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The Force Awakens RPG Madness

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.

And continues!

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.

BOOM.

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.

Fast forward.

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?

Rey.

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.

A Year of Reading Differently

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.

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?

… Oh.

Oh.

oh.

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’ll be a Star Wars geek again next week.

Jessica Jones Has Better Fights than Daredevil

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.

Iphigenia at Honoghr

I grew up in the Expanded Universe.

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.

After all, they were so artfully done.

Books for the Holidays!

Specifically, mine!

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!

Three Parts Dead: Hardcover and Paperback

Two Serpents Rise: Hardcover and Paperback

Full Fathom Five: Hardcover and Paperback

Last First Snow: Hardcover!

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.

 

Superman, Krishna, and Sermon on the Rocks

Life is good.

World Fantasy was World Fantasy: some few hundred of my closest friends in the SFF community all walked out of the mist and smoke into Saratoga Springs for five days.  Longer cons like this feel more like the creation of a village.  I remember being fifteen on the campus greens of Sewanee, TN, in a golden fall, running into whoever I ran into, forming partiers by simple logic of accretion and the shouting of names across fields of blown dry leaves.  Then, when the planets move out of alignment, the village parts like clouds.  It’s a fantastic experience.  (Which informs my conviction, by the way, that the structure of the con should allow all attendees the same level of safety and comfort I feel—free and easy wandering requires personal assurance.)

Attending conventions made a certain sort of hidden-world fantasy make a lot more sense to me.  Neverwhere describes a con culture of a sort; so does The Last Hot Time (possibly the entire Bordertown universe?), and A Night in the Lonesome October, and of course Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret.  Folks step out of daily life into something different.  And then they get back to the Work.

I’m listening to Josh Ritter’s new album, The Sermon on the Rocks, a lot, and a weird theory’s percolated in my brain.  Basically, I think this is the album Superman would make if he decided it was time to head back to Smallville (or maybe if he never left Smallville in the first place).  Hear me out.

Ritter calls the album “messianic oracular honky-tonk,” which places it on a genre continuum with high-period A3’s “sweet pretty country acid house music;” the perspective roots not in country (the genre) but in the country, in small towns and fields and water and the intimate personal geography that comes with growing around stuff that grows.  City dwellers orient on streets, buildings, landmarks; grow up in the country, in the USA at least, and you orient on things without proper names: oaks, maples, rivers, rocks.  (I’m told that in Wales all these have their own names, too.)

Top 40 radio country uses ubiquitous cultural signifiers (pickup trucks, the barbecue stain on my white t-shirt, etc.) to evoke nostalgia for country culture, but for me at least this tends to feel a bit fake, like the false evocation of community (“we’re all guys here, right?”) that precedes and attempts to excuse gross generalizations.  The speaker’s hiding his or her own opinions and experiences by evoking things that of course everybody knows.  “Yah, you grew up in the country, right?  How about pickup trucks?  Those are a thing you have, eh?  Youv’e seen them?  Huh? Buy my record!”  As opposed to: this is my place.  Let me show it to you.  (That said, not all top 40 country feels this way. I think “I Want to Check You for Ticks” is particularly well-observed, for example.)

By contrast, in “A Big Enough Sky,” off Sermon:

What happened to the riverbed?
What happened to the prairie fire?
Can you tell me where the lightning went
Every time you met my eye?

The riverbed, the prairie fire, are metaphors, but they’re not common; Ritter has a specific riverbed in mind, I think, and a specific fire.  And that calls to mind river beds and fires I have known—not some vague imprecise “oh yeah, we all know” style riverbed, but the riverbed my scout troop built a bridge over on the trail behind the high school baseball diamond, that connects down through Shakerag Hollow.

But Ritter knits these images to something bigger:

Nights are getting colder now
And the air is getting crisp
I first tasted the universe
On a night like this
A box of wine, an alibi
And the hunger in her eyes
In the place where the tree of good and evil
Still resides

The intimate personal geography (long roads, old cars, backroads and the boneyards in “Where the Night Goes”) naturally blooms to cosmic language (I first tasted the universe / on a night like this or in the place where the tree of good and evil / still resides).  The album’s second song, “Young Moses,” completes with this amazing over-the-top semimystical boast in which country landscape and figures bloom oracular and transcendant.  “I’m the king of the milkmaids, honey,” to me reads not just as an evocation of “milk and honey,” but as a specific reference to Krishna, who incarnated as a cowherd and, in one of my favorite stories, split himself into 100 Krishnas to carouse simultaneously and in equal full spirit with 100 milkmaids.

That’s what I meant by my evocation of Superman, above.  Some of the songs on this album are oracular and personal, some (like “Henrietta, Indiana”) are stories, but they’re all sung by a person with dirt under the nails—someone whose personal geography is built from trees and rocks no one knows unless they’ve been introduced—and at the same time has this ecstatic cosmic vision of the potential and grandeur and wonderful horror of the universe.  Cowpoke Krishna—whose closest avatar in the US pop media canon, really, is Superman returned to the farm.

Anyway, I think it’s a great album.  Give it a listen.

New Bookburners this week!  Shore Leave features bellinis, belligerence, and problematic clockwork.

Halloween Stories and Games!

Happy Halloween, friends!  I have a number of spooky and excellent tales for you to enjoy—kicking off with my most recent release, Deathless: The City’s Thirst, a new interactive adventure set in the Craft Sequence world.

deathless_citys-thirst_color

 

You won the war against the gods; now you need to take their place. Build alliances with powerful necromancers. Fight—or make peace with—sentient scorpions. Stand up for the little guy—or stick it to him. Overcome the trauma you suffered in the God Wars. Solve murders, or commit them. Or both! Fight gods. Solve mysteries. Find love. Die. Come back.

The first game, Choice of the Deathless, operated on the edge of the Sequence; this game’s set in Dresediel Lex, features characters from the stories, and is a lot more scheme-y and skullduggery-focused.  If you’ve ever wanted to be in the world of the books, this is a good opportunity.  I’ve written about the design process on Tor.com, and on Chuck Wendig’s blog, so you know it must be awesome.  Get the game on iOS, Android, Kindle, and Steam, and if you like it, tell your friends.

If you’re looking for a more traditional Halloween-ish experience, though, may I suggest A Kiss With Teeth, my story about vampires, marriage, and parenthood?

Palumbo-KissWTeeth

 

Vlad no longer shows his wife his sharp teeth. He keeps them secret in his gums, waiting for the quickened skip of hunger, for the blood-rush he almost never feels these days.

The teeth he wears instead are blunt as shovels. He coffee-stains them carefully, soaks them every night in a mug with ‘World’s Best Dad’ written on the side. After eight years of staining, Vlad’s blunt teeth are the burnished yellow of the keys of an old unplayed piano. If not for the stain they would be whiter than porcelain. Much, much whiter than bone.

White, almost, as the sharp teeth he keeps concealed.

Also this week: a new episode of Bookburners!  Under My Skin, by Mur Lafferty, takes Team Three to Vegas, baby.  Vegas.  Horrible things happen.  Because, Vegas.  It’s great.

And, in other Serial Box news—the new serial Tremontaine, set in Ellen Kushner’s Riverside universe, debuts today!  I’m really excited for this one.  Kushner herself’s at the helm of an intrepid and awesome writer’s room including Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and Paul Witcover.  What.  How.  Flail.  Go ye and read.

That’s all for this week.

 

Galactic History, or Galactic Folk Tale?

TO: EDITORIAL BOARD OF TRADE ROUTES, THE JOURNAL OF GALACTIC AFFAIRS

N109xxq83992.33.1.apple / Corewards 993 / Coruscant

FROM: Doctor Flox Beelthrak, Education Department, Corellia University

Djane Lel, Secretary of Historiography, Coruscant Teacher’s College

 

DEAR SOPHONTS—

Your Harvest issue’s cover feature (“Heroes of the Galactic Revolution: A Twenty-Year Retrospective”), however well-intentioned in its commemoration of the anniversary of our galaxy’s liberation from the Palpatine Regime, indulged in and perpetuated many damaging and historically inaccurate popular fantasies.

However widespread the folk narrative of the Skywalker and Solo families has become in the decades since liberation, we expect more from a journal of your self-professed dedication to intellectual rigor.

The Great Sophont Theory of History has been deservedly discredited for decades; our galaxy’s very size—millions of sentient species spread across billions of worlds—should be enough to discredit any notion its history might be shaped by the decisions of a few individuals.  What steersman could seize the wheel of such a vessel?

The sad fact is, no matter how appealing tales of galactic heroism may be—and we’re fans ourselves!—history is made by movements and groups, not individuals.  To demonstrate this we need look no further than Palpatine himself.  The recent, brilliant, monograph IMPERIAL MINDS by Dr. Del Rivane of Dothek Polytechnique rather conclusively demonstrates that the Banking Clan and Corporate Sector’s drive for unified tax policy, new market access, and spacelane security, combined with the ambition of a rising human military officer class in the Late Republican period, were the main drivers of “Palpatine’s” coup and the subsequent (apparent) stability of the so-called “Imperial” government.

Palpatine was a consummate politician, this no one denies, but his political savvy can be most clearly seen in the deftness with which he walked the slack line of Late Republican politics.  The “Evil Emperor” truly has no clothes: documentary evidence reveals a brilliant and cynical man, yes, but a man nonetheless, whose high office emerged naturally from conflicts between the increasingly powerful and inherently ademocratic Republican bureaucracy on the one hand, and an overwhelmingly human military on the other.

But far more dangerous than the Palpatine-as-Evil-Genius vision, to our minds, is the popular tendency to attribute the Rebellion’s success to the, for the most part undocumented, personal heroism of a small elite group.  The Rebellion was an interstellar effort of millions.  No one doubts the importance of the Organa family’s leadership in the early Rebellion, or of Leia Organa’s personal role as an organizer of the Alderaanian diaspora after the Tarkin Incident.  But legends—folk tales, really, with no textual attribution—about Leia Organa’s personal achievements during the Rebellion at best distract from, and at worse erase, the contributions of the Alderaanian diaspora community to the war effort post-Tarkin.

And Organa is the most clearly documented of the folk heroes your Harvest issue seeks to lionize!  General Skywalker’s contributions as a pilot are legendary, of course—the Skywalker Doctrine of Snub Combat remains required reading in the Academy—but Skywalker’s military career was cut short by his increasing religious fanaticism and withdrawal from public life.  The man, a moisture farmer turned hero, is fantastic enough from a historian’s perspective; while folk tales of his association with “lost masters” of the Jedi Order, and of his personal miracles, make for pleasant campfire evenings, they drip with mythic patterning—and his purported genetic link with the Organa dynasty borders on the propagandist.  And the less said about parentage assertions with genocidal maniacs, the better.

Generals Solo and Calrissian were valuable bridge-builders between the nascent Rebellion and a community of small business owners chafing under the Planetary Governor regime, but many oral histories of the Rebellion ignore this role entirely, preferring to focus on poorly documented or entirely mythical personal achievements.  Tales of the Huttese Palace Incursion, which you, shockingly, included in your profile, are standout examples of the form.  Such an adventure would have been strategically incoherent—sending Organa in disguise to rescue Solo, Skywalker allowing himself to be captured–and the prurient asides focusing on Senator Organa’s captivity by “Jabba the Hutt,” the broadest and most speciesist caricature of a Huttese shaa%kzeh of which we are aware, are obviously intended to discredit and shame Organa.  Much of the male human galaxy, alas, remains uncomfortable with the fact that human political leadership of the Rebellion was predominantly female.  (As of course it would have been—human male elites did quite well under the Empire.)  Palace Incursion folk tales privilege the people the story isn’t actually about.

Folk tale and myth are, of course, valid and vital components of sophont cognition.  As the galaxy grows increasingly galactic, myths help limited sophonts perform practical ‘fast clumping and processing’ (Kaaffa the Hutt, Rational Typing in Mythic Decision Making, Nar Shaddaa Press, 1129aad.88q.pear).  But the proper study of history unpacks myths.  In Calrissian and Solo, we see a disenfranchised entrepreneurial element rising to resist a bureaucratic regime.  In Organa, we see survivors of genocide fighting back.  In Skywalker, galactic cultural institutions, the “old country religion” as it were, stands against a secularist order.  In Ackbar, we read the Mon Calamari decision to break with Late Republican / Imperial rule and become, in Ackbar’s noted phrase, “the arsenal of freedom.”  Myths help us act; history helps us understand.

In our roles as educators, we’ve come to expect that provincially educated frosh will arrive steeped in folk narrative.  It’s our job to teach them better.  They learn slowly, but they do learn.

 

We did not expect to have to undergo the same process with your newspaper.

Best,

Dr. F. Beelthrak

Dr. Djane Lel

——

Yes, I did write a fixfic based on the “Wait—all the stories are true?” line from the new Star Wars trailer.

I’m not sorry.

ALSO.  I have a new Bookburners episode out today!  “Now and Then” is about Grace, Shanghai, and layers of historical monstrosity.  I think it’s really good.  Enjoy!

Sprint Sprint Sprint

I have an actual according-to-Hoyle vacation on deck, with no work on the docket.  Absurd luxury?  Yes!  Meanwhile, I’m sprinting around like a decapitated chicken trying to finish everything as needs finishing.  A preview!

  • Structural revisions for The Highway Kind.  For what feels like the first time, I’m experimenting with substantially additive revision.  Generally, no matter how much text I add to a book, wordcount for the n+1 draft will be the wordcount for draft n minus at least 10%, often closer to 20 or 30.  This time I’ve added 15k, and feel deliciously transgressive.  A lot of this book feels transgressive, actually—new rhetoric, new tools, new arguments.  Of course, I’m feeling all the hesitation one generally feels using new tools, but there’s a lot of freedom here, too.
  • (Unrelated: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a tabletop game system that reflected growing *used* to a tool.  Learning a new blade takes me most of a night on the strip—and they make those to Olympic spec.  Someone who swaps out their old 10gp beater for a +3 sword might spend a whole adventure figuring out how to use it.  Granted, this is a bit simulationist for my current game preferences, but, hm.)
  • Reviewing copy edits for The City’s Thirst, which—I don’t know that I’ve actually mentioned this on the blog.  Have I?  The City’s Thirst is my second piece of Craft Sequence interactive fiction for Choice of Games.  You are a troubleshooter working for Red King Consolidated in the first decade or so after the God Wars.  Where’s the water coming from?  Forget it, Jake, it’s fantasyland.  It’s fun; weirder, too, darker, and probably a bit sexier, than CotD.  I hope you like it!
  • Finalizing my next Bookburners episode—speaking of which, Episode 4, by Mur Lafferty, goes live today!  It’s all about How to Serve Man, sort of.  And the perils of surgical equipment.  Give it a look—or a listen.
  • Undisclosed Labor for Seekret Projekt I’m working on with Cassie Clarke, Lindsay Smith, and Ian Tregellis, muahahahaha.
  •  Ancillary video stuff for Uncanny Magazine.

Speaking of videos, if you’re a board gamer and haven’t already seen Shut Up & Sit Down’s “Tips for the 5 Problem Players,” go do so.  The title aside, the video’s actually more about the ethics of gaming, and how to run a fun, inclusive night.  (I’ve made most of the mistakes they mention in the video myself.)  How to chill out and welcome people into a gaming space!  I admire SUSD’s vision of board gaming—what it is, what it can be.  Their team loves quality games, obviously, but they also care about the metanarrative of gaming, and I think that vision’s what makes them stand out.

On a not-entirely-related note, Amal El-Mohtar and Arkady Martine have great, deep thoughts about THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT.  Worth a read!

And in the “Max is excited to read this” line: Ilana Myer’s Last Song Before Night hit stands yesterday.  Definitely taking this one on the vacation. Poet magicians!

Okay, back to work for me.  Rock on, friends.

Games People (Mostly My Friends and I) Play

Today I’m running around preparing for the Bookburners launch—the series run starts next Wednesday, so get ready to see me running around with my underwear on my head talking about how cool this thing we’ve all put together is!  Basically with Margaret, Mur, and Brian I feel like I’m on some kind of Magnificent Seven style team designed to inject Good Stuff into your readin’ nerves.  The pilot‘s just the beginning.

In the meantime, here are some games I’ve been playing on heavy rotation recently!

Codenames

Vlaada Chvatil’s CODENAMES is the party game you should own.

The concept’s simple: there are two teams of spies, red and blue, and two spymasters, also red and blue.  All players see a grid of words on the table—the codenames of secret agents in the wild.  The spymasters know which codenames are red agents and which are blue, thanks to a handy key.  They have to communicate this information to their team, using only a clue, and the number of codenames that correspond to the clue.  First team to contact all its agents, wins!

The red spymaster looks at the table and sees that “STAR” and “MOONLIGHT” are both red codenames; the red spymaster says, “Space: Two,” indicating that two clues on the board correspond to the clue “Space.”  The red team looks at the board, hems and haws, and chooses the correct codenames.  This is how it is supposed to work!

How it often works instead: the red team looks at the board, hems and haws, decides “STAR” is certainly one of the clues in question, almost goes for moonlight, but then one of the team sees “STATION” over in the corner.  It has to be STATION, he says.  “Space station, right?  I mean, it’s so obvious.”

Meanwhile, red team spymaster is sitting there, doing her best to keep a poker face, thinking, goddammit, how did I not see Station?

So, the red team chooses STATION.  Maybe Codename STATION actually attaches to an innocent bystander, or an irrelevant asset!  Maybe Codename STATION is one of the opposing team‘s agents—by identifying them, you’ve just handed your opponents an advantage.  Or, just maybe, Codename STATION belongs to the dreaded Assassin—and you’ve just lost the game.

CODENAMES is great fun, takes fifteen minutes to play, explains in thirty seconds, and works for groups between two and $max_capacity_of_room.  I’ve seen it take parties from dissolute to total good-natured competitive focus in a single exchange of play.  It’s the kind of game that will make friends invite you over so you can bring it and play with them.

Give it a shot, is what I’m saying.

Also, it has my favorite mechanic ever: the jerk timer!  If anyone’s taking too long to move, just upend this little sand timer, and they have to move by the time it runs out.  I wish every game had one of these.

Forbidden Stars

If Codenames is minimalist competitive party fun, Forbidden Stars is the opposite: maximalist hyperaggro spacewar simulator!  Set in the Grim Darkness of the Warhammer 40,000 Future Where There is Only War etc, Forbidden Stars is a surprisingly elegant platform for you and up to three of your friends to spend a large number of hours bashing each others’ faces in with spaceships and giant robots.

Forbidden Stars pits Vicious Space Orcs (WAAAUGH!), Chaos Space Marines (BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD!), Space Elves (*creepy silence*), and Myke Cole I mean the glorious upstanding and noble Space Ultramarines in a struggle for control of the galaxy.  So far, so 4x.  But!  There are some neat differences.

Most 4xen (that being a genre of game that relies on the four x’s of conquest: exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination) end up being about territorial control.  All your space people want to become the largest space empire.  Games divide neatly into an early expansionist stage, a later defensive stage in which you ponder your and your enemies’ fortifications in prep for the final assault, and then a final SUPERNOVA DOOM EXPLOSION.

In Forbidden Stars, you win not by holding territory, or building the strongest economy, but by acquiring all your faction’s objective tokens (which your opponents have seeded around the galaxy in hard-to-reach-for-you places) first.  Strategic strikes are the name of the game: figure out how to bash in, seize your objective, and leave.  It’s an enormous game of capture the flag, only with spaceships and killer robots, which obviates what I’ve heard Django Wexler, who’s better at this stuff than I am, call the SHOGUN problem: in 4x games, often the player with the strongest military loses, because people gang up on her.

Forbidden Stars also offers the most elegant order-issuing system I’ve ever seen: players take turns placing order tokens facedown to various star systems.  You’ve issued an order to the Golbez Expanse, or whatever—is that an order to invade?  Do you plan to build a factory there?  Are you just engaged in some sort of internal reorganization?  Your opponents don’t know—all they see is, you’re preparing to do something.  But that information might be intended to bait them into a trap: they think you’re trying to occupy a system, so they try to occupy it first by placing an “advance” order on top of what they think is your “advance” order.  Only for you to place an actual “advance” order on top of that.  Since orders are resolved Last-in-first-out, you’ve just pre-empted their invasion with your own.  SCHEMING!

Also combat is a joy, but this post is already too long for me to explain why.

That said and speaking of length—OH MY GOD THIS IS A LONG GAME.  Especially—especially—if your friends are the sort of people who spend a lot of time thinking through their moves.  There are lots of micro-choices, which means a lot of time waiting for a, shall we say, contemplative player to drop their order.  If everyone knows what they’re doing, I can see it moving at a clip—there are fewer fiddly bits than in most 4x games.  But my last game was a four-player run with two first-timers, and we called it after eight hours, with a turn left on the turn counter.  I was hoping this would be more lightweight than Eclipse, which tends to run about an hour per player for our group, counting rules explanation; no such luck.

That said—while we were all guttering by the end of that run, we had fun the whole time, moving our space armies around the map and cackling about Blood for the Blood God, so and were able to call it with good feelings and laughter all around.  This one’s been good for three or four days of fun space warfare so far, which more than justifies its expense in my opinion.