Tag Archives: Fantasy

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


Update #3: Patreon Re-Launch!

Hey folks,

My new Patreon is now live and ready to go! It’s taken a few months of revamping other stuff, such as my website and store, but now there are new tiers, new rewards, and tons more fun stuff ready to go!

Oh, Captain My Captain!

Here’s some of the new stuff you can unlock, depending on your chosen tier:

  • Access to Patreon-only short fiction
  • Discounts on everything in the Sector M store
  • Early access to cover reveals, sample chapters, and other author-y goodness
  • Cooperative storytelling to develop the lore of the Sector
  • Invites to online Sector M hangouts, Q&A sessions, and more

So, if you like what I do, I would ask you to support Sector M on Patreon at whatever level makes sense for you. I would never (repeat never an infinity amount of times) ask anyone to give more than they can. Instead, I want the Patreon to be a community of SF/F fans and gamers who want to revel in their collective geekery and fandom, and build something new.

With that said, please go check out the membership tiers. If you have any questions, feel free to email at TheSectorM@gmail.com or use the contact form on my website.

See you around the Sector!

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


Magic and Its Effects on Fantasy Society

Have you ever been reading your favorite high-fantasy sword & sorcery epic and thought something along the lines of: “Wait, these people have been living in a medieval state of technology for thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of years? What gives? Why haven’t they advanced in all that time?”

You would think that the Elves with their long lifespans and high education might eventually build airplanes to get around. Why don’t Dwarves, with their knowledge of engineering and access to so much mineral wealth, at some point build tanks to ride into battle? Why must everyone continue on as though it were 12th century indefinitely?

Winterfell-825x510

You have 8,000 years of recorded history, do you?

Part of this is just the trappings of the genre. We expect Elves in fantasy stories to fight with bows instead of gauss rifles. And it’s much more dramatic to have Gandalf riding into Helm’s Deep astride Shadowfax than on Kaneda’s motorcycle. (And before anyone brings ups Warhammer, Shadowrun, or the like, we’re talking high fantasy here.)

But there’s another answer to this question, and one that sits in plain sight: Magic. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Great as that quote is, I don’t entirely agree. It might appear on the surface that magic and technology are the same literary trope, just repackaged to fit their respective genres. Certainly they do fulfill a similar function. They both allow characters to do extraordinary things that we can’t do in our world, and both serve to create magical MacGuffins, whether it’s the One Ring or the Genesis device.

Final_Fantasy_Wizards

Still one of my favorites after all this time.

Both are methods of achieving some of the same things, but the two are not the same. Technology is derived through science and observation of nature, whereas magic (as it is defined by fantasy) is supernatural. It’s a fine distinction, but one that manifests itself on society in very different ways when you run the permutations. Here are a few examples and thought experiments for you. For our purposes, wizardly magic and divine/priestly magic are lumped together.

1.) Health and Well-Being

dragonshards-healing

“Close one this time, Olaf. Be more careful tomorrow, yeah?”

A medieval society with magic will fare better (in the short term) than a medieval society without it. Duh, right? But the presence of magic potentially has an immediate, positive effect on the population. Let’s say that you have a small group of practitioners of magic in your kingdom who can heal wounds and/or cure any disease. Your population will immediately have an advantage over its muggle counterpart. If the bubonic plague strikes your realm, you have an instant answer to it. Not only could your healers eventually eradicate the disease completely (depending on how often they can perform this miraculous feat), but they could presumably cure themselves if contact with the plague victims means they contract the disease themselves. An outbreak that might annihilate a real medieval kingdom might be downgraded to more of an inconvenience if those resources are brought to bear early enough.

If you can magically heal wounds, that means that a farmer accidentally cutting himself on an old plow, or a soldier cut by a rusty blade might make a full recovery, where they might die of tetanus otherwise. Infant mortality would likewise go down, along with the instances of mothers dying in childbirth. If you can lay on hands or just a drink a magic potion to mitigate, or even reverse, bodily ailments and harm, you have just leaped well beyond the scope of the grim realities of the real 12th century. In fact, with that alone, your ability to see to the health and well-being of your people is far beyond what we have in real life today, or likely to have for many centuries to come.

Sign_small_apothecary

“Honey, I’m stopping by the apothecary on the way home. We need anything?”

Consequently, your kingdom’s military could expect to lose fewer people in armed conflict as those who might die of mortals wounds might be spared and in time make a full recovery. Soldiers might then be willing to take more risks in battle that only the most fanatical or stalwart would in real life.

All these factors would mean that your kingdom would potentially have a larger population than its historical equivalent, with fewer lost to disease and war, and your people would likely be more healthy on the whole. Even small amounts of magical healing opens that up for you. The more healers you have, and the more robust their ability to perform their magic, the greater these advantages are realized.

2.) Stunted Development

fantasy-room-magical-library-castle-sunlight

Even if it won’t lead to splitting the atom, I still want it.

You don’t learn as much when you can wave a magic wand to fix a problem. That’s the downside to magic. In most interpretations of magic in fiction, the practitioner may not know how to fix the problem without magic’s intercession. The caster may need to know a lot about the powers they are channeling, maybe the alignment of the planets or ley lines, but the answer to the problem is not always required to fix what’s wrong.

Let’s take our example above and look a little closer. If you can perform a ritual and Poof! an ailment goes away, you don’t necessarily need to develop the germ theory of disease, or realize that you need to wash your hands before treating a wound. You probably wouldn’t need to learn much about surgery, either, or anesthetic. If you can purify water with a wave of your hand, you don’t have to learn about proper filtration methods or bacterial water testing. And if you can cast a spell and take flight like a bird, or simply teleport to a destination, why would you go through all the trouble of designing and building an airplane?

ENV_WIZARDS-CHAMBER_V02B_130814_MAX_BERMAN

This one, too.

This is the trade-off with magic—you don’t necessarily have to learn about a problem or its root causes to solve it. In so doing, you greatly hinder your ability to increase your understanding of the world around you, as many of the stresses that force a society to advance are alleviated or eliminated altogether.

This stunted development is further fueled by the lack of people who can wield this problem-solving power. Rarely in fantasy are wizards or empowered priests as common as cobblers or farmers. No, wielders of magic are usually rare, and take years of study and devotion to achieve any mastery of power. Unless they imbue this power into objects, such as magic swords or invisibility rings that a layperson can use, the utility of this power will forever remain in the hands of a few, and rarely achieve any widespread usage. So, there might be an answer for many of society’s ills, but only as far as the wielders or rulers directing its power will allow.

3.) Warfare

249942

“Eat glowing crystal, foul beast!”

War adapts (eventually). Armed conflict is just as prevalent in fantasy worlds and stories as it was in the actual 12th century. When you add any level of magic to the mix, however, the people actually waging the war will have to change how they go about it.

Let’s say that magic on the battlefield is restricted to just magical weapons and armor. That still means that tactics would have to change if one side finds itself the have-nots in this situation. Perhaps surprise attacks become the norm to catch such magic-clad soldiers unaware, rendering their advantages null. Or perhaps feints and subterfuge have to be employed to trick empowered forces out of position, so that their magical advantage can’t be utilized at the point of conflict.

Now, let’s open it up a bit more and say that there are battlemages that can summon flame without flint or tinder. Tims, we’ll call them (for purely fanboy reasons). If a Tim can point a finger at a formation of pikemen or line of charging cavalry and reduce them to ash with a few spoken words, no one would assemble forces like that.

Timtheenchanter

“You know my name.”

Let’s remember just how incredibly expensive it is for a medieval lord to field an army. You need to equip them with weapons and armor, train them, and keep them fed and maintained, along with any number of horses and support animals. Even if individual knights are expected to pay their own way, whole campaigns have been abandoned because the leading lord’s coffers ran dry. And when you think of how much coin and effort it takes to bring a medieval army to the battlefield, no lord who isn’t crazy or desperate would be willing to put his troops in a nice, neat ‘fireball formation.’ A single Tim radically changes the calculus of war.

Even if both sides have a Tim of their own, that wizard had better watch his back. Almost certainly, there would be assassins sent after him on the eve of any conflict since his presence, or lack thereof, would prove decisive. Lords might choose to settle their differences with smaller scale engagements, or dueling champions, perhaps even a one-on-one bout between the Tims in question. The point being that once you start flinging spells in war, war itself changes.

Conclusions:

the-lord-of-the-rings-the-return-of-the-king

Breathtaking.

Let’s circle back to the question I raised at the beginning of this post. Why do fantasy societies eternally exist in the Middle Ages, or something similar? Why don’t we have Elven airplanes or Dwarven tanks? Besides the author just wishing it to remain that way, it’s my belief that magic is the chief reason. It accomplishes many of the same things as science and technology, and does so without industrialization, but the solutions it gives you are hollow and less accessible. Fantasy peasants will almost never enjoy the fruits of magic the way you and I can flip on a light switch, or turn on a heater.

And the advantages of magic are ultimately off-set by how it undermines learning and advancement. Society will rarely continue to look for an answer once it has found one. If a court wizard can reliably use magic to send messages to far off lands or holdings, there’s not much pressure to invent the telephone.

Ultimately, how different a fantasy society varies from its historical counterpart will depend on how magic is defined and how well all the interrelationships are maintained. The best fantasy stories and worlds are those that really seek to understand what it means to inject the power of magic into a Middle Ages-esque society, and reflect that in the story.

So that will just about wrap it up here, folks. If you have any thoughts on this topic, feel free to leave them in comments section. I may revisit this topic every once in a while, since even a long post can barely scratch the surface of the subject.

Thanks for reading!


Life, Death, and Avatar: The Last Airbender

I’m late to the party on Avatar: The Last Airbender, as in a full decade late. I finally finished the series. (To be clear, this is the animated series, and not the M. Night Shyamalan movie.) Riding high on the incredible culmination of that storyline, I immediately started up The Legend of Korra.

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But I believe Aang can save the world…*cues the music*

Something struck me as I got into the next series: When we last see Aang in the show, he is thirteen, just barely a teenager. In the intro to Korra, we learn that Aang has died.  That’s certainly no surprise; both Korra and Avatar are predicated on the idea that when the Avatar dies, that he or she is immediately reincarnated into the next life. We knew that’s part of it when we were following the adventures of Aang, since he was preceded by Avatar Roku.

But with Korra, it’s a little different. Aang is already dead when she comes along, and if you dig into the lore, he died at the relatively young biological age of sixty-six. Bear in mind that this is in a setting where some characters live to be well over a hundred. Avatar Kyoshi lived to be well over two hundred.

Why does this matter? Well, we don’t normally follow a protagonist to the grave if they live to the end of the story. There are exceptions, of course, but think about it like this: Do we know how Captain Malcolm Reynolds dies? Or Scotty? Or James Bond? Or Luke Skywalker? (I’m really hoping the new Star Wars movies don’t inform me of that last one.)

Even if we know on an intellectual level that these characters don’t live forever, there’s a certain kind of immortality that we grant them if they just ride off into the sunset, or if they’re lucky enough to get a ‘happily ever after’ ending.

Avatar doesn’t play that way. Characters are born, they live their life, and then they die. We don’t get the standard fictional insulation from the real-world cycle of life and death.  And should there be another series set after Korra, we’ll have to resolve her death as well.

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This blog post has a soundtrack. Just click here.

But there is a certain honesty in that idea that I find both sad and refreshing (which is also one of the rejected slogans for New Coke, BTW). We all like to think of the time in which we live as ‘the’ time, rather than just a single point on a very large timeline. Thousands of generations have come before us, and (we can hope) thousands of generations will come after us. We have our time in the sun, and then the sun sets.

I’m not saying anything we don’t already know, and neither am I trying to bum anyone out. Quite the opposite, in fact. So where am I going with this? Well, there’s a short sidebar first.

Story time: So, a few weeks, I was coming home from a dinner with a bunch of friends. I was alone and on a stretch of highway with very few cars around, none of them close to me. In less than a second, that changed. A car zoomed in from behind at close to a hundred miles an hour. The headlights went from being a distant sparkle to nearly on my rear bumper in less time than it takes for you to read this sentence. The driver turned right to avoid me, but in that moment it didn’t look like he would make it. I swerved left and almost hit his buddy who was in my blind spot. Somehow we avoided hitting each other, though I still don’t know how. Had he hit me, it I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

The worst part was not that sudden bolt of sick terror that went through me, but that both of the cars in question kept on going, weaving in out of the traffic ahead of me. They were racing. RACING! I might have lost my life due to someone else’s poor judgement, a causality of nothing more than an automotive pissing contest.

Yeesh.

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Included for no other reason than because the art is AWESOME!

I’ve had some close calls in the past.  One nearly got me at age nineteen, but I’ve never had one quite like this before. The whole thing had me rattled for a while. It still rears its ugly head from time to time, the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Those suck, especially now that I have a family of my own.

But, if anything, this experience has shocked me out of the weird funk I didn’t even realize I was in. Knowing that my life almost ended has made things more vibrant, more beautiful. I feel a deeper empathy to others now, and I am more motivated to be better than I was before. I know it’s trite, I know it’s cliché, but it’s no less true.  In that sense, maybe the upfront candor of Avatar and Korra came into my life at precisely the right time.

Look, we all face down our own mortality at some point in our lives. 2016 has been the year for realizing that death comes for everyone, even Alan Rickman and David Bowie. Sure, we know that already on some level, but it’s a lesson we have to keep relearning during our lifetime.

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For it is the doom of men that they forget.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that we have a limited time on this Earth, no matter how long we live. It’s not always feasible to live life like there’s no tomorrow (we still have to pay our bills, mortgage, whatever), so let’s do this instead: Enjoy your time in the sun. Live a lot and love a lot.

Be someone’s hero.

Go save the world.

It’s what Aang and Korra would do.

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Fanboy Movie Review #4 – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion. Most of the time with these reviews I watch the movie only once, but let’s be real here…it’s Star Wars. I’ve seen it twice at the time of this writing. And as always, there are MAJOR SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

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Great! What does that mean, exactly?

Just as we thought, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has indeed shattered all sorts of box office records. Considering the dark, yawning abyss of the prequel trilogy (easily the greatest cinematic disappointment of folks my age), I went into this movie with neutral to low expectations. Fortunately, I had avoided spoilers with ninja-like online reflexes. J.J. Abrams is normally very good at what he does, but Star Trek: Into Darkness didn’t work for me on many levels, so it was with a fortified and guarded heart that I entered the move theatre.

First Impressions: I took the movie trailers with a grain of salt.  Phantom Menace’s trailer is still one of the best of all time, and we saw how that movie turned out. But, Disney is distancing itself from the prequels as well as tapping into the vast well of nostalgia that folks of my generation have for the original trilogy.

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Real guys don’t look at explosions…

What I Liked:

  • THE ACTING! Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. I really can’t say enough good things about the new folks. Absolutely amazing. Harrison Ford is one of my favorite actors of all time, and his return to Han Solo is some of the best acting I’ve seen from him in years.
  • The fan service. I won’t lie, I enjoyed seeing throwbacks from the original. Seeing Han walk into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Seeing him with Leia again. All those things really struck my nostalgia vein, even if I felt like they took it a bit far at times (see below).
  • The cinematography is gorgeous. They really used a good mix of practical and digital effects to push the story forward without it feeling like just a CGI beauty contest with no substance underneath.
  • BB-8. I didn’t think I would like him because he was an obvious stand-in for R2-D2. I was wrong. BB-8 is awesome and had a similar-but-different-enough personality from R2. *flashes a lighter in a thumbs up*
  • The moment when Rey calls the lightsaber to her to face Kylo Ren. When she ignites it for the first time…this is perhaps the most powerful scene in the movie, and that’s saying something. Wow. Again, Daisy Ridley. Totally sold.
  • Chewy’s rage. When a Wookie sees his best friend go down, fear for your freakin’ life. I just wish there had been more of it. Also, Leia feeling Han’s death through the Force. It was as though a billion fanboy voices cried out at the death of a fan favorite.
  • The emotion. After suffering through Manikin Skywalker, it is SO refreshing to see fear, happiness, pain, and sadness on the faces of our heroes. It brings it all home.

 

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Fine, just don’t take off the mask.

What I Didn’t Like:

  • The similarities to Episode IV. It’s been said before, so I’ll keep this one brief. If the movie has a major flaw, it’s that it takes perhaps too many cues from the original trilogy, right down to bringing in the Death Star by another name. My hope is that Episode VIII can do something else that doesn’t feel like a remake of what has gone before.
  • Lightsaber usage. They are one of the coolest weapons ever, but they are super impractical if you don’t have training. You are more likely to lop off your own leg than do anything to an enemy. Both Finn and Rey use lightsabers without any sort of training and actually do pretty well for themselves. Rey even bests Kylo Ren (who himself was trained by Luke). That was a bit hard to swallow. Luke didn’t have a lightsaber duel with anyone until the end of Empire, and that was at least after his training with Yoda.
  • The score. When I think of incredible movie scores, John Williams springs immediately to mind. Even through the wasteland of Phantom Menace, we at least got Duel of the Fates, one of the coolest pieces of movie music ever. Here, the score was just sort of ‘there’ and the moments where it really shines are really just rehashes of previous leitmotifs. It’s serviceable enough, but not really memorable. That’s disappointing.
  • Captain Phasma. She was billed as kind of a new kind of Boba Fett, and it’s Gwendoline Christie for crying out loud! She’s barely in it, and gets coerced into dropping the shields pretty easily. Why was she not the one that Finn fought with the lightsaber instead of random Stormtrooper #34, I’ll never know. Let’s hope she’s still alive because she had better play a bigger role in the next installment.
  • Kylo Ren. I appreciate that he’s not a mustache twirling villain, but I think Adam Driver was a complete miscast for this part. He is an able actor, but when he took his mask off for the first time, I thought “Wait, did they get Marilyn Manson to play this guy?” He’s whiny, he’s petulant, emo, and ignores the call of the light side of the Force for reasons we haven’t found out yet. Aside from looking completely badass with his mask on (which he certainly does), he doesn’t seem like he’s very good at being a bad guy. The only reason he gets Han is because he sucker punches him. Functionally, as the villain of the story, he’s pretty weak. With the heroes being miraculously good at what they do, he’s really out of his league.
  • General Hux. This guy is the most experienced commander the First Order has at its disposal? Despite being young and unimpressive, he is the direct analogue to Grand Moff Tarkin, played by the legendary Peter Cushing. He falls far short of anything approaching Tarkin’s screen presence or gravitas. Again, a complete miscast.
  • Han’s Death. It was a powerful moment to be sure, but one that was painfully telegraphed ahead of time. And THEN there is no real moment of mourning or ceremony to mark the passing of a legend. I understand the emotion surrounding it all, but that seemed like a lackluster end for a fan favorite. In a movie that doesn’t seem to take a whole lot of risks, and one that is all about fan service, killing off Han Solo seems like it is necessary only because Obi-Wan died in Episode IV.

Unresolved Questions (At Least in My Mind):

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More than I can count, I have.

Where to start? The movie leaves so many things unexplained. If I numbered them out, this blog post could wallpaper the Starkiller Base, so here’s just the highlight reel. Who left Rey on Jakku, and why? Is Rey Luke Skywalker’s daughter? If so, who is her mother? Or is she the twin to Ben Solo? Why did Ben turn to the dark side? Did no one (Luke, I’m looking at you) ever tell Ben that Anakin turned from the dark side before he died? Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? (The horrible Star Wars name generator strikes again!) How does Finn fit into all of this? Why did Han go to see Maz when BB-8 knew where the Resistance base was? Why was the Hosnian system so important that destroying it could ‘destroy the Republic,’ a polity which presumably consists of thousands of systems? How could the First Order, a shadow of the old Empire, build something as massive as Starkiller Base without anyone noticing? Why had they not used the super weapon before this time if it was already loaded? Why don’t they just drain a system’s sun and leave the planets to die in the cold? The list goes on and on. Let’s hope that Mr. Abrams doesn’t repeat the mistake with Lost and actually explains to us what’s going on.

Let’s Talk About Rey:

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There…is…annoootherr…Sky…walllkeerrr…

The character of Rey is pretty divisive, it seems. Is she a Mary Sue? Is she OP? Is the whole debate over her inherently gender-biased? Would we even have this discussion if the character were male?

Here are my thoughts: Yes, she does seem to be good at everything. She’s a good pilot, hand-to-hand fighter, mechanic, climber, pistol shot, etc. She picks up Force powers with no training, and she bests Kylo Ren when she has never wielded a lightsaber before. It does seem a bit unbelievable, but it is a movie called ‘The Force Awakens,’ and Rey is obviously more steeped in the Force than anyone else around her. Isn’t that enough for us to suspend our disbelief?

But there’s something else going on here that I think is important. Star Wars isn’t really science fiction. Sure, it has starships and lasers and Wookies, but at its core, Star Wars is really a fantasy tale. A straight-up Joseph Campbell Monomyth. So, I think the character should be judged by fantasy standards. If we take Rey and plop her down into Middle-Earth or Krynn, do any of the arguments against her have validity?

Do we really question that Eowyn is able to take down the Witch-King of Morgul? What about Tauriel? We buy that she is excellent at everything (except perhaps picking a significant other) and practically indestructible just because she’s an elf. Why is Rey any different? Here we have a cool female protagonist that’s interesting, heroic, brave, athletic, and one that is not portrayed in a exploitative or sexualized manner.

We have been waiting for a character like Rey to come along. And if there’s going to be someone like her in popular fandom, Star Wars is the natural place for her to live.

 

Conclusions: 

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Oh, so THAT’s why Luke isn’t on the movie poster.

It always does my heart good to see good work rewarded. The last few years have made me a bit cynical on this point, particularly due to Michael Bay’s hatchet job on the Transformers franchise. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a good movie, and I wish it well.

It is far from a perfect movie, however, and its flaws led me to merely like it a whole bunch rather than love it like the first Avengers. Still, it is wholly worth the price of admission. I plan to see to see it at least one more time before it leaves the theatres.

But walking out of the movie theatre twice, with all the feels I’ve carried with me, has made me wish that the name “A New Hope” hadn’t already been taken.

Onward to Episode VIII!

And that’s how this fanboy sees it.


Why Sci-fi?

Speculative fiction is my ‘thing.’

Fantasy, horror and sci-fi constitute the big three in my book.  They make up a disproportionately large segment of what I love to read, write and watch on TV and movies.  They resonate with the kind of headspace I seem to occupy most of the time. I lovelovelove all three, however, sci-fi is my favorite.  I can say with all certainty that it’s what I love to write more than anything else.

Why is that? Why do starships, aliens and planets trump elves, magic swords and dragons…or blasphemous books, tentacles and the shrieking, ineffable void?

There are a few reasons for this, which I will explain here (the top three, at any rate).  Now realize that this isn’t a case for why sci-fi is better than fantasy or horror, merely why I’m drawn to it as a genre.

1.) Just a Spoonful of Sugar

It’s amazing the amount of social commentary science fiction can pull off without the ruffled feathers you would get if you talked about the same thing in ‘real life.’ In that way, science fiction is an excellent way to talk about something without really talking about it.

Think about it, we can talk about religion, politics, man’s inhumanity to man and the horror and/or necessity of war – all things that can make people truly uncomfortable − if we couch it in a futuristic setting.  It somehow insulates us from the pricklier bits of what the story is trying to get across.

More than that, it’s a way for us to step back from our daily lives and look at some of the problems that surround us today. Even if the story takes said issue/problem/social inequity out of context, we still come away with a (hopefully) new perspective.

A prime example of this is the original series Star Trek episode, “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield.” It starred Frank Gorshin, known for his role as the Riddler opposite Adam West as Batman.  Frank’s character, Commissioner Bele, is tracking a fugitive, Lokai. Bele believes that Lokai and his kind are of an ‘obviously inferior breed.’ Why? Bele’s face is white on the left side and black on the right. Lokai’s color scheme is the reverse. To human eyes, the two aliens look just alike, but this difference of appearance is responsible for incredible amounts of destruction and social upheaval on their home planet of Cheron.

Okay, so the message isn’t exactly subtle; it makes its point with a jackhammer. Even so, it speaks directly to the racial division and strife that was rampant in the 1960s. Do you think that any straight-laced TV show of that time could’ve talked about that issue so openly? Likely not.

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Okay, Frank, we get it.

2.) Possible Futures vs. Alternate Worlds

Most science fiction takes place in the future.  This might seem like stating the blatantly obvious, but there’s something to that. It takes place in the future − our future.

Usually sci-fi stories use the timeline of our real world as a foundation, or at the very least they don’t do away with it completely. Yes, there are always exceptions, such as Star Wars, but I’m talking in general.

For me, the most engaging science fiction stories are the ones that feel like I could jump in my time-travelling DeLorean or blue police box, dial it forward to the proper year and boom, I’m right there in the thick of things. I don’t have to reimagine the world from scratch, I just have to fill in the missing years between when I’m reading the book and the time period of the story.

Consequently, sci-fi feels very organic. It shows you possible futures rather than a completely alternate world that is separate and apart from the one we live in. In this way, sci-fi calls to me a bit more than the fantasy genre. Only in rare cases, such as Lord of the Rings or Conan, is a fantasy story presented as a sort of lost ‘pre-history’ to our world.

So, even though sci-fi takes flight just like other types of fiction, it does so by using us as a springboard.

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Lady Liberty — the sci-fi landmark of choice.

3.) The More Things Change

The humans populating science fiction universes are a lot like us. Even if they live hundreds or thousands of years in the future, they are still understandable to those of us in this time.  Sure, future generations may have figured out a lot of things that we haven’t, such as FTL travel, overcoming disease and hunger, etc. They may even have co-ed showers because gender roles are no big deal anymore.

But they haven’t figured it all out. Most of the time they still have to contend with greed, arrogance, anger, jealousy, hatred, betrayal, war and host of other things that are problematic for us today. Maybe they go to a job but don’t like their boss, or they grapple with the fundamental questions of our existence and place in the universe. They may have access to a host of technological toys that we don’t, but seldom are they that much more advanced than we are right now.

There are reasons for that, of course. The most obvious is that science fiction is written by authors who are relatively contemporary to us. I choose to think of it in a different way, though. I like to think that the inhabitants of the future are like us because that allows us to project ourselves in their place.  If only we had the same training and access to technology, we might be able to trade places with them.

I think that feeling is essential in creating that sense of place in any good science fiction story. I’m convinced that it’s a big part of what draws us into that universe, and keeps us there.

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Some things change.
Marines don’t.

Well, there you have it, folks. I could go on and on, but those are the things that give science fiction a special place in my heart. Of the three branches of speculative fiction, it’s the one that seems the most inclusive to the reader just as we are.

I’m sure that purists of fantasy and horror are even now lining up to point out the flaws in my reasoning. Do you agree with me, disagree or are you just sort of ‘meh’ about the whole deal?

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.