Monthly Archives: December 2017

The Last Jedi

Once again I followed my absolutely watertight plan of waiting a really long time after a movie to come out to go see it and desperately ducking spoilers until finally getting into a theatre. Today I became approximately the last sentient collection of cells to watch The Last Jedi. I’ve got some thoughts. This is gonna be a long one. (Sorry, Brandon)

I did manage to go relatively unspoiled, but of course it was scarcely possible to avoid seeing at least some of the reaction to the film. It was, even more than for Force Awakens, mixed. Some people loved it. Some people hated it. So (once again) I went in with a little trepidation. I saw someone on Twitter (really can’t recall who) say it was like a Harry Potter movie except that Hogwarts turns out to have been a terrible place and Harry is now a cynical failure. (I mean, Hogwarts’ is clearly a terrible place, but never mind that for now)

I don’t get it, not really. We learn that Luke failed in training Ben Solo – which we already knew. He’s not actually wrong about the Jedi, as an institution. The Jedi have always been fuckups, since the first movie, so this revelation is also nothing new. They were supposed to be the guardians of the galaxy (heh) and they let the Empire happen. They’ve always made questionable decisions. Ben Kenobi flatly lies to Luke about his father, and when he’s caught out in it offers one of the very lamest justifications ever. Luke buys it because he’s still really an extremely innocent kid not far removed from being a Tatooine dirt farmer, and because he desperately wants to believe in the Good Guys.

And this is where some of the problem comes in – I think a lot of times Star Wars fans conflate ‘Jedi’ with ‘The Good Guys’, as though the one label necessarily means the other. One of the things I love about the Star Wars universe is that there are unambiguously Good and Evil characters and they face off. I was juuust a little concerned with some of what I had heard about The Last Jedi that they were taking that away. But they didn’t. There are still Good characters and Evil characters, it’s just that Good and Jedi aren’t necessarily exactly the same. The Jedi screwed things up in the past. Luke screwed things up again, thinking he could bring the flawed institution back.

But even the idea of using the Force for good ends is still very much there. (Are we still gonna call that being a Jedi? It seems like by the end of the film, we are, or at least Luke says so, and I’m not gonna argue with him) Luke Skywalker is still, in the end, an unambiguously heroic character. It’s okay for a heroic character to screw things up (I mean, listen to Yoda if you don’t want to listen to me) and it’s ok for Luke not to actually have all the answers. That’s how it is. We do our best – and Luke did, by any standard, very well – and sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. What he needed to learn (and I like that among the messages here is that you’re never done learning) is that failure is okay, and you pick it up and keep going on. (It’s maybe not a surprise that Luke has a problem with that, seeing as he more or less grew up surrounded by people telling him that he was the last hope and that if he dropped the ball it was all over)

So I’m perfectly fine with the movie’s take on Luke Skywalker, the Jedi, and the Force. I think it actually all hangs together really well. The Jedi were an institution that was probably past its sell-by date and weren’t doing what they were meant to be doing any longer. Great Problems Ensued. These will not be fixed by just trying to put things back the way they were. It’s gonna take a new approach, or remembering what the old approach actually was: Luke was too focused on the Jedi books and not enough on the Jedi idea. (By the way, If Luke Skywalker had showed up and fixed everything, that would be, first of all, terrible writing. You don’t create a bunch of new characters and then promptly undermine them by having them saved by one who has already done his time in the spotlight.)

Ok, so that was stuff that I kind of came into the movie thinking that I might not like and came away thinking was really good. What did I just straight up like?

I loved that there was no big clever answer to Rey’s parents. I adore that she’s ‘Rey from Nowhere’, and that’s your hero, not someone with a ‘special’ bloodline or someone long foreseen in prophecy. She’s ordinary, but she’s gonna do something special. Kylo Ren – so completely sold on the idea of destiny – tries to tell her, and probably desperately wants to believe, that she ‘has no place in the story’, but he’s wrong. It’s her story. She’s the hero. She’s the star. The person to restore the spark of hope to the Resistance isn’t Luke Skywalker, it’s Rey, or perhaps it’s the entire rag-tag band of them on the Falcon at the end. (I still kind of miss Han a little every time the Falcon is on screen.)

Now, Rey also appears to settle into this hero thing pretty easily. Just like Luke in the first trilogy, she has that perception of what needs to be done, and steadfastly goes and does it. Unlike some of our other main characters, Rey is actually right. That’s fitting for our main character. I also, however, love that in this film we have some characters learning to be heroes.

In Force Awakens, Finn mostly wants to escape the First Order and his first instinct (heh) is just to Get Away. By the opening of this film, he’s grown a bit – he’s looking to make sure he and Rey escape, but the rest of the Resistance, he’s prepared to leave – even buddy Poe Dameron, who we’ll get to in a second. It takes the events of the movie, and especially some perspective from Rose (about whom more, too) before he really buys into this cause bigger than himself, one that he’s willing to put it all on the line for. By the end of the movie, he’s proudly ‘Rebel scum’. It’s nice growth, and I expect great things in the final instalment.

Oh, Poe Dameron. What a fun character, and what a great example of a guy who has a hammer and so everything looks like a nail. He basically wants to solve every problem by blowing it up with an X-Wing (as General Organa points out) and that came across pretty positively in Force Awakens when the situation genuinely called for a lot of space fighter shoot-em-up. In Last Jedi, not so much. Poe fixates on blowing up something big in the opening scenes and sacrifices way too much to do it. (Arguably, this cues up the terrible problem the Rebel fleet ends up in afterwards) He’s still determined that there must be an Exciting Daring Plan to solve the next problem, so he doesn’t listen to Admiral Holdo, even though she’s a veteran officer and probably should know what she’s doing (and does, as it turns out). In passing, it’s certainly not a great look for him that he spends a lot of the movie not listening to qualified women and causing shit because of it. Hopefully he’s learned.

I think he has, because to Poe’s credit, as Admiral Holdo’s plan eventually unspools, though, and he sees that Holdo was far from a ditherer or a coward, and not only knew exactly what she was doing, but had the right plan for the situation (well, nearly), you can very nearly see the light come on. There are times to blow things up. There are times when that’s not how to win. Poe takes that lesson into the last set piece battle and realizes that there’s no sense in getting all his pilots killed. Time not to fight, time to live and stay in the struggle. Nice growth, again.

(I think it’s important that both Holdo, and Leia, ultimately realize that everything Poe does wrong is coming from a very good place – he wants to do well so very badly. It’s just that he’s also internalized a very dramatic, front-and-centre idea of what being a hero means, and that’s not always going to serve him well.)

Now, overall this is one of the lessons that The Last Jedi seems to want to hammer home – that we don’t necessarily win by blowing things up, as satisfying as that often is to do. It was the wrong plan in the opener. Holdo’s understated escape strategy was correct. Luke doesn’t show up to fight Kylo Ren, he shows up to stall and cover an escape. It didn’t make sense for Finn to die blowing up another piece of Imperial tech; the important thing was for him to live and stay in the fight. People matter. Surviving matters. Persevering matters. Sometimes the fight is not a literal fight.

I’m going to be very interested to see if they carry this through into the last part of the trilogy and give us a final victory that doesn’t come from a big space battle and something enormous exploding. It would kind of make sense if they did, because the Rebellion kind of already tried that and it didn’t end up really solving things. The amoral codebreaker (who I really hope we’re not actually done with) was right, in a way – one day they blow you up, one day you blow them up. The solution could be, perhaps needs to be something else. It’ll be very cool to see if, and how, they make that happen. (Of course things will still blow up. It’s Star Wars, after all)

I’ve seen several clever people say that The Last Jedi is a very 2017 movie, and in some ways I agree. Sometimes the galaxy lets you down: no-one shows up to answer Leia’s call for help. Sometimes there is no cavalry, sometimes if something’s important you gotta do it yourself. Moreover, the Resistance’s saviours are not coming from our old cast of characters – not Han, not Luke, not even (alas) Leia. The answer is emphatically not reaching back to the past, or assuming that because someone has a particular label that they’re The Answer. We need new ideas, new approaches, new heroes.

Speaking of, Rose is a great character. Like Rey, she’s not anyone Important. She’s not a Skywalker, she’s not a Princess, she’s not a flashy pilot or a cool smuggler. She’s a technician who is initially starstruck to meet Finn, but (somewhat like Bodhi Rook from Rogue One) she signs up for way more than she probably should because it’s necessary (or at least it appears to be). She’s able to convince Finn that the Resistance really is something pretty important. She saves his life for exactly the right reasons. Again, I expect great things.

I really loved a lot about this movie. I loved that ‘the worst place in the galaxy’ wasn’t another grungy dive bar, it was a glittering casino full of beautiful wealthy people who couldn’t find morality with a map. I love (as a friend of mine just pointed out to me) that the film suggests that the Force belongs to everyone, not just an elite caste of people with the right bloodlines and groovy robes. How great, not really incidentally, was that shot of the kid with the broom, almost looking like a lightsaber in the starlight, looking up into the night and dreaming of being in the fight. I love that the last shot of Luke was watching twin suns set, very nearly exactly like the first time we saw him.

Of course I have a few minor niggles with the film and places where I think perhaps things could have been done a touch better. But overall, I thought it was fantastic, far better than The Force Awakens, in large measure because it was a really different and new story. I can’t wait to see how it concludes.

Go get ’em, Rey from Nowhere.

(That’s a lot about this movie. I’m gonna stop here. I could write so much more. I’m just that excited about how good it was. Here‘s a good column that digs into some of the politics of the movie really well, and better than I really am able to.)

Tagged , , ,

Gifts

I write this amid a bunch of holiday-related runnings around so this will be another short ‘un. I suspect I’ll write rather more next week.

It’s the Christmas season, so of course there is a lot of focus on gifts, given and received. I have been fortunate enough to receive more than my fair share, this year and through my life. Hopefully I’ve given a few of value in return.

Among the very best gifts I have ever gotten is writing, wherever it came from. I don’t mean that in the sense of ‘I am good at it’, I mean that in terms of what writing does for me. It is indescribably cool (although I do keep trying) to create stories of people and things and places. I am delighted to share a great many of my stories with people, but I have stories that will never be told to anyone.

For a few years I had my own imaginary football league filled with teams and players, each with their own tales that will always be just for me. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been privileged to share two big pieces of my imagination with the whole world.  Very different in many ways, but the essential process is the same.  Creating stories makes some crystal thing deep inside me hum in just the right fashion; there is no substitute and nothing I would substitute for it. There is no feeling quite like writing my imaginary people into being, and then of course there is no pleasure quite like having someone read a thing I wrote and say that they’re glad they did.

Thank you all for reading something of mine. I’ll be so very pleased if you continue.

——–

Just (literally) finished watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special and the exit of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I suspect I may have a lot of thoughts about it all eventually, but on the whole it was a different kind of exit for a different iteration of the Doctor. I look forward to the next telling of the tale.

Tagged , , ,

UFO? UFO!

I was not expecting a UFO controversy. I really, truly thought that we had had our last flurry of UFO excitement (in North America anyway) in the 90s with the black triangles and all that was immortalized in the X-Files. In more recent years the only time ‘aliens’ seemed to enter the popular consciousness was that meme with the guy with the crazy haircut on History Channel.

And then this week. Revelations of a(nother) U.S. government investigation into UFOs during the 2000s. A pretty wild video of … something, apparently shot by aircrews from the USS Nimitz. Speculation that this is all a shell game being played to distract public attention away from Trump. It’s the Good Old Days again.

The Good Old Days are really pretty old, of course – UFOs in the sense we usually think of them (things that might be alien spacecraft, in general usage) (the term, not the spacecraft) go back to the mystery airships of the 1890s*, some of which were indeed interpreted as extraterrestrial craft. There was a big surge of interest in the 1950s and 1960s, coinciding (I would hazard) both with the Space Race and the appearance of genuinely very different looking aircraft in the skies. Then that other surge in the 80s and 90s.

Basically, the idea of there being Strange Stuff in the sky that might be something really quite remarkable seems to be one that we keep coming back to, collectively. We leave it for a while, and then after some time passes, for whatever reason we pick it up again.

It’s interesting to me that the UFO question still keeps grabbing us, after so many other mysteries and myths (Bermuda Triangle, Loch Ness Monster, Sasquatch) have fallen increasingly aside. I guess part of it is that UFOs do still exist in that ‘maybe’ space where it’s just about possible that there’s something weird going on, while for a lot of other things our expanding reach has closed off the avenues of possibility. That Nimitz video is pretty weird. It could be something.

I think part of it too is that the UFO question hooks into one of our broader, probably species-wide wonderings: are we alone? Are we everything in this universe? Is there more, out there? Especially as Western society has become more and more atheist, if we’re looking for something beyond ourselves and our society and perhaps greater than ourselves and our society, we’ve gotta look off-planet, because we’ve sort of eliminated the other options, intellectually.

And it is an important, interesting question – is there other life, other than what’s on this rock? What would it be like if there was, and what would it be like if it came to visit? The very wide range of very different answers people have to this question – from ‘nothing’ to ‘space friends who want to help us’ to ‘inscrutable intellects who want to use us as lab animals’ – is fascinating, and has of course been the fodder for very many wonderful SFF stories.

We’d like to know what’s out there. We can’t go ourselves, so we imagine the sorts of things that might come to us instead, to visit, to teach, to torment, or to conquer. There’s probably a lot to be gleaned from the different types of aliens we imagine, and the different types of encounters we envision.

The UFO/government (and maybe especially U.S. government) connection in particular I think twangs another part of our understanding (or imagining) of the society we have built, here in the West. Since the 1960s or so, there’s a current of thought that the government can be relied on to be up to no good – with a certain amount of evidence in support of that feeling! When you see the things that governments really have done, and you’re maybe already thinking about alien visitors, it’s not much of a reach to think of the government in league with interests opposed to our own, on a planetary rather than class-based scale.

Anyway, I’m watching this latest wave of UFO-ery with glee and interest. I would dearly love for there to be something remarkable, exceptional, and wonderful happening Up There. Those are the kind of stories I enjoy, after all, and it would be fun to have that be one that comes true. Probably.

I’m not sure that if I had set out to write a less Christmas-y/holiday-themed post that I could have done much better than the above. I hope you all enjoy time with friends and family and get some time to rest and recuperate from all this strange old world keeps hucking at us. I’m gonna try to do some writing. Thanks for reading.

*-I know you can find stuff going back much, much further than that, although it’s not always entirely clear that the weird stuff in the sky is being interpreted as we do today, so I simplified a bit.

Tagged , , , , ,

Characters, Still

Yet again I struggled to know what to write for this week’s blog. The last while I have been tired and ill and feeling generally uninspired. I don’t write this fishing for sympathy, but more as a reminder for myself that these things happen. Everyone goes through down periods where they’re not their best and don’t accomplish all that they might like to. Some people are just better at concealing that shit than others.

However that may be – what I decided to write a little about was that I created a new character this week. I always have a lot of fun doing that, and this time it is a little different because this one is for a role-playing game. I wrote a bit a while back about the Star Wars game I’ve been running, and that’s still going. Now, one of my friends is starting up a D&D game and I get to be a player (something I haven’t done in a long long while) this time, so instead of creating the whole setting, I get to concentrate on one imaginary person.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, although the process of making an RPG character is a little different than my usual writing process, because my natural impulse is to start making this new person the star of the story. However, with an RPG, they really won’t be. My character won’t be any more (or less) important than any of the other players’ imaginary people, so what I have to do is create more of a supporting cast member – someone who can fit easily in with a bunch of other narratives and the overall tale our DM has for us.

I think it’s going ok.

Of course I’ve written some bits and pieces of story to go along with this character – because, honestly, what else would I do? – and this also got me thinking about all the characters I’ve created in and for unfinished stories that float around the nooks and crannies of my hard drive, their worlds partially created and their tales only somewhat told. I am just odd enough to feel a little bad about these stranded creations of mine, and also to wonder what it must be like to live in a partly-written world.

There’s probably a story in that, as well, and if Neil Gaiman hasn’t already done it, maybe I’ll write it one of these days.

——

There was a bit of a kerfuffle on Writing Twitter yesterday when an almost-certainly-well-meaning literary agent offered up a fairly broad brush piece of Writing Advice that drew a digital hailstorm of criticism. I was going to write about that a little, but I don’t really have anything to say that I haven’t already – I don’t put a lot of stock in Writing Advice, and certainly not in there being one or more Rules that are the path to Good Writing.

Good writing is, fortunately or unfortunately, something that isn’t about what rules you did or didn’t follow, it’s about whether or not you can write your ideas down and make it work. Different things will work for different people, and for different applications. Ultimately, the wonderful and terrifying truth is that you just gotta write well, and there’s no magic trick and no step-by-step for that.

That’s it for this week. Next week I hope to be a bit more out of my doldrums.

(But Brandon, these entries are getting shorter, huh?)

Tagged , , , , , ,

Characters

I really didn’t know what I was going to write for this week either (I blame end of term occupying most of my mind these days) but then it occurred to me that I was reading a book where there was not a lot going on in terms of plot, but I was still really enjoying it, and wondered why. Surely this should be disappointing, or at least boring. But it wasn’t (and isn’t) – the book is an absolute pleasure to read. The reason: the characters are wonderful, and even though not that much is happening event-wise, it is just such a joy watching them interact that I don’t mind even a little.

(I’m not sure if I should say what book this is, and I’m pretty sure I won’t. Suffice it to say that despite what I said above, at about 3/4 of the way through it is a wonderful story from one of my very favourite writers, who is about a thousand times better than me both in terms of success and ability. I’m not looking down on the work in any way, just thinking about where its strengths are.)

As I think about it some more, that maybe isn’t the biggest surprise. At a writers’ event a few weeks ago, I got asked about the most important part of the stories I write, and my answer was that when you strip everything else away from my stuff, they are all stories about people. I like to write about people and the things they do, and basically I like to read stories that are, fundamentally, about people and their interactions as well.

In the same way, the kind of fiction that doesn’t work as well for me tends to be not as character-based. Some ‘hard’ science fiction, for example, is basically about technology, or a scientific idea, and the characters are almost peripheral to exploring those things. Sometimes the characters seem to be there just to dialog out pieces of exposition and describe things at each other, rather than speaking and reacting like real human beings. When I think about stories (which again I think I won’t name) that I liked when I was younger but haven’t liked as much on a reread more recently, a lot of times it’s because the characters are shallow and artificial-seeming.

(Now I know a lot of hard SF fans will vigorously dispute the above, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean all hard SF is like this. Just some of it, that I have read. A lot of this is also personal taste, because I know people who couldn’t really care less about the characterizations as long as the concept and the plot is cool.)

I’m not sure if this means I’m exactly very good at writing characters. I think they’re important, and I would sure like to be good at creating them. For the kind of stories I like to read, you need it to be about people before it’s about anything else. So they need to be fully thought out characters who react and speak like real people do, and they need to have concerns and motivations that are the sorts of things that real people are really motivated by.

Which is what the author of this book I’m reading has gotten very, very, right.

Something I’m going to keep in mind, anyway.


Fresh off last week’s post, and clearly lacking any ideas of his own, my friend Brandon Crilly has written up his own Top 5 TV shows list.  It is obviously misconceived, but you should find your way to his blog anyway.  It is here.

Tagged , , ,