Tag Archives: Star Wars

Notre Dame Lives

Yesterday there was a terrible fire at the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. I said some stuff about it on Twitter, but I wrote it before there was any real sense of how bad things were and what the result was going to be. We know a little more today.

As bad as things looked yesterday, when we saw that ghastly image of the spire falling, the picture that emerged today was much more encouraging. The bulk of the ancient stone structure seems to be relatively intact, although assessing that will take some time. All three of the medieval rose windows somehow survived what looked to be nearly certain destruction.

Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as we first think. Things endure.

The roof was nearly completely destroyed, taking with it oak wood framing that dated to the 13th century, in places. Exactly how it will be rebuilt is something of a question. It almost certainly cannot be reconstructed as any thing approaching what it had been – there’s a shortage of century-old oak trees, to say the least. There’s also very valid arguments against rebuilding in wood at all – perhaps, since we’re starting over, it’s time to build something that would cope with fire a little better. In the 19th century, they rebuilt the roof of Cologne cathedral with an iron frame, apparently for just this reason.

Sometimes it’s better to start over.

I read a fascinating observation from Dr. Jez Wells, at the University of York, who pointed out that no matter how the cathedral is eventually repaired and rebuilt, it will sound different. The roof structure will not be the same as it used to be, and so all of the geometry of reverberations will be different, and the building will no longer respond to music in the same way it used to.

Some things can’t be fixed.

It’s also a good point that any of these ancient buildings have not been static throughout their long existence. They have been damaged, rebuilt, expanded, rethought, reconsidered, redesigned and redone many times. Obviously what happened yesterday was a particularly traumatic change in the state of a grand old building, and it is still painful because of all the things that have been lost and will never come again.

But, Notre Dame will be rebuilt. It will continue to be all the things it has been for eight centuries, and will still mean many things to a lot of people. It will be different, but things always are.

Almost always, we can carry on.

—-

The Star Wars Episode IX teaser dropped on us. Of course I have thoughts about this, and of course I’m excited. It’s Star Wars, after all, and we got Lando back flying the Falcon and Rey doing a pretty rad backflip cut a TIE Fighter in half looking manoeuvre. This setting does love a desert planet.

They didn’t really give us all that much to chew on, and I’m sure we can rely on some of it being misdirection. Death Star wreckage is cool, the Emperor’s laugh will always be unsettling. I hope they managed to stitch together a fitting farewell to Leia.

I am a bit worried that they’re going to try to push a Kylo Ren redemption angle. It seems very likely, but I think they’ll have to work hard to earn it.

I’m also concerned – both from the ‘Rise of Skywalker’ subtitle and the little bit we see here – that they’re rolling back the ‘Rey from nowhere’ background from Last Jedi and giving us some kind of Secret Skywalker reveal. Again I think that probably fits with the series’ overall mythology, but I also think it will be so much less satisfying.

If the hero is nobody in particular, then anyone can be the hero. That’s a solid message these days, I would argue.

In any event, it’s early days to know what’s going on with this film just yet. I have high hopes, and just a few gnawing worries.

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On Sabine

I really don’t have a good idea to write about this week, but I have been thinking a lot about Star Wars (in part because of the RPG I game master, and in part because I’m doing the Star Wars Lego advent calendar), and so I think I’m going to do my thoughts on Sabine Wren. For those who have maybe missed it, Sabine is one of the characters from the Rebels animated series that I’ve talked about on here before.

I really enjoyed the series overall, and I think all the characters were written quite well. Sabine was the one that really surprised me, though. I kind of cringed a bit when I first saw her because she’s a young girl in Mandalorian armour – the stuff Boba Fett wears. I think I’ve also said several times before on here that I think the Star Wars writers have fumbled the ball pretty badly where Boba Fett is concerned.

They had a character with a neat visual design who people thought was cool in part because of the look and in part because he was an enigma. Boba Fett had fan support far beyond what his actual role in the movies really justified. The response to this was to not only do more and more with that specific character, but also to recycle that visual design into seemingly as many places as possible. A copycat bounty hunter in basically the same suit. Another identical looking guy for the prequel trilogy. Mandalorians everywhere. Everything they’ve added has, to me, undermined where the appeal of the Boba Fett character came from so that by the time I saw Sabine show up on Rebels, I was like ‘oh noooo’.

But then, she turned out to be far from just a retread of the ‘bounty hunter in cool armour’ concept. I mean, yes, Sabine is good in a fight and enjoys explosives, but there’s a more interesting layer. She’s an artist. That (to me, now) overdone armour is brightly painted and stylized. She bombs things with paint, and wants to leave a her symbol behind to let the Empire know who just kicked their ass. When she’s gonna take a stolen TIE Fighter into battle, well, she’s not gonna do it until she’s given the thing a custom paint job. I’m still sorry we never saw that thing again.

I guess it’s maybe not a surprise that I’d dig a character who is, on some level, another creative, but I also think this was just not a character we’d seen in the Star Wars world before. Knights, space pirates, royalty, con men, yes … but not really an artist. So that was cool, and it got me to buy into the Sabine character long enough for the writers to give me the rest of her story. Which did, in the end, involve a whole bunch more dudes in that goddamned armour, but by then I didn’t care because it was Sabine’s story and they found a way to make me care about that.

So well done, but also something to think about regarding characters in general. It gets me back to the idea that I keep running into from writers I respect that it doesn’t necessarily matter if the bare bones of your idea (plot, setting, characters, whatever) are brand new, because you’ve never told their story before. Sure, a particular character concept (Mandalorian warrior!) might have been so chewed over that people are sure they’ve seen it all before – but they haven’t seen you do it yet.

I mean, I still don’t think I ever want to see another Mandalorian armour bounty hunter in my Star Wars, but maybe I do, and I just don’t know it yet, because it’s gonna come from a writer that I haven’t seen use that particular brush to paint with. I think it may be the hardest thing to learn as a writer, and I’m sure still working on it: believing that the story I have to tell could not be done by anyone else, alive or dead, and that means it has an audience that wants to hear it.

Tell that story with confidence. Paint brightly.

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Rebels

Once again keeping the blog firmly on the crest of things that happened a year ago, I recently had time to finish watching the fourth and final season of Star Wars Rebels. As long time readers will know, I am an enormous Star Wars dork, so I thought I’d write a little about that this week.

It really was a great deal of fun. The show tended to tell fairly simple stories, which they sort of needed to with half-hour episodes, and yet ended up providing an overall narrative that really did have meat on the bones. The central character of Ezra went from the kind of spunky kid character I usually can’t stand to being an honest-to-god Jedi, and it felt like that development was completely earned. By the end of the series, it really did make sense that the other characters would be taking their lead from someone who had been a goofy annoyance with a slingshot (seriously) not all that long ago.

I think they created a really solid cast of characters that were a lot of fun to follow around, overall. I have particular affection for the art-and-explosives loving Sabine Wren. I’m not really sure we’ve seen a Star Wars character with such a bright palette (it’s a terrible shame that we never saw her ‘masterpiece’ TIE Fighter from Season One again) and yet again, they made her a character with more than one story to tell.

They even successfully pulled off transforming a villain from the start of the series into one of our heroes by the final season, with (eventually former) ISB Agent Kallus. And again, they did it in a way that made sense and gave us enough that when Kallus decides to ditch the Empire, the audience is able to accept him as a character who deserves some redemption. If they were ever to continue the story of the Rebels characters, Kallus would fit right in with the remaining crew of the Ghost.

And yes, ‘remaining crew’. Season 4 did go a bit surprisingly dark for a show that is ostensibly a kid’s show. I had been wondering since the beginning of the show how they would come up with an ending to Kanan and Ezra’s story that explained how we were down to the status quo of Obi-Wan and Luke as ‘last of the Jedi’ by A New Hope – obviously that whole arc doesn’t work nearly as well if there’s a couple other Jedi kicking around as well as the Tatooine dirt-farmer. Kanan’s death and Ezra’s disappearance both a) made perfect sense in terms of the story Rebels was telling and b) tied up that narrative loose end neatly enough, even if it was tough to see.

The ‘it’s for kids’ question comes up a lot with different movies, TV shows, and books; some people are absolutely derisive of anything that isn’t ‘adult’ and immediately dismiss the quality of any stories created with younger audiences in mind. And look, there’s a lot of shallow stuff out there for sure, but that’s true of stories created for any audience. There are also real gems of storytelling in the world of YA fiction, and I think people are missing out if they won’t even give it a chance.

It comes down to my increasing conviction that if you’ve got a good story, almost nothing else matters. It will be entertaining and audiences will like it. Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series were written for a young audience primarily, but they’ve got great characters and a neat setting and if you like fantasy at all, you’ll find them charming to read. Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper was marketed as YA but I figure it will entertain most any reader. And, if you did Star Wars even a little bit, I think you should give Rebels a shot. They really did have some great stories to tell with moments you won’t forget and characters you’ll come to care about.

I also think it’s pretty cool that the Star Wars fictional universe is elastic enough that it can accommodate a pretty dark and gritty story like Rogue One and a fun set of tales like Rebels and have them both work equally well and seem like they’re Star Wars. It’s a pretty awesome imaginary playground, which is probably why I keep coming back to it, and I’m very glad that it has Hera Syndulla and the crew of the Ghost in it from now on.

Thanks for reading.

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Boba Fett

There’s a lot of Star Wars content coming out these days. Here’s a little more.

No, I haven’t been to see Solo (continuing my tradition of taking an extremely long time to see movies), but it did open just recently, and then at about the same time we got the announcement that a Boba Fett movie is in the works.

Somewhere, 16-year old me is god damned delighted. There’s history here – I was among the very many Star Wars fans who latched on to Boba Fett in the first trilogy of films. I used Boba Fett as my alias in games and online whenever possible, I had a Boba Fett mug on my desk for years, along with a little model Slave One.

Boba Fett was cool, and in part it’s because the character has a great, distinctive visual design (although much copied since then) and mostly he just stands around looking dangerous. Han Solo is clearly terrified of him. Darth Vader, of all people, treats him with something approaching respect. Beyond that, he’s a menacing, rad-looking mystery, except for the part where he suffers a jarringly slapstick demise in Jedi, and even that was okay because the writers for the Dark Empire comic (I’m pretty sure) wrote him a more typically badass escape from a grisly fate in the Sarlaac Pit.

And that was where the trouble started, really. Ever since then, we’ve had more and more bits and pieces added to Boba Fett’s story, first in comics, and then in the prequel trilogy, and various associated books. To me, everything they’ve added to the character past the original trilogy has made it worse, to the point where I really don’t particularly want a Boba Fett movie at all, anymore. Somewhere, 16 year old me wants to fight.

Some of this may be personal taste, but I think also the character has lost a lot of his appeal by having more and more of those tantalizing blanks filled in. Sometimes it is more compelling to go ‘who is this guy? What’s their deal?’ than to have the answer handed to you. I think part of why that is is the fun of feeling your own imagination engage and working on your own answers to the question. Some of it is that our brains love a mystery, or a puzzle, and usually those are a lot less fun once you have the answer in hand.

For me at least, that’s what happened with Boba Fett. I found almost all of the added detail we got about the character fairly boring, and most of the answers we got made him into a lesser figure rather than a more interesting one. Having been given what I thought I wanted, I like the character so very much less. This may all have been inevitable. If you’ve created a character and your audience is clearly into them and eager for more about them, it’s an extremely attractive idea to go ahead and write more of their story. I felt that a bit with one of my own characters from King in Darkness, although the money factor is obviously much different.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s important to remember that there’s some risk along with the reward, and that in creating more, you may in fact end up diminishing what you had before. It was better before. I think I was right, in the end, not to make Professor Marchale a more prominent character than he was in my books; people seem to dig the scenes he’s in, they want to read more (which is good), but it might wear thin or get tired if those scenes increased in length or number. I think it would have been better if we had gotten a lot less about Boba Fett, and I really don’t think we need any more.

It’s not a character that I’m curious about any longer, I’m not excited to see him in action (somewhere, 16 year old me is very sad) and I think there’s a good argument to be made that we’ve got more than enough stories about gritty shades-of-grey violent dudes already, and it’s difficult to see how a Boba Fett movie could be anything else. I don’t really need to be asked to sympathize with another guy who ends up doing bad things in reaction to the tough hand he’s been dealt. Show me more people who rise above that shit.

I also worry, just a little, that the Star Wars universe is going to become heavily overfished, with too many movies about too many second-rate characters that will ultimately dilute the appeal of the whole. There are, I’m sure, good stories waiting to be told (I think the case for a ‘Leia’ movie is pretty strong, and you could make a pretty awesome Lando movie), but we don’t need to know the untold origin of every B-list character, and ultimately I don’t think we need a Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time. It was rough waiting for new Star Wars, but I think often we appreciate the things we don’t get very much of that tiny bit more.

Obviously all of this comes back to the most basic of principles: tell good stories. Easier said than done, sure, and I’m equally sure that everyone at least sets out with the intention to tell a good story, but it’s important (I think) to really think over whether or not the story you’re planning to tell is going to be awesome, and if it’s not, maybe wait until you can figure out a way to get it there. In my own work, I had an idea for a fantasy novel that I thought was ok but not, like, amazing, so I put it aside and did the project that is (slowly) becoming Heretic Blood. By now, I think I know how to make that fantasy story awesome, so it’s next on my list. Make sure the stories are good stories, and not just something that’s done for the sake of doing it. We owe our audiences and our characters better than that.

It’s clear that the hunger for more Star Wars stories is there, but although it may be a faint hope in a situation where the money is also clearly there, I hope the people making the decisions are considering that it’s not only important to tell stories, but to tell good stories, and that sometimes the untold story can be just as compelling.

—–

We are coming up on a provincial election here in Ontario, and it looks as though it will be an extremely close one. There’s also an extremely clear choice to be made, and though I don’t typically write about politics here, in this case I’m going to.

I’ll start by acknowledging that my own politics are, uh, not conservative. Even so, although I will almost always disagree with it, I think a conservative viewpoint is an important part of our political conversations and landscape. Even though I basically always wish they wouldn’t do so, I can generally understand why rational people might go out and vote for a conservative politician.

However, I don’t think there’s any argument to be made for voting for Doug Ford. There’s a long list of reasons why but perhaps the most important is that a party running on fiscal responsibility still hasn’t said how they will pay for their promises. They’re promising tax cuts and rebates and cheap beer and not saying where the money will come from for any of it.

This is leaving aside their stated policies that are anti-environment, socially regressive and favour wealthy corporations. We’ve also seen this playbook before, not all that long ago, when Mike Harris was premier, and it was a disaster. Ford seems worse, because they’re not telling us what we’d be giving up in return for the things they say they’d ‘deliver’. I imagine we wouldn’t care for the answer.

There are legitimate reasons to criticize the current Liberal government, and they’ve been in power a very long time. It’s not a surprise that a lot of people want change. I also understand if you’re a conservative and can’t bring yourself to vote NDP. I would ask, though, that everyone think very carefully about whether or not they honestly want to see the province run by Doug Ford in particular for the next four years, and cast their vote accordingly. Spoil that thing if you have to, but please don’t vote for Doug Ford, who gives every sign of being a perilously bad candidate for premier.

It also looks like voter turnout is going to be important, particularly for the progressives. You should always vote, but especially in a tight election, one that is a choice between very different alternatives, there’s no excuse not to.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. I appreciate your reading it.

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Perfect/Imperfect

I’ve been thinking about heroes, or I guess more properly about protagonists, the last while. I confess that a lot of the reason why is connected to The Last Jedi and the reaction to it, still. (I fired off my overall feelings about the movie a few blogs back.) A lot of the more thoughtful criticism I’ve seen of the movie (there’s a lot of it that I have no trouble dismissing out of hand) centres around Luke Skywalker, and the argument that his portrayal in Last Jedi is either inconsistent with the character we saw in the original trilogy or even a ‘betrayal’ of the character.

Mostly this is because either (depending how you look at it) Last Jedi shows us a side of Luke we haven’t seen before, or introduces a significant change to the character from the last time we saw him. Original Trilogy Luke is good at everything, and with a couple of notable exceptions, he doesn’t screw up. And even when he does screw up, it works out for the best in the end. Even when Ben and Yoda are convinced he’s wrong about Vader, nope, it turns out that Luke was right in the end. He always comes through, and he’s always up to the challenge.

There’s no question that things are different in Last Jedi. Luke has made at least one big mistake that he doesn’t know how to fix, and made a series of decisions that look, at least, pretty questionable. (Now, I think this all hangs together perfectly well, narratively, but I’m not going to dig into that seriously now, except to say that I think the basic issue is the difference between Original Trilogy Luke who Does Things and after-Original Trilogy Luke who now has to be a teacher, which is not the same at all) So, if what you need or want is for Luke to continue to be a flawless hero, then yeah, the film is not going to give you what you’re after.

Now, my reaction was that I like Luke Skywalker better as a character after getting these new parts added to his character, precisely because it makes him (more) imperfect. However, this whole issue got me to thinking about whether, on the whole, we prefer our heroes to be perfect, or not. If you look around SFF (and other kinds of fiction, really) you’ll find a lot of popular examples both ways.

In general, I like my heroes to be a little less than perfect, and I think I always have. I never really liked Superman, growing up, because he really had no downsides. (I’ve come around a bit on him in more recent years, but he’s never going to be a favourite) Easily the least interesting of the characters at Camelot is Galahad – literally the perfect knight, also indisputably the least fun of the lot of them. Give me a dozen Gawain or Palomides stories, hold the Galahad please.

I think any character that has some flaws and some things they aren’t good at and some parts of their life they struggle with is easier to identify with and easier to root for. I also think they’re a little more dramatic, because you never know exactly how the balance between positives and negatives is going to shake out. (Or at least, we can convince ourself that we don’t know long enough to enjoy the story)

On the other hand, there is something reassuring about the flawless hero. They can’t ever let you down, they can’t ever disappoint you. Whatever you need them to be, that’s what they are. It’s a lovely idea to think of having someone like that on your side. I suspect that’s a lot of the appeal of Superman, for example, and perhaps part of what people liked about flawless Luke Skywalker.

I’m not sure there’s really a right or a wrong answer here, and which sort of protagonist is appropriate probably depends a great deal on the kind of story that you’re trying to tell. I also suspect that, as usual, the thing that may really be problematic for people is change – when a character that we thought was one way is revealed to be a little different. Personally I don’t have an issue with that, as a fan or a writer, as long as the change is handled with some sensitivity and we’re given a strong reason for it, but I can understand where the unhappiness might come from.

Something worth thinking about with my own imaginary people, probably. Thanks for your time.

I’ll try to ease up on the Star Wars blogs for a while.

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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.)

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Old Futures

Last week I had a (very) minor emergency in that my laptop decided to pack it in. This wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been – it was fixable, and I had most of my important files backed up (and I am now working on changing that ‘most’ into ‘all’), and perhaps best of all, I had my old laptop around and was able to keep working on that. So this is the very definition of a First World Problem, but it did still get me to thinking.

First, it got me oversentimentalizing objects again. The old laptop is the one that I wrote my PhD dissertation on, what will probably forever be the crowning achievement of my academic career. I created hours worth of lessons and lectures that helped me teach hundreds of students about the history I love. I wrote most of King in Darkness on it, the first book I ever wrote and the first thing I ever had published. It travelled with me to many places and gave me many hours of work, diversion, and entertainment. For all that, it still works pretty well, which makes me feel more than a little guilty packing it up and putting it away on a shelf, giving up on it in a way that it never gave up on me. I know, of course, that it’s just a thing, a mechanism, and that it doesn’t feel disappointed or sad to be sidelined in favour of a newer, more powerful mechanism. But I can’t help, for some reason, to assign those feelings to it, and to imagine that maybe it enjoyed the past week of being back on the job.

However, that’s really just all my own internally-generated silliness.

I also thought, as I worked with the old laptop, how impossibly heavy it seemed to be to carry around and to have sitting on my legs, how bulky it was, how clunky some of the operations were. (I still like the way the trackpad works better though) The thing is, I also remember, very clearly, when I first got that laptop, thinking how light and compact and slick it was compared to my even-older laptop. But time has passed, and my expectations of what technology is capable of have shifted.

You run into that in SF reasonably frequently, especially if you read the older stuff. Things that seemed like the amazing tech of times yet to come now seem entirely ordinary. Sometimes tech we take for granted is conspicuous by its absence. The ‘future’, suddenly, looks very old.

The Star Wars RPG I’m running ran into an example of this recently; we were in the midst of an adventure and one of the players asked about GPS. Because of course there should be GPS in an interstellar society like the one we see in Star Wars; we can’t imagine, at this point, how you could have a modern society without GPS. The problem I had was basically this: there isn’t really any evidence of anything GPS-like in the setting, and as a result the game (which reproduces the setting) isn’t really designed to cope with the implications of GPS technology. This is one of the many times that the 1970s future of Star Wars sort of clashes with our vision and expectations of what ‘advanced’ should mean and must mean, and we’re left with a presentation of the future that seems obsolete at the same time as it claims to be ahead of us.

Personally, I find these now old-fashioned futures charming, a past time’s dreams of the days ahead, and I enjoy reading about them just as much as I do visions that are still a bit more aligned with our current technological reality and expectations. My very loose theory is that if you have a really good story, with a world and plot and characters that your reader is going to buy into and care about, it doesn’t really matter if the technology isn’t exactly right. (Somewhere, a hard SF writer just got a piercing headache and doesn’t know why) One of my prime examples is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the first stories of which came out before the advent of computers, and certainly before it was at all clear how ubiquitous they would become. So they’re just not there, which is both jarring to a modern reader, but then also kind of cool, and the stories still work, because the strength of them is more Asimov’s ideas about society and politics and people than it is ‘this is what the future will be like’.

I think this is really just an example of something else I’ve talked about before, the point lifted from a William Gibson interview I attended, where he pointed out that his books weren’t really attempts to predict the future at all, they used an imagined future to talk about the present as he perceived it. So, the cellphone and wireless-less future of Neuromancer was a book about the 1980s, not really Gibson’s attempt to predict the years to come, and thus the absence of computer tech that we take for granted doesn’t really matter. (I wonder if he’s off that idea just a touch with The Peripheral, and what he has to say about it, but that’s like a whole ‘nother deal)

As a result, I think Neuromancer (and Gibson’s other stuff, and so many other SF stories with their obsolete futures) still works really well as a novel, because it was never really about the tech or the future at all, it was about human beings and the worlds we make, using an imaginary place and time to talk about them. I guess those are the kind of stories I like best, so I don’t really mind if the future is a place we’ve already been or somewhere we’ll never get to.

On some level, I guess I like to hope that these obsolete futures still enjoy having us come to visit them, even if they’ll never be more than dreams, just as I guess I hope my faithful old laptop took a bit of pleasure in being back in the game, at least for a little while.

This threatens to get very silly again, so I’ll stop here. Thanks for reading.

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Missy

I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.

(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)

I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.

In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.

I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally.   Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down.  Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.

Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.

This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.

I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.

There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’

I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.

I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?

Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.

I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.

—–

I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’

In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes.  Squirm squirm.)

All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.

I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.

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Star Wars and the Future(s)

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, and since (as you will know if you read this blog much) it’s a movie series that I have loved a great deal, I thought I would write a little more about it today. I’ve written some about why I like these films so much before; I like the very clear good vs. evil of the stories and the idea that power always carries a price with it. (We saw a rather more shades-of-grey take on the setting with Rogue One, which was fun, but I hope they won’t continue that with Last Jedi.) I’m not sure I have anything new to say along those lines today, though.

Ok, so something new for this time around. I love the way the Star Wars movies (thinking primarily of the original trilogy, Force Awakens, and Rogue One) look. Specifically, I love the way the technology looks. Most of it is beat up and a lot of it is covered in grime. There’s no touchscreens and not a lot of chrome. In fact, not all that much looks shiny at all (C3P0 being the obvious exception), and the stuff that does mostly belongs to the Empire, to the bad guys. The good guys’ stuff is oil stained and scratched and dinged up, which I think helps quietly and consistently underscore the desperation of the Rebellion.

It’s pervasive through a lot of the tech in the movies, though. The outside of starships are not sleek and streamlined, and certainly don’t have giant bird paintings. There’s pipes and hatches and various flange-y bits sticking out everywhere. In general everything looks (to me, anyway) like tools rather than showpieces; this is all stuff that gets constant heavy use and is designed primarily for function rather than form. I like that a lot.

Now, there’s also arguably a bunch of stuff that is missing from the tech in Star Wars. The touchscreens are one example. There also doesn’t appear to be wifi or anything like it, R2 has to physically plug into computers with those very satisfyingly mechanical, rotate-y ports. There’s no hi-def recordings either, the very best you get is a flickery, blurry, mostly monochrome image, if you get that at all. This is, somewhat paradoxically, a retro-future, and although that sometimes ends up seeming silly, to me it works out.

Another recent example of this being done very well was the Battlestar Galactica TV series, with the corded phones and Cold War looking computers. There was an in-universe explanation for it, first of all that Galactica was an old ship, but also that the more advanced gear we’d expect was fatally vulnerable to Cylon shenanigans. That worked fine, but I don’t think it was necessary. One of the players in my Star Wars RPG likes to think about why there are no touchscreens in the game world, and although I enjoy hearing his thinking, I also don’t think I ultimately need an explanation. There isn’t because there isn’t. There isn’t because it’s cool.

That may be the reason why they continue to keep the retro-future, clunky tech in the new Star Wars movies. Consistency is of course part of the deal, and I like to think that part of it is that technology isn’t the solution to the problem in Star Wars. A lot of the time, technology is the problem, and so maybe that’s why the movies don’t glamorize it. Part of the reason, I also suspect, is that the clunkier tech tends to look more dramatic in action. There was a lot to like about Star Trek: The Next Generation, but no matter how furiously you tap on a touchscreen, it doesn’t convey a great sense of urgency, not like flipping some big chunky switches or slamming a receiver into its cradle.

I also know a lot of the props for Star Wars were scavenged or modified from real world bits and bobs, with the blasters being tricked-out pistols rather than purpose-built future guns. So some of the look is also probably practicality in set building. They used what was relatively easily available and could be used as-is (or as-was, I guess) rather than scratch-building a bunch of stuff that probably wouldn’t look as convincing in the end anyway. I really do like Star Trek perfectly well (not as much as Star Wars, but you probably knew that), but the computers and tech props made for the original series never looked like anything but props to me. Also everything is distressingly tidy. (I wonder whether part of why I like the knocked-about, messy Star Wars stuff is that my spaces tend to be cluttered, and anything owned by me tends to look beat-up in a hurry)

I also think that the way Star Wars looks reflects the way people in the late 70s and 80s imagined the future, which is probably inevitable but is kind of interesting to think about. (Now yes, of course I’m aware the movies are set in the distant past, but I think it’s reasonable to say that in imagining a world of space ships and interstellar travel and intelligent robots we’re thinking about the future of our society to some extent) First of all it’s not unreasonable to say that there are no touchscreens and no wifi in Star Wars because the people writing the scripts and making the props didn’t envision how technology was going to develop. This happens all the time, of course – in one of my very favourite books ever, Neuromancer, no-one in the ‘near future’ setting has a cell phone. That change in tech wasn’t seen coming.

That also gets me to another point, though, because Gibson is at pains to point out that he wasn’t trying to predict the future with Neuromancer, and that it was really a book about the 1980s. I think that’s almost always the case with the visions of the future that we create; they’re nearly always more about the time they were created in than any real attempt at futurism. They reflect the perspectives and assumptions that the creator was immersed in when they sat down to write. Neuromancer imagines a future where the line between technology and humanity is becoming blurry, that dehumanises people and makes the artificial closer to human. Star Wars imagines space as a place where people live and work in their regular lives, doing ordinary work; where there are working-class beings putting in a hard days’ labour. This is not a gleaming future with contemporary concerns solved, it is one that still has poverty and crime as things to be worried about as well as alarming space fascists.

Some of these visions of the future become obsolete as time goes by. I don’t think you’d get a lot of traction with a story about the gee-whiz, rockets everywhere, meals in a pill, spandex jumpsuit future of the 1950s any longer. There’s parts of it I think we actively don’t like and parts of it readers would not believe. (Although, I would also love to be proven wrong!) It’s not a version of the future that has aged very well for us. Almost universally (it seems to me), if someone does present you with this bright, shiny, perfected future, it’s because they’re setting up to jerk back the curtain and reveal some horrific underside.

It’s not always a case of future visions simply not aging well. Not all that long ago the futures we imagined seemed to almost always include the idea the virtual reality would become endemic, that we’d be constantly immersing ourselves in digitally created worlds to work and play. I don’t understand the technology enough to get why, but it didn’t happen (Gibson is interesting on the road we may have taken instead), and our VR fantasies seem vaguely silly, now.

On the other hand, we seem to like the 1980s futures a good bit more. That new Blade Runner movie that I fretted over a couple of blogs ago is very much cut from that cloth, for example. There’s something about that grim, crumbling future that still appeals to us, on some level, some part of it that fits with how we either think about our world or think about where we’re headed. You could argue that the steampunk genre takes a Victorian vision of the future as its inspiration. I don’t know why we like certain futures more than others, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m hoping to put together a discussion along those lines at Can*Con this fall. We’ll see.

However all that may be, the 1970s future portrayed in Star Wars is obviously one that works for today’s audience, or at least a good portion of it. When the two most recent movies came out, I remember hearing from more than a few people that they were glad to see that the tech was all chunky and beat the hell up. Captain Andor’s U-Wing looks like it has been used for many hundreds of hours by hundred of people and it is glorious. When we meet Rey, she lives in a junkyard of wrecked and abandoned ships. The Rebel base, when we get there, is once again in a dingy, dark concrete bunker. Saw Gerrera’s partisan stronghold was filthy and his gear looked like it might stop working any second now.

40 years is a fantastic run for any imaginary world, and it says something about the basic quality of the Star Wars story that both the original movies and the newer additions to the franchise seem to be as popular as ever. I hope they keep making Star Wars films for us as long as they have good stories to tell, and I hope all of them have that clunky, battered, busted-looking tech as part of them.

—–

If you’ve missed me talking about it before, the Limestone Genre Expo is in Kingston this weekend, and it’s not too late to register! This will be my second year attending and if last year is anything to go by it will be a marvellous weekend of time spent thinking and talking about reading and writing. I’ll be on a few panels and hanging out at the Renaissance Press booth if you’d like to say hello, and it’s a great opportunity to meet writers and fans of great fiction. Details are here.

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RPG

We are, if you can believe it, going to take this blog into even dorkier territory this week. A little while ago I started RPG-ing again. Role-playing games are a hobby I enjoyed a lot in high school and university, but in more recent years there hasn’t been time to do it. I tried playing over internet forums but it really wasn’t at all the same and I had sort of assumed my RPG days were over.

However, some friends of mine suggested giving it a shot again (we’re using voice chat, which removes a lot of obstacles) and so I am once again running a game of Star Wars: The Role-playing Game. The specific game doesn’t really matter so much; the experience has been an interesting one from a writing perspective.

As the game master (or whatever a particular game labels the role I have), it’s my job to create the scenarios the other players will encounter, populate the game world with interesting characters, and give them compelling enemies to fight against and (hopefully) overcome. There’s more to it than that, but I guess obviously this all sounds a lot like writing fiction, and it is, in a lot of ways.

However, as I was also reminded (I feel like much-younger me would have known this) that there are some big differences as well. For our first scenario I created a whole bunch of stuff that, to me, would have been an interesting, reasonably suspenseful story to start out the new game. I made up characters and created detailed backgrounds and motivations for them all. I carefully thought out the right sequence of events for the scenario’s plot and what the hooks for the next story would be.

And then we played. And (as any experienced GMs will of course already be expecting) the players went off in entirely different direction skirting most of what I had plotted out. Most of those characters never got met, and the bulk of the plotline got (actually fairly skilfully) avoided. I thought the game went fine, but I had to make up a fair bit on the fly (an essential GMing skill at the best of times) and a lot of material i had prepped went unused. (By the way, to my players who may be reading this, please don’t take this as a complaint – I’m just thinking things through.)

You can avoid this – RPG players call it ‘railroading’ and you can write things such that the players have to go in the direction you want them to. (i.e., you set things up so the game runs ‘on rails’ with no real ability for the players to steer where they might want to go) Especially for newer players it’s sometimes the thing to do, and some players are fine with being told where to head next, but my experience has been that more experienced players tend to chafe against it pretty quickly. The whole attraction of an RPG is that you get to explore an imaginary world of wide-open possibility. Hey, what’s that? Let’s go check out over there.

So to some degree this is unavoidable, especially if you have creative players (which are the kind you want). What this is reminding me is that writing as a game-master is a very different jam than writing as a fiction author, despite those superficial similarities, primarily because I’m not the only person telling the story. Because I can’t necessarily predict what the players are going to do, improvisation is always going to be a part of it, but just as obviously I can’t prepare nothing … somewhere there’s a sweet spot of preparing enough material to be able to have the session go smoothly without working up a bunch of stuff that never gets used to find again.

(And, honestly, a lot of stuff that doesn’t get used when I expect it do can be scavenged for parts later anyway)

I like to hope that what I’ve learned as a fiction writer does help me in creating compelling elements for the RPG, but I also feel like this whole experience gives me some useful stuff to think about and take back to fiction writing. Although I do get to tell the whole story there, there’s also still a balance to be struck in terms of how much background and fleshing out everything needs for the story to be convincing and interesting. Fictional worlds need to seem plausible and fully-realized, but that (in my opinion) should also be an illusion; you can waste a lot of time on ‘world building’ that serves no purpose to the story and, in some examples of writing I’ve seen, actually gets in its way. Write the story first, decide if you actually need a detailed political history of the kingdom later.

I know that part of why I have always liked role-playing games is the storytelling element. I love to tell stories and that’s essentially what the games are about, whether you’re a player or the game-master. What I’m re-learning again the last while is that it is a very different kind of storytelling than I get to do when I’m writing my own fiction, and while the lack of control is something that requires adjustment, it’s also really cool because the group is working together to tell the story rather than it being the creation of any one person. I also think that while I’m probably a much better writer than I was when I was last running an RPG, that doesn’t necessarily or immediately translate to being a better game-master.

I’m not really sure that’s something you get in any other setting than a role-playing game group, where creative people collaborate in real time on a story that can (depending on the group, and the game) go on for years. I think what I’m actually re-learning as a game-master is that it isn’t my story at all. My job is to help the players tell the story of their characters, the imaginary people they’ve created and are sending out on adventures. It’s very cool and it is a role I enjoy very much, I’ve just got to get good at it again.

That’s all very much just me thinking out loud about things, but it’s what I’ve got for you this week.

Thanks for reading.

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