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.