The LEGO Movie: How To Build A Bridge

My last post got me thinking about why I liked The LEGO Movie so much, and it occurred to me that along with the more cliche tripe the movie spouted (The Wise Child, Everyone Is Special)* there was a more subtle point that was made, which really is a good thing for children to learn, and a wise thing even for adults to consider.

In what might be considered the turning point of the film, Emmet, our putative hero, is disrespected by everyone on his own side. He doesn’t have the talents and skills they do to build whatever he imagines. If it weren’t for the prophecy, they wouldn’t even let him near them.

But then Emmet does a fascinating thing. Without ever conceding the rightness of their cause (freeing LEGOland from the tyranny and perfectionism of the evil Lord Business and stopping his plan to Krazy Glue all the sets in place), Emmet points out the inherent weaknesses of the Master Builders: Firstly, they are all such individualists that they cannot formulate and stick to a coherent plan of action as a group. Secondly, they are so dedicated to looking iconic, all their activities are easily tracked and recognized.

The strengths of Lord Business’s robot collective follow from that: he doesn’t need to rely on Master Builders (admittedly, that’s partly because he imprisons and mind-controls them) to be powerful: the instructions allow even people like Emmet to be part of building awesome things. Moreover, he can get things done consistently.

And Emmet then proceeds to use the lessons he learned following instructions to sneak through Lord Business’s security and harness the Master Builders together as an effective team. He acknowledges the strengths of his opponent, and uses them.

It is a valuable lesson to teach our children that opposing someone does not mean denying that they possess any worthwhile attributes. We must teach them that any person, any system, including themselves and including systems that they must defend to the death — like a representative democratic republic, just to name one — has its own strengths and weaknesses to be celebrated and compensated for. They have their admirable qualities, and their despicable qualities. This is a lesson for adults to bear in mind as well. Obviously, it would be a terrible thing if, within our own nation, we descended into such distrust and antipathy for one another that we started treating one another as vermin to be destroyed (ahem!)

I could go on, but I feel that my readers are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions from here. He that hath an ear, and all.

*Although given the comments about “stuff you might find on cat posters” it’s a safe bet the writers knew exactly how cheesy they were being, and were more than willing to poke fun at their own theme.

Just For the Joy: The LEGO Movie

Yesterday, I got to have a lot of fun. I pooled a little of my own private blow money together with the money my son has been faithfully saving, and went on e-Bay and found a copy of Benny’s Spaceship Spaceship SPACESHIP! from the LEGO Movie. It arrived yesterday, and we spent the afternoon putting it together. What I learned from this:

1) It’s incredibly refreshing sometimes to go back and do something you really enjoyed as a kid, with your kid.
2) That’s the biggest LEGO set I ever put together.
3) Damn, but I’d forgotten how sore putting together LEGOs for hours can make your fingers.
4) Like the movie itself, this kit was more fun than I thought it would be. The designers did far more than they had to, apparently for the sheer joy of it, and including features that were not obviously included in the movie. Variable-geometry wings, pop-out concealed missile-launchers, drone robot/fighters, detachable auxiliary attack sleds, and a detailed engine room complete with something that resembles a Star Trek antimatter warp core.

The LEGO Movie goes in my personal bank of Movies That Were Better Than They Deserved To Be. I mean, usually when people make movies based on games or toys, it’s because they are out of ideas and are desperate for cash and you get the load of crap you expect: Resident Evil. Transformers. Doom. Battleship.

But then, every once in awhile, you get Clue. A script written by someone who wasn’t told and didn’t care that it was supposed to be a potboiler, who just decided to have as much fun as possible by unleashing a wicked sense of humor while no one was looking.

I would argue that The LEGO Movie fits in the same category. The writers did an amazing job of synthesizing dialogue and jokes that would entertain both kids and adults, much as LEGOs themselves can, in the finest tradition of the old Bugs Bunny cartoons, and folded it through a classic Hero’s Journey story that was all about rescuing the Legos from, essentially, an Empire Of No Fun. And no, it wasn’t about anticapitalism: it was about a little kid who isn’t old enough to see his father’s obsession with work as an adult necessity yet. Lord Business is evil (or evil is Lord Business) simply because Business (busyness) is what his Dad does. All he can see is that his dad has transformed even his hobbies into work. Which frankly is a reminder that adults need from time to time.  

It was fun. I had fun. Sometimes, that’s the accomplishment you need to strive for.

The Mystery Of The Turd In The Truffle

So, I’m playing Elite: Dangerous, which, I want to make clear up front, is one of my favorite sandbox games of all time. Seriously, this is the game I have dreamed of playing since I was a little kid: you can outfit your own ships, trade between the stars, fight Evil Space Pirates, BE an Evil Space Pirates, mine asteroids, the works. One of the ways you can earn money is to take on a Famous Explorer mission.

The Famous Explorer missions are a commitment, in game time. Because while there are lots of games that claim to allow you to travel around “the galaxy,” Elite: Dangerous features a playing field the size of the ACTUAL galaxy. You can take missions to the Galactic Core. (All of Human-populated space is a “Bubble” about 500 light-years in diameter in the game-year 3304.) And given that it’s 23,000 or so light-years away and your ship can do “jumps” of a maximum of about 40 light-years, that takes a LONG time.

So I took one of these Famous Explorer missions. Not sure I’d like it, I picked one that was ONLY 5,000 light-years away. It was the first time I had left the Bubble. And it was amazing how well this game was set up. First thing I noticed, suddenly, there were no other ships around. I jumped into a system, and it was deserted. Of course it was: I’d left the Human spacelanes, and the odds against seeing fellow explorer were incredible. I also noticed that signals — very common in Humans space, and indicating things like wrecks, distress signals, and convoys — those disappeared too, becoming very rare. There were no longer any Navigation Beacons around stars.

The I realized, as I continued toward the center of the galaxy, that all the things I was seeing in the big, glowing strip of the Milky Way were actual objects. I mean, they weren’t just images painted on a skybox, they were getting closer (minutely closer) with every jump, little smudges becoming enormous nebulae. I was having fun. I jumped into a system and found a strange object on my scanner and went to investigate. It was a neutron star, and do you know how I figured out it was a neutron star? Before my ship scanner told me so?  Because I could actually see the stars behind it being smeared around by the gravitational lensing! Yes, this game is that well-written!

So, by the time I reached my destination, a black hole, I was thinking of it as the climax of the trip, and rightly so. I had not seen one before, and as I got within 70 light years, I began to see it. Because the game designers had remembered that black holes form out of supernovae, so of COURSE there was a small, brightly-glowing nebula around this one, which got bigger and more ominous-looking as I approached, like the ghost of the dead star. I jumped into the system itself, and was surrounded by the bluish glow of the highly-energetic nebula. Carefully, I looked around and found the black hole. There was no brightly-glowing accretion disc around it, but you know, you can’t expect everything.

I scanned the thing, noticing that space was of course highly distorted around it, and expected that my mission would be over. Not so.

Interestingly enough, right beside the black hole itself on my navigational chart was an icon reading “Black Treasure” which was, after all, the name given to this particular black hole by the Famous Explorer currently sitting in my passenger cabin.

Very well, perhaps it was this mysterious object I needed to scan, which was, somewhat frighteningly, sitting right on top of the black hole. Okay. I locked onto it and dropped out of supralight drive.

It was a human-built tourist beacon. And there were other ships there. Several. Looking at the black hole. Just like any other tourist spot in the Bubble.

And the Hammer of Anticlimax smacked down on the whole adventure. It was like climbing K2, pulling myself up the summit after an agony of climbing, and discovering a sherpa grinning and ready to sell me an “I Summited K2 And All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt.” T-shirt.

Which brings me to my title: The Turd In The Truffle. That’s how I felt. I felt as if I had been enjoying an incredible meal at a five-star restaurant, only to discover that there, right on top of the elegant;y arranged dish, was a dog turd. This is not the first time in my life I have felt this way as a reader/player. And my question is why — and how — writers can do this to their audiences. I mean, obviously the writers of this game were and are intelligent and thoughtful. Why, then, such a moment of careless anticlimax?

I remember feeling a similar way when I watched the film adaptation of Watchmen. A beautiful film, well-made. But then there’s the scene in which Rorschach is being pried out of his cell by a criminal Boss who wants to kill him. Rorschach manages to handcuff one of the henchmen to his cell door, blocking the Boss.

Now in the comic, the Boss has another henchman kill the guy to get him out of the way, and continues to come at Rorschach. But in the film, he has his free henchman cut the trapped man’s arms off with a power saw while he is still alive to get him out of the way. It’s an unnecessarily brutal and horrifying scene, which I could in no way believe. Underground bosses who occasionally kill their own men when necessary? Sure. Underground bosses who torture their men to death for fun, just to emphasize their own evilness? No. That’s crazy, and no henchman wants to hench for a guy like that. Again, a Turd In The Truffle: a moment of thoughtlessness in brilliance.

I really don’t have an answer for why this happens. I leave it as an open question for the reader. Why do we find Turds in Truffles. I await comments with interest.

The Importance Of Rejecting Rejection

There is another set of lessons that I learned from my virtual mentor, Steven Barnes, which has been very valuable to me. Essentially, they go like this:

1) Always send a piece out ten times before you consider revising it.

2) Before taking advice about revising a piece, it has to come from two people. One of those people can be you.

These are very important rules. Why?

You’re going to get advice from beta readers, and as you get more practiced at writing, you will get more comments from editors about why your story was rejected. Mostly, you’ll still get form rejections about “this wasn’t right for us,” but if you got advice from every market, you would get a mess of contradictions. I have had rejection letters telling me that there was too much detail and not enough. That the character was intriguing but the plot was dull, and that the plot was exciting but the character flat.

If you tried to satisfy every objection from every editor, you would never be doing anything else, AND with the added benefit that your story would be an unreadable hash of compromises.

I remember getting a different version of this advice from a workshop instructor. He was working on an accepted piece and disputing some of the editor’s recommended changes, and finally said, in some frustration, “Have you ever had an author who took every piece of advice you gave them?”
And the editor put his head in his hands and said, “Oh, God, yes.”
Wimpy writers are bad writers, and even editors don’t really want them.

So, why ten times? Have you, Scott, ever sold a piece after ten rejections?

Yes, I have. In fact, I just got paid for one that sold on its twelfth submission. The editor who bought it loved it.

It really can feel like, and I struggle with this, too, that you are completely powerless in this business, and have to do whatever people want to make it better. Especially when you have a story you really believe is good and no one will buy it, and you’re desperate to know what’s wrong with it.

Now, yes, sometimes a reader or editor will say something about a piece and it’s like a nova goes off in your head. “YES!” says the Morgan-Freeman-like voice in your head. “THAT’S THE ANSWER!”

This voice is not nearly as magical as it sounds, but that’s why the rule says, “One of these people can be you.” Just make sure it’s really the voice of your better writer, not the voice that’s desperate to sell this stupid piece however you can.

Patience is the hardest part of this business. That’s why you need it right now.

Worlds: Stupid Sci-Fi Film Tricks, The Nuclear Option.

A version of this post appeared earlier on my Patreon site, but I thought it was worth exploring here.

Let me introduce you to one of my pet peeves about SF movies in general, through that awesomely terrible film, Independence Day, a film that apparently existed for the sole purpose of trying to make Will Smith and Bill Pullman as President Lone Starr into badasses, if you kinda squint. Hard.

What was the funniest moment in Independence Day? Was it Will Smith’s “Welcome to Earth,” line? Brent Spiner’s performance as the clueless Area 51 boss? No, I suggest that it was the parts where humanity attempts to fight 15-mile diameter floating city-battleships with air-to-air missiles. It’s kind of a credit to the movie that when the shields go down and the missiles hit the targets that the response from the audience is a cheer rather than, “Wow, the humans scratched the paint.” Which is pretty much the result of the attack. My first warning that this movie was going to be really, really bad was that the United States Air Force was actually sending fighters armed with air-to-air missiles up against these floating cities rather than, say, B-52s ready to carpet-bomb the damned things for a START.

In all seriousness, just from the outset, it should have been clear that even without shields, for fighting these aliens, nuclear weapons should have been the first and only option. The shields were only there so that humanity could use their most powerful weapons too late and discover that they were useless. And of course, once ONE nuclear weapon is proven useless, no one says “Well what if we tried two? Or ten? Because hopefully there does exist an upper threshold for damage that these shields can absorb?”

And of course the reason for that is shown later in the film: because the writer believes that nuclear weapons are infinitely powerful. Just one of them (used on an unshielded target) can destroy an alien spacecraft that is a quarter of the size of the moon.

Which brings me to my point: There are pretty much the only reasons nuclear weapons ever exist in science-fiction:
1) to highlight the awesome technology and power of the aliens in making them useless, (see also George Pal’s War Of The Worlds,) or
2) to provide humanity with a devastating knockout punch at the last second (see Pacific Rim, The Avengers, etc.). Nothing is ever damaged by nuclear weapons: there is only destroyed, or untouched.

Of course, this is ridiculous. Both the United States and the Soviet Union went to rather great lengths in the Cold War to devise shelters that would ensure that their assets could survive near-misses (and in the case of Cheyenne Mountain, direct hits) by nuclear weapons. The best defense against them is also the simplest: dig a deep hole.In addition to this, there are reasons besides political dick-waving that the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and others invested so much time into building various sizes of nuclear weapons: they really aren’t doomsday devices. But they have been portrayed as doomsday devices for so long that many of my students in U.S. History are shocked and appalled to discover that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, today, thriving major world cities, and not smoking wounds in the Earth that glow in the dark. Nuclear weapons have been made to be larger, so as to threaten large cities with full-scale destruction, and smaller, to target massed enemy formations without necessitating the destruction of nearby cities.

Now I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying that nuclear warfare is no big deal: obviously, no sane person wants a nuclear war. On the other hand, does any sane person really want any war at all?

I suspect that there is a sort of reluctance to address these facts, lest people adopt a more casual attitude toward nuclear war, as if saying the truth aloud would somehow encourage people to use the weapons, but given our history, I sincerely doubt that fiction is going to be the tipping point, here, so in the name of halfway decent filmmaking, I suggest we all grow up.

Movie Recommendation: The Court Jester

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The Court Jester is one of those old movies that’s unfortunately fallen into obscurity. I can’t recommend it enough, because as I said earlier this week, it’s like a slightly sillier version of The Princess Bride, but with a much higher grade of acting talent and — yes, I’m serious, here — better swordplay. Suck it, Mandy Patinkin. I love you as Inigo and everything, but Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone seriously kick your ass. And the thing is, that’s repeated throughout the entire movie. You watch The Princess Bride, and there’s no doubt that it’s a solid movie, with snappy dialogue and great acting, not to mention wonderful fight choreography and a solid plot. It’s a brilliant, swashbuckling romance, ornamented by ridiculous and clever comedy. Then you hit The Court Jester, and it’s a bit like going to Maine for a lobster dinner after you’ve only ever eaten at The Red Lobster. There’s just no comparison. Or drinking, say, Franziskaner beer after never having drunk anything but Coors and Budweiser. All of a sudden, you realize that this is how it ought to be. And over and above that, you get through the whole movie and realize that it never once descends into crudity, while still being very aware of sexual themes and playing them for laughs. The scene where Glynis Johns first seduces the evil King Roderick in order to steal his key (really!) and then repels him by implying that she’s the carrier of, essentially, the Black Death is one of the best pieces of dialogue ever written. I’m not sure why we don’t do this anymore. I feel like maybe the lack of special effects and the stringent restrictions on Hollywood’s dialogue choices back in the day may have actually made them stronger, because they really had to write better and do more work to overcome those restrictions. And it’s not like writers and filmmakers are incapable of such cleverness, now: one only has to look at The Incredibles to realize that. But again, that’s a movie that labors under restrictions: it’s audience is children and it can’t go for cheap, crude laughs. So it actually has to be good. It’s not inevitable that screenwriters go for the cheap laughs and the eye-blowing effects: it’s economics. When horribly-written, cliche-ridden films like Avatar make the money they do, why should you spend the extra time and money making sure that they actually have coherent plots and intelligent dialogues? I suspect that, conversely, when the only thing keeping people in movie houses (besides the acting) were the dialogue and the script, the creative “muscles,” as it were, of the artists strengthened, and what seems today like an impossible amount of work was more like effortless joy to them. You know, sort of like parkour would kill me if I tried it, but to a young athlete, it’s just a fun thing to do on the way to someplace. Perhaps we should remember that. Now I have some more thoughts on this movie, including some valuable writing lessons it’s taught me, but that’s going on my Patreon page, where I hope you’ll join me.

The Population Paradox: When Is Less More?

One of the hardest things about being a writer is differentiating between what your writing is like for you, and what it’s like for your readers. This is the source of the oft-repeated wisdom, “kill your darlings.” If you’ve put that much effort into making something exciting, it is likely to come across as overwrought and tedious.

Nothing reinforced this truth for me recently more than my own experience with two similar video games: No Man’s Sky and Elite: Dangerous. Both games are about 2-3 years old. Both are sandbox open-world games with no clear plotline. You’re supposed to make your own up as you travel through a galaxy that is literally too big to be explored fully, improving your ship and your capabilities. You mine asteroids, explore planets, and fight enemy ships.

The visual contrast could not be more striking, however. In No Man’s Sky, a solar system is full of huge planets, like something out of a science-fiction film. In Elite: Dangerous, it is full of, at best, tiny points of light. In No Man’s Sky, planets teem with life more often than not, with huge mineral outcroppings waiting to be harvested everywhere. Elite: Dangerous confines itself to barren worlds of rock and ice, with tiny mineral deposits that must be hunted down with radar.

And yet, somehow, those big worlds that fill No Man’s Sky seem smaller and less impressive the closer you get to them. All the mountains are low and flat. The lakes are shallow. There are almost no seas or oceans. The lifeforms quickly start to resemble a mix-n-match set of notable Earth-life features: “Hey, look: it’s that same bear-like creature as on the last planet, only now it has a wasp’s head instead of a rabbit’s.”

By contrast, Elite: Dangerous‘s worlds are tiny, and seem extremely similar, and yet as one approaches, they are full of canyons and craters that are, seen close to, huge. On one unremarkable moon, I flew down a canyon visible form space and landed at the edge of a tiny crater. And yet, when I drove my lunar rover over the lip of the same crater, it was big enough to take my breath away in a sensation I can only relate to the best horror games. It was like reading what Lovecraft kept trying to describe: a monstrous coldness, alien to humanity, that was terrifying in its sheer size and closeness.

I am far from an expert on understanding why this effect works, and yet I am struck by the fact that so many of the classic works of F/SF (and literature itself) are not the mega-series that are churned out in multi-volume sets, but are small, (and often single) works: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe. A Wrinkle In Time. The Metamorphosis. 2001: A Space Odyssey. While most of these did spawn sequels, none are as well known as the originals, and all would have been classics without those sequels. There is perhaps a lesson here to bear in mind, but as simple as it is, it may take a lifetime for me to explore all its nuances.

 

A Heroic Obedience

Another old Sci-Phi Journal column.

Science-fiction and fantasy tend toward the epic. In science-fiction, the sheer scale of the visible universe inspires the heroic, and in the fantastic myths tend to reward the heroes who single-handedly (or in the company of a band of brothers) take on the gods in the face of certain doom. And thus it is that the heroic virtues are the ones that our genres celebrate. Heroic valor, enduring faithfulness, unstained honor, even chivalric mercy cross our pages and screens.

Whether virtues exist, in any real sense, is one of our oldest debates. Very early on in human – and doubtless in prehuman – existence, we held to the idea that virtues were real. The idea that virtues and virtuous behavior do not exist, because they are a scam to trick the weak and the stupid away from grasping the power that could be theirs, is not very much younger, as anyone who is passingly familiar with Plato knows. From that time to this, the virtues that civilization has been built on have been periodically under assault, often in alternating pairs: thus, near the time of World War I and World War II, mercy and charity were regarded as spinelessness and treason by the great mass of the population. During the height of the Vietnam War, physical courage was often decried as brutality. And as a result of both of those times, one virtue has been beaten so low as to scarcely resemble a virtue at all: obedience.

Obedience receives little admiration from any side of the Western political spectrum, because of the aforementioned recent history, because of the Enlightenment’s valorization of liberty and freethought, but perhaps also because the study of politics concerns the acquisition and use of power to compel the obedience of other people. But that very fact, of course, compels us to take a hard look at the virtue of obedience. After all, what is the purpose of wielding, in Monty Python’s beloved phrase, “supreme executive (or legislative) power” if no one will obey it? Political power is predicated upon the idea that people will obey, and democratic republics are predicated upon the idea that they will obey, at least in the main, willingly. But obeying is not glorious or sexy, and it isn’t a virtue we generally see held up as an example in our heroic science-fictional or fantastic epics.

Of course, obedience features heavily in religious and non-religious myth, the Garden of Eden and Pandora’s Box being archetypal. Perhaps the first epic fantasist to play explicitly with the virtue of obedience near our own time was Milton. And he, writing on the very eve of the Enlightenment, makes of Satan a kind of epic hero that was embraced unreservedly by later Romantic poets. Shelley said that, “Milton’s Devil, as a moral being, is far superior to his God.” What Milton had meant as a tale of lost virtue, they turned into the embrace of a new one: the virtue of defiance. Not defiance for anything, but defiance in sich was taken to be a good.

After the Holocaust and Holodomor of the 20th century showed us the disastrous consequences of unthinking obedience to totalitarian ideologies, we should expect to see a celebration of heroic rebellion spring up. Surely it is no accident that the heroes of the most iconic SF film series of all time are part of “the Rebellion” against an evil and destructive Empire. But the recent crop of Young Adult fiction has developed pure rebellion to new heights. I have already in previous columns addressed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman is the heir of Shelley and Keats, preaching defiance against the Authority, and I think the generic nature of his epithet for God is telling. His heroes are not merely rebelling against a bad god, but against the very concept of legitimate obedience. This is taken even further with the more-popular The Hunger Games. Collins first throws Katniss Everdeen against the evil President Snow, who is determined to crush the Districts beneath his heel, even though he already enjoys almost limitless power. But when Katniss discovers the fabled District Thirteen, thought to have been lost in a war almost a century before, its leader, Alma Coin, is almost as cruel and absolutist as Snow himself, enforcing a starkly ascetic military regime. Katniss ends up executing her on the basis of her own suspicion that Coin will seek to assume the powers of the overthrown President Snow. In Katniss’s world, political power and authority quite literally are not allowed to be good, or to act as a moral force. Katniss’s own moral force comes from her willingness and compulsion to disobey (and destroy) every power that would seek her compliance, or even her allegiance. She, and she alone, has the power to determine what is right.

If we look back in the history of SF, however, we find a more nuanced approach from the antecedents of Star Wars, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. In that now almost-forgotten epic, the Lensman series, the Lensmen are cast as the agents of law and order, an outgrowth of the Triplanetary law-enforcement branch, not its military arm. The Lensmen believe themselves to be fighting against “Boskonian pirates,” that is, the agents of lawlessness. Nevertheless it is plain even from the outset that “Boskone” is actually a dictatorial and totalitarian state. The tension between the two is instructive and clear: obedience is an unavoidable virtue. You may not defy the Boskonian terror without obeying the laws of the Galactic Patrol. There is no way to defy one without obeying the other.
Tolkien develops the same theme, although he seemed reluctant to confront it fully. Frodo’s struggle against the Ring is almost always cast as a rebellion and a defiance against The Lord Of All The Rings, and the Ring itself. But in so doing, of course, Frodo is declaring his allegiance and obedience to Gandalf and the rest of the Council of the Wise. To obey them when the way is hard.
It is perhaps unsurprisingly C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle that come closest to a true celebration of obedience in Lewis’s
The Magician’s Nephew, where the fate of Narnia hangs on Diggory’s obedience to Aslan’s command, although that very obedience involves defying the Empress (and later White Witch) Jadis in the garden. Perelandra is clearest of all, being an allegory of the Biblical story of the Fall as it might have been. But L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door comes to its climax in an act of obedience, a counterrebellion, when the farandola Sporos dares to obey in the midst of his people’s rebellion, heeding the wisdom of the elder fara, Senex, and trusting the authority that says that he must Deepen and undergo metamorphosis to be truly free.

Even in Star Wars itself, of course, this paradox plays out. In order to effectively defy Darth Vader and the Emperor, Luke must obey Yoda. And when he fails to do this, he finds himself effectively obeying his enemies. Our heroes cannot defy without obeying, but they cannot obey without defying.

Heroes who insist on defying without obedience end up where Pullman’s and Collins’s stories leave us, and in each case, the place is not one that any sane person would envy. The protagonists are forever shattered by their victories: Lyra is separated forever from both the boy she loves and any prospect of eternal life, and Katniss, while she is together with Peeta, refuses to lead. And perhaps she must refuse this: becoming a leader would place her in a role of authority, which is evil. It would also entail her allegiance and obedience to law. She cannot truly be a hero because heroes are, almost by definition, those who give of themselves for that which is greater, that which they feel it is worthy to obey.

Book Recommendation: Orion Shall Rise

Poul Anderson may be the greatest, unknown-outside-of-SF-nal circles author. Why he (and his vivid, poetic prose, and his complex characters) is steadfastly ignored, while writers like Clarke and Asimov are hailed as the giants of the era, I do not know. I have my suspicions, which, in order, are that Anderson enjoyed writing plots full of heroic action, which lit-snobbery denounces as low, that Anderson wrote books full of joy and hope, which lit-snobbery denounces as false, and that Anderson was not sympathetic to Luddism or communism, both of which lit-snobs deem essential to real literature.

However, I stray from the point: One of the greatest post-apocalyptic books ever written is, in my opinion, Orion Shall Rise, which tells the story of people living in the successor states that have arisen after a great nuclear war. The Maurai, the most powerful of these states, embodied by its agent, Terai Wanaroa, are determined to thwart any move toward rebuilding any technology that they deem a threat to the planet, while the Northwest Union, their rival, is embarking on a course that could return the stars to mankind, while also reviving its most dreadful weapons.

The future history is plausible, the characters are beautifully-flawed humans, and the story is heartbreaking with loss and hope. I fully recommend it to everyone, except possibly those who really can’t stand any hint of sexism, because frankly, there is some there, it’s not perfect. But that having been acknowledged, I strongly recommend it as a brilliant and sadly forgotten story.

Trek Is A Dish Best Served Dark

For all its reputation as a forward-looking, optimistic series about the future of humanity, why is it that Star Trek is consistently best when it goes into truly dark places?

In all seriousness, this seems to be an issue: the best of the original Trek movies is generally agreed to have been Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, which was a bloody revenge story, a recapitulation of Moby Dick in space.

The consistently-chosen fan favorite episode of the Original Series is “The City On The Edge Of Forever,” which affirms that sometimes war is the only way to solve a problem, that addiction to peace at any price is dangerous, and that doing the right thing may involve accepting the death of what you love.

This doesn’t change in the Next Generation, either: “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is the fan favorite there, a trip into an alternate timeline in which the Klingon Empire is slowly destroying the Federation, and the Enterprise-D is destroyed saving the Enterprise-C and the original timeline.*
ETA: An Alert Reader pointed out that I had these backward. And no, I don’t, but I was very unclear. So, to explicate and thus restore my lost nerd-cred: The Enterprise-D, in the War Timeline, sacrifices itself to allow the Enterprise-C to return through the temporal discontinuity so that it (the Enterprise-C) can sacrifice ITSELF to save the original timeline.

Gosh, I wonder why Star Trek didn’t do more time-travel episodes.

None of these stories are without hope, of course, but they are consistently darker than Roddenberry’s vision, and certainly in opposition to his (much-derided) dream for first-season Next Generation of a future in which human interpersonal conflicts had pretty much been transcended.

My own feeling is that Roddenberry’s vision simply took too little account for what people demand in a good story, and far from inspiring people, ended up looking rather insipid, while what the fans wanted were stories in which our heroes laid it all on the line, sacrificing all that they were or wanted in order to save what really mattered. In the end, you cannot “transcend” these things. They are themselves transcendence.