Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Three Mary Sues For Your Consideration

More Star Wars: The Force Awakens thoughts, also without spoilers. There is a thrilling twist at the end.

Some people have declared Rey a “Mary Sue. Pretty much everyone else has laughed at them because they're obviously a bunch of sexist dorks who are angry that a woman is allowed to demonstrate the same baseline level of heroic accomplishment that men in adventure movies are granted as a default. But I'm not here to talk about that. I want to talk about one aspect of the “Mary Sue” phenomenon that isn't just howling sexism: the idea that “Mary Sues” distort the setting to accommodate their protagonism. Because it's one of my favorite things in all of fiction.

Batman makes no sense outside of Gotham City. Attempts by DC to integrate him into the larger superheroic world result in ridiculous attempts to place "good planning" on par with "stronger than God and twenty dinosaurs." And Batman's lunatic behavior only makes sense around his equally lunatic villains. That's why Batman is so funny out of context.

Speaking of funny, the old "Conan the Librarian" gag works because Robert E. Howard and his imitators shaped Hyboria to accommodate an outsized murderer like Conan. "Aragorn the Librarian" doesn't work as a punchline because Aragorn has qualities we recognize as admirable outside of heroic adventure. Even closely-related fantasy settings would dismiss Conan as a mere bandit warlord; Howard had to build a setting around the Cimmerian. And Howard was aware of this: the opening chapter of his Almuric explores what a Conan-like hero would look like in the modern world, and it's not pretty. Conanoids need to live in Conan Land or they are either ridiculous or pathetic.

And then there's Sherlock Holmes. Less defined by his setting than the other two, Sherlock nonetheless operates in a strange clockwork reality that only makes sense in the brittle social milieu of fantastic Victorian England, where a man's Inner Property X manifests itself as Outer Characteristic Y, every time. The newest TV show, for all its charm, falls down most often when it calls attention to the fact that the world doesn't work like that any more, and never really did. (The new Sherlock, famously and humorously, can't even realize that a character with a masculine-sounding name is really a woman.)

All three of these characters are men. All three characters are beloved by millions of fans. So, in a surprise twist, this article isn't about Star Wars, tropes, or sexism: it's suddenly an article about writing advice! If you find yourself stuck on characterization, if you can't make your protagonist work, stop trying to redefine them. Instead redefine their entire setting so that the character is as interesting as possible, and that character and setting are inseparable. This trick is cousin to the science fiction dictum that the “big idea” in your SF story should be important enough that, without it, the plot makes no sense. In fantasy (whether that fantasy has swords, killer clowns, or tobacco-brands-as-clues), try building a protagonist who, separated from their setting, makes no sense. It's worked in the past.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This is both a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens as well as my thoughts on the experience of the movie. It contains no spoilers but probably too much nostalgia.

The new Star Wars is as entertaining as the prequels were dour. It's a movie full of humor, energy, and pathos. The film builds up your trust in its first few scenes and keeps it. The Force Awakens relies on the narrative structure of the original Star Wars, but also shows a sly willingness to play with the emotional resonance of familiar concepts. One scene echoes the “Cave of Evil” in Dagobah, for example, but changes around the location, the characterization, the central conflict, and the meaning of “failure” in the context of one character's journey toward heroism, so the scene reads totally differently. Here and elsewhere, Abrams displays a keen emotional intelligence and a trust in his audience's ability to read a situation. Trust flows both ways and I found myself settling in to enjoy myself, almost as if a movie about space wizards was meant to be a good, fun time.

Though The Force Awaken's plot is familiar to the point of being derivative, it never feels as stupid or empty as Abrams' other reboot, 2009's Star Trek. But like Star Trek, The Force Awaken's characterization is so on-point that I wanted to spend more time in the universe. The new trio of Daisy Ridley's Rey (a scavenger from a world that makes Tattooine look upmarket), Finn (played by John Boyega with a cocksure, anxious, and scrappy intensity that resembles Indiana Jones more than Han Solo), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, who can play a movie-star hero like nobody's business) are great. Abrams understands that we “get” Star Wars already and lets that knowledge add depth and richness to the new cast, something the archetypal figures of the original trilogy only developed over several movies. Adam Driver's Kylo Ren is no Darth Vader lite; in or out of the mask he conveys the sort of tortured, conflicted moral darkness that Lucas probably wanted to get in Hayden Christensen's pouty and ridiculous Anakin Skywalker.

Kylo Ren's mask is a brilliant prop that reflects Abrams' command of Star Wars' visual landscape. Our fourth hero, the adorable rolling droid BB-8, is terminally enchanting, a Disneyfied "toy" whose combination of vulnerability and pluck nonetheless compels instant fondness. If Miyazaki had to create a Star Wars character, he would create something like BB-8. And BB exists in environments that hearken back not just to the original Star Wars but to the French comics and early sci-fi that defined its visual lexicon.

The Force Awakens is not perfect or even “great” in the way The Empire Strikes Back is “great.” Its plot and some of its imagery are derivative. The larger political situation is obscure, and while this contrasts well with the prequels' emphasis on boring large-scale maneuvering, the relationship of the First Order to the Resistance lacks the immediate clarity of "rag-tag rebels fight an evil galactic empire," which means the stakes remain murky. (The political stakes are murky--thanks to the cast, the personal stakes as we rush toward the climax thunder with emotional resonance.) The older cast (specifically Leia) doesn't have enough to do.

I have many other boring quibbles. I will spare you.

Despite all that, The Force Awakens feels like Star Wars in a way that operates outside of the movie theater, and here I abandon the structure of the review to wallow in my own myopic perspective on geek culture. I was born in 1980 and did not experience the heady days of '77 where, all aswirl with speculation and trapped in a pre-Internet world of ignorance and rumor, dazzled fans imagined the future of Star Wars. I heard second-hand stories of that world: kids spreading nonsense rumors about “Star Wars 2,” claiming that in the new movie Luke would fight a “vampire woman” (inaccurate memories of the comics?), or that Luke's dad was really still alive (well...) and lived in his lightsaber (what?). Obi-Wan was really O-B-1 and his clone, O-B-2, would appear in the sequel. People told stories of the “Bummer Summer of '80,” with Spock dead and Han Solo frozen in carbonite. Everyone had bad haircuts and played D&D. So I'm told.

In a strange way we're back to that. Perusing Wookieepedia (I know, I know) you now find, not endless detail about minor characters swollen by 30 years of the Expanded Universe, but terse, almost hesitant entries about the First Order, Black Squadron, Captain Phasma. Right now there is no entry for Captain Phasma's rifle...because it's just a damn rifle. The article about Kylo Ren's ship mentions its “nose-mounted loading ramp”...because you can see a nose-mounted loading ramp. Despite the Internet, despite everything, we've been returned to a state of ignorance and innocence about Star Wars. Anything could wait behind that loading ramp. Enjoy this time. It will not last. What comes later might not be worse, but it will feel fundamentally different from these brief weeks where your imagination can create a whole new galaxy out of a two-hour movie.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Hiero's Journey

Hiero's Journey, written in 1973 by Stephen E. Lanier (who gave the go-ahead to publish Dune), features a Canadian battle-exorcist and his psychic moose, Klootz, as they journey across post-apocalyptic North America in the year 7000 AD to find a lost artifact called a "computer." They're joined in this quest by a bear (also psychic), a druid from a forgotten order of ecologists, and a runaway princess, and together they must overcome mushroom demons, mutants of all kinds, and a Dark Brotherhood of evil techno-wizards.

Let's talk about why Hiero's Journey isn't the best book ever written.It has everything, if by "everything" you mean "giant attack weasels" and "hypnotic axe-wielding lizard-men," but now people only remember the novel because it inspired Dungeons & Dragon's psionics rules.

And Hiero's Journey has a lot going for it. Its unapologetic absurdity has a dreamlike quality. I could imagine reading it as a child and then, as an adult, being amazed it was real and not just a confused misremembering of other, less ambitious, media. It has several dynamite scenes, including a thrilling escape from a fortress of evil psychics. Though the future of 7000 AD seems to contain only one woman, most of the characters are non-white (Hiero himself is a Metis), which is a novelty today, let alone in the seventies. And--in this age of ironic posturing--Hiero's Journey is invincibly, defiantly unironic. The main character is a future psi-Mountie and you are invited by the author either to buy into the fantasy or get out. I respect that.

But for all that, Hiero's Journey plods. Like with so much post-Tolkien-revival fiction, there's too much damn walking around, but the novel's problems are deeper than its occasional monotony, or its crude and over-enthusiastic prose. Hiero's Journey never winks or sneers at its material, which is a blessing, but it never really winks at all, or smiles, or plays with its conceits. Hiero himself is a gormless white-hat with all the complexity of a Lensman. He's a man out of time, a protagonist in the 70s who has definitely never smoked a joint, burned his draft card, or listened to The Doors. And he's not a reaction to those types of heroes--it's like Lanier doesn't even know the landscape has changed.

Our psychic protagonist's psychic deadness drags on the whole story, giving us prose that's flat and mechanical despite all the exclamation points, devoid of allusions that might enrich the (admittedly impressive) weird fauna and cultures of Lanier's world, despite all the piled-up adjectives. I have read prose containing less craft but rarely containing less ambition. Nothing sparkles.

The simplistic morality and joyless prose are significant faults, but Hiero's Journey offers something for the fantasy-history aficionado. This novel inspired Gary Gygax's D&D rules, and not just the psionic rules. (Or the threefold alignment system: Hiero's faux-Catholic church, the religion of his druid buddy, and the Satanic dark brotherhood, correspond neatly to Law, Neutrality, and Chaos, but so do many things.) But here's a more interesting question: does Hiero's Journey represent the source of LEVELING, as a concept in Dungeons & Dragons, and by extension as an element of most fantasy games today?

Here's an excerpt:

He was learning something the Abbey scholars of the mental arts were
just beginning to conceive, the fact that mental powers accrete in a
geometric, not arithmetical, progression, depending on how much and
how well they are used. The two battles Hiero had won...had
given...his already strong mind a dimension and power he would not
himself have believed possible. And the oddest thing was, he knew it.

(God, that prose is dire. The book contains several similar examples, but this one was the only one that didn't ramble for most of a page.)

Granted, this refers to psychic combat and psychic leveling. Also, early D&D rewarded more experience points for plunder than for combat. But perhaps the sheer mechanistic oddness of Hiero's "leveling" here, and the language used, inspired Gary as he formulated Dungeons & Dragons.

Hiero's Journey is an uneven and at times frustrating book. The ideas are excellent, the story serviceable, and often the action is thrilling, but leaden prose and lazy characterization hamper what might have been one of the best stories of its era. Read it because it's historically interesting, or because you've had your fill of sandy wastelands and want to see the weird end of the post-apocalypse.

But if you're looking for a book that's more than the sum of its parts, leave Hiero's Journey on the spinner rack.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Leigh Brackett Understands Drama

I wanted to finish Leigh Brackett's Skaith Trilogy (The Ginger Star, The Hounds of Skaith, The Reavers of Skaith) before writing about it, but The Hounds of Skaith is so well-written I need to unload right now before my brain swells up.

Here's the situation: our hero is Stark, a Tarzan-like wild man raised in civilization to be a sort of interstellar troubleshooter for an ersatz United Federation of Planets. With his mentor kidnapped, he visits the dying low-tech world of Skaith. The world's rulers, fearing his presence will overthrow the existing order, attack Stark in a way that begins unraveling the world's existing order.

Having slain the leader of a pack of psychic wolves whose powers only he can withstand, Stark asserts dominance over the wolves as he races back to the planet's only starport, which is located deep within the territory of the planet's rulers and his enemies--the Wandsmen.

Now, here's the clever thing. The psychic wolves exist to protect the Wandsmen and will not harm them. They serve Stark (he is Strongest, so they follow), and they do not necessarily serve the Wandsmen, but every time Stark fights the Wandsmen's allies, his control over the wolves erodes a bit more. Yet he cannot abandon them--their mind-reading powers have already saved his life more than once, even as they articulate a growing dissatisfaction that will, it's obvious, culminate in the same challenge for dominance that let Stark take control of the pack. They are simple creatures, and cannot comprehend Stark's goals and actions, and each encounter with the Wandsmen pushes the pack closer to a betrayal that is not really a betrayal at all--more of a return to the creatures' natural existence.

This structure reminds me of good modern television: the system is inherently unstable, and now the writer's job becomes to shove the hero from every direction until everything falls apart. I never really understood the writer's adage "put your hero in a tree and throw rocks at him" until I saw the trick used here. This is the exact opposite of Marvel-style comic book writing--where the trick is to produce a dynamic-seeming situation that always springs back to normal--and reminds me of Steven King, where you know the bad stuff is coming (you know from The Shining's first interview scene that Torrance is going to go after his kid, Danny, with an axe), but you don't know when it's coming.

Adding to the drama is the realism of everyone's motivations: Stark just wants to escape Skaith, the wolves are beasts who cannot change their natures, and the Wandsmen are portrayed as sympathetic antagonists who can no more fathom what Stark represents than the wolves can. There are no "villains" here, only agendas that cannot be brought into harmony.

And through that tension Brackett weaves a thrilling action story. The situation's inherent instability lends excitement to what, in lesser novels, would just be a bunch of "random encounters": here's Stark fighting cannibals, okay; here's Stark facing a sandstorm. Even today many SF/F novels still rely on a picaresque structure like this (when they're not cut-and-pasting the plot of Star Wars). The best writers (Jack Vance, Poul Anderson) bring their worlds and characters to life with such skill that they don't need the dynamic instability of a plot like Hounds of Skaith's, but most lesser writers don't bother, and their stories are just one damn thing after another. Brackett understands how to combine picaresque encounters with unstable dynamic situations in a way that creates a story that is both exciting and nail-biting. So far the Skaith trilogy has been an exhausting, thrilling read.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Villain Agency vs. Player Agency

So I finished Dragon Age: Inquisition a few days ago and here come the spoilers. I keep thinking about Corypheus, the game's villain, because he's the weakest element in an otherwise excellent game. In fact it's rare to see any piece of fantasy media so good where the villain is so mediocre.

Corypheus isn't scary, and he's not scary because he waits around to lose. His repeated losses, and the crumbling of his power base from its high point at Haven (the first time he appears in person), remind me of Warcraft 2. Each fight in Warcraft 2 pits you against an enemy army, and you either win or you try it again. There's no branching mission structure like in some of the old Wing Commander games. Your steamrolling victories undercut any sense of tension, because as you keep winning, it's increasingly obvious that your enemy is getting its ass kicked on every front. The final battles feel less like a death-defying victory against impossible odds and more like mopping up the last remnants of an already-defeated foe.

That works fine for Warcraft 2, which is a strategy game with a light sprinkling of narration, but it feels anticlimactic and somewhat pathetic in DA:I. But the interesting thing to me is how Corypheus' weakness ties into one of the game's primary selling points: Dragon Age: Inquisition gives you all the time in the world to be a hero. It lacks many of the irrevocable decisions and half-blind choices of previous Dragon Age and Mass Effect games and permits you to revel in a kind of timeless fantasy of heroism. Refugees are starving? You can feed them whenever; they're not going to actually starve. Cultists are causing trouble up north? Send someone to deal with them whenever you have a moment. DA: I combines the wide-open structure of Skyrim with the solution-oriented storytelling of other BioWare games; the result feels almost like a casual game in that it's structured to make you feel really good about accomplishing really simple tasks. And that's not an insult: the game feels great.

But that villain! Man, Corypheus has nothing going on. He's allowed to lash out once, at Haven—to devastating effect—and then he hangs around in the background waiting for you to level up enough to fight him. Letting him lash out at the player a second or even a third time, or being able to see the inevitable growth of his armies on the Battle Map, would have helped. Back when I ran tabletop games, I'd often interject free-roaming exploration (let's say ten areas that need to be explored) with villain-activated scenes. For example, the villain would attack when 25% of the areas had been explored, again at 50%, and again when the characters accomplished a major goal. It's a simple but effective trick for making the NPCs come alive. BioWare has used that trick with party-NPCs since Baldur's Gate; I would have love to have seen Corypheus “activate” the same way, for example, Iron Bull's “I want to kill dragons” plot activates the first time you kill a high dragon.

Corypheus got me thinking about Sephiroth, since they—and their games—are such opposites. Final Fantasy 7 is a straight-line slalom run where the protagonist's lack of control is so fundamental to the game it's an aspect of the story, and the joke about FF7 is that you spend the whole game chasing after Sephiroth, always missing him by five minutes. And by almost every standard FF7 is inferior to DA:I. Except I've been watching a longplay of Final Fantasy 7 on YouTube and...Sephiroth is scary! I've played the game and Sephiroth is still scary! Every time his music plays I sit up straight because the guy is so unpredictable. History has allowed Sephiroth's long-haired pretty-boy image to eclipse his half-smashed spider behavior. He's a fucking nightmare! He tears the setting apart, runs all over the place, kills your friends, kills your enemies, messes with your mind, and he's nuttier than a shithouse chipmunk, which means that even when you understand his plan, you don't really understand his plan.

It's been fascinating watching BioWare since for the past 5-10 years they've been interrogating themselves about how to balance player agency with the emotional needs of a good drama. Their previous offerings often punched up the emotional impact of their stories by denying us meaningful choice, which culminated in the clumsy ending of the Mass Effect trilogy. DA:I is the closest I've ever seen them come yet to a perfect balance. It gave us all the agency we could ever want, though here and there the drama fell flat. But every game seems to bring them closer to some elusive and perhaps asymptotic ideal; I cannot wait to see what they try next.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to that longplay and try to hide whenever Sephiroth's spooky-tolling-bell music starts up.