An Open Letter to Wizards of the Coast from a Humble Fanboy:

[Author’s note: Each time I went to post this, the story and circumstances around the OGL changed (that’s part of why it’s late). I’ve kept the text more or less the way I had it. I’ve included an update section at the very end.]

Dear Wizards,

Well, you’ve had an interesting couple of weeks. Once again, it feels like I’m watching history unfold before my eyes. Not the happy kind. More like the destined-to-be-taught-in-business-college-courses-cautionary-tale kind of history.

Now, before we get too far into this, let me make a distinction here. This letter is to the executive staff of Wizards of the Coast, the decision-makers and gatekeepers, as well as any others from Hasbro that might be involved in what could only charitably be called a fiasco. For all the designers, community managers, middle managers, and developmental staff of D&D, this isn’t aimed at you. I know this has been hard on you, too. Stay strong and know that you are loved. (Also, I’d like to see you do more with the Artificer, but that’s another story.)

So, WotC executives, where to begin? I swear by the great beard of Moradin that I’m not just ragging on you. In fact, believe it or not, I want to help you. Let’s start with a little education. We all know the old axiom that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, right? Unfortunately, for many of us, recent events in the TTRPG space have felt more like those who know history are doomed to watch those who don’t know history repeat it.

Let’s set the wayback machine to 2008. Fourth edition comes along, and it’s excluded from the existing OGL. It takes its cues from the GSR, a much more restrictive set of rules for putting out game content. Paizo says no thanks, and BOOM — we have Pathfinder.

I doubt any of the existing WotC executive team in place now was present back then, but there was a definite cause and effect. Cause: a departure from the OGL that had issued in a golden age for D&D. Effect: massive loss of faith in D&D by the player base, giving rise to the game’s biggest competitor.

At the time, the blunder of Fourth Edition in its attempt to chase the thrill of an MMO (but without all the things that make an MMO memorable and fun), seemed like D&D had finally run its course. Shortly, it would join any number of other legacy systems on the scrap heap. It would be something old players of the game would reminisce about and tell war stories from adventures at the High Clerist’s Tower or in the streets of Waterdeep. Maybe we’d pull it out for a one-shot every now and then.

I stepped away from D&D at that time. Truth be told, I didn’t think I would ever come back, and if I did, I would probably play older editions of the game. I ignored 5e when it came out initially. I thought I was done with D&D.

Then a miracle happened, the thing I’ve always wanted since I’ve been a TTRPG player: D&D broke through into the mainstream, or as close to it as I’ve ever seen. Suddenly there were more active players than there ever had been before. Folks who might never have played RPGs previously found a home with D&D 5e, and I was super onboard for that. D&D came alive again. People were excited to play it. I never thought I would see that again after Fourth Edition.

You see, I firmly believe that playing TTRPGs is a healthy form of self-expression. At once, it combines creativity, tactical and strategic thinking, improvisation, critical analysis, and basic math. There’s also a strong social component to it. For life-long introverts such as myself, D&D was a refuge, a home away from home. I know I’m not alone in this.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the OGL 1.1 (or 1.2, 2.0, or whatever) has made this haven feel pretty inhospitable. I’m one of the lucky ones in that my livelihood is not directly tied to D&D content creation, but there are innumerable talented Youtubers and creators out there that I respect who are put in jeopardy over this.

This will not do.

It’s how you say “Good-bye” in graph paper.

At the time of this writing, you have released your response to the uproar. Silence was not your friend, let me tell you. The statement itself did little to allay any of my fears. Truly, you may like to label it as “we both won,” but if anything the opposite is true — we all lost.

We lost a home and the promise of what the OGL was meant to stand for. Whether you realize it now or not, you lost, too. Not from the backlash this caused, no, but you’ve lost the trust. Shattered it, more like. Your want to control that part of the gaming space has opened the door for your competitors to offer their own OGLs, ones that we hope live up to the spirit of the original. Once again, cause and effect.

Cause: a departure from the OGL that had issued in a second golden age for D&D. Effect: massive loss of faith in D&D by the player base, giving rise to the game’s biggest competitors. Note the plural there.  

Sound familiar?

Get used to seeing this dragon.

It’s exhausting to see the death of D&D — again — play out in real time before my eyes. All empires crumble, however, and perhaps it’s time for D&D to fade into near obscurity. I doubt the game will go away completely, but I’m not putting any odds on One D&D now. I was looking forward to where it would go, but now…not so much. Ditto for the upcoming movie and TV show.

While some small, idiotically optimistic part of me thinks you might change course in light of how unpopular this initiative is, the truth is that you will likely continue with deauthorizing the OGL 1.0a as planned, despite the many, many warnings of what an avoidable, self-inflicted wound that would be.

But okay, if moving units is really what motivates you, if that’s the only language you speak, take heed. By attempting to have more, you will wind up with less. I know that sounds a bit like a fortune cookie. It’s true though. If you move forward with your plans, you will have put the nails in the coffin of D&D’s resurgence. All of them, all at once. Dead and buried.

And I suppose that’s what hurts the most about all of this. You had the top spot, you had achieved something fantastic, something truly wondrous…and then you just threw it all away. Perhaps you view the ecosystem that developed around D&D, and by extension those who could make a living from it, as parasitic. You really should view them as pillars. They prop up your brand and your game on a daily basis. How many other games ever get to that point? You should have done everything you could to further empower and protect them.

Instead, you’ve managed to alienate practically all of them in a comically short amount of time, though there’s nothing funny about any of this. Once again, livelihoods are on the line. How can the community ever trust you again? Your actions demonstrate a staggering lack of understanding of your own product, and a level of disconnect from your playerbase that is almost too much to believe.

In short: You were the chosen one! You were supposed to bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!

Then again, I could be looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps I should be celebrating this in the form of an Irish wake. Maybe there should be no monoliths in the TTRPG space, no not one. Perhaps we’ll be better off without you. Perhaps ironically, and certainly unintentionally, you have made Dungeons & Dragons into a phoenix.

Paizo is already laying the groundwork for the ORC. MCDM is working on their own game system that will be “aggressive” in its own open gaming license. Kobold Press has their “Black Flag” project in the works. Monte Cook, who has designed several of my favorite games, has his Cypher system. I’ve been meaning to check it out, so this seems like the opportune moment to do so.

Current mood.

They are all rising from the ashes before you’ve even finished burning it all down. But make no mistake,  your game, your community, the goodwill you’ve built up over the years, and the reputation of Wizards of the Coast, such as it is — yeah, it’s all on fire.

And you are the ones who held the torch.

But in the words of the great Led Zeppelin, whose music is inextricably tied to classic D&D: There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Si vales, valeo.

-Matt Carson

___________________________________________

UPDATE:  At this point, the first proposed “playtest” form has gone up for OGL 1.2. I’ll admit that some of the concessions appear to be a step in the right direction, but I would still never dare to produce content under it. Here’s a short list of why:

1. You still want to deauthorize the OGL 1.0a. The reasons you cite are spurious — a dodge at best and an insult at worst. The OGL has stood for more than 20 years. That I’m aware of, there haven’t been any high-profile offensive content released under it by third-party publishers.

2. The morality clause in 6f is untenable. The way this situation was handled shows that WotC is hardly a moral compass to determine what is “harmful” or “obscene.” This point says that you alone determine what is considered hateful, and this cannot be contested in court. Even if the rest of OGL 1.2 were perfect (and spoilers, it isn’t), there’s no way any content creator would, or should, agree to that.

3. You give yourself at least three ways you can change your mind in the future if it suits you, including the Severability clause. “Irrevocable” in this case doesn’t mean what you’re hoping the community thinks it means.

4. I’m not as well versed in the VTT space, but the provisions you put in place are clearly meant to give you an advantage once the One D&D VTT comes out. This doesn’t seem like you’re terribly confident in your product if you feel the need to close off sections of it from other developers.

5. Ultimately, the broken trust means that I cannot expect you to act in good faith with any of this. It’s as  simple as that. OGL 1.2 does attempt to give content creators a little more breathing room, but it’s just not enough.

As it stands now, the new OGL is a bad bet, one that most third-party publishers and content creators will be unwilling or unable to make.


State of the Sector Address: 2023

My Fellow Sectorians,

We are back with a brief retrospective on what we were able to do last year as well as a look ahead to the horizons of 2023. Let’s dive right in, shall we?  

A New Direction

My last blog post of 2022 talked about this in detail, so I won’t repeat too much of it. The short version is this: I’m having to move my focus away from science fiction for the foreseeable future. I’ll be focusing on fantasy this year in the hopes of breaking into traditional publishing. It’s not a decision I make lightly, but it’s one that comes after much thought and soul-searching. This change will trickle over to the posts I make here. So, expect to see a bit more content about the fantasy genre in the months ahead.

Drink up me hearties, yo ho!

Marvel, Maybe? 

My philosophy  for this blog was always to talk about those things I enjoy instead of focusing on those things I don’t. The MCU has taken up a significant amount of my Fanboy Reviews up to this point, but most of Phase IV has fallen flat for me. Multiverse of Madness was something of the final straw. My review of that movie was long and mostly negative, which runs counter to why I created this blog in the first place.

I can hope that Phase V will be an improvement, but don’t expect to see as much coverage of the MCU as there was in times past. If Phase V starts to improve, I’ll pick it back up, but I may be more selective in the titles I choose to review.

Fun & Games

This has been in the works for a while behind the scenes, but I can finally announce that I’m actively developing a TTRPG supplement for D&D 5e, potentially the first of many, and an original board game with a cyberpunk aesthetic.

The supplement will appear on DM’s Guild, and I’m hoping to launch it in March. More details on that as they become available.

The board game, by contrast, is on a much slower developmental track. My plan is to run a Kickstarter for it when the time is right. There are a lot of moving parts to a project like that, so it might be next year before it finally sees the light of day. I will, however, keep you posted on the progress I’m able to make in the meantime. 

Gone is the past.

2022 Accomplishments

Last year was something of a roller-coaster for me creatively, but I made significant progress on a number of things I outlined in last year’s State of the Sector Address. I wanted to share those with you here.

Sector M Website/Patreon Revamp/New Merch Store: Sector M got a new look and new features, starting with my author website. I migrated my old Redbubble store over to Etsy. I now have many more options and designs available. Lastly, my Patreon got quite the glow-up , with new tiers, new rewards, and monthly Zoom calls with yours truly. If you haven’t already, go check ’em out.

Blog Delivery: After a few years of being hit-or-miss with my blog posts, in 2022 I was able to post one original blog post per month, January to December. With one exception, I delivered them on the dates I listed in the last State of the Sector. 

Attended DFWCon: In October, I finally made it back to DFWCon after years of being away. I really loved the opportunity to hang out and talk with other authors, hear success stories, and make in-person pitches to agents and industry professionals.

Progress on #7: Book #7 has been something of a storm in a bottle. I started it on Halloween of 2021. While I made some progress during the last two months of that year, I really started getting into it in January of last year. I noticed that my average word count per writing session almost doubled. At the time of this post, I’m 120,000 words into it. The story is a big one though, big enough that what I thought was a novel might wind up being a trilogy of novellas instead.

Still in the Works

The Sector M Podcast: The timing for this just didn’t work out. I’m still interested in getting a Sector M podcast off the ground at some point in the future, so I’m not shelving this idea. If and when there’s any progress on this front, I’ll be sure to announce it here.

The road to the mountain.

Goals for 2023

Finish Book #7, Start Book #8: As stated above, I’m still working on book #7. I hope to have the initial draft done in or around April. My plan is to start book #8, a direct sequel to #6, in June.

Query Books #5 & #6: Book #5, or DMM, is my first querying project of the year. This should begin in February. I’ll be working on polishing book #6, or AOTO, to start querying it later in the year. Both are fantasy titles that (ostensibly) are set in the same world, though they are separated greatly in time period, space, and overall theme. 

Revamp Strange Reports to Sector M: My anthology that came out some years ago is getting a re-release. In addition to fixing some production errors that crept in, I’ll be adding a hardback version. My goal is to get that up and running in a May timeframe.

New Blog Schedule: I have a new slate of original blog topics planned for this year, and I’m excited to get started on them. Like last year, I’m going to post on the third Friday of the month. Here are the dates in question:

  • January 20 (January 22)
  • February 17
  • March 17
  • April 21
  • May 19
  • June 16
  • July 21
  • August 18
  • September 15
  • October 20
  • November 17
  • December 15

This does not include the updates that may pop up in more of an update/ newsletter-style post.

Attend Writing Conventions: I thoroughly enjoyed going to DFWCon this last year. In addition to returning to that con, I want to travel to a few more conventions. I’m still in the research phase to determine which ones. Once I have that figured out, I’ll post the details in the next update.

Time for an epic team up!

How You Can Help

Support Tab: I’ve created a new tab next to “Home” and “About” at the top of the page. It has all the ways you can support Sector M. Here’s the breakdown:

So, that does it for this year’s State of the Sector Address. Let me close by simply saying thank you for your continued interest and support of my work. There are some exciting things on the horizon, and I can’t wait to share them with all of you.

See you around the Sector!

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


Turning the Page: From Sci-Fi to Fantasy

I have an admission to make: This was not my original idea for my last blog of the year. Recent events, however, have put my situation as an author in a whole new light, almost certainly setting the tone and focus for my writing in 2023 and beyond. As you read on, I think you’ll see why.

Science fiction has long been my “home” genre, the one in which I feel like I have something to say. This is especially true of military sci-fi. I love stories that feature new classes of starship, starfighters engaged with other starfighters in deadly dogfights in space, dropships carrying determined Marines in power armor into battle, pretty much all the tropes of the genre. Heinlein was a big influence on me early on, and my first published novel, The Backwards Mask, was steeped in all of that.

Unfortunately, the market for military sci-fi right now is pretty tough, especially for authors who do not already have an established readership. I had several conversations with literary agents, editors, and industry professionals recently about why this is.

I don’t pretend to know all of the internal workings of the industry, but from what I gather it’s like this: The pandemic really messed up the supply chain, including production of the book-weight paper that publishers use to print (you guessed it) books. Since there will be fewer books printed, publishers want to go with the books that they know will be a sure thing. They are less inclined to take chances when they have fewer resources to go around. The supply chain has improved somewhat since then, but the inertia of the industry still remains.

This has made midlist genres like science fiction instantly harder to break into since publishers aren’t putting as much resources towards them. The midlist genres are those that have an established readership, but don’t have the broad commercial appeal of, say, a mystery or romance novel. You are unlikely to get an international bestseller of the scope of The DaVinci Code or The Bridges of Madison County out of science fiction.

After much soul-searching, I have come to the conclusion that I need to put science fiction down for the foreseeable future. I’m still trying to break into the industry, and it just doesn’t look like my path forward for traditional publishing has science fiction in it. At least for now. This is not to say that there isn’t a great demand for science fiction from book readers — there certainly is — but if publishers aren’t terribly interested in military sci-fi at the moment, agents won’t be either. Books have to have somewhere to go.

That means that the sci-fi series I’ve been developing, that already has two finished novels to its name,  one that I’ve worked on for many years, needs to be shelved, possibly indefinitely. It’s hard to say what publishers may want six months, a year, or five years down the line, but it’s been made pretty clear to me what they don’t want right now. So, as much as it breaks my heart, I’m leaving science fiction behind. I hope to return to it one day, I honestly do.

Does this mean I’m going to stop writing? No, not at all. It just means that I need to change my angle of approach. I’ve decided to hang up my power armor and gauss rifle in favor of a well-worn travelling cloak (that may at one time have been green) and strap on my storied, ancestral sword. That’s right, I’m switching over to fantasy as my main genre.

So, why do I think fantasy might work if sci-fi can’t or won’t?

Well, I used to see the two genres as close family, walking essentially hand in hand. They are usually found in bookstores together. Depending on the store, they might even be lumped together into one section. We often see “SF/F” as a signifier for the two genres in concert. More and more, though, there are literary agents who represent fantasy but not science fiction. A recent convention I attended had only about three agents present who would consider sci-fi. For fantasy?  Double that or more. Fantasy and sci-fi are no longer equals. Fantasy dropped a haste spell and raced ahead, leaving sci-fi behind in its wake.

Whether you attribute it to the long-standing popularity of Harry Potter, the Game of Thrones show on HBO, or immensely popular authors like Brandon Sanderson, people who wouldn’t have been readers of fantasy ten or twelve years ago are reading it now. Fantasy is the closest thing to mainstream that it has ever been, and publishers are looking for more.

Truth be told, I avoided the fantasy genre for the longest time. I didn’t feel like I had much to say that hadn’t already been said by much better authors than myself. Also, Tolkien’s effect on the genre can’t really be overstated, like the moon’s pull on the tides. It’s exceedingly difficult not to be influenced by his work in some way or another, if you trace it back far enough.

Conversely, it’s almost too easy to find yourself walking along some of the paths that he first blazed. I didn’t want to be just another author rearranging the furniture in his house and trying to file off the serial numbers, nor did I want to chase the trend of grimdark fantasy when it became popular in recent years. So, what’s an author to do?

Little by little, one idea that I’d had in the back of my mind for a while fused with another. I started making connections in my head. New concepts and old designs began to temper each other. Not long after I had an outline and a map. Then I started writing what was essentially an experiment. I don’t want to give away the name, but the initials for that manuscript are “DMM.” I was happy with the result, and I found my voice in the genre, opening the door for more.

When it came time to choose my next novel, I wrote another experimental manuscript, very different in tone and execution, but tangentially set in the same world, as well as on the same continent (though separated by vast distances and set in another age.) This one’s initials are “AOTO.” While the book is finished, and I believe it’s the best plotted and paced book I’ve written so far, it still needs a lot of polishing before it’s ready for the querying process. That’s on my to-do list for the near future.   

Both DMM and AOTO are each meant to be the first volumes in their respective series. Without spoiling anything, one story is a meditation on war, society, and coming to know yourself when everything else has been taken away. The other is about an outsider finding a place to belong and coming to understand why the cause he follows is the right one for him, while also discovering the strength to stand up for what he believes in, no matter the odds. I’ll leave you to decide which one is which.

I pitched these ideas to some industry professionals, and their feedback was that these two books might be able to land in the current publishing environment where my sci-fi series couldn’t. So, starting next year, both DMM and AOTO will be entering the query trenches, likely in that order. Let us hope that the light of Paladine, Crom, UL, Primus and/or Eru Illúvatar can shine down upon them as they seek to find their way into the light of day. It won’t be easy. Then again, nothing worth doing ever is.

So, that’s where I am at the moment. The New Year will see me switching gears and continuing to push forward. I hope that you will continue to join me on this journey, albeit along a path I had not intended.

I wish you and your families a happy and safe holiday season! I will be back on Friday, January 6 with the State of the Sector Address. We’ll talk about what worked, and what didn’t, for 2022 and set out our goals and aspirations for 2023. I hope that you will join me for this.   

Until we meet again.

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


Tropes I’m Thankful for: Found Family

Family of Choice. Kith and Kin. Chosen Family. Ka-Tet. Whatever you choose to call it, found family is a trope for which I am very thankful. It’s not easy to pull off effectively, but when it works, it works. If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re already familiar with this literary trope. Even if you don’t recognize it by name, you will probably know it when you see it.

Simply put, it’s when a group of people who are not biologically related form a social group that functions like a family. Often the individual members of this group are from vastly different backgrounds. That just makes the bonds they share that much more unique and rich.

Sound familiar? A lot of fictional stories lean into this type of association, and let me tell you, I am here for it. This trope is so near and dear to my heart that it wasn’t until my fifth novel that I realized a family of choice was a central theme of every book I’ve written. I’m on novel number seven now, and it’s still going strong. I honestly tapped into this idea without consciously thinking about it. It was just the way I thought stories should be told.

As Thanksgiving is only a few days away, a time that is often devoted to family, whether related by blood or not, I thought I would explore this trope, citing examples in science fiction, and talk a little about why it works so well in the context of the story.

Firefly

So, I almost put Buffy: The Vampire Slayer on this list. Having had to do a deep dive into the lore of that TV show for one of my past jobs, as well as being a fan in general, I know a lot about it. But, if we’re going to go with just one of Mutant Enemy’s productions, Firefly has to be the quintessential found family for me (Nothing against the Scoobies; I will love them forever). Firefly is the show I think of immediately when I hear the term. That’s how well this tragically short-lived series managed to pull it off.

One of the ways it accomplished this is by making the ship Serenity a home. The show and the movie go out of their way to establish this, and it works incredibly well. Everything from the decorations in the galley, almost certainly put there by Kaylee, to the little touches we see in everyone’s personal quarters, tells us that Serenity is home for these characters.

Mal gives a brilliant speech at the end of the movie before they take off that really sums it up, which is set to one of my favorite musical movie cues.

Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you up sure as the turnin’ of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she outta fall down. Tells you she’s hurtin’ before she keens. Makes her a home.”

Because the ship is so well established as being home, my favorite scenes are when our big damn heroes are sitting around the table. Each character is from a very different background, but here they are sitting together as one. As Mal states at one point, they each came to Serenity for their own reasons. They don’t always get along, some (*cough* Jayne *cough*) aren’t above betrayal, but when they all come together to break bread at the table in the galley, it’s magical. This is just one of the reasons that “Out of Gas” is my favorite episode of the series.

There’s just something fundamentally human about sharing a meal with one another. It’s also why the idea of a found family is one I associate strongly with Thanksgiving. Sitting around the table, eating, is the whole point. To me, Thanksgiving boils down to what’s most important, and to some degree a found-family approach to storytelling does exactly the same thing.

The Mandalorian

I know that Star Wars has always had a family dynamic to it. One of the most famous lines in cinema is about Darth Vader being Luke’s father. But in the Skywalker Saga, it’s about who you’re biologically related to, whether you want to be or not. Rey, I’m looking at you.

Yet in The Mandalorian, we get a true dose of found family with Mando (Din Djarin) and Grogu. There’s no biological link there. The bond that the two of them share is entirely outside of blood, yet it’s definitely there.

What I love about this dynamic, however, is how that relationship changes Mando from a cold, detached bounty hunter to a parent figure. He delivers the kid to the Imperials, then Mando has a change of heart, to go back to spring the kid from custody. Every professional instinct Mando had told him to just walk away, but the orphan in him, the foundling, couldn’t let an innocent be consigned to such a fate.

This leads to the two of them being dubbed “a clan of two.” Considering that most of Mando’s enclave is wiped out a short time later, AND he’s summarily kicked out of the remaining Mandalorians for having taken off his helmet, Grogu winds up being the only family Mando has left. When the kid is kidnapped, Mando goes through hell and high water to get him back.

Still, throughout his samurai-esque adventures, Mando helps and befriends a lot of people like Cara Dune, Boba Fett, Greef Karga, Ahsoka Tano, Bo-Katan, Cobb Vanth, and others. Not all of these characters are destined to become close to Mando, but one of my favorite moments in The Book of Boba Fett was when Mando opts to help Boba Fett without payment. Mando is willing to put his life on the line to help out a fellow Mandalorian, perhaps someone he sees as a brother.

I guess it goes to show that family can go beyond blood in the Star Wars universe. Unlike the other two entries on this list, this story is still unfolding. So, now that Din and Grogu are together again, I’m eager to see where Season 3 takes the duo, and how they will continue to expand upon their familial relationship. It’s been a joy to see it come together and play out on screen, and I look forward to more.

Star Trek: TOS (Movies)

No list of found families would be complete without some mention of Star Trek. While practically every version of Star Trek deals with this trope to some degree, I think it comes through the clearest in the six Original Series movies. It’s easy to point to Wrath of Khan, specifically the scene where Spock dies saving the Enterprise. While that scene and the resulting funeral hit like a freight train, it’s actually the sequel that really drives this home for me in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

Dealing with the loss of Spock, and finding that Dr. McCoy is slowly losing his grip on reality due to a Vulcan mind-meld, Kirk endeavors to steal the Enterprise and go back to the Genesis planet. He enlists his crew to help in this. They all know full well that it will be the end of their careers. There’s that moment just before the Enterprise warps away from spacedock that Captain Styles sends a message from Excelsior, “Kirk, if you do this, you’ll never sit in the captain’s seat again.”

We see Kirk as he hears these words, but even knowing the consequences, Kirk makes no acknowledgement and gives the order to go to warp speed. Unfortunately, Kirk’s career is not the only thing at stake in all this.

We see Kirk at his emotional lowest only a short while later as his son, Dr. David Marcus, is killed by Klingons. Then, in a desperate bid to get the upper hand, Kirk sacrifices his beloved Enterprise to turn the tide (a scene that also wrecks me every time I see it). Even despite these critical losses, Kirk is buoyed by the words of McCoy as they watch the remains of the Enterprise burn up in the Genesis planet’s atmosphere.

“My god, Bones, what have I done?”

“What you had to do. What you always do — turn death into a fighting chance to live.”

Truthfully, it gives me chills just thinking about it. In this movie, we see Kirk and company lay everything on the line. It’s all done out of personal love and loyalty to each other. Folks, if that’s not a family, I don’t know what is.

Now, a whole movie later, when Spock has been restored, and there’s been a whole time-travel adventure involving humpback whales, we see the crew of the former Enterprise facing the music before the president of the Federation. Spock steps down from the viewing stands and falls in line. When the president says that he does not stand accused, Spock merely responds, “Mr. President, I stand with my shipmates.

Perfection.

You know, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier isn’t an Original Trek movie that gets a lot of love, but there are some really great gems in it. Kirk has a line in that movie that I think really speaks to the heart of Star Trek: “I lost a brother once,” he said. “I was lucky I got him back.”

Final Thoughts

There are more examples of the found family trope than I could ever hope to cover in a single blog post, even if I just limited the scope to science fiction. It’s a popular way to approach the interrelationships and bonds that characters have with each other, and as the title states, I’m deeply thankful for it.

Look, Thanksgiving has a way of highlighting the differences we have with our biological family — differences in religion, in politics, and philosophy of life. I’m relatively lucky in that respect, but I know that not everyone comes from a family that understands or accepts them for who they are.

If you’re the black sheep of the family, or just the odd puzzle piece that doesn’t seem to fit with all the others, a found-family story delivers on the hope that somewhere out there, there is a group of individuals, a family, who will come to love and respect you for who you are, not merely because you are related. 

But even if you get along with your blood family just fine, it’s still a kind of storytelling that pulls at the heartstrings and lends itself to a more personal experience for the writer as well as the reader. There’s just something about it that expresses a heartfelt desire that comes with being human: to belong. I think that we should all be so lucky in life to find a family of choice.

So, from Sector M, I bid you a happy and safe Thanksgiving!


Return of the Mummy: My Second Brush with Ramses the Great

Halloween is just around the corner! In honor of that, this blog is about a mummy. No, not the Universal Pictures mummy (though I love me some Boris Karloff), nor one of the Brendan Fraser variety, but a real, actual mummy.

Namely, Ramses the Great.

My first brush with Ramses was as a kid in 1989 when his exhibit came to the Dallas Museum of Natural History at Fair Park. The man himself was not there, unfortunately — he was still in his resting place in Cairo, but a lot of his artifacts made the trip over. The exhibit included carved statues of his likeness, incredible jewelry, cups, bowls, personal implements, you name it. Not all of it was tied to Ramses himself, but much of it belonged to those who lived in that general era of time, some 3,300 years ago. 

Several of these artifacts were included in the 1989 exhibit, especially the stone slab depicting Anubis.

Considering in my heart of hearts I wanted to be an archaeologist back then, this was both a figurative and literal treasure trove for me. Egyptology was a field I considered going into, and it remains an interest of mine to this day. So, to say this trip had an impact on me as a kid is an understatement.   

At that time, my grandmother was a schoolteacher, and there was a whole unit in social studies that taught us the basics of life in ancient Egypt, about the 19th Dynasty when Ramses reigned, and so forth. After the fact, I wound up with teacher’s resource guide used to teach the lessons. I put it with my other books on archaeology. Here’s a photo. We’ll get back to this book in a moment.

That logo, though.

Now, fast-forward to last December. I was passing through Houston and saw a billboard for a new exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science: Ramses The Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs. I knew immediately that this was my chance to revisit the time of Ramses II. So, after the holidays, I loaded up the family and that’s exactly what I did.

This is what greeted us as we walked in.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science already has a wonderful Egyptian exhibit on permanent display there, which is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area. This particular temporary exhibit was an extension of that section. The artifacts of the Ramses exhibit were incredible. I’ve included some pictures here, but trust me when I say that they don’t do them justice.

Beyond that, the technical side of the exhibit was flawless, and I say this having worked on exhibits in museums previously. The lighting, the flow from one display cluster to the next, even the music playing throughout the various spaces was everything I could have asked for. The display that explained the famous Battle of Kadesh, in particular, had a cool back-projection effect that looked nearly holographic. (Unfortunately my photos of it didn’t come out well, so I can’t show what it looked like.)

At one point, I came across a magnificent golden necklace. This one, the Gold of Valor belonging to Psusennes the First, a pharaoh of the 21st Dynasty.

Wow…

It looked really familiar, as did a number of the pieces of jewelry in the case, all of which are breathtaking. It was at that point that I wondered if some of these artifacts had been on display back in 1989.

Later, when I got back home, I unearthed the teachers guide that had been in my collection for years. In the back of the guide, there was a list of the artifacts on display back then. I put that next to the official exhibit book I picked up in the Houston museum’s gift shop. Turns out, it was the same necklace I had seen as a kid.

It struck me that in the intervening 33 years, the necklace had made the trip to Egypt and back and likely been on display in number of other exhibits. As I leafed through the teachers guide and the official companion book, I realized that I had seen many of the other artifacts before as well. While it had been most of a lifetime for me, what was a mere three decades compared to the three millennia these artifacts had seen since their creation? They were ancient in a way that my fellow Americans often have a hard time comprehending.

As we left the exhibit, we found a bench and started talking amongst ourselves about our favorite moments and displays. That’s when a gentleman from Egypt approached us and asked if he could ask us a few survey questions. I was too happy to oblige. The questions were mainly along the lines of ‘how did you enjoy the exhibit, and what could be better?’ I had nothing but glowing things to say. The question that really stuck with me, though, was the last one he asked me: “Why do you think people are interested in Ramses today?”

In my excitement, I was probably pretty rambling, but my answer was to the effect of: “When most people think of an Egyptian pharaoh, everyone knows the name of King Tutankhamen, but the kind of epic figure they are probably thinking of is likely Ramses himself. Immortality was something Ramses sought in life, and the fact that we are still thinking and talking about him three thousand years later means that, in many ways, he succeeded.”    

The gentlemen from Egypt seemed to really enjoy that answer. I didn’t remember until later that I had snapped a picture of an ancient Egyptian prayer as I left the exhibit. I’ll let it speak for itself here.

Perhaps memory really is the closest thing to immortality we can achieve in life. At the risk of this post straying into melancholy waters, I know that the last few years have been ones of loss for many of us, myself included. Yet there is something comforting, something eternal in those words: “Speak the name of the dead and they will live forever.” Thanks for reading…and Happy Halloween!

Perhaps we’ll meet again someday.

The Allure (and Curse) of Prequels

The concept of a prequel as a literary device has been around in one form or another for quite a long time in almost every medium. When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, the idea of going back and telling the story of the Clone Wars was something that hadn’t been done before on that kind of cinematic scale. More than 20 years later, the Star Wars universe is still dipping into that well, and will likely continue showcasing stories that take place before A New Hope for the foreseeable future. 

Star Wars certainly isn’t alone in wanting to delve into the stories that take place before the original setting of the intellectual property. A short list of heavy-hitters appearing this year alone on TV includes (but is certainly not limited to) the following:

  • Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
  • House of the Dragon
  • Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
  • Obi-Wan Kenobi
  • (And just this week) Andor

Before I get into the particulars, let me say this: This post is not about the casting, fan backlash, or creative decisions involved with any of these shows. I have the greatest respect for the actors, crew, and digital artists who bring these shows to life. If you’re here expecting some sort of fanboy outrage at one or more of those groups, feel free to hit that “eject” button now and punch out. Byyyyeee.

Still with me? Excellent. What I hope to do with this blog is to take a look at the viability of prequels as a framework for telling  stories, exploring three things that make prequels attractive as well as three more that make them less appealing than an original story. With that in mind, let’s dive in.

The Allure

Nostalgia

The most obvious answer is that a prequel hopes to capture the magic that the property had before, tapping into the good will and warm fuzzies that we may harbor from previous iterations of said property. Depending on how subtle or overt this previous connection is handled, you might wind up with fun call-backs, but it runs the risk of becoming heavy handed with member berries. 

For the most part, I’m fairly forgiving of when the fan service gets too fan service-y. Even when this happens, it’s hard to deny that the feelings that are evoked when you see parallels play out. In the right hands, they can be profound. The best prequels are able to successfully excavate those little nuggets of emotion we have tied up with the original and shine new light on them.

Nostalgia is often a distortion of past events, though, filtered through the lens of a yearning for a past that may or may not have really existed except in our minds. While it can be a two-edged sword, it can also be a powerful reminder of what we love, reigniting our passion and enthusiasm in the present. 

More Time in the Setting

Stories taking place in settings we love are always finite. There are only so many episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only so many Lord of the Rings movies. Once a setting has achieved that sort of critical mass in the hearts and minds of fans, it’s natural to want to go back to that place if given the chance. After all, we have friends there, favorite spots, and (in general) we know what we’re getting ourselves into. It’s a known quantity, and one we already like.

Settings with rich backgrounds are often the most fertile soil for prequels. If you’re a lore nerd like I am, who just loves to sink your teeth into the backstory and worldbuilding, this is a chance to see it brought to life. The mentor figure of a previous story might now take center stage as the protagonist of the prequel. Characters who are bitter enemies might be friends in this telling. Maybe you get to witness legendary events play out that were only ever talked about, or receive additional context to the original story.

Like the voyages of the original Constitution-class Enterprise? Well, here’s more of that. Remember the thrill of Game of Thrones? Let’s have another foray into Westeros, shall we? And so on.

A Safe Bet

Prequels don’t have the risk that new, completely original stories carry. There’s a built-in audience, likely one that’s hungry to see more of whatever it is. This makes prequel stories something comfortable for both the producers and consumers of media. If you liked this, you’ll surely love that.

It’s the same mindset that brings us sequels, but there’s an innate guardrail backed into prequels: You know where the characters are going. You don’t have to worry about coming up with the next big story arc, and you already have the end point established. You’re just filling in the gaps and adding additional layers to a story that’s already been told. 

The Curse

Spectacle Creep

The issue with going back before the ‘main’ timelines is that the temptation to make the prequel story bigger, grander, and more impressive often blows the originals out of the water. Consider the lightsaber duels in the Star Wars prequel trilogy. They are orders of magnitude more complex and fast-paced than the ones we see in the original trilogy.

The ever-increasing want to pile spectacle on top of spectacle, to outdo what audiences have experienced before, can be momentarily thrilling in the moment, but it always has the effect of making the source material seem far more mundane. This is especially noticeable when you watch the releases in that universe’s chronological order. Thus, prequels often have the side-effect of downgrading or side-lining the originals.   

Continuity Nightmare

By its very nature, a prequel does not exist in a void. It comes before something. It’s no easy feat to balance the needs of the prequel story with the constraints placed on it by the stories that released before it. It’s a delicate balance to walk. Lean too much into what’s been established and you risk severely limiting the scope of your story. Throw canon to the wind and the prequel story may not fit within the greater framework that exists in the minds of fans.

This is personally why I think that prequels can be a hard sell for long-running fandoms — it’s too easy to cause contradictions and lore breaks. Sure, not everyone cares about that. Most casual viewers probably don’t, but invariably there are fans who are invested in the universe that do want to see continuity maintained. Prequels are often the bane of those kinds of fans.

Now I know that, more often than not, these types of fans are dismissed out of hand as whiny manbabies, like a Youtube comment section come to life. But, I would argue that many of the fans that object to major breaks in a universe’s continuity just want all parts of the thing they love to work in concert, forming  a cohesive whole, rather than having elements that work in opposition to that. Major breaks in continuity can make that a bridge too far to span.

Lack of Stakes

Perhaps the worst curse of prequels is that we know that nothing will really change. Yeah, maybe we get a little extra insight into what leads up to the originals, but we know the story can only resolve in a certain way. We already know who lives and who dies.

That means that established characters that are alive and kicking in the future are effectively untouchable in the present. There are no stakes when the outcome is already known. When there are no stakes to a story, it can make everything in it feel brittle and unearned. It doesn’t matter how outnumbered, outgunned, or impossibly the odds are against them, we know that the heroes will make it through. It drains most, if not all, of the dramatic tension from the story as we already know the protagonists will win. Prequels are where the plot armor is thickest, and it shows.  

Final Thoughts

For one reason or another, we live in an age of prequels. In the case of both the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones universes, it’s because the main stories have already been told, and it’s too soon for any sort of reboot. With Star Trek and Star Wars, they seem to both have an allergy to advancing their own timelines (with some exceptions), and would much rather set their stories in eras that have historically proven popular.

Combine that with the powerful urge for studios to create some sort of interrelated cinematic universe, and it’s a safe bet that the stream of inevitable prequel releases is just getting started.  

Still, there are some places even within those offerings  where new, original stories can thrive, ones that aren’t as beholden to other source material that have more space to grow. (Mandalorian, I’m looking at you.) While my instinct is usually to leave backstory as just that, I’m usually willing to give prequels stories a shot. Sometimes they land, and sometimes they don’t. After all, a story well told is a story worth your time, regardless of how much baggage it might carry from what has gone before.

So, I put it to you, dear reader, what are your thoughts on prequels? Do you like them, love them, despise them, or are you just sort of ‘meh’ on them? Let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!


Westeros has a Firewood Problem

This topic has been on my mind for years now. I had originally intended to release this blog post later in the year as winter set in (for reasons that will be obvious in a moment), but since House of the Dragon premiers this weekend, now seemed as good a time as any.

Or, as GRRM calls it, “Hot D.”

There’s a part of the worldbuilding of Westeros that I want to examine. Before we get into that, let me first say that George R.R. Martin’s series is one of my favorite fantasy worlds of all time. It’s full of wonderfully flawed characters, historical parallels, and rich backstory. One of the things that sets it apart from many other fantasy worlds is the concept that the seasons can last much longer than in our world. The winters in Westeros are famously years long and apocalyptically cold.   

It’s the topic of winters that I want to delve into here.

There are precedents in actual history for seasons lasting beyond their usual cycle, such as the Year Without a Summer in 1816. In Westeros, however, winters can last for up to six or seven years at a time, possibly longer. For the purposes of this discussion we’re not going to worry about saving up the requisite amount of food as we have many examples from history on methods to avoid potential famine over long periods of time. The main thing we are going to look at (as the title suggests) is the question of firewood.

Tyrion and Dany at Dragonstone.

The Westerosi, like their medieval counterparts, don’t have many ways to heat their homes. There are no radiators or electric heaters to rely upon, so to survive the cold, cruel winters, they would have to burn fuel to keep themselves warm and cook their food. In real life, it was an arduous enough task to cut enough firewood to last a winter season that spanned only three to five months. Virtually every moment not spent on some of other critical task had to be devoted to cutting firewood, just to make sure you had enough.

Now imagine having to stockpile firewood for a winter that can last for years. If the winters are as bad as Old Nan suggests, you won’t be able to cut down trees after winter has come due to the risk of exposure and sickness. Since you have no way of knowing just how long winter will be, you had better assume it’s going to go the full seven years. If you cut enough for three years, and winter lasts four, you’re dead.

Truly, when you play the game of firewood, you either have enough or you die; there is no middle ground.

(Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Not a Starbucks cup in sight.

How much firewood are we talking? 

Let’s say that you’re a peasant living somewhere in Westeros, possibly in a sturdy cottage or farmhouse. You likely have only one hearth or fireplace. You might even have a fire pit, which is likely closer to what actual medieval peasants used to use less wood as they brave the harsh winters of Northern Europe. Whatever form your heat source takes, you’ll need to keep the fire going all the time. Letting it go out overnight could result in you waking up a frozen peasant-sicle. 

To accomplish this, you’ll need fuel in the form of wood. There are other forms of fuel, but firewood is going to be your most reliable and most abundant. Also, I don’t know of many defined peat bogs (peat being another source of fuel) found in the North, where the hammer of winter falls the hardest. You could burn animal dung, but they require additional food stores, so again, wood is likely going to be your mainstay.

Balon Greyjoy’s sanctum at Pyke.

According to sources I found (listed below), heating a 1,000 square foot house needs about 3 cords of wood for a three-month winter, effectively one cord per month per 1,000 square feet. Luckily for our hypothetical peasant, their home is likely smaller than that size, so it requires less fuel to heat. For ease of measurement, let’s say the home in question is half that square footage, so 500 square feet. Assuming the ceiling is 10-feet high, the example cottage would be around 5,000 cubic feet.

We’ll assume that the history of extremely long winters has made insulation and heat retention for this peasant’s house roughly equivalent to the modern standard. That’s a big leap, sure, but I’m giving the people of Westeros the benefit of the doubt here.

This image makes me sad.

So, how much is a cord of wood? A single cord of firewood is usually defined as a stack that’s 4 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and 8 feet long. That winds up being 128 cubic feet of wood.

Seven years equals 84 months. According to the example above, it would take 84 cords of wood for a modern 1,000 square foot house to keep a fire going for that long, so it would take around 42 cords of wood at the very least to heat the Westerosi peasant’s house. Doing the math, that’s a stack of wood 168 feet wide, 168 feet tall, and 336 feet long, or 9,483,264 cubic feet.  

One of the few bright spots in Season 8.

To give you an idea of just how much that is, imagine that you covered every inch of a modern football field with firewood (including at least one end zone) and stacked it all up to a height of 168 feet. That’s taller than the Statue of Liberty.   

See the problem?

All of that is to fuel a single fireplace continuously for seven years, to say nothing of if you have a larger home with more than one fireplace. Even if fire pits might allow you to cut less wood than it would take to keep a regular fireplace going, the extreme length of time you have to maintain it makes it a herculean feat to cut that much firewood.  

Otto and Alicent Hightower from Hot D.

Blisters and Magnification:

With modern logging equipment, or just a functional chainsaw, a single person could conceivably cut that much wood during the seven years of the Long Summer, but the folk of Westeros don’t have that luxury. They would certainly have a wood-cutting axe handy, and if they are very lucky, they might also have a splitting wedge and/or maul to make things easier.

Regardless of the equipment available, the daunting task of cutting that much wood must be done by hand. The amount of effort it would take to cut, transport, split, season, and store that amount of wood so it won’t rot is staggering. Talk about calluses!

Faces by firelight.

Perhaps larger keeps and holdfasts would have whole teams of lumberjacks with big cross cut saws to fell the timbers faster, but having a larger home, with more than one fireplace, only magnifies this problem.

It’s hard to get a read on just how many hearths and fireplaces some of the major holdings in the series possess. We can safely cross Winterfell off the list here, since it has the hot spring flowing through its walls (or did until Ramsay Bolton messed it all up in the books. Spoilers, sorry!). 

The only solid number we have comes from Harrenhal. Its rather inaccurately named Hall of the Hundred Hearths has only about 35 of them. That’s in one room.  Admittedly, this fortress was built to a colossal scale, but it’s safe to say that large holdings like Highgarden, Casterly Rock, and the Red Keep might have dozens of fireplaces that they keep going, from the main hall to the private quarters of the noble families.

The King in the North!

That doesn’t even take into account things like wood for torches to light the halls, braziers for watch fires, fuel for the forge, or any extra wood used in the kitchens for cooking and food preparation. Even a lord or castellan that is extremely frugal with the available stores of wood would surely be using many times that of our hypothetical peasant in a cottage.

How are there any forests left standing in Westeros if that’s the case?

Inventing a Solution:

George R. R. Martin is a smart author, and he’s tackled problems like this before. Ravens, for example. I’m speculating here, but I imagine that he looked at how massive Westeros was, and how far flung the centers of power actually are on the map. They were once seven independent kingdoms after all. There aren’t many usable roads connecting them, and a lack of an inland sea really limits how fast ships can get to places. Without a means of fast, reliable travel overland or by sea, it would be almost impossible to effectively administrate a kingdom of that size using any historical medieval methods. Without some channel for communications, the Seven Kingdoms would have likely collapsed under its own geopolitical weight.

They were my dream team. If only…

So, GRRM invented a means to send messages quickly over great distances. Enter the Maesters and their incredible knowledge of ravenry (or rookery). Like trained carrier pigeons, you attach a note to one of their feet and off they go to a predetermined place. It’s not clear how fast these birds are, but I would imagine that a Prince of Dorne might have a decent idea of what was going on in the North within a week or two, as opposed to many months to a year.

GRRM famously dislikes fan fiction set in his universe, so let’s simply look at this as a mental exercise. Let’s apply the same kind of practical problem solving he used with ravens to the firewood problem. What follows is my solution to the problem. If you have a solution of your own, or if there is a solution presented in the books that I have missed, I would love to hear it in comments below.

Far away, in a storage facility in San Francisco, Bran wargs into a rat to set Ant-Man free.

Enter the Winter Oak. This tree is a cousin to the Weirwood tree, sharing some of its physical properties, but distinctly lacking in its metaphysical ones. Like the Weirwood, it maintains its bloom throughout all seasons, needing little in the way of sunlight, but more importantly, the wood of the Winter Oak does not rot. It can be stored for years on end without degradation from either outside conditions or damage from vermin. That alone would make it invaluable to Westeros, but we don’t stop there. Here are a few more characteristics that help alleviate the firewood problem:

  • The Winter Oak burns many times longer than regular oak, maple, or hickory due in part to the special red sap it secretes. It is not appreciably heavier to carry or harder to cut. Stocking this wood allows you to greatly reduce the fuel you need to get through the winter by several orders of magnitude.  
  • This tree produces thousands of seed pods that are a particularly attractive food source to burrowing animals. The animals eat the pods and fertilize the seeds in their feces underground. This allows new trees to find fertile ground and start growing even with several feet of snow on the ground. New crops of trees are then ready to go as soon as the spring comes. Some particularly hardy specimens even start shooting up during the height of winter.
  • The tree is common enough that wood from it is plentiful all around the Seven Kingdoms. The Winter Oak tree does not require a particular type of soil to grow, so it can be sown just about anywhere plants grow.
  • This tree grows quickly. Not as fast as bamboo, but considerably faster than other trees. This makes them perfect for ‘farming’ multiple times during the spring/summer/autumn seasons. Because they can grow during the winter, the brave or foolish (or both) may attempt to gather them in the winter, too.
  • The Winter Oak will naturally find a balance with the trees around it, including others of its kind. It doesn’t have to compete over sunlight as much, but does require lots of nutrients from the soil. So, it does not grow as aggressively or pervasively as kudzu.  

In summary, you have a tree that reduces the amount of wood you need, stores well for long periods of time, replaces itself quickly, and is common enough that all of the Seven Kingdoms have ample access to it.

Now, if there any dendrologists or arborists reading this, I’m sure you are shaking your head or blinking in disbelief. But I ask you, is a tree that does all that any less believable than one that can see through time while harboring an ancient hive mind? The Winter Oak still makes life in Westeros a struggle for survival, as it should be, but makes living there a bit more viable.

Knighted.

Final Thoughts:

While The Song of Ice and Fire is a work of fantasy, it’s a type of fantasy that is firmly grounded in historical realism. A worldbuilder’s job is to construct universes which possess the ring of truth. When you decide to change something major, you have to keep in mind what else changes with it.

If everyone in the world could suddenly teleport by just using their mind, it doesn’t just save on commute times to work. There will be many permutations and effects that will need to be addressed to give the world a realistic sense of place. (An excellent example of this is Alfred Bester’s novel, The Stars My Destination.) Merely saying “it’s magic!” and leaving it at that is not a valid way of getting around problems, or downplaying their importance, even in fantasy worlds that are far less rooted in reality.

Now, does this tiny wrinkle diminish my enjoyment of GRRM’s books? Absolutely not. I don’t read his works for complicated explanations of the seasons. No, I’m all about compelling grey characters that almost  leap off the page, descriptions of feasts that make my stomach rumble, and as GRRM puts it, “the human heart in conflict with itself.” *chef’s kiss.*

So, bundle up everyone. It may be hot outside now, but Winter is Coming.

Sources:

https://modernhomesteading.ca/blog/firewood-basics-five-lessons-for-heating-with-a-wood-stove

https://www.familyhandyman.com/article/how-much-firewood-for-winter/

https://homeguides.sfgate.com/how-much-firewood-do-i-need-for-the-winter-13420440.html


Behind the Scenes: 5 Storytelling Factors to Keep in Mind

My recent quarantine with Covid has been a springboard to catch up on several streaming shows that are within my wheelhouse, including (but not limited to) Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ms. Marvel, and Stranger Things 4. That much media in so short a time made certain things stand out to me in sharp relief, so I thought I would share them here. What follows will contain spoilers for the aforementioned shows, so consider yourself warned. 

Also, I want to be clear that while I may be discussing some of the missteps of these shows, that doesn’t mean that I’m dunking on them, the actors, the crew, or anyone involved in the production. This is up to and including the writers. There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to productions of this size, a lot of compromises that have to be made for time and budget. My purpose here is not merely to point out some of the underlying flaws. No, I want the shows coming on the major streaming services to be better. Many of them are already watchable, but there’s always room for improvement.

As I’ve stated elsewhere on this blog, writing is cheap. Before the camera rolls or the digital artists jump in to work their magic, you have a script. Just words on a page. It surprises me sometimes what actually makes it through to the screen when a little bit of logic or a slightly different presentation could make a world of difference.

With that in mind, here are five ‘under the hood’ considerations writers should think about when constructing their narratives:

1.) Moving pieces around the board

Unless your entire story takes places in a single location, your characters have places to be. How long does it take them to get there? What challenges, if any, do they have to overcome to arrive at their destination? Even if all of this takes place off the screen or page, it’s worth thinking this through. This is especially important if there are other events occurring during this time that need to eventually synch up.

End of episode 5.

In science fiction, it might be as easy as hopping in a ship or stepping onto a transporter pad. Still, you should have an idea of how long the trip takes, as well as how events might have changed in the meantime.

For fantasy, where the fastest mode of travel available might be a sailing ship, you might consider how long the characters are at sea. That could affect the relationship they have with each other and give you space to further develop their interrelations.

Beginning of episode 6.

Example: At the end of episode 5 of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ex-Grand Inquisitor Reva is seen stabbed through the abdomen with a lightsaber, abandoned by her forces on a junk world, and left for dead. At the opening of episode 6, however, she’s on Tatooine, seemingly fully healed and back to normal.

We might give this a pass, assuming in our minds that several days have passed since her duel with Vader. If that were the case, there are still some things we don’t see and are never mentioned. How did she heal herself of what was (presumably) a mortal wound with no resources at the ready? Once she did that, where did she find a ship with the range to get her off planet? The time in hyperspace is shown later to take almost no time at all, so I’m not counting that.

However, the show undercuts this by continuing the transport chase with Obi-Wan, Leia, and the rest of the Path in space. Unless the transport has some serious shields, it shouldn’t be able to withstand the onslaught of an Imperial Star Destroyer for very long. So, this tells us that not much time at all has passed since Reva’s stabbing.

2.) What options are available to solve a problem? Why do they choose that one?

In just about any situation, the characters may have several options to deal with a given obstacle or problem. They could try to use brute force, employ misdirection, kitbash some solution on the spot MacGyver style, or any number of a million possibilities.

Wait, you’re going to do what?

So, why do they go with the option that plays out in the narrative? This can be particularly tricky when you’re dealing with people who have military training, those who are trained to shrewdly assess a situation and come up with a solution that produces a specific end result.

This is not to say that all decisions your characters make will be done with calm, rational precision.  Decisions are often made out of emotion, instinct, or conditioning. While the audience may not think to question why a character undertakes a certain course of action, these decisions are something that deserves the writer’s attention. The larger, more important the decision, the more the writer should weigh whether it makes sense in the context of what they’ve established.

Looks like the ship could hold a fair few people.

Example: Let’s head back to Obi-Wan Kenobi, episode 6. He’s on a ship with a busted hyperdrive and likely doesn’t have the time to make repairs before the ship is destroyed (although that point gets a bit muddled along the way). He does, however, have access to a pretty decent-sized shuttle that does have a functional hyperdrive. The shuttle looked big enough to hold a large percentage of the Path, at least enough to significantly reduce the number of people in harm’s way.

Instead of employing the shuttle to evacuate the kids and a good chunk of the people, Obi-Wan takes it to use as a diversion. It would have made more sense in that situation if Obi-Wan’s shuttle did not have a hyperdrive on it at all, so Obi-Wan takes Vader’s Lambda-class shuttle after their duel, which we know from Return of the Jedi has a hyperdrive.

3.) Why do they need to act right now? What is their time scale?

Have you ever been frustrated that a character spends no time developing a skill and is suddenly an expert with no explanation, not even the tried-and-true ’80s montage? Or, has a love story not quite worked because the characters have barely had time to know each other? Chances are that the scale of time wasn’t enough to make the payoff feel earned or plausible.

Beginning of episode 3.

The same goes for a villain who needs to act right now for some reason. What is the time scale they are working off of? Perhaps there’s some convergence of events or a limited window of opportunity that won’t come again anytime soon, or ever. Why doesn’t the villain just walk away, learn from their mistakes, and try again in five years?

Time is a factor in the travel that I mentioned above, but this aspect is less about the amount of time that passes for the characters and more what they do, or don’t do, with it.

End of episode 3.

Example: In episode 3 of Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan meets her Jinn extended family, the Clandestines. Their initial meeting is cordial and welcoming, and goes a long way towards explaining part of Kamala’s mysterious background. At that point, I thought the stage was set for Kamala to be buddies with them initially, then slowly start to realize that the Clandestines’ goals maybe weren’t as noble as they seemed at first.

Later in the same episode, however, Najma decides that Kamala has to help her achieve her goal of opening the portal to her home plane that night, during Kamala’s brother’s wedding. Besides the abrupt tonal shift of ‘you’re one of us’ to ‘we’ll kill you and your entire family if you don’t comply,’ there is zero explanation of why Najma couldn’t wait until the next day. Or next week, or next month.

All the Jinn appear to be long-lived, and they had been waiting around since at least Partition in 1947. So, what’s with the sudden urgency? Clearly, they could wait because Najma and her group are all arrested at the end of episode and don’t catch up to Kamala again until they’re all in Pakistan, presumably several days to a week later.   

4.) What knowledge do the characters have to act on? How do they know that?

Let’s say your characters are faced with a difficult decision. They don’t have time to debate it in committee. They need decisive action, and they need it now. What do they do? Perhaps more importantly, what do they know to do? What is the situation as they understand it in that moment? That will entirely shape the decision that they make.

Metal. Much respect.

This is especially important if you have several groups working in concert towards a larger goal, and something changes suddenly. There has to be some believable way for the characters at the point of contact to understand the broader scope of what is going on. With literary devices like telepathy, you can easily have one character reach out to another one, such as Luke contacting Leia as he hung from the bottom of Cloud City. But, Leia wouldn’t have known to do that otherwise.

Bottom line, unless there’s magic in your story, and it’s able to inform all parties involved, the characters shouldn’t magically know the right thing to do; they need to have some way of arriving at the correct decision that makes sense.

’86, baby. I think that will be his year.

Example: In Stranger Things 4, we get perhaps my favorite scene in the entire series: Eddie Munson on top of his trailer in the Upside-Down shredding out Metallica’s Master of Puppets. The scene is made even better with the knowledge that the actor playing Eddie, Joseph Quinn, was actually playing the guitar in that scene. Ultimately, Eddie sacrifices his life to keep the demobats distracted, to buy his friends more time. It is a great character moment, as well as a heartbreaking death scene between Eddie and Dustin.

There’s just one issue: Eddie had no knowledge of what was going on with Steve, Robin, and Nancy in the Creel House (who were all busy being strung up by tentacles at the time). Eddie is absolutely correct in his assessment that his friends need more time, but how did he arrive at that conclusion? Why would he have thought they needed more time? There’s nothing in that moment to tell him to stall for time, certainly at the cost of his own life. For a group that makes a point of showing that they have walkie-talkies to keep in contact, they don’t use them.

5.) What are the consequences of their actions?

This is a biggie for me, mainly because negative consequences so rarely seem to come back to haunt main characters. Obviously, you want to grant your characters as much agency as you can, so they need to make meaningful decisions. The result of these decisions should be a big part of the story you’re telling, and there should be repercussions. Without them, it can start to feel like nothing the characters do really matters.  

Target: Acquired.

Consequences don’t always have to be negative, however. Most of the time your characters are standing in triumph at the end of the story because of their actions. In fact, I have a special place in my heart for stories that show us how the heroes’ actions tangibly improve the lives of the people around them.

Besides a sense of stakes and tension, knowing the consequences of the characters’ actions is a great way to map out what happens in future stories or later in the one you’re writing. So, you’re not doing yourself a favor by ignoring them. Your story will feel more real and engaging if your characters don’t always get off the hook. Even if they’ve done the right thing, sometimes no good deed goes unpunished. 

Consequences BE GONE.

Example: In Stranger Things 4, Eleven loses it on her school rival, Angela. Eleven viciously attacks her bully with one of her roller-skates. This results in Angela being hurt badly and bleeding. Two police officers show up at her house the next day to take her into custody, pending assault charges.

When Dr. Owens, played by Paul Reiser, recruits Eleven in the diner, she asks about the incident. Owens hand-waves that and says that he will make that all go away. He certainly does. It’s never mentioned again. Unless it’s referenced in Season 5, which I seriously doubt, it’s a complete non-issue to the story.

Okay, that’s five. I don’t often write about writing itself, but I thought this was worth exploring. Do you have any narrative tropes, non-sequiturs, or leaps of logic that stick out like a sore thumb to you when you’re reading or watching movies and/or TV? If so, share them below in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


Update #4: Staying Positive Whilst *Being* Positive

Hey folks,

So, my original plan was to have a brand-new Fanboy Review of Thor: Love and Thunder ready for you guys tomorrow. Unfortunately things have taken a turn in the form of Covid-19. Yep, after avoiding it for more than two years, the bug has finally found us. I say ‘us’ because everyone here at Sector M tested positive for it.

As the movie in question is a theatre-only release, Thor will have to wait until we get the all-clear, which we hope will be in another week or so. Thankfully, no one who was affected by this suffered anything severe. A rough time to be sure, with copious amounts of brain fog and sore throats, but there was no need to go to the hospital. My own senses of taste and smell were casualties of this encounter, but they have since — slowly — started to come back.

I have an alternate topic for the blog post for July, but I’m going to move back the publishing date to next Friday, July 22 to give myself time to fully recover. I’ll adjust the date on the State of the Sector address as well.

While the aforementioned brain fog has made working on my Cyberpunk WIP a bit problematic, I have been able to get some quality time editing my previous fantasy novel. Considering the circumstances, I’m glad for any sort of progress.

With any luck, we will be able to end our quarantine in the near future. Until then, it’s just about trying to stay positive and keep moving forward. Any good vibes you can send our way in the meantime would be much appreciated.

Until then,

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


The Day the Music Died: My Visit to the Buddy Holly Center

I’m a big believer in the power of art. Whether it’s books, TV, movies, video games, or other media, I think that the creative arts represent humanity at our best. I’ve also spoken about the healing power it’s had for me personally in a number of places on this blog. I’m sure you, the reader, are no stranger to being uplifted by a well-timed song on the radio, a silly comedy when you’re feeling down, or any number of other examples that come to mind. Art and the act of creation are, to me, the defining trait of our human-ness.

I didn’t realize until posting this that you can see me holding up my phone in the reflection.

Not to get too Maximus Decimus Meridius on you here, but I do think that what we do in life does, in fact, echo in eternity, especially for artists. Some folks, like Stephen King or Willie Nelson, have had long careers, and have had a hand in defining and redefining their genres more than once. They are the pillars on which several generations of future artists may find inspiration while they continue being legends of their respective media. We are so lucky to have them.

Sadly, there are artists who leave us far too early, often tragically young. These are the comets of the artistic world, blazing a path through the heavens before the sudden absence of their light leaves us cold in their wake. Don Mclean’s famous song, American Pie, speaks about one of these comets, referencing February 3, 1959 — the day the music died.

His plaque on the Walk of Fame.

That’s when a plane crashed in a corn field near Clear Lake, Iowa that resulted in the deaths of, among others,  Jiles Perry “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Jr., Ritchie Valens, and Charles Hardin Holley, better known by his stage name: Buddy Holly. I remember hearing about the plane crash as a kid, especially when La Bamba, starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens, premiered in 1987. The movie ends with the now-famous coin flip between Ritchie and Tommy Allsup to determine the seat on the plane.

Exterior of the museum.

Last year, I travelled to Buddy Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas to learn more about this icon of the ’50s and early rock legend. The West Texas city is surrounded by miles and miles of cotton fields, studded with towering metal windmills. Travelling there at night from Dallas, I remember the hypnotic red lights on those windmills the most, as they always appeared in the distance without ever seeming to get closer.

The next morning, I went to the Buddy Holly Center in the heart of the city’s Depot District. The Center is situated in an old train depot. Across the street, you’ll find the famous Buddy Holly statue at the West Texas Walk of Fame. The statue was much taller than it looked from the photos, but it’s fitting for a figure who casts such a long shadow in the music world. His signature look is all accounted for there in bronze: the suit, the guitar, and (of course) the glasses.

Wow.

Speaking of the glasses, the sign at the front of the Center is a giant-sized pair of Buddy Holly specs. The museum itself consists of two main galleries. One is a recreation of Buddy’s bedroom, including several pieces of furniture he owned. Opposite that display are tributes from many other famous musicians that have made the pilgrimage to the museum. The other gallery contains a host of memorabilia from his personal life, his performances, and a timeline of his career. Photography is not allowed inside the exhibits, but there are photos on Google.   

Before you go in, you are treated to a short movie about Buddy’s life and legacy. A notable personality who shows up in that presentation is Paul McCartney, who talks about how the concert that Buddy Holly played in Liverpool was a catalyst to form the Beatles. Even the name of the Fab Four’s band was a reference to Buddy’s own band, the Crickets.

A wider shot of the West Texas Walk of Fame.

Of course, Buddy looks young in all the photos we have of him, but I didn’t realize just how young he was. When that plane crashed on February 3, he was just 22 years old. Twenty-two. His entire musical career lasted only around 18 months, but in that time he left an enduring mark upon the world. A comet, indeed.

That realization stung me pretty hard as I stood there looking at the actual glasses, which were recovered from the crash site. It really drove home what a tragedy it was to lose such a gifted musician at the dawn of his career. The Big Bopper had been oldest of that trio at 28, and Ritchie Valens was only 17. Yeah, the lump that I got in my throat as That’ll Be The Day played through the hall is roughly equivalent to the one I’m feeling now as I write this.

I didn’t take this photo. It’s from Wikipedia.

While the Center does not shy away from the circumstances of Buddy’s death, the museum itself is far from a solemn place of remembrance. Quite the opposite, in fact — it’s an upbeat and lively space. It’s a fitting testament to the man who, by all accounts, brought such an energy and fire everywhere he went, to everything he did.

You know, the act of creation is sometimes like throwing pebbles into the still waters of a pond. For many of us who create, the ripples we cause are small, barely noticeable most of the time. But as I stood there on the museum floor, surrounded on all sides by artifacts from his life, I found myself in awe of just how big the ripple Buddy left behind truly is.

So, should you find yourself out in Lubbock, Texas one day, I highly recommend that you make a visit to the Buddy Holly Center to learn not only about the legend but also the man behind the myth. As long as we remember him, a part of him endures. As Buddy himself put it:

Love to last more than one day,

Love is loving and not fade away.