Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Born to Exile (1978)

Born to Exile (1978) by Phyllis Eisenstein is a fix-up, collecting together the stories of Alaric, the wandering minstrel, who has the power of teleportation and a born wanderlust, but isn't so much on violence. The novel won the Balrog award, so it obviously pleased somebody, and I can see why. The story breaks many tropes simply by the main character being anything but a testosterone fueled, square jawed hero. He doesn't wander in, take charge, follow a destiny, or alter the course of history. It's a very human-scale story.

Alaric has the power of teleportation, but because people are afraid of witches, they will only see him as a witch, so they will try to kill him. This keeps him very careful with his power.

The book moves along rather snappily as each story is about 50 pages long, so there's too little time for the plot to drag. We learn lots about the character until the stories end, but you can't really call the ending an ending. The last story doesn't wrap up anything, and you really don't get the feel of a story arc, which is the problem with an episodic story. Even the stories themselves lack a certain punch at the end, just sort of wandering on, happening, and wandering off.

Alaric gets laid a lot. In fact, I think that he gets laid for just showing up. On the other hand, he's not a walking bundle of muscle, nor a walking jerk, and he still gets laid, so hooray on that. Somebody who treats women as people and is generally sociable gets laid.

The women who show have personality, character, and agendas. Most importantly, the women get to be imperfect, and not paragons of anything. They even take

While the book has bad guys, it has a screaming lack of villains, those personalities who have plans. If anything, the villain is the world itself, which is just Alaric walking into trouble and wending his way back out. Just as often, this works against the story, as the character find answers to himself, but never actually formulates anything that he wants, other than moving on.

On the whole, this was a fun read, just right for those times when you want something easy and munchy, like a snack, without too much angst or drama.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Rocannon's World (1966)

Rocannon's World (1966) by Ursula Le Guin is among Le Guin's earliest works, and it sure does read like it. Everything that you enjoy about Le Guin's work is there, boiled down to a dense 135 novella. Not only does this work waste no words, it's so lean that the're barely any muscles on its bones. It's so compact that emotion can't find a way in edgewise (not that Le Guin is known for her emotion).

The book itself is part of her Hainish setting, where time dilation matters in FTL travel, but ansibels enable instant communications. This subject world is primitive, with inhabitants that evoke fantasy peoples, such as elves, dwarves, angels, and faeries, along with flying cats, castles, and other fantasy tropes, making it a science-fantasy novel. While some history of the peoples are dealt with, we are mercifully spared the full details, learning just enough to make the story go.

The characters themselves feel sparse. Each is an archetype more than an actual character. They suffice to progress the story, each being what they need to be, but their depth goes no deeper than that.

The story itself is remarkably simple, almost linear. Like a fantasy, they go on a quest, wrestling along the way with obstacles, but there's never a doubt as to a straight line, each of these episodes doing little to work with each other. You do get a better idea as to this world, but as a fantasy reader, you've already guess what the major parts are, each playing out as you expect.

If you're a Le Guin fan, it's worth a read to see how her earliest work played out, but if you aren't, then there's no much here to recommend.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Saving the DC Cinematic Universe

DC has a superhero movie problem, and the problem is this: they've had so many successful franchises over the years that they've already worked and reworked all their most successful characters. In those years, they had developed a feel and style that worked, and doing that successful work over again is proving rather difficult.

In contrast, Marvel didn't have a deep film legacy when it began its film venture, so it had a considerable number of IPs ready for adaptation. They made many poor to mediocre movies, but once they got their formula going, they changed the way that the audience perceived superhero movies. They changed what the audience expects, meaning that they also changed how the audience receives DC formula.

So what's DC to do?

I think that DC should do exactly what they've already announced that they're doing: treating all films independently, giving each its own tone, and concentrating on what makes each work. They should also do what their fabulously successful TV and animated sections are doing, learning the lessons that those ventures can teach.

Film being film, we won't see the fruition of these changes immediately. These things take time to conceive, write, produce, and film. They'll have to learn what makes their films tick. The audience will need to learn how to receive these films. Media production exists in a dialog with their audience, with information flowing in both directions.

But what if they give up and stop making DC superhero films? That's not going to happen, at least not immediately. As long as this superhero trend continues, there will be profits. The current market is too large to ignore. And as we learned from Wonder Woman, if a film turns out good, then word of mouth will follow and people will go to see them no matter how poorly their other films fared.

Can you save the DC film universe? Maybe, but it's not worth the bother. Only in the team up movies do you need a shared universe. Despite what comic aficionados assert, the audience can adapt to each film as its own thing. Consider how well the recent Logan (2017) was received. It didn't connect to anything except loosely, and it got praised.

Can you save DC superhero films? Yes, because with each film, you have a new opportunity. It's up to DC to make the most of those opportunities.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Power Rangers (2017)

I was warned about Power Rangers (2017), and all the comments, both good and bad, both agreeing and disagreeing, proved true.

What we have is a solid teen film, a solid team building film, and a respectable Power Rangers finale all bound up in one, with the finale not quite meshing with the rest of the film to jarring contrast.

On the plus side, this film does team building right. It's all about getting to know the characters, and getting to know the people behind the characters. The scene where dad drops his son of for Saturday detention is straight out of The Breakfast Club, and the talking scene later on is directly reminiscent of the floor chatting scene. Good choices. They worked for a reason in The Breakfast Club and they work here for the same reason.

Importantly, they don't try to shove all the characters down your throat. They focus mainly on Billy, Kim, and especially Jason. Only later in the film do you learn more about Zack and Trini. This gives you times to sort everyone out.

The film is about team building because bringing the megazord together is the whole point of team building. Their greatest weapon only works when they work together, and the film firmly supports that theme. You know the drill. They're all misfits who've been thrown off the other teams, the more popular teams. They each bring their own demons and devils with them, and strive to get over them.

The film makes a number of different choices that stand out quite starkly. They don't break convention often, but when they do, you notice because they do it on purpose to great affect, turning the unexpected outcome into a plot twist.

I enjoyed the cinematography and the editing. The cameras do interesting things to tell you about the world rather than special effects. The staging sets up metaphors. There once scene where the rangers finally have their armor, and they're walking out a tube, blocked exactly like a football team heading out onto the field. At the same time, the editors have a good sense of pacing, neither rushing through scenes nor cutting them short. Most of the film flows except for the battle scene, which obviously had to be developed by the FX artists, which is one of the reasons that the finale feels so different.

I enjoyed their use of practical effects. Not only did this safe on budget, but it usually helped a scene by keeping the focus on the characters, not on the whiz-bang.

Where I didn't get hung up was in expecting the old TV Power Rangers. This film changed everything from that series, almost always with the goal of making an engaging film. So it's the Power Rangers that you know translated into today's YA tone.

As fight finales go, it was Power Rangers on a bigger budget. I really do with those scenes had harmonized with the earlier film better. It pretty much goes by the numbers, and FX were able to do something things that exceeded a TV budget. The number of "args", "ahhs," and "oofs" were were comparable to a TV fight. It could have been something more, but wasn't.

Don't be afraid to check it out, and judge it on its own merits. It's a new thing that uses some old names.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

To Ride Pegasus (1973)

To Ride Pegasus (1973) by Anne McCaffrey screams SF for a different age. Even for the early 70's, the stories have  a dated feel, most likely being written significantly earlier. The book explores the emergence of psychic powers in a future and slightly dystopian earth.

The book itself is short, barely out of novella length. They reading easy, if somewhat uninspiring. The text gets the job done. The plot often happens in dialog, meaning that most of these stories could easily convert into radio plays with relative ease. This can make for interesting listening, but often gets tedious on the page. The good news is that the novel is just four stories as dull only lasts so long. The bad news is that the description often descends into mush.

As much as I harp on the writing, the concepts behind the writing are very interesting, if a little dissonant. The emergence of psychics would naturally bring up legal, ethical, and social consequences, so Anne strives to explore that in a future which feels a little tyrannical and dictatorial. While at one point, the psychics are talking about ethics, they are also hiring out to companies and governments to act as crowd control, literally manipulating others. When normal people fear psychics, they don't fear them because they're different, they fear them because the ordinary people can see the obvious that the psychics can't. This mind control stuff is authoritarian. Ironically, Anne played this all straight, not realizing the dissonance of her own setting.

(If this books was written as a black comedy, it certainly didn't come across that way.)

It's a curious future. Everyone seems to be unionized, even the waiters. Free speech and performances require licenses. If you want to do anything, it seems like you must ask permission. The world seems a bureaucratic nightmare to live in even while is posits itself as a well run society. Add psychics on top of that, and you have a means of suppressing the plebeians by using a well padded iron gauntlet. They literally don't know what's hitting them, or that they're being hit. Considering that her other works feature benevolent dictators guiding the group well while selfish dictators would guide the success for themselves, this continuing theme here should not comes as a surprise.

While I can't call these the best of Anne's stories, they're far from the worse. Enjoy them for the casual reading that they are.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Pirate Freedom (2007)

Pirate Freedom (2007) by Gene Wolfe is a historical pirate book with just a touch of SF or Fantasy, depending on your opinion. In this first person narrative, a young man finds himself in the deep past, eventually falling in with pirate for fairly reliable pirate adventuring. The twist here is that the piratical adventures had a larger touch of historical accuracy, with ever-shifting crews busily seizing ships and cargo. The other main twist is that he's come back forward and time and become a priest reflecting on his time as a ruthless, murderous pirate.

Not too surprisingly, every woman throws herself at Chris, the protagonist. Every single one. There don't seem to be any issues with pregnancy in this historical continuity.

The story is all told in Gene's detached, almost emotionless style, which in many places is a shame as the drama depicted should have hit harder than it did.

All told, the book moved along well, always keeping up a peppy pace. You never wound up in any situation too long, which usually works for the work, but occasionally doesn't. Aside from a few characters who have depth, most just fade into names thrown across the page, little differentiating one from another. I cannot call them memorable. Even Chris, the protagonist, often doesn't feel very memorable.

The pirate life, however, is a character, and it's memorable.

As books by Gene go, this one is very approachable, readable, and doesn't leave you screaming profanities on confusion, which is saying a lot. Maybe Gene's mellowing in his old age? Who know? I certainly had more fun with this one than I've had in any of his for a long time.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Converting the JRPG Story Structure into a Novel

I've played enough JRPGs over the years to get a good feel for the genre. While there are better experts out there, they aren't writing this article, and they are not novelists. I like to think that I have my own interesting perspective to add to the lore. Here are the elements of a JRPG that I think extract well into novels, and the solutions that I picked.

Overall

Overall, a JRPG has a single game-spanning arc, usually dealing with saving the world or your own country from something or another. It may be the fate of the world, or just your own country. It's a tried and true, somewhat impersonal arc which allows for many different characters to join the rescue endeavor for their own reasons.

That impersonal arc is important. That's the key to getting an ensemble cast motivated. Because each character gets their own reasons for acting, you get to see the great problem from many different angles. This lets you bring very diverse characters with conflicting motivations and distinctive story arcs.

The JRPG story itself is usually a multi-act structure due to the way that the game works. While it's possible to stuff the story arc into a three act structure, that structure doesn't work well for a JRPG, which spans far more time than a play or a film. Better to think about this style of story as an opening act, a closing act, and all the acts in between. The more acts, the longer the game.

The acts themselves can be group into movements, sections that have their own emotional and thematic feel. While many games have three movements, mimicking the three act structure, that's not always the case because many games have a scale larger than three movements.

The first movement is usually about getting the player up to speed with the story, the game mechanics, and the world at large. They players are kept on strong rails with minimal freedom. As the rails come away, the players get some freedom to wander about. When most game mechanics are fully activated, and the player knows generally what's going on, that's usually the end of Act 1. While there may have been other boss fights along the way, the main boss fights signals the climax of the movement, followed by a denouement where more is learned, the beginning concluded, and our characters sent out to the next adventure. This first movement often contains only one act, but just as often spans several acts.

Most of the stories occupies the big sections. The acts and movements can be longer or shorter depending on all the twists and turns that the story line takes. Each act contains its own story arc, be it about a location, a series of adventures to collect MacGuffins, or some other trial. Each act may have its own little boss fights along the way to keeps up the pace and excitement of the story, but it's the big boss fight central to the act's goal that signal the end of the act. The denouement of each act progresses the epic story further along and points the characters forward.

The final act usually has a feeling, if not the literal fact, of no turning back. The characters cross the Rubicon. They know that this is the end. The player knows that this is the end. This will be the final battle. They will face their most powerful enemy. From here, it is victory or bust. The denouement  of the story wraps up the few remaining plot lines, and is often set in the future as an epilogue.

Boss Fights

While there are many fights that take place in JRPGs, the ones that matter are the boss fights. These creatures are bigger, badder, and nastier than most other fights in their acts. Not only are they tougher than normal fights, they aren't random. They are placed at specific points by the designers as trials for the player to pass, with the boss's defeat either opening access to an area or progressing a plot line.

Within a a movement, the overall stakes for any particular boss fight tend to stay the same. Minor boss fights keep up the excitement of the game or give access to special rewards. Major boss fights signal the upcoming end of an act, progressing the story. The act ending boss fights are usually well telegraphed, coming as no surprise to the player, and therefore, as no surprise to the reader.

The bosses need to have different weights. If each boss fight were to be equal in weight, the story would have too much sameness. The player or reader wouldn't know which is really important. The intermediate bosses are there to challenge the characters but not to be unduly dangerous. These are there to teach the player how to fight a boss, so that when they hit the tough bosses, they have the skills necessary to work out how to win. The same is true in a novelization. The middle bosses are there to develop your characters' abilities, so that when they hit the big boss fights, your players and readers have a good understanding of what you characters can do. The big boss fights are where you can press your characters to the wall.

The boss fights in the final movement and the final chapters build. They eliminate recurring villains, settle scores, conclude plot lines, and generally wrap things up before the last boss fight, the big one. The last boss fight wraps up the entire game. The final boss is unique in that it usually comes back multiple times, each time more powerful than the time before, having combined powers and abilities that nobody else could put together.

Bosses frequently gloat in boss fights. This is their chance to give their side of the story, to tell the player why the villain fights and what his goals are. With a novel, this doesn't have to be quite as prominent as you can tell more of the story from the villian's point of view and reliable introduce more information at earlier points. However, that doesn't mean that the villains don't gloat. Gloating villains are an important part of the genre. This battle may be their last moment to shine, so let them shine.

Pacing

Each chapter in an RPG takes an estimated amount of time, usually 1/2 an hour to two hours, depending on the game, the chapters, the dungeons, and the goals of the game developer. Too quick, and the game becomes a speed run, too slow, and the players don't have fun. Quicker games have quicker dungeons, while some games have utter grindfests for dungeons and call it content. Meanwhile, towns have people to talk to, side quests, and loot to find. Taken together, these activities pace out the acts, determining how fast the game moves. (Some optional or post-victory dungeons may require even more time, but they're special cases.)

Books don't work the same as games. Many of the activities that give a game more value make a novel dull as wallboard and decidedly less interesting. Fights are interesting, not because they exist, but because they exist within a context. The fights either blocks our heroes from proceeding or threaten the already tenuous status quo. Because of this, the mass of the story must consist primarily of social and relationship problems so that when the fights occur, the fights have gravitas. Because more development happens in front, the reader understand the stakes of the fights even before the fight begins, while the fight itself may reveal even higher stakes than the characters suspected.

As an arc, most games take have an introductory movement of 1-4 acts, a finale movement of 1-4 acts, and 2-4 chapters in between, depending on total game length, with 3-5 acts per chapter. This is all terribly loose because the acts serve the needs of the game and the story. A movement needs to last long enough to feel significant, but not so long that the player gets bored.

Characters

The story almost always focuses on one character to begin with, adding in other characters as the story goes. These characters may be new, or people that the protagonist is already familiar with. As the story progresses, the party grows larger, and their circle of allies and enemies grows larger still.

The protagonist stands in for the ordinary kid or reader. He might be something special or nothing special, but at his core, he's just a guy (or girl). Even if he is something special, he often winds up as a fish out of water where he can't apply what he special at. His plot is the main plot line. He may have smaller plot lines, like a romance, but he's intimately tied to the main plot line. He can't resolve his problems without resolving the world's problems.

Despite the story having a protagonist, whose plot line is connected to the overall plot line, the story is really an ensemble piece. Each character has their own story arc, their own trials and tribulation to overcome. They often want to do this alone, not burdening others, but they succeed because they're helped by their friends. One of them is often a girl, and she's the pretty obvious love interest. There may be other girls, and they obviously won't be love interests.

While the characters are predominantly young, like all good YA stories, there aren't any adults around unless there needs to be adults around. Sometimes the adults are friendly advisers, and sometimes they're part of the party. Their part is not to drive the story, but to hold the protagonist accountable, slowly reveal information that they should have rationally revealed immediately, and generally act as the more experienced voice.

In combat, each character usually has a strongly associated weapon. In some early games, that wasn't too important, but once animation got expensive enough, animating a character for many different weapons became prohibitive, so each got a unique weapon instead. This generally works as it gives each character a strong flavor and the players knows who is supposed to get which weapon. In a book, it means that tracking weapons is fairly easy and predictable. The sword swinger is the one predictable one for a weapon upgrade, which is why sword swingers get magic weapons.

Travel and Locations

The adventure may be fairly divided into traveling and locations. Traveling is all about getting from one place other another and the challenges that entails. Locations are all about that location and the challenges those locations entail.

Traveling separates locations. It gives a feeling of getting from here to there. In a game, traveling is usually hazardous as you must fight off all the wild thing, face numerous random encounters, and survive in a hostile world until you can get to get to a either a safe location or a dangerous location. The hazards aren't usually too bad while traveling, and only rarely do you face a boss. The fights are routine, generally predictable once you know the area, and relaxed. Their only real chance to kill you is by wearing you down.

Because traveling takes time, it puts space into the story, giving you the feeling of moving from here to there. That is, travel acts both as a transition, in going from one act to another, and as a pacer, keeping the story from bunching up on itself.

In text, traveling does the same thing. You don't get the random encounters, except when you need a bit of action, but that sense of controlling the overall pace of the story still applies. The entire point of traveling is to help the reader to transition from one place to another, from one frame to another. In general, I spend a page or two on most travel sequences simply to transition the reader. An character moment or two is enough to provide enough character.

Locations act as story hubs. There are two types of locations: safe places and dungeons.

A location that is a safe place can be a town, a castle, a house, an inn, or any other location where the player won't get attacked randomly. (Usually.) In these locations, characters can rest, trade, explore, buy and sell, and most importantly, talk to people and advance along the plot. If anything does go bad, the event will be scripted and the safe place will become an unsafe space. This is the home of the cut scene. Most are informative, but some transition into boss fights.

Locations often have plot points unique to them. In that way, they work as story hubs. The stories for that locality begin and end in that place, while outside plot threads may also be affected by the location, but far fewer. Not unsurprisingly, solving a problem will require hiking off to a dangerous location and defeating a boss.

A dungeon is an unsafe space that is the meat and potatoes of the RPG world. This is where fights get harder, stakes get higher, and the battle to not only survive, but reach the end where a challenging boss fight will try to kill you. At the end of a dungeon is your goal, something that you want, something that you need to do, or information that you need. Dungeons take a while to explore, battle, gain experience, and in the end, fight a boss to achieve your ultimate goal.

Writing a dungeon crawl in text can either be boring or interesting, depending on your writing style, but ultimately it's tricky. The "crawl" part of dungeon crawl can't be there unless your readers really want to hear about all those little battles, yet you still need to get across the feeling of fights and exploration. How you solve the problem depends on the dungeons and the characters who explore them, so there aren't any rules other than avoiding dull Myself, I'm not too great at them, so I use them as character bonding moments, breaking them apart with scenes from elsewhere.

Extra circumstances make dungeon crawls more interesting. Exploring while up against a deadline or needing to remain hidden produces tension. By putting together clues, all the details become part of a mystery. In general, mixing exploration with something else usually results in a more interesting story than just wandering around until something attacks you.

The end every dungeon crawl is a boss. It may or may not be connected to the plot, but its destruction means that you get access to your goal.

In the end, everyone goes back to the location, wraps up the local plot threads, and the story moves on.

Quests and Missions and Goals, Oh My

Quests and missions and goals can either be easy to define or hard, and I'm coming down on the hard side. What's the difference between a story segment, a quest, and a mission? These all flow around in an RPG like mixed paint, creating swirls withing swirls, and layers within layers.

Quests are usually very formal, having a clear beginning and end. At the end, there is a reward for success, with the reward being proportionately more interesting depending on the importance of the quest. Small rewards might be money or consumables, middle rewards are useful combat items, and major rewards move the plot line forward or open a new line of options for the player, such as new classes or interesting powers.

Think of this type of quest as reactive. In a novel, this sort of quest can wind up feeling very stiff if applied crudely, and feel absolutely naturalistic if given well.

Not all quests are well telegraphed. They exist, but there's no check box for them. You as a player need to see them, note them, find them, then work out what to do to get the reward at the end. These sorts of quests work very well in text as that's the sort of initiative which make characters and stories work.

Think of this type of quest as pro-active.

Side-quests are story arcs that have nothing to do with the main arc, but give the players a pleasant diversion. These are usually optional, but can be quite rewarding if followed. In text, it could be a few character hopping off to something extra, or some request that the characters don't want to say no to. They're tricky in that they divert the reader's attention from the main story. Used sparingly, they provided some extra flavor to the tale, but used extensively, threaten to swamp the main narrative.

However, quests do not cover every type of goal in either the game or the story. A character's desire to find a long lost parent isn't a quest, but it's definitely a character goal. Think of goals as things that the characters choose for themselves, for their own reasons, with no promise of reward other than accomplishing the deed. In the story, these are far more powerful than any quest. Goals are some of the primary motivators behind a character and their actions.

Where a quest describes a goal and rewards, I use "mission" to describe the story arc that ties together multiple quests. A mission is a goal multiple fights and quests down the line that the game is aiming for. At any moment, it may be impossible, but eventually, the party will grow powerful enough to attempt the impossible.

The design of bosses, their types, and their uses easily exceeds my space here. I don't fully know the industry vocabulary. As a writer, you don't need to know that either. As long as you know why your characters are doing what they doing, and articulate that to the reader, then this criteria will be satisfied.

Equipment

Characters begin with poor equipment and upgrade as they go. In JRPGs, this equipment is sometimes meaningful and sometimes not, depending on the game. Essentially, each area gives you enough wealth to buy better equipment, and the only thing to spend the wealth on is equipment. Depending on how you spend your wealth, the characters might be a little ahead of the power curve or a little behind, but usually not enough to matter.

When writing a story, most of this buying and selling amount to administrativia. In a game, it occupies the player, giving some illusion of choice. In a story, readers are likely to get a big glassy eyed over who gets what, and they'll end up skimming over the exchange. So, selectively highlighting equipment upgrades is generally a better storytelling strategy. Characters can see something that they want or need, and there's nothing that drives a story so well as want or need.

Quest items are things that have no real power, but allow you to either traverse further into the game or access new powers or abilities. Essentially, they act as check boxes for the computer. If you have an item, then something else can happen. It's a clever hack. In most ways, these quest items are even more useful in a novel because they are powerful story elements. Being connected to the story makes them memorable.

In general, I find that tracking too much equipment confuses both me and the reader. I like to concentrate on key pieces of equipment, those that matter the most, making them iconic to a character or the pary. So a wizard would have his spell book because it's used frequently, while an archer would have his bow. Because the items are often referred to, the reader will track them better. A reader may also be able to track the number of your healing potions, but they won't be able to track a list of twenty different things. You track what makes a difference to your story. An ever dwindling supply of something irreplaceable adds tension, while lengthy lists don't.

Getting About

In most games, characters begin their adventures walking, with the map acting as their boundaries. Mountains, rivers, and seas restrict their movements. Later on, the characters acquire the use of a ship, granting them access to more of the map. Even further other, the characters acquire a flying vehicle, which grants them access to the entire map.

Vehicles and mounts represent specialized pieces of equipment, or even specialized characters. In most cases, mounts are generic, allowing faster travel. Even seagoing boats allow for faster travel, but don't have much character. Getting more exotic, you might find a submarine, and that changes how the game plays, so it becomes even more memorable. But the thing that changes the game the most is the airship. It may just be a vehicle, but in many games, it's a mobile location, a base. This gives the airship the most personality of any vehicle, which makes it a character.

Of course, there are other ways of getting about. One is fast travel, where you cut out all the tedious middle stuff and just go someplace that you've already been for pretty much the same reason that you skip over all the tedious traveling in novels.

There may be some sort of public transportation, like trains, wagons, ships, or magic portals. You pay and go. There might be a boss fight along the way for some routes, but for the most part, they work and they're reliable.

The most impressive way of getting about is the magic portal to another realm. That bit of travel signals the end. Often, passing through means no going back, but that also occurs at other points. This sort of travel usually comes near the end.

Often, boss fights have warnings. Beyond here, your party knows that they will face something dire. This works both well in games (fair warning to the players, don't save over your last saved game) and in novels, as it adds a layer of tension, lets some plot lines wrap, and lets characters come to terms with the reasons that they'll go forward.

The End

The end almost always happens in some sort of sky or ethereal realm very different from normal reality. It's here that the ultimate boss battle takes place. The end is well announced. Your characters prepare for the battles there, knowing that there might be no going back. Like any good work of literature, the end is the culmination of everything that's come before, the resolution of the primary plot line, the symbolic resolution of every bit of evil done to all the characters that motivated them to fight in the first place, the literal protection of all the good people, and a heavy dose of dread knowing that the battle ahead will the the most difficult battle that anyone has ever faced.

The End breaks rules that haven't been broken before. The fights don't get harder than this. You will be pushed outside your comfort zone.

Because the end is a story point, what makes a good end of a JRPG is the exact same thing that makes the good end for a novel. Everything has come down to this roll of the dice. It's winner takes all, and nobody's backing out. Unfortunately for our heroes, in this no holds barred fight, the villain has still found ways to cheat, and he's escape death until he finally runs out of dirty tricks.

After the end comes the epilogue, usually taking us into the future, showing us the good that's been done, wrapping up the remaining plot lines, and showing us that the better future that the characters fought for has come to pass.

Wrapping Up

There's more to say, but I've gone way beyond this post. I now need to do an entire post on the prevalent themes in JRPGs.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Maid of Shadow

Finally, there's a new book on the way. Maid of Shadow drops on Nov. 4th.

My name is Pabi Ae. I forget. That’s what I do. So before I forget again, before these events of my life fade, turning from history in legend, I have committed them here to ink as best as I can.

My tale happened not long ago, when the undying Phoenix Emperor still sat upon his throne, ruling his ever diminishing empire as if it would last forever. But the gods look down on all things forever, and they raised a personified storm to change this world. I served her, the Storm, Targa Tik, carried along in her wake as flotsam and jetsam washed up onto the shore. I was her maid, and my duty was to clean up her messes, ones measured in blood and immortal lives, but that’s not what I wanted. 

What I wanted was a boy of my own, some friendly shadows, and a real family. All I had to do was quit before she killed again.



Thursday, October 26, 2017

Dragonsdawn (1988)

Dragonsdawn (1988) by Anne McCaffrey takes the story of Pern back to the very beginning. In a story more comparable to an historical epic rather than an action/adventure/romance, the colonists of Pern find themselves in a dire situation, and using their wits and dwindling technological resources, create dragons to defend themselves from ravages of thread.

The book is separated into three parts: landing, the coming of thread, and the move north to Fort Hold. The first part works to set up the world while the next two deal the colonists horrible blows.

In my opinion, this was the most complicated novel that Anne ever attempted. Historical epics are epic for a reason, they follow the lives of many people, giving you multiple viewpoints to see the unfolding story. We don't get to know most of the characters very well, but those that we see are generally well drawn and distinct. In that respect, this book wasn't enough. Historical epics are doorstoppers for a reason. It takes many words to meet many characters and build a relationship with each. In only 430 pages, Anne tried for the same thing and came up short. The tale simply needed more words. Anne shoved in much of the story by reference, with characters recollecting happenings, but that isn't really the same as having each episode fleshed out and witnessed. So for once, I'm saying that the book needed to be significantly longer so that we could get to know the characters better.

On the other hand, Anne avoided all the mistakes that she had made with her earlier colonization novels. She had a lot to achieve in this book, if not a ridiculous amount. While I thought that some facts contradicted her earlier books, I thought that they were contracted for good reason.

As usual, Anne's antagonists are self-centered while her heroes are community focused. Some played themselves out in ludicrous fashion, while others turned into more complex figures. It doesn't pay to be an antagonist in a McCaffrey book.

As for the origins of Pernesian culture, where it would have been too easy to make everything cute, Anne did a good job of making most events fairly naturalistic. Actions made sense in context most of the time. At other times, you wondered what characters were thinking.

Of all things, this book features no romance arc. That's unusual for a McCaffrey book, and also unusual for a historical epic. On the other hand, there are lots of babies to get born, so there's not a lot of time for romance. Myself, I think that the book lacked something because of that omission, if nothing else than a fear for the fate of our young lovers.

Of course, all this begs the question, "If all this was true, than wouldn't the future dragonriders know all this stuff?" True, but nobody can go back in time and change publication history. Better, I think, that Anne wrote the best story that she could here and accept that the kept coming up with new ideas.

While I thought that the book got off to a slow start, once events began moving, the books kept up pace.

If you like the Pern books, you ought to like this one well enough. It won't give you quite the glow of the earlier works, but has an engagement all its own. I'm giving the work four stars for sheer hutzpah.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

In the Red Lord's Reach (1989)

In the Red Lord's Reach (1989) by Phyllis Eisenstein reads like the fantasies a decade earlier, which makes sense because the stories were first published in 1977 and 1979 in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. That makes this book seem a fix-up, but I think that the short stories were always intended to form a complete arc. Each chapter of the novel reads like a complete short story.

This particular novel is the sequel to Born to Exile, being the second book of the Tales of Alaric the Minstrel. I hadn't read the first, but that didn't matter. While his past history got quite a few nods, this set of stories forms a distinct stand-alone tale, assuming nothing of the reader.

Because the novel is broken down into stories,  you almost always get a feel of progression and advancement, as each story isn't so long that the action bogs down or that it gets lost in its own descriptions. It's a good trick and I'd like to see more modern authors using it. Where it falls down compared to modern novels is in its loose story arc. The ending doesn't come across quite as rousing as if an entire book has built up to that point.

The action here is very low key as action isn't the focus of the story. If you're good with that, the story moves, but if you crave good action, you'll find that many sections drag.

The primary character, Alaric, has one good power, teleporting, and much of the novel explored that one good power, what it means, and what advantages it can be put to. While some advantages of teleporting are obvious, many are situational and not quite as obvious. The character of Alaric himself is a bit of a pacifist and a bit of a self-doubter. He's not an oozing testosterone fighting hero. Everything doesn't go right simply because he's a good guy doing right. The world is a bit more complicated here than good and bad, a little larger than it seems at first.

While I happily recommend the book to anyone, as I rather enjoyed the read, I can't say that anyone in particular would enjoy it. In this novel, much depends on your taste.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

I hate color grading. Color grading must be destroyed.

Aside from the color grading, Wonder Woman (2017) made for an enjoyable film whose issues weren't big enough to hurt it. It waltzed through all the appropriate tropes with a diverse cast of characters. The general arc was one where Diana goes from idealist to worldly wise, where the world goes from black and white to shades of gray. I guess that color grading helped show that, with Themiskyra, a place in rich color, while the world of humans was washed out, less clear, less distinction between good and evil.

The inherit issue of the film was that it had to power up Wonder Woman through the entire movie, enough for the audience to get her powering up, but not enough for us to explore where we were or enjoy where we are. And those places where she was? I really liked those places. A non-Superman powered Wonder Woman in World War One London had the making of a fantastic series setting. I wanted more of that Wonder Woman, not less. The idealist in an imperfect world made for a great setup. As Wonder Woman continues powering up, we get another great setup, Wonder Woman with a real team, each character of which seems to have a story worth telling. But all these things get left behind to get her to apotheosis, to the ultimate Superman equivalent Wonder Woman. There's nothing wrong with that level, but I just didn't enjoy her as much when she was all powered up. That more human-level Wonder Woman seemed to have more story in her.

Powering up Wonder Woman is where the film worked well because if that hadn't worked, the film would have sunk. We as the audience don't know just how powerful Wonder Woman will wind up, so every time we think that we've got how able she is, she exceeds herself and we notice. It's that dynamic of the predictable, followed by the unpredicted, that makes these sequences work so well. Those jumps give us a "whoah" moment.

Like most female written story, the romance turns hot in the middle of the story, not the end.

Steve Trevor generally worked, even with the power disparity. The usual story approach in such situations is to give the most powerful person a threat that can't be ignored, while another terrible problem is brewing which the less powerful people must handle, and they use that technique here effectively. He's also the morally stronger of the two leads because he knows the stakes far better than she. To her, the stakes are about Ares, a pure win, but to him, the stakes are about people.

The film got to breathe as well, to step back from its mayhem and enjoy the characters as characters. This was important to us, the audience, to get to know everyone, and important to Diana to connect with the outside world, to learn that gray existed in inexhaustible supply, where even the good guys did bad things. 

Despite this, there's so much forgettable about this film. It's an entertaining few hours, but I already don't remember large stretches of it. It thrilled me while it showed, but it didn't stick with me. 

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Power Trifectorate Redefined for D&D

In D&D, power basically comes from yourself (magic), somebody else (divine magic), or your own technical skills. That's very limiting, because you can do anything that you want with the first two magics, but you can't do much with technical skill because that doesn't really go anywhere, with any extraordinary thing always being out of "realistic" reach. (In this case, I posit that realism means "consistent with understood world physics.")

Let me posit the standard breakdown another way:

  • Power In Yourself
  • Powers from Others
  • Power through Secrets
Power in yourself is something that you can tap. Some powers everyone has, but some powers you must be born with. Whatever the origin, you have that power to tap.

Some powers come from outside yourself. These beings or energy flows or whatever are accessible to you, and you manipulate them into new shapes.

Still other powers are about knowing secrets, about actions or things that alter the course of the world. These are skills, systems, and arrangements.

Taken together, these three ideas can express any class, and any ability that any class could develop, in addition to allowing any class to "break the rules" via acceptable world physics.

Let's begin with the wizard. Magic may be an intrinsic thing that the wizard has, but some of that power may come from outside himself, being in the environment, but he can only truly master that power through skill and research, acquiring the secrets of the power.

A barbarian has innate strength, a rage that drives him, which comes from himself. In later additions, he gains power from totems, powers outside himself. Finally, his battle experience forges him into a fierce and implacable warrior, able to stand against the toughest foes.

In the previous system, a fighter could only swing a sword and that didn't go anywhere. With this explanation, a fighter uses his innate strength and fortitude to combat his foes, developing his skills through secret techniques, some so extreme as to be superhuman. His inner spirit learns to draw and redirect the very magic of the universe itself so that he can challenge and slay even the most dangerous foes. With that explanation, this class now has a world physics reason for doing the incredible.

A way to enhance this proposal would be to package caster levels into broad categories, more like affinity levels than caster levels. Clerics and Paladins would both have divine affinity, so both classes would synchronize well, but Clerics and Fighters wouldn't share affinities at all. In broad strokes, you'd have Divine, Natural, Arcane, and Martial affinities. I might do more with that, but that's another essay for another day.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983)

When I first read Moreta (1983) by Anne McCaffrey, I was quite a fan and very excited for that new Pern book. I had read The White Dragon thirteen times. Yet, Moreta failed to move me at all. McCaffrey, who could do no wrong, had produced a fairly bland book that I didn't care for. First she produced Dragondrums with Piemur as the lead character, and now this.

This should have been a rocking good book. It should have given us all the excitement of The Ballad of Moreta's Ride. Instead, I found tedium.

McCaffrey wrote the book during the Reagan revolution and the AIDS crisis. It was a time that we seemed to be going backwards rather than forwards, and that many now feared a slow and invisible disease that always killed.

On rereading, I can see how this novel disappointed me. It's a novella that been fluffed into a novel. There's just not enough story here to sustain an entire work. It starts excruciatingly slow, progressing along with shallow ups and down, then peters off into something resembling an ending. I found little to pull me into the work, and even less to sustain me along.

The Pern of the past is a Pern that we recognize, filled with people just as dumb and hard headed as those in the future. (Dumb and hard headed people are the bane of Pern's existence.) It's pretty much the same place, just with different characters. In that, Anne wasted a huge opportunity, because the past gave us a chance to see a different Pern, rather than just shuffled deck chairs. They knew a few things that the future didn't, but they are astonishingly dumb about what they do remember. Really? The healers forgot basic immunology? Are you kidding me?

The biggest problem of the work is a brand new, expansive set of lead characters, most of whom we don't care about and never care about. They're all part of an explosion of names that hits our eyeballs as all proper historical epics should have, which makes the narrative more a documentation of what happened rather than the story of a few characters in a turbulent time. Because of this, the story lacks quite a bit of emotional resonance, quit a bit of emotional arc. Almost all characters exist in the here and now, having no sort of arc whatsoever. I can't say that Moreta has grown, changed, or overcome anything in any meaningful way through the course of the entire work.

In theory, I ought to have felt concern for the runner beasts and the great herds getting wiped out, as their fate will influence Pern's future, but the horses only really matter in the beginning and at the end. In between, they're absent so completely that I completely forgot about them and their fate.

The work sets up a lackluster romance between Moreta and Allessan, lacking all the tension that makes a great romance, and pretty much lacking in all the tension that makes a mediocre romance as well.

One would think that the tale of Moreta's Ride would begin with a crisis, push the planet to the brink, and with great courage, one queen rider takes responsibility to do what must be done, ultimately sacrificing herself for the good of the world. It's a well known story arc, one that works. Yet, McCaffrey gives a wandering tale, where the worst of the crisis is seemingly over, yet there must be one last push for vague reasons that really don't hang together, resulting in a death for our protagonist that's rather more anti-climactic than courageous. If she had been a day or two later, people would have died, but the population was no longer in immediate jeopardy.

We see a bit of Nerilka's story, but not enough to matter. Her appearance in the book feels rather more forced that organic. As a reader, she had a feeling of being inserted in despite the narrative.

Anne got a little braver about homosexuality. Rather than hinting at the relations between men, she has a clear homosexual couple as secondary characters. That was pretty brave and daring as far as Anne goes, appearing at a time when the AIDS crisis was hitting and the young generation was learning how to accept homosexuality rather than beat it up. It's also from a time where preachers said that AIDS was a punishment from God.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Chaos Knight (Prestige Class) Thought Experiment

I haven't attempted to save the Fighter Class in a long time, so here we go again.

A Chaos Knight is perfect for a Fighter that needs to break out of his own dull character path. The focus in this imagined 10 level prestige class is making the fighter fun rather than making the Fighter useful. So, can I design a prestige class that encourage recklessness? Let's try.

Prerequisite: Non-Lawful, any six Fighter feats, Power Attack, Cleave

In Over My Head - When within threat range of two or more creatures, all your hits trigger Cleaves as if the hits were kills.

We want the Chaos Knight wading heedlessly into battle.

Wild Swings - You excessive combat style prevents flanking.

We really want the Chaos Knight wading heedless into battle.

Kill or Be Killed - When you are hit by a critical, gain an immediate attack of opportunity against the opponent that just hit you with a critical.

We really, really want the Chaos Knightw ading heedlessly into battle.

I Dare Ya - Any attempt to grapple you triggers an attack of opportunity, even improved grapple.

We really, really, really, with sugar on top, want a Chaos Knight wading heedless into battle.

Deflect Magic - If you succeed in your save, as a swift action, cause a spell or spell effect coming in your direction to veer towards somewhere else. The final target should be completely random.

This guy is the embodiment of chaos.

Rebel With A Cause - You may substitute you BAB + Strength for Diplomacy when acting against or opposing legitimate authority or lawful powers.

The Chaos Warrior should incite riots and breach the peace.

More Bang for the Buck - Any spell cast on you adds your Strength bonus to its spell level.

Of course the Chaos Warrior is the best person to throw a spell on. Look at all the free spell levels.

I'm Not Dead Yet - As a swift action, you take Strength damage to heal hit points. For each point of Strength damaged, heal 8 + Con hit points.

Battle on to the bitter end, baby, just like all those bad 80's movies!

With Friends Like These - When affected by spells or spell-like effects of your allies, you may subtract your BAB from their spell levels.

Hey, Joe! Explode that fireball here!

Army of One - For each party member unable to act (dead, unconcious, paralyzed, asleep), you gain one additional 5-Foot Step and one additional attack.

The worse things get, the more dangerous the Chaos Knight gets.

Chaotic Mind - When in battle, roll twice for all Will saves.

Channel Chaos - When affected by any spell or spell-like affect, gain the spell's caster level in hit points and a +2 Strength Bonus until the end of the combat. The strength bonuses stack.

That which does not defeat you makes you stronger.

Would I play that? Sure, why not? It's a bit crazy, but if you're playing a high-powered game where abuse of the rules is no object, then this prestige class just might work for you.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Batman vs Superman Extended Cut (2017)

I went into Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2017) expecting an agonizing film experience. The talk of how utterly bad it was convinced me that I was in for agony. A-GONE-EE. And that's what I wanted and expected, because I'm a veteran of bad genre cinema and I know how to take my coffee black What I found did not meet my low expectations.

In most ways, I found the film a middle of the road action blockbuster, with all the messiness and Hollywoodisms that that entailed. The idea mostly worked, but had problems. The plot mostly worked, but had problems. The motivations sometimes worked, and sometimes didn't, but mostly stumbled along just well enough to get you where you were going. The plot was too big, the number of plot lines too numerous, and the number of dangling thread too copious, but not so much that the plot turned into mud.

Mostly, the film had a zen quality to it, an evenness in tone and intensity that barely varied from one end to the other. Beat followed beat followed beat like a man walking down the street, occasionally interrupted by stepping off the curb or moving around someone, but always, the steady beat returned.

As of this date, 6,450 reviews on Amazon rank the film as follows:
  • 5s 38%
  • 4s 18%
  • 3s 14%
  • 2s 12%
  • 1s 18%
A full 50% of the viewers rated the film as 4 stars or better, and 70% as 3 starts or better. That's not great, especially for a $100 million+ film, but it's also not worst film of the decade territory. We could say that the viewers are wrong or they're ignorant, but that number is too big to blame on ignorance. No, there's got to be something to why many find this film entertaining, while others don't.

This film was all over the place, filled with many good ideas, but those ideas competed with each other rather than complicated each other. The film raised many good question, answering none, then bringing up more good questions. The film had character arcs obscured by other characters arcs. The film had metaphors stacked on metaphors, some of which punched in you in the face, while others paced quietly in the background. Because of this, you were either paying attention to the film as an active participant, or you weren't. If you were paying attention, you put together all the unsaid pieces in your head before the film told you (or didn't), but if you weren't actively participating, if you weren't busy managing all the data coming at you, then the film would degenerate into a series of nonsensical scenes barely connected by something self-identifying as a plot.

For the watcher, this is no casual film, which is the exact opposite of what you'd expect from a super-hero blockbuster.

I found Superman and Batman's arc interesting. How does Batman (and thus, in extension, how do we, the audience) see Superman? Is he a god, an alien, or a hero? The much maligned "Martha" line uttered by Superman is the key to the entire arc, and possibly the entire film. By itself, it's stupid, but in the arc, it's the hinge on which Batman changes his understanding of Superman. "Martha" is Superman's mother, and a mother makes Superman not a god, not a devil, and not an alien, but a human in a hero's outfit. Martha is the name of both their mothers, both Bruce and Clark, meaning that those two share a common humanity. It's exactly this moment, when Batman stops seeing Superman as god, that he can accept Superman as human rather than an invader or a ruler, and that he understands why Superman won't destroy the world.

I found Lex Luthor interesting as his character was always performing. For most of the film, I interpreted Lex as a person who was always on stage, where everything that he said and everything that he presented was an act. This made all his characterizations and grandiose statements make far more sense, because they weren't there to make sense, they were there to look good and distract you from his real intentions. Even in the end, when he acted insane, was that an act? Lex liked asking questions and providing no answers. Even at the end, you don't know a single real thought of his. In the end, the law shears him of his good looks, revealing him as the skinhead that he'd always been. Racist. Fascist. Zealot.

What I never quite understood was Lex's motivation. I could see how getting rid of Superman and Batman would allow him free reign of the world, but that is the one point where I as the audience needed to know his motivation and stakes. They weren't forthcoming. So why did Lex put out all that effort? Why did he bet everything? It's not space aliens taking over the world that we should be looking at, it's the worst of us that aspire to be god kings. Considering that all modern villains seek to take over the world, this is no large leap of faith. It's more like jumping off a curb. The trope is so well used that its presence could just be assumed.

Batman had an arc to go through, one that begin with being a loner and abusive vigilante, transforming him into a team leader. Through the course of the film, Superman taught him how to be a new sort of hero, one that he hadn't been before. Before Superman, Batman took down criminals because vengeance, because the world is brutal, and there's nothing good about it, but at the end, he sees the world as worth saving and protecting. That plot line didn't quite work for me.

All these themes and plotlines, and there are so many themes and plotlines, come at a price. What's important gets lost in a sea of other things that are important, meaning that very little gets the screen time and development that it begs for. The film sets out with a incredibly full agenda, so much so that a single film struggles to handle the whole enchilada. Even incredibly well written, producing this film would have been a challenge, so any issue in the script or design gets amplified, requiring even more screen time, or else feeling hollowed out because these pivotal themes didn't get screen time.

The film itself is paced more like a comic book than a work of cinema. I think that this is the biggest issue. The film does too good of a job homaging the source material. In a comic book, these fight scenes would have worked, these plot twists would have worked, this character development would have worked. They were appropriate to the medium. For film, these beats don't quite land the same.

In the eternal struggle of "show vs. tell", the film may have tilted too far into "show" territory. To a great extent, the director showed whatever he could, but if you missed it, you missed it. There are certain things that are usually told in film because it's easier and clearer, so much so that they're convention. When those things aren't told, they feel absent even if they're shown or are otherwise present.

So in its tendency to almost work in so many ways, but to not quite work in any of them, the film feels far worse than it really is. And because what's bad isn't pervasively bad, but merely continuously annoying, the bad slides by pretty quick. Much of the audience says "okay" and moves on, but much of the audience can't move on. In the end, you get either an entertaining film with numerous transient flaws, or a mass of transient flaws that override whatever else the film may provide.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Tender Is the Night (1933)

I don't know what to feel about Tender Is the Night (1933) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. To quote the Beatles, "It's a dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife doesn't understand."

How far we've come from 1920 where kids fooling around was seen as scandalous, or the wife who turns out to have been virtuous the whole time while the husband wasn't. No, now literature has degenerated to the point where everyone is having affairs, EVEN WOMEN, and getting away with it. There's even mentions of (in a whisper) ho-mo-sex-u-als.

Who is this the story of? Is it the story of Rosaline, the young movie star? Of Dick, the socialite psychologist? Of Nicole, who seems well but really isn't? Of all three at the same time? I get the feeling that the novel was supposed to be about Rosaline, the young movie star, but as Fitzgerald's life wandered, so did this book. About a quarter of the way in, focus changed to Dick and Nicole and their challenged marriage. Although Rosaline shows up later, she's never the same presence is the book as she is in the beginning, making her place rather confusing.

Fitzgerald often has a simple overall idea behind his books, a game that he plays with structure or tone. He may have begun with an idea, but it's clear that his initial ideas were abandoned as he grew more interested in Dick and Nicole's story, which takes us through the remainder of the novel. Unfortunately, because we met so many characters through the eyes of Rosaline, when we get to the same characters later on, through the eyes of Dick or Nicole, we don't feel the same about them or their fates. I think that we could have followed all three characters, but the novel would have worked better if we had only switched between Dick and Nicole, following their scissoring paths.

That scissoring path is my best idea for a theme in this book. Dick is the well adjusted and healthy psychologist while Nicole is an unstable mental patient. By the end, Nicole has come into herself, fully realized herself as a person, while Dick has deteriorated into a weakened alcoholic. His moral weakness and his physical weakening go together. Yet, even that overall theme and trajectory doesn't quite fit, doesn't quite work.

This would be a terrific novel is Fitzgerald went back and rewrote the whole thing as a united piece rather than piecemeal. As it stands, I find it only a passable novel, where my own investment in the characters deteriorates as the novel progresses. By the end, I care for no one, find no joy in their character growths, and walk away without a fight, just like Dick.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Hyundai Sonata 2012

When my most recent car decided that using all 6 cylinders was optional, I decided to make it somebody else's problem, so I traded it in for a new car. I missed my Subaru desperately, so I went used car shopping with a list of wheel bases and a big list of possible cars, narrowing down what was available to something that would work better for me. With affordable wagons that aren't behemoths being so hard to find, I settled for a highly available sedan.

My primary criteria for purchase was that the car feel peppy, get good mileage, and excel at stop and go traffic. I eliminated anything too high end because giving myself power and handling just seemed like an exercise in frustration. My finances said I could pay under $200/mo. My savings and loan said they would lend me money at 1.74% but the model year had to be 7 years old or younger.

Out of that criteria came a Hyundai Sonata. I hadn't expected that I could get such a nice, good looking, good handling, peppy car for that price. I mean, the thing has been a grand pleasure considering the sub-$10k price tag. My wife's hatchback cost almost the same a few years back. Yet, here it was, a great sedan. My had the pearl white paint job along with heated seats and a few other bells.

My particular Sonata has been sitting on the dealer's lot for a year suffering from bad car photography. I myself had passed over that car for sheer ugliness because of its two toned interior, but when I saw a Sonata like that in a parking garage, and saw that the color combo actually looked quite snazzy, I relented and looked at its wonderful reviews. It couldn't be all that, could it? It was.

I have found my Sonata a joy to drive, the exact opposite of recent sedans. I call it my poor man's sports car. It rides a little low, handles curves easily, accelerates well enough to feel it, and maintains modern highway speeds like a champ. What really makes me happy is that the car feels light off the mark, starting when you want it to start and stopping when you want it to stop. In a commute with innumerable lights and constant traffic, this single trait makes the car a joy. All that on an inline-4 engine that gets great mileage.

In terms of styling, I feel more like I'm in an 80's sporty car more than a sedan. That mid-00's uber-bland offend-nobody styling is gone, giving way to curved lines and aggressive yet cute looks, like a tough but sensitive boy band singer. It's got looks and attitude, but retains enough charm to make it onto magazine covers.

The Sonata's Selectronic transmission has proven useful to me. In general, the transmission is optimized for fuel economy, but there's enough times when you want more power, and that's where Selectronic really shines. Fortunately, the designers made the transmission work well for 90%+ of the time, so the technology works best for those edge cases.

Headlights work great. Note that tail and turn lights aren't yet LED in this model, so if you want that, you'll have to replace them on your own.

The stereo is not up to audiophile levels, but it's not an embarrassment, so I see no need to replace it yet. The car isn't so quiet that road noise won't still compete with fidelity.  It plays MP3's just fine. I may replace the head unit with a GPS eventually, but as 95% of my driving is to known locations, that technology won't add much. "Oh, look, the road to work is totally packed with traffic again. Gee, what a surprise."

There's a few aspects about the car that I don't like. It idles so low that if you have the windows open, the pressure waves from the engine are a bit much, but maybe I have some defect that I don't know about.The pressure waves don't show up when you're rolling. The engine can be a bit louder than my old V6, and less smooth, but its perkiness is a more than welcome replacement. As a bonus, it sounds like my car is working when the extra power kicks in, which helps me pretend that it's a real sports car (never underestimate the power of the brrrr sound). If you change between braking and accelerating too quickly, the transmissions takes a few seconds to figure out that it should do something else, so you hit a power bottom-out unexpectedly.

I've taken the car both to the beach and camping, stuffing lots of cargo into the trunk. It's not as expansive as a full size trunk, and the hinges make packing a bit more challenging, but for 3-4 people, it works. If I had wanted a bigger trunk, I would have gotten a bigger car. I bottomed out only once, and that was on a well worn driveway, so the car isn't a great off roader, but most gravel roads and camping sites haven't been an issue.

For the most part, the car has been invisible to me. If want the car to go, I press the pedal, and it goes. Sweet. If I need it to go fast, it goes fast and doesn't mind. If I need it to accelerate, it complies.

I don't know how it handles snow yet. It may not matter if my local roads keep jamming with people and nobody gets to go anywhere.

I like the layout of the dash. The designers kept themselves from going crazy with all kinds of new widgets, and that's great because it keeps the controls simple. I greatly oppose any design that distracts the driver. Even the environmental dials are big and easy to grab, and best of all, completely manual so you don't need to think to operate these controls.

I tried the cooled seats once. I found the luxury gimmicky. Maybe I'll feel differently about heated seats in the winter, but I found the noise from the blown air more annoying than the cooling. If I have to wait for the warm air in the winter, that sort of gimmick seems pointless. On the other hand, if my wife loves it, then it's gold. We'll find out when Christmas travel rolls around.

An important note is that the Sonata was the least selling sedan of its model year, but that doesn't mean that it's a terrible car. If anything, it's a testament to the competition. The sedan market is hotly contested, and even last place is a surprisingly good value.

False Positives and Mary Sues

When determining if a character is a Mary Sue, having a good set of metrics clarifies many doubts. If not, you wind up in a world of confusion.

For example, let's take a car that's a lemon. How do you identify a car that's a lemon? Well, it has four tires and a steering wheel, which would imply that all cars are lemons because all cars have that feature. Maybe drivers like lemons?

You can see the logical error. Because the heuristics chosen are too broad, you get false positives, making it look like far more cars are lemons (or might be lemons) than really are.

The same is true when determining if a character is a Mary Sue. The fact that Mary Sues are instantly liked does not mean that a character that is instantly liked is a Mary Sue. The fact that a Mary Sue solves problems instantly doesn't mean that a character that solves problems instantly is a Mary Sue.

Mary Sues are problem characters, ones that your audience doesn't like. They don't work for the reader. The problem in these characters are not single traits, which are often the same traits that work quite well in different character. No. What makes a Mary Sue is a combination of traits that creates a character unappealing to your reading audience in a particular way.

Mary Poppins would seem to be a Mary Sue, because she's practically perfect in every way. She exhibits almost every Mary Sue trait known to man, yet she's quite an entertaining character. Why? What makes a Mary Poppins work while a Mary Sue not work? (Aside from Julie Andrews, who could make just about any character work.) There must be something more to determining a Mary Sue than external traits.

In the film Mary Poppins, the entrance of Mary begins the story and her exit ends it. She may be perfect, but nobody else is. Her perfection highlights the imperfection of the other characters. She may be the title character, but the real story is the character arc of the family. It's the family that meaningfully grows and changes. There's both a character and a story.

With a Mary Sue, she's practically perfect in every way, but that character is also the center of the story. Character growth from anyone is impossible because the Mary Sue occupies all important spaces, and then she decrees the answers. No character growth allowed.

In short, Mary Poppins causes the disruption which lead to character growth while a Mary Sue removes the problems which lead to character growth.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Why Pern Was Successful

Introduction

Anne McCaffey was a science fiction writer with a long career, spanning from the late 1960s into the early 2000s. She wrote many series, featuring many characters, but most of those series only produced a handful of novels, and none of them were anywhere as successful as her Pern novels. There’s something about them that built a eager fanbase that pushed her to the top of the publishing charts and made her a favorite of cons, produced an underground industry of fire lizard stuffies, handed her major awards, and earned the hearts of millions.


Why were Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels successful?

About This Essay

This essay is a work of opinion. I do not posit myself as a McCaffrey scholar or a Pern expert, although I do have a respectable familiarity with these subjects. The purpose of this essay is to examine, in my opinion as an author and a marketer, why Pern worked.


While I may refer to more recent Pern books, I will primarily discuss the first five titles as they had the largest impact in building McCaffrey’s Pern’s legacy.


Dragonflight (1969)
Dragonquest (1971)
Dragonsong (1976)
Dragonsinger (1977)
The White Dragon (1978)

Background

Wikipedia summarizes Anne’s early life as follows.


Anne Inez McCaffrey (1 April 1926 – 21 November 2011) was an American-born writer who immigrated to Ireland and was best known for the Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series. Early in McCaffrey's 46-year career as a writer, she became the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction and the first to win a Nebula Award. Her 1978 novel The White Dragon became one of the first science-fiction books to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list.


Through the 1960’s, Anne McCaffrey strove to break into the world of SF writing, a mostly male domain, by combining romance with SF. While her early worked showed her both as inventive and determined, most of her early stories contained glaring problems and faults. Unlike many writers, she was not a natural and had to earn her way up, learning from her failures. She experimented themes and structures derived from the romance genre as it existed in the 1940’s through the 1960’s, through trial and error, finding out what worked with SF.


Anne’s earliest published story was The Rowan (1959), which received a sequel a decade later with Damia (1969). These stories are both structurally romances with space opera thrown in. Each lonely, psychic woman works hard, possesses great determination and resilience, yet is missing something from their life. That thing is a man, and when they find a man equal to their own talents, they settle down into a happily ever while retaining their jobs.


Beginning in 1961, Anne sold a series of brain ship stories to magazines. These brain ships followed the tale of a woman whose body was placed into a ship, who then proceeded to live the life of a modern, liberated woman, with any number of “pilots” who were stand-ins for boyfriends and roommates, a reflection of how younger women were beginning to live.


Her first published novel was Restoree, in 1967. In this tale, a young woman is kidnapped from Earth and put into service on an alien planet watching over a crazy man. She later helps this man escape and seek his rightful place as ruler of the planet, and just in time, too, to protect the planet from disaster. Together, the new ruling couple sees the planet through a dangerous time, a theme that she would revive in her Pern books.


While Dinosaur Planet was not published until 1978, it reads like a story from earlier in Anne’s career and sold later. In this story, a group of colonists must survive among prehistoric beasts, doing their best in their low-tech surroundings. The story ends rather abruptly with the survivors going into hibernation, giving the story no satisfying resolution.


Taken in summary, these works are the direct genetic ancestors to Pern.


The first published Pern story was Weyr Search, included in the October, 1967 of Analog. In this story, Lessa, a seemingly lowly woman, is actually a strong psychic and heir to Ruatha hiding under the nose of the man, Lord Fax, who murdered her family. When dragonriders come searching for a new queen rider, the usurping ruler Fax is killed, and the dragonrider F’lar flies Lessa away to the weyr.


In the follow on story, Dragonrider, Lessa struggles to adjust to weyr life, especially against the restrictions against her as a woman, continuing the theme of women’s liberation. Gold dragons aren’t allowed to fly, which makes sense when your last breeding dragon and the world’s only hope, but by the end of the story, Lessa has won this right in another blow for women’s lib.


The two stories did well enough that Anne wrote a third section, and then assembled the stories into a fix-up, a type of novel created from related stories. In the third section, with everything looking dire for our heroes, Lessa uses her gold dragon Ramoth to psychically travel back in time and bring all the dragonriders of the past up to the present.


The resulting novel was named Dragonflight. Anne must have done something right because she won a Hugo awards for these tales. Something in these stories electrified the audience. In a male dominated fandom that should have excluded her, it instead voted her to the top of the heap, literally awarding her with a rocket ship of her own.


The follow up to Dragonflight was Dragonquest, and the royalties from that book bough Anne a house. The third in that series, The White Dragon, hit the New York Times bestseller list at a time when SF didn’t hit the bestseller list.


Of important note in this time period is the first two books of the Harper Hall series, Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. We see the same familiar themes again. Menolly wants to make music, but she can’t precisely because she’s a girl. Over the course of these books, she impresses her own fair of fire lizards, gets rescued by dragonriders, gets recruited by the Masterharper himself, becomes the first girl in Harper Hall, suffers through discrimination, but in the end, proves herself and becomes a journeyman. Yay women's lib.


Taken together, these five books formed the core of McCaffrey’s fandom, sold a ton of books, made a ton of money, won her awards, and put her at the top of the SF game. That makes this work worth the effort to ask: why did Pern work?

Context

The Pern books were begun at a time full of social upheaval. During this time, women were burning their bras in protests and fighting their way into jobs, gay men were rioting in New York, the belief in psychic powers was rampant, the artisan craft movement was bursting out of its niche, the paperback industry was exploding in size and reach, counterculture was surging, anti-nuclear sentiments were rampant, all in a time when there was no Star Wars.

While I can’t possibly go deeply into the entire background, I will touch on the most important trends that influenced the design of Pern.


  • Second Wave Feminism and the Sexual Revolution
  • Gay Liberation/The Stonewall Riots
  • Anti-War
  • Environmentalism
  • Folk Music
  • The Decline of Religion
  • Progress


I will summarize the most pertinent elements of each topic, noting that each topic is far more complicated and complex than I present.


The most important note about second wave feminism and the sexual revolution is that women were demanding a different place in this world, more freedom than men had afforded them before. This is the era of “the war of the sexes” and “women coming out of the kitchen.” The particular strain of sexism that had dominated women in the mid-century had cracked under the sheer weight of feminine discontent, especially the young women attending colleges and desiring more than a “Mrs.” degree.


Meanwhile, in New York, the Stonewall Riots and the subsequent gay liberation movement brought the plight of gay men into public awareness. Where before these men were conveniently ignored, willing to stay out of the public eye, their bad treatment led them to go onto the offensive. Unwilling to be pariahs any more, they demanded to be treated as people. In the late 60’s, there was no AIDS, so that issue had not yet surfaced. At this point, homosexuals were fighting for their basic humanity.


With nuclear weapons proliferating, and the Cold War turning colder, the anti-war movement became a prominent voice and a very moral position. Protests were prolific and often turned violent, with the police as responsible for violence as the protesters. America, especially, was rocked with both violence and peaceful protest over the Vietnam War.


A popular style since the 50’s, folk music brought the acoustic guitar sound to everyone, providing the medium for many counterculture and opposition groups. They organized and expressed themselves via song. Especially for generations which did not fit into the new rock era, folk music blended popular musical sensibilities with traditional tunes and strident opinion.


In the 1960s, churches saw their religious culture broken by the tide of consumerism. No longer was the church the center of the neighborhood. Once that happened, attendance at churches plummeted, as that social dance was no longer required, more so in Europe than America. The same was true in speculative fiction. In most SF futures, because of science and reason, there was no need for God.


The SF of the 1960’s was filled with progress. The late 1960’s were the time of the space race, when humans would first set foot on the moon. The idea that science could lead mankind to a better future, that a better world could be engineered, was a commonly held belief. Human effort could lead to a better world, while those who opposed that effort, who did not share that belief, proved unwilling to give up any of their own privileges for the common good.


In 1968, Star Trek was on television.

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Is Pern is science fiction or fantasy? Given that Anne only wrote science fiction before this story, given that there is no magic displayed within the story, nor is there anything fantastical other than a dragon, the argument for Pern being SF is strong. However, the confusion over SF vs fantasy is understandable.

For several decades before the 1970s, fantasy had been disguising itself as SF by giving itself a plausible mechanism, so that it could squeeze through the SF loophole with enough hand waving, but once that was done, the the story operated as a fantasy. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, true non-child fantasy formed as its own distinct marketing genre, so the fan base of fantasy busily began identifying fantasy in existing works, recognizing that psychic powers were often just stand-ins for magic, and Pern had enough of those elements to get pulled into the fantasy corral. What’s apparent, with the publishing of Dragonquest, was that Anne had added enough SF elements to her stories that Pern’s SF allegiance should not have been in doubt.

Romance

Romance forms an important basis for Anne’s books. Each of the primary Dragonrider novels features a prominent romance in the style of romances of that day. Lessa has her romance with F’lar, F’nor with Brekke, and Jaxom with Sharrah. I believe that it’s this romance structure which brought in women as Anne’s fans. They knew and understood this form of sexuality, rather than the woman-as-prize sexuality prominent in male written novels, giving women access to this fiction in a way that no other SFF work did. They may not have been conscious of that fact, but the structure is there.


In the classic romance structure, boy and girl meet, dance about each other, eventually get together, face some sort of crisis, and only after the relationship has survived a crisis has the writer proven to the audience that this romantic pair has transcended a fling and established a true relationship.


We see this structure in Dragonflight with F’lar and Lessa, where F’lar searches out Lessa, introduces here to the weyr, but she holds back until her gold launches herself into mating flight, bringing the two together. When Lessa flees back in time to bring the old timers back, she does so without F’lar blessing, surely dooming the relationship, but when she arrives back, her transgressions are forgiven and she is now the hero, and the couple together for all time.


In Dragonquest, F’nor and Brekke get to know one another. They grow close. F’nor literally carries Brekke into the bushes to have his way with her. When Brekke’s gold dragon gets killed in a terrible mating mishap (which also saves the woman from bedding someone who isn’t F’nor), the brown rider F’nor stands by his woman, proving his true worth.


In The White Dragon, Jaxom is the future Lord Holder of Ruatha, and rider of the unique white dragon Ruth. He dabbles with girls here and there, and about halfway through the book, falls ill with fever and is nursed through this by the skilled healer Sharrah. In the process of living alone on a tropical beach, they fall in love. Later on, when Sharrah is stolen away by her own brother, Jaxom flies Ruth in to rescue her, and the two publicly declare their love.


All three have the romance structure.


Because the romance structure was more familiar to women, the work felt more familiar as well, more accessible, more to their sensibilities. This aspect allowed the series to cross boundaries, picking up women where most SF works alienated women.

However, not everyone is comfortable with Anne’s couplings. F’lar is frequently depicted as shaking Lessa, in acts of near violence or a type of fear based control. F’lar feels very close to abusive, too close for many women. They only go to bed when under mind-control of their dragons, with Lessa fully unable to give consent. When F’nor drags Brekke off to the bushes, he won’t take no for an answer, and that feels too close to rape. Jaxom uses his position to demand sex from one of his subjects who could not refused his advances. These issues, among many more like them, make these early Pern books uncomfortable for the modern female reader.

Women’s Lib

Dragonflight was a close to a bra-burning novel as SF was likely to get. Anne arranged Pern as a male dominated society precisely so that her heroine, Lessa, had something to fight and push against as an example of women, like the women in her readership, pushing boundaries and bust down barrier. Lessa was an example of the thoroughly modern women of the day.


Lessa begins the novel working in the kitchen as a drudge. Her status can be now lower, and she must hide her intelligence and guile lest the men who run everything, especially Lord Fax, figure out who she is.


In the novel, Fax wants a son. That’s all he wants. The implication is that Fax has sired many daughter and thought nothing of them. To him, women are worthless. Even his wife, Lady Gemma, is only there to produce children. To him, women are just breeding stock. Symbolically, he play the role of a domineering and abusive father figure, emotionally absent, a figurative ogre that killed Lessa’s real father who represented the kind aspect of manhood. To a woman who grew up under an abusive father, who understood the need for staying out of his way when he was in a temper, the necessity of making yourself invisible to escape his wrath, this emotional similarity would have been enough to feel familiar despite Lessa having no true relationship to Fax at all.


Through the use of her psychic powers, Lessa engineers the knife fight between F’lar and Fax where otherwise, one might not have occurred. Only when Fax is killed does she ring triumphant, the ogre is dead, and now she can rule herself. There is no thought in Lessa’s mind that someone will do the job for her, or that she needs any approval from a man at all. She has full right to rule, bar nothing.


Before she can rule, F’lar gives Lessa a better offer. Ride with the dragons. Become the queen rider, which feels the same as being offered the job of queen. As the one queen rider, she is given an opportunity to essentially rule not just a hold, but an entire planet, with her co-ruler being whoever could become her consort.


Lessa goes on to impress Ramoth, the largest queen dragon ever hatched on Pern. Size matters here. Ramoth is the biggest, which transfers to Lessa, conferring onto her a status unattainable by any other person on the planet. Even in 2001’s “The Skies of Pern,” Ramoth retains her size as the largest. Yet even at the highest, the people who surround her keep trying to pull her down.


Gold dragons don’t fly. Gold dragons don’t teleport between.


This fact makes sense on a practical level, as there’s only one breeding queen on the planet, but from a symbolic level, it again puts barriers in front of Lessa, giving her a new barrier to break. Only male dragons fly. Only male dragons go between. Lessa continues to break barriers erected against women, both flying her dragon to save the day and learning to go between.


For any women into SF or fantasy, both genres not generally written towards women, likely in careers or wanting careers no normally pursued by women, such a story must have riveted them, must have supported their dreams, must have validated their desires for the first time in their entire life. A woman wrote a story that said, “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re exactly who you’re supposed to be. They’re the problem. So fly.”


Dragonflight ends with Lessa going back in time and literally changing history. Symbolically, that’s about as unsubtle as you can get.

Another area that enabled the series to satisfy female readers was in the portrayal of women in the stories. In general, women were a vital and ordinary part of the world, competent in their jobs, and well able to do anything. Because the work began as a liberated woman story, where a woman was pushing boundaries, most social structures locked women into their traditional home duties so that women would have some structure to resist and break into. The woman in this story went directly against the social fabric to achieve their dreams.


This idea of generational progress was highlighted with the Old Timers, the dragonriders who came from the past. They had very archaic and authoritarian ideas about the relationship of dragonriders to others. They were personifications of the generation before, the older generation, that disliked the new liberal and empowered generation of today. They embodied that generational conflict raging in the English world as women’s lib pressed women into the public sphere.


Anne's setup of Pern so that women could break into new fields later became a point of irritation. Women weren’t satisfied with women getting to fly some dragons,and women wanted broader representation across every aspect of Pernesian life. This required a bit of retconning on Anne’s part and some contortioned plotting, but as times changed, as the norms for her readers changed, she responded with a substantial equalization of the sexes. With Dragonsdawn, she made the original dragonriders mixed gender, and it was only the recent history of Pern that restricted women's otherwise equal roles.

Homosexuality

Anne knew homosexuals and was quite fond of them, being sympathetic with their situation. She proved herself an ally as she put homosexual references into her works. They generally aren’t very overt, but they are there, and in these portrayals, homosexuals are treated as normal. As sex between riders happens during mating, and only men are present when the female green dragons fly (at that point in the continuity), then sex must happen between the men.


In the weyrs, gay men had a place to go. They had a place to fly above. They had a place where they not only belonged, but they too could be the heroes, flying to protect the world below. They had, perhaps, the first depiction of homosexual normalcy ever depicted in mainstream media.


We even seen committed partners in Dragonquest, male dragonriders who are couples. Their pairings are taken as granted and treated as routine.

Tolerance of dragonrider homosexuality is further cemented in The White Dragon when Jaxom sees a green mating flight and witnesses the male riders running towards their quarters, finally old enough to understand the implications of that action.


Anne's inclusion of homosexuals is not above criticism. Even though homosexual are shown as normal, they do not compromise the primary characters in any meaningful way. While they may exist, they are relegated to tertiary characters. In essence, they are let into the party but they aren’t given a seat at the table.

Anti-War

Pern shows itself on the side of anti-war sentiment. These books, especially Dragonflight, show clear elements supporting this peace movement, which makes it very unique among both SF and fantasy books, where some degree of conflict was seen as normal and routine.


Fax is the Lord of Seven Holds, who secured his power through violence and bloodshed. He is firmly and unequivocally held up as a villain. His death at the hands of F’lar in a personal duel, not faceless war, help return Pern to the path of peace and respect between the holds. Making war is clearly demonstrated as an act of villainy, completely out of character for the planet.


The only true military action shown in the entire series is also in Dragonflight, when holders assemble a military force to settle their conflicts with the Benden dragonriders. That conflict ends with the dragons surrounding their opponents but inflicting no harm to them. Peace, rather than war, wins these conflicts.


While those two incidents are enough to argue strongly for anti-war, but there’s a larger element that's built into the very foundation of the work. The purpose of the dragons is to protect the Pern against thread, a natural threat from another planet. Thread will destroy the environment unless the dragonriders save it. The military here, the dragonriders being an air force, exist to protect people and the planet, and not to maim or kill. The dragonriders are a force of peace, not war. I honestly can't think of any other SF military or paramilitary organization organized around the same ideal.

Thread itself bears an amazing resemblance to the 1980 video game, Missile Command. Thread falls from space, and if it hits, will grow outward, devastating an area so wide, that it can be seen from space. In one short story, she describes these as circles devoid of life, reminiscent of nuclear devastation. The job of dragon riders is to prevent this destruction from ever landing, a literal living shield against the mindless destruction of mankind. Given that this is the height of nuclear fear, this nuclear metaphor is well grounded in its time.

Environmentalism?

The dragonriders keep Pern safe from thread, an environmental disaster that threatens to destroy humanity. It is only through flying dragons, a fully natural and organic solution, one that requires cooperation and intimacy, that the world below can be saved. The solution is organic, not artificial.


The original novels didn’t pay much attention to environmentalism. It was only with Dragonsdawn that Anne established Perns as a purposefully low-tech colony planet, which means that she arrived late to the environmentalism theme, and that was more to create a reason for Pern’s low-tech society rather than making common cause with the environmentalism movement.

So while thread could be an environmental allegory, it acts more like a faceless enemy, bringing people together.

Folk Music

Folk music was a big thing from the 50’s through the 70’s, especially the guitar. From the  60’s point of view, the acoustic guitar was forever. Folk and folk rock were as established as rock, soul, and jazz. So when Harpers first appear, they play guitars, like the folk musicians of their day.


Music in fandom goes way back, forming one of its longstanding backbones. The acoustic guitar was part of the tradition. The acoustic guitar had deep associations in that era before MTV’s Unplugged repopularized the acoustic band. It was the instrument of not-rock and not-pop (even though it appeared in both those movements). Of note is The Sound of Music, the 1965 film which became a perennial TV favorite, where the heroine played an acoustic guitar. Even in that era, the film won no cool awards, and considering that much of fandom wasn’t winning cool awards either, the acoustic guitar made for a good match.


Anne herself liked music, putting it into many of her works. This music brought a certain degree of humanness to her stories, something relatable in a far away and alien world that said, “these people aren’t so different from you and me.” Their need to make music made a wide circle, one that the reader felt let into.

A Lack of Religion

As was usual for SF books of its day, Pern has no religion nor any indication of religion, enough so that the author tooks pains to say as much. For most of those who enjoy this series, this was a feature, not a bug. It’s this lack of religion that further emphasises this as an SF work, for there is nothing supernatural or unexpected going on. These are rational people on a rational world solving their issues with rational thought. This is a primary idea of 1960’s SF. So while this wasn’t a selling feature, per se, it’s absence, the presence of religion, would have driven its audience away.

The Spirit of Progress

One of the strongest hallmarks of the SF market from the beginning is the spirit of progress, the idea that man, by using science, can solve his own problems and make the world a better place. Those who stand in the way of progress, in the way of making the world work better for everyone, are often Pern’s villain, men who are interested in stopping progress because they want to keep powers and privileges to themselves.


We see the spirit of progress first in Lessa’s demands to be taken serious as a rider, not just as a woman, but as a full member of the team. This social progress undergirds every book as women steadily expand into every role of Pernese society. The feminist agenda can and will be achieved, not because it is radical, but because it is sensical.


Beginning in Dragonquest, we see the scientific and engineering aspect of progress come in. The leaders of Pern begin rediscovering Pern’s spacefaring and technological past, and as the series progresses, they relearn many lost skills, explore more of their own planet, and ultimately find the site of their first settlement.


In her late books, there are people who don’t like all this progress, becoming villains in their own rights, which only underscores the basic premise of Pern. The true hero of Pern is knowledge and progress, the purest expression of the age of enlightenment, and the true villains stand against that state.


Even before then, it’s the conservatives who cause all the trouble, because they hold onto the old ways at all cost, causing disruption and creating havoc where everything would just work if only they adapted. The Odltimers cause considerable issue in Dragonquest, eventually getting exiled to the Southern Continent. In The White Dragon, a school has been established for the young leaders precisely on the idea that they will use the regained knowledge to lead Pern into a brighter, more educated future.

Progress is the hero. Conservative plays the villain.

Soulmate

Every lonely soul yearns for a perfect love, and the dragons of Pern provide exactly that. They are the perfect soul mates in every way, shape, and form. In a moment of impression, both dragon and rider fall in love with each other, a love so deep that suicide is preferable to living alone. To someone living isolated, having trouble bonding with others, having trouble being understood, the idea of perfect communion and perfect partnership was both alluring and intoxicating. Even if you didn’t fit in in some other way, in this way, you always had your champion.


Dragons weren’t passive partners, either. They could recognize who was good for you and who wasn’t, so if they thought that somebody was good, they interfered. Their riders might take a while coming around to it, only to discover that their dragons were right. Because dragons could use their psychic powers on others, in some vague way that only dragons knew, they could cut through the impossibility of ever shacking up with your perfect person, no matter how clueless you were, and at the other end would be a real human relationship.


For folks who weren’t destined for weyr life, Anne invented fire lizards, creatures akin to dragons, capable of the same bonding. More like smart dogs than deep intellects, fire lizards provided the same sort of unmitigated love in a smaller and easier to feed package. With a fire lizard, loneliness is a disease that you need never fear.


To say that fire lizards were a hit would be an understatement. For years, you could spot a McCaffrey fan at a convention with a stuffed fire lizard on their shoulder, showing off their handmade creation (most usually from a vendor) while also showing off their Pern geek status.

Freedom

Freeing oneself from the rigidity of society is a very strong theme in the Pern books, especially in the Harper Hall series. Menolly lives in an abusive family situations, member of her family who should be standing up for her don’t, all the while, the one thing that she’s going at is completely devalued. One day, she runs away, and so her life really begins, leaving her to live independently, heal up in a weyr where she’s given room to be herself, and ultimately onto Harper Hall where she proves her talents and skills, becoming a true Harper.


With Lessa, we see a woman who’s trapped in a hall, and even without the death of Fax, search would have given her a free ticket out of the common drudgery of life. Even without impressing, she would have wound up in a liberal bastion in the sky, where all sorts of differences are accepted and people from all over Pern live in harmony.


In The White Dragon, Jaxom is oppressed by his future duties as Lord Holder of Ruatha. Everything in his life is structured around this responsibility, but what he really wants is the freedom to explore being himself.


For those who feel bound, who find themselves in tough family or social situations, who find themselves liberals in a sea of conservatives, or under the heel of bullies, these books offer the escape that they need, the hope that out there are people just like them ready to take them in and let them exist, as they are, no questions asked.

Dragons

And if it hasn’t been said enough, Pern had dragons, and if there’s any perpetually perfect way to sell a fantasy or SF book, it’s putting a dragon on the cover. Good, bad, or ugly, fans love dragons. Compare this to another 1970’s hit, Dungeons and Dragons, and you’d see a dragon right there on the cover. Dragons sell.


What’s the allure of dragons? I cannot do this topic justice. If I could get that answer right, I’d launch my own series and make a mint. Dragons today, with How to Train Your Dragon, sell just as well now as they do then. The combination of flying, freedom, and power all coalesce into the dreams of puberty and young adulthood. Dragons are the motorcycles and riders are the free souls. On a dragon, you can go anywhere, do anything, and get anybody in the sack with you. They are literally the cavalry that rides in to save the day.


Dragons are a power unto themselves, and when you ride them, you become a power unto yourself as well. It's the same exact thing which makes horses in girl's literature the fixture that they are.


What made McCaffrey’s dragons particularly enticing is that they were friendly dragons, creatures who wanted to partner with and help mankind. Theirs was a high minded rule, full of goodwill and harmony.

Criticism

Anne’s Pern can’t be called perfect in all ways. It’s the product of both Anne and her time. Already in her later 40’s and 50’s when writing these books, her understanding of feminism and women’s lib wasn’t completely in line with that era, already showing its archaic ideas, and certainly not previewing the feminist ideas of today.


While Anne’s women have far more self-determination, when it comes to going to bed, like in the romance novels of the time, they’re still good girls, and good girls need circumstances beyond their control to have sex. This create a rape-like feel that many modern women are uncomfortable with.


In multiple series, Anne displays a very rough idea of how spoil children should be treated, frequently with the children getting beaten or otherwise roughly handled. As shown by her, a very firm hand and discipline is how you deal with spoiled children. This authoritarian approach to child rearing puts off many people.


Anne’s pairing of main characters sometimes leaves fan unsettled. While her primary characters are usually paired up well enough, some older characters take enough interest in some younger characters to unsettle readers.


Some characters come across as too special, too loved, such as Robinton and Menolly, possibly even crossing into Mary Sue status. However, the intended audience loved the characters, so if they’re Mary Sues, they’ve even worked on the reader, which is a mighty good trick for any writer.


All of these criticisms and more truly deserve more time than I have to touch on them.

Would Pern Be a Hit Today?

There’s no denying that Pern has aged. It was a product of its time talking to a need of its time. Much of what we see in the series now plays dated as pointy bras, domed hair dryers, and brightly colored uniforms on Technicolored sets. With women having far more options in terms of fantasy, SF, and romance, Pern would have a hard time standing out. It’s romance is clean, with the women acting more passively than actively, which isn’t as popular with today’s audience. Women still act within many women-specific roles, which would feel restrictive to a young woman of today. And the issue of breaking down barriers and advancing the feminist agenda would not hit because the feminists agendas of today are fighting very different battles with very different stakes. Breaking out from the pack would prove far more difficult for Anne.

What Happened to Pern?

At one point, Pern was at the top of the heap, and since then, it’s not. What happened to Pern? As in all things, forever isn’t really forever. Most importantly, there were multiple shifts in publishing, technology, and social circumstances guaranteeing that pern couldn’t stay a darling forever. The very forces that pushed it up moved on. As more Pern books emerged, many readers understood these books as profiteering, as a way to get more cash from a cash cow rather than the writer telling more stories that needed telling. By the early 90’s, the age of cynicism was in full swing.


Even so, the books kept making enough money for the publishers to keep asking for more, and enough for McCaffrey to keep obliging.


In marketing, the forces that Pern rode in the rapidly expanding paperback market of the 1970’s had vastly changed by the corporatization wave of the 1980s, and this wave was changed by the mass market bookstore situation of the 1990’s. Add to that a deeper and deeper backlist, which appealed to fans, but which increasingly didn’t appeal to new readers uninterested in that backlist, and you get a fandom waning. This was pretty much guaranteed. Most intellectual properties don’t survive the changes of time unscathed. In fact, Pern rode those changes far better than most.


Another thing that happened was Star Wars and the mega-franchises of the 1980’s. The number of stories which fed this sort of reader literally exploded in availability. Pern now stood behind a wave of corporate backed properties which could afford to pump out multiple new books per year. These properties were now building fan bases whose size would dwarf the size of every other type of fandom. Meanwhile, every summer, a new blockbuster came along to garner attention, and a myriad of B-movies built on this interest. These all fed into a new device, the VCR, which made watching these movies endlessly possible and probably.


Meanwhile, the very elements that made Pern so successful made it a tricky property to adapt for movies for television. How do you adapt peace loving dragons with politicking riders to a wide screen or a small screen? Although there were endless tries, the adaptation consigned Pern to development hell because the changes required to make the world work as cinema have, so far, produced unsatisfying result, or at least results that are unlikely to recoup a $400 million dollar production and advertising investment.

Conclusion


Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series attracted a large body of readers, both male and female, because it offered them a vision of how life could be while providing them approval of they way that they were, no questions asked. Girls could dream of breaking barriers. Boys could dream of escaping their unkind peers. Everyone could dream of perfect love, of a perfect partner, who perfectly accepted them. While you can’t draw a straight line between McCaffrey’s Pern and most of the female led books of today, you can guarantee that most of those authors read McCaffrey and dreamed of flying on dragons.