Daredevil’s use of foley in fight scenes, anchoring us to Matt Murdock’s sensorium. Outside of that, we get from this scene that Murdock is determined, but not immortal—that fighting tires him out, and his main strength is the ability to keep going. Which ain’t nothing, but it’s also pretty slender characterization considering we hit the same note at the end of episode one—and it’s especially slender when you consider that this repeated note is all the development we get for three minutes of screentime. (Which, for what it’s worth, is about the length of the actual fight in every clip above except the CTHD scene). For American audiences, the one-take aspect of Daredevil’s hallway fight is memorable, especially after a decade of quick-cut shakey cam action—but it’s hardly a strict novelty. Compare, for example, this scene from Oldboy (2008), a clear inspiration for the work in Daredevil:
Ain’t nothing wrong with inspiration, of course, I’d be the last to argue that—but setting the two side-by-side, the main innovation of the Daredevil fight scene is the camera’s embeddedness in the action. You have to imagine the camera dancing around the fracas, trying to keep the shot level. It’s a pretty neat achievement! But the fact that I’m sitting here talking up the camerawork indicates that we’re not really getting much exciting here in terms of character or story. Daredevil has to go through the hallway full of guys. So he does. At the beginning of the shot, we know that Daredevil is determined to go through said hallway full of guys, no matter what; at the end of the shot, we know little more. Now, granted, a fourteen-episode miniseries has more time to build character than a two-hour film—but still, that’s a pretty static three minutes.
Contrast the bar fight in Jessica Jones. Here, Jessica’s bad choices early in the episode have led to Luke being attacked by a rugby squad—she’s running to save him. What we know about Luke so far: he’s built, fastidious, physical, and private. What we know about Jessica so far, minimizing spoilers: we know she’s super-strong, and has a traumatic history involving physical assault. We know, because of this history, that she tends to hit first and ask questions later.
Look at how much storytelling occurs in the one minute and thirty eight seconds of this scene. To start, we have slightly naturalistic camerawork, suggesting we’re about to watch real violence, full of incomplete information and drunken flailing for advantage. And yet, that first punch thrown against Luke, he dodges and catches, as if it ain’t no thing. This isn’t stylized combat ballet—we’re looking at a professional in a world of amateurs. But we’re not watching from the professional’s perspective—note the way the camera relinquishes Luke as Jessica enters the bar, firmly grounding us in Jessica’s POV. (There’s a whole other essay to be written about camerawork and perspective in JJ, but I don’t quite have the film chops for it, or the time right now.)
When next we see Luke, he’s being piled upon by the rugby toughs—and, clearly, from his body language, he’s trying to get this done quickly, and painlessly, with as little damage to his bar as possible. He’s directing them to the wall away from any windows or breakable furniture. Which suggests that no matter the size of this crowd, no matter how pissed they are, he’s not worried. Which is your first hint, in this kind of a naturalistic barfight, that he’s either dumb, which he’s not, or he’s more than human. If you’re in this fight and don’t think “someone’s gonna pull a knife,” you have more trust in human nature than you should. And that’s even before Luke shrugs off this pile of guys.
Jessica’s clearly confused about the situation, but runs in to save Luke because she’s not sure he has it in hand—and here we get vital Jessica characterization. That she’s super strong, we know. That she hits first and asks questions later, we know. But where Luke’s careful with his super-strength and invulnerability, Jessica’s fighting style is pure vicious American Whackin’-Do. I mentioned the foley in Daredevil before, but notice what the foley in this JJ scene communicates—Luke slams like six guys against a bar with only a single broken glass sound effect. Jessica’s first act is to knock someone out; her second is to toss a dude through a table lamp into a wall, shattering the lamp and breaking the table and probably the wall. (Broken glass sound effect, natch.) Then she slams someone into the bar. (Another broken glass sound effect.) Then she *TEARS A PAY PHONE RECEIVER OFF A WALL AND HITS SOMEONE WITH IT*. Then there’s ANOTHER table lamp gone. (Broken glass sound effect.) (All of which, if you’re keeping score, tie into Jessica’s overall glass/broken glass thematics—mirrors, lenses, and tossing people through plate glass windows.)
Meanwhile, Luke casually knocks someone out with the back of his hand; they fall into the bar and break a glass. So Luke is careful to knock the next guy out so he doesn’t fall into the bar. More glasses are broken upon Luke than are broken by Luke in this fight; you can just see Luke tallying up the insurance report in the back of his head. Meanwhile, Jessica’s over there all “FUCK THAT LAMP. FUCK THAT BAR. FUCK THIS PAYPHONE IN PARTICULAR.” It’s a kind of vicious no-quarter-given combat that tells us everything we need to know about her and more—especially since someone with her super-strength doesn’t actually need that kind of cornered-rat ferocity.
And this isn’t even mentioning that beautiful, beautiful eyeroll at 0:50, which communicates in a few frames just how fed up with this bullshit Luke Cage has become (Mental tally: one bottle Heineken, $2…); it heightens our conviction that Luke is more than human, and conveys eloquently just how he feels about his more-than-humanity. And, just as we’re wondering how much more than human he is—he gets a broken bottle to the neck, and we’re informed.
The whole scene, punch-to-done, takes less than a minute, and we’ve learned so much about our two principals in that time. We know powers, life philosophies, approaches, concerns; we even know that Jessica doesn’t understand how much, really, Luke the Small Businessman cares about his bar.
Is this JJ scene as acrobatic or as athletically interesting as the Daredevil scene? No. But if you’re trying to distinguish your fight scene on acrobatic or athletic merits alone, you’re asking to be set beside the movies of Yeoh or Chan or Hung or Jaa, and the odds are you’ll not come out well in that comparison. The JJ barfight conveys information, builds character, and evolves in a way that the Daredevil scene, to my mind, just doesn’t. It’s better use of screentime. It’s better drama. And that makes it better television.
Now: if you liked the Daredevil fight scene, more power to ya! It’s doing cool stuff, much better than I see on the American small screen. But there’s more a fight scene can do—and Jessica Jones is doing it.
I’m talking Star Wars here, and this essay may be a bit confusing for those of you who didn’t know that from the first line. If that fits you, though, welcome! Let me bring you up to speed, because I’m writing about myth and canon as much as lightsabers today, and if you’re not up on the ‘sabers what I have to say might still interest you. Those of you who’ve joined me in ur-nerdery, pour yourselves an $adult_beverage and rest your feet as I make sure the whole class is on the same page. Skip ahead a few paragraphs, or read along if you feel a burning desire to ask me, in the comments section, “Bro, Do You Even Star Wars?”
The answer’s yes.
Gross oversimplification warnings apply here, but here’s the essential piece: if you were an elementary school kid in 1990, the Star Wars universe looked pretty limited. You (I) had the movies, but beyond that, if you (I) wanted to know more about the Galaxy Far, Far Away you were looking for roleplaying game materials (perhaps not yet knowing what a roleplaying game was), an out-of-print Marvel Comics series, or equally out-of-print novels. Then, in 1991, Bantam Spectra published Heir to the Empire, the first of a trilogy of books by Timothy Zahn set in the Star Wars universe.
This changed everything. In the novel’s opening pages we meet a new villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, who is basically Evil Sherlock Holmes, a master tactician leading the struggling remnants of the once-mighty Galactic Empire against the thriving New Republic. The New Republic gains a bureaucracy, a Trantorian capital city called Coruscant, and a thriving underclass of scum and villainy. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, 3PO, and R2-D2 are all heroes of the Rebellion; Leia’s a Senator. Luke’s a Jedi.Han’s an expectant father.They’ve grown since Endor.
Zahn’s trilogy brought the dark corners of the former Empire into a sort of geeky mainstream, introducing scads of new characters to confront and new worlds to explore. One of my favorite additions: the Noghri, a species of incredibly talented martial artists and assassins, working for Thrawn in exchange for the cleanup of their ecologically devastated planet, Honoghr. The Thrawn Trilogy’s success paved the way for a plethora novels, short stories, and comics set in an ever-growing “Expanded Universe,” many of which at most tangentially intruded on the adventures of Our Heroes. Zahn’s GFFA functioned as an at least somewhat coherent science fictional galaxy, space operatic in the extreme, but subject to political, social, economic, and moral pressures, and full of exquisite villains who don’t have to cackle maniacally and throw lightning around to be bad (though there’s nothing wrong with a bolt of lightning every now and then). Every question you’ve never wanted to ask about Star Wars, the Expanded Universe answers definitively. “What are the economics of bacta distribution?” Expanded Universe. “Who built the pyramids on Yavin?” Expanded Universe. “Where did they make the Death Star?” Expanded Universe. “Why does Han measure the Kessel Run in distance, rather than time?” Expanded Universe. “What is up with Hutts anyway?” Expanded Universe.
To call the Expanded Universe massive and labyrinthine is an insult to the Expanded Universe.A staggering amount of my childhood took place in that labyrinth.
And now it’s gone. More or less.
See, starting with The Force Awakens, the new Star Wars movies take place after Return of the Jedi. Fantastic! Unfortunately, there’s very little room, chronologically speaking, after Return of the Jedi. Oceans of tie-in novels and comics and video games occupy that time. If you don’t want to adapt the Star Wars EU by making a cinema version of, say, the Thrawn Trilogy—a tricky proposition, since one of the wonders of the Thrawn Trilogy is that those books are very much novels, complete with tangled plots and politics, double- and triple-blinds, and other tricks of the trade—you have to clear room to build.
So, rather than enter the business of selectively invalidating EU canon, the Disney Star Wars Marvel MegaTeam have gently moved the entire Expanded Universe to one side. It exists—it’s just called Legends now, and the new films will owe no homage to the EU. I’ll be shocked if Honoghr features in The Force Awakens.
The first time I heard this, it felt like a punch to the gut. These stories were mine. I grew up with them! They mattered! But then…
Well. I started thinking about Iphigenia.
You all know the story of Iphigenia, right? Begun, the Trojan War has.Agamemnon fixes to lead Greeks to Troy, raises banner, huzzah! But the wind doesn’t cooperate. Agamemnon asks the gods why there’s no wind, and the gods demand he sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. So he does—earning his wife Clytemnestra’s mortal ire, and setting the stage for the Orestes drama after Agamemnon returns home from the war.
Or is that the story after all? To hear Euripides tell it, the gods rescued Iphigenia and carried her off to the island of Tauris, where she serves as a priestess to Artemis. Psych! But then, the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women claims that Artemis transformed Iphigenia (called Iphimede in this version of the story) into the goddess Hecate, which is a nice trick.On the other hand, Antoninus Liberalis claims the gods spirited Iphigenia away to yet another island, Leuke, where she wed the immortalized Achilles. (Antoninus Liberalis seems to have had a Bowdler-esque fix-fic streak, or vice versa.)
And lest you think this is an Iphigenia problem—what happens to Odysseus after he makes it home home? If your answer is “And then Odysseus and Penelope were happy until the end of their days,” you’ve never heard of the Telegony—which is fine, because the Telegony sounds pretty silly. Turns out people like the notion of Odysseus building his altar to Poseidon and settling down with his long-suffering wife in their olive tree bed a great deal more than they like Odysseus being slain by his and Circe’s son, who then marries Penelope (?) while Telemachus marries Circe (!!!), only Circe makes everyone involved immortal so no foul I guess, except for Odysseus who stays dead.
My favorite alt-myth, though, is probably the version of the abduction of Helen in which Paris kidnaps Helen and, escaping Sparta, is blown off-course to Egypt—where Pharaoh realizes something hinky’s up, and offers Helen asylum. She accepts, and Pharaoh’s magicians create a Helen simulacrum so Paris can sail away none the wiser. Greeks and Trojans fight ten years over the Egyptian robo-Helen; Menelaus meets the real Helen after the war, when he too is storm-tossed down Egypt way.
Stories that last, last because they resonate with people. (Power dynamics play into the equation too, of course.)But people aren’t consistent, and they don’t need consistency to enjoy a good story. Iphigenia at Tauris is a great play.That said, I prefer the version of the story in which Agamemnon’s daughter dies at Aulis, since it makes the Iliad, not to mention Clytemnestra’s later murders, matter more. The genius of myth, though, is that I don’t have to choose. I can subdivide continuity, I can support alternative worlds in parallel.
We (and I guess by that I mean modern humans?) have a tendency to believe only one story can be right. If my tale’s true, yours must be false if they contradict one another! And vice versa. Even if this isn’t the fault of copyright law, copyright regimes don’t help, since they limit who gets to tell stories using a particular intellectual property universe.
Before modern copyright, if you wanted to create a new spin on an old tale, you did, and your ability determined whether your tale took. Consider the Matter of Britain: the earliest Arthurian tales hold up Gawain (he what’s of the Green Knight) as the finest knight in all the land. Lancelot only shows up later, in Chrétien de Troyes’ addition.But readers like Lancelot, and the Guinevere love triangle, so Chrétien’s additions stay.
And, since the Matter’s out of copyright, modern writers can join the fun. Personally, I hew to Steinbeck’s version of the Triple Quest (especially Marhalt’s story), along with his rendering of Lancelot’s imprisonment (the best description of magic ever) and of Sir Kay’s speech about his life as a Seneschal. I think White’s vision of the stable triad of Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur—each loving each—will last as long as the legend.
Copyright does skew the process, but writers have invented ways around the rules—for example, the magic of the subgenre lets us write stories about Phillip Marlowe’s many avatars in all but name. (No accident, I think, that Harry Dresden and Phillip Marlowe share a pattern of syllabic stress.) We can’t write stories about hobbits, but halflings and kender are fine.John Scalzi’s Redshirts slides into our sense of Star Trek alongside Galaxy Quest.Star Trek novels never were regarded as canon in the way Star Wars novels were—but the Vulcan in my head is mostly Diane Duane’s, and the Klingon Homeworld mostly John M. Ford’s.And Kevin Rubio’s fan film TROOPS is more central to my Star Wars than the prequel movies.
And readers have their own solutions that predate, and will outlast, the copyright regime.No rightsholder can choose what I care about.My mental legendarium’s a diverse mishmash of texts and fanfiction and jokes, personal theories and received wisdom, slash pairings and speculation and fan art. If I find Bradley’s Lancelot less compelling than White’s, Bradley’s Morgan more vital than Steinbeck’s—the Lancelot in my mind will tend more toward White than Bradley, and Morgan to Bradley than Steinbeck.I assemble my own Morgan, who contains pieces of every Morgan I’ve read and heard and met.And each new Morgan has a chance to transform my understanding of the character, without wiping away my pre-existing vision.
These characters are large.They contain multitudes.
Iphigenia and Odysseus, Lancelot and Penelope, Loki and Sieglinde, are bigger than any one canon—my legends are enriched by different views and endings.Nonsense drifts away on the wind, but real heart-matter remains.So—why worry? Are Luke and Leia and Lando and Han and Chewie and 3PO and R2 and Obi-Wan any less robust or mythical than the great old stories? Is Thrawn? Is Mara Jade? If not, we have nothing to worry about; if so, we should trust ourselves to the future—into the reinvention that will lend our heroes the mythic weight they deserve.
The Expanded Universe doesn’t go away just because that story’s done. The tale, well told, remains. And now there’s room for others to tell new tales, and refresh the old with new life and glory. Chuck Wendig and Charles Soule and Delilah Dawson are bringing their own Star Wars; I’m excited to see what sort of a Galaxy takes shape in the coming months.
The parts of the old legends that mean something will be retold, by us if by no one else. Honoghr doesn’t disappear. It’s still out there, rebuilding. The story told this Christmas about the GFFA, and the stories told now in readiness for the movie’s launch, will join with and enrich the tales we know already. The good works don’t fade.
Hello, friends and neighbors. I hope you had excellent Thanksgivings. I’m on the road this week, giving a talk at Google for Serial Box, and attending Anonycon in Stamford CT—so time for essays has been thin on the ground. But I’d be remiss in not providing you with some vital Christmas Shopping information as far as signed copies are concerned!
My Friendly Local Bookstore, Porter Square Books, has your back. Order through the links below, and ye shall receive signed copies via mail in a reasonable time!
Oh! Want neat new stuff? Bookburners is back this week, building on revelations and monstrosities with Episode 12! And if that’s not enough, check out The Quill, our excellent (and free) short comic by Michael Alan Nelson, starring the fine folks of Team Three.