Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek

The tragic life of Mitsui

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Leonardo Nam on Westworld

In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, the film critic Wesley Morris has a reflective piece titled “Last Taboo,” the subheadline of which reads: “Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.” Morris, who is a gay black man, notes that full-frontal male nudity has become more common in recent years in movies and television, but it’s usually white men who are being undressed for the camera, which tells us a lot about the unresolved but highly charged feelings that the culture still has toward the black male body. As Morris writes:

Black men [are] desired on one hand and feared on the other…Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.

And although I don’t want to detract from the importance of the point that Morris is making here, I’ll admit that as I read these words, another thought ran though my mind. If the white penis means nothing, then the Asian penis, by extension, must mean—well, less than nothing. I don’t mean to equate the desexualization of Asian males in popular culture with the treatment of black men in fiction and in real life. But both seem to provide crucial data points, from opposite ends, for our understanding of the underlying phenomenon, which is how writers and other artists have historically treated the bodies of those who look different than they do.

I read Morris’s piece after seeing a tweet by the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, who connected it to an awful scene in last night’s episode of Westworld, in which an otherwise likable character makes a joke about a well-endowed black robot. It’s a weirdly dissonant moment for a series that is so controlled in other respects, and it’s possible that it reflects nothing more than Jonathan Nolan’s clumsiness—which he shares with his older brother—whenever he makes a stab at humor. (I also suspect, given the show’s production delays, that the line was written and shot a long time ago, before these questions assumed a more prominent role in the cultural conversation. Which doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what the writers were thinking.) Race hasn’t played much of a role on the series so far, and it may not be fair to pass judgment on a show that has only aired five episodes and clearly has a lot of other stuff on its mind. But it’s hard not to wonder. The cast is diverse, but the guests are mostly white men, undoubtedly because, as Nussbaum notes elsewhere, they’re the natural target audience for the park’s central fantasy. And the show has a strange habit of using its Asian cast members, who are mostly just faces in the background, as verbal punching bags for the other characters, a trend so peculiar that my wife and I both noticed it separately. It’s likely that this has all been muddied by what seems to be shaping up to be an actual storyline for Felix, played by Leonardo Nam, who looks as if he’s about to respond to his casual mistreatment by rising to a larger role in the story. But even for a show with a lot of moving parts, it strikes me as a lazy way of prodding a character into action.

John Lone in Year of the Dragon

Over the last few months, as it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of Asians in science fiction. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m Eurasian—half Chinese, half Finnish and Estonian.) I may as well start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, a novel that he wrote on assignment for Astounding Science Fiction, based in part on All, an earlier, unpublished serial by John W. Campbell. Both stories, which were written long before Pearl Harbor, are about the invasion of the United States by a combined Chinese and Japanese empire, which inspires an underground resistance movement in the form of a fake religion. Heinlein later wrote that he tried to rework the narrative to tone down its more objectionable elements, but it pains me to say that Sixth Column actually reads as more racist than All, simply because Heinlein was the stronger writer. When you read All, you don’t feel much of anything, because Campbell was a stiff and awkward stylist. Heinlein, by contrast, spent much of his career bringing immense technical skill to even the most questionable projects, and he can’t keep from investing his characters with real rhetorical vigor as they talk about “flat-faced apes” and “our slant-eyed lords.” I don’t even mind the idea of an Asian menace, as long as the bad guys are treated as worthy antagonists, which Heinlein mostly does. But when the leaders of the resistance decide to grow beards in order to fill the invaders with “a feeling of womanly inferiority,” it’s hard to excuse it. And the most offensive moment of all involves Mitsui, the only sympathetic Asian character in sight, who sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends and is rewarded with the epitaph: “But they had no time to dwell on the end of little Mitsui’s tragic life.”

That’s the kind of racism that rankles me: not the diabolical Asian villain, who can be invested with a kind of sinister allure, as much as the legion of little Mitsuis who still populate so much of our fiction. (This may be why I’ve always sort of liked Michael Cimino’s indefensible Year of the Dragon, which at least treats John Lone’s character as a formidable, glamorous foe. It’s certainly less full of hate than The Deer Hunter.) And it complicates my reactions to other issues. When it was announced that Sulu would be unobtrusively presented as gay in Star Trek Beyond, it filled me with mixed feelings, and not just because George Takei didn’t seem to care for the idea. As much as I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, I couldn’t help but think that it would have been just as innovative, if not more so, to depict Sulu as straight. I’m aware that this risks making it all seem like a zero-sum game, which it isn’t. But these points deserve to be raised, if only because they enrich the larger conversation. If a single scene on Westworld can spark a discussion of how we treat black men as sexual objects, we can do the same with the show’s treatment of Asians. The series presumably didn’t invite or expect such scrutiny, but it occupies a cultural position—as a prestige drama on a premium cable channel—in which it has no choice but to play that part. Science fiction, in particular, has always been a sandbox in which these issues can be investigated in ways that wouldn’t be possible in narratives set in the present, from the original run of Star Trek on down. Westworld belongs squarely in that tradition. And these are frontiers that it ought to explore.

The western tradition

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Ed Harris on Westworld

As we were watching the premiere of Westworld last week, my wife turned to me and said: “Why would they make it a western park?” Or maybe I asked her—I can’t quite remember. But it’s a more interesting question than it sounds. When Michael Crichton’s original movie was released in the early seventies, the western was still a viable genre. It had clearly fallen from its peak, but major stars were doing important work in cowboy boots: Eastwood, of course, but also Newman, Redford, and Hoffman. John Wayne was still alive, which may have been the single most meaningful factor of all. As a result, it wasn’t hard to imagine a theme park with androids designed to fulfill that particular fantasy. These days, the situation has changed. The western is so beleaguered an art form that whenever one succeeds, it’s treated as newsworthy, and that’s been true for the last twenty years. Given the staggering expense and investment involved in a park like this, it’s hard to see why the western would be anybody’s first choice. (Even with the movie, I suspect that Crichton’s awareness of his relatively low budget was part of the decision: it was his first film as a director, with all of the limitations that implies, and a western could be shot cheaply on standing sets in the studio backlot.) Our daydreams simply run along different lines, and it’s easier to imagine a park being, say, set in a medieval fantasy era, or in the future, or with dinosaurs. In fact, there was even a sequel, Futureworld, that explored some of these possibilities, although it’s fair to say that nobody remembers it.

The television series Westworld, which is arriving in a markedly different pop cultural landscape, can’t exactly ditch the premise—it’s right there in the title. But the nice thing about the second episode, “Chestnut,” is that it goes a long way toward explaining why you’d still want to structure an experience like this around those conventions. It does this mostly by focusing on a new character, William, who arrives at the park knowing implausibly little about it, but who allows us to see it through the eyes of someone encountering it for the first time. What he’s told, basically, is that the appeal of Westworld is that it allows you to find out who you really are: you’re limited only by your inhibitions, your abilities, and your sense of right and wrong. That’s true of the real world, to some extent, but we’re also more conscious of the rules. And if the western refuses to go away as a genre, it’s because it’s the purest distillation of that seductive sense of lawlessness. The trouble with telling certain stories in the present day is that there isn’t room for the protagonist that thrillers have taught us to expect: a self-driven hero who solves his problems for himself in matters of life and death. That isn’t how most of us respond to a crisis, and in order to address the issue of why the main character doesn’t just go to the police, writers are forced to fall back on various makeshift solutions. You can focus on liminal figures, like cops or criminals, who can take justice into their own hands; you can establish an elaborate reason why the authorities are helpless, indifferent, or hostile; or you can set your story in a time or place where the rules are different or nonexistent.

Thandie Newton on Westworld

The western, in theory, is an ideal setting for a story in which the hero has to rely on himself. It’s a genre made up of limitless open spaces, nonexistent government, unreliable law enforcement, and a hostile native population. If there’s too much civilization for your story to work, your characters can just keep riding. To move west, or to leave the center of the theme park, is to move back in time, increasing the extent to which you’re defined by your own agency. (A western, revealingly, is a celebration of the qualities that we tend to ignore or dismiss in our contemporary immigrant population: the desire for a new life, the ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles, and the plain observation that those who uproot themselves and start from scratch are likely to be more competent and imaginative, on average, than those who remain behind.) The western is the best narrative sandbox ever invented, and if it ultimately exhausted itself, it was for reasons that were inseparable from its initial success. Its basic components were limited: there were only so many ways that you could combine those pieces. Telling escapist stories involved overlooking inconvenient truths about Native Americans, women, and minorities, and the tension between the myth and its reality eventually became too strong to sustain. Most of all, its core parts were taken over by other genres, and in particular by science fiction and fantasy. This began as an accidental discovery of pulp western writers who switched genres and realized that their tricks worked equally well in Astounding, and it was only confirmed by Star Trek—which Gene Roddenberry famously pitched as Wagon Train in space—and Star Wars, which absorbed those clichés so completely that they became new again.

What I like about Westworld, the series, is that it reminds us of how artificial this narrative always was, even in its original form. The Old West symbolizes freedom, but only if you envision yourself in the role of the stock protagonist, who is usually a white male antihero making the journey of his own volition. It falls apart when you try to imagine the lives of the people in the background, who exist in such stories solely to enable the protagonist’s fragile range of options. In reality, the frontier brutally circumscribed the lives of most of those who tried to carve out an existence there, and the whole western genre is enabled by a narrative illusion, or a conspiracy, that keeps its solitary and brutish aspects safely in the hands of the characters at the edges of the frame. Westworld takes that notion to its limit, by casting all the supporting roles with literal automatons. They aren’t meant to have inner lives, any more than the peripheral figures in any conventional western, and the gradual emergence of their consciousness implies that the park will eventually come to deconstruct itself. (The premiere quoted cleverly from The Searchers and Unforgiven, but I almost wish that it had saved those references until later, so that the series could unfold as a miniature history of the genre as it slowly attained self-awareness.) If you want to talk about how we picture ourselves in the heroes of our own stories, while minimizing or reducing the lives of those at the margins, it’s hard to imagine a better place to do it than the western, which depended on a process of historical amnesia and dehumanization from the very beginning. I’m not sure I’d want to visit a park like Westworld. But there will always be those who would.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2016 at 8:36 am

Astounding Stories #1: Galactic Patrol

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Galactic Patrol by E.E. Smith

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 here to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. 

Nothing dates more quickly than a vision of the future. This isn’t just because reality has a way of catching up with and passing even the most plausible predictions, or because certain narrative elements, like the constant smoking we find in so much golden age science fiction, become anachronistic even before the prophesied year approaches. It’s because any literary work is inevitably saturated with the era that created it, regardless of genre. Language, cultural attitudes, style, pacing: they all require some degree of mental adjustment, just as a modern moviegoer has to be ready to meet the classic films of the forties halfway. If you aren’t willing to undergo that kind of mental shift, like a viewer who can’t sit through Casablanca because it’s in black and white, you’ve shut yourself off from an entire world of storytelling: anything outside that window—which creeps forward over time, cutting you off from more and more of the past—remains out of bounds. Science fiction, in any medium, is particularly vulnerable to this. If few of us watch When Worlds Collide or This Island Earth for our own pleasure these days, it isn’t just because the special effects seem clunky, but because it’s hard to accept an idea of the future filtered through the idiom of the fifties. Go back further to the pulps, and that cognitive divide looms even wider. And if you’re going to read the science fiction of the thirties, you have to account for the personal equation that separates you from its intended audience, a gap that even devoted fans can have trouble crossing.

This is all my way of leading up to the fact that Galactic Patrol by E.E. “Doc” Smith probably requires less of an adjustment to enjoy today than any other story of the space opera or superscience genre. In other words, it’s a blast, and it’s the first novel I’d recommend to anybody who was curious about what was happening in science fiction before the golden age. Smith, who in his nonwriting life was a food engineer specializing in doughnut mixes, isn’t all that familiar to mainstream readers today, but he was beloved, even idolized, within the fandom for decades, and it isn’t hard to see why. Galactic Patrol is the first installment in the saga of the Lensmen, an interstellar police force tasked with protecting the galaxy from the depredations of a ruthless nation of space pirates. (Just whisper the word “Lensman” and you feel a little internal shiver of anticipation, even if you have no idea what it means.) Each officer wears the Lens, a jewel constructed by an advanced alien race that serves as a universal translator, telepathic communicator, and identification badge. It can be wielded only by its intended user, who is selected after a rigorous training process designed to produce individuals of superhuman bravery, intelligence, and integrity. Galactic Patrol follows Kimball Kinnison, a recent graduate from the academy, on his first mission, and although he starts out by “attacking imaginary foes and actual meteorites with equal zeal”—as L. Ron Hubbard would later do during his own brief command in the Navy—he rapidly embarks on an adventure that dwarfs anything the genre had ever seen.

E.E. "Doc" Smith

Because the book really moves. Smith’s conception of interstellar travel is based on an inertialess drive, which instantly accelerates a spacecraft to faster than the speed of light, and Galactic Patrol has what I can only describe as an inertialess narrative. It’s as close as any novel can get to pure action, jumping from one high point to the next without any of the boring parts in between, and it doesn’t let up until literally the very last word. It sends both Kinnison and the reader bounding across the galaxy, and at its best, it’s still breathtaking. In fact, it miraculously manages to evoke both Star Trek and Star Wars, in sort of the same way that the Aeneid contains both the Iliad and the Odyssey, except that Smith is their great originator. It anticipates Star Trek in revolving around a starship and its crew—including an oddly familiar engineer who emerges from below decks, clutching a spanner and asking for some grease soap—but its breakneck pacing and emphasis on action are closer to Star Wars, although significantly more violent. (“As he struck and struck and struck again, the cell became a gorily reeking slaughter-pen, its every corner high-piled with the shattered corpses of the Wheelmen and its floor running with blood and slime.”) Parts of it even look ahead to Dune, with its idea of a single planet serving the sole source of a priceless drug, in this case a kind of superheroin called thionite. It’s all very artless, but thrilling, and it could only have come from the heart. Later, as one of the first in a long line of imitators, John W. Campbell would make his name in much the same kind of story, but in his hands, it feels like hackwork, while Smith writes this sort of novel just because he loves it.

Not every element of Galactic Patrol has aged equally well. There are the obvious moments of dissonance, like the fact that the crew of the spacecraft plots its course using calipers, compass, and slide rule, or that when we’re introduced to a “computer,” it turns out to be a man who computes for a living. Its attitudes toward women are harder to stomach: the Lensmen we meet are exclusively male, and for most of the story, the only women in sight are nurses, decoys, or hostages, along with the unnamed “stenographer” with whom Kinnison collides at headquarters. Only Clarissa MacDougall, the red-headed nurse who becomes Kinnison’s love interest, gets anything like a real speaking part. (It’s worth noting that Smith’s first novel, Skylark of Space, had two significant female characters, thanks in all likelihood to his coauthor Lee Hawkins Garby—another female writer who has fallen out of the history of science fiction.) It’s a boy’s book of adventure in space, sexless and morally unwavering, and once you account for this, it comes closer than any other story to recapturing the excitement of the days in which readers would lurk at newsstands to avidly await the next installment of a serial in Astounding. Later, the genre would leave Smith behind: he was grandfathered into Campbell’s circle of authors as a beloved elder statesman, but he never broke through to a readership outside the fandom. And that’s a real loss. The kind of storytelling that he perfected, for better or worse, is still what occurs to most people when they think of science fiction, even if they know it only through his imitators. And Galactic Patrol gives it to you uncut, like a pure hit of thionite.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2016 at 10:03 am

Choose life

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Inside Out

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What show did you stop watching after a character was killed off?”

Inside Out is an extraordinary film on many levels, but what I appreciated about it the most was the reminder it provides of how to tell compelling stories on the smallest possible scale. The entire movie turns on nothing more—or less—than a twelve-year-old girl’s happiness. Riley is never in real physical danger; it’s all about how she feels. These stakes might seem relatively low, but as I watched it, I felt that the stakes were infinite, and not just because Riley reminded me so much of my own daughter. By the last scene, I was wrung out with emotion. And I think it stands as the strongest possible rebuke to the idea, so prevalent at the major studios, that mainstream audiences will only be moved or excited by stories in which the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. As I’ve noted here before, “Raise the stakes” is probably the note that writers in Hollywood get the most frequently, right up there with “Make the hero more likable,” and its overuse has destroyed their ability to make such stories meaningful. When every superhero movie revolves around the fate of the entire planet, the death of six billion people can start to seem trivial. (The Star Trek reboot went there first, but even The Force Awakens falls into that trap: it kills off everyone on the Hosnian System for the sake of a throwaway plot point, and it moves on so quickly that it casts a pall over everything that follows.)

The more I think about this mindless emphasis on raising the stakes, the more it strikes me as a version of a phenomenon I’ve discussed a lot on this blog recently, in which big corporations tasked with making creative choices end up focusing on quantifiable but irrelevant metrics, at the expense of qualitative thinking about what users or audiences really need. For Apple, those proxy metrics are thinness and weight; for longform journalism, it’s length. And while “raising the stakes” isn’t quite as quantitative, it sort of feels that way, and it has the advantage of being the kind of rule that any midlevel studio employee can apply with minimal fear of being wrong. (It’s only when you aggregate all those decisions across the entire industry that you end up with movies that raise the stakes so high that they turn into weightless abstractions.) Saying that a script needs higher stakes is the equivalent of saying that a phone needs to be thinner: it’s a way to involve the maximum number of executives in the creative process who have no business being there in the first place. But that’s how corporations work. And the fact that Pixar has managed to avoid that trap, if not always, then at least consistently enough for the result to be more than accidental, is the most impressive thing about its legacy.

Kiefer Sutherland in 24

A television series, unlike a studio franchise, can’t blow up the world on a regular basis, but it can do much the same thing to its primary actors, who are the core building blocks of the show’s universe. As a result, the unmotivated killing of a main character has become television’s favorite way of raising the stakes—although by now, it feels just as lazy. As far as I can recall, I’ve never stopped watching a show solely because it killed off a character I liked, but I’ve often given up on a series, as I did with 24 and Game of Thrones and even The Vampire Diaries, when it became increasingly clear that it was incapable of doing anything else. Multiple shock killings emerge from a mindset that is no longer able to think itself into the lives of its characters: if you aren’t feeling your own story, you have no choice but to fall back on strategies for goosing the audience that seem to work on paper. But almost without exception, the seasons that followed would have been more interesting if those characters had been allowed to survive and develop in honest ways. Every removal of a productive cast member means a reduction of the stories that can be told, and the temporary increase in interest it generates doesn’t come close to compensating for that loss. A show that kills characters with abandon is squandering narrative capital and mortgaging its own future, so it’s no surprise if it eventually goes bankrupt.

A while back, Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that he had made an informal pledge to shun sexual violence on Hannibal, and when you replace “rape” with “murder,” you get a compelling case for avoiding gratuitous character deaths as well:   

There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience…“A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation…And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in forty-two minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.

And I’d love to see more shows make a similar commitment to preserving their primary cast members. I’m not talking about character shields, but about finding ways of increasing the tension without taking the easy way out, as Breaking Bad did so well for so long. Death closes the door on storytelling, and the best shows are the ones that seem eager to keep that door open for as long as possible.

The time factor

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Concept art for Toy Story 3

Earlier this week, my daughter saw Toy Story for the first time. Not surprisingly, she loved it—she’s asked to watch it three more times in two days—and we’ve already moved on to Toy Story 2. Seeing the two movies back to back, I was struck most of all by the contrast between them. The first installment, as lovely as it is, comes off as a sketch of things to come: the supporting cast of toys gets maybe ten minutes total of screen time, and the script still has vestiges of the villainous version of Woody who appeared in the earlier drafts. It’s a relatively limited film, compared to the sequels. Yet if you were to watch it today without any knowledge of the glories that followed, you’d come away with a sense that Pixar had done everything imaginable with the idea of toys who come to life. The original Toy Story feels like an exhaustive list of scenes and situations that emerge organically from its premise, as smartly developed by Joss Whedon and his fellow screenwriters, and in classic Pixar fashion, it exploits that core gimmick for all it’s worth. Like Finding Nemo, it amounts to an anthology of all the jokes and set pieces that its setting implies: you can practically hear the writers pitching out ideas. And taken on its own, it seems like it does everything it possibly can with that fantastic concept.

Except, of course, it doesn’t, as two incredible sequels and a series of shorts would demonstrate. Toy Story 2 may be the best example I know of a movie that takes what made its predecessor special and elevates it to a level of storytelling that you never imagined could exist. And it does this, crucially, by introducing a new element: time. If Toy Story is about toys and children, Toy Story 2 and its successor are about what happens when those kids become adults. It’s a complication that was inherent to its premise from the beginning, but the first movie wasn’t equipped to explore it—we had to get to know and care about these characters before we could worry about what would happen after Andy grew up. It’s a part of the story that had to be told, if its assumptions were to be treated honestly, and it shows that the original movie, which seemed so complete in itself, only gave us a fraction of the full picture. Toy Story 3 is an astonishing achievement on its own terms, but there’s a sense in which it only extends and trades on the previous film’s moment of insight, which turned it into a franchise of almost painful emotional resonance. If comedy is tragedy plus time, the Toy Story series knows that when you add time to comedy, you end up with something startlingly close to tragedy again.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II

And thinking about the passage of time is an indispensable trick for creators of series fiction, or for those looking to expand a story’s premise beyond the obvious. Writers of all kinds tend to think in terms of unity of time and place, which means that time itself isn’t a factor in most stories: the action is confined within a safe, manageable scope. Adding more time to the story in either direction has a way of exploding the story’s assumptions, or of exposing fissures that lead to promising conflicts. If The Godfather Part II is more powerful and complex than its predecessor, it’s largely because of its double timeline, which naturally introduces elements of irony and regret that weren’t present in the first movie: the outside world seems to break into the hermetically sealed existence of the Corleones just as the movie itself breaks out of its linear chronology. And the abrupt time jump, which television series from Fargo to Parks and Recreation have cleverly employed, is such a useful way of advancing a story and upending the status quo that it’s become a cliché in itself. Even if you don’t plan on writing more than one story or incorporating the passage of time explicitly into the plot, asking yourself how the characters would change after five or ten years allows you to see whether the story depends on a static, unchanging timeframe. And those insights can only be good for the work.

This also applies to series in which time itself has become a factor for reasons outside anyone’s control. The Force Awakens gains much of its emotional impact from our recognition, even if it’s unconscious, that Mark Hamill is older now than Alec Guinness was in the original, and the fact that decades have gone by both within the story’s universe and in our own world only increases its power. The Star Trek series became nothing less than a meditation on the aging of its own cast. And this goes a long way toward explaining why Toy Story 3 was able to close the narrative circle so beautifully: eleven years had passed since the last movie, and both Andy and his voice actor had grown to adulthood, as had so many of the original film’s fans. (It’s also worth noting that the time element seems to have all but disappeared from the current incarnation of the Toy Story franchise: Bonnie, who owns the toys now, is in no danger of growing up soon, and even if she does, it would feel as if the films were repeating themselves. I’m still optimistic about Toy Story 4, but it seems unlikely to have the same resonance as its predecessors—the time factor has already been fully exploited. Of course, I’d also be glad to be proven wrong.) For a meaningful story, time isn’t a liability, but an asset. And it can lead to discoveries that you didn’t know were possible, but only if you’re willing to play with it.

The Force Majority

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Daisey Ridley in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Earlier this morning, when the embargo on reviews of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was finally lifted, it was as if millions of critics suddenly cried out and were silenced by fans shouting: “No spoilers! No spoilers!” I haven’t seen the movie, of course, but I’ve been cautiously skimming the dozens of reviews that appeared a few hours ago, and most are positive and encouraging. If there’s one common caveat, it’s that the new movie is, if anything, a little too reverent toward its predecessors: Andrew O’Hehir of Salon calls it “an adoring copy.” Which, you might think, is only to be expected: loving regard for the source material is one thing, among so much else, that the prequels sorely lacked, and the best way to recover what was lost might well be to take it out of the hands of the man who invented it in the first place and entrust it to an outsider. The new movie certainly seems eager to give people what they want. And this might all seem too obvious to even state out loud—except for the fact that its release also coincides with the trailer for Star Trek Beyond, which is largely the handiwork of the very same man, and which is anything but respectful toward what inspired it. In fact, it’s anxious to look like anything except for Star Trek, and while it’s too soon to pass judgment on either movie, it doesn’t seem premature to talk about their intentions. And the fact that J.J. Abrams has taken such different approaches with our two most iconic science fiction franchises raises fascinating questions about the position that each one holds in our culture.

I don’t intend to get into the whole Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate here. (It’s enough to say, perhaps, that I’m temperamentally more inclined toward Star Trek, but I like both about equally, and each strikes me as having one indisputable masterpiece—in both cases, the first sequel—surrounded by a lot that is uneven, dated, or disposable.) But the fact that their modern incarnations happen to depend largely on the personality and decisions of a single man sheds new light on an old subject. Elsewhere, I’ve written of Abrams: “With four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality.” And I have reasons for hoping that The Force Awakens will break that pattern. But if it does, it’s because Star Wars speaks to Abrams himself in a way that Star Trek never did. He’s always been candid about his efforts to turn the latter franchise into something more like the former, as if it were a problem that had to be fixed. If Star Trek Into Darkness inspired a backlash great enough to cast the considerable merits of the first of the rebooted movies into question, it’s because by repurposing The Wrath of Khan so blatantly, it emphasized how willing Abrams has been to pillage the franchise for material while remaining indifferent to what made it special. But none of this would be interesting if Abrams himself weren’t a kind of test case for viewers everywhere, a majority of whom, it’s fair to say, would rather spend two hours of their time in the Star Wars universe.

Star Trek Into Darkness

The real question is why. You could start by defining the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars as a tale of two Campbells. The first, John W. Campbell, was the most important editor science fiction ever had, and in his three decades at the helm of Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, he perfected a kind of plot that was essentially about solving problems through logic and ingenuity. The second, Joseph Campbell, was a Jungian scholar whose conception of the hero’s journey was based more on suffering, rebirth, and transcendence, and if the hero triumphs in the end, it’s mostly as a reward for what he endures. Star Trek—which raided many of John W. Campbell’s core writers for scripts, outlines, and spinoff books—took its cues from the former, Star Wars from the latter. And while each approach has its merits, there’s a reason why one has remained the province of a close community of fans, while the other has expanded to fill all of Hollywood. One is basically a writer’s series; the other belongs to the producers, including George Lucas himself, who recognized early on that the real power didn’t lie in the director’s chair. Star Wars is less about any particular set of ideas than about a certain tone or feeling that has rightly thrilled a generation of viewers. What’s funny, though, is how rarely it gets at the sense of transcendence that Joseph Campbell evoked, and if it ever does, it’s thanks mostly to John Williams. At their best, these are fun, thrilling movies, and it’s precisely because they take the glories of outer space for granted in a way the original Star Trek never did, perhaps because it spent more time thinking about space as something more than a backdrop for chases and narrow escapes.

And this isn’t a bug in the Star Wars franchise, but a feature. After the premiere of The Force Awakens, Patton Oswalt tweeted that it “has the best final shot of any Star Wars film,” which only reminds us of how lame the final shots of those earlier movies really are: half are basically just wide shots of a party or celebration. When we contrast them with the last five minutes of Wrath of Khan, which are among the most spine-tingling I’ve ever seen, it shows how strangely cramped Star Wars can seem by comparison. Pauline Kael noted that there’s only one moment of organic beauty in A New Hope—the double sunset on Tatooine—and later complained of the lack of satisfying climaxes in Return of the Jedi: “When Leia finally frees Han Solo from his living death as sculpture, the scene has almost no emotional weight. It’s as if Han Solo had locked himself in the garage, tapped on the door, and been let out.” But this isn’t necessarily a flaw. There’s a place for what Kael called the “bam bam pow” of the Lucas approach, once we embrace its limits. If The Empire Strikes Back is the best movie in the original trilogy, it’s for the same reasons that some viewers were disappointed by it on its first release: it’s nothing but a second act. Star Wars has always been better at setting up situations than at paying them off. These days, that’s a strength. Abrams is notoriously more interested in creating mysteries than in resolving them, and it makes him a great fit for Star Wars, which, like most modern franchises, doesn’t have much of a stake in narrative resolution. Disney plans to release a new Star Wars movie every year for the rest of time, and if its approach to the Marvel universe is any indication, it’s the project for which Abrams was born—a franchise without any annoying third acts. But as much as I wish him well here, I hope he remembers that Star Trek deserves to go beyond it.

“The yacht was a monster…”

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"Maddy gazed out at the sea..."

Note: This post is the thirty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 34. You can read the previous installments here.

Umberto Eco once said that he wrote The Name of the Rose because he felt like poisoning a monk. For William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury began with a mental picture:

I didn’t realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl’s drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother’s funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book.

Joseph Heller started writing Something Happened with two sentences that came to him out of nowhere: “In the office in which I work, there are four people of whom I am afraid. Each of these four people is afraid of five people.” And E.L. Doctorow, in the middle of a bad case of writer’s block, began Ragtime by staring at the wall of his office, writing about it and the surrounding house, and then trying to imagine the period in which it was built—”In desperation,” Doctorow told The Paris Review, “to those few images.”

One of the subtle privileges of the writer’s craft is that while a reader generally reads a story from first page to last, the initial seed from which it grew in the author’s mind can occur at any point in the narrative, and it often isn’t clear, when you look at the finished result, which part came first. The idea of an author beginning with an inciting incident and following its implications to the very last page is an attractive one, and many writers start their apprentice efforts in much the same way. Usually, though, after the writer learns more about structure and the logistics of finishing a major project, the germ that gives rise to the rest of it turns out to be a moment that lies somewhere in the middle, with the writer working in either direction to lead toward and away from that first spark of inspiration. And this approach can work enormously in the story’s favor. We’re all hoping to come up with an arresting beginning, but we’re less likely to discover it from first principles than to derive it, almost mathematically, from a scene to which it leads a hundred pages down the line. The more rigorously you work out that logic, following what I’ve elsewhere called the anthropic principle of fiction, the more likely you are to arrive at an opening—as well as a setting and a cast of characters—that never would have occurred to you if you had tried to invent a grabber from scratch. (If you do, the strain often shows, and the reader may rightly wonder if you’ll be able to sustain that level of intensity to the end.)

"The yacht was a monster..."

Even novels or stories that unfold along fairly conventional lines often benefit from originating in an odd, intensely personal seed of obsession. The Icon Thief and its sequels were written to honor, rather than to undermine, the conventions of the thriller, but each one grew out of an eccentric core that had little to do with the plot summary you see on the back cover. For The Icon Thief, the real inciting factor—aside from a vague ambition to write a suspense novel about the art world—was my discovery of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and my determination to be the first writer to build a novel around what Jasper Johns called “the strangest work of art in any museum.” For City of Exiles, it was my longstanding interest in the vision of Ezekiel, which I’d tried on and off to incorporate into a novel for almost two decades before finding a place for it here. And for Eternal Empire, it was my desire to write a novel about a megayacht. I’m not sure if this comes through in text of the book itself: the yacht in question, the Rigden, doesn’t make an appearance until halfway through the story, and maybe a quarter of the book as a whole is set on or around it. But I knew before I’d figured out anything else about the plot that I wanted a yacht like this to be at the center, which, in turn, implied much of the rest. You don’t write a novel about a megayacht, especially one owned by a Russian oligarch at the heart of what looks to be a vast conspiracy, without being prepared to sink it with everyone on board.

The moment when the yacht goes down—and I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying this—won’t occur for another hundred pages or so, and I’ll deal with those scenes when I come to them. (To my eyes, the yacht’s destruction and the ensuing showdown onshore are the best extended sequences I’ve ever written, and they’re among the few sections that I’m likely to read again for my own pleasure.) But I want to focus for now on the first time we see the Rigden, in Chapter 34, after a few dozen pages’ worth of buildup. Aside from Titanic, my inspiration here was the obligatory scene in the early Star Trek films in which Kirk first approaches the Enterprise, allowing for a few minutes of awed tracking shots of the starship’s exterior—a convention that J.J. Abrams, alas, is too busy to honor. It slows down the narrative incrementally, but it also provides a sense of scale that strengthens much of what follows. And since this is more or less the reason I wanted to write the entire book, I felt justified in lingering on it. When Maddy gets her first glimpse of the yacht, the metaphorical implications are obvious, as is the impact of the ship’s existence on the shape of the story itself: a book about a yacht also has to be about a journey, and figuring out the start and end points was half the fun. Even if most of the book takes place on land, the events that unfold there are largely designed to get us onto and off that ship. And even if the destination remains unknown, we know that we’ll get there in style…

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