Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Authoritative* Ranking of the Science Fiction Movies of the 80s

A little while ago put out a list of the best 80s fantasy movies, which I reworked because the first list was just dumb. But it got me thinking about how there were so many more 80s sci-fi movies, and how a good number of them became famous classics, which isn't really the case with any of the fantasy movies (they're more in the way of beloved cultish movies); and that they were also much more financially successful, some of them. With that in mind, I decided to create a ranked and slightly explained list of those movies. There's a good number of caveats: I only include movies I've seen and can remember, so there's movies that aren't on the list (Buckaroo Bonzai, Cocoon, Brother from Another Planet, Starman) because of my own failings. Also, I tried to avoid sequels (thus no Empire or Jedi) but I made exceptions where the sequel felt really distinct from the earlier movie (Aliens, The Road Warrior) or where I felt like it (Wrath of Khan, which, to be honest, does feel distinct from Star Trek The Motion Picture in that it's a movie that is watchable). I also left off a bunch of things that are kinda sorta sci-fi (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure; Weird Science; Brazil) because I don't think they're actually meant to be sci-fi and/or I don't want to think of them as sci-fi. And probably I just missed some, because the 80s had a lot of science fiction films going on. By a strange chance, I ended up with 25 movies to rank, which is a nice number, and so I'm going to not look too hard for any more in any case.

Now, without further ado, the rankings, starting from the lowest ebb and climbing to the greatest heights.

25. Night of the Comet (1985) I put this movie on the list not because it actually deserves to be on it, but because you have to have a rock bottom. There has to be a movie that I decided was the worst of what I'd put on here, and this is it. Not that it's entirely awful. Mostly awful, yes, but it's kind of good silly fun? It's not that different from several movies that appear higher up on the list, to be honest. Here's the "plot": a comet sweeps by earth and kills pretty much everyone, except evil military scientists, two rather shallow young women, and a couple of guys. The idiot brigade have to save what's left of the world. That's about it. But it's kind of fun for being so dumb, and it's definitely sci fi even if stupidly so, and so it can fit on the bottom of the list.

24. Deep Star Six/Leviathan (both 1989) They only get one listing because, though I saw them both, I can't remember what they're about separately. For some reason in 1989 movies became obsessed with what was going on under the sea. There were these two films and the much better The Abyss (see below) all in one year. All I remember about these two is monsters and water. Lots of monsters and water. Maybe I'm even remembering Deep Blue Sea in there a little? Hard to say. They both pretty much sucked, and together maybe they were better than Night of the Comet, and they are much more sci-fi, so I'll give them one more rank. Barely.

23. Cyborg (1989) Jean Claude van Damme. That's about all that needs to be said. He's a cyborg. I think he's protecting some scientists, or some women, or possibly some women who are scientists? Mostly he's kicking people, and punching them, and doing the splits, and sometimes having wiring showing. I think it was supposed to be kind of like Terminator 2 (which isn't on this list because sequel, even though Linda Hamilton was amazing in that movie, and I wish I could put it on, but it's kind of too similar to Terminator, which, see below.)

22. Escape from New York (1981) This is a bit of a weak showing, I'll admit. There's a good amount of love for Snake Plisken (even if he is rather short). But I don't really remember caring hardly at all for the movie even when I first saw it, and it's one of those ridiculous movies where the future it's predicting is so far from ever having come true that it's gotten a little embarrassing. The very idea of Manhattan being an enclosed prison seems bizarre now; it's about the richest enclave in the United States that's still open to all and sundry. But sometime in 1980 everyone could imagine it happening easily enough that this movie got made. What I remember is a lot of grottiness and gangs, and bad lighting, and probably Adrienne Barbeau? She was also in Swamp Thing which I left off this list (forgive me, but I couldn't add it in, I just couldn't. Swamp Thing. Ugh.) Anyway, it wasn't terrible, but it's not very good, either. So 22 it is.

21. E.T. (1982) I cried like hell when I saw this movie. I was also 10. It's really well made and it's cute and at times it's pretty dark, but it is an artifact of Steven Spielberg's career. Probably it deserves to be higher ranked than this, but I'm not going to be the one to put it there over the movies I have in the top 20. Even if I have serious reservations about some of those movies. The fact is, I've never felt the faintest need to watch this movie again after seeing it when I was 10; have seen most of it one time since then, and bits other times, but don't feel like I'm missing anything. That's why it's where it is.

20. Flash Gordon (1980) Over the top ridiculousness. I know a lot of people have a lot of love for this movie, though I have no real idea why. It's goofy, looks cheap, is generally poorly acted, and perhaps is a relatively accurate depiction of its intellectual property, which isn't the best thing. It's not the strongest property in the end. The movie has its moments, though, and its commitment to being alarmingly wacky works in its favor. This is a movie I can waste two hours watching, but note, it's still two hours wasted entirely.

19. Robocop (1987) After NYC took a dive in the 70s, Detroit collapsed in the 80s (and continues to do so to this day.) So making this movie only made sense, and it's dystopia of commerce, crime, decay and rampant over-policing feels much more fresh than anything Escape From New York has to offer. Anchored by a solid performance from Peter Weller (as an unfeeling machine for much of the movie, but still) Robocop holds up well and is still a decent film. Brutal and grim and made with a good will by Paul Verhoeven, I'd still buy that for a dollar.

18. The Last Starfighter (1984) Perhaps the first movie to manage to take seriously the idea that video games are important (I don't know that I count Tron, below, because it wasn't actually about video games, but was inspired by them...hard to say.) Bound by the technology of the time, the video game is shamefully low rent, and one wonders how a galactic civilization would produce such a shitty device. But they wanted it to blend in, I guess? It's a great story, though: chosen hero has a chance to save the galaxy, while his weird clone is left behind to provide comic relief on earth. Great fun to be had with this one, but it's kind of slight, and the effects have dated very much. I still like it, though.

17. Transformers: The Movie (1986) I piled into cars with eight or so of my friends and we all drove up to the far north of Seattle to go see this movie. It was that important, that we'd drive twenty miles packed into a couple cars, darting and weaving, to see the Transformers on the big screen. Screw all these modern live action Transformers movies: this is the real deal. Suddenly deep history, destroyed planets, dying heroes, Orson Welles doing his last bit of voice work before he died. To be honest, the voice cast is pretty great: Eric Idle, Leonard Nimoy, Judd Nelson, Scatman Crothers. But the fact of the matter was, this was a favorite show made over into a bigger, more dangerous, more epic on all levels movie, and as such it still holds a special place in my heart. It's also not really that good, and probably I'm rating it too high. Too bad, it's my list, so here it is.

16. Tron (1982) This movie I could watch over and over, and I have. It's got a kind of freakish genius to it; none of it makes any sense or is in any way accurate to anything anyone has ever known about computing. But it doesn't matter. It looks great (still; weirdly, it still looks great), it's got amazing ideas, there's a wonderful story to it and it was so far ahead of its time that no one had any clue what to do with it when it came out. 1982 is probably the strongest year as far as this decade is concerned; it will turn up again on this list more than once. I don't know what was going on: maybe technology had reached a point where some things were possible that hadn't been before. But there's some good films in 1982, and Tron not the least of them.

15. They Live (1988) This isn't strictly speaking a good movie. It features really stupid fight scenes; Rowdy Roddy Piper is a strange but compelling choice as lead; in the end it's pretty dumb. But it's also genius, for many reasons. The first is, it's actually got a message, which science fiction should have, and which a lot of the movies on this list just don't. Commercialism is bad, y'all, and we're all sheep, and even if we weren't, maybe we'd still go along with it. Secondly, it's clever when it needs to be. "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubblegum." That's a great line. It just is. And the movie has a lot of them. The subliminal signs saying "Consume" and "Buy" and "Submit" are all awesome. It's just clever enough without being too full of itself.

14. The Abyss (1989) Higher maybe? I wish I could put this movie higher. It's good. It's so good. Great performances (mostly; they're a little over the top, I guess). Beautifully made. All sorts of great effects. Maybe even a message? (Aliens are okay? Love conquers all? Hard to say...there might not be one at all.) But for Pete's sake, is it ponderous in places. Overwrought. I'd put it higher except I don't think I want to ever watch it all the way through again, even though I liked it a lot. But it is, empirically, a good movie. It earns the #14 slot. Maybe even more, but the Abyss isn't getting anything higher on my list, nope.

13. Dune (1984) What a mess. What a glorious, extravagant, alarming mess. Take a complicated, weird book, and film it so that it's complicated and weird in entirely different ways. Hire superb actors and have them be caricatures or cameos. Film so much material that you can make multiple director's cuts if you want. And then still have people be able to be surprised that it's David Lynch, because they didn't think he did this kind of peculiar. Whether it's the Battle Pug, or milking a cat (and a rat?), Sting, or Muad'dib as a killing word (wtf?) there's nothing the least bit ordinary about this movie. That being said, it's close to unwatchable unless it's already of interest to you; unlike most of the movies on this list there's no easy point of access. You have to like Dune, or like Lynch, or be deeply invested in science fiction as a genre, to want to expose yourself to Dune. A mess. An amazing mess.

12. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) Controversy! On two points! First, this is a sequel, and I don't have sequels on my list (except I do, and the first Star Trek movie was genuinely awful and should be forgotten). Second, it's not even in the top 10! Well, that's because it's a great Star Trek movie, but it's not a great movie. I'm judging on the overall scope of things, and Wrath of Khan is pretty good as a movie, but it's not superb. I don't really need to say much, as this is one of the best known movies on the list. Costumes were awful, hair was terrifying, visuals were nice, acting was what you could expect from Star Trek. It revitalized the franchise, which is good: another snooze fest or a bomb would have probably finished it off entirely, and that would have been a shame for the course of science fiction entertainment (and the career of the Battle Pug's steed, Patrick Stewart).

11. Enemy Mine (1985) This is a small gem of a movie. Very small. Mostly it's about two people: first a human and an alien who hate each other but grow to be hostile friends; and then a human and an alien who are most certainly family, and would do anything for one another. It's a small story, really, one with great ramifications in its fictional world, but still small, and all the better for it. It suffers from being dated like a whole lot of these movies, but even so, it very nearly cracks the top 10, and it very nearly deserves to. It was close.

10. The Fly (1986) Some people might say this is horror, and I'd give them that point. But it's really about the ramifications of science and experimentation, so I'm calling it science fiction. Now, Brundle is an idiot who shouldn't be allowed to run experiments, but that's science in the movies for you. The practical effects are great, the plot is actually pretty gruesome and horrifying, and there isn't a happy ending. It's a great movie that follows through on its ridiculous premise very well indeed, and it wouldn't work if Jeff Goldblum wasn't a weirdo in real life as well as this film. But because he is, it works very well indeed.

9. Alien Nation (1988) Police procedural; first contact film; social commentary. This is the grandparent of District 9, done in a slightly more hopeful way: the aliens can adapt, kind of; the humans can accept them, kid of. But in both cases, not really. The movie's pretty solid though. Solid enough that they made a show out of it, which was kind of solid too. The key thing about it was, I feel, that it told us enough to be interesting without telling us enough to be obvious. That's a hard balance, and this was a good movie because it carried it off.

8. The Running Man (1987) Oddly, we're now going to get into the movies that are fun. Gripping yarns, in one way or another, instead of smart and thoughtful (and dullish) movies. A couple manage to be both at this point, but mostly we're in for fun, slightly clever movies. The Running Man is the worst of the best: it's mind-numbingly stupid as far as the one liners given to Arnold to spout out, but there's some cleverness to the overall conceit. Reality TV hasn't gotten this bad, but the delight people take in watching the shame and misery of contestants on the Bachelor or Real Housewives isn't too far off. This movie, supposedly based on a Stephen King story, has nothing to do with it in reality; instead it's just about a brash capitol punishment style game show, with celebrity killers in a death maze. And it does that really well. There's a faint suggestion of a social message about freedom and human dignity, but that's just lip service: this is about Arnold getting into fights with lightning and winter and winning. But the real star, the real reason to watch the movie, is somehow Richard fucking Dawson, and I don't understand that, but it's true. He's solid. So is the movie around him, impossibly.

7. Back to the Future (1985) The first of two time travel movies to make the list. It's weird because time travel is normally a horrible thing, but it goes over fine in the two movies featuring it in my top 25. Back to the Future is of course a cultural touchstone; the constant (and wrong) memes of "This is the day Marty went to in the future" prove that. (Note: he'll be here soon). Also, we still get to bitch because we have no hover boards or flying cars (though that's the sequels, and we won't be talking about them, but still). The movie is brilliant in so many ways, though: the picture changing slowly but surely as Marty messes up, the clever ways it plays with time, the excellent casting (though the age makeup was never very strong). It's also just enjoyable and that's actually very important. This is a movie you can smile as you watch for the umpteenth time. Michael J. Fox was never better, and Christopher Lloyd is forever Doc Brown. So good.

6. Predator (1987) A smarter movie than it appears to be. Brutal and vicious alien comes to Central America, hunts commando team sent to capture some sort of rebels (I can't even remember the details there, and don't need to: it's window dressing.) Deaths ensue, one after another, as an invisible Predator chases down our "heroes" and kills them effieciently and without much more interest than a big game hunter. Which is what the Predator is, of course. Decent performances by the various slabs of meat depicting our commandos are pleasantly surprising. Sadly it inspired a sequel or two, and then those Alien v Predator movies and comics and games, and I can't be thrilled about all of that, but you can see at least why it did: this is a solid foundation, and a great movie.

5. The Road Warrior (1981) Top 5. Here we go, into the real quality stuff. The Road Warrior is technically a sequel, but Mad Max (the first movie) is so very different in style and quality from TRW that it's not actually easy to see how they're connected except that we're told they are. I mean, they both take place in Australia in the future, but in one there's a broken society not too far off from Escape From New York or Robocop, and in the other there's...the Road Warrior. This movie has perhaps the most excellent long term chase scene, as Our Hero (mostly silent) struggles to get a water tank from one isolated base to another; this set piece goes on and on, and is so good that it obscures the fact that there's a rest of the movie. Which there is, though it's not the best, and there's not really much of it (the set piece chase is very, very long.) In many ways the sequel Beyond Thunderdome is better (especially a scary good Tina Turner) but it wouldn't exist without this movie. Solid action science fiction, and a classic soon to be remade (and probably worsened, but that's to be seen.)

4. The Thing (1982) Another movie that could be horror, yep. But it's an alien life form in an Antarctic base, and it's got a space ship, and genetic conquest, and holy crap why am I not watching this movie right now? Solid terror, solid paranoia, good effects (that haven't aged well, but still they look kind of grossly neat) and a strong cast make this a winner in every way. Even if the story doesn't quite explain itself (how did the alien infect certain people? Well, there's fan theories, but who the hell knows if any of them are correct?) You know what? Wilford Brimley does good work; Kurt Russell's a solid anchor; and the ending is one of the most grim and gripping in film. It holds up very well indeed except for the effects, and why am I not watching it right now?

3. The Terminator (1984) After that last one, you'd think I should have given The Thing a higher place. But I know it's not the best thing ever, just a very good movie to watch, and the two categories aren't necessarily the same. And with this movie we arrive on three incredibly good films, amazingly good. I had a hard time figuring out which to put where, to be honest. The Terminator is a stellar film. Arnold is perfectly cast as a machine who is deadly and is in fact programmed to deliver occasional one liners; Micheal Biehn was really good (and really hot) and Linda Hamilton did pretty well with what she was given. Her return in T2 would more than justify this first movie, with it's not terribly strong female lead. Why is this movie great? Because it handled time travel really well; because the Terminator itself was a great villain; because the connection between the two leads felt as if it could have been real; because the action was superbly put together and the world building was strong. It was good enough to inspire a better sequel (but 1991, and also very much a sequel so it's not on this list) and to make me willing to accept that T3 was actually a good thing (because it's got a great ending that rivals The Thing for appropriate grimness). I probably can't say enough in praise of this movie, but I probably don't need to. It's spectacular.

2. Blade Runner (1982) But not as spectacular as Blade Runner. Harrison Ford as a gumshoe, effectively; a grim noir future that is almost still possible; beautiful design elements everywhere; so much style and panache. This is a movie that gives you a world and makes you live in it entirely, without really any slips or suggestions that you're seeing a fake thing. That's hard to accomplish, but Blade Runner does it pretty easily. There are partisans for the director's cut, but I don't actually care; I thought it was nearly perfect in the theatrical version, and the other cut doesn't improve it for me. The much maligned narration doesn't hurt it at all, as far as I am concerned; I think having already heard the narration means you don't need the information when you see the director's cut, but that if you'd never seen the original, you'd miss it. Either way,  for completeness of vision, for excellence of execution, for the fact that it still looks good today, I think it's the second best movie on the list. (Note: this too is an adaptation, more inaccurate even than Dune though not quite so bad as The Running Man. But it's also an improvement over the source material, so there's that.)

1. Aliens (1986) A movie so good some people are willing to forgive Prometheus for existing. Also so good I overlook the fact that it's a sequel, but I have a reason for that, too: Alien and Aliens are entirely different movies. One is a monster movie, a slasher picture even, just set on a space ship and done with gruesome beauty. The other (this one) is an action movie, and a really damned good one. The writing, the acting, the direction, the effects, it's all superb. Every character feels different which is hard considering most of them don't get much screen time and most of them are in the same profession (Marines). A smarmy villainous corporate goon who does his job really, really well. Bishop. Hicks and Newt, whose untimely deaths prejudiced people strongly against the also excellent Alien3. And Ripley. Holy shit, Ripley. A strong female character who is actually strong and actually female, who uses her skills and her spirit and her knowledge and her desperation, all at once, to pull out a win of sorts. Pacing that hits all the right beats at all the right moments. I could go on and on, but instead, you should just watch this movie again. It's that good, and you all know it.

So there's my list. What's in the wrong place? What did I unforgivably forget? What movie would you put as your #25 placeholder?

*totally not authoritative.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Divinities in Fantasy Fiction and Games

I have some problems with how divinities (gods and goddesses of all sorts) work in fiction. I'm not speaking of God or Allah or Vishnu or anything else worshiped within the real world; what I mean is fictitious pantheons of deities. Mainly the problem is, I don't think they come across as making any sense (which is a problem for real world gods, too, but that's another issue.) In fantasy realms, the most common idea is that divinities, however they exist, are real things: they really act in the world(s) depicted, sometimes wandering about as the Greek gods were thought to do. But they don't make much sense when they do it, and so I'm going to lay out a few thoughts as to the various different types of divinities that could exist, and what each sort means, how they would impact the world, that sort of thing.

The first question is what sort of divine power we're dealing with. A deity could be either all powerful (omnipotent) or not all powerful; this is a clear and easy distinction. So we can split all deities along that line: either the entity has power to do anything it wishes to, whenever it wants, in whatever manner it wants, or it does not have that power (though it may still be extremely powerful, capable of destroying worlds and the like; just not all powerful.)

So, to omnipotent beings. If you're dealing with a fantasy world, these beings are the ones who move and shake in it; they create the worlds, they grant powers to their followers, they make miracles and/or magic occur and exist. And if your deity is all powerful, everything in the world is exactly as they wish it to be. Or is it? I posit there's several varieties of omnipotent available. One is narratively not interesting: the actual and complete omnipotent being. This goddess is such that she controls, without effort or possibly even thought, everything. The world, the universe, reorders itself at her whim. There can't be a plot or a challenge that will satisfy either your readers or your players, because you've made it clear that this particular being is shaping everything. So let's set her aside, because while she's interesting in a vague sort of way, she's not practical for a creator. Instead, it's possible to imagine other kinds of omnipotent beings.

First is one much like the Christian God, a being so greatly powerful that nothing can be said to be beyond him. And yet, he barely intervenes in the world, and when it happens, its vague and uncertain. This is because of Free Will, or some other reason why the deity is hands off. Though they certainly could intervene and do whatever they want, they have chosen not to do so; in fact, they are so greatly limited by their choices, that they might as well not exist as an influence on the world. What they do is generally subtle and uncertain, because anything more breaks their own rules. A subset of this is represented by the question, "Could God make a stone so heavy he couldn't lift it?" My answer is, indeed he could, as he's omnipotent; it has to lie within the scope of his abilities to do anything. But with a moment's notice, he could change the rules once more so that he could lift the stone again. So that's another possibility with the all powerful deity: they've set themselves some limitation that they will not break, as if they were playing the game of godhood at a higher degree of difficulty. And of course, there's the possibility they're too powerful: their least intervention might undo everything, so frail and weak are humans (or whatever you're using in place of humans.) While this god can create the world, and can smite cities or continents, or blot out the sun, he may not have the finesse to cure one sick child's measles. Perhaps a select few could survive being granted the slightest portion of his power, to become his avatars on the world, but perhaps not. Even if they could survive for a time, holding too much strength (for humans, omnipotence must always be too much) would probably prove fatal.

So it's possible to think that omnipotent gods would completely control their creations; would limit themselves because of philosophical stances; would limit themselves because they wished to challenge their abilities; or would be unable to limit themselves enough for day to day intervention. Each of these is at least a usable possibility, but I don't feel any of them has truly great potential for narrative strength.

Instead, we come to the sort of gods, like the Greek or Roman deities, or even the Hindu gods or Shinto divinities, who are not all-powerful for one reason or another. And here is where we come upon choices that can promote interesting stories and creations.

There are many reasons your particular set of divinities might not be all powerful. We can classify them into two broad areas: limited gods and opposed goddesses. Limited deities are those that can access great power perhaps, but have an upper limit, or a narrow focus, something of that sort, which prevents them from being omnipotent. Opposed goddesses are those that, though their power might be thought of as nigh-omnipotent, have to face off against at least one other being who is similarly powerful, and thus can stop their actions as quickly as they take them. Let's look a little more closely at our options here.

Limited divinities can be limited in almost any way one could think of. But there are a few prominent ways. Maybe they're just weak: very minor gods who can do what seems like a lot to a mortal being (we have no real power, you know) but who are quite frail on the scale of massive power. Gods of very small aspects, goddesses of little rivers, or worn and ancient deities of forgotten times would all fit into this sort of category. While their power is in theory unlimited, in that they never actually run out of it, they can't do much at any moment. Heal a believer, roil the waters of their stream, cast a healthy glow from their immortal bodies; but confronted by a powerful enough mortal (a great wizard, a destined warrior, a fated baroness) they might be defeated or even destroyed. Which is a sad ending for a god, but we're talking very minorly powerful beings here. When all your gods are of this sort, the mortals are able to take action pretty freely without divine intervention always appearing and mucking up the works.

A second way is that the deity might have a portfolio: goddess of storms, god of cities, that sort of thing. Within their field, they might be incredibly powerful, possibly unlimited. The goddess of storms might have giant hurricanes that travel the world at her will, wreaking havoc; the god of cities might cause settlements to spring up anywhere at least a dozen people camp, and just keep growing around them. But they cannot really change the world as a whole, and they will almost always be part of a group of gods, who each have their own field, and each oppose one another in so far as they wish to keep their aspects in existence: the god of cities doesn't wish his cities destroyed by the storm goddesses eternal hurricanes, and makes them proof against her attacks, except that he cannot simply cover the world in cities: the newest and weakest bits are forever being destroyed by the wrath of the storms. And of course the goddess of nature and the god of war have their own influence. But each of these divinities is truly mighty in their own field, and none is likely to be challenged by any mortal hero except under barely possible terms: destined heroine with significant companions and god-killing spear, at the proper moment in the most meaningful place. Still, their activities can be foiled and compromised by exploiting their limits, and involving the other gods.

Or they might be quite strong, but easily distracted or possessed of very mortal foibles. The Greek gods were powerful, but they had all sorts of limitations: they were full of themselves, they were spiteful, they were lusty, they were lazy and could be confused by circumstances. These sort of divinities work well for both stories and games: easy to involve, but easy, as well, to use as and when needed. The problem with more powerful gods, as noted above in speaking of truly omnipotent beings, is that they can always solve problems, they can always act as deus ex machina, and in fact what makes less sense is if they don't do so. So having flawed, cranky, flighty mortal-acting beings of great power gives you freedom to have the divinities not intervene for personal reasons: they'd save the world, only they were offended. Or they're in hot pursuit of something lovely. Or they're off being drunk. So many reasons to avoid interference; yet when they are needed to interfere, their great power and their nearly mortal personalities allow for clearly understood reasons for their truly meaningful actions.

And of course, the goddess might be almost omnipotent, with the one exception: so is the god. Both of them strong enough to shake the heavens and remake the world, only the other one prevents it simply by existing. They may, as with the category of omnipotents above, have rules and guidelines for when they can intervene; they may be intervening constantly, but almost all their interventions are blocked or mitigated by their opposite number(s); they may operate only through mortal agents who are granted great power and opposed, more or less, by the other divinity's agents. This sort of divine situation is perhaps the hardest to work with: how do you avoid escalation, how do you rationalize the limits and the form of the "conflict" between the divinities? It's a sort of Cold War, only one that goes on forever and ever...until, like the Cold War, it doesn't? There's the potential for interesting stories there, but they become as much about the deities as their followers, and these sorts of deities should be hard to write: if they were almost mortal like the Greek gods, the world would have probably ended in holy conflagration long before.

Lastly, a god could be a being of limited power, like a battery. That power might be inherent: the goddess was created with so many miracles, so much force, and once it's gone it's gone. Or it might be dependent on other factors: winning at games of chance with other gods, or the number and fervor of the faithful. In the first case, the amount of power might be enough that the goddess could be all powerful for a moment: reshaping time and space entirely, destroying the current world to create another, but then running out of power and dying. Or just shaping bits and pieces of history for hundreds of thousands of years, slowly decaying but remaining vastly powerful, until at last the well runs dry and the goddess fades to nothing. In the second case, gods would have to compete in one way or another for the limited "currency" that exists. That currency might be nothing more than "divine money" which represents power, and for which their could be endless games changing it around, all the gods always wanting a little more and willing to risk what they have, with possibly a mortal able to "buy in" by getting some small amount of it (a great sorceress or a hero of legend who has found a godly relic might challenge a lesser goddess for some of her strength); or it might be faith, and then the gods are always competing to impress/intimidate/win over the mortals, in order to draw on their strength. This provides for interest in that the mortals have actual power over the gods, if they realize it; but of course they have very little reason to be fully aware of this: their faith has no visible strength (or does it?), but the power that the deities gain from that faith is certainly noticeable, so it might be dangerous to oppose them. Or might not: smiting your worshipers might turn them against you, to another goddess.

There are in the end an infinite way to depict your gods and goddesses, but thinking of them with a framework of the possibilities will give them more realism and make them work better as aspects of your world.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Those Who Followed Tolkien Too Closely

There's a cliche that fantasy fiction is based almost entirely on the Lord of the Rings. It's not quite true, but like most cliches there's truth in it. Tolkien certainly shaped the space that fantasy lives in, and if he wasn't the only person to do so, he certainly had a lot to do with where the borders lie and how the terrain is set. For some years, of course, after the books became truly huge (the late 60s and into the 70s) it was much more true than it later became, not only because so many aspiring writers had read the books and were imitating them, but because publishers were on the look out for the next epic fantasy in the mold of Tolkien.

If you look closely at almost all fantasy even into the 80s, you'll see a little Tolkien. You'll see plenty even in today's efforts. But there are some series that tread frightfully close to the Lord of the Rings in one way or another, at least to start. Three come to mind for me right away, one of them the starting volume of a still-continuing series; one the first books from a now much-respected author; and one of them nothing but hackwork designed to mimic Tolkien as if it were a clone grown in a lab.

That last is Dennis McKiernan's Iron Tower trilogy. To some degree, it's not his fault that he ended up writing a frightfully precise duplicate of the Lord of the Rings. The story goes that he wrote a sequel to the books and couldn't get the rights to publish them (not a surprise) so his publisher asked him to shift around some details of place and character and then (this is where the problem arises) asked him to write a prequel to his sequel. Because the books he had already were now not anchored to anything, see, so they needed a first series to be based off of. Well, what McKiernan did was buff off the paint of LotR and recreate it, in some cases down to specific sequences (most notably the awful resuse of the Mines of Moria, renamed but very much too-easily identifiable.) He's got little folk (but warlike, so it's different!) and a Dark Lord and elves and dwarves and so on and so forth, in a world clearly meant to be as close to Middle Earth as possible without getting sued. But as I said, it's not really quite the author's fault: he started out to write a sequel, and ended up writing a too-close homage followed by that sequel (and many more books, so he did something right, obviously.) The problem is the Iron Tower books are just unbearable by virtue of being hackishly close to the real deal without in any way being improvements. The writing isn't better--a frequent complaint against Tolkien is that he's not particularly readable; too much exposition, too much dry history--so this could have been a place to take advantage of, but it's not, in this case. I read these books when I was a youth desperately in love with LotR, and even I thought "What is this, and how did it get turned into books?" I haven't read them in years and years, though maybe a decade ago I forced myself through the first book to prove it was as bad as I remembered, as derivative, and it really was.

Better is the Sword of Shannara, founder of a dynasty of books that has climbed into the high 20s as far as total volumes, and which have continued to the present after almost 40 years. Terry Brooks, the author, has ventured very far from the first book, into spaces that are his own (though still within the realm of Tolkien's writing), but Sword of Shannara is a book that lies squarely in LotR-land. With it's motley assortment of men, elves, dwarves and quiet wood dwelling humans (they aren't hobbits, but it's not much of a difference, really), and most especially with Allanon the Druid; with journeys through a Moria/Paths of the Dead composite (what is it with the cavernous city under the mountains that so much captured everyone's attention in Tolkien? It's everywhere, really); with a Dark Lord served by shadowy, flying minions and a magic McGuffin capable of defeating him; it all comes out of Tolkien and though there's a bit more weirdness (post apocalyptic weirdness, mostly) and a bit more active magic (Elfstones!), it's definitely taken from the master. However, it's not completely a copy; it has it's own things going on, and while the writing wasn't the best, it gets better. The next couple of books move into territory that is less Tolkien and more distinctly Terry Brooks: he has weird quests all the time, and heritage is vastly important, and monsters are strange and singular, and his naming conventions become things entirely his own. The series goes on and on, and I've only read maybe ten of them (I act as if that's not a lot) and it gets bogged down in those issues of heritage (how do all these families survive and interact century after century?) but I really remember loving these books greatly as a youth and into my 20s, and when I read Sword of Shannara not too long ago it held up pretty well.

The final one of the three that sprang immediately to my mind is the Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay. These are books very different from Tolkien in the actual plot and characters: there are women, and a lot of them; the plot is all over the place, and draws in all sorts of elements that Tolkien might have appreciated but probably wouldn't have touched; and they're actively melodramatic and melancholy both, in a way that Tolkien was too fussy and standoffish to really manage. But here's the thing: Kay was an editorial assistant, or a researcher, or something similar (it's hard to pin down exactly) to Christopher Tolkien when the latter was putting together the Silmarillion. And it shows in every single bit of Fionavar. The Lios Alfar are Tolkien Elves of the Silmarillion or Lorien so clearly and obviously; the Riders of Dalrei are a rusticated Rohirrim complete with a great ride to arrive at a battle in the nick of time; Rakoth Maugrim is so entirely Morgoth that it's hard to believe. The style of the books echoes the Silmarillion very strongly; writing beats are hit that no one else really has hit. But it makes perfect sense, as Kay was quiet young when he got caught up in EDITING THE FRICKING SILMARILLION (his late teens!) and how could that not have overwhelmed his writing for a while? His later books are almost all historical fantasies: books set in places that are clearly based on historical lands and places, but twisted around and changed. And so it can be seen that the first "historical" land he decided to tackle was the one he knew best, Middle Earth, and that he did it well. The books are still very good (a little stilted in language, as noted; a little melodramatic) and I've enjoyed reading them again several times. But they solidly inhabit Tolkien's shadow; the fact that they do and still work well shows it's no bad thing to exist in such a space.

I was not immune to the urge; one of the first things I remember writing, when I was a wee grade school boy, involved elves and an old wizard with a beard and a quest to destroy a McGuffin; there was a good wizard who was secretly bad, and there were things that most assuredly weren't orcs except for how they were certainly and definitely orcs. I think that in the main I've left the master behind (for good or for ill) but I inhabited those places happily enough for a good many years. And I still go back to the originals myself, and I still like when it's clear someone else knows them, and has put just a hint of them, into their own books. But like most seasonings, it's best in moderation.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tolkien's Legendarium

I was recently drawn back to the Silmarillion when I saw an article about the beautiful illustrated handmade version of it. Aside from the beauty of the object, I was reminded I'd not read the blasted thing for a good number of years. As I was a very deep Tolkien/Middle Earth geek in my younger years, this was a sad state of affairs. So I ordered up a copy from the library post haste and set aside the excellent book I was reading to take it up.

It's almost as if I never set it down, to be honest. The names, the relationships (family trees!), the history of it. It's exactly in my sweet spot, the place where fantasy and history meet and dance together and maybe get busy later on in the evening. Most stuff is either history or fantasy, obviously; even when fantasy has a good dose of history it's still mostly fantasy. But the Silmarillion is really a history book, describing a fantasy world. While it has narrative portions (the tale of Aredhel and Eol, or the Darkening of Valinor and the Flight of the Noldor), most of it describes the rise and fall of kingdoms, the battles that occurred, the relations between the rulers, and the migrations of peoples. All good, solid history. Now, that's wrong: it's not actually good history, or solid history. It works because Tolkien wrote it all up and there's nothing to contradict a bit of it, but it's nonsensical. Cities abandoned and left completely empty (though fully workable), entire districts never inhabited because of no particular reason, all sorts of bizarre things. But I still read it, and still love it, very much.

At one point I thought about writing up something similar in nature, a history of an empire I conjured up when I was rather youngish, maybe 20 years ago. I have notes for it: a map, some genealogical charts, a few pages of this and that. And I think on it often, on the priest who became king, on the rivalries between dynastic branches, on the ways the wars shaped the great islands of the nation. If nothing else it would make a good game setting, so I could use it for that.

I'm only part way through the book just now; the Long Peace is ended, and the kingdoms of the Noldor and the Edain are scattered and broken, but there's still some strength in Men and Elves, and there's still hopeful moments to come. Fingolfin has just died, but died a hero. It's not all dark and doom and gloom yet, but soon enough. I know already all that's going to happen, and  yet this time I hope I'm wrong. I suppose that's what is best about Tolkien's history: even knowing the worst, you still dream it will be less bad this time around. But it never is. If his fiction was inherently hopeful and ended well, such is not the case with his legendarium. It always ends badly there.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's

I used to throw New Year's Eve parties. Well, I used to throw a whole bunch of parties, for whatever occasion. For a while, I had a party season that I did, eight or ten theme parties in a year. But no matter the year, there was always a party on December 31st.

A few years ago I fell in love and moved out of the party house that I had lived in for a dozen or so years. And that was the end of it. All the NYE parties were done. I think there was one the year after, hosted by the last remaining roommate of my tenure and some other people I barely knew. Maybe I'm inventing that? But I'm entirely out of the NYE thing now. I never did go to bars before I threw parties, so I don't want to do that, and I'm rather a homebody these days, and so...last night, I went to bed by 11 pm, after having champagne at 10 while pretending it was midnight.

It's a weird change, but it's pretty relaxing, I have to admit.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Old is New Again

I kind of love it when I find something I wrote a while ago and like it. Started writing, I should say. I only wrote about 20 pages or so. But it's a very good, very entertaining (to me) twenty pages. A rather long time ago, I wrote a short story I really did like (that I never did anything with) and this is the novel length adaptation of that story. It's about a girl who wishes for nothing more than to be a soldier like her entire family, but ends up having talent as a magician, and needing to go with her rather doddering great uncle to the temple/school/monastery that he lives in, and train up in a completely alien tradition to all her hopes and dreams. I'm adding to it now, a few pages a day, and maybe I'll actually finish it this time? Well. Get more than another twenty pages, at least?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Reread: Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

When I was a youth, and part of the Science Fiction Book Club (Still a Thing! Impossibly Still a Thing!) I ended up with an omnibus edition of Robert Asprin's first few Myth books.

[Side note: I really do miss those omnibus editions. They still pop up in the SFBC (which I'm not part of any longer) and some older books get reissued in that format (as for instance Glen Cook's Garrett Chronicles) but mainly you're on single books now. Mostly, I think, because the era of skinny books easily compiled into an omnibus is mostly over? Anyway, I miss them.Now, back to the reread.]

I thought, as a 12 year old or whatever, that these books were the best. They were kind of silly, but kind of violent, too: like Xanth with a more adult sensibility, I guess? By more adult, I mean the sexiness was more literal than implied and slightly grotesque (Piers Anthony might have issues. He might not, but...there's a lot of smoke for there not to be any fire, you know?), the violence was brutal at times, the jokes were still mostly puns but they were more clever, more pop cultural. Which of course means they're terribly dated now, where Xanth's puns, while awful, still make perfect sense in the main.

The Myth books, to sum up, are about a human youth who is apprenticed to a wizard and not very good at being an apprentice, and then, through a series of mix ups and practical jokes, ends up apprenticed to another, different wizard from a different dimension, of which there are many. The books involved the characters trying to make a living (growing competency of the apprentice being a major plot point; his master has lost his powers but still has his knowledge and his reputation, and they have a cast of secondary characters of all sorts, cohorts and opposition and sometimes both.) As it went along it became burdened with too many odd bits and bobs, too many jokes that grow very tired. But the first book is kind of zippy, and if you ignore the real groaners of jokes, it works all right.

Fully adult me doesn't really like it that much, though. It's goofy, is the problem. Too goofy but not funny enough. It wants you to laugh, it really does, but it's like a bad kid's party clown: here's a joke, are you laughing? No? Well, here's another? Is that a grin I see, kind of? Well, all right, let me do that thing again. Why aren't you laughing?

The magic actually isn't bad, the main relationship (if I remember rightly) grows in depth, and the books become about growing up and making your way in the world, though that theme is explored very briefly in each book, so that only time allows it to become meaningful as you read six or eight books and get to actually dig into that.

I can't bring myself to read any more, though. Twelve year old me is saying I should, because I have good memories, and some problems like the ladies being mostly just arm candy get a little better as the series goes on.

If the internet can be trusted (it's can't, but I'll let it slide this time) the series never ended. Asprin kept writing more books until he died, and there were plans for more at that point, at least one of which was written by another author he worked with on the last couple books he wrote before death took him. I stopped reading some decades ago, which puts me rather out of the loop, though almost all the books written were written before I stopped reading; his output slowed greatly as he got older. I can't imagine the effort needed to dig through all that mass of books. Fortunately, I don't need to, either.