The White Sands Of Arrakis (A Fisking)

Those of you who are even passingly familiar with this blog will realize that the novel Dune is something near and dear to my heart. So about a week ago, my attention was drawn to this article that pretty much makes Frank Herbert’s novel out to be the original “White Man’s Burden.” I rebut this argument. Rules for the fisking: The fisked article is in italics, and my responses are in bold.

Original can be found on The Escapist. If you want to go there yourself, have fun. I’m not interested in dignifying it with more hits.

With news that a new Dune film is in the works, it’s worth pausing to

hope that the filmmakers remember that the Imperium doesn’t use guns in regular combat?

remember that Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides is the most egregiously, preposterously, overpowered uber-hero in the history of explored space.

Aw, shit, for a moment I thought we were going to talk about something important.

In Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel, Paul is

1. an unbeatable ninja hand to hand fighter

Except for Gurney Halleck, who fights him to a draw, Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who very nearly beats him, and Count Fenring, who (Paul knows) WOULD beat him, but refuses to fight him. So, unbeatable except for people who can beat him, right.

2. a human calculating supercomputer

In an Imperium where that quality is a known and trained profession, something like spies are today. So, he’s got a talent for a career path. Yes, incredible.

3. a genetically engineered male witch with a Voice that must be obeyed

Trained in that Voice by his mother, who was trained in it from her membership in an order of thousands and thousands of women who train in that same ability. Amazing. A kid who learns from his parents. Well, that IS unusual. 

4. a seer with the ability to predict the future

Very erratically and with little idea, especially at first, what he’s seeing.

5. a matchless military strategist

Trained by and partnered with older and wiser military strategists who are pretty much planetary general officers. I would hope he’d get pretty good at it.

6. the chosen one of multiple interlocking prophecies

All of which were engineered by the Bene Gesserit just in case one of their own ever needed to use them to save her skin by playing prophetess. So it’s really just one prophecy. You weren’t paying attention, were you? 

7. all of the above. He probably shits gold too while flowers spring up where he walks. Why the hell not?

Well, at a guess because there was no justification for that given in the novel. What kind of argumentation is this? OMG, THIS CHARACTER CAN DO A WHOLE BUNCH OF THINGS THAT ARE ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED BY THE TECHNOLOGY, CULTURE, AND CLASS THE CHARACTER GREW UP IN, BUT THAT WOULD BE COMPLETELY OUT OF THE QUESTION FOR ANY OF US TODAY!! I GUESS THAT MEANS HE CAN DO BULLSHIT MAGIC, TOO!!! Are you aware that science-fiction is generally about people who can do stuff that we can’t do today, because of reasons explained in the text?

Superman has super breath and even super-hypnosis in some iterations, but even when he’s muscling planets around, he looks like a pallid also-ran next to Paul, who spends his days ruling the universe, not foiling bank robberies.

Um, Paul spends exactly 0% of the novel ruling the universe. He spends about 2.5 pages at the end of the book knowing he will rule the universe as its emperor. He spends approximately 67% of the book leading a guerrilla army and running away from Harkonnens. Again: read the book. 

No wonder everyone in Dune is always staring at Paul open-mouthed and thinking about how awesome he is.

“EVERYONE IS ALWAYS!” Except for the people who aren’t and don’t. Like Gurney Halleck, who treats him like the kid he trained, and later his lord. Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, who just wants to gut him. Jamis, who wants to gut him. Stilgar, who starts out treating him like prey, and later like a Fremen boy. “Everyone is always” means you’re going to make your point, facts be damned. Like those people who go around claiming that Jesus is basically Mithra by conveniently ignoring all the differences between those two stories. They’re the same except for where they’re different. The United States is exactly like Nazi Germany, except for the free elections, constitutional rights, and lack of gas chambers. Got it. 

Even Jessica, Paul’s mother, is overwhelmed, musing about how she’strained [his] intelligence … but now she found herself fearful of it.” Paul is amazing; Paul is terrifying. Be amazed and terrified, reader!

Because no parent has ever freaked out when realizing that they’ve managed to raise a child stronger or smarter or whatever else-er than they are. That’s a major theme of the book, in case you’d like to be better informed than the author, here.

Dune is basically a long, tripped out, ecstatically bloated reiteration of the Mighty Whitey trope. A Mighty Whitey is a European or white character who adopts the culture of indigenous people, becoming their king and gaining near mystical powers along the way. James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, a white man who adopted the ways of Native Americans and became the most strong and noble of them all, is an early example. Other iterations include Tarzan, the comic strip character the Phantom, C3P0 among the Ewoks, Dr. Strange (who goes to Tibet to learn Eastern magic and ends up being better at it than any Tibetans) and Iron Fist (who goes to the East to learn martial arts and ends up being better at it than … well, you know the drill.)

And aside from the rather ridiculous inclusion of C3P0 among the Ewoks, which is a parody played for laughs, all of those examples take place on pretty much contemporary Earth, with racial definitions much the same as our own.

Besides which: Paul is white? Where exactly does it say that Paul is white? He’s described early on with green eyes and black hair and a thin nose. Okay, that’s not conclusive, but let’s grant that those features seem “whiter” than not.

Then are the Fremen NON-white? Let’s look at how they’re described. Like Stilgar. When we meet Stilgar, he is anxious to reclaim a lost crysknife. He enters veiled, but reveals a face with “a thin nose and a full-lipped mouth in a glistening black beard.” Likewise inconclusive. “Full-lipped” might be taken as a racist dogwhistle, but the thin nose is exactly like Paul. But why is Stilgar concerned about the crysknife? Well, the evil Harkonnens (who are related closely to the Atreides, remember) are offering a huge reward for one. Why do they want a crysknife? Duncan Idaho explains: “With [one], a blue-eyed man could penetrate any sietch in the land.”
Wait. He could? Well then, if Paul is white… and therefore the Harkonnens are white… and a white man with blue eyes only needs a crysknife to spy on the Fremen… then what color are the Fremen?
Say it with me…

Dune is set in the far future, but Herbert wasn’t coy about drawing parallels with earthbound colonial narratives. Paul is a noble duke from a planet with a temperate climate. Though it’s the far future, he’s associated with a European-style noble tradition.

And we know that because he’s called a duke and his enemy is a baron, and they’re all ruled by a Padishah Emperor, which is a European title. Oh, wait, no: that’s stupid. Padishah is Persian, and was also used by Ottoman and Mughal rulers in West Asia. Hey, here’s an idea: maybe when so much is mashed up like this, we should consider that the parallels aren’t as absolute as all that.

He’s also the product of a centuries long breeding experiment, so he’s effectively a perfect eugenic specimen.

Um, did you just say that we know Paul must be European/white because he’s A PERFECT EUGENIC SPECIMEN? Or that a perfect eugenic specimen must be white? That’s… not a good assumption, either way, to say the least.

He goes to Arrakis, a desert planet whose inhabitants, the Fremen, are persistently linked to Arabs.

And were based, according to Frank Herbert, not only on Arabs, but the San of the Kalahari, and the Navajo. And they speak Chakobsa, which really is a secret language of the Caucasus, probably based on West Circassian. You know what word we get from “Caucasus,” don’t you?
Say it with me…

Their culture includes both the hajj and jihad.

PAUL’S culture also includes the jihad. From the Butlerian Jihad, specifically, which would be far more relevant to everyone in the universe than what Arabs believed over 10,000 years prior. So who borrowed “jihad” from whom, here? And how do the Fremen make hajj to Mecca when Earth is lost? Now if you were familiar enough with the book to really delve into it, you’d find that Herbert was way ahead of you. As hinted at above, there’s evidence that that the whole feudal system in DUNE is based on the Ottoman Empire, which would make Paul and the rest of the ruling class Muslim. Herbert even claims that the religion of the Atreides’ Caladanin peasants was a purer form of Islam than the Fremen’s religion was (Appendix II). So there’s a pretty strong case here that either EVERYBODY in this book is white or NOBODY is.*

The Freemen (sic), are portrayed with the familiar tropes of noble savages. They are fierce, proud, dangerous, loyal, and organized into tribes where (male) leadership is determined through trial by combat.

How is that different from Paul’s culture, except that Great Houses substitute for “tribe?” And birth substitutes for combat? And the Fremen are still white.

As in many an earlier colonial fantasy, the Fremen first plan to kill Paul, but when they find out just how cool he is, they quickly make him their leader and worship him.

Again, reading comprehension escapes us: They plan to kill Paul and his mother until they find out how awesome SHE is. Jessica is the one who disarms Stilgar with her bare hands. Paul has to go through another trial by combat, and even then is barely declared a man.

This isn’t a one time thing for the Fremen, either; before Paul, their previous leader/god figure was an off-world ecologist named Liet, who, in Herbert’s words “had gone native.”

And was half-Fremen, which you’d know if you read the book. Liet’s father, Pardot Kynes, would be a much better case for Mighty Whitey shenanigans, but that would require you to both a) read the book and b) base your essay on a character that only shows up in the appendices, and that’s just not as sexy, is it?
What you have here is a real failure of the imagination: you cannot comprehend that Frank Herbert might have been combining LOTS of features of LOTS of civilizations in a way to portray a culture so far in the future (over 10,000 years) that it is completely alien to us. And that’s a common means for science-fiction to portray such hypothetical distant cultures. The idea that DUNE concerns itself with our present racial angst at all is really ridiculous on the surface. Think about it. How many civilizations that are 10,000 years old can you even name? The pyramids are more recent than that! What social constructs of “race” did such people even HAVE?
Now, I’m sure if the author were to comment on this piece, he would say something like: “You idiot, I’m not talking about how the culture of the Imperium would really work: I’m talking about how Frank Herbert can’t help framing his triumphant narrative in racist and colonialist terms in a novel written in late 20th-Century America.”
To which I respond, “That frame is only there because you put it there.” I mean, you could make the exact same argument with Octavia Butler’s Dawn series: Because the Oankali arrive to save humanity from the consequences of its fratricidal war, and alter humanity without consulting them, which actually changes humanity for the better, this is a justification of real-world colonialism and “uplift” schemes. Now, how ridiculous would it be to read Octavia Butler (who is emphatically NOT WHITE) this way? Ridiculous, right?
Now obviously this is not to say that neither Herbert nor Butler were ENGAGING with issues of race and colonialism. Of bloody course they were! But they aren’t singing a hymn in praise of The White Man’s Burden, either!

The Mighty Whitey trope suggests that a white person dumped among less white people will automatically become a king and a god. But in Dune, as in other Mighty Whitey stories, there’s a bit more going on.

Firstly, that the Fremen are not less white.

Paul’s whiteness makes him an object of worship for the Fremen.

Other, less race-obsessed people, might consider that Paul’s military and physical training, his knowledge of military history and genetically-engineered prescience make him an object of worship for the Fremen, who desperately need all those qualities, considering they’re being hunted by the Emperor’s elite troops. But they say to write what you know.

But his time with them also gives him access to his full prophetic abilities, ultimately allowing him to defeat the Emperor and become the effective ruler of the universe.

Because Arrakis is the only place where the spice will become inescapable for Paul and bring him to his full powers. Again, that’s in the book.

Similarly, Tarzan is tougher and stronger than other European whites and Iron Fist has powers denied to most white people. Whitey is mighty not just in contrast to people of color, but because of his affinity for people of color.

Or just as possibly, other white people who have been forced into serfdom and outlawry. Amazingly, people do sometimes learn and grow strong when they are exposed to the ways of others who have had to survive tough conditions. I guess Paul should have kept living like he did on Caladan? Because that wouldn’t have been insulting, condescending, or racist at all.

This makes sense if you see Mighty Whitey’s might as a metaphor for imperialism. White people grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.

Now, what’s really funny here is that in order to make your narrative of “Paul The White Oppressor” work, you have to erase huge swaths of the book. YES, there’s a metaphor for imperialism, here. Arrakis is a victim of imperialism by their Harkonnen overlords supported in their imperialism by — pay attention, the name is a clue, here — the Padishah** EMPEROR. Who “grow wealthy and powerful by subjugating other peoples and extracting their resources.” Paul is a LIBERATOR of the Fremen. He is helping them to fight AGAINST that oppression. Which according to you, makes him their oppressor! I await with breathtaking interest your next essay in which you explain that sand is a metaphor for water!

In Dune, the Arrakis desert contains a loose oil analogue called spice. Spice powers spaceships rather than cars or factories. The spice is a drug which sparks telepathic and precognitive abilities and pilots must take it to steer from planet to planet. The Fremen have been made into super fighters by the harsh conditions of Arrakis. Paul takes the spice to become a prophet, and capitalizes on the misery of the Fremen when they become his warriors and sweep away all before them.

Incidentally freeing them from the Harkonnens, who made a ritual out of mocking people dying of thirst, and the Emperor, whose forces happily killed women and babies. The Fremen were already competent-but-miserable warriors who were losing. Paul’s prescience, training, knowledge of weapons, and more importantly his ability to train the Fremen, turned them into warriors that could win. But that doesn’t matter: the important part is that Paul capitalized and that’s bad. Because it sounds like capitalism. Which is bad.

Paul’s divinity and power comes from his ability to capitalize on the resources and pain of others.

No. No it does not. Paul’s powers were already there, and they are activated by the spice that is in the food he eats and in the air he breathes. He begins experiencing his expanded psychic powers before he ever meets the Fremen in the desert. The author is literally accusing Paul of breathing the Fremen’s air and equating that to theft. And by the way, the Fremen claim to “indigenous” status is pretty sketchy in the first place, considering that their ancestors are not native to Arrakis. If anything in Dune can claim “indigenous” status, it’s the sandworms, who are harnessed as riding beasts by the wonderful, “indigenous” Fremen, who plunge hooks into them and ride them to exhaustion. And Paul’s “divinity” comes from the Fremen only on a very surface level: the Fremen were primed to accept Paul not on their own, but by the schemes of the Bene Gesserit, who planted religious legends (Panoplia Propheticus) literally everywhere centuries ago so that their members could use them.

On the surface, Mighty Whitey characters are superior because of their whiteness.

Except they’re not, because the Fremen are just as “provably” as white as Paul. Paul is superior because he has powers other people do not and cannot have. He’s superior because he has wealth and training very few people have. Now if you wanted to argue that Paul is superior because of his privilege, that would be undeniable. He’s a ducal heir. He literally DOES have noble privileges. 

But dig a little deeper, and their powers are borrowed or, more accurately, stolen. They are godlike because they’ve appropriated the labor and wealth of others.

OMG! Nobles steal shit from commoners? NO! Say it ain’t so! In this essay about a novel in which feudalism is portrayed as oppressive, you have detected that feudalism is oppressive. So perhaps I was wrong, and I should instead eagerly await your essay revealing that sand is dry.
This is what happens when people get so wrapped up in current political dogma that they don’t study actual history. Revolutions and revolts are nearly ALWAYS led by discontented elites. It was true of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, etc. DUNE is one more story about that.
I suspect, however, that the point of this essay is that you want stories of a Revolution explicitly and exclusively led by non-whites and/or the proletariat victorious without help. The hero should not be Paul, but rather Stilgar.*** If Stilgar weren’t, you know, a white guy leading white people. Paul should not exist.
What is it that outrages you here? That Paul might use his privilege to help the oppressed attain liberation. But I thought that’s what privilege was SUPPOSED to be used for!
There is literally no way to tell this story that would please you. You want characters in Paul’s position to be simply irredeemable, not based on what they do, but based upon who they are. In actual feudal times, it used to be unconscionable for a slave to aspire to noble blood. Now, it is unconscionable for a noble to aspire to proletarian blood. If Paul acts like an Atreides, he is an oppressor. If he acts like a Fremen, he’s a worse oppressor. Doubtless if he’d done nothing and left the Fremen to the Harkonnens and the Empire, he would be complicit. When EVERYTHING is oppression, NOTHING is.

Paul claims to be wracked with guilt because he sees a future in which he leads the Fremen in a path of bloody destruction across the universe. But really the guilt is for his present glory, built on blood and a deceit that the story won’t, and can’t, quite acknowledge.

Well of course it can’t. You won’t let it. None of Paul’s skill is allowed to count. All his training, all his work, all his determination counts for nothing because it comes from privilege. None of his suffering is allowed to count. He loses his father, his son, almost all of his friends and mentors, is forced to keep the woman he loves as a concubine in a last desperate gambit to mitigate the terrors of the jihad he’s failed to prevent. Paul’s choice is to either completely repudiate his status as the Messiah — in which case he and the Fremen would both lose and become victims of WORSE oppressors — or to accept the lie. That’s one of the main tragedies of the book: that Paul cannot ultimately find a path between tacit deceit and leaving the Fremen oppressed by rulers that intend to commit literal genocide.

A novel that does acknowledge it is Tasha Suri’s 2018 epic fantasy Empire of Sand. Like Dune, Suri’s book is set in a desert and features an incredibly powerful leader, the Maha. Paul’s eyes are blue, because of the spice he takes; the Maha’s pupils have “points of light within them, light as sharp and jagged as shattered glass.” And like Paul, the Maha has a terrifying attraction. Mehr, the novel’s heroine, fears that, “If [the Maha] had wanted to make me love him, I think he could have.”

The Maha is an ageless emperor whose subjects adore and fear him. But his power doesn’t come from himself. Instead, it comes from people like Mehr.

Mehr is a member of the Amrithi, a people who have an intimate connection with daiva, or desert spirits. Amritihi dancing rituals can control the gods. The Maha enslaves Amritihi and forces them to pray for his power and his empire. He’s larger than life because he’s taken other people’s lives and added them to his own.

“Without the dreamfire, you’re nothing but a man who likes to hurt people,” Mehr tells the Maha towards the book’s conclusion. The dreamfire in Empire of Sand is the connection to the gods — but it’s also just other people’s stuff and other people’s labor. Paul is a ninja/computer/prophet/king/mighty whitey only as long as the Fremen aren’t free. When they get their liberty, Tasha Suri suggests, we’ll have fewer god emperors, and maybe a more just world.

Not having read Empire of Sand, I can’t comment much here, except to note that if we accept your claim that Paul is an oppressor for teaching the Fremen the skills they need to defeat their oppressors, another parallel follows. You are (so far as my research can determine) a white American who is trying to point out all the ways non-whites are oppressed, and alert them to their oppression. And you’re making a career of writing about that. Which you could not do unless there was oppression. What does that make you?

*And if you don’t like the book because everybody is white, fine. Just don’t try to make the Fremen non-white AS WELL.
**Still neither a white nor a European title.

** Whose power, let us remember, is based on his ability to be the nastiest son-of-a-bitch with a knife in the sietch. Remember? You said that.

 

The Fault In Ourselves

I find it amusing to notice how a lot of writers and critics like to talk about the literary fashions of the day as though they are eternal truths rather than today’s fads. In the past week, I’ve seen writers bashing on J.R.R. Tolkien for writing long, info-dump chunks, both in descriptions and dialogue, not to mention for creating scenes (Tom Bombadil, anyone?) that had very nearly nothing to do with the major plot of the books. I’ve also seen another writer taking down Tom Clancy for, again, huge chunks of meandering text explaining the minutiae of the military, and giving huge chunks of backstory for minor characters. In both cases, the writers said something like, “I feel these works succeeded in spite of their flaws.”

Well, all works do, to a certain extent. I mean, Dan Brown can make money by publishing his grocery lists, and he wrote passages in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons that conclusively prove that he doesn’t know how either cell phones or air travel work. But these same writers, who will tell you, “You can’t write the way people did fifty years ago and expect to sell” are saying in practically the same breath, “These thirty-to-seventy year old books sucked.”

Well of course they didn’t suck. The standards just changed. Hell, a lot of people didn’t like them then, but the point is that a whole lot MORE people did, and pretending that the books (any books) both violate fundamental rules of writing AND aren’t in tune with the times is just silly. It’s like saying that Shakespeare succeeded in spite of his obsession with writing in iambic pentameter, or that Sophocles succeeded in spite of insisting on having a chorus parade around the stage narrating it. Obviously, they succeeded either because they did these things and people liked it, or because that’s just how things were done and nobody cared. And they remain classics because they are such good works that even these strange features can’t turn people off to them now.

Now the observation that fashions and styles and expectations exist is a vital one for the young writer to understand. I don’t care how good you are, you are not selling the next fantasy epic in iambic pentameter. But we mist not mistake our preferences for the eternal rules of good fiction, or one day it will be us who are wondering why no one will buy our ten-years-ago styled fiction.

Black Panther And Infinity War: Choosing Who Dies On Your Hills.

So, to continue my earlier post on Black Panther, I just really want to know what the MCU was thinking when they allowed Black Panther to die as a result of Thanos’s snap.

And here, I’m not talking about the insensitivity toward a whole lot of Black fans felt by MCU making that move. That’s been discussed, in depth, by Steven Barnes and a whole lot of other people better qualified than me to do it, so I’m not bothering to recap it here. Put simply, it was really bad writing that took a dump on a franchise that MCU had obviously tried to elevate.

I mean, in a sense, Avengers: Infinity War really wrote itself into a corner. Thanos is essentially Sauron, trying to get his hands on a six-part One Ring that makes him invincible. The idea that Frodo has to win by first allowing Sauron to succeed is really fascinating. But they have Wakanda playing the role of Minas Tirith, and losing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But killing off all of Wakanda’s men, save M’Baku, was really foolish. Firstly, you never alienate an entire franchise’s fanbase. That’s just bad marketing.

Secondly, it really doesn’t matter that T’Challa et al. are coming back. Because now, they can never really be the ultimate heroes. They will always be the ones who had to be rescued by the real heroes. And it doesn’t matter that it was random, or that it was unfair. It’s unfair in sports when, say, a wide receiver misses a catch in the end-zone under double coverage that would have been almost impossible to catch, and then a kicker who makes a 25-yard field goal is hailed as the hero for winning the game. The kicker’s job was MUCH easier. But in sports and war that’s just the kind of unforgiving valorization of results that we have to have. In the end, victory is all that really matters, and anyone who’s ever played a game knows that this is so.

In the end, it’s just bad writing to set up characters to be the kind of heroes that Black Panther’s characters were set up to be and then kill off the main hero. It would have been far better to leave T’Challa alive and the king of nothing. Then he can redeem his failure by resurrecting the nation. And it’s not really fair either to point out that other franchises lost their heroes, too, even though it’s true that they did. Peter Quill died, yes, but in some ways, Thanos’s victory was his fault for spoiling the Removal Of The Gauntlet, so he had it coming. Spiderman died, but compared to the rest of the Avengers, he was a kid, hardly expected to pull his own weight. Only T’Challa was a king.

The only way I can see for MCU to come close to redeeming this is for the defeated characters to somehow be brought back prior to Thanos’s defeat, and being absolutely key to that defeat. In other words, for T’Challa et al. to rescue the survivors of Infinity War right back.

Black Panther, The Oscars, and the Writing of Really Great Superhero Movies

So, Black Panther was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and I’ll be the first (actually, the millionth) to say that it deserves the nomination, at least as much as Star Wars did in 1978. Whether it wins or not, it’s a stunning film.

I’m going to preface this with a note: I’m pretty sure that I will never feel, on a gut level, how important Black Panther was to Black Americans. My Black friends who care about such things are absolutely in love with the movie, and I suspect, were I Black, I would be, too, and for a host of reasons I can only partially fathom. I think it is an awesome movie.

And yet… somehow, for me, it doesn’t quite measure up to the very best of the best movies in the superhero genre, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There was just something about it that kept me from putting it on the same level as Captain America: Civil War and The Incredibles. Because these are the superhero movies I watch again and again.

I finally figured it out a couple of days ago, and when I did it hit me like a freight train, because I’ve seen the exact same flaw in my own work, and in other unpublished novels. The problem is that it’s hard to explain. The best way I can say it is this: when you are working with complex characters, it is often very tempting to put them on the stage alone, or with only one other character. Doing so allows you to make the audience focus on them. In addition, it is VERY tempting to make especially your villains into ultimate badasses. After all, the more powerful they are, the more glorious your hero’s victory over them.

Black Panther does this with Erik Killmonger. Killmonger arrives, having killed his former partner, Ulysses Klaue — which T’Challa could not do* — and leverages this into a bid for the Wakandan throne, revealing his identity as an abandoned Wakandan prince of the blood.

But unfortunately, this screws with the film in two other ways. Firstly, it forces the film into a scene that is almost purely repetitive. We have to go through the entire “duel for the throne” that T’Challa just won against the Jabari challenger. It forces us to tread over ground already covered. Secondly, it throws the whole Wakandan throne — or T’Challa’s judgment — into question. If the throne is permanently open to challenge, then how stable can it be? It can’t and the film implies that T’Challa, already having gone through the challenge, would have been well within his rights to refuse the challenge. But he accepts, in what I consider to be the weakest part of the film. It actually makes T’Challa less of a hero, because he places Wakanda at risk of being taken over by a monarch who will have absolute power, who has shown the willingness and potential to brutally destabilize the world, and who has no reason, really, to keep Wakanda safe: Killmonger pretty much blames Wakandan inaction not only for his own terrible life, but for the unopposed colonialism and conquest of the developing world. Why does T’Challa do this? Because of guilt at his father’s action? Because he believes he can’t be defeated? Neither is a good reason.

With the admitted benefits of hindsight, I think that there were ways to avoid this. For example: Suppose the coronation itself is interrupted by the need to apprehend Klaue and the stolen vibranium. T’Challa points out that a true king must prioritize the defense of the nation over his official coronation. Then, while having the wounded Ross airlifted out by Okoye and Nakia, he chases down Klaue and Killmonger. Killmonger shoots Klaue in the back, and then proceeds to fight T’Challa and lose. Upon surrendering, he is taken into custody.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger asks only one favor for his plea of guilt: he asks, as a descendant of the African Diaspora, to witness the Wakandan coronation ceremony. T’Challa accedes to this harmless request. At the coronation, the Jabari challenge. T’Challa wins as we saw in the film (which already hints that the Black Panther must face any and all legitimate challengers). As T’Challa rises in victory, Killmonger reveals his identity as N’Jadaka, before everyone, and claims his right to challenge as a prince of the blood. He is fresh, and T’Challa is tired, but he is within his rights. He has orchestrated the entire situation to be where he is at the right time. It makes him a little less physically imposing, but it makes him frighteningly smart. It makes T’Challa less of a dupe, because how could he have suspected such a plan? His own father unwittingly set him up. And halfway through the duel, of course, Killmonger can start telling him — and showing him — that their “fight” before had been Killmonger deliberately losing. And since it’s all one scene, we don’t have any feeling that this is covering old ground.

Even better, when T’Challa’s mother recovers him and the heart-shaped herb and takes him to the Jabari, it is discovered that Killmonger, in secret, provoked the Jabari to the challenge (we never do get a very good explanation for why they broke their isolation in the film) and used their chieftain as a stalking horse to weaken T’Challa to ensure his own victory. This can be the reason that the Jabari decide to back T’Challa, to avenge their having been played by the usurper.

I think this approach would have resulted in a more streamlined film, which would have made T’Challa more consistent with his awesome portrayal in Civil War, and does not require diminishing any other aspect of this very fine movie. Of course, it’s not going to happen. That’s not the point. The point is that I hope I — and you, if you’re a writer — can incorporate the techniques discussed to improve our own fiction.

*Actually, and this is a wonderful bit of subtlety in the film, he chooses not to to keep his people — and Agent Ross, his ally — safe. Because that’s the awesome kind of king T’Challa is.

How Not To Pace Your Fiction

So, as I mentioned earlier, last year I got to spend most of the fall semester teaching a group of high school students the basics of fiction writing. I want to talk about the story of a particular young lady I’m going to call BR. BR is a very talented young writer, far ahead of the curve for being a senior in high school, certainly one of the two best in the class. She decided to try her hand at high fantasy. She wrote a D&D-esque story about a young girl, the tribal chief’s daughter, who goes out to slay a bear for her rite of passage.

Firstly, I was very impressed by the consistency of character and the beautiful, clear prose she used. I truly wish I had been that good in high school.

But at the very beginning, I was convinced that I was about to read the story of a Mary Sue who easily annihilated every foe before her. It took me almost to the climax to realize that I was wrong about this, and it took me even longer to realize why I had been so misled. Because it wasn’t a flaw in the character. It was a flaw in the pacing.

Like many young writers, BR had decided to establish her character early on in the reader’s mind. But the way she did this was to have the protagonist’s father organize this huge send-off for her while everyone on the tribe cheered her on. This had two unfortunate effects that BR did not intend:
1) It exaggerated her protagonist’s virtues. And we couldn’t know this, because we had no way of knowing that her father was blinded by his own pride in her.
2) For about the first two pages, nothing happened except the cheering, so the story seemed very static.

BR had fallen into the trap of trying to describe her character and the setting all at once. She knew that she needed to show this rather than tell it, but she used so much dialogue that she ended up more or less “telling” anyway. Note that nothing in her technique was necessarily unrealistic. But the technique set us up with false (and bad)  expectations anyway. She killed the story in the mind of the reader. Just being realistic is never enough to establish your story. You have to do it so that it grabs the reader’s interests. On top of this, BR was so focused on her dialogue that she ignored other parts of the story. For example, before she leaves, the protagonist is blessed by an orc shaman. And as a result, I wondered throughout the story whether she was an orc (which she was not).

Now the way to fix this would have been to cut down the dialogue and have a respectful silence while, say, the orc shaman was blessing the protagonist. Then, BR could have used some quick description and the protag’s thoughts to contrast with the exaggerated praise being heaped upon her and to establish the makeup of the tribe. Then, the protagonist leaves,and we’re right into the action. Probably even better would have been to do the intro in flashback and to start the story “hot:” with her tracking or fighting, or running from the bear. This would have the effect of bringing the readers right into the story until they were interested enough to read through the intro.

It’s a very typical error to make, and one I made often myself. I hope BR keeps writing, as I have.

Writing Roundup 2018: The Bad, The Good, and The Beautiful

Well, for the last blog entry of the year, it’s time for 2018’s Writing Roundup. I’ll start with the bad news.

2018 was my worst year for short story sales since 2014. I was only able to sell two stories to new markets, though I am proud of both sales. “Iron Out Of Vulcan,” about a strange apocalypse that spared only the disabled, appeared in the anthology Battling In All Her Finery, and “In The Republic Of The Blind,” a military Space Opera originally written for (of all things) an anthology on Space Marine Midwives (which as far as I know never launched) sold to Amazing Stories. Of course, it is always nice to crack a new pro magazine market, so that is the silver lining.

However, 2018 was also my best year for actually writing, possibly in my life. The first part of the year was taken up by receiving my very first novel contract, which takes a bit of the sting out of the aforementioned short fiction sales slump, from Digital Fiction Pub, for a 53,000-word middle-grade science-fiction adventure on the moon with the tentative title of The Girl Who Wasn’t There. This should be released in 2019.
The next major project that I tackled was the rewriting (at the request of a Publisher-Who-Cannot-Be-Named) of a manuscript I had previously submitted, tentatively titled Beneath The Verdant Tide.
And finally, I finished the draft of the full novel-length version of A Doctor To Dragons, which is tentatively titled All Things Huge and Hideous. I hope to have this released in early 2019, but if you want an early look, the chapters are being released each month to my Patreon backers.

My first novel manuscript took me five years to finish. This year I knocked out two while revising a third, so I’d say that this represents a major leap forward in my production, including the discovery of the fact that I am indeed capable of writing a novel LESS than 125,000 words in length.

All in all, a good year, and I can’t wait for the next one. I hope all my readers feel the same. May the New Year bring you all the best.

Scott Huggins

Fallen Horseshoes To Appear In Anthology!

I’m very happy to say that I got confirmation that one of my earliest published stories, “Fallen Horseshoes” which concerns a blacksmith with a haunted forge, will be reprinted in an anthology this coming year. Details will follow, but for now, I’m going to link to the sample snippet and be happy that this story will appear somewhere other than the back issue of a not-very-well-known magazine.

Handwavio Obviosum: Harry Potter and the Woman Behind The Curtain

Read The Goblet Of Fire to my kids earlier this year, and it struck me that the Triwizard Tournament about which the story revolves is really a great example of an author wanting very desperately to have her cake and eat it, too. If Rowling has a strength as an author, it’s her ability to write characters we fall in love with and hate (because they’re all of us and the kids we went to school with) and her ability to pace her stories to keep us reading.

But she never was a gamer, and she doesn’t understand games. This should have been obvious with her creation of Quidditch, a game that exists for no other purpose but to catapult Harry alone to stardom, by placing him in the position on a team to always, 100% of the time, win (or rarely, lose) the game for his House.¹ And there are no other sports (seriously, when have you ever been to a school where there is ONE sport?) and they never play other schools (which is kind of odd, because there are WORLD CUPS in Quidditch, aren’t there?)

This was never more obvious than the Triwizard Tournament. Granted, Rowling has a serious problem, here: just making Harry the Hogwarts champion by random draw would be a coincidence of the first water, and unbelievable. Of course, she could have had Moody/Crouch make certain of that by using some previously-unknown spell to make him the real champion, but it would have been a dead giveaway since it is indeed only logical that junior and senior (6th and 7th year) students will be the most capable of doing ANY task in a high school. Plus, of course, it loses the entire reason that Cedric can be killed and for Harry to be hated throughout the book.

So Rowling comes up with the whole fourth champion trick. Which serves every purpose except making any actual sense. Consider: the solutions that everyone but Dumbledore arrives at are quite sensible: 1) Don’t let Harry Compete, and 2) Give the other schools additional champions.
When these solutions are proposed, there is a lot of handwaving about some sort of “magical contract” that demands Harry compete, so that we do not pay attention to the woman behind the curtain who does not want the plot to go that way, dammit! But never a word is said about how it will be enforced. The Goblet, having chosen the champions, has no further role to play in the tournament.² There was no reason that Dumbledore could not have agreed to the quite reasonable solution of having Harry operate under impossible constraints (e.g. Giving Harry only one minute to accomplish each challenge). Or, since all the events but the final were judged, and the judges were under no constraints to judge fairly, by simply instructing the judges to give Harry zeroes no matter how he performed.  In fact, it’s kind of out of character that Maxime and Karkaroff don’t do that.
But even so, who does this magical contract punish if it’s not carried out? Hogwarts? How? Harry? Apparently not, because Harry drags his feet over the Second Task and goes into it completely unprepared, and the Tournament makes no move to punish him for his procrastination. This of course would have been the easiest way for Harry to avoid the opprobrium of his fellow students: just refuse to succeed.

So what can we learn from this? I suggest a few basic lessons: Firstly, don’t make things you have no interest in (like sport and games) central to your conflict. Secondly, if you create something like a “magical contract” it needs to have an enforcement clause. Real things have real consequences. Finally, handwaving to make people stop asking questions rarely works well.

¹This would have been easy enough to fix, by the way, and still let Harry do his thing. The obvious solution would have been to make the Snitch catchable by every player on the team and then make Harry a Chaser who was just really good at finding Snitches.

²This also would have worked as a partial fix. If the Goblet itself had magically spawned the challenges, this would have actually made sense. It would not have continued the tournament until Harry passed (or failed) his challenge, and additional challengers would have had no challenge to fight.

 

A Modest Proposal: The Bombadil Scale of Sidequests

A friend recently asked in a open forum what the proper size of a sidequest in a novel should be. We all know sidequests: those are the moments in which the characters pause in the middle of their Main Quest to do Something Else. What the Something Else may be has a huge (but not the only) effect on its proper size. This got me thinking, and I would like to propose the following system of measurement:

The SI unit of measure for a sidequest is the bombadil. One bombadil is the amount of gratuitous sidequest necessary to make 50% of readers give up on their first readthrough. No sidequest should ever measure more than 0.05 bombadils, though famous authors may push it to 0.1 bombadil.

The amount of prose necessary to comprise a bombadil is variable, and depends on the general tediousness of the sidequest, the characters involved in the sidequest, how much they grow in the sidequest, and how it affects the progress of the Main Quest. Of course, it also depends on the raw length of the sidequest, but that is not as important as you might think. A truly gifted writer can make the sidequest just as important as the Main Quest.

So let’s look at the archetypal case. In The Fellowship Of The Ring, our heroes, Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin, all get ensorcelled by an evil tree and freed by Tom Bombadil, a mysterious humanoid who takes them home to his just-as-strange wife for dinner. Bombadil later frees them from an evil barrow-wight and arms them with the treasure it was guarding. Breaking it down we have:

T = general Tediousness: Very High. The characters eat and sleep and listen to childish lyric poetry (10), slightly offset by them getting into two spots of serious and interesting trouble (-2): 8
S = characters exclusive to the Sidequest: 2 (lowest value for this variable is 1)
M = characters on the Main Quest: 4
g = growth of the characters because of the sidequest: Significant, but small. Frodo shows that he is capable of thinking, fighting and securing a temporary victory at need: 4
D = What it Diverts from: Walking to the nearest town. This is difficult, because on the one hand, diverting us from something that should be skipped right over adds tedium, but diverting us in the middle of something absolutely critical to the main plotline is worse, so this defies an easy, linear scale. Allow negative numbers on this one, with zero being the value at which the plot is progressing at a steady, unhurried, pace: Just walking along: -2
Finally, we introduce 4 as a constant, because all great equations have constants, and because a sidequest is only about a quarter as interesting as the main quest at best, a fact writers should ALWAYS remember, regardless of how clever they find themselves.

This gives us the following equation:

TSD²/4Mg = Qs (Sidequest value in bombadils)

And plugging in our values, we get:

8*2*2²/4*4*4 = 1 bombadil.

Initially, I had been going to factor in the sidequest’s ultimate importance to the story, whch would have made the score lower because one of the hobbit’s weapons, acquired on this sidequest, ultimately helps to destroy the Lord of the Nazgul. But the point is that we do not know that, and therefore it has no effect on whether or not the reader gets bored to death and puts the book down.

So, for some examples:

The Empire Strikes Back: Luke’s training sequence on Dagobah: Qs = 0.05 bombadil
T = 5 (cool Jedi powers and a fight with ghost-Vader, offset by boring platitudes on Planet Swamp).
S = 1
D = 0.5 (an increasingly-tense hunt for the Falcon, but Luke has to have a storyline of his own)
M = 1 (no, Artoo doesn’t count)
g = 6 (Luke becomes at least half a Jedi, but undisciplined.

The Eye Of The World: Perrin and Egwene’s sojourn with Elyas: Qs = 0.25 bombadils
T = 4 (It’s Jordan’s incredibly-detailed prose, but the whole thing with the wolves is awesome)
S = 1 (Elyas)
D = 1 (It’s about on pace with everything else)
M = 2 (Perrin and Egwene)
g = 8 (This sidequest basically starts Perrin’s character arc as a badass)

Moby Dick: The chapter on whales: Qs = 36 bombadils 
T = 9. A lecture on whales. In the middle of a novel. Only not a 10 because whales are inherently cool.
S = 1
D = -2 (for being Moby Dick. They’re sailing.)
M = 1 (Ishmael)
g = 1 (he learns about whales)

It: That one scene near the end as the kids escape the recently-defeated It. Yeah. THAT one: Qs = 96 bombadils
T = (the exact number defies description, but the Ick factor makes me conservatively estimate it, on a scale of 1 to 10 at) 27.
S = 1
D = 5 (seriously, the book was OVER).
M = 7
g = 1 (in a really disgusting way)

Note that when main characters are uninvolved in the sidequest, you are approaching infinite bombadils, and should just stop.

So, there you have it, a completely objective and indisputable method for solving the worth of various sidequests. You’re welcome.

 

The Lesson Behind The Lesson: Stakes and the Ending.

Everyone should be a teacher at some point in their lives. I don’t mean, of course, that everyone should be a paid teacher in a public school. There are far too many hoops to jump through for that. But in teaching your subject matter, you sometimes discover new truths about it. You’re forced to, when you have to explain your choices to people who haven’t yet developed the unconscious competence that you’ve absorbed through years of trial and error.

This semester, I got to teach about 33 high-school seniors the basics of short story writing. Among other things, I did expose them to a whole list of handy “don’ts.” Don’t switch viewpoints if you can avoid it. Don’t write in both past and present tense at the same time. Don’t end your story with “And then they woke up and it had all been a dream.”

Of course, these being high-schoolers, I got ignored a lot. Having taught high school for years, I am well aware of their tendency to do whatever is easiest, besides the permanent streak of “you can’t make me care” that is natural to the age. But I didn’t expect to get so much apparent pushback on that last one. I had stories that ended when the main character woke up. I had stories that ended when the main character got dragged away to an insane asylum. Or back to their cell because they were already in an insane asylum. Or won what turned out to be a game.

And I realized then that this wasn’t pushback at all: this was the desperation of people who didn’t know what to do to end their stories, and hadn’t seen the common thread that was so obvious to me. Many of my readers will have figured it out already, but for those who aren’t to where they can do that yet (and we all pass through that stage), I’ll spell it out: the problem with all of these endings is that they destroy the actual story.

How do they destroy it? Well it helps, perhaps, to think of a story as a game. A game played for stakes. When you read a story, the characters’ lives, fortunes, their sacred honor, even their souls may be at stake. If it’s at stake, that means they can be lost. When the events of the story are revealed to be a dream, a hallucination, or a game, then that means none of it was ever really at stake in the first place. It’s like discovering that the players around the poker table, wagering thousands of dollars, were in fact playing with Monopoly money.

So I had to break that down for them, and it was interesting to watch the lights go on. And there are even ways around these endings that can make them meaningful. A Christmas Carol ends with Scrooge waking up, but you never doubt that his soul was really at stake and that the Ghosts were real. Shutter Island does indeed end with Leo DiCaprio’s character being dragged off to the insane asylum, but it works because he did have a moment of understanding in which he could have chosen the hard road back up to sanity, rather than embracing his delusions. In Larry Niven’s and Steven Barnes’s Dream Park, the game matters because a) the characters are well-defined enough that the game has real-world meaning to them, besides being entangled with an actual murder. The problem with these endings, most of the time, is that the writer confuses emotion with stakes.

We’ve all been really scared by a bad dream. The fear is real. And certainly, the plight of someone suffering through insanity (or even mental illness) is heart-wrenching. But watching someone be scared by a bad dream, or someone be insane, or someone be thrilled by a game is not interesting. That’s like watching an injured athlete sit on the sidelines. It may be very sad that he is there, but it’s not going to change for the whole game. He has no role to play in it, and he will be lucky to get two sentences said about him for thirty seconds of screen time.

You can tell a meaningful story only if the dream, the insanity, or the game have real meaning in the characters’ real lives. Anything less, and the readers have no reasons to care