Sunday, November 24, 2013

A Quick One


Yeah, there’s no getting rid of me. That’s the inevitable consequence of having no job and an ego the size of Russia. It’s also the result of trying to cover as many facets of a problem as fairly as possible. Today I want to discuss the flipside of last entry’s topic: the skillful use of magic to avoid damaging the verisimilitude of a story. For that, I’ll be using a pivotal moment from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Star Trek spin-off with probably the most stellar and ambitious episodes of the saga.

Give or take a few.

Part 1:  In the Hands of the Prophets
The franchise began adding fantastical elements to the Star Trek universe with the character of Q. The writers made sure that the episodes in which Q appeared were self-contained, comical, or character studies, because if they allowed Q to play a bigger role, it’d be a matter of time before his omnipotence interfered with plot mechanics.

They also made sure to get rid of all stupid headgear.

…for a while.
DS9 tried something similar with the Prophets. In DS9’s first episode, the protagonist, Commander Benjamin Sisko, is identified as the Prophets’ Emissary, a Moses-like figure, the man whom the Prophets have chosen as their spokesperson and corporeal agent.
It was easy to forget this aspect of the show since the writers devoted one episode a season to it during the first half of the show’s run. This was most likely a manifestation of the same common sense that guided the writers of TNG. You don’t want to give divine entities too much time in the spotlight or make the plot too dependent on them. In the words of Ronald D. Moore: “The wormhole aliens/Prophets have to be used sparingly or they’ll become too pedestrian.”

Too bad he didn’t follow his own advice on Battlestar Galactica.

The ultimate test for this approach came in season six, at the climax of “Sacrifice of Angels.” In this episode, the Federation’s expansionist counterpart, the Dominion, is on the point of bringing in reinforcements that will turn the fortunes of war against the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Just as everything is headed for the crapper, Sisko flies his one ship to tackle the large Dominion fleet inside the wormhole where the Prophets live. Rather than let their emissary die, the Prophets intervene and make the Dominion fleet vanish into thin air, assuring Sisko that, eventually, he will be punished for forcing their hand.

But it was we who were punished.

As much as I always loved that episode, the nagging part of me couldn’t help but wonder if this wasn’t some blatant deus ex machina. You can read Ira Steven Behr’s thoughts on the matter. In fact, you should read his two cents on the matter because we happen to have the same opinion: it isn’t a deus ex machina.

In order for it to be one, it would have to be unexpected and contrived--that is, constrained by no laws to speak of. As I said earlier, the special relationship between Sisko and the Prophets was established right off the bat. It was thanks to Sisko that the Prophets allowed interstellar travel through their wormhole. In Season 4’s “Accession”, when Sisko started shying away from his religious role, the Prophets saw to it that he quit balking and embraced his religious authority once and for all. He, in turn, stepped up to the plate a year later during the events of “Rapture”, when he used his clout as Emissary to keep the Bajorans (the alien race that worships the Prophets) from joining the Federation, thus saving them from destruction at the onset of the Dominion War.

When chance allowed the Prophets to do away with the Dominion reinforcements in “Sacrifice of Angels” it was only natural for Sisko to demand they intervene and for them to oblige (however grudgingly). Any other outcome would have run contrary to everything that had been established so far. Everything followed logically from what had been established throughout the series’ run.  

If the writers had decided to end the war with this story arc (as they originally intended), I would have been less forgiving. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. The war went on and had to be won through sweat, tears, and blood, as any other war.

Don’t read this the wrong way, though. Any scenario that includes Prophets, Q, or whatever divine entity you prefer is very delicate, and even when you handle it with kid gloves, it takes something away from the story. Part of me wishes that the writers had come up with a different way to handle the reinforcement fleet. I’m sure the Americans would’ve loved that God or whoever had winked the Germans out of existence at Omaha, and that the Soviets would’ve welcomed the same miracle at Stalingrad or any other engagement on the Eastern Front. That they prevailed over impossible odds with sheer stamina, ingenuity, and bits of luck is what makes their accomplishment all the more fantastic.

And their losses all the more tragic.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There is nothing wrong with using magic, but you can’t simply spring it on the readers to resolve plot complications. It should be regimented so it doesn’t spin out of control. That way the author can shine a light on what is truly magical and awe-inspiring in any plot resolution: the human spirit meeting a challenge with strength and ingenuity. Arbitrary solutions cannot and should not be a substitute for that.

Part 2: Weren’t You Supposed to Be Talking About History, Too?

Yeah, I haven’t forgotten about that. But I needed to get the introductions out of the way first. From now on, I’ll be devoting one part of the blog to covering historical topics and another part to commentaries on A Song of Ice and Fire and probably The Wire to compare and contrast distinct storytelling approaches (focused on execution and content as I described them before) that can make or wreck a long-running series.

The historical pieces will illustrate what I said in my first entry about using history as a source of terrific content for the fantasy genre. So if you guys thought I’d already gotten started, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Epilogue:  All fans of DS9 owe it to themselves to check out Abigail Nussbaum’s retrospective on the show. Trust me, you won’t regret it. She’s guaranteed to have spotted things you never even considered.  She’s also written a handful of first-rate essays for you TNG fans out there.  

These essays are priceless and well worth the read.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dancing in a Minefield: A Brief Look at A Song of Ice and Fire


Hey, it’s me again. I am that guy who started a blog making you think it was about something incredibly important and it ended up being about Epic Fantasy.

I know you’ve been waiting with bated breath for me to elaborate on my points, and now that my cable provider has finally cut me off for not paying my bills, I have plenty of time to write.

I want to touch off the discussion by talking about A Song of Ice and Fire, but that’s not an easy task.

Not when you consider ASOIAF is one of the hottest topics on the Internet. It might be the one subject matter that can rival porn in terms of Internet traffic.

And now it’s closing in on porn, too!

Everybody has their pet peeves with this series. I thought mine was a simple one that would have no big consequences in the long run. But, man, I haven’t been this wrong since the time I thought Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would be a good movie.

I’m still waiting for my refund to arrive in the mail.

Part I: Misbalance of Terror

What better way to start than to discuss the clumsy employment of magic in ASOIAF? In general terms, there’s this broad divide between the people who love the realistic aspects of the story (the quasi-historical power struggle between dynasties, court intrigue, the emotional impact of war), and those who enjoy the fantastic elements (Dany’s dragons, the Others, prophecies, dreams, wargs, visions, etc.) as much as the mainstream elements.

But like much of the whining on the Internet, this discussion has only scratched the surface. It’s not an issue of whether you prefer dragons over the down-to-earth feud between Lannisters and Starks. It’s an issue of balance, and ASOIAF has tipped the scales too much to one side, creating a situation for potential disaster.

Like me walking past a Burger King.

Nobody will dispute that magic was there from the start. It is right there in the prologue of the first book when the Others attack the Night’s Watch rangers, it is there in the abnormal length of the seasons, it is an important part of Jon’s storyline, and it alters Dany’s fate dramatically at the end of the book. The issue is that these elements make but a fraction of the plot.

The core of A Game of Thrones is a detective/political story. That’s what the majority of the audience responded to, and because it constituted the bulk of the plot it was only natural for readers to imagine it was setting the template for the saga.

And for the most part, the template was exactly that. This approach did relegate the fantasy elements to the fringes, but they were still there. The problem was that, being on the outskirts, these elements didn’t have time to develop properly, namely with a set of rules that ensured the characters didn’t become too powerful and that magic couldn’t be used as a crutch.

The most deftly executed magic element in the books is skin changing. It happens gradually and doesn’t have an undue impact on the plot. Bran Stark has dreams where he sees the world through the eyes of his direwolf. As the story progresses, he learns how to control this ability and, by this process, the reader gets a feel of how the magic works. Arya and Jon go through similar processes, but they are not as relevant to their respective arcs (at least not yet).

(There’s an opinion on the Internet that Jon’s discovery of the immense wildling camp through the eyes of Ghost is an example of deus ex machina, but given that the ultimate outcome of his arc for A Clash of Kings would have probably been the same if he hadn’t had that vision, I’m going to disagree with this guy. Moreover, technically speaking, Jon doesn’t really save his party thanks to that vision.)

One last point: the wildlings have skin changers themselves, so one doesn’t see the imbalance that deus ex machinae tend to bring out. This last point is very important. I have nothing against dragons, shapeshifters, sorcerers, or any other fantastical creature in this or any other book per se. I only get peeved when magical elements give one set of characters an easy advantage over their adversaries. 

This gives me the perfect opening to talk about Melisandre, who stands on the other end of the magic spectrum. Here we have a character that is anything but; it’d be more accurate to call her a plot tool. For most of the books she plays the part of evil sorceress moving from victory to victory with an arsenal of spells nobody else in the world seems to possess.

Except for the whole baring-your-tits-to-get-your-way thing.

Her introduction in the prologue of ACOK was the first clue I had that Martin would start relying on magical gimmicks to resolve certain plot elements. Her use of prescience and “shadow-birthing” makes for a very jarring note in the symphony that is ASOIAF. At this stage of the story, it feels as unnatural as the idea of Iron Maiden releasing a cover of “Love Hurts.”

Then again it couldn’t be any worse than their cover of “My Generation.”  

What’s more irritating about Melisandre is that her very presence snuffed out what could have been an excellent storyline. As the story stands, her spells enable Stannis Baratheon to become a serious contender for the Iron Throne. Without her, he would have had to consider some drastic changes to his personality in order to gain allies. And if he’d still wanted to be a stubborn wanker, it could have given poor Davos something to do besides being a fly on the wall 90% of the time he’s in the book.

It would have been nice to see Davos play the part of reluctant diplomat, for instance. Either story or a combo would have made for a terrific and very human arc, but because we had Melisandre waving her magic wand and forklifting Stannis to relevance, we got a cheap fantasy sub-tale instead. Sloppy execution will affect content every time. If Martin was willing to do this for a major player once, who was to say he wouldn’t do it again?

Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

Again in ACOK, Dany spends her second-to-last chapter in a bad acid dream having one prophetic vision after another…this in a book series that had proved in its first installment that it could deliver the goods without overworked tropes. In a Storm of Swords, the Ghost of High Heart spouts her share of prophecies, as well. That some of these visions have so far turned out to be true is beyond the point. The point is there was never a dramatic necessity to introduce these elements in the first place.

Take out the dragons and you have a great poster for BDSM lovers everywhere.

In A Storm of Swords, that bane of dramatic impact, the resurrection of dead characters, reared its ugly head in the cases of Beric Dondarrion and Catelyn Stark. Now even death was losing its meaning. This from a writer who once criticized Tolkien for resurrecting Gandalf.

In A Feast for Crows, Euron Greyjoy wins the kingsmoot with the aid of a magic horn that scares the bejesus out of his future subjects. It’s only the arbitrary introduction of this instrument that gives him victory. In that same book, Martin revises history by subjugating Cersei to a prophecy to justify her hatred of Tyrion and Margaery. Everything that had been established about her superiority complex explained her motivations adequately enough. Supplanting that with a prophecy (“complementing” would be too generous a word) is beyond superfluous; it’s a diminishment of her humanity and the artistry of characterization.

That’s what clichés and tropes can do to a story: they damage the integrity of the fictional world in service of arbitrary events that hurt verisimilitude.


It means anything can happen.

But if anything can happen, if there are no rules to adhere to, then how do I get invested in the characters? Why should I care about their actions when all kinds of contrivances can wash out what they do and give an unfair advantage to other characters (i.e., Melisandre, Euron’s horn)?

And how can we tell when something is unfair? By observing the implicit and explicit laws of the universe. But there are few rules like that in ASOIAF, because magic has been underdeveloped. Magic comes to the fore whenever it suits the plot or to give fans something to write dissertations about during the 5-year-long waits between books.

You know what my favorite part of ASOIAF is? The Red Wedding. Yes, it is the most shocking event of the saga bar none, and it is the greatest highpoint of ASOS, a book that delivers more highpoints than any other fantasy novel in living memory. But the real reason I liked it is that Martin went through with the natural development of that storyline without resorting to a deus ex machina to save Robb’s life.

Typically, a hero can afford to pull off outrageous stunts or go on suicide missions because, unless this is the very last time we’ll see him in action, it’s a sure bet that he’ll survive whatever the story throws at him. This is not the case with Robb. He committed one fatal political error after another (a chip off the old block, indeed) and instead of giving him a pass, Martin finished off his story on a natural note.

Ultimately, that’s what bothers me most about Martin. He’s immensely talented. He has a rare gift for storytelling and an occasional willingness to stray off the beaten path. Why does he need to resort to clichés then? How many people would have regarded A Game of Thrones so admiringly if he’d played it safe from the start? It’s because I know the man has it in him that I’m waiting for the best despite the massive disappointment that Book IV and V were. I live with the hope that AFFC and ADWD will be remembered as necessary evils that ensured that the last two books would be the masterpieces this saga deserves.

But I have more doubts than hopes, and not only because Martin has proven himself susceptible to the temptations of tropes. My doubts stem from concerns that I have about the genre itself. I wonder if too much escapism pervades it.

Part II: Escaping Escapism.

Let’s get one thing straight. All stories, no matter how realistic, are escapist in nature. They draw us into a world different from our own, sometimes for soothing, life-affirming purposes (as in most genre literature), other times to confront us with a harsh reality using aesthetic alterations to make it more palatable (Schindler’s List and The Pianist to name a few). To put it in a different light, while I love The Beatles as much as the next guy, I wouldn’t like them as much if I didn’t have The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Black Sabbath, or The Clash to turn to when I’m in the mood for something less comforting.   

But there are degrees of escapism, and fantasy tends to go for the more comforting route. In that case, it stands to reason clichés and tropes would be so prevalent. After all, they form the backbone of cheap escapism. And if cheap escapism really is the core of fantasy, then maybe the scorn that is sometimes heaped on the genre is well-deserved.

Hey, I did say “sometimes.”

The more realistic and human storylines of ASOIAF (Jaime’s redemptive arc, Tyrion’s dawning realization that he’ll be despised for his appearance no matter what he does, Arya’s fight for survival in the Riverlands, and Jon subsuming his true loyalties to infiltrate an enemy force) raise more important questions than the fantastic and quasi-mythological ones (the prophecy of Azhor Ahai reborn, the Children of the Forest, the Others’ long-delayed invasion, The Prince That Was Promised, Jojen Reed’s visions, etc.). Humanity already has more mythologies than it needs, but there is never a shortage of deep and engaging human stories.

In my previous post I said that I didn’t think Epic Fantasy was bad, irrelevant, or silly. Maybe by now you’re thinking that was a lie, but it isn’t. I still think the more standard tales of Epic Fantasy (and any subgenre of fantasy, really) have a place in the literary canon. I’m not what you would call a religious man, but I still have the deepest respect for religion and all the good it can bring out in people. But just like religion needs secular counterweights, so does typical fantasy need more realistic and morally challenging counterparts. And as long as authors keep resorting to tired tropes and crutches, things will stay the same.            

ASOIAF came close to breaking the mold. I like to think there’s still hope for the saga. If it doesn’t make it, it will fall to another generation of fantasy writers to pick up where it left off. The world needs intelligent and confrontational stories now more than ever.

Monday, November 11, 2013

It Started with a Whimper...

Citizens of the Internet, I come to you with sad news. I’ve kept the truth to myself for too long, and it’s about time I stopped sheltering the world and let you in on what can only be described as a devastating event.

You won’t like what I have to tell you, so instead of wasting more time I’ll tell it to you straight.  

I don’t enjoy Epic Fantasy anymore.

 That’s me after admitting the truth.

I can tell from your cringing faces that you share my pain, so let me elaborate.

Part I: A Disclaimer

Now, before we get down to brass tacks, there are two things I should do: let you know what my actual feelings for Epic Fantasy are, and find out what the hell is a brass tack.

Oh, I see. My mom just called it her medicine.

Be sure you understand that I didn’t say Epic Fantasy is bad, irrelevant, or silly, just that I don’t enjoy it anymore. And that makes me sadder than remembering I once paid money to watch Batman & Robin, because there was a time when I really loved the genre. In trying to understand when I got to the point where epic fantasy unnerved me more than watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when I’m not on acid, I came up with a number of possibilities.

Maybe it happened when Ned Stark and I started questioning the logic of not using the giant eagles in the war against Sauron.

Or maybe it happened after realizing that most of the genre is about putting together a group of goody-goodies, lovable rogues, elder mentors, and pitting them against the unwashed forces of evil.

   Hey, I wash every Saturday!

Or maybe it happened when I fell in love with history. More on that in a second.

Part II: Looking for Fantasy in All the Wrong Places

Whatever the actual reason was, it aggravated me that the staples of fantasy (larger-than-life characters embarking on a quest, ambitious settings, epic high stakes, etc.) kept drawing me to novels and RPGs that I couldn’t worship the way I had before.

As I turned twenty, I wanted nothing so badly as to go back to enjoying the fantasy of my childhood, but I couldn’t. The stress got to me, and for a long time I even stopped trying. 

That was also the time when I first got laid. Probably not a coincidence.

I never gave up entirely, though. I would check fan-made lists of the best fantasy novels and series in hopes that one of them would do the trick. If you’ve been down those roads, you probably know that the picks of the litter are George R.R. Martin, Steve Erikson, and Patrick Rothfuss.

I tried Erikson, but for every bit that intrigued me, there were three more bits that left me feeling like I was wading through week-old bread and bowls of watery soup to get to the main course--only to find that it consisted of broccoli and frosted carrots. Almost as rewarding as invading Russia in the winter.

Unless you’re a Mongol.

One day I’ll give it a try again, because I really want to know what gets people excited about the Malazan series. Maybe I’ll even enjoy it. In a world where Sylvester Stallone actually nabbed a nomination for Best Actor anything can happen.

When Erikson isn’t writing doorstoppers, he moonlights as Pete Townshend.

Rothfuss started off nicely enough, and then it dragged, and dragged, and dragged. It dragged with the hopelessness of a man hauling a dead whale off the beach all by himself. I don’t understand the appeal in the life story of a boy who sets off to stop the demons that killed his family but gets sidetracked by school and paying his tuition. Since thousands of people do, I’ll just accept this isn’t my cup of tea. 
That’s Rothfuss trying out for the lead role in a Stanley Kubrick biopic.

Martin, on the other hand, did grab my attention. For a long, long time. But don’t think I’m head over heels in love with A Song of Ice and Fire, either. It’s a love-hate relationship I’ll be discussing in the days to come. Suffice it to say that of all the authors who could have revived my interest in fantasy, Martin proved the most successful…though perhaps not in the way you are thinking.

Now, before you start sending me the equivalent of William Shatner’s body weight in letter bombs, allow me to clarify something. I respect all the authors I listed in the previous paragraph for the work they have done and continue to do.

Sure, there are over a thousand books, fliers, and backs of cereal boxes I would rather read than give Rothfuss another chance to cure my insomnia. Unlike the majority of the people on the Internet, however, I’m grown-up enough to realize that just because I don’t like something doesn’t automatically make it a miscarriage of nature on a par with disease, hunger, war, or the people who thought anybody would get Superman IV on Blu-Ray.
There’s still hope for that 6-disc Plan 9 from Outer Space Blu-Ray I’ve been praying for!

Part III: Why I Am Writing this Blog Instead of Doing Something Useful

But then, my friends, when everything seemed lost…then I discovered history. History, with its epic clashes of civilizations, its infinite cast of extraordinary figures, its plethora of richly endowed settings, and its depth of moral complexity.

Sauron’s got nothing on this guy.

How not to be awed at Mahmed II’s successful idea to haul 70 ships overland in order to complete his siege of Constantinople? How not to marvel at Charles XII of Sweden defending his house against wave after wave of Turkish soldiers with just a handful of men? How not to be dazzled by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, or the technological wonders of Harappan society? How not to be enthralled by the question of whether it was better to live in democratic but highly unstable Athens or in the autocratic but highly functional Persian Empire?   

Inevitably, I came to the same conclusion that C.S. Lewis arrived at decades ago: that if I couldn’t find the kind of fantasy I wanted to read, I needed to write it myself. That’s what I’ve been doing the last seven years. Studying history led me to realize what I wanted from the fantasy genre.

That’s me embracing my life-changing epiphany.

I want morally challenging fantasy. I need moral relativism, not the worn-down archetypes of heroism and villainy. I don’t want the comfort of escapism or shallowness, but the rush of having my cage rattled, of seeing high expectations and reality slugging it out…and picking up the pieces later.

I wanted, in short, to be confronted with the real world through the buffer of a fantasy world. I wanted to address perennial historical quandaries and human questions in a setting that would allow for the careful examinations that, sometimes, real history makes it hard for our sensibilities to explore.

That’s what Tolkien, much as I adore the man, can no longer give me. That’s what Martin gave me a glimpse of…before I realized he was playing it safe despite appearances to the contrary. It fell to me to take the next step.

Okay, I don’t want to turn my first post into the Communist Manifesto and preach how the world is going to be an unending haven of bliss and puppies so long as you guys listen to me and me alone (it should be obvious by now, anyway). Plus, I’m running out of captioned pictures.

I started this blog to explain myself with examples and theories. I intend to make rational observations that will specify what I mean to accomplish with my own writing in terms of execution and content, and what I find both admirable and defective in the works that have inspired/compelled me to start this project.
I’m convinced that I know what I’m doing. Now it’s my job to convince you.

(I mean, I’d better do it. I was unable to fund that $70,000,000 porn epic I've been dreaming of since I was 14, so now I’m stuck with this writing gig.)