Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mostly Harmless (2000)

Mostly Harmless (2000) by Douglas Adams shows demonstrates what happens when a novelist acts passive-aggressively towards his publisher. While technically a Hitchhiker's book, the novel lacks much of the charmingness that a Hitchhiker's book usually contains. If you thought that our heroes were sent through the ringer in previous books, they're positively steamrolled flat in this one. If there was any book that the fans wouldn't want, this is it.

This book sends a message to the publisher: if you want an even less sympathetic Hitchhiker's book, I dare you, just dare you, to make me write it.

On the writing side, the whole thing works as a story, the descriptions continue to engage, and the plot still rolls along nicely. However, without its metaphorical heart of gold, it's got a metaphorical heart of lead. I figure that Douglas must have played a rousing game of Fallout before penning this book, just to reacquaint himself to bleak.

If Le Miserables were written as a comedy, it would read like this. As a film, it would be directed by Lars von Trier. If it was a play, it would go on after Hamlet just so that the audience could get properly warmed up.

If you aren't up for it, then skip it. Your happy universe will be better off. On the other hand, if you love the humor in Fallout, then this is the book for you.

Monday, December 21, 2015

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1974)

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (1984) was the fourth book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams. In this book, Arthur returns to the earth to find it mysteriously reappeared, only to meet the an enchanting girl over and over again through improbable circumstances.

If you've been reading this series, you will discover that this is the best written manuscript to date. This tale is more of a romantic comedy than a space adventure, where a little human happiness and love are the central part of our story. Also, there's the mystery of why the Earth shows up again, but once the romantic comedy starts, you don't care. You just accept that the Earth is back and Arthur gets to see the world in it's inexplicable ordinariness.

Here is the book where Douglas Adams' genius really takes off and stays up.

The girl in question is mentioned in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as that girl that finally figured out what was wrong and how to solve everything. This isn't a spoiler as you learn that much in the first three pages.

On the whole, the pacing is relaxed but not slothy, exciting without anxiety, humorous as real life, and as lively as humor. I think it's as solid a ramble as you're ever likely to find. The main difference between this book and a real romantic comedy is that this book is far more believable.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982)

Life, the Universe, and Everything (1982), the third Hitchhiker's book by Douglas Adams, is the first Hitchhiker's book conceived as a novel, rather than as a radio drama that was converted into a novel. This difference shows. Where before his novels felt like excuses for scenes, this novel feel like excuses for scenes that create a coherent narrative (mostly).

In this narrative, we have the typical hero's journey tale, where Arthur and Ford are called on by Slartibarfast to save the Universe. You can guess how well that goes. In between, they meet up with all their usual companions, encounter improbable circumstances, and repeatedly encounter many running jokes. On the whole the book maintains a brisk pace, the scenes work, the narrative works, and then you hit the end.

The end. There's the obvious end, where everything should have ended, and then there's the extended end, where, I suppose, Douglas hadn't written enough pages, so he tacked on a few useless chapters because his editor said so. These had the feel of a hurriedly written manuscript.

Aside from the end, the scenes and the jokes really go together well. Most of the the storytelling is solid, clear, and ridiculous in only the way that Douglas can make a story. I wish that I could start people with this Hitchhiker's, because it works far better than his first two books. While I have to say that it's less brilliant (but only in comparison to the radio shows), he more than makes up for that with engagement and a passel of jokes that works far better novelized than serialized.

Saving the Phantom Menace

So, how could you redeem Star Wars: The Phantom Menace?

Note: the answer isn't Jar Jar. You may hate the character, but plotwise, he's mostly harmless. Cutting him may reduce the irritation, but it doesn't improve the story.

The pod race is the lowest hanging fruit in the forest. This vast, pointless exercise tells us nothing about the characters, provides no meaningful tension, and gives us nothing to fear. It's no more than a purposeful roller-coaster ride.

What does the podrace lack? It lacks ANGER and it lacks ANGER leading to THE FORCE.

I'll rewrite. Little Anakin starts his podrace. When his pod goes out of control through sabotage, the connector cable snapping about, he uses THE FORCE to grab the loose cable. Ah, we say, this kid does have it. He does have the force, and he's already strong enough to grab things. This is his aha moment. He realize that ANGER connects him to the force. With the ANGER, he uses THE FORCE to make his podracer go faster. He uses ANGER/THE FORCE to catch up. He uses ANGER/THE FORCE to choke the champion podracer, causing his wreck.

This is an improvement because the audience sees that Anakin really is special, and later on, when Yoda forbids Anakins training, the audience udnerstands why this as wise. To remove the scene would now be to gut Anakins awakening, and our fundamental understanding of how this character is going astray.

So where else can we use the temper? Mom. We can have mom afraid of Anakin. She doesn't even need to say anything different, she just needs to act like the child is a fearful menace. His temper has gotten her sold multiple times. Only Sebulba, so immune to the force, seems to be able to handle the kid, and even he's getting tired of the brat.

Another solution would be to advance the age of Anakin by some years. That would take no changes to the script and get us a slightly older actor, and therefore, a stronger performance.

We can also change how Anakin appears in the camera. By making lighting and camera angle choices, we can emphasize an intensity to the kid. Importantly, we can make him seem both great and sinister at the same time. In fact, we need to see his hero capacity shining out just as much as we see his sinister side screaming out. He'll be a hero who's always walking the line, striving for the light side, but always tempted by the dark.

An important principle is that what happens here must echo into the main film and give those scenes more meaning, more gravitas. Those scenes with the force must bind all the films together.

The other way to improve the film is to actually have Qui Gon's character matter. He seems like he matters, but none of his ideas or observations actually come out in the film, nor do they influence any of the following films. In sad truth, he could have been a robot with a light saber spouting out prerecorded lines. That doesn't make a good trilogy. He needs a better use. His touch must be present through all the prequals and into the classic films. The victory of the light side must come from his observations. He is the one who talks about the all-connected force that connects us all. He is the one who first throws down his light saber and says, "I will not fight you. If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Yoda needs to fit into this narrative. We must change Yoda a bit. In the beginning, Yoda only talks about the force as a tool for the Jedi to use, as if he is a master craftsman, and only later adopts the idea of the all flowing force of Qui Gon. This history explains why, in Empire, Yoda is so reluctant to be a teacher, not only because Luke is too old, but under Yoda's teaching the Jedi failed. Yoda failed as a teacher and failed as a learner. He now doubts that he can succeed this time with a student that should be just as terrible as Vader. His reluctance shows his own doubts.

At first, Ben retreats to Yoda's teaching, teaching Anakin traditionally, but by the end of the second film, will come around to Qui Gon's teachings. From Ben's point of view, the first trilogy reveals how Master Qui Gon was right, and it's this teaching which allows him to surpass Anakin despite Anakin's epic anger. He passes this teaching to Luke, and so does Yoda. In Empire, Luke fails to learn his lesson at the dark tree and draws his light saber. Only at the end of Return of the Jedi does Luke throw down his weapon, trusting himself entirely to the living force as Qui Gon did and as Ben did. Vader has always though that Luke learned the old style of Jedi training from Ben, but with Luke's action, he sees Qui Gon, and he understands at that moment that Luke is part of the living force tradition. Qui Gon, for a brief moment, was like his own father. Qui Gon gave everything so that Anakin could live. At that moment, Vader has the same decision to make about his own son. Who's side would he choose? He chooses the living force.

With those elements in there, we'd have a far stronger story, one that arcs over the prequals and clear into the main three films. These events would give meaning to the central films without taking away the emotions or gravitas of any of the existing scenes.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980) picks up where the Guide left off, furthering the adapted radio adventures of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox, and Trillian. The book inherits all the strengths and weakness of the first adaptation, while attempting to remediate the radio series's flaws.

The strength of this book remains Douglas's wit and humor, his stunningly realized comedic characters, the bizarre scenes, and his ability to highlight the flaws in our own technological society. The weaknesses of this book remain the story. That is to say, it doesn't have one. Well, it does have one, but it doesn't really matter.

Douglas does try to create an overarching story to hold the work together, with Zaphod's search for the man who rules the universe, but we never really care. He even rearranges the end of the first radio series and the entirety of the second radio series to make it all happen, but to no avail. Even for a Hitchhiker's fan like myself, the book looses its wind in the middle, begging you to put it down.

Overall, a work of comedy must work as comedy before anything else, and in that, this book succeeds. The book works where it matters most. But if you want a good overarching story that your local writer's group won't tear apart, you'd better read something else.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979)

From 1979 comes The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, a wholly remarkable book and a fully unexpected best seller.

The book shows itself at the beginning of Douglas's unconsidered literary career. A screen writer, he didn't want to write books, but write books he did, given enough prompting and large amounts of small green pieces of paper. The book shows the writer's newness to the medium, reading in a rather uneven yet deeply comedic fashion. No pro writer would have put that book out, because you just don't structure a story that way, but Douglas was writing by the seat of his pants when he wrote the radio show which the book adapts, so he paces fairly close to the original story. What is very obvious from the beginning is that the man knew how to twist a phrase, tie it into knots, wash it, dry it, hide it in the bathroom, and in the end, throwing it when it became unidentifiable.

Douglas Adams also showed himself among the best futurists that the world has ever seen, if only because he knows that the engineers aren't in charge. He keen looks at how technology can go wrong proved prophetic to the years ahead, because new technology sure likes to go wrong.

On the whole, I feel that the book has aged well. There are some references to tapes and data banks, and other period technologies. The Guide itself is described as having a very small screen. And yet, mostly, you don't notice the technology at all once it gets going because the important parts of recently technology haven't change much. More importantly, the frustrating and annoying parts of technology remain the same because marketeers and engineers haven't changed very much. Dumb ideas remain dumb ideas.

You should give the book a try. It's a quick read and though a bit rough about the edges, looking at times as haggard as the original actors, once the characters start speaking, all that will wash away. The humor in it that works still hits the mark, assuming that you like British humor.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

What is Fantasy?

What is fantasy? Is that a loaded question or what? I mean, I'd be safer juggling hand grenades than answering this question. How do you keep all those grenades in the air without blowing yourself up? That's what defining fantasy feels like to me.

Yet stupidly, I will try, because I'm stupid. [Yes, stupid is worth repeating here.]

I think that fantasy is a story of some sort. It may be a complex story, like Lord of the Ring, a simpler story, like Jack and the Beanstalk, or an extension of a story, like the Atlas of Middle Earth.

What sort of story? I think that fantasy encompasses clearly implausible stories. I think that plausibility is what separates speculative fiction from fantasy. When a story is plausible, or puts on the airs of plausibility, or rests itself on plausibility to a significant extent, then the story is speculative fiction or science fiction.

As plausibility is not a binary, what's plausible lies along a continuum of plausible to implausible. Fantasy lies on the further end of plausible, the implausible. Fantasy isn't merely one thing being implausible, but a significant core of implausibility. For example, Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up (implausible) uses magic fairy dust to make kids fly (implausible), take them to Neverland (implausible), to fight pirates (implausible) and sleep in a tree with no source of food (implausible). Meanwhile, in Lord of the Rings, hobbits (implausible) with a magic ring  (implausible) travel to Mordor (implausible) with a wizard, a dwarf, and and elf (implausible), to sneak by orcs (implausible) to destroy the One Ring, which can only be destroyed where it was made (implausible).

What about horror? Horror exists throughout speculative fiction because horror is independent of plausibility. Horror is situational, does not require speculative fiction trappings, and when using the implausible, can describe the implausible as a McGuffin during the development process. The exact working of the implausible doesn't matter. What matters in horror is the experience of the protagonist.

What of myths? Are they not implausible? To you, they may be implausible, but to the people who told those stories, they may be perfectly plausible. So to be fantasy, the stories must be implausible to their society at the time that the story is created. Psychic stories fall under speculative fiction because at the height of their popularity, many considered psychic powers plausible.

So are all implausible stories fantasy? What about comedies? To sort this out, we must realize that comedies are not implausible stories, they are improbable stories. They are funny because the possibility exists that people could make all those odd choices given the right circumstances, leading to an outlandish result. That makes comedies improbable, not implausible. Even given an SF backdrop, a comedy isn't a comedy unless its funny to the society that it's made for. That means that the comedy must triangulate with the experiences of the audience, using the expectations of the audience against them. In this case, speculative fiction elements become tools for the comedy to use rather than being ends in themselves.

Beyond an implausible story, I don't know what else universally defines fantasy except social convention. Super hero stories aren't seen as improbable. In this case, I think it's because there is so much plausible in the stories themselves. Superman (implausible) fights crime (plausible given his superness), rescues people (plausible), and protects us from bad guys (plausible).  The heroes and villains may be implausible, but the bank robbing, kidnapping, stealing, car crashing, and building destruction all reside in the world of plausibility. The world itself remains the place that we know.

What about urban fantasy? A girl with a sword (plausible) interacts with fantasy creatures (implausible), fights without getting injured while wearing no armor (implausible), carries a sword about without getting arrested (implausible), and keeps the dark creatures from doing evil things (like casting spells, causing Armageddon, or creating more vampires). From that angle, urban fantasy appears rooted in implausibility.

But have I actually answered what is fantasy, or have I just created some metrics to measure? I think definitely the latter. You couldn't write a fantasy story from my definition, "A story that is implausible to its society at the time of its creation."

Targa vs The World

So, as an author, I'll play the fanfic game. How would Targa stack up against the great swordsmen of fantasy (both film and fiction)? The fun of this match up is that each genre changes the rules a little bit, making the fights interesting in fun ways. Each genre wants a good fight, and gives me the tools to make the fight interesting despite any objective power differences.

There are more fights possible, of course. I skipped characters that I didn't know (there are lots of anime swordsmen). I also skipped characters where Targa would have slaughtered her opposition. I found those comparisons boring.

Yu Shu Lien (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) - Michelle Yeoh is one of my great inspirations behind Targa. In a fight, Targa would defeat Yu because Targa's in the next league up. However, the respect would be there. Yu is the spiritual anchor of Targa.

Master Li Mu Bai (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) - When I wrote Targa, I used Master Li as my touchstone for her martial abilities. In a fight between these two characters, the winner is anybody's guess.

Elric of Melnibone - Even with The Wind Before the Storm in her hands, Targa would be no match for Elric. Stormbringer would defeat her. Without Stormbringer, Targa would win with any weapon.

Conan the Barbarian - In this battle of brawn vs skill, I'll leave the winner as anybody's guess. Conan may not be as skilled as Targa, but he's far more experienced, enough so that victory would not be easily won by either side.

Jackie Chan character - Targa would play the straight man vs. most of Jackie's characters. She'd beat him up, but not before Jackie got all the best stunts, and most likely got away. Later in the film, Jackie would have perfected some sort of drunken master martial art and set to a rematch, making himself equal to Targa.

Cyrano de Bergerac - He might not be able to leap buildings and turn twirls, but Cyrano, through sheer expertise, would prove a tough fight. I think that Targa would take the win, but not without regret if she had to kill the man. If possible, she would let him live.

Legolas (film version) - Does it really matter who would win? This fight would be all about the outrageous stunts as each gets close to killing the other and failing. This fight would run so long that each combatant would get worn down, fighting slower and slower as time passed.

Captain Jack Sparrow - Captain Jack would run away. He's no fool. Any survival by him would be through sheer trickery, which he has turned up to 11.

The Dread Pirate Roberts - Its now who wins, but the style in the fight. I see an exchange of poetry as the fight goes on, dueling quotes in addition to crossing swords. Targa should win the swords, but Roberts should win the poetry, thus making the contest a draw.

Benedict of Amber - Here's a good fight, but in the end, I would put my money on Benedict. His is a degree of skill that even Targa cannot yet manage. However, she could take Corwin or Eric.

D'Artagnan - Targa would win. He's good, very good, but not crazy good.

Drizzt - This would be one of those impossible fights where the characters are at odds, but don't want to be at odds, but must be at odds, each looking for a way to de-escalate, but each damned by escalation. Targa has the better technique, but Drizzt has heart. Targa has her goal, but Drizzt feels like his back is against a wall.

Anybody Dead - Be it the ring wraiths, vampires, or ghosts, with The Wind Before the Storm, Targa can do what nobody else can do and kill them. That doesn't necessarily make it easy for her, as some opponents are just that good, but nobody gets to use the "I'm immortal" defense against her.

Jedi/Sith - I really don't care who Targa's fighting, this ought to be a truly level-equivalent fight. With both combattants sitting in genre, they can both use all their abilities to full end. The big problem comes with her sword, but since The Wind Before the Storm is a magic sword, it works against lightsabers. (Yeah, you heard it here first.) Targa will take down any Sith (except Darth Vader, because nobody beats Darth Vader, and not the Emperor), but not without work. Same for the Jedi. She'll lose to Yoda and be damned challenged by any Jedi master. If you aren't a proper Jedi master, forget it.