Who are you? Will Star Wars:The Rise of Skywalker Answer The Questions Set Out by The Force Awakens?

In which I alienate the film industry…

Right away, some interesting news: Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne has been optioned for a television series, with producers attached.  In other words, unlike some options where a “property” is destined to just sit on the shelf while someone waits for the next trend to come along, The Emperor’s Blades actually has a plan to be shopped to networks. As a fan of Staveley, that I look forward to seeing what these other fans of his will do with a show.

'Westworld' TV show premiere, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 16 Apr 2018
Who are you?

But apropros of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker coming out at one second after midnight tomorrow night, I finally watched J.J. Abrams “Mystery Box” TED Talk, in hopes of seeing for myself what some have criticized about his filmmaking approach. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is really the only Abrams film that I have watched in its entirety, since I fell asleep during Star Trek and was completely baffled when I woke up to see Leonard Nimoy in a space suit. My wife and I watched about five minutes of Lost back in 2007 because everybody at my office was talking about it, and we were completely confused (we were lost).

Continue reading “Who are you? Will Star Wars:The Rise of Skywalker Answer The Questions Set Out by The Force Awakens?”

Marvel Movies: In a Class by Themselves

In which I alienate Marvel fans, Joss Whedon fans, and of course Phish fans…

Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that’s like totally not any better than Iron Man 2, I mean come on…

For those of you who’ve been living in a vibranium mine for the last few weeks, Martin Scorsese recently disparaged Marvel movies, such as Black PantherAvengers: Endgame, Captain America: Civil WarGuardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America: Colon Avenger, as not only substandard films, but as not cinema at all.  They are comparable to theme park rides, he said, and not really meaningful as art. This was followed by a predictable backlash on Twitter, which I’m sure Scorsese reads assiduously, in which multiple nobodies with blue checkmarks next to their names politely informed Martin Scorsese that he didn’t know what he was talking about as far as what constitutes cinema. Continue reading “Marvel Movies: In a Class by Themselves”

IT Chapter One: A case study in the worst ways a movie can fail

it_28201729_posterOver the past couple of nights I watched IT Chapter One, and I was profoundly disappointed.  I wasn’t disappointed most at the poor way that the story was adapted, I wasn’t disappointed with the update of the story into the eighties–an era in which certain parts of the story just don’t make sense as much as they would have in the late fifties–and I wasn’t disappointed with the actors necessarily.  Of course the production values were high and the picture quality was good (for the most part; the rock fight was particularly badly done).  I was more disturbed by how this movie illustrated two particularly disturbing trends in moviemaking: bad characterization and bad exposition. Continue reading “IT Chapter One: A case study in the worst ways a movie can fail”

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio (Goodreads Review)

Empire of Silence (Sun Eater, #1)Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Empire of Silence takes place in a far future of our civilization, where biotechnology and space travel have enabled the human race to establish a galactic empire. For centuries this empire has been under attack from another civilization that also discovered space travel, and Hadrian Marlowe has grown up as the elder (genetically-engineered) son of a minor lord on a minor world. He’s rich, but not that politically powerful. Hadrian is, despite his militaristic upbringing, passionate about intellectual pursuits. He’s an artist, an avid learner of languages, and quite clumsy with the ladies. Constantly in conflict with his younger brother, Hadrian assumes he will inherit his father’s duchy, but things go astray when he is instead assigned to join the ruling guild of torturers and propaganda artists. Hadrian and his scheming mother find a way out, however, which results in Hadrian’s first trip off-world. He escapes his father’s plans only to find himself waking up from interstellar hibernation nowhere near where he expected, penniless, and unable to reveal his noble status.

The story is told in retrospect as the narrator awaits his fate. Although this is not part of the story, at least not yet, the narrator (Hadrian) has done something horrible, and is rather notorious. This doesn’t get in the way, but instead provides a great device by which the narrator introduces doubt and comments on events with information he learned later in the story. It’s a really well-devised world, built in believable steps with believable technologies, that doesn’t rely on stupid-sounding technobabble. It’s not grimdark, but it’s mature and intense, with no cutesy stuff, and well-formed relationships, romantic and otherwise. And underneath it all, there’s some spooky stuff going on. I love that element of it.

I would give this book four-and-a-half stars if I could. This is a well-written book, and Christopher Ruocchio is a knowledgeable, well-rounded and intellectual writer who knows what he is doing. Most importantly he doesn’t shy away from real intellectual engagement in philosophical terms. I only give five stars to my absolute favorite books or established classics, so this one gets four, but this book is one of the best of the year, and surely one of the best contemporary series I’ve read. It’s one that I’ll keep up with, along with The Black Witch Chronicles and the Song of Shattered Sands. I don’t mind making a few enemies saying this: a few people have called this “The Name of the Wind in space,” but I’d have to say the crucial difference here is that this book is actually interesting.

It’s better than that, though, mainly because it’s written by someone with real taste, an author who isn’t just pointing to cliches in order to establish rapport with the reader (note: I’m not saying that’s what Patrick Rothfuss did, but many others do). Instead, Christopher Ruocchio has created a culture and world out of believable and sophisticated use of language. He’s not just a Tolkien nerd who read a few books on how to create a language (although he’s certainly fooled me if he hasn’t), but rather someone who understands the interplay between language, culture, and biology to create a convincing future history. For example in the foundational mythology of the interstellar human culture of the empire, the story of King Arthur has been mixed with the story of The Buddha. I got a kick out of that. He also doesn’t shy away from using technical grammatical jargon as exposition, or even as a plot point.

He is also adept at creating romantic and plot tension. For the first time in a long time I was on the verge of shouting “Kiss her, damn it!” at a book. Yes, shouting at a book. There really is an excellent understanding of human relationships here, and the constant interplay between the main character’s social standing and his naivete works up to produce plenty of interesting situations. It was fun to read a space opera where things on so many worlds have reverted to more medieval situations, and hence it reads a lot like a fantasy book.

It is a long book, however, and I had to pick up something shorter afterward. I didn’t find it exactly un-putdownable, but when I did get into reading it, I read it at long stretches, wanting to know what would happen next. This is the kind of book that traces a character’s life across a long arc of his lifetime, and since his lifetime is over 900 years, there is a nice tension of whether the narrator is being honest. It reminds me more of Severian than Kvothe.

I loved it, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Howling Dark.

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As it was in the beginning: how does an author hook a reader?


Wherein I promise the advice every writer wants and fail to deliver…

Especially because I don’t give advice. I don’t have the credibility, but I can read, and I am constantly working to become a better writer. I have started my latest project three or four times (I honestly can’t remember), and every time there was a problem. The most recent problem was “too much, too soon.”  I had a great beginning to introduce the character and some special qualities of his–he’s a musician and poet, and he has the ability to speak to goddesses, something that is rare to say the least–and an interesting situation.  But once I started writing, I realized that a lot of stuff was happening and that we actually hadn’t gotten to know the main character.  I wrote about twenty thousand words before I realized that readers actually hadn’t connected with the main character, despite an interesting first chapter.

And I realized that a lot of my favorite books, books where I am totally hooked from beginning to end, actually don’t do a lot in the beginning.  The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, for instance, begins with a bizarre and exciting prologue with a guy blowing himself up, but after that, Chapter 1 is people walking into town, getting ready for a party.  Plenty of books do start with a bang, but those that do usually settle into the fairly regular rhythm of daily life for the main character.  But at the same time they don’t seem mundane. Continue reading “As it was in the beginning: how does an author hook a reader?”

The Anatomy of Story (Goodreads Review)

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master StorytellerThe Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a classic storytelling manual, and it certainly adds something unique to the storytelling world, but I had a lot of trouble telling what that was. If you are the sort of writer who devours writing books and collects advice, able to weigh it against everything else you’ve read, then this is a good book. Based on my reading of it, however, it is not a panacea. Not that it has to be, but I would advise against having expectations as high as the jacket copy suggests.

My complaints follow. Continue reading “The Anatomy of Story (Goodreads Review)”

Do sociopaths make good villains? In defense of villains, Part II

72536Dr. Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door (2005) answers a lot of questions writers ask about villains. Again and again, the question comes up of what villains want, why they bother, and what motivates them. A related question is whether a writer should portray villains as doing the right thing from their own perspective. We need villains to make heroes act heroic, but villains themselves are often interesting, sometimes even more, and it’s their perspective that’s so interesting. Most readers and writers are not villains: they care more about cats and puppies than seeing people suffer, and writers and readers tend to be people who like to delve deep into the psyche and experiences of people who are not like them. In this vein, I decided to do some research on sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and criminality to get at these questions in a more thoroughly psychological way (i.e. not just through great works of fiction). Continue reading “Do sociopaths make good villains? In defense of villains, Part II”

Have some taste

In which I try to define serious art and alienate Firely and Megadeth fans

My quest as a writer, and to a larger extent as a reviewer, reader, and participant in aesthetic culture, is mostly consumed with figuring out what distinguishes one work from another in terms of a very hard-to-define quality. Whether I am socializing around music, science, or science fiction, there are certain qualities that distinguish one fan from another and the reflection of those qualities in the works that we socialize around. There is some criterion by which I look at music, movies, television shows, short stories, and novels, that reflects its quality better than anything else, yet this criterion is not specifically related to execution of the story or music.  It’s often not a matter of skill, but of choices made by the artist of what to talk about, or what to take seriously.  It’s very hard to place, but I think I have arrived at calling it “taste.” Continue reading “Have some taste”

Back to Back to Basics: Phases of Life and Story Structure

Life and our ability to assess our own knowledge goes in phases.  There are many summaries of this, but since this is a writing blog, I wanted to point out that attitudes about story structure can change over the course of a life, or over the course of writing a novel or story.  I am working my way through a new novel during NaNoWriMo, and I’ve noticed that although I’m a great fan of story structure (for reasons I’ll go into below), I don’t really follow the structure religiously, and yet things seem to work. Continue reading “Back to Back to Basics: Phases of Life and Story Structure”

I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods

How do you come up with fantasy languages?

A Facebook discussion earlier this week led to a request to describe my method for coming up with fantasy (i.e. invented) language. My reply was that I don’t come up with a whole language, although I try to invent a method that produces a consistent-sounding set of words. I improvise and then edit, after using a model language that’s consistent with the setting. Since it really ought to be heard, I decided video was the best way to get this across.

Continue reading “I Got No Roots: Fantasy Language Methods”