Monday, May 18, 2020

The numbers, Mason. What do they mean?

This one’s a little tricky. I set up an argument, then halfway through I flip it and argue the opposite. I’m talking about what things mean in fiction, and how fair it is to expect your audience to know what they mean when that meaning isn’t found anywhere in the story itself. It’s about in- and out-of-text references, basically.

Got it? Right.

At the end of the eleventh theatrical Star Wars movie and ninth in the main series of trilogies, “The Rise of Skywalker,” the heroine Rey “Skywalker” Palpatine return’s to Luke’s childhood home, buries his and Leia’s lightsabers in the ground, then pulls out her own newly-made one and briefly ignites it. Revealing, dun dun DUN, that the blade is … yellow! Wow.

So the capstone, the culmination and the climax of nine movies, forty years, thousands of special effects shots, a centillion toys and one young boy’s rather unhealthy fixation with Carrie Fisher was: A lemon-flavored lightsaber.

So what?

Well, that’s a good question. What does it mean? It’s a new color, after the blue, green and red ones we’ve seen in the movies (and Samuel L. Jackson’s purple one), so, symbolic of new beginnings maybe? As a kid who grew up with the toys, the only thing it calls to mind is that one of the Luke action figures had a yellow lightsaber. The movie is packed to the hyperdrives with callbacks, so maybe it’s just another blast of pointless nostalgia?

What I’m saying is, it’s not calling back to anything we’ve been shown earlier in the movie, or even in any of the earlier movies. There’s no reference in the “text” (the story or action of the movie, or book, or play, or game, or whatever) to lightsabers of any color having any meaning.

Some people get really mad when you say that, though (and they have, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered to write this post). Of course a Star Wars nerd immersed in, sigh, lore, will tell you all about the 2003 video game “Knights of the Old Republic” and how a game mechanic designed to allow for character and playstyle customization means X Y not to mention Z, but come on, to your average audience member, the scene meant precisely jack shit. The meaning, to the extent there is one (and I think the gamers are giving JJ Abrams far too much credit), is found out-of-text.

“The Rise of Skywalker” does this a lot, not just about the color filter of its lightsaber effects. What the heck is Exegol, who lives there, where did they get a huge fleet and the people to crew it? Ah, read the Visual Dictionary. Finn's putative Force-sensitivity was explained in an interview with Hollywood Reporter. And so on.

Star Wars isn’t the only franchise doing it either. Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling apparently spends most of her post-Potter years tweeting new facts that never appeared in the books, such as Dumbledore’s sexual proclivities.

This gets into the more interesting question of semiotics—what do things mean—and more specifically, in- and out-of-text references in constructing meaning.

Let’s set the ground rules first. If you want an action or thing in a movie to have some meaning beyond the thing itself—such as Cobb’s spinning top in “Inception” being symbolic of his obsession with the past, or the idea that only those ‘worthy’ can pick up Thor’s hammer in “Age of Ultron”—then that meaning has to be established in the story itself. It has to be in the text. It can’t be buried in some 20-year-old video game. You can’t just stick it in the Visual Dictionary or mention it casually in a tweet. Stories don’t work that way. The meaning has to be in the story. It can’t be out-of-text.

This isn’t some special law of movie-making or book-writing, this is just, like, “if you want people to know what you’re talking about you have to explain what you’re talking about.” You know? “The message of the story has to be in the story.” It’s common sense.


Told you I was going to flip this halfway through.

There are plainly things you can reference and allude to without spelling it out for the audience, or even hinting at within your book or movie, yet you can still fairly expect them to understand. If someone finds a sword in a stone, you’ll automatically know that pulling out that sword is a sign of worthiness. The writer doesn’t have to remind you of the whole King Arthur mythos, they can expect you to know it. If some dude gets shot or stabbed and flails his arms to the side in, you know, the shape of a cross, we don’t have to be told this is an allusion to Jesus. You don’t need an establishing conversation where characters talk about what a nice bloke Jesus was and how sad it was that he got crucified. We just get it.

Let’s go back to Thor’s hammer. Later on in the movie series, in “End Game,” Captain America picks up and uses the hammer. The movie doesn’t explain the whole worthiness thing all over again. It assumes you know, even though it’s a reference to an earlier movie, not within “End Game” itself.

In other words, I think the concept of what is “in-text” and “out-of-text” is elastic. For some things, we can expand it, based on a shared culture and understanding. In the introduction up there, I tossed around the names Luke and Leia and just expected you to follow along, because anybody who knows about Star Wars will also know who they are. In the Marvel movies, there’s a whole freight train of characters, relationships, abilities and other universe-building you’re just expected to be on board with from the get-go.

To a certain extent, then, I think it’s fair to expect audiences especially of these larger, longer-running and more popular franchises, to get not only the surface meaning but also the connotation of it without signposting back to earlier works in the series.

The question then becomes, how far does the concept stretch? If older Star Wars movies are fair game, then what about the video games? The comic books? The, sigh, Visual Dictionary? If it’s reasonable to expect audiences to be familiar with other Marvel movies, how about the comics? Where do you draw the line?

I think the only honest answer is ‘depends,’ and I think it depends both on the audience, how engaged they are with the property, and on the thing being referenced. The broader the audience, the less in-depth knowledge they’re going to have. More cultish fanbases are probably more accepting of obscure references.

Similarly, the more popular the thing being referenced, the more you can get away with. You can reference the Bible without too much preamble.

Though this has to be of secondary importance, because the purpose of all communication is to have the thing you are trying to communicate be understood by someone else. If you’re just pontificating for your own gratification, jeez, write a blog or something. Oh.

Star Wars, at least in its original incarnation, had the broadest audience imaginable. Everyone saw it. You can certainly still put winks and callbacks from games or comics into the stories for the uber-fans, just don’t make them part of the climactic finale. More targeted offerings like the Disney+ shows can get away with more because they’ll have a narrower audience. Hence, literally every character who has ever appeared will now be appearing in season 2 of “The Mandalorian.”

Marvel movies, similarly, have huge, huge audiences, the Avengers ones in particular the hugest, so you can safely refer to other movies, but probably not the comics. Even Captain America needed a first movie to establish who he was. Again, a costume, a line of dialog, sure, throw the die-hards a bone, but you can’t have a key plot point depend on reading Uncanny X-Men #129 (Jan. 1963, “Save us from the Knights of Hellfire!”)

Back to Rey’s lightsaber then. The game came out in 2003, and Wikipedia tells me it sold 3 million copies, making it pretty popular. Ah. But. “Rise of Skywalker” made $1 billion internationally, so assuming a generous $20 per head, that works out to 50 million people (“The Force Awakens” made twice as much, FWIW). The problem is then that you had a climactic scene which slightly less than 10% of the audience had even a chance of understanding, even assuming every single person who bought the game also saw the movie.

So I’m not saying movies and books or whatever can’t do it, but come on, let’s be reasonable. We know the fannest of fans have read every tie-in novel, comic book and Wookiepedia entry, played every game, watched every episode of every show. That cannot and should not be the baseline for any product hoping to have a mass appeal.

Yes to the idea that the ‘text’ of popular movies should include a basic understanding of the way these universes work or who the people are, but no to the idea that this extends to cover every single scrap of minutiae.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The one about canon

I’m in a spouting nonsense mood, and the target of today’s spout is the concept of canon. Particularly as the term applies to the concept of the fictional ‘facts’ of a fictional universe, as portrayed in various works of fiction.

The facts of fiction. Right. It’s fundamentally an oxymoron.

Canon in its modern meaning didn’t really matter until properties like Star Wars and Star Trek expanded beyond their home bases in movies and TV respectively, into books, comics, video games and tabletop games. The idea was to ensure consistency in plot and world details, even as you had dozens, scores, if not hundreds of different writers working on different stories in different media more or less at the same time.

The hardcore fans of pretty much anything love it. Love it, love it, absolutely love it. Lap that stuff up like it’s liquid ketamine. Can’t get enough of it. Canon makes the whole phenomenon of gatekeeping fictional properties possible. There are few things that warm their hearts more than telling each other they’re wrong about the canon. Few things they cherish more than pointing out errors and inconsistencies in canon, or endlessly fan theorizing about it, constructing great cathedrals of meaning out of throwaway lines published in, like, a children’s picture book.

And they shouldn’t. By god, they shouldn’t. If you really love Star Wars, or Star Trek, or, lawd, I don’t know, My Little Pony, you should absolutely be against the idea of canon. Reboots, remakes, retellings, alternate and parallel universes, mashups, all of the things that destroy canon mean you get more of the property you love. You get more and more varied stories. You get to experience it more, fresh and new again. You should love it when content creators throw canon to the wind.

Yet we don’t, and I’m not sure why. I don’t think there’s anything inevitable about canon. In fact, it’s a little weird that people cared.

There’s no obvious reason why they would—after all, the one modern entertainment medium where multiple writers had long worked on a shared universe was comic books, where characters live, die, appear to die but don’t, are reborn, reincarnated, rescued from alternate dimensions or future timelines as a matter of course. Spider-Man has been through more incarnations than a Hindu with a death wish, there have been more Batmans in history than there have been presidents of the United States of America and the X-Men’s Jean Grey has been killed and resurrected at least twice a decade since the 70’s.

Looking back at history, there too we find the concept of fictional canon is notable mainly for its total nonexistence. Disney’s efforts to the contrary, there is no one single, canonical version of any of the fairy tales, nor of Achilles, nor King Arthur. There’s evidently nothing inherent in fiction that requires or demands that there be a canon.

Plenty of modern properties also ignore the whole concept altogether—there’s no Mad Max canon, although some have tried to write one, Doctor Who’s time-traveling shenanigans make mincemeat of the very concept at anything but the most basic level, Dungeons and Dragons novels largely get around the concept by having enough alternate worlds to give Schrodinger’s cat an anxiety attack.

While there are sound storytelling, narrative objectives in ensuring consistency among your various story lines, it’s not hard to see there are less pure motives at work, too.

There are obvious commercial reasons for the property holders’ love of promoting the idea canon. Together with copyright, it is one more lever that ensures they maintain control of, and can profit from, the shared universe. Property holders alone get to determine what counts and what doesn’t, giving their own products a seal of legitimacy and banishing all others to the despised realm of fan fiction.

Gatekeeping is another obvious motive. Collecting, memorizing and categorizing facts makes a lot of people comfortable, gives them a sense of order and control that is otherwise often missing from our lives. Knowledge of canon can be used to browbeat other fans and make yourself feel smarter, more important in whatever fan community you’re a part of. So it’s rooted in insecurity and fear, too.

The good news is, I think the idea of canon is going to wither away slowly but surely. The most popular franchises at the moment, Marvel and Star Wars and Star Trek, are all reaching the limits of what they can do within a single, supposedly internally consistent continuity. Star Trek has already rebooted both its movies and streaming properties (calling it a TV show sounds anachronistic now, doesn’t it?) New Star Wars properties sound like they’ll be set in different time periods, precisely to get away from problems with canon. The original actors in Marvel movies are reaching the ends of their contracts.

You see long-term, canon is simply unsustainable. I’m a fan of the BattleTech games that have been around since the 80s, and my God, the canon is a useless mess. It just accretes, gathers more and more mass, weighing down everything about the property until you can’t write anything new about anything in this universe. It calcifies everything, ossifies it, fossilizes it. Nothing new can be done, nothing can grow. It kills the property.

As we move more and more into more oral styles of storytelling, I think this will accelerate the trend. We’ll want the same stories retold over and over, which will kill the whole purpose of canon.

It’s time for canon to end.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Have you heard any good books lately?

Print is out. Video and audio are in.

Fueled by cheap, ubiquitous broadband and tech like smartphones, smart speakers and wireless earphones, we’re listening to Spotify podcasts and Audible audiobooks, watching hourlong pop culture essays on YouTube, we’re consuming stories in almost every form but words on a page or ink on paper.

Take the car industry, for example. The company I work for makes manuals—owner’s manuals, repair manuals, wiring manuals, stuff like that. And the single biggest challenge we face is that nobody reads any of them. Not a one. When was the last time you looked at your owner’s manual, and the only correct answer is ‘never.’ They’re about as effective as banner ads on websites.

In terms of online publishing, the smartphone, and the associated rise of one-stop-shop sites like Google, reddit and Facebook, have annihilated advertising revenue, leading to both the decline of the traditional newspaper and magazine, and the rise of one-paragraph stories written by freelancers and capped with a clickbait headline.

Yet it doesn’t seem to be a problem with attention spans. Passive entertainment is up, up, way up. Red Letter Media’s Star Wars prequels takedowns were longer than the movies themselves. A third of people in Canada, Australia and the US listen to a podcast on a monthly basis, and ad revenue for podcasts has grown from $169 million to an estimated $659 million from 2016 to 2020.

Although book sales were up 1.5% from 2016-17, audio books were up 20% over the same period in the USA. More recently, in January of this year, accounting firm Deloitte predicted the audio book market would growth a further 25% in 2020. Even in the current crisis, the spoken word is in—Patrick Stewart is reading sonnets, Andy Serkis the Hobbit.

Which got me wondering: Are we slowly becoming a post-literate society? And if so, what does that mean?

For centuries, the written word had a lock on literature thanks to a killer combination of advantages—permanence, portability, shareability, long reach at relatively low cost—but tech is eating away at those advantages, byte by byte. Audio and video files are as permanent as any paper or digital book, as light and portable as the latter, and have the added benefit of not requiring any of that tedious eyeball movement to enjoy.

(Tangent: People banging on about podcasts being popular now because of people’s “busy lives these days” irritate the piss out of me—like everyone was just lounging around for the last three centuries until the iPhone came along. Average working hours have been going down since the Industrial Revolution. It’s like SciFi franchises that excuse the drab nastiness of their grimdark settings by talking about reflecting the ‘dark times’ we live in. Mate, I grew up expecting the Russians to nuke us all into oblivion any day. Settle down.)

Much as I love reading though, I got to admit, it isn’t exactly natural, is it? Millions of years of evolution weren’t really selecting hominids on the basis of their ability to get through Proust’s "In Search of Lost Time", were they? There’s a reason millions of people around the world are illiterate: Reading is effing hard, man. It takes concentration. Time and effort. Given the choice between reading and, er, not reading, plenty of us are opting for Plan B.

When all the world’s knowledge was stored in written form, that attitude was a drawback, but hey presto, it ain’t so anymore. Every explanation is now a 10-minute YouTube tutorial. You could, for example, acquire an in-depth knowledge of the entire history of the Napoleonic Wars without ever reading a line of text more challenging than the title of a video. Why send an Email when you can talk to them on Zoom?

With social media, even our text-based messages are behaving more like oral communication: Temporary, here now, gone tomorrow; repeated, repackaged and regurgitated in different forms depending on the audience; subjective, their effectiveness dependent on the personality and character of the person providing the information, rather than its accuracy or truthfulness.

And I think that’s the way we’re going. There will always be books, of course, just as some people still write letters, just as there are still printed newspapers or vinyl LPs, just, I don’t think they’ll be the mainstream anymore. Entertainment, especially, where accuracy and retention is less important than say, civil engineering where there’s a possibility of crushing hundreds of people if your bridge collapses, are going to become more and more oral, with all that entails.

Novels will become performance pieces. The voice talent is going to matter as much as the story itself does. Ah boy oh boy, you're never going to get what ironically appropriate thing is going to happen to the  “death of the author” theory (Hint: It will die). 

We’ll see more retellings and reboots and mashups, as the same winner-takes-all mechanics that reduced the Internet to about a dozen sites winnow away our stories to a handful of classics (thousands will continue to self-publish, but then as now, nobody will notice). The Iliad, Gilgamesh, King Arthur, Jesus. That’s it. As with modern movies, you’ll have the literature equivalent of Marvel, Star Wars, Fast Furious, Disney Princess and then a whole ocean of minor hits for niche audiences.

Novels, however, are not the most digestible form of audio storytelling. Shorter, more easily digestible serials will be back in a big way, like the way Charles Dickens originally appeared in print, or think Conan and Gray Mouser, John Carter, Green Hornet or Flash Gordon. It'll be the audiobook equivalent of a 10-part Netflix series.

Blogs, of course, will quickly die a slow and horrible death. But, come on man, who even reads blogs these days?

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Wickensian Action: Extraction

Title: Extraction
Directed by: Sam Hargrave
Screenplay by: Joe Russo
Network: Netflix

About a third of the way into this movie, there’s a non-stop 12-minute car chase action scene that is easily the most enjoyable vehicular mayhem on screen since Mad Max. The camera gets into and then swoops out of cars on the move, taking us this way, then that way, zipping like a bullet across the battle scene, never resting for an instant. It’s glorious, simply glorious.

We are now in the Wickensian era of the action movie. The balletic bullet moves of Keanu Reeves’ John Wick movies are all on display here—twisting and flipping opponents around like rag dolls before putting two bullets into their faces at point-blank range.

The plot is Mad Max simple, though without all that extraneous “set up” and “payoff” bullshit that Max indulged in. Mercenary Chris Hemsworth has to rescue the son of a kidnapped drug lord from the clutches of a rival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and get him across the border into India. The rival conveniently has complete control over the police and special tactics forces, giving him unlimited numbers of cannon fodder to hurl at Chris, leading to a body count that would make even Wick blink a bit. Chris and the boy walk across Dhaka, pursued at all times by baddies who unerringly find the two regardless of where they hide. There’s a half-hearted attempt at bonding between Chris and his charge, but seriously, who cares? Get back to chasing cars.

It’s a shame the movie blows its load at the start, for the rest of it never quite measures up. The law of diminishing returns sets in, and the later gunfights feel a bit dull by comparison. The climactic showdown on a bridge feels almost tame, being conducted at merely walking speeds, constrained by the bridge’s structure into purely linear movement.

I see grumbling about this being another ‘white savior’ tale where our milky-white hero swoops in to rescue the noble coloreds from other savage, dark-skinned people, but frankly any movie starts to sound ridiculous once you oversimplify it. Mad Max: Fury Road is a long drive with a U-Turn in the middle, Lord of the Rings a nine-hour hike to return some jewelry, Star Wars is about a young man with daddy issues. Extraction at least makes an attempt to humanize the other players—notably Randeep Hoopa as a henchman working for the boy’s dad and Golshifteh Farahani as the agent who recruits Chris—though yes, it’s a pretty weak attempt, as the movie is far more interesting in kicking as much ass as cinematically possible.

It’s interesting that many action movies seem to be increasingly specializing, bit by bit paring away all those other humanizing elements that aren’t the core of their appeal—the love interest, and so on—and throwing more and more of their weight into pure adrenaline: Mad Max and John Wick I’ve mentioned, Atomic Blonde may be another. I wonder if audiences are fragmenting with the growth of streaming and other entertainment options, giving action movies more freedom to focus and less need to appeal to a wider audience, especially with a direct-to-Netflix release like Extraction.

If it’s a trend that gives us more sequences like this, buddy, no need for the rescue team. I’m quite happy here.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Star Trek: Picard

Title: Star Trek: Picard
Directed by: Hanelle Culpepper (3 episodes), Johnathan Frakes, Maja Vrvilo, Akiva Goldsman (2 episodes each), Doug Aarniokoski (1 episode)
Showrunner: Michael Chabon
Executive producers: Eugene Roddenberry, Trevor Roth, James Duff, Patrick Stewart, Heather Kadin, Akiva Goldsman, Alex Kurtzman
Network: Amazon Prime (CBS All Access)

OK, now it’s personal.

Patrick Stewart is 79. My father is 77. Dad is, I hope, enjoying his retirement, busy with his books and movies and horribly complicated jigsaws of railway trains. I hope he is comfortable and loved, and that if he has regrets, they do not trouble his sleep overmuch. I would hate to think he is wracked by guilt, shame, or feel he had failed us in some way.

We watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation” together, the way families still did back in 1987. The show became a part of the ritual of family life, Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard a comforting and reliable presence in our home throughout the show’s seven-year run. I suppose it’s inevitable that, much like choosing your favorite Doctor Who or Star Wars movie, your first encounter with a series always holds a special place in your heart, so Jean-Luc Picard and his crew have always been synonymous with Star Trek for me ever since. It’s not like Picard was ever any kind of father-figure to me, but still, he’s embedded in that period in my life when I still lived with my dad and we did stuff together.

Later series never quite measured up, to me. “Deep Space 9” had some great characters but replaced the sense of wonder with angsty dark stories. “Voyager” had some great stories but angsty dark characters. “Enterprise” was just bad (I hear it got better, towards the end). I finished university, moved out, moved halfway across the world. Life moved on.

I missed most of the movies that followed, catching them only on the back of airplane seats in hauls back and forth across the Pacific. I still haven’t seen the last one—“Nemesis”—when Patrick Stewart swore he was done with the series. I did see the first of J. J. Abrams’ new-Trek movies, but found it a fairly brainless SFX spectacle that did nothing to scratch the nostalgia itch. The “Discovery” series and its evident antipathy for its own legacy cemented that whatever was being produced under the Star Trek name now, it wasn’t for me.

In the meantime, there’s been a rush of nostalgiapunk movies and shows resurrecting decades-old properties and giving the original actors one last hurrah. Sylvester Stallone did with Rambo and Rocky, Harrison Ford with Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Deckard of “Blade Runner” fame, Schwarzenegger did it with the Terminator, they are even getting Bill Murray to do another Ghostbusters.

And now Patrick Stewart has done it with “Star Trek: Picard.”

And you know, it was painful to watch, because this Jean-Luc Picard starts out as a lonely, dying old man eaten away by his regrets and failures, angry at everything, feeling betrayed by everyone. And I look at Patrick Stewart and I see my dad, and it’s hard, man. It’s really hard. Again, I’m not projecting too much but damn, here’s a guy the same age as my dad, who I used to watch regularly when I lived with my dad, and now here he is again, and he’s fucking miserable.

I was pretty happy with Picard warping off into the star-set and that was that. If you have to bring him back, couldn’t he at least be happy? I was hoping for more nostalgiapunk, I’ll admit. However, much like “Discovery,” “Picard” keeps only the surface of Star Trek—the technobabble names, some of the characters, a touch of the visual aesthetic—and dumps everything else. Jean-Luc Picard, the Federation he served, the tone, the mood, that’s all gone. Everyone is broken and traumatized and sick and awful.

As we open the new series, Jean-Luc Picard is heartbroken about the death of android Data in “Nemesis” (didn’t see it, so, idk), about a group of rogue androids who blew up a shipyard on Mars, and about a failed rescue mission to the planet Romulus, based on the events of the Abrams movie. He’s angry at Starfleet and the Federation. Oh, and he’s dying of brain cancer.

He sets off on a mission to rescue an android (Isa Briones) created from a part of Data—Data’s daughter, essentially—along with a crew of quirky and lovable characters, such as the alcoholic drug addict (Michelle Hurd), a neurotic doctor who murders her lover (Alison Pill), an ex-Starfleet pilot traumatized by his former captain’s suicide (Santiago Cabrera), a revenge-crazed killer (Voyager’s Jeri Ryan) and sword guy (Evan Evagora).

The plot that follows is, as others have pointed out, a bit of a rip-off of the “Mass Effect” video game series: Protheans um, ancient aliens leave a warning against creating artificial life. Fanatics decide that means they have to kill all “synthetics” (they even copied the term from the games). The androids learn they can contact the Reapers some kind of creepy-crawly super-space-robot thing to come and kill everybody else. People spend a lot of time crying, throwing up or bleeding to death.

The original Star Trek famously invented the “Vulcan nerve pinch” because actor Leonard Nimoy thought an advanced civilization should have a better way of taking people out that smacking them. In “Star Trek: Picard,” Seven-of-Nine goes on a one-woman, two-fisted rampage with a phaser rifle that looks exactly like an assault rifle in each hand and she totally slaughters all the bad guys who ripped her friend’s eyeball out of its socket and left him so badly hurt she had to kill him out of mercy. Yeah! Kick-ass!

I won’t go further into the plot, which as already been raked over the coals at greater length and depth by commentators like Red Letter Media than I have stomach to. The back story is excessively convoluted and contradictory, returning characters feel unconnected to their previous incarnations, the new ones are all as fucked up as the putative hero, and the show is frequently tone-deaf to its own text. The above-mentioned homicidal doctor feels guilty for about one episode, and then everyone forgets that she brutally murdered her ex-lover. In another scene, an android talks about the necessity of death if one is to be considered truly alive, and immediately afterwards a character who has died has their brain transferred into an android body, thereby cheating death. Also, that beat is a rip-off of the Asimov story, Bicentennial Man. But whatever.

Pretty much the only non-depressing episode is when Johnathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis reprise their roles as William Riker and Dianna Troi, and make pizza.

It’s wonderful. It’s the high point of the whole damn series. You get to see people who genuinely like and care about each other sit down, talk instead of punch and shoot things, figure out what they’re going to do, express their fondness and admiration for each other. Fuck, yes. This is what I signed on for. Patrick Stewart and his old buddies hanging out and having a good time. Thank you. That’s the nostalgiapunk I needed. Make a show of nothing but Pat Stew and a string of cameos by old Star Trek hands.

Properties that trade on nostalgia want to have it both ways. They want all us old fans to come back, and they want to bring in the new crowd. In both Star Wars and Star Trek, the way they’ve chosen to do that is to make the central character old and miserable. Missing, of course, the fact that the whole point of nostalgia is to be comforting and familiar.

The idea that grim is somehow deeper, smarter, more meaningful or realistic than bright and hopeful certainly isn’t new, and Star Trek has been sliding towards this since at least “Deep Space 9,” albeit with fewer vivisection scenes. I get it. Deconstruction can feel bold, daring and creative, like “Unforgiven” did for Westerns or “Game of Thrones” tried to do for high fantasy. I also get that actors and writers don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again.

Great news: They don’t have to. They can do other things. Unforgiven and Game of Thrones worked because they were fresh, original and creative. George R.R. Martin wanted to write about a world in which Aragorn became king and then found out ruling wasn’t quite so easy. So he made up his own world. With his own characters. And everyone loved him for it.

If you want to do nostalgia, fine: THEN DO NOSTALGIA. That one episode (number 7, “Nepenthe”) shows it doesn’t have to be that way. There is conflict, even sadness, but within the framework of people who actually like each other and get along. It’s gentle, it’s fun, it’s a blanket and a cup of cocoa by the fire. Maybe challenging old tropes feels more “necessary” or whatever, but this episode shows you can achieve much the same affect without all the blood and guts. Remind people of what they had. Remind them of what was good. We can figure out for ourselves if we’ve lost something along the way, and want to recover it or not. There’s nothing inherently creatively barren about nostalgia anymore than there’s anything inherently creative about yet another band of merry misfits turning in their badges and going rogue. Stories like this can have value.

I talk to my dad every week. He seems okay. Happy, I hope. Disappointed with the way some things worked out, I guess, but on balance satisfied. I take solace and comfort from the trajectory of his life. I have hope that things will turn out, if not great, then okay in the end.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Is Dune Problematic?

With the release of some new stills from the upcoming Dune movie, people are starting to talk online about Dune again, and online being online, it means it’s time for people to start complaining.

Like an alcoholic cozying up to the bar, we’re having the usual today, it seems: Problematic narratives, casting choices, costume design. The suits are wrong, the eyes are wrong, egad, a black woman. I have an intense sense of deja vu. We’ve been through this and been through this—most recently with the Witcher, in my experience.

Dune was first published in 1965, so it’s worth considering whether it stands the test of time, or whether it has coasted on its popularity, beloved because it is beloved.

Let me start by saying it isn’t a very good book.

What I mean is that by any traditional standard, it isn't especially well-written. Like its High Fantasy twin in terms of fame, devotion and place in the canon, “Lord of the Rings,” it is certainly an intensely idiosyncratic book. The structure is all over the place, abruptly skipping over years before grinding to another chapter-long dissection of planetary ecology.

The writing plods. The prose flows about as naturally as a Zen koan and plunges down go-nowhere world-building rabbit holes with every step. People made fun of “The Phantom Menace” for starting off with talk of trade sanctions, little realizing how much the Atreides and Harkonnens love discussing their CHOAM directorships. The third-person omniscient point of view, in which we hear absolutely everyone’s inner monologues, feels almost archaic.

It that sense, it’s one of the books I always have in mind whenever an editor comes along to tell me what’s wrong with my writing, i.e. it’s good to remember that the two greatest, most popular, best-loved SF&F novels of the last century are absolute dumpster fires when measured against any traditional standard of ‘good’ writing. What is new, fresh and challenging gets remembered. What follows the rules gets forgotten.

Or, put it another way: Do it better than anyone or do it different from anyone. Doing it better is really hard, because you’re competing with everyone. Doing it different is easy, because you’re only competing with yourself.

That’s a point to keep in mind as we turn our eyes to what is now the third attempt to visualize Dune onscreen—after David Lynch’s 1984 movie and the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries—Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming 2020 (? Virus permitting) movie.

It’s certainly a dense book, packing in a lot of topics which are red hot buttons in the world of 2020: ecology, gender, religion and science, power in society.

It often feels to me, however, that the book is talking at right angles to the current discourse on pretty much every one of those topics. The book is interested in ecology, not environmentalism—on how man is shaped by his environment, rather than the reverse. On gender differences, not equality. On the similarities between science and religion, not their differences.

Sorry both defenders and detractors, but Dune literally does not give a shit about the current culture wars.

Take the desert wasteland of the titular planet, Dune/Arrakis: Frank Herbert is not concerned about how the economic exploitation has created a wasteland. That isn’t the point at all. In fact, the main lesson he seems to draw from it is that the Fremen who live there become invincible warriors because of their harsh environment. They are contrasted with the Imperial Sardaukar, product of a harsh prison planet, who have allowed themselves to grow soft. That’s more a question of interest to military historians than sociologists—are great soldiers born, not trained? Try getting people to excitedly debate that online.

The topic of gender is even more convoluted. The main character, Paul Atreides, is the male superman produced through a manipulative program of selective breeding run by a cabal of secretive, mind-controlling witches called the Bene Gesserit. There’s more yikes in that one sentence than an entire trilogy of Star Wars sequels. Yet the point of this plot thread is to explore concepts such as ancestral memory and the limits of human consciousness, not who holds power in society.

What about religion and culture? The desert-dwelling Fremen speak a language littered with Arabic words and launch a ‘Jihad’ on the behalf of their Mahdi, Paul Atreides. To our post 9/11 eyes, that might seem a potentially problematic element, but again, the book isn’t interested in questions about Islam or religious violence. You may find Frank Herbert’s choice of an Arabic-flavored culture to be the one that launches a bloody galactic crusade objectionable, and this is the closest I think critics come to having a point, but it’s worth pointing out that—at least in book one of the series—these are the good guys. The Fremen are painted in a consistently positive light and we’re clearly meant to sympathize with them. It’s the other guys, the Harkonnens, who are the baddies.

The galactic jihad is less a question of religion, and deals more with possibly the book’s most esoteric concern: What it would be like to be both man and messiah, and what a terrible burden and danger the charismatic leader poses not only to others, but also to his own followers. There’s a lesson there for fanatics of any stripe, but it’s not one you’re going to find people getting worked up about online.

Can’t imagine why not.

Is there an element of T.E. Lawrence to all of this? Is Paul Atreides another “Dances with Wolves” white man come to save the savages from themselves? Well, Dune is set 8,000 years in the future (300 generations—so anyone alive by then will have 2 novemvigintillion ancestors alive today), as far from us as we are from the builders of the pyramids, so frankly it feels moronic to speculate about the ethnicity of anyone in the book, but sure, many of the names ‘feel’ white or Arabic or Russian or whatever (Although: Glossu Rabban?). Add to this that the whole genetic superman plot thread is designed to show how dangerous such people are, and it’s hard to argue that there’s any kind of savior story happening here.

Does it stand the test of time?

Yes, precisely because the topics it raises and wrestles with have nothing to do with, or are at best only tangentially related to, the current topics du jour. It isn’t about global warming or gender equality or racial and religious tolerance. It’s about consciousness. It’s about how strong leaders can warp that consciousness.

Now, that said, let me just add I’ve got zero sympathy for people complaining about any of the creative choices Denis Villeneuve is making in his movie adaptation. I’ve said elsewhere that I think adaptations need to walk a fine line between changing enough to make the work accessible in their chosen medium, and not changing so much that the source material becomes unrecognizable (because in that case, why not just make your own thing?) Changing the gender of one of the side characters (Liet Kynes is now going to be a black woman) feels pretty inconsequential to me.

Yes, it being a black woman does feel a bit predictable, especially considering the lack of actors from Islamic ethnicities, or the fact that the only Asian member of the main cast plays the treacherous Doctor Yueh. There’s a whole trope right there. But the decision to change Kynes' gender doesn’t alter any of the fundamentals of the story, so I’ve no objection in principle.

The other one that seems to get people riled up is Villeneuve has said they’re beefing up Lady Jessica’s role to be more active, Honestly, this feels unnecessary, as it never felt to me the character was especially passive, and the desire to make her more of a traditional action hero feels tonally misguided for a story that eschews action movie tropes, but again, I feel we’re doodling in the margins here rather than rewriting anything the story is about.

I for one am still very much looking forward to seeing the final product.