A sham of a farce

I find one of the hardest parts of writing is matching character and motive. The temptation is to jury-rig characters' motives to orchestrate a sequence of events I want. It's something Rian Johnson struggles with as well, as I've concluded after watching Knives Out.

  • If you think you're going to die because your nurse accidentally injected a fatal amount of morphine in you, and you want to make sure she isn't prosecuted for murder after you die, what do you do? Do you tell everyone in the house what happened and bid your family a tearful farewell? Do you write a short letter explaining the honest mistake and sign it? Neither of those, actually. You slit your own throat to make it look like suicide, instruct the panic-stricken nurse to manufacture an iffy alibi, and hope the coroner doesn't notice the morphine in your system.

  • If you're plan to frame your granddad's nurse for murdering your granddad goes awry when the police conclude it's a suicide, what do you do? Do you ask the police if your granddad was under the influence of mind-altering drugs, knowing the bloodwork will put suspicion on the nurse? No. You anonymously hire a private detective who may find anything under the Sun, which may or may not include the bloodwork. When your granddad's housekeeper tries to blackmail you, what do you do? Do you rough her up until she tells you everything she knows, then kill her? No. You leave her to die slowly so she can tell anyone who finds her that you're the killer.

  • If you're a cop investigating a suspicious death of an old man with an inheritance his family stands to benefit from, what do you do? Do you look at the bloodwork to see if he was under the influence? Do you take the nurse's medical bag into evidence? Do you review all available security footage of the estate to rule out foul play? Do you examine the study where the supposed suicide took place for suspicious entry? Nope. You do none of those things.

  • If you're a private detective who's brought in by an anonymous client to find something the cops haven't found surrounding a suspicious suicide, what do you do? Do you conduct an immediate review of the scene and of the chain of custody of the evidence? Do you question potential suspects when they conveniently turn up at other crime scenes and subsequently evade the police? No. According to Rian Johnson, you carelessly disregard chain of custody and let potential suspects run nondescript errands minutes after leading police on a chase while you wait in the car. Good job.

  • Last, but least, if you're a housekeeper whose boss just killed himself, and you spot his grandson a week later rummaging through the nurse's medical bag in the study, what do you do? Do you ask him what he's doing? Do you tell the police and let them sort it out? Of course not! Here's what you do: You assume the grandson poisoned your boss and proceed to blackmail him; you ask your cousin who works for the coroner to give you access to your boss's bloodwork; you then mail a photocopy of only the header of the bloodwork to the grandson and demand a secret meeting; and at the meeting with the person you suspect of murder, you bring no friends and nothing to defend yourself with. Well played.

It's not that the characters are stupid. It's that their motives for acting make no sense. Because Rian Johnson needed the movie to happen, he jury-rigged the characters' motives.

Farce may be the most difficult type of movie to execute because it's wink-at-the-audience funny as well as internally consistent in the genre its poking fun at. Hot Fuzz, Team America: World Police, and Tropic Thunder are excellent farces. Knives Out is a bottom-tier farce because of its baffling plot problems. The actors elevate the poor writing to mere mediocrity. The profane treatment of family is not a point in its favor.

Due to the 2020 demise of tentpole movies, a sequel to Knives Out, which was produced for a mere $40 million, seems inevitable. Don't see it. Read a book instead. Like mine! If you like hard sci-fi, check out Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. I'll respond as soon as I can.

The best Christian movies

…are movies that aren't explicitly Christian. They're secular, but whether they know it or not they favorably convey Christian teaching. This may have been intentional with American movies of the past, but I think it's more accidental in American movies today and in movies from non-Christian countries. So let's dive in.

  • The Big Country. Easterner James McKay, played by Gregory Peck, escorts his fiance west to her father's ranch. Referred to repeatedly and mockingly as "the dude," McKay refuses to defend himself against the slights and insults that are thrown his way by his father-in-law's ranch hands. Everyone reads his internal confidence and strength of character as weakness, including his fiance, but he doesn't care what they think. When challenged to a fight by Charlton Heston, he agrees, and they fight to a draw. "What did it prove?" he asks, gasping, afterwards. The look on Heston's face says it all. In my experience, there's no better cinematic example of turning the other cheek or being slow to anger than this movie.

  • NausciaƤ of the Valley of the Wind. One of my personal favorites! A young princess, the de facto leader of a meek yet thriving valley, must meet two threats to her people: neighboring kingdoms fighting over a powerful weapon, and a toxic jungle encroaching on the kingdom's border. NausicaƤ advocates peace and detente with the jungle, but her message loses traction as the neighboring kingdoms wrangle for control of the means to annihilate the jungle and each other. The ohmu, the sentries of the jungle, can withstand any weapon man can wield, and threaten to overrun the valley. On the brink of disaster, the princess makes a final overture of peace to the ohmu, showing that love, not hate, is truly man's most powerful weapon. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9)

  • Flight. This comes with a caveat, as there's rampant drug abuse, profanity, and explicit sexual content throughout the movie. For that reason, I don't recommend it to Christians who are already familiar with Christian doctrine on sin. However, to secular people, this is a sneaky sermon in a movie. The narrative thread of the movie is Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington, seeking exoneration from wrongdoing in his heroic crash-landing of a doomed commercial jet. (He was drunk while piloting the plane.) As an NTSB hearing looms, his freedom is at risk unless he can pass himself off as someone he is not (that is, sober and in control of his life). He tragically fails. Something becomes apparent in the movie's final scenes: Freedom from sin in many ways is more liberating than license to do whatever you want.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like hard sci-fi, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

Did Han shoot first?

In the 1990s, during the runup to the Star Wars prequels, George Lucas released the special editions of the Star Wars original trilogy. Since then, multiple versions of the OT special editions, as well as prequels, have received DVD/Blu-Ray releases—but not the OT theatrical cuts. In 2012, Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, which decanonized the Expanded Universe and called on Chuck Wendig to write three books to bridge the OT and sequel trilogy. They also scrapped Lucas's notes and script treatments for the ST. For 8 years Kathleen Kennedy has run Lucasfilm and Star Wars, some say (myself included) into the ground.

More people have seen Blade Runner than read Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the book Deckard takes a Voight-Kampff test and passes; therefore, he's not a replicant. The movie's original cut is ambiguous at best, but Ridley Scott's director's cut hints strongly that Deckard is a replicant. Scott has come out and said that's the case, no two ways about it. But Blade Runner 2049, produced by Scott, omits this certainty and embraces ambiguity.

JK Rowling's writing style matured along with her core audience through the late 90s and 2000s. Book and movie ticket sales lifted her from poverty to the most read author in the world. Since the 7-book Harry Potter series concluded, she's maintained Dumbledore is gay, something that's yet to be shown in any of the actual books and movies.

The Wachowski Brothers became the Wachowski Sisters years after the Matrix trilogy came out. Lana Wachowski (formerly Larry) now claims the movies are a trans allegory, not a reimagined allegory of the cave like we all thought at the time. You may assume the trans allegory will be the operating ethos of the upcoming fourth movie. It's unclear how breaking free from machine-induced mind control aligns with using medical technology to posit the will over reality, but what do I know?

I claim ignorance about all things Trek, but more TV and movie content has been produced after Gene Roddenberry's death than before. There's been an alternate timeline with two different Spocks, and a weird IP split that I still don't understand.

The problems with most of these franchises revolves around the legitimacy of canon. What is it, and who defines it?

Is it defined by quality, continuity, consistency, or all three? Is it defined by the IP owner? In Star Wars's case, that would be Disney, who say that Anakin Skywalker didn't kill Emperor Palpatine, and that Luke Skywalker abandoned his friends in their time of need. Or is it defined by the IP creator? Again, in Star Wars's case, that would be George Lucas, who said in 1977 Han shot Greedo first but who maintains for the last 23 years that he hasn't. Is he allowed to change what happened decades after we experienced the story a hundred times over in our imaginations?

"To me, [the original movie] doesn't really exist anymore. ... I'm sorry you saw half a completed film and fell in love with it. But I want it to be the way I want it to be." -George Lucas

For fans, these discussions are not superfluous. Movies and books are content, and what do fans fall in love with but the content? Retcon the content, and you test the fans' suspension of disbelief. It's not all that different from a Christian losing his faith after marrying another Christian. At the very least, it strains the marriage.

I'm not really involved in fandom. I never was. Star Wars mattered the most to me, but now I refuse to care. Nevertheless, Lucas, Rowling, and the Wachowskis have forced me to take the position that even the creators of these IPs can't be trusted to define canon. Creators aren't static, and the successful ones are frequently vain. They change their minds. Are fans supposed to change as well?

For me, canon is the art's content in its original form. Han shot first, Deckard isn't a replicant, and Dumbledore isn't gay. (As someone who saw the director's cut of Blade Runner first, the second statement of these three has been the hardest to accept.) Fans who contend otherwise must reckon with how the creators told their stories the first time. Were they wrong? Even taking into account the compromises inherent in the creative process, I'm not prepared to say they were.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like hard sci-fi, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

A lack of imagination

I usually bristle at blowback against writing advice, because the blowback often comes from people the advice isn't meant for. But one piece of writing advice that really is bad is "Write what you know." On its face this advice precludes most genre fiction. For that reason it can be safely ignored.

Writing requires imagination, a mind that ventures outside the known. If I wrote what I knew, there'd be little variety in my writing. My stories would be stale and predictable. So with every story I've written, I've reached beyond my limited frame and learned something. Mostly technology and occupational stuff, but also character types who aren't like me—especially people not ethically like me. To keep it fresh, I have to be able to write more than one type of good guy and more than one type of bad guy.

F Scott Fitzgerald said intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time. I say that's more a necessity of imagination than intelligence. The writer creates drama and tension by bringing characters who believe in what they're doing into conflict. Neither one of them has to be right by the writer's personal standards, but they should think and act as if they are.

There is a stunning lack of imagination in "mainstream" science fiction and fantasy today. It shows in the puritanical and Pharisaical attacks from today's celebrated writers and publishers on dead writers and dead editors who built the market for the former to sell books to. Today's supposed standard bearers cut off their literary ancestors because of their transgressions against the idols of the present age.

Can such narrow-minded, reactionary writers faithfully explore the range of human experience that connects with the broadest possible audience? Can they characterize a patriotic soldier, religious disciple, or Brexit voter without inserting their contempt? Or, will they "write what they know," effectively cutting their readership by 80% before the book goes to print?

I don't pretend I don't have a point of view, but I'm humble (and hungry) enough to know my point of view shouldn't be the only flavor in my writing. It would bore you. It would bore me as well.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like hard sci-fi that's neither didactic or boring, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

Is worldbuilding like an iceberg?

Worldbuilding as an iceberg, courtesy of The Closer LookNK Jemisin, Brandon Sanderson, and YouTuber The Closer Look all liken worldbuilding to an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg you could call the "here and now" story elements: places, characters, motivations, tension, plot: the things that propel the story and hold the reader's attention. The bigger underwater part is history, backstories, metaphysics, religions, cultures (HBMRC). Without these things, the here and now story elements wouldn't fit together⁠—not well, at least. That's the craft of worldbuilding.

The metaphor is appealing, but is it true? To what extent is "invisible" worldbuilding truly invisible?

I've written before how it's wise to leave details up to readers' imagination. Give too much detail, and you run the same risk as movie adaptations: depicting a setting or character differently than how the reader imagined it. Describing a character as handsome allows the reader to picture whatever he wants depending on his tastes; describing the character's features in detail⁠ to the exclusion of others would limit the effect of that attribute. Plus, as a general rule you should err on the side of brevity.

HBMRC gainsays this principle. The reader may think it's there under the surface, holding up the tip of the iceberg, but it's really not. It's not anything until the writer breathes it into existence with words on the page.

Sure, if you take a snapshot of a conflict, it will be stripped of most subtlety and subtext. You'll see the the tip of the iceberg, from whose detail you can only hope to infer what holds it upright. But stories are not snapshots. Exposition can interrupt at any moment to clue the reader in as to why and how the here and now came to be. It's not so much invisible as handled deftly since it's not as pressing as the here and now.

Some examples:

  • The Battle of Gettysburg lasted 3 days, but you can go back months to trace the causes of the battle, and decades to trace the causes of the Civil War. To tell the story of that battle to someone who never heard of it, you wouldn't leave all that out, but you wouldn't give it proportional time either.
  • The Abyss is a great story. It takes place over a handful of days, but Orson Scott Card's novelization goes years into the past to explore the main characters' backstories. Although the movie couldn't devote that time because it's a different medium, you can still understand the characters and their primary traits through their actions. The B plot tension derives from Bud and Lindsey's failed marriage, and the movie makes a point of reminding you of this early and often.
  • Inception has a very complex setup. The technology of shared dreaming has to be explained, and Cobb's, Sato's, and Fischer's backstories have to be explained for the movie to make any sense. That's why the main job doesn't begin until almost an hour into the movie. The worldbuilding isn't hidden. The filmmakers put it front and center because without it you'd be lost.

In conclusion, I don't believe the iceberg metaphor best describes the reader's experience of worldbuilding. The anticipation of HBMRC can sustain for a time, but not to the end of the story. The writer eventually must support the tip of the iceberg with specifics that are inherently visible to the reader. The method of worldbuilding, like writing anything else, is a matter of craft.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like hard sci-fi, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

Nurse Ratched

Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter, the Joker, Hans Gruber. Odds are good you'll find at least one of these on anyone's top villains list. Their laurels are well-deserved. But I want to talk about a villain who isn't given her due: Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My impressions are informed more by the book than the 1975 movie starring Louise Fletcher. Her unique villainy comes through more clearly via Ken Kesey’s prose than it does through the visual medium.

When the hero McMurphy gets committed to the psych ward, his stay becomes a battle of wills: He's big, brash, and rebellious; Nurse Ratched is cold, controlling, and manipulative. McMurphy mounts a campaign to break her vice-like grip on the patients and the hospital staff. Through sheer pig-headedness, he's mostly successful. He wins the patients' rights to play cards, to watch the World Series, and to leave the hospital to go fishing.

Nurse Ratched makes these allowances, but her will remains unbroken. Through it all she exudes maternal patience and forbearance. She doesn't let McMurphy bring her down to his level, doesn't validate the threat he poses to her authority. He recognizes this, and an unsettling feeling sets in. He begins to question his motives. Why is he here, and what ultimately does he want?

Put simply, his motive is to be free. At the beginning of the story he escaped military service by disobeying orders and acting like a lunatic. Now to be free he must prove he's sane. His antics in the psych ward don't help that cause. He reaches the conclusion that, to be free, he must submit to Nurse Ratched. Alas, submission, to become like the weak-minded patients to whom he's a hero, would mean the death of his spirit.

The turning point of the book is when McMurphy finds out all the patients are there by choice. Why? Here it's helpful to look closer at Nurse Ratched. She's about 50 years old, never married, and, by the inmates' description of her, quite beautiful in her prime. But she is completely asexual. She's not the oppressive authoritarian McMurphy's used to dealing with, but an unconditional caregiver. She rules over the patients, all men, as if they're her children. They're free to leave the psych ward when they're able and ready, but they choose not to because they're comfortable in their confinement.

Ask any empty-nester what the hardest part of raising children is, and she'll tell you it’s letting them leave when they’ve grown up. It is with a heavy heart she watches them strike out on their own. But if they choose to stay for whatever reason, she would understand. She would not push them away. The “failure to launch” phenomenon has two guilty parties: the young men who don't grow up, and the mothers who tacitly discourage them from leaving.

What makes Nurse Ratched a wonderful villain is she has motives, too, as strong as McMurphy's. She needs the patients to need her. So she conditions them by instilling affection, guilt, and fear to need her so before long they have no desire to be free. Thus she robs them of any chance at real rehabilitation. I won't spoil the ending, but how she finally deals with McMurphy will cost you an hour of sleep just thinking about it.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like hard sci-fi, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.

Panopticon

The best system of control is self-administered. The most oppressive system of control is administered by the public, deputized by earthly powers. The former spurs on a passion for righteousness, the latter a passion for conformity.

A hallmark of the present age is that you can be photographed at any time in public. No matter how cordial your interactions with strangers, no matter how ethical you are, you will make an embarrassing mistake. It's inevitable.

The decontextualized images of your mistake get beamed across the planet to millions of people, who get a dopamine kick out of mocking and scorning you. An Internet sleuth doxxes you, and you're stripped of personhood and cast out of polite society. That one mistake now defines you. You are now a cautionary tale to the rest of the world: Don't let your guard down for one minute, or your life may be turned upside-down.

Does that sound like a free society or a prison?

The panopticon is a type of institutional building and a system of control designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century. The concept of the design is to allow all prisoners of an institution to be observed by a single security guard, without the inmates being able to tell whether they are being watched.

Although it is physically impossible for the single guard to observe all the inmates' cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that they are motivated to act as though they are being watched at all times. Thus, the inmates are effectively compelled to regulate their own behaviour.

I can't think of a better way to divide people than weaponizing technology to enforce conformity. A society cannot withstand attack when its members are atomized thus by fear and suspicion. They will be like sheep to the slaughter.

If the Second Amendment can be restricted by the state, a strong argument can be made for restricting available technology until the people demonstrate the discipline to peacefully wield it.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments. If you like hard sci-fi, check out my books Seeds of Calamity and Tendrils to the Moon. You can find extended previews for each here and here.