Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 2016

“Yet she was still a woman…”

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"More curiosity than respect..."

Note: This post is the forty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 48. You can read the previous installments here.

“When I start a play, I’ll think, does it matter if this character is a man or a woman?” David Lindsay-Abaire once said. “And if it doesn’t, I make it a woman.” I do pretty much the same thing. And I’d like to think that we both take this approach for an utterly unsentimental reason: it results in better stories. There’s a tendency for writers, male and female alike, to use male characters as default placeholders, especially in genres that have traditionally been dominated by men. By systematically visualizing women instead—even if it’s nothing more than an initial sketch—you’ve already redirected your thought processes at a slightly different angle, which can only be good for the outcome. Whenever I read stories from the golden age of science fiction, I’m struck by the absence of women, which seems less like a sin than a mistake. It’s hard to think of a story from that era that wouldn’t have been improved by turning half of the men into women, without any other revisions aside from the relevant pronouns, as was done, much later, with Ripley in Alien. And I would have addressed this advice squarely to those pragmatic hacks who were only interested in making a living. There are so few writing rules of any value that a professional ought to utilize anything that works on a consistent basis, and the fact that so many of the women we see in these stories are either love interests or secretaries, even in the far future, feels like a missed opportunity.

There’s even a handy empirical test that you can use to verify this. Take a story from any genre in which the genders of the main characters are mostly irrelevant—that is, in which you could rewrite most of the men as women, or vice versa, while leaving the overall plot unchanged. Now mentally change a few of the men into women. The result, in most cases, is more interesting: it generates registers of meaning that weren’t there before. Now mentally turn some of the women in the original story into men. I’m willing to bet that it has the net opposite result: it actually saps the narrative of interest, and makes the whole thing flatter and duller. If you don’t believe me, just try it a few times. Even better, do it when you’re constructing a story, and see which version you like better. In the book Which Lie Did I Tell?, the screenwriter William Goldman writes:

I remember once being in an office with a studio guy and a couple of people were sitting around, fighting the story. And once of the people said this: “What if they’re all women?” Now the story, as I remember, was a male adventure flick. And the studio guy commented on that—“This is an adventure movie here, how stupid a suggestion is that?” Naturally the writer was finished for that day.

The truth, as Goldman points out, is that it was an excellent idea: “Making them all women opened up the world. I use it a lot myself now.” And that’s all the more reason to do it automatically at the earliest possible stage.

"Yet she was still a woman..."

Which isn’t to say that you can just change the names and pronouns and be done with it. This exercise is only useful if you follow through on the implications that come with making a character a woman, especially in a genre like suspense, which defines itself so casually in terms of action and violence. In my novels, you could change most of the women to men without affecting the main outlines of the plot, but there would be a real loss of meaning. In part, this is because I unconsciously situated these characters in worlds in which women face particular challenges. For Maddy, it was the world of art and finance; for Wolfe, of law enforcement; and for Asthana, of thieves and criminals. These tensions are mostly just implied, but I’d like to think that they quietly affect the way we see these characters, who are enriched by the choices they must have made before the story began. In retrospect, this explains, for instance, why Wolfe is so much more interesting than Alan Powell, to whom I devoted a third of The Icon Thief before mostly shelving him in Eternal Empire. Wolfe would have had to prove herself in ways that someone like Powell never would, and it shows, even if it’s unstated. And I have a hunch that my endless struggles with Powell as a character might have been avoided entirely if I’d done the logical thing and made him a woman as well.

There’s another missed chance in this series, and it involves the character of Asthana. The only time I come close to exploring the peculiar position she holds—as a woman of color in a criminal world—is in Chapter 48 of Eternal Empire, in which she enters a house in Sochi occupied entirely by Russian thieves. Her thoughts turn briefly to the fact that she’ll always be regarded as an outsider, and I try to show how she establishes herself in the pecking order by being a little smarter than the men around her. But I don’t do nearly enough. Part of this is simply due to a lack of space, and to the fact that it felt more important to define Asthana in relation to Wolfe. Still, her presence here raises a lot of questions that go mostly unanswered, and I can’t help but feel that I could have touched on them more. (If I were doing it all over again today, I would have remembered what Christopher McQuarrie says about Rebecca Ferguson’s character in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation: “They’re not men. They’re women that are not trying to be men…You’re here on your own terms and you’re in a shitty situation created by people in power above you. How do you escape this situation and maintain your dignity?”) If anything, the result would have made Asthana an even more formidable antagonist for Wolfe. And although there’s a showdown coming soon between these two women, the most interesting parts of this story will mostly remain unspoken…

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 31, 2016 at 7:30 am

Astounding Stories #3: “The Legion of Time”

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The Legion of Time

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

When we talk about the golden age of anything, it’s always tempting to give it a definitive beginning and end. You often hear, for instance, that the golden age of science fiction officially commenced with the July 1939 issue of Astounding, which included debut stories from A.E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov and was followed a month later by the first appearance in print of Robert A. Heinlein. Similarly, it’s convenient to say that it ended in May 1950, with the publication in the same magazine of L. Ron Hubbard’s article “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science.” These are neat, plausible boundaries, but you could easily make the case that the beginning, the ending, or both deserve to be placed somewhere else. It’s equally reasonable to state that the real turning point wasn’t the debut of any particular author, but the promotion of John W. Campbell to a position of true editorial control, which occurred sometime around March 1938. Others have claimed that the golden age abruptly ended with the entry of the United States into World War II, which scattered the magazine’s core group of writers far and wide. Robert Silverberg, among others, has convincingly argued that the fifties were the actual golden age, and that the years from 1939 onward were “more like a false dawn.” And while such divisions are always a little arbitrary, they’re a valuable way of organizing our thinking about how the genre has grown and changed.

My own views on the subject are still evolving, but I’m ready to make one statement: any definition of the golden age that doesn’t include “The Legion of Time” by Jack Williamson is necessarily incomplete. It was initially published as a three-part serial starting in May 1938, so it falls outside the window mentioned above, but it’s such a transformative story that part of me believes that it inaugurated the golden age all on its own. And Campbell himself sensed this at the time. We first hear about it in an editorial note in March, in which Campbell, clearly excited, says that Williamson has submitted an outline for a story then called “The Legion of Probability” that he expects will be sensational. In the following issue, he announces that the novella is as just as good as he had hoped, and that it will stand as the first of a series of “mutant” stories in Astounding that will push the whole genre into new directions. What sets it apart, in his eyes, is a novel conception of time travel: the idea that two or more alternate futures might exist simultaneously, based on the outcome of a single pivotal moment in the past, and that these opposing universes—which can’t interact with each other directly—could engage in a struggle for existence by seeking to influence events in our present. It’s a great premise, and as Campbell observes, it could generate hundreds of different plots.

Jack Williamson

But what really sets “The Legion of Time” apart is the sheer energy and inventiveness of the story it tells. It opens with Dennis Lanning, a man from our own time, being contacted by two beautiful women, Lethonee and Sorainya, from alternate futures in which the existence of one depends on the destruction of the other. In some unknown way, the actions that Lanning will take—we aren’t told how—will determine which of the two will survive. We soon learn that Lethonee’s civilization is basically good, while Sorainya’s is basically evil, but Lanning remains powerfully attracted to both. This might sound like a case of Betty and Veronica on a cosmic scale, but Williamson cleverly plays with Lanning’s dilemma, which persists even after he realizes that Sorainya is really the warrior queen of a kingdom of gigantic ants. And what I love about the result is how vigorously Williamson exploits the conventions of pulp science fiction in service of his unforgettable premise. He gives us such narrative delights as a team of heroes, plucked out of our reality at the moment of death, helming a ghost ship called the Chronion across oceans of time; an epic, gory siege on a palace in which an army of ant men is mowed down in a hail of machine-gun fire; an escape from a dungeon that involves carving a key from the skeleton of its previous occupant; and the moment in which we learn that the future of humanity depends on whether or not a young boy in the Ozarks notices a tiny object lying in the grass.

And “The Legion of Time” feels like a hinge point in itself. It’s squarely in the tradition of the adventure stories that Astounding had been publishing up to that point, and it gives us all the pulpy pleasures and more that the magazine had led fans to expect, but in its attention to character, its wealth of ideas, and its emotional charge, it represents a high point that the genre wouldn’t touch again until Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” appeared almost two years later. When Lanning, his mission accomplished, returns at last to the future he has created and discovers that Lethonee and Sorainya have been mysteriously fused into the same woman, the effect is unbelievably satisfying. And “The Legion of Time” itself reads like the superimposition of two possible futures for science fiction, one of which pushed deeper into the hairbreadth escapes and pitched space battles that had typified the whole genre, often gloriously, while the other developed a new respect for atmosphere, character, and visionary ideas. Either one might have been wonderful, and in fact, Astounding would continue to pursue both ideals for years to come. But in “The Legion of Time,” the seeds of both are visible, and the clues it provided to Campbell and his circle of writers would yield dividends over the next decade. There may never be a consensus over where the golden age begins or ends, and there probably shouldn’t be. But I think it starts here.

Quote of the Day

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Carl Jung

Intuition is almost indispensable in the interpretation of symbols, and it can often ensure that they are immediately understood by the dreamer. But while such a lucky hunch may be subjectively convincing, it can also be rather dangerous. It can so easily lead to a false sense of security…The safe basis of real intellectual knowledge and moral understanding gets lost if one is content with the vague satisfaction of having understood by “hunch.” One can explain and know only if one has reduced intuitions to an exact knowledge of facts and their logical connections.

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2016 at 7:30 am

The story whisperer

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Storyboard for Aladdin

If you really want to learn how a story works, you should try telling it to a three-year-old. Over the last twelve months, as my daughter has begun to watch longer movies, I’ve developed a sideline business as a sort of simultaneous interpreter: I’ll sit next to her and offer a running commentary on the action, designed to keep her from getting restless and to preemptively answer her questions. If it’s a movie I’ve seen before, like My Neighbor Totoro, I don’t need to concentrate quite as intently, but on the handful of occasions when I’ve watched a movie with her for the first time in theaters—as we’ve done with The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Zootopia—I’ve had to pay closer attention. What I whisper in her ear usually boils down to a basic description of a character’s emotions or objectives, if it isn’t already clear from action or dialogue: “He’s sad.” “She’s worried about her friend.” “He wants to find his family.” And I’ve come to realize that this amounts to a kind of reverse engineering. If a movie often originates in the form of beat sheets or storyboards that the filmmakers have to turn into fully realized scenes, by breaking down the action in terms that my daughter can understand, I’m simply rewinding that process back to the beginning.

And it’s taught me some surprising lessons about storytelling. It reminds me a little of a piece that ran last year in The New York Times Magazine about Rasha Ajalyaqeen, a former interpreter for the United Nations. Like Ajalyaqeen, I’m listening to a story and translating it into a different language in real time, and many of the tips that she shares apply equally well here: “Be invisible.” “Leave your opinions behind; your voice should reflect the speaker’s feelings.” “Forget pausing to find the right word.” And most of all:

Word-for-word translation can result in a nonsensical mess. Instead, break longer, complicated phrases into shorter units of single concepts. “A good translator does not interpret words; he interprets meaning,” says Ajalyaqeen, who grew up in Syria. Be prepared to dive into sen­tences without knowing where they are going grammatically…”Sometimes you start and you don’t know what your subject is—you’re waiting for the verb.”

“Waiting for the verb” is as good a way as any to describe what I often have to do with my daughter: I’m not sure where the scene is going, but I have to sustain her interest until the real action kicks in.

Storyboard for Aladdin

This is a valuable exercise, because it forces me to engage with the story entirely in the present tense. I’ve spoken here before of how a story can best be understood as a sequence of objectives, which is the approach that David Mamet articulates so beautifully in On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read. In practice, though, it’s easy to forget this. When you’re the writer, you find yourself thinking in terms of the story’s overall shape, and even if you’re just the reader or a member of the audience, you often skip ahead to anticipate what comes next. When you’re trying to explain it to a three-year-old, there isn’t time for any of this—your only goal is to explicate what is happening on the screen right now. After you’ve done this for a dozen or more movies, you start to appreciate how this approximates how we subconsciously experience all stories, no matter how sophisticated they might be. A good movie or novel doesn’t just put one scene after another, like a series of beads on a string, but that’s how we absorb it, and it needs to be told with clarity on that simple sequential level if its larger patterns are going to have any meaning. Like a properly constructed improvisation, an engaging story comes down to a series of “Yes, and…” statements. And the fact that it also needs to be more doesn’t excuse it from its basic obligation to be clear and logical with each individual beat.

And talking your way through through a movie like this—even if the three-year-old you’re addressing is an imaginary one—can lead to unexpected insights into a story’s strengths and weaknesses. I came away even more impressed by Zootopia because of how cleverly it grounds its complicated plot in a series of units that can be easily grasped: I don’t think Beatrix was ever lost for more than a few seconds. And when I watched Aladdin with her this morning, I became uncomfortably aware of the golden thread of fakery that runs through the center of that story: it’s a skillful script, but it hits its beats so emphatically that I was constantly aware of how it was manipulating us. (Compare this to Miyazaki’s great movies, from Kiki’s Delivery Service to Ponyo, which achieve their effects more subtly and mysteriously, while never being anything less than fascinating.) I’ve even found myself doing much the same thing when I’m watching a television show or reading a book on my own. When you try to see the story through a child’s eyes, and to frame it in terms that would hold the attention of a preschooler, you quickly learn that it isn’t a question of dumbing it down, but of raising it to an even greater level of sophistication, with the story conveyed with the clarity of a fairy tale. Anyone who thinks that this is easy has never tried to do it for real. And at every turn, you need to be asking yourself a toddler’s favorite question: “Why?”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2016 at 9:22 am

Quote of the Day

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Alan Ayckbourn

If you don’t require it, don’t include it. Be it a character, a piece of scenery, or a costly technical effect…If you want to address the universal, try and reduce it first to the global; from the global to the nationwide; from the nationwide to the community; from the community to individuals; from there, see how many individuals you can afford.

Alan Ayckbourn, “A Playwright’s Guide to Survival”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2016 at 7:30 am

The watchful protectors

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Ben Affleck in Batman V. Superman: Dawn Of Justice

In the forward to his new book Better Living Through Criticism, the critic A.O. Scott imagines a conversation with a hypothetical interlocutor who asks: “Would it be accurate to say that you wrote this whole book to settle a score with Samuel L. Jackson?” “Not exactly,” Scott replies. The story, in case you’ve forgotten, is that after reading Scott’s negative review of The Avengers, Jackson tweeted that it was time to find the New York Times critic a job “he can actually do.” As Scott recounts:

Scores of his followers heeded his call, not by demanding that my editors fire me but, in the best Twitter tradition, by retweeting Jackson’s outburst and adding their own vivid suggestions about what I was qualified to do with myself. The more coherent tweets expressed familiar, you might even say canonical, anticritical sentiments: that I had no capacity for joy; that I wanted to ruin everyone else’s fun; that I was a hater, a square, and a snob; even—and this was kind of a new one—that the nerdy kid in middle school who everybody picked on because he didn’t like comic books had grown up to be me.

Before long, it all blew over, although not before briefly turning Scott into “both a hissable villain and a make-believe martyr for a noble and much-maligned cause.” And while he says that he didn’t write his book solely as a rebuttal to Jackson, he implies that the kerfuffle raised a valuable question: what, exactly, is the function of a critic these days?

It’s an issue that seems worth revisiting after this weekend, when a movie openly inspired by the success of The Avengers rode a tide of fan excitement to a record opening, despite a significantly less positive response from critics. (Deadline quotes an unnamed studio executive: “I don’t think anyone read the reviews!”) By some measures, it’s the biggest opening in history for a movie that received such a negative critical reaction, and if anything, the disconnect between critical and popular reaction is even more striking this time around. But it doesn’t seem to have resulted in the kind of war of words that blindsided Scott four years ago. Part of this might be due to the fact that fans seem much more mixed on the movie itself, or that the critical consensus was uniform enough that no single naysayer stood out. You could even argue—as somebody inevitably does whenever a critically panned movie becomes a big financial success—that the critical reaction is irrelevant for this kind of blockbuster. To some extent, you’d be right: the only tentpole series that seems vulnerable to reviews is the Bond franchise, which skews older, and for the most part, the moviegoers who lined up to see Dawn of Justice were taking something other than the opinions of professional critics into account. This isn’t a superpower on the movie’s part: it simply reflects a different set of concerns. And you might reasonably ask whether this kind of movie has rendered the role of a professional critic obsolete.

A.O. Scott

But I would argue that such critics are more important than ever, and for reasons that have a lot to do with the “soulless corporate spectacle” that Scott decried in The AvengersI’ve noted here before that the individual installments in such franchises aren’t designed to stand on their own: when you’ve got ten more sequels on the release schedule, it’s hard to tell a self-contained, satisfying story, and even harder to change the status quo. (As Joss Whedon said in an interview with Mental Floss: “You’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant.”) You could be cynical and say that no particular film can be allowed to interfere with the larger synergies at stake, or, if you’re in a slightly more generous mood, you could note that this approach is perfectly consistent with the way in which superhero stories have always been told. For the most part, no one issue of Batman is meant to stand as a definitive statement: it’s a narrative that unfolds month by month, year by year, and the character of Batman himself is far more important than any specific adventure. Sustaining that situation for decades on end involves a lot of artistic compromises, as we see in the endless reboots, resets, spinoffs, and alternate universes that the comic book companies use to keep their continuities under control. Like a soap opera, a superhero comic has to create the illusion of forward momentum while remaining more or less in the same place. It’s no surprise that comic book movies would employ the same strategy, which also implies that we need to start judging them by the right set of standards.

But you could say much the same thing about a professional critic. What A.O. Scott says about any one movie may not have an impact on what the overall population of moviegoers—even the ones who read the New York Times—will pay to see, and a long string of reviews quickly blurs together. But a critic who writes thoughtfully about the movies from week to week is gradually building up a narrative, or at least a voice, that isn’t too far removed from what we find in the comics. Critics are usually more concerned with meeting that day’s deadline than with adding another brick to their life’s work, but when I think of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael, it’s sort of how I think of Batman: it’s an image or an attitude created by its ongoing interactions with the minds of its readers. (Reading Roger Ebert’s memoirs is like revisiting a superhero’s origin story: it’s interesting, but it only incidentally touches the reasons that Ebert continues to mean so much to me.) The career of a working critic these days naturally unfolds in parallel with the franchise movies that will dominate studio filmmaking for the foreseeable future, and if the Justice League series will be defined by our engagement with it for years to come, a critic whose impact is meted out over the same stretch of time is better equipped to talk about it than almost anyone else—as long as he or she approaches it as a dialogue that never ends. If franchises are fated to last forever, we need critics who can stick around long enough to see larger patterns, to keep the conversation going, and to offer some perspective to balance out the hype. These are the critics we deserve. And they’re the ones we need right now.

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