(It takes a powerful thing to revive this old, dead husk of a blog; that powerful thing will be me liking a movie everyone else hated!)
(There are spoilers.)
I’m going to ignore the elephant in the room until the end, because it’s weird how they did that.
But Star Trek into Darkness. I hate the name. I have problems with it. I still loved the movie.
Really, I’m moved to discuss it by this post on io9, which captures a lot of what bad criticism is. To whit: bad criticism is saying something’s bad because it’s a.) not canon in a reboot, b.) doesn’t make a lot of scientific sense, c.) THE CHARACTERS WOULD HAVE DONE SO MUCH BETTER IF THEY WERE SMARTER, and d.) they’re picking the bad parts of canon to use in this reboot.
All of these are ridiculous. It’s how you’d discuss a taco, not how you’d discuss a film.
Let’s hit point C first, because I’m nonlinear. I’ve screamed, occasionally, on twitter and beyond about how much I hate anime criticism. I hate it because this is their way of discussing things. One of the best anime of this present season, The Flowers of Evil, gets shit on primarily because “If I were the protagonist I’d make this a nonstory.”
Of course you would. Of course, if you were the Enterprise crew, you’d have come up with way better plans. That’s not how stories work, though: you’re not the protagonist. Star Trek into Darkness isn’t a video game. You don’t get to be angry because you would have thought up a better plan in a situation. You’re not there. You have practically perfect knowledge. You’ve seen Star Trek 2. You’ve watched movies. When Kirk and Bendy go on a magical trip to capture a ship he can pilot himself, you can think it’s a bad plan, but resenting the writers for insulting your intelligence is wack. Wiggity wack. You’re not doing it: a dude, in an entirely different situation, is.
As for this being a reboot—and oh, it is—there’s no good and bad parts of canon. All canon is bad to some people, all canon is good to others. You, the audience: there’s no cherry-picking the smartest or dumbest parts of the canon. You either hate that this was Star Trek 2 again, or it doesn’t bother you.
To me, the canon moments didn’t matter. To you, they might have. But they’re pretty much a factor divorced from the quality of the movie. It’s like how I hate well-made zombie movies because they have zombies. I loathe zombies. That’s not a problem with the films themselves. It’s a problem with me. I’m allowed to have this opinion, but it doesn’t really relate to the movie being terrible.
(I’ll accept the bad science. You can complain about it. I don’t care about it—I think they sold it okay—but you can pick bones with that.)
See, because here’s the thing: Star Trek into Darkness had a narrative arc. That’s more than something like The Avengers had. Kirk, Spock: these characters are different between the beginning and end of this film. They’ve learned stuff. We’ve learned stuff from them. They had chemistry. Things were funny, and sad, and happy, and triumphant, all at the right times.
I’d go so far as to say the movie had a soul. My favorite writing advice I got my third year of college, and was, “Make sure your story can work in a magazine office.” What that means: when you write a genre story, make sure it’s not just about genre. Make sure it’s about people. If you stripped out the spaceships, the explosions, I bet you’d be able to make Star Trek into Darkness into a story. It’s about people, not about spaceships.
People have souls. Spaceships don’t.
I didn’t absolutely love the movie, of course. But it worked way, way better than I thought it would.
Now, into the CRITICISMOSPHERE!
Benedict Cumberbatch. He’s one of my favorite active actors. Some days I get wistful that Harry Potter didn’t become films until six years later so that he could have played either Snape or Sirius Black or (holy shit) Voldemort. I’m that kind of guy. I imagine writing a movie that’s just him and Sam Rockwell having parties. In writing this, I learned he was in War Horse and I suddenly want to see War Horse.
He was miserably cast in this movie. Even worse, he was sneakily racebent.
Now, Bendy, god bless him, he’s a gamer. He tries to own the Khan role. He does a job of it. Good Christ does he really try. He makes a character out of it.
Of course, it’s not the character the movie describes him as. There’s no savagery to him, as he claims in an early shot. I’ve never, not once, in a movie disbelieved that that actor could punch a dude to death, but Bendy doesn’t pull off the action. He’s not a badass fighter. He’s a badass thinker. That’s his job. That’s what he does.
So the script has him as a badass fighter, and someone who falls for a really obvious bluff later in the movie.
He’s criminally misused, is what I’m say.
Okay, time to lay into the marketers of this movie.
The whole time, in prerelease, they claimed that Bendy wasn’t Khan. Which was good: if he was, he’d be…well, probably as awful racebending as the original Khan (it makes as much sense for a Mexican to play an Indian warlord as it does a Brit playing an Indian Warlord, to be fair. Great Britain occupied India for many years. Mexico is on the other side of the world), but he’d still be some seriously intense racebending.
Now, of course, he was Khan. And that’s awful.
Because I can’t write an article being like, “Man, it fucking sucks that Bendy was Khan because he’s playing an Indian dude,” because that’s a spoiler. That’s a major spoiler. That’s the “I am Keyser Soze” of Star Trek into Darkness. Of course, it’s revealed in the first thirty minutes of the film. It’s not a movie about, “Who is John Harrison?”
It’s a spoiler almost exclusively to avoid the racebending card for while it’s in theaters, and that’s bullshit. Star Trek creators, I am calling you on your bullshit. This is a spoiler to avoid heat for miscasting the greatest actor of his generation, and for no other reason. And that’s bullshit.
The movie had soul. And maybe, just maybe, J.J. Abrams can pull of Star Wars. This was a pretty Wars Trek movie. It felt almost like a dry run, a little: lots of pseudoscience, spectacle, and fistfights on moving cars. So yeah, I think he can do it.
And, abruptly, I’m out.
I would be remiss if I didn’t revive the old personal blog for another go round to talk about my newly minted favorite film ever, Seven Psychopaths.
Unfortunately, Seven Psychopaths is an incredibly difficult film to talk about with spoiling the central conceit of it. Even now I’m spoiling something: there’s a twist. Not a Shyamalanian twist: an actually good twist. A twist to your understanding of the film.
Well, okay, let’s try to talk about it without addressing the elephant in the room. Here’s the trailer:
Amazingly, that covers none of the best moments in the film. Well, okay, it has part of one of them, and the “Put your hands up!” ‘No!’ “But I have a gun!” ‘I don’t care.’ sequence is brilliant, but yeah.
Seven Psychopaths is a heist movie: it’s not just a heist movie, it’s about heist movies. (Treading carefully.) More importantly, it’s a story about a heist movie where everyone involved is a psychopath; I don’t mean slightly insane, either. I mean there’s movies worth of horrific narratives shoved into every single character.
Except Colin Farrell. Except Colin Farrell is exclusively a drunk, insane Irish dude, so it kind of works out.
The movie Seven Psychopaths most reminds me of is Black Dynamite. They’re pretty alike on the surface: both are pretty much live action cartoons. Television wonder Archer, too: Seven Psychopaths has a marvelously weird setting, incredibly odd characters who feel perfectly in place but are definitely out, and that sort of anarchistic approach to storytelling. Then again, they aren’t alike at all. Black Dynamite and Archer are sendups of a genre. Seven Psychopaths isn’t.
Seven Psychopaths is pretty much my favorite film ever, at least on first watch. I don’t know if it’ll hold up to two, three, ten repeated viewings. I cannot vouch for that a day after I saw it. But I can say, with confidence, that I’ve never quite liked a movie after a first watch as much as I have with Seven Psychopaths.
Horror and I have a complicated relationship. I love the webbed, ridiculous mythos that horror of the Resident Evil vein generates, and I love the unexpectable badness of films like Manos: The Hands of Fate, but real horror terrifies me. That’s the point, but it’s not what I particularly want out of a film.
Paranorman, the newest film from Coraline creators Laika, taps into this appreciation of old horror-comedy. It has many of the things I love about horror films—the ludicrous contrivances (never played quite straight), the archetypical characters, the heavily referential nature—combined with the things I love about children’s films—the silliness, the archetypical side characters—and makes from them an amusing whole.
Paranorman is the story of Norman, a kid who can see ghosts, who “accepts” a quest from his recently deceased John Goodman voiced, John Goodmanesque uncle to speak a verse at a witch’s gravesite to keep the dead at rest. Along the way he, in true children’s film fashion, learns lessons about friendship, family, and being an oddball; the filmmakers use these lessons as a chance to reference classic horror films, geek culture, and other things odd enough for Norman to appreciate them.
Like many recent titles, Paranorman is building on the perhaps overblown mainstream love of geek culture. More specifically, it is a subculture film: if you have no interest in Halloween the film or classic zombie movies, Paranorman will waste a lot of its charm. It is following the cultural trend towards specialization: works appealing to small subcultures, but pulling out all the stops to appease them.
As someone with a decent appreciation of the horror genre, Paranorman worked. Its charming moments didn’t quite charm me as much as they could have, and the whole film felt like a bit of an in-joke, but Paranorman is nothing if not consistent. It’s not a film with middle ground: it will either work with you, or it will flop, almost exclusively depending on your appreciation of last century horror.
Children, however, will appreciate the message, particularly the outcasts. Paranorman does an acute job of capturing the feeling of being an outcast, of being someone interested in unacceptable things. The filmmakers capture that experience perfectly, and they even illustrate (albeit off-camera) a lot of the negative feelings that come with that. The film is a lovely, multifaceted view of an outcast childhood, neither glamorizing nor demonizing. It’s evenhandedness is its greatest strength: while all the characters begin as archetypes, they shift away from these roots as the work progresses, until by the end you feel like they’re all living people.
It adds up to an engrossing film for the horror appreciator, the outcast, and the geek. I cannot picture it breaking out into the mainstream, but Paranorman will have a place on the Halloween film shelf for quite some time to come, next to the classics.
So, The Dark Knight Rises.
I’m a late-coming Batman fan. Before last summer, I pretty much hated Batman. He was boring. I was a Marvel man, through and through: I hated superheroes stories, but I loved superheroes. I adored the X-Men (whose comics I have read practically cover to cover) because they’re really a soap opera: a story about human beings told through the conventions of tights and explosions. The Dark Phoenix Saga isn’t about superheroes: it’s about young lovers, it’s about people changing, it’s about losing people you care about.
Batman, meanwhile, was everything wrong with superhero stories: self-obsessed ranting about a character who doesn’t fit into a larger, practical world. He’s unbelievable, even compared to a dude who can shoot lasers out of his eyes. Batman would never exist in the real world.
The Dark Knight began to change my opinion of Batman, who’s now, to be fair, one of my favorites. It wasn’t a story about Batman, but rather a story about two rivals. Sure, it was about superheroes, but it told its story in a way easily extrapolated to everyday life. It wasn’t so much a superhero story as it was a detective one, a one about rivalry, about insanity. It delivered a lot more than just a man in tights punching other men.
The Dark Knight Rises does the same, but does so even more dramatically. Instead of a layered narrative about two of Batman’s oldest and most thematic foes, characters in The Joker and Two Face who represent ideas antithetical to Batman, here we have Bane, a villain famous for “breaking the bat” but who really has no ideological beef with Batman. Even the film’s mystery villain has no ideological connection to Batman.
In many ways, it’s striking how much The Dark Knight Rises orphans Batman. Batman matters, of course, and he’s indirectly related to the film’s central themes, but—and this is key—Batman does not have to be in this film.
That’s what makes it the more successful than The Dark Knight, in my mind. The Dark Knight was a gritty superhero drama; The Dark Knight Rises is a film about terrorism, socioeconomic station, and growing old that happens to feature comic book characters.
This has led to a bit of a disconnect in the nerd community. Even among the people I went to see the film with, people weren’t fond of it because it wasn’t about Batman. The dreaded, “It wasn’t true to the comics,” critique was uttered. (Let’s forget, for a moment, that Batman has tonally shifted, over the years, from incredible camp to a dude breaking Batman’s back to Bat Shark Repellant to the surreal Arkham Asylum to the Joker cutting off his own face or something in the first issue of the reboot of Detective Comics.) The disappointment I’ve heard from fans centers on one of two things: it either wasn’t as good as The Dark Knight, or it wasn’t appropriate for a Batman film.
The first is an interesting critique: they’re two films doing different things. Batman is a character being developed in The Dark Knight. Here, he’s a weapon. We don’t need his origin story again, but that’s, largely, what comic fans want: it’s why Batman’s going to be rebooted within five years, because fans want to be told that Bruce Wayne’s parents are dead again.
The second is very valid, but it’s a point I vehemently disagree with. It’s the reason I actually kind of like the sort of dreadful third X-Men film, while fans detest it violently.
In terms of “true to the comics”, the third X-Men film departed as dramatically as possible from its source material, the Dark Phoenix Saga, as possible. It took the basic idea behind that series, then it told an entirely different story. It wasn’t a story about love and loss; it was a piece about the corrupting influence of power, the gray areas of morality, and growing up. Very different plot, and I think the difference between people who think the film is shit and who think the film is okay is how much they’re comics fans first. People who read The Dark Phoenix as kids, they hate the film. People who appreciate stories, they’re lukewarm: it’s an okay story idea, but executed poorly.
Meanwhile, The Dark Knight does the same thing. Knightfall wasn’t really about socioeconomic stuff. As much as comic fans put Bane up there as a “cerebral” villain, he’s really, pretty much, a drug addict in the comics, one who’s a physical match for Batman. Sure, he’s pretty smart in Knightfall, but he isn’t an ideological villain: he’s a guy who wants to fuck Batman up.
Here, he’s used for political purposes. He’s used by Christopher Nolan to say something about society. This may “break from the continuity”, but Batman is the least consistent superhero of all time. The film, effectively, creates a completely new villain, pairs him with established Batman, and we watch the fireworks.
If that’s not true to the canon, then so what? If it makes an entertaining film, then who cares how close it is to Batman, the comics character? Well, a lot of people, but that doesn’t diminish the work as its own thing. The Dark Knight Rises, as its own thing, as part of a trilogy, makes sense. It builds on earlier concepts from the previous films, and, like a noir, goes to the only place it can go. That Batman doesn’t die intially frustrated me—how could a noir work this way, I ask, as a fan of Nolan’s Following and the genre as a whole—but then I realized it didn’t matter: everything had changed, dramatically, which is the heart of the noir. Nothing will ever be the same.
That, in short, is why I loved the film: nothing will ever be the same again, and the world is better for it.
I’ve never been much of a Spider Man fan. If you have to associate me with a superhero book, it’s X-Men, a series whose comics I’ve read pretty much front to back. If you force me to pick an individual super hero, it’s probably Iron Man, the overconfident star, over Spider Man, who’s always been saddled with a hokey premise (Comics Spider Man, one of the weakest super heroes, being saddled with “with great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah. Shrug) and who has never really had a personality I cared a whit for.
I remember seeing the first Spiderman film in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on a class trip. It’s a reasonable film: fairly tightly plotted, with some exciting scenes but rarely rising above mediocrity. Of course, it was one of the first of the “modern” super hero films, so it gets a bit of a quality free pass.
Since then, however, we’ve had two more Spiderman films, neither particularly noteworthy, and, more importantly, great advances in super heroism: both The Dark Knight and The Avengers pushed the genre to new heights of quality, showing that super hero movies don’t have to be “comic book movies” so much as they can be blockbusters.
In this sense, The Amazing Spider Man succeeds. It’s going to make Sony a boatload of money. But, read beside other super hero movies, it manages to be astoundingly similar to and yet different from the film it’s rebooting, 2002’s Spider Man.
Much like its temporal cousin, this month’s Brave, The Amazing Spider Man is two films. Both halves flatly refute director Marc Webb’s assertion that “we’re not making Sam’s movie again“. In every term, this is The Same Film Again. Spider Man learns the same lessons. A plot is foiled. Every story beat from 2002’s film is here, in full.
That said, it does a number of things very well. The first half of the film, where an extremely awkward Andrew Garfield romances an extremely attractive Emma Stone, works, in part because you can tell the director knows how to make it so. He manages to explore Garfield, and does so equally well when he finally dons the mask. We get a sense of him, and he becomes the most likable Spider Man since he’s motivated. He does things for reasons beyond, “The comics say so.” We follow him through the first half: we’re pulling for him, and we understand him.
So it’s a shame the rest of the plot drives this goodwill off a cliff.
Let’s start with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, who is capably acted but who completely lacks motivation. Okay, she loves Andrew Garfield, and she loves science. That’s roughly the extent of her character’s motivations. Rhys Ifans’ Curt Conners has exactly the same flaw: he’s well acted (no, the acting’s a net positive) but has no motivation. His actions eventually boil down to, “He’s gone insane!”, which is a pretty dreadful motivation. The less we say about the J. Jonah Jameson character (who’s definitely not J3) and his utterly awful motivation, the better.
In the second half of the film, when the action movie comes in, just my god does everything fall apart. You get the impression no one knows how to the big moments in this film. Peter Parker becomes his comics self, the Lizard does things exclusively to set up the plot, science does things to set up the plot, and the film just falls apart. It feels like the Lizard plot wasn’t in the original draft of the film. It drops a delightfully human plot (Peter searching for his uncle’s murderer, which would be a spoiler except Martin Sheen is playing Uncle Ben, who’s died on every incarnation of Spider Man ever, usually with more speed than he does here) in favor of a “This madman is trying to destroy the city!” one. It leaves Peter Parker and becomes a film about Spider Man.
One thing I will say: the fight scenes work. You get the sense they wanted to create very physical spaces for their combats, which we definitely feel. They’re very clear fights, and I appreciate how long the shots are.
But it comes down to the slow descent into super hero tropes, doesn’t it? The Dark Knight and The Avengers showed the best way to do super heroes was to avoid tropes: to discard the comic book logic that’s long been so integral to the medium. Threats can be smaller (The Dark Knight, while about the whole city, really was about a couple dudes) and relationships don’t have to be so linear (The Avengers weaved its characters together like that). Spider Man feels like a film from years ago, more of a traditional superhero flick than a newer one.
One thing I miss, though: I feel like Garfield’s Spider Man would have fit marvelously (hah) in the Avengers’ framework. He’s interesting. He has a defined approach, a defined character: you’re never sure what he’s going to do, and that’s great. I love that. He’s genuinely likable.
It’s just a shame his film’s so wretched.
A new Rush album is, in effect, the most important part of my life. It’s only happened three times since I started listening to music, after all: Vapor Trails, Snakes and Arrows, and now Clockwork Angels.
Full disclosure: Rush were my first band. I know pretty much every word to every song they’ve ever written, and there’s a lot of those. Every difficult situation in my life has been backed, musically, by their songs. And I still come back to the well.
There isn’t a Rush album I dislike. I’m not keen on a couple, particularly their first three (which tend more towards the 70’s Led Zeppelin sound, mostly as imitator), but I like them all. My favorites are the early 80’s records—Grace Under Pressure, Signals—and the most recent two.
Snakes and Arrows might even be my favorite. It came at the perfect time: since one always imagines their life during college as the present (at least, I always think it’s 2007), Snakes and Arrows was my record of that year. It was a beautiful, brilliant album that showed old dudes could still rock the fuck out.
Now, we have Clockwork Angels. And while I’ve made fun of it for its ludicrous concept (it’s effectively a China Mieville novel set to music, conceptually), how long its taken, and all number of reasons, it’s here now.
And it’s really, really, really good. Three really’s good. Adverbially good.
The thing about it is, a lot of “concept albums” are terrible. Just ludicrously bad. They take on stories that aren’t personal, and they struggle for it: music is very much a personal medium, designed to tell the author’s story. It’s by necessity first person, and someone has to tell that story, to us, as the character. It’s why most concept albums are cheesy: the band either needs to put on a character themselves, or they have to act out someone else’s story.
Clockwork Angels almost falls into that crater. The title track, especially, leans heavily on a created steampunk mythology: yes, we know this is a record taking place in another universe, but really, we’re not moved there. Where the record shines, however, is in its last two songs, its middle. Even Headlong Flight, a song nominally about “flying an airship across the sky”, doesn’t fall into the tropey trap of concept. It’s telling a story, but the story still feels more like Neil Peart’s than it does some fictional protagonist. The line before the one about the airship, about “standing with fire on the big steel wheels” doesn’t bring to mind a fantasy protagonist but Peart’s well-publicized (to Rush fans) motorcycle trip across the country in the wake of tragedy.
The last two songs, Wish Them Well and The Garden, extrapolate on this. I’ve stayed up far too late to listen to this record to hear those two tracks again. Because they aren’t songs about a Watchmaker, or about Anarchists (though that song, in particular, rocks despite fantasy tropes), or about Carnies, or anything fantastic. They’re songs about growing old; they’re songs about realizing your place in the world. They’re songs about realizing the world is a colorful place full of people who think different things. It’s about realizing the best you can do is wish other people well and go your own way.
These aren’t fantasy tropes. These are things a song by a sixty year old man who’s lived a full, incredible life should be about. It’s why The Garden, a song looking back on “the measure of a life” feels like what could become a capstone to a brilliant career instead of the end of an album about clockwork gods: it’s a song by a songwriter about his own life.
In short, it’s probably their most poignant song since The Pass (which is really the defining Rush song, in my eyes: it’s one of my favorite songs from them off the album of theirs, Presto, that I probably like the least. It also has Available Light, which would also be on a hypothetical top ten list. And a bunch of crap). Here, listen to it! Ignore the utterly atrocious album cover. Please. My god, it’s terrible. That’s the one bad thing I can say about this album. But the song is the thing!
To tie all of it to writing, this is what they mean by “writing what you know”. It’s not writing just places you’ve seen, characters you’ve known, but instead connecting them to yourself. It’s not making a character a Maximilian Sue (the male, extremely fancy equivalent of a Mary Sue, of course), but to touch on the core of my personal experience through their own. None of the characters in my novel represent me in any direct way, but they share my hopes, my dreams, my preconceptions. Aloysius shares my political views, Esme my “alignment”, Quinn my ideals, Yannick my fears and my aspirations for myself, Mare my situation. They’re small bits, but they’re kernels of personal, authorial truth hidden inside each character. They’re aspects I can explore in each of them, and they’re a framing method: Aly’s story is about his politics. Esme’s is about being the kind of person I want to be in the face of a difficult world; Quinn’s similarly. Yannick is about my apprehensions, my anxiety, and Mare’s is about the opposite of that, about where I am and want to be.
The thing is, though: this is how fantasy ought to work. Fantasy gives us a safe place to explore our issues, our problems, and our solutions. Instead of writing an anxiety filled piece about myself, twenty five, in rural America, depressed and alone, I extrapolate. I tell a good story, and I explore these aspects of my life through fictional analogues who have their own interests, ideas, and expectations.
And that’s what Clockwork Angels does. Instead of being a stale fantasy thing, it’s a story about a man coming to terms with the world around him, a man reconnecting. It’s something I’m trying to do, myself, through art, and it’s a lovely parallel that’s hot in my mind. It’s why I like these characters a lot more than my other characters: I’m freely throwing myself into them. I feel more in touch with Esme, a minority female career soldier, than I have with any of my characters who are in my exact situation. She has many differences from me, but she shares enough of my character—her stubbornness, her obsessive devotion to “the old ways”, her pragmaticism—that I can feel a part of scenes even though no character is particularly like me.
This has gone the introspective direction from the “album review” one, but let me affirm that this is a fantastic record I’ve already listened to way too much. Like every record by this band, it’s touched me in an unexpected way, and it’s helped me understand my own life better. Which is the mark of good music.
I’m an on again, off again fan of China Mieville, whose recent novel, Railsea, has given me so much pause.
I loved The City and the City, his fantastic detective novel set in two parallel Eastern European cities. I’m sure I’ll love Kraken when I get around to it. On the other hand, his fantasy has left me pretty cold over the years: I’ve stalled out in Perdido Street Station more times than I can count.
One thing we have to take into account is his prolificness: he’s written a book a year for the last four, with plenty of additional works in various fields. Just this year he started writing one of my favorite new comics series, Dial H for Hero. He writes a lot, and all of his work is fantastically different.
So, Railsea, then: the most different of the bunch. This is effectively a Young Adult take on Moby Dick, complete with wacky fantasy world where an ocean of rails filled with massive underground predators replaces actual water.
Oh, and the whole book emulates Melville’s style. There’s a reason I originally said this book was written on a dare: there’s no possible way this could sell. And he did it anyway!
At its core is a collection of good ideas. The setting is fantastic. The characters, from overweight youth Sham ap Soorap to his fascinating captain Naphi to others introduced later, work. Sham’s a fantastic protagonist, who follows a real arc throughout the piece. Furthermore, this is kind of a stealth issue book: by the end, you’ll see where he’s coming from, and nothing will make more sense.
The first act drags, admittedly. Seen from the end the first act makes a great deal of sense, but in the beginning it’s a slow book written in an archaic style. It’s also extremely inefficient, which is a stylistic device but an infuriating one. Mieville spends probably a quarter of the book’s running time launching off on digressions, most obliquely praising his own cleverness. He spends the last half of the book pointing out how much suspense he’s created every other chapter. He spends the beginning giving us information about this world he’s created, little of which is relevant.
In effect, the fantasy gets in the way of a good story with a better message. It runs into the problem I imagine someone who works as much as Mieville would run into: a lack of good editing. I mean, it’s grammatically fine, but it doesn’t pop. It feels very much like being inside his head for four hundred pages. And I think it desperately needed an external force to come in and say, “Look, I know parodying Herman Melville is fun. But this book could be a hundred pages shorter, and it’d be a stronger work for it.” Basically, it sticks with what people have said is Mieville’s theme: he’s more interested in writing interesting, imperfect ones en masse than he is writing a book that’ll enter into the canon of fantasy literature.
That’s fun, but it’s hard not to be a little disappointed.
Novel is presently at fourteen thousand.
This doesn’t cover the space it’s going to take up. I’m going to do a lot of my writing in edits.
Let me explain. I’m not a good linear writer. Those people who can just visualize a scene and relay it literally: I envy them. My scenes, so far, are messes of tangled plot, snappy dialog, and the occasional physical touchstone. Two men will talk too much, one of them will throw a plate, and there will be a precious nugget of exposition to explain something.
Not how a novel looks, of course. A novel needs description. It needs place, it needs atmosphere. What I’m writing is presently devoid of atmosphere.
This is for a couple reasons. One, I want to get plot and character out there. I’ve written a post non-nominally about character for later in the week, but they’re there. Two is a different reason: I don’t know what I want it to look like.
I know my strengths as a writer pretty well. I write good dialog. I do that: I can make people talk like a cool version of real life. That’s my strength, and if I had foresight or friends in the biz I’d probably have become a screenwriter. I’m also a fairly solid editor: I write better the second time than the first (that’s why this blog is littered with poor sentences).
So I’m writing much more downhill than I usually do. I’m ditching art for speed, for figuring out what happens. Instead of dwelling on what the main city of the introductory act of the book looks like, I focused on landmarks, on things I want to remember, on the people who live there. In rewrites it can become real: for now, it is a set in the back of a warehouse.
It’s going well, though. My five protagonists (I’m employing a loose multiple perspective, with a fairly omniscient voice) are all feeling like they can carry the weight of the piece. None of them feel particularly cliched in my mind: we have a reticent politician, a conflicted law-woman, a boy joining the priesthood, a vaguely sociopathic Albert Einstein analogue, and an oppressed, captive gunnery captain whose situation is immensely weird. We’re looking at a very strange world through very strange eyes. A few of these characters stories will conclude by the end of the book, while others will be setting up future plots.
Okay, time to write, right?
This is a post with multiple personalities.
The first thing included is that I’ve begun my novel. I wrote the first chapter tomorrow, and rather unexpectedly changed two characters in the telling. Three major players are introduced in the first chapter. Two of them changed dramatically.
One is a character with point of view, named, provisionally, Yannick. He’s a boy of twelve. Originally he was unlearned, kind of an audience surrogate used to make difficult scenes more pleasing to the audience: things could happen and he couldn’t understand them. In writing, though, he became a bit of a self-obsessed jerk. Not too much: bad things are happening to him. He’s a little out of touch with reality, which makes sense, since he came from a very rich background.
Meanwhile, another future point of view character, Aloysius, remained who he was–a politically in power Ernest Hemingway type–but changed a lot visually. I’m very interested in representing a sort of multiculturalism in presentation, so these people have very different cultures. In general, all three characters got a lot of bad traits, though, instead of the positives they had.
This happened, in large part, because of The Name of the Wind, a book by Patrick Rothfuss.
Here’s some disclosure. I like Patrick Rothfuss. He’s a very talented writer, he writes a very funny blog that I read, somehow, before I read the book. We kind of look alike, so I can see myself in his shoes.
That said, I don’t particularly like The Name of the Wind.
(You can probably tell I’m hedging a little bit.)
You see, The Name of the Wind is this beautiful book. It reminds me of Le Guin in the sense that it’s *written*, and I mean that in a very literary sense. Yes, I quibble with some of the writing (I almost rejected the book in the store because I can’t abide opening sentences with “to be” involved), but overall it’s masterful in its prose. The book has some really startling passages.
But I hate the main character.
No, I don’t know if I’m going far enough. I spent a full paragraph (by my standards) lavishing praise on the writing, so here’s this: the main character makes me so angry. He is a super smart, incredibly street savvy bastion of coolness who’s spent the three hundred pages I’ve read making no mistakes, having bad things happen to him anyway, and basically being the Fonz of fantasy literature.
This is a guy who assaults a teacher and gets away with it because “the teacher had it coming.” This is a kid so charming and brilliant that he gets paid to go to magic school despite being two years under the recommended age.
That’s the thing I like about Game of Thrones: its lack of exceptionalism. Its most exceptional human being, Tyrion, not only makes mistakes but has many physical deformities that mask these mistakes. This main character has mastered all of magic in a year because…well, he’s smarter than everyone else.
I like literally everything else about this book. The world is neat, the writing practically peerless, the other characters interesting and flawed. The problem is they go away, and we’re left with this insufferable know-it-all, fantasy Batman, Gandalf, and Robin Hood rolled into one person. I’m sorry, I just can’t deal with that.
Will I keep trying? Probably. It’s a long book, a fairly slow read (the downside of really good writing), and I’m completely uninterested in the character.
Here’s a bigger thing: it’s better, in my opinion, to watch someone overcome their own mistakes than to overcome someone else’s evil. To focus on my favorite fantasy series, The Wizard of Earthsea, the main character there has many similarities to Kvothe. He’s a prodigious talent, brilliant in every way, who saves his village from an invasion as a boy younger than Kvothe. The thing is, his challenge isn’t that some bogeyman killed his parents (which works with Batman, to be fair, but because Batman was a dick before then. He becomes better because of it), but that he unleashed an ancient evil upon the world in his own hubris. He made a mistake, and he has to fix it.
That’s more interesting, to me: watching people fix their own problems, rather than fixing problems thrust on them by the world. People reaping what they sow, in other words.
That’s my goal, with my book. I’m making sure my characters face problems stemming from themselves. It’s why Yannick had to be a little bit of a bastard: he has to overcome external problems. In general, bastards are proven by external problems, while good people are undone by their tragic flaws. The worst, in my book, is good people, superb people, overcoming adversity. To me, that’s just boring.
I hate naming.
Here’s the full disclosure: I’ve been a pseudo-literary writer for a long time. I’ve tackled fantasy on and off, mostly in abbreviated longer works, because I find that the genre lends itself better to bigger stories. It does because I’m a dedicated, if not particularly great, worldbuilder.
Recently I’ve begun moving into the outlining phase of things (when not distracted by Diablo 3), and this has reminded me how much of a slog worldbuilding is to me. I’m a characters and relationships guy. Thrust back into the world of dealing with my protagonists (I’m playing with multiple perspectives, if only because I liked them before I read Game of Thrones), I feel much more natural. I make networks of relationships, identify themes, create antagonists (who, of course, are more complicated than that. One of the benefits of multiple perspectives), figure out how multiple perspectives can work (for instance: in the first Game of Thrones, every PoV character is together at the beginning. New characters are introduced only when new, important factions appear, and the character had always been featured prominently in previous chapters), and do plot stuff. This feels natural.
Naming places, though? Not natural.
My big trouble is naming the antagonist nation to the north. Their language is a combination of Slavic and the sounds of Mongolia. They bear elements of both cultures, as well as French (clearly, world-building is combining influences until things are unrecognizable). They’re rather important to the story, so they need memorable names, but it’s hard for me to conceptualize what they should refer to themselves as. It’s gotta be punchy, of course. It’s got to be a name people can remember, and one that doesn’t sound stupid.
As it is, I’ve three named and defined countries (fortunately, one of those is where the story actually takes place). I’m a little worried things resemble Italy too much (I’m drawing on a lot of the history of the early 20th century in Italy, before and after the first world war), but that’s okay: there’s plenty of different influences, and if people can stick so closely to English history, certainly I can go off the rails with Italian history.
Here’s the thing, though: very little of this matters too much in the first third of the story. I know it’s coming, of course, but the first part of the story’s going to be smaller and quieter, to establish the local conditions. This is not a novel of nations, but rather of a particularly contentious one, one fragmented, healing from war, and falling quickly into others. I’m more interested in the local landscape than I am in the multinational one, except for setting those things up.
The personal journeys of my protagonists are more important. I’ve got a half-dozen characters who I really like, and their stories are the most important ones to me. And that’s the part of the story I have best: their hopes, dreams, aspirations, loves, hates, and rhythms. They’re character I love writing about, who do things that I often disagree with. They’re in awkward situations: a theme of the novel is that characters are stuck inside old machines that are vestiges of a dying way of life. They’re fighting becoming obsolete, which I feel is a very modern theme. They’re realizing no one has any answers, that horrible things are going to happen, that they are powerless to stop them. The ways they react to this problem vary individually, but it’s a theme.
See, these things come easier to me than naming. What the hell to call Napoleonic France with the hat of WW1 Germany by any other name?