Joshua Unruh Y'all don't want to hear me, you just want to dance

27Mar/144

Everybody Knows I’m A (Particular Kind) Of Monster

A week or so ago, I had a really frustrating conversation. This conversation was with someone who admits to not really being a "fiction person." That is, they don't read fiction very often and therefore don't want to be bothered with things like metaphors or representative qualities.

(You know who you are, nonfiction person. Please take this snark with a healthy dollop of "you know I love you.")

This came up as we discussed Twilight. I have not read Twilight, nor do I plan to. I do plan to watch the movies as a drinking game, though. I have also read enough excerpts from Twilight to realize it might not be very good. I'm also prone to hyperbole. So anybody who loves Twilight and reads this blog (though the odds do seem slim...), please don't flip out in the comments. Twilight is not the point.

What I said was that Twilight had one good idea in it and it was too bad that a hack had the idea. My NonFicFriend asked what this good idea was.

"Celibate sex monsters?" I said. "C'mon, that's gold." His response was a somewhat blank stare. "Vampires are sex monsters," I said a little too loudly. He wasn't having it. "This can't lose you, it's on the label," I insisted. "I mean, I shouldn't lose you until I start talking about how the sex monsters used to be racist monsters and were loneliness monsters before that."

At which point I took many deep breaths and realized I had a blog post.

Monsters are not just things that try and eat your face. Not the really interesting ones, at any rate. Monsters represent concepts we find legitimately terrifying but are so nebulous a concept that we have to give it fangs or weird powers or something in order to get a grip on it.

Take sex, for example. Sex is freakin' frightening, you guys. It has powers over us we barely understand or control. It sells us things. It convinces us insane actions are totally reasonable in the name of short term gain. And that's before I get into the really controversial stuff. Sex is TERRIFYING.

And that's why Vampires are usually (at least these days) sex monsters. They are super attractive despite being incredibly dangerous. They mesmerize us, make us do things against our will, and remain ever-youthful (see also: potency/virility/fecundity) even while sucking out our life force (blood and fertility have a lot going on mythologically). They're also the "bad boys" or "femme fatales" that attract otherwise "pure" or "good" women and men with their darker qualities. Which is a reflection of other weird things sex does to us (ie, making us want what we shouldn't want).

Where this gets particularly interesting to me is when the thing the monster represents drifts with culture. For instance, today vampires are sex monsters, but this is a holdover from Dracula. Except Dracula wasn't a sex monster...or at least, he wasn't only a sex monster. In fact, he wasn't even primarily a sex monster. He was a foreigner monster, and the sex just got tacked on because that made the foreigner even more terrible.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, let me explain. This may be blunt, so keep grace in mind. Dracula is a foreigner monster because he is a hairy-knuckled Slav who shows up in Victoria's England and starts assimilating himself into society while not leaving any of his barbaric, Eastern European customs behind. This is exactly what Victorian society feared the most. The sun may never set on the Empire, but that only allowed a bunch of grubby heathens on the edges of it to claim they were English.

Here's where the sex monster part comes in: Dracula "ruins" the good English women! He forces them to lust after him with his swarthy skin, fantastic mustachios, and monstrous mesmerizing powers! Then he becomes intimate with these women, thus stealing their virtue and ruining them for the Empire as women of (literally) good breeding! Surely this is theft of the flower of English womanhood is how the Empire will eventually fall!

Dracula is a monstrous, racist caricature of what Victorian England most feared: It's own slow destruction from inside at the hands of the less savory edges of the Empire. And this attack would not come from a military force, but by occupation of the nation's wombs.

These days, we like to think we're more enlightened and less overtly racist, so the feared foreigner has worn off Dracula leaving us with only the sex monster. Which a whole host of creators have happily polished to a gemlike quality in the intervening century and a half. So much so that it's often hard to think of them as anything but sex monsters.

As weird as that is, I'm still not entirely sure how Stoker took a Romani loneliness monster and turned it into a racist sex monster. I'm pretty happy he did, though.

What do you guys think? Am I reading too much into monsters? Do you want to hear about a few more before you decide if this is a good theory? Which ones do you think break the concept? Let me know in the comments!

3Oct/132

Words Mean Things: The Superhero

We can all agree on what an airplane is, right? Wings, engines, has full flight capability. A fighter jet is a plane built specifically for speed and blowing things up. An airliner is a plane built specifically for moving people quickly and economically. They're both still basically airplanes. But is a car just an airplane with the wings removed? Obviously, the answer is no. You've taken away so many aspects of what makes an airplane an airplane that you've turned it into something else.

Genres are pretty fluid things. But while an individual genre is pretty malleable, they can be knocked all out of shape if you work hard enough at it. There's a moment when you strip the wings and jet engine from your genre, and it stops being an airplane and becomes a car.

You all followed that analogy, right? Okay, good, carry on.

Well, last week I came up on what we shall charitably call a dialogue about superheroes that resulted in me, as a writer and a fan, needing to know what actually makes a superhero story a superhero story. What are the absolute bare minimum requirements of the genre.

I've discussed before how superheroes are almost infinitely malleable. But while you can keep adding things to a superhero story and still (probably) have a superhero story, there must be a point where subtracting elements leaves you without one. Otherwise the words don't mean anything. So what are these bare minimum elements? I'm glad you asked!

First, a caveat. Although each of these elements is important, a story doesn't have to have every single one of them to be a superhero story. Neither do all the elements have to be of equal intensity. But you do require a quorum of these elements and at least a few of them turned up to 11. Otherwise your jet is just a car.

For instance, Batman has no super powers, but he's demonstrably a superhero. The Fantastic Four don't have secret identities, but they're also still squarely in the superhero genre. Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage fight crime, but they are not superheroes.

Will there be fringe cases that could go either way? You betcha. But I think they're going to be the minority because I am aiming squarely for a baseline definition of superhero that makes sense with the history of the genre as well as pointing into the future of superhero characters.

Superheroes Must

  1. Possess Super Powers - Superheroes must have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Concussive force fired from the eyes. The proportional strength and speed of a spider. Unbreakable knives popping out of knuckles. Titanic strength, flight, freeze breath, et al. Bottom line, the superhero is super.
  2. Possess A Colorful Costumed Identity... - Superheroes wear costumes. You can call them uniforms or action suits if that makes you feel better. Whatever you name it, the superhero has a unique and visually striking outfit she wears when fighting crime (we'll get to that one) that could not possibly be confused for street clothes.
  3. ...Which Hides Their Civilian Identity - Only a handful of trusted associates or dedicated allies can know the true identity of our hero or heroine. Naturally, this brings with it the attendant hiding-a-double-life shenanigans.
  4. Fight Crime... - Superheroes punch muggers, bank robbers, mobsters, terrorists, Nazis and whoever else is foolish enough to commit nefarious deeds in front of our hero.
  5. ...Which Also Cloaks Itself In Colorful Costumed Identities - Run-of-the-mill gunsels and fourth columnists are fine for a while, but eventually a superhero needs somebody who does evil as flamboyantly as the hero does good. Superheroes simply must have supervillains.
  6. Battle Internal Conflicts Literalized Externally - This is admittedly a little more esoteric than I wanted to get for this list. Still, I've been convinced this entry is deserved. But what does this gobbledygook mean? I'll explain with two examples. Peter Parker's internal conflict is deciding what is the greatest good. On one side of town, his loving, ailing aunt needs the pills Peter holds. On the other side of town, the Scorpion is blowing things up and robbing banks. Peter is literally faced with the dilemma of having great power, yet not knowing where the greater responsibility lies. Or take a dying Superman who has always been empowered by solar energy literally facing his own mortality by fighting an evil computer in the shape of a sun.
  7. Be Better People Than Us So As To Inspire Us - For some reason, I feel like this statement is going to be the most controversial. But it's also the one that most defines superheroes. Superheroes are selfless. They sacrifice to protect their fellow men and women. And while they are people (albeit fictional ones) and far from perfect, they are still heroes. I'm going to quote Chris Sims of Comics Alliance at length here for a minute.

...superheroes are a fundamentally optimistic proposition. They all descend from Superman, a character who’s built around the idea that this person with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men would use them exclusively for the benefit of others.

They have to be better people, because they serve to inspire us to be better people.

Optimism. Inspiration. Selflessness. An example of how to be better . I'm down with that stuff. Somewhere along the line it became cool to be cynical. Like, hoping for the future or having compassion for your fellow man became less important than how hip you are.

To hell with that noise! I want to be inspired! I want to be inspiring! And if optimism is the new counter-culture, then Superman is the most punk rock thing in the universe! It also means all those guys who think they're too cool for superheroes the way they ought to be are really just sad sacks who want to drag down an ideal. Good luck keeping a guy like this down. And me too, super powers or not.

PS: So that got a little crazy there at the end. But I still think this is a useful metric! Argue with me in the comments if you like. Especially on the seventh point. I mean, you're sad and you're wrong if you want to argue against that, but I still appreciate interesting conversation. ;)

28Jan/132

Because Nobody Asked Me: What Do I Think about JJ Abrams on Star Wars?

Very recently, a friend brought it to my attention that it had been a month since I posted to the blog. I've been writing mad posts, but admittedly for another blog. And that's only the beginning of the neglect here. Still, as a guy who really cares about popular culture and genre fiction done well, I'm going to shortly weigh in on the burning nerd question of the moment...

How do I feel about JJ Abrams on a Star Wars movie?

The more interesting thing to me is the irony of Disney, the creator of our copyright problems, taking a beloved piece of pop cultural landscape and opening it up to the world for reimagining and reinvention in a way its creator only had minor interest in.

But as far as JJ, my thoughts boil down to two things.

  1. I'm a huge Star Trek fan and JJ's reboot/reimagining is the best thing since Original Flavor. It gave me back the thing Star Trek had been missing since Original Flavor turned into movies about saving whales and The Next Generation let nonsense words take over for good writing. Excitement.
  2. Star Wars sure as hell can't get any worse.

 

26Aug/120

O Holy Knight 4 – Controversial Statement

I have one more paladin thought. It's kind of a lame blog post, but it's a thing I feel needs to be said. There may be argument. I welcome it. I will bury you if you try and argue against this. But you should still totally try if you want to. It's just a fair warning.

Paladins are good guys, therefore Jedi cannot be paladins because they are just as evil as Sith...maybe worse because they lie about it. To themselves and the galaxy at large.

That is all. More, non-paladin related things tomorrow. G'night.

25Aug/120

O Holy Knight 3 – Cleric v. Paladin

This is a little off topic of why I love paladins. That's partly because I'm not sure I can explain my appreciation for them in a more satisfying way than "their clarity of purpose and ability to actually hurt evil with a gun or sword rather than just perpetuating evil with their gun or sword" just by throwing more words at it. I can clarify my position, but I can't really justify it better than that.

Secondly, my insistence that traditional Dungeons & Dragons paladins don't actually make any sense merely underscores the fact the the clerics don't make any sense either. And if you're going to have two religious character classes that make no sense, you need to figure out what the relationship between them is internally because the fiction fails utterly to suggest anything.

Thirdly, this concept was new to me in that I didn't realize other people were confused about it. That's not a slam, it's just one of those things you instinctively understand and then get confused about when other people ask you why water is wet. Discovering an entire thread on Story Games that tried to parse the difference between a cleric and a paladin was like when I loaned comics to people and they insisted they couldn't figure out what order to read the balloons in.

Guys...it's obvious. Right up until you meet somebody for whom it isn't.

So I read that thread with much interest even though I discovered it mostly after it was over. I can say that, functionally, as in mechanically and by the rules, I have no idea how paladins and clerics are supposed to be different. I think that would depend wildly on the rules secondarily and primarily on whether one agrees with my delineation of their roles. All of which, by the way, are in-fiction.

Clerics

When the night is dark and dreadful. When you have an unshakeable disease or a wound that refuses to heal. When you're having a crisis of faith. When you need comfort. When you need to know which rule you broke that brought judgment down on you. When you need inspiration. When you need a marriage/blessing/christening/funeral/other sacred rite or ritual, you get a cleric.

There is a system, god-given or man-made, that codifies the rules of the deities into what you need to do on a daily basis. These rules can shift and change over time, but this is rarely seismic. There is a comfort in the cleric's presence because he or she represents these rules, the foundation upon which society rests.

Sure, they have weapons and armor, but that's because the (typical fantasy) world is a dangerous place. Clerics are often themselves rich or part of rich orders and kidnapping/ransom is a problem even in civilized places. The itinerant priest is on the edges of civilization where his status will not protect him because "decent folks" are few and far between.

But when he or she shows up, the village feels instantly better. The fortified city knows that deities are on its side. Clerics, on a metaphysical level, a warm blanket. They heal, they cure, they inspire, they are, above all, comfortable.

Paladins are...well, they aren't any of these things.

Paladins

When a vampire has fangs sunk into your neck. When demons threaten your village. When infidels stand ready to invade your nation. When someone requires divine judgment. When Evil threatens. When the situation is so dire that you would gladly get burned in order to fight the fire with fire, you get a paladin.

Clerics work within a system by learning the system. They're egalitarian in a way. After all, anyone who studies can become a cleric. Paladins operate outside and sometimes even in opposition to the system. Clerics discern the will of deities through the lens of their traditions. Paladins hear the voice of their deity directly. And for the paladin, that voice never says "comfort" or "evangelize" or "protect." It only says "kill."

Oh sure, they might be killing to protect, but that isn't the real issue at hand for a paladin. They are there to kill Evil Things, and if by killing Evil Things, Good Things are allowed to thrive, that's wonderful. If the Good Things have to be purged in order to kill the Evil Things, that's equally preferable.

Paladins don't just carry weapons, they are weapons. They never get sick, they rarely get tired, they can heal, but it's usually just to keep fighting. When a paladin shows up, the village feels instant relief. But that only lasts until the threat, whatever it is, has been beaten. Then they fear who will come under judgment next...and secretly know they are as likely to feel the edge of the paladin's blade as whatever Evil Thing was just vanquished.

Comparisons

Clerics are shields, Paladins are swords.

Clerics are antibiotics, Paladins are chemotherapy.

Clerics are blankets, Paladins are armor.

Do a thought experiment for me. Imagine the average priest. Kindly, careworn face, smile lines around mouth and eyes. They're handing you food or giving you medicine. They are probably at least a middle aged man with time-tested values. They may pray for you, beseeching the Lord to protect and comfort you even as they are doing.

No imagine Jeanne D'Arc. She's a teenager, and a woman. She wears men's clothes and armor. She has a sword. She only ever either looks angry or has a faraway look. And you're way more worried about that faraway look because it probably means God is talking to her...or she thinks He is. And if He's talking to her, He's telling her to kill. Do you have a secret sin? Of course you do, everyone does. Do you think she might judge you if God spoke to her of your secret sin? Of course she would. And she's only got one sentence...death.

At this point, I don't even care if the Cleric and Paladin are functionally the same in the rules. They are going to be wildly different in the fiction. And as a gamemaster, I can work with that. I can create situations where the Cleric is the brains and the Paladin is the muscle. I can cast the Cleric as the loremaster and knowledge keeper, the one who knows how best to hit the monster, while the Paladin is the attack dog.

Does that make life easier or harder for the characters? I have no idea, but I know it'll make it more interesting.

PS: Modern D&D, whatever that means, appears to disagree with me. Looking at images and such, I honestly can't tell the difference between Clerics and Paladins. That feels like a mighty fail. D&D players who read this blog, speak up on this. What's the official line on differences?

21Aug/120

O Holy Knight 2

As promised, here's a few of my thoughts on the Western Paladin.

No, not that one! (Although this guy did imprint on me a bit, but more on that another time)

I mean this type of one.

Actually, I don't entirely mean this one either. It was years before I heard of the Song of Roland. My first real brush, and it was love at first sight I might add, looked more like this.

Dungeons & Dragons, baby! Get your dice bags and Doritos! It's time to roll a paladin, kill monsters, and take their stuff! And here's how I knew what I was doing.

Man, that brings back memories both misty AND watercolored.

Yep, well before literature or myths and legends, I fell in love with the paladin while playing D&D. In case you were wondering, my favorite of all time was Jombers, the Fist of Torm. That bad ass started out as an NPC fighter, but I made him into a holy warrior!

Here's the thing I didn't realize for a long, long time. Paladins in Dungeons & Dragons make zero sense. They are basically pseudo-medieval crusaders in a Germanic pagan, polytheistic world who had to follow Fauxdeo-Christian strictures. Say whaaaaaa...? Even Crystal Dragon Jesus doesn't really make this make sense.

But at the time, I didn't care. Holy warriors delving into the depths of the earth to kill evil things and bring back treasure to their ridiculously ornate and wildly out of place cathedrals was exactly what I wanted to play.

As for the current best and only paladin "done right," I can't suggest The Deed of Paksnarion enough. If you're going to do D&D paladins, at least this frames them in a conceptual way that makes sense. Go read it now!

At some point in the not-too-distant future, I, too, will be throwing my hat into the ring of "paladins done right." I'll keep you posted, but for now, just go read about Paks. She's pretty damned amazing.

More tomorrow! Probably "clerics v. paladins" since I opened the whole D&D can of worms today.

20Aug/125

O Holy Knight

I love Paladins. As far as I can remember, I always have.

This is kinda crazy for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being my own personal views on spirituality and pacifism. Maybe that's one of the reasons I like the idea of a holy warrior so much. It is much easier to fight and die for what you believe in than to just die. That clarity of purpose is hard to come by in real life, which may make it so attractive in fiction.

At any rate, the turnkey moment for my paladin was was the realization that I appreciate paladins across cultures and genres. Sure, the love started with the very Dungeons & Dragons idea of a holy knight dispensing justice from the back of his white charger, but there are some other archetypes I didn't understand my own appreciation for until I tied them into the concept of the Paladin.

Obviously this is a pretty broad definition of paladin as "holy warrior," but I think that's fair considering how far away from The Song of Roland the D&D paladin is. I'm just widening the net similarly, but feel free to argue in the comments. Now, without further adieu, here's two of my most Eastern examples of paladins I love.

Sohei

"Only three things disregard my wishes: the rushing waters of the Kamo river, the unpredictable dice, and the mountain priests."

-Emperor Shirakawa (1073-1086)

First off, just look at that bad ass! A masked samurai with a sword on the end of an eight foot pole! Shields and big horses aren't the only way to roll like a paladin.

Sohei were the military arm of Buddhist sects in Japan during at least the Sengoku and various Shogunates, especially Tokugawa. These guys are sorta the token example of "fighting for peace" and how relatively stupid a concept that is. But like all Japanese warriors, they made up for philosophical holes by being amazing fighters.

Sohei favored the naginata enough that the weapon has become traditionally synonymous with them. Part of their fame was the ability to spin the weapon so hard and so fast that no arrow would hit them. Otherwise, they armed themselves more or less like the samurai, often incorporating steel helms beneath their trademark white cowls.

"Temple samurai" is a pretty boss concept.

My favorite story about sohei shows that they were thinkers willing to use religious beliefs against their enemies just as deftly if not as often as they did their weapons. There is a tale of an intractable daimyo (lord of lands, akin to a duke) who simply refused to come to accord with the monks in the mountains near his capitol. Normally, the sohei would swarm down the mountain and fight the daimyo's forces. But this daimyo's capitol had grown over a trade crossroads, making the lord very powerful and very rich. This allowed him a standing army strong enough that such a fight would likely end badly for the monks even if they won the battle.

Instead of a massive force, a small cadre of sohei marched down the mountain bearing their shrine's idol, sort of a large, ornate box acting as a, for lack of a better term, Buddhist reliquary. They set it down at the crossroads of the daimyo's capitol, right in the middle of where the merchants conducted all their trade and business. They placed a curse upon the idol and walked back up the mountain.

For several weeks, the cursed idol crippled trade. Nobody wanted to go touch the thing. Most wouldn't even go near it. The daimyo found his brisk trade ground to a halt. He made accord with the monks, who promptly came down the mountain, de-cursed the idol, and took it back to the monastery.

Wudang Monks

You know these guys best from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, starring the inimitable Chow Yun Fat (pictured right) and Michelle Yeoh.

Wudang Monks were real, but their reputation as "holy warriors" is apparently largely fictitious. Since I'm not from ancient China, the fictitious reputation affects me way more than the historical reality. At their core, the Wudang monks are Taoist counterparts to the Buddhist Shaolin (or vice versa) named for the mountain housing their monastery.

On a basic level, they're "Chinese sohei," but they diverge in a few big ways that make them different enough to appeal to me in other ways.

First, they didn't typically go to war, which means no vast armis of Wudang monks. In fiction, the Wudang typically ran in singles or duos, although they would team up with larger groups of non-monks.

Second, and the reason they didn't go to war, is that Wudan monks fought primarily for justice. In a vast land with little access to anything like a modern day police force, an expertly trained fighter who wished for nothing but seeing justice done and stood outside the social order of wealth and privilege would have been an absolute godsend (see what I did there?) to peasant villagers. That's a recognizably paladin idea applied in a very Eastern way.

Third, they retained their unassuming, monkish look. Sohei wore the cowls so that nobody ever forgot that a monk stood beneath all that armor and weaponry. The Wudang wanted to be recognized as monks first and only, they just happened to be really amazing swordsmen as well. No stallions, no big armor, no piles of weapons. This is absolutely a paladin focused through an Eastern mindset.

Lastly, the fictional Wudang are the sorta inspiration for the Staten Island rap supergroup, Wu-Tang Clan.

Okay, this post has gone on longer than I expected. In the near future, I'll probably talk in more detail about the original, Western paladins. I'll suggest the best novel about a paladin (until I write my own, that is). I'll also discuss the difference between a cleric and a paladin in roleplaying game terms since D&D had made that a conversation almost necessary if you're going to write or game in the fantasy genre.

15Aug/120

Parents Who Watch Phantom Menace Have Children Who Watch Phantom Menace

The other day, my 5yo son started humming the Imperial March. Now, we'd watched the Star Wars Trilogy with him when he was, like, three. And he is pretty precocious. But it seemed a bit of a long shot that the song had somehow imprinted itself on him two years ago when he could barely follow a conversation with bread. The weirdest thing was how familiar that tune is to me. I fell right in with him for a couple bars before realizing the whole scene was weird.

"Hey, where did you hear that song?" I asked.

"At Evan's house. He was playing Lego Star Wars." Thoughtful pause. "Dad, can we watch Star Wars?"

I said yes without thinking, and I meant it. But the question of which Star Wars movies we would watch and in what order instantly took center stage of my mind. At first, I thought the answer would be an easy one. We'll only watch the good ones, obviously.

Well, the good ones and Return of the Jedi.

But then my friend Jeff called me to task. "The week he starts school, you're going to introduce him to Star Wars...but not the Star Wars all the other kids know? You're a terrible parent."

My gut reaction was, "Or I'm the only good parent!"

And I stand by that to some extent. Those prequels are terrible. Really terrible. They took a series of movies I'd seen countless times, one of which I'd even heard before seeing because my mother was VERY pregnant with me when she saw it in the theater, and sucked the life and joy right out of them.

But I did hear those Clone War cartoons are pretty cool. And of course there was potential in the prequels before Lucas turned the whole thing into a latrine. Countless allusions and suggestions across books and comics showed that. Was there a way to introduce the entirety of the Star Wars movie canon to my son without wanting to drill through my own eye?

Another friend to the rescue, this time Brett Grimes of the famed Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes entry to Kanye + Comics. He linked me to a post on Absolutely No Machete Juggling suggesting the author has nailed the viewing order for Star Wars. It's really quite inspired and I won't steal his thunder by explaining it all here. Essentially, the order boils down to IV, V, II, III, VI.

I'm going to give it a try on myself while showing them to the boy. If nothing else, it ought to make Return of the Jedi look thousands of percent better. And then, even if it's a mistake, we can watch a bunch of Clone Wars cartoons. That's a win, right? At least a Pyrrhic one? Maybe?

Damn you all over again, Lucas.

26Apr/120

Having Chosen to Oppose His Shield, I Yield

A long, LONG time ago, I complained that the Captain America movie was doing it wrong based on trailers and without having seen it. I come before you, lo these many months later and just before the Avengers movie drops, to recant...sorta.

Why am I taking an entire blog post to say I was wrong? Because once I think an opinion through, I rarely change it. Only time and eroding the original core thesis can typically change my mind. When I do change my mind, it only feels right to point it out.

I'll sum up my previous post stating my usual thesis thusly: "Superhero origins are really boring if used for anything other than a quick (emphasis on quick) vehicle to get them into costume and punching bad guys in garish costumes." I stand by this with a few exceptions, Captain America not being one of them.

But this movie managed to keep me engaged even through the relentlessly slow origin build-up. And, my friends, it is relentlessly slow. However, it is never, ever boring.

I think that's the key. Probably the same with Batman Begins and the opposite with Green Lantern. BB absolutely belabors every little damn thing about the Nolan Batman's painful and small origin, but it's so fraught with all the emotions that we're never bored while we wait for the cape and cowl to show up.

Similarly, in Captain America everything is absolutely fraught with idealism that we're able to overlook how damn long it takes for the guy to punch super-Nazis.

In Green Lantern, however, we have a painfully long amount of time where Hal Jordan is a douche followed by a painfully long amount of time learning how to make a <sigh> gun with his magic wish-ring while on Planet CGI. Nothing is fraught here.

Just to show this is not a new problem, Superman The Motion Picture suffers from a lot (45 MINUTES!) of Planet NobodyCares and living on the NobodyCares farm before he gets in the costume. Interestingly, very similar problems to GL just in a different order.

Anyway, the bottom line is, I was wrongish. You can, with the right origin, the right take, and the right attention to craft make even the most boring, three-line origin story into compelling cinema.

I still wish they'd knock it off, though.

5Apr/126

Vive la Différence: Science Fiction and Fantasy

Vive la Différence is a new feature of the blog (probably, note previous posts) where I take a couple things that have been (sometimes inexplicably) intertwined with one another and talk about what, to me, are the core differences between them.

Today's two sacred cows ready to be slaughtered, ground, and grilled are the venerable statesmen of nerdery...science fiction and fantasy.

Even undergradutes in Nerdery or Geekonomy are aware of Clarke's law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This more than anything save the overlap in fandoms explains why these two genres have been so closely linked. While the early days of "hard science fiction" tried (and typically succeeded) in grounding their worldbuilding in hard science facts, this eventually fell by the wayside for the most part.

Eventually you get into the areas of Space Opera, such as Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, or the Star Wars franchise, that don't even try and hide the fact that they are essentially fantasy stories with the trappings of science fiction.

"But how does it work?" the fan says. "It's futuristic, advanced technology!" the author might reply, "so it just does." And, for the most part, this has been perfectly acceptable. Although, every now and then you'll find a series of sci fi novels that tries to pay more than the usual amount of lip service to science fact. The Honor Harrington series comes immediately to mind.

Nevertheless, there is still a moment where we, the reader or viewer, have to suspend our disbelief and just accept that the tech works because the fictional people have discovered some esoteric fact or formula that we have yet to stumble upon.

Which sounds dreadfully like magic if you think very hard about it. Is there a great distance betweenthe scientific laboratory with its bubbling beakers and Jacob's Ladders and the alchemist's workspace with its bubbling beakers and stuffed alligators? Is there a great distance between the scientist's unintelligible scribblings on a blackboard and the draconian scratching of ancient glyphs on the diabolist's floor?

I have come to the conclusion that the main difference between science fiction and fantasy is one of attitude. Generally and broadly, in a science fiction story, when something inexplicable happens, there's someone there to insist that there is an explanation. In fantasy, at some level, it is entirely appropriate and accepted to shrug your shoulders and figure faeries did it.

This isn't to say that there aren't rules for magic. John Butcher's Dresden Files exemplify the marriage of vague science fact with eldritch fiction. The energy for spells has to come from somewhere, there are sympathetic energies, etc. But at the same time, there are beings ancient and terrible who are what they are because they are beings of magic and nobody is even considering subjecting them to the scientific method.

And this isn't a bad thing! The supernatural fills us with a cold, quiet dread that defies our modern understanding of the world. That's it's job.

The flipside of this, for me, is the JJ Abrams created television show Fringe. I realized that all the wild happenings that kick off each individual episode (including some Big Picture elements I won't discuss due to their spoileriness) could easily be described as spells, precognition, or simply magic. But every time Walter shows up on the scene, everybody turns to him and say, "Whaddya think, Walter?"

And even if Walter doesn't immediately know, his attitude is always that he can figure it out. "But I can't know for sure until I get back to my lab." He should just have a sign. Or I should have a drinking game. Or both.

Now, some wily magus in a fantasy story might act the same way. And there is certainly a point of suspension of disbelief for both types of story. But the attitude is certainly more at home in one type of story than the other.

As a writer, this was a big discovery for me. Did I want to dwell on the details of the weird happenings? Did I want them to be explainable? Did I want my intrepid heroes to stare into the eye of the unknown and overcome their fear to deal with it? Or did I want them to hitch up their lab coats and insist it make an accounting of itself?

Thinking about the tone and feel of the story I'm planning helped me decide if it would work better as sci fi, fantasy, or some mash up. But if it is a mash up, I still know which style I wanted to emphasize. I mean, in a 50-50 situation, everybody still angles for the hyphen, right?

So vive la différence, science fiction and fantasy! We love you for different reasons, but we may not love you deeply until we know those reasons!