419. Fans, Geeks, and Fan Fiction: A Momentary Study

The pursuit of knowledge does not always take us to pleasant places. It may lift us to dizzying heights, but may also drop us into dark valleys where no sane person should go.

Today we’re talking about fan fiction. Brace yourselves.

Fanfiction everywhere

The Internet has a lot of fan fiction, and also a lot of visual memes.

Let’s begin with the basics. Fan fiction is an amateur literary genre in which writers use worlds, concepts, or characters from other stories to tell their own.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem so bad—indeed, some fan fiction is actually quite tolerable. For example, many fan fictions (abbreviated fanfics) have been written and even published using characters now in the public domain, such as Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes. At its best, fan fiction is… all right, I guess?

However, most fanfics are terrible. Many writers of fan fiction lack the skill or experience to make good use of the ideas they steal from other stories. On top of that, too many writers use fanfics not to tell good stories, but as a cheap form of wish-fulfillment. Heck, there are entire categories of fan fiction devoted to fulfilling fans’ private desires.

For example, self-insert fics put the writers themselves (or fictional versions thereof) into the stories. (These representations of the authors are known as OCs, or Original Characters. OCs sometimes exist outside of fanfics, as many fans enjoy creating characters based on ideas or styles from existing stories.) Hurt/comfort fics inflict harm upon familiar characters, giving fans the emotional catharsis of seeing them comforted. Slash fics put characters in romantic or sexual relationships, thus upholding Rule 34 of the Internet: If it exists, there is porn of it.

(Here I must credit TV Tropes for its helpful information on fan fiction subgenres.)

Fan fiction can tell meaningful stories, but in practice, it hardly ever does.

Trying to cope

My reaction to most fan fiction is… not favorable.

Besides the problems with individual fanfics, fan fiction as a genre has two colossal faults. The first concerns law and ethics; the second, creativity and intellect.

Fan fiction is technically illegal. Companies hardly ever sue writers of fan fiction unless they try to publish their fanfics, and sometimes not even then. Regardless, fan fiction infringes copyright. It’s theft of intellectual property. For that reason, it has ethical as well as legal implications.

The second problem is more personal. Fan fiction represents relatively little initiative and creativity. Instead of creating new characters, situations, and settings—or at least pretending by renaming existing ones, changing them slightly, and using them differently—writers steal whole worlds from other writers.

Why do fans write fan fiction? I’ve already mentioned the aspect of wish-fulfillment. Some fans read or write fanfics as a way to delve deeper into stories they love, and fan fiction writers are usually guaranteed an audience within their fandoms. (Of course, conversely, they are usually guaranteed an audience nowhere else.) Like shipping and waifus, fan fiction is an enthusiastic outpouring of affection and interest toward a story.

In this post, I’ve been rather merciless toward fan fiction as a genre. I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoys reading or writing fanfics. Heck, I’m as guilty as anyone. In years past, I read a few fan fictions, and even wrote a few. I still enjoy a lot of art, music, and webcomics by fans. We live in a culture of remakes and remixes, and fan works are part of that. Even unimpressive fan works are proof of how stories encourage and inspire creativity in their fans!

Calvin & Hobbes

Fan works are at their best when they add something funny or clever to an existing work. In this picture, a fan of Calvin and Hobbes reimagined its characters as… well, Calvin and Hobbes.

Reading and writing fan fiction are valid hobbies. Creating it can develop writing skills, and reading it can evoke positive emotional responses. Fan fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing… but I don’t believe it’s a particularly good one, either.

416. About Storytelling: Coincidences Are Cheap

Coincidences are a terrible storytelling device.

Seriously. In storytelling, coincidences are nearly always lazy, cheap, and frustrating. A storyteller’s job is to tell a believable story, and few things are less believable than convenient twists of fate.

Coincidences are an easy way to keep a story moving or set up exciting events, but not a compelling one. A character stumbles upon an important path, clue, or MacGuffin by accident. Complete strangers end up sharing some implausible connection. By blind luck, a character overhears a conversation relevant to the plot. These plot devices are all pretty common in fiction, and also pretty lame.

Whether from desperation, inexperience, or laziness, storytellers resort to all kinds of cheap ploys. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve used more lousy coincidences in my stories than I care to admit.

What exactly are the problems with using coincidences in storytelling?

Well, since I asked….

Coincidences are cheap.

The major events in a story should be earned. They should be built up carefully; foreshadowing beforehand, or explanations afterward, can be helpful. Coincidences are an easy shortcut, and a cheap way to keep the story moving.

Coincidences damage the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is a fancy term for the acceptance of fictional events. If I suspend my disbelief in, say, talking animals, I can watch The Lion King without constantly saying, “Hey, that lion is talking. That isn’t realistic! Lions don’t talk. This is stupid.” Some degree of suspension of disbelief is necessary for nearly any kind of story.

Coincidences make it seriously hard to believe a story; they damage the suspension of disbelief. An audience might be able to swallow a fantastical tale of magic or spaceships, but a story with too many unexplained or convenient coincidences is too contrived to accept.

Coincidences are clichéd.

I already mentioned a few common categories of coincidences in fiction: the overheard conversation, the important thing discovered by accident, and the hidden connection between unrelated characters. You have probably seen some of these before. I know I have.

Coincidences should be avoided whenever possible, if only because they have already been done to death.

Sometimes coincidences are unavoidable, or the only alternative is something even more implausible. That’s fine. Minor or infrequent coincidences may stretch plausibility, but not destroy it. A story may even offer an explanation for apparent coincidences, such as a guiding hand behind the scenes. At the very least, lampshading (i.e. acknowledging) a coincidence can make it a little easier to swallow. Coincidences do happen, after all!

In conclusion, though a good story may include coincidences, it should never depend on them.

397. More Thoughts on Marvel’s Daredevil

I mentioned last time that my family has been visiting for a couple of weeks from Uruguay and the Dominican Republic. How did my dad and I spend this rare and wondrous opportunity?

We watched Marvel’s Daredevil on Netflix, of course.

Well, we also traveled and did some other stuff, but Marvel’s Daredevil was definitely high on our priority list. My dad hadn’t seen it. I felt it was my duty as a loving son to sit him down and make him watch all thirteen episodes. It was rewarding for me to revisit Daredevil, and I noticed a few things I had missed the first time.

As a follow-up to my thoughts on Marvel’s Daredevil, here are more thoughts on Marvel’s Daredevil.

Marvel's Daredevil

Everyone gets hurt.

I know I mentioned this last time, but the fights in Marvel’s Daredevil are terrific. They aren’t the boring, bland, bloodless brawls of Marvel’s other superheroes. People get hurt in Daredevil, including Daredevil.

Superheroes in other stories are usually invincible. Iron Man has his armor. Captain America has his shield. Wolverine’s metal-coated skeleton and miraculous healing powers make him nearly immortal. The Hulk is literally invulnerable. Even Batman shrugs off a broken back in a matter of months because, well, he’s flipping Batman. Except when it’s convenient to the story, superheroes don’t get hurt.

Daredevil gets hurt all the time. He gets tired. He bleeds. He stumbles and faints. He gets cut open and stitched up. Daredevil is extremely tough, but believably so. His fights are tense and exciting because he could die at any moment—all it would take is one bullet, blade, or blunt object. By comparison, the fight scenes in movies like Man of Steel and The Avengers are dull, by-the-numbers affairs that never put the heroes in any real peril.

Primary colors, especially yellow, are all over the place.

I don’t how I missed this last time—my excuse is that I was too absorbed in the show’s plot and characters—but the color palette of Marvel’s Daredevil is dominated by strong primary colors. New York City has a deep bluish tinge at night. Neon lights give scenes a red or yellow cast. Colored windows flood rooms with golden light. The show’s colors are rich and saturated, giving Daredevil an appropriately comic-book aesthetic.

I really dig it.

Yellow

Marvel’s Daredevil is basically a drama with superheroes.

If I had to describe the series, I would call it a crime thriller with some political drama and one or two superheroes thrown in for good measure. It’s a story with superheros, not a superhero story. As in the case of The Dark Knight, the superhero elements feel almost incidental.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe needs to change its approach to storytelling.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a remarkable achievement: a series of loosely-connected films and television shows that all tell stories within the same fictional universe. The concept is exciting from a narrative standpoint, and has proved profitable for Marvel from a financial one. However, the MCU has been around long enough that it’s starting to stagger under its own weight.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron was a decent movie, which is almost a miracle considering all the ways it connected to past and future films in the MCU. It was forced to continue subplots from The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, set up the conflict for Captain America: Civil War, hint at events in Thor: Ragnarok, introduce story elements for the Black Panther movie, and progress the Infinity Stones story arc.

Does that sound confusing and exhausting? It is. The MCU, like so many of the comics that inspired it, is becoming hard to follow.

Marvel’s Daredevil is technically part of the MCU, but it makes only a few passing references to The Avengers and leaves it at that. Daredevil is mostly a self-contained story. It leaves one or two loose ends for future series to tie up, yet remains accessible.

The MCU needs to be less like a complicated serial, and more like an anthology. We don’t need more Iron Man movies. What we need is more stand-alone stories like Daredevil—stories that share a universe without necessarily continuing the same tired plots.

Marvel’s Jessica Jones, a related series, comes out on Netflix in less than a month.

Marvel’s Daredevil is the first of several interconnected series from Netflix based on lesser-known Marvel superheroes. The next, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, comes out next month. I don’t know much about it, but the series will star David Tennant (AKA the Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who) as the villain. Early screenings of Jessica Jones have been positive. If it’s even one-half as good as Daredevil, I’m certain I will enjoy it.

What shows have you been watching lately? Let us know in the comments!

393. About Storytelling: Magic, Destiny, and Nanomachines

Here’s a question for you: What do fate, magic, nanomachines, and sonic screwdrivers have in common?

As I mentioned last time, I’ve been playing a video game called Metal Gear Solid 4. Its blend of military intrigue, science fiction, and social commentary is kinda bonkers, but the story’s strangest turns always have an explanation—or, to be more honest, an excuse. That excuse is nanomachines. These microscopic robots are injected into the bloodstream of many characters in the game, giving them superpowers (or super-weaknesses) that defy all other explanations.

How does a character in the game survive being shot in the head and stabbed through the abdomen? Nanomachines. How are entire armies instantly disarmed, disabled, and defeated? Nanomachines. How is a long-dead character revived in a stunning twist? That’s right—flipping nanomachinesEvery impossible twist in the story is explained by these hard-working little bots.

The answer is nanomachines.

The answer is nanomachines. It’s always nanomachines.

In the end, throughout the Metal Gear Solid series, nanomachines are generally the catch-all explanation for things that otherwise make no sense. The audience never learns exactly how they cause immortality, raise the dead, regulate firearms, or do any of the other crazy things they do. Nanomachines are a vague, easy solution to plot holes that can’t otherwise be filled.

Let’s not cast all the blame upon nanomachines, though. Consider how often, especially in fantasy stories, magic is used to explain away things that make no sense. Science fiction often uses technology in exactly the same way. As Arthur C. Clark reminds us, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Marvel’s Thor movie openly acknowledges this when its eponymous superhero tells an ordinary human, “Your ancestors called it magic, but you call it science. I come from a land where they are one and the same.” Thor’s hammer makes no sense. Most of the stuff in Marvel’s movies makes no sense. The easiest solution is to claim that it’s incomprehensible technology and call it a day.

Witness the power of... um... technology?

Witness the power of… science?

Fate and destiny can work the same way. In dramas and romances, these vague cosmic forces offer an excuse for crazy coincidences and irrational behavior.

Then there’s Doctor Who. Flipping heck, is there ever Doctor Who. Besides the good Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, which does anything the plot needs it to do, the show’s many plot holes are waved away by the concept of “wibbly-wobbley, timey-wimey… stuff.”

Do you remember the concept of deus ex machina? It’s when a specific problem in a story is resolved by some contrived or impossible solution. This is the same idea, but bigger and more pervasive. It’s when a deus ex machina, instead of resolving a single problem, becomes the storyteller’s go-to resolution for all of the problems.

As cheap or lazy as this sounds, it doesn’t have to be so bad. It all depends on how it’s used. Some stories don’t need to be burdened by a lot of complicated explanations. If media like Doctor Who or Metal Gear Solid 4 obsessed over details, or else cut out everything that lacked a rational explanation, they would be a heck of a lot less fun. If the audience is willing to swallow a vague explanation, and it enables a better, tighter story, then it becomes a good thing.

Used badly, narrative tricks like magic and nanomachines make a story contrived and unbelievable. Used well, they prevent a story from becoming bogged down in details and explanations, and allow storytellers to focus on other areas of storytelling.

I would call my typewriter monkeys my blog’s version of this trick—a vague explanation for the complicated process of how TMTF is kept up and running—except for one thing. My monkeys don’t resolve problems. They cause them!

372. About Storytelling: Lampshading

How do you make something more obvious?

You put a lampshade on it, of course. Observe.

Lampshading

In fiction, there are sometimes implausible elements or plot holes that can’t be resolved by the author of the story. How can a storyteller respond to such a thing? That’s easy! The author can simply acknowledge the thing, whatever it is, and then move on.

Of course, this doesn’t fix the thing, but it reassures the audience that the storyteller is aware of it. By drawing attention to the thing—putting a lampshade on it, figuratively speaking—the author can dispense with it and get on with the story. This technique is called lampshade hanging or simply lampshading.

Lampshading is a great technique for writers because, sooner or later, most of us run into plot holes, clichés, or other issues we simply can’t fix. By lampshading those things, we don’t make them go away, but we at least make them easier to swallow.

This is such a notable technique that the logo of TV Tropes, a website that catalogs tricks and tropes used by storytellers, has a literal lampshade hung on it.

TVTropes logo

One of my favorite examples of lampshading comes from Monk, a television show about an obsessive-compulsive private detective. Many detective stories, including Monk, constantly kill off minor characters in order to give the detectives murders to solve. It really stretches the story’s credibility after a while. After all, in real life, people aren’t ingeniously murdered left and right as they are in detective stories.

In Monk, murders and mysteries abound. Everywhere the detective goes, people die. The show never explains this implausible fact, but one episode lampshades it hilariously. After yet another murder victim turns up, the show’s detective, Adrian Monk, has the following conversation with his assistant Natalie and a police officer, Captain Stottlemeyer.

Natalie: Everywhere you go, every time you turn around, somebody is killing somebody else.

Captain Stottlemeyer: That’s true.

Monk: What?

Captain Stottlemeyer: Well, there was the time you went on vacation, and then on the airplane.

Monk: These things happen.

Captain Stottlemeyer: Oh, and then that that stage play.

Monk: It happens.

Natalie: To you! Not to me, not to anybody else. It follows you around. You’re not just unlucky, it’s—it’s something else.

Monk: Bad karma?

Natalie: You’re like a magnet.

Captain Stottlemeyer: Bad karma.

Natalie: It’s like you’re causing it somehow. You’re the Prince of Darkness!

Captain Stottlemeyer: No, he’s not the Prince of Darkness. I’ve seen him vacuuming the ceiling. You wouldn’t see the Prince of Darkness doing that.

Natalie: No, I can picture the Prince of Darkness vacuuming the ceiling, to trick us. He’s very tricky.

Monk: Stop calling me the Prince of Darkness! That’s how rumors get started.

Monk’s tendency to show up wherever murders happen doesn’t make sense, and the show never explains it. By simply acknowledging it, however, the show makes this unbelievable fact a little easier to accept.

Another superb use of lampshading comes from Doctor Who, the enduring British series about a time-traveling wanderer-hero. This show practically wrote the book on lampshading. I can’t find the quote, but I remember one of the show’s writers stating that the plot holes in Doctor Who are explained by the time travel in the show and the resulting butterfly effect. That’s fifty years of plot holes lampshaded by a single statement. Most impressive.

My favorite example of lampshading from Doctor Who is the Tenth Doctor’s explanation of time travel, which posits that time is not a straight line of cause and effect, but “more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”

This isn’t an explanation. It’s a statement lampshading the fact that time travel in Doctor Who doesn’t really make sense. We should all just assume that time travel is too difficult for humans to comprehend, leave it in the clever hands of the Doctor, and dismiss any narrative inconsistencies with the words “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.”

If you’re writing fiction, and you’re stuck in an unavoidable plot hole or cliché, consider acknowledging it and getting on with your story. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get this lampshade off my head.

371. Ladies in Fantasy Fiction Need Better Armor

I’m no expert, but I’ve noticed a difference between armor for men and women in fantasy fiction: men wear more of it.

I’m no feminist, but I do believe in treating people with decency and respect. I’m also fairly pragmatic. Most female armor in fantasy fiction isn’t respectful or decent, and pragmatic it most certainly is not.

Here, for example, are male and female warriors from one of the Dragon Quest video games. In the game, they have exactly the same role on the battlefield. Is unreasonable to expect them to wear roughly the same armor?

Amor differencesIn the picture above, the male warrior gets a padded tunic over mail hauberk, along with leather gauntlets, a sturdy helm, a kite shield, and articulated armor plating for his legs. The female warrior, by contrast, gets a tiny mail blouse, half a mail skirt, and random bits of plate armor on her arms and legs.

There are several problems here.

The most glaring issue is sexism, of course. It just ain’t fair for male characters to be fully armored while female characters wear swimsuits. (I’ve touched upon this before.) It exemplifies the concept known as the male gaze: the way visual arts often assume the viewer is male. The male gaze ogles female characters or puts them in revealing clothes, like the chain mail swimsuit above. It’s insulting to women.

(For those ready with the “fantasy fiction is not supposed to be realistic” arguments, I believe at least a small amount of realism makes fiction more believable. If a woman wears dangerously revealing armor, there had better be a good reason for it! For those ready with the “you should stop taking everything so seriously” arguments, I don’t believe fiction is a valid excuse for sexism or double standards.)

This is not, however, a blog post about sexism. Nah, today’s post provides a more pragmatic rationale for giving female characters better armor: the kinds of armor worn by most female characters in fantasy fiction would get them killed.

Let’s take armor styles one at a time.

The chain mail bikini

Chain mail bikiniIt was challenging to find a picture illustrating this style of armor that wasn’t NSFTMTF. (For those who don’t know, NSFTMTF stands for Not Safe For Typewriter Monkey Task Force: a designation covering vulgar language, extreme violence, sexually explicit material, and any media related to Kristen Stewart or Justin Beiber.) Even the picture above pushes the boundaries of good taste.

The chain mail bikini describes any style of armor that (sometimes barely) covers only the naughty bits of a lady’s anatomy. I need hardly describe the practical difficulties of such armor. It exposes vital organs such as the stomach and lungs, providing practically no protection whatsoever. More often than not, what little armor is worn looks like it could fall off at any moment. High heels, which are often worn with chain mail bikinis, don’t allow for quick movement or proper balance.

Are there benefits to chain mail bikinis? I’m really reaching here, but I suppose they could offer good mobility, and might prove distracting to enemies.

Nah. Who am I kidding? Chain mail bikinis are completely useless.

The boob plate

Boob plate armorAs the name suggests, the boob plate is a breastplate with breasts.

Opinions are divided on the usefulness of the boob plate, but the most logical view is that it would probably kill you.

You see, armor doesn’t merely shield the body from sharp or spiky things. It also deflects the force of blows from weapons. A blow from, say, a club will do far less damage if it glances off a breastplate than if it strikes it squarely. In other words, armor is meant to deflect blows, not to absorb them.

The problem with boob plates is that they wouldn’t necessarily deflect blows away from the chest. They could also deflect them inward, funneling them into the cleavage between the breasts—and right into the wearer’s breastbone. Even if a weapon didn’t penetrate the armor, it could fracture the wearer’s sternum. Flipping heck, even falling forward could slam the ridge of metal separating the breasts into the breastbone, breaking it.

As it happens, people who wore armor usually wore padding beneath it, so a woman’s chest would probably be wrapped or padded and wouldn’t require a form-fitting breastplate in the first place.

The battle dress

Aerith

A battle dress is a dress worn into battle. Like the boob plate, it’s fairly self-explanatory.

I applaud the battle dress for being less blatantly sexist than other styles of female armor… but it still gets low marks for practicality. Long skirts and dresses have the same problem as capes in The Incredibles: they get caught on stuff. A woman can hardly run, ride a horse, or vault over bushes in a dress. Sooner or later, it will snag on something.

Besides, dresses offer no protection… unless they have chain mail or plate armor sewn into them. Then, unless the armored sections are kept close to the body, such weighted dresses are even more likely to snag on stuff. Besides, any heavy part of the dress left hanging, such as a skirt or long sleeve, impedes movement by swinging awkwardly.

The sensible armor

Sensible lady's amorThe armor in the picture above isn’t perfectly practical—it should lose the flowing skirt, and the breastplate really ought to cover more of the abdomen—but it isn’t bad. (I would cut off the braid and add a helmet, but what do I know?) The shoulders, chest, and legs are protected, leaving the arms free and allowing bend at the waist for wielding so large an axe. The armor also looks awesome as all heck.

Women can wear more or less the same styles of armor as men, with minor adjustments for shoulder width. Even adding a slight outward bulge for breasts is fine, provided it doesn’t include the sternum-shattering cleavage mentioned above; a gentle convex curve can deflect blows as well as anything. Designing sensible female armor doesn’t have to be that difficult.

Is impractical lady armor ever appropriate in fiction? I suppose it has its place, such as in comedic tales and parodies of fantasy fiction. In more serious stories, styles of lady armor which would be useless in battle could be used for ceremonial purposes: parades, coronations, etc.

In the end, however, I think practical armor is definitely the best way to go.

363. About Storytelling: Shock Value Is Overrated

This blog post discusses subjects exploited for shock value in fiction, including atrocities like torture and sexual violence. I have done my best to address these subjects in an appropriate way, yet sensitive readers may want to give this post a miss.

There has been a lot of buzz lately over Game of Thrones and its sexual violence. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones, yet I’ve gathered the impression that it is not—to put it as gently as possible—a family-friendly show.

That looks... familiar.

This picture looks… familiar.

Some weeks ago, the controversy over the show inspired a sensible article explaining why subjects like rape must be handled very carefully by storytellers. (I would link to the article, but I can’t find it.) The gist was that rape is a monstrous crime and should not be taken lightly.

Can such atrocities be used effectively in fiction? Of course they can. Are such atrocities used effectively in fiction? Far too often, they are not. Subjects like rape, torture, and pedophilia are sometimes used by storytellers merely for shock value. Such atrocities are a cheap way to make a villain seem evil, a setting seem dark, or story seem gritty and “mature.”

Here are a few problems with such a shallow approach.

Stories that include heinous crimes too often focus on the criminals and ignore the victims.

If storytellers have the guts to depict a vicious crime, they had better also have the guts to show its effects on its victims. Using an atrocity like rape or torture for shock value, but glossing over its horrific consequences, is not only disrespectful—it’s bad storytelling. The cost of such crimes is too great to be ignored.

Shallow or tasteless use of monstrous crimes in fiction is deeply disrespectful to real-life victims of those crimes.

Before depicting a shocking crime, storytellers should ask themselves: What if anyone in my audience has been a victim of this crime? What will that person think of this scene? Fiction can explore atrocities in a meaningful way, but using them merely for shock value is cruelly disrespectful to those who have suffered them in real life.

There are endless ways to depict evil or depravity in fiction without using horrific atrocities as a cheap shortcut.

In my twenty-something years, I’ve read a lot of disturbing books: Lord of the FliesMausHeart of Darkness, and The Road, among others. (Twilight was equally horrifying, but for entirely different reasons.) These novels are chilling in their depiction of evil. So far as I can remember, none of them relies on torture, sexual perversions, or sexual violence for shock value. The depravity of humankind isn’t limited to these atrocities!

Shock value has its place in storytelling, but it must be treated with caution. Using shock as schlock, treating monstrous crimes as shortcuts to edgy storytelling, is a terrible mistake. Shock value can be used effectively—but it must be used carefully.

The Death of Kurtz

“Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

~ Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

As its title suggests, Heart of Darkness is not a cheerful book. It shows how dark and depraved the human heart can be. (It’s also boring and kinda racist, but still a worthwhile read.) Although I haven’t touched the book since reviewing it, I recently found myself contemplating one of its most famous lines.

Most of Heart of Darkness is spent slowly building up to an enigmatic man named Kurtz. When Kurtz finally appears, he turns out be a madman at death’s door. I can think of many adjectives for the genius, artist, and monster that is Kurtz: tortured, eloquent, gifted, brutal, terrifyinginsane. He is not a good man, but in some ways, he is a great one. His final words—“The horror! The horror!”—are among the most famous in literature.

At last, Kurtz dies… only for his death to be announced insolently, almost comically, by an African boy: “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

The more I think about this scene, the more it impresses me. At the end of his life, Kurtz the visionary receives neither comfort nor honor, but only the flat acknowledgment that “he dead.” He dies alone, shrouded in darkness and overwhelmed by despair. This great man’s death is met with scathing derision and a muddy burial. Kurtz was cruel, but how much crueler is the world that shrugs and says, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

The death of Kurtz is, to borrow the narrator’s words, “so beastly, beastly dark.” The death of Kurtz is an outstanding moment not only in Heart of Darkness, but in literature.

360. Review Roundup: Violent Movie Edition

I like to think I’m not a particularly violent person. Sure, I own five machetes, three swords, and a few knives, but I don’t use them. In fact, I seldom show aggression, except when playing video games. All’s fair in love, war, and Mario Kart.

Despite my peaceable nature, I occasionally watch violent movies. I saw quite a few in the past month: films full of epic car chases, superheroes, dystopian futures, demonic possessions, and British cops eating Cornetto ice cream cones. I may not be doing formal reviews, yet here are some brief impressions of Mad Max: Fury RoadAvengers: Age of UltronSnowpiercerThe Exorcist, and Hot Fuzz.

Hold on to your hats.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road consists of a brutal car chase and little else. Do you know what? I am five thousand percent fine with that.

Most of the film is a chase in which an entire convoy of cars follows an armored tanker truck across a desert. The cars—which were built, I can only assume, by psychopathic punk rockers with welding torches—bristle with spikes and assorted weaponry. One truck serves as a stage for a man playing an electric guitar that shoots flames.

Yes, this is that kind of movie.

In the film, a warlord named Immortan Joe reins unchallenged over refugees in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When one of his lieutenants betrays him and flees with his wives in a tanker truck, Joe sends a convoy to reclaim his prized “possessions.” One of the outrageous vehicles in the convey has an unusual hood ornament in the form of a wanderer named Max. He may be strapped to the front of a war machine, but Max is a survivor. Explosions and mayhem ensue.

Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have much dialogue, but it hardly needs it. This is an action film in its purest sense. The chase sequences were filmed mostly with practical effects and minimal CGI—meaning the film shows real cars, real stuntmen, and real explosions. It’s impressive stuff, and stylish as heck.

For having little dialogue—and being, y’know, flipping ridiculous—Mad Max: Fury Road tells quite a good story. The characters aren’t terribly well-developed, but they are memorable and clearly defined. In this film with sparse dialogue and relentless explosions, profound themes emerge: survival, longing for home, and empowerment of women. Mad Max: Fury Road is a far more intelligent film than it has any right to be, while never losing its sense of good, stupid fun.

I really enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. If you enjoy, or have any tolerance for, over-the-top action movies, I recommend it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron

Eh, it was all right.

What? You want more of a review than that? Here goes: It was all right, but it needed more Andy Serkis.

In seriousness, Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t bad. In the film, the Avengers, a colorful band of superheroes, battle Ultron: a rogue AI that deems humanity unfit to live. There’s a little more to the movie, of course, but that’s the gist. If you’ve seen any of the recent Marvel movies, you probably know the drill at this point.

I liked a lot of things about the film. First of all, Ultron is a marvelous villain with a menacing appearance and a personality defined by sardonic contempt. (I appreciate a bad guy with a sense of humor.) Ultron has a vision for a better, brighter future. It just happens to be a future without human beings. It’s nothing personal.

I was impressed by how the obligatory action scenes were balanced by a surprising amount of character development. The Avengers get plenty of scenes without spectacular fights or expository dialogue—scenes that allow them simply to be themselves. Hawkeye, the least popular Avenger, gets an astonishing amount of characterization. Andy Serkis makes a brief but memorable appearance as a South African arms dealer, stealing the scene from everyone but Ultron.

This brings me to one more outstanding feature of the film: It takes place all over the world. Look, I like America, but I’m tired of seeing it in Marvel’s superhero movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron spends most of its time in Asian, African, and Eastern European countries. I really appreciated the change of scenery.

There are, of course, things I didn’t appreciate about Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film feels slightly suffocated by the weight of all the Marvel movies that came before it. Too many characters are stuffed into the film, including a pair of twins that have no business whatsoever being there. With a couple of minor tweaks, Avengers: Age of Ultron could have worked perfectly without them. One or two unexplained plot elements stick out egregiously. Unlike the breakable hero of Marvel’s Daredevil, the Avengers are invulnerable, and therefore boring.

My final problem with the movie (slight spoiler ahead) is the introduction late in the film of a messianic character in the form of a heroic android. This good AI is a foil to Ultron, sure, but it’s also a literal deus ex machina. Besides, a theme of the movie is that creating self-aware machines like Ultron is a bad idea. The Avengers defeat the godlike AI… by creating another godlike AI. Hmm.

In the end, despite its faults, Avengers: Age of Ultron is another solid entry in the Marvel movie canon. In other news, I think Ultron and GLaDOS would probably get along really well, to the detriment (and possible extinction) of humans everywhere.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

In Snowpiercer, a new ice age has wiped out nearly all life on Earth. The only survivors are the passengers of a high-tech train, the eponymous Snowpiercer, that circles the globe once a year. Built for doomsday, the train is entirely self-sufficient with a powerful engine and carefully regulated ecosystems. The privileged passengers ride in luxurious cars toward the front of the train. Middle cars contain necessities such as orchards and water tanks. The squalid rear cars of the train are reserved for the stowaways. Tired of living in filth and fear, these stowaways revolt against the train’s authorities. The rebels, led by a tough-as-nails passenger named Curtis, must fight their way forward one car at a time.

Snowpiercer is brilliant. Its absurd dystopia is compelling and unique: a society whose socioeconomic classes are divided by train cars. The train doesn’t merely represent a social order—it is a social order, laid out in a neat line. There is a golden simplicity in the structure of Snowpiercer‘s dystopia, and it was gripping to watch Curtis and his crew advance through the train. The train itself is a fascinating chain of set pieces, starting with filthy rear cars and getting progressively more interesting the farther Curtis and company advance.

Although Snowpiercer is a South Korean film, it stars mostly English-speaking actors. I was surprised by how many of them I recognized. Curtis is played by Chris Evans, with other roles filled by Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris. Snowpiercer has all the visual polish of a Hollywood blockbuster, but is a much smarter film than most American action flicks.

It isn’t a cheerful film, and it’s definitely not for kids, but Snowpiercer is superb: easily one of the best sci-fi movies I’ve seen. I highly recommend it, especially for viewers who like intelligent action films or dystopian fiction.

The Exorcist

The ExorcistI’m no fan of horror films, but I decided to watch this one. For science. The Exorcist, an iconic and culturally significant film, depicts the gradual demonic possession of a girl, and the attempts of two priests to drive out the demon.

My strongest impression of The Exorcist is that it’s really slow. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, I appreciate that the film takes time to develop its characters instead of rushing to sensational scares. I don’t know much about horror movies, but my impression is that their characters are often treated not as people, but as objects for death and dismemberment. The Exorcist acknowledges its characters as people, which makes their suffering at the hands (claws?) of the demon all the more gut-wrenching. However, while I appreciated the film’s slow-but-steady approach, I found it too slow. The movie’s ponderous pacing leads to an all-too-short denouement, which left me asking, “Heck, that’s it?”

I didn’t find The Exorcist all that scary. The buildup to the demon was excellent, and the scene in which it fully possesses the girl is terrifying, but from that point on the demon-possessed child is mostly silly. Her appearance is blatantly fake, like a Halloween outfit, and it just ain’t scary. By the point the girl starts vomiting lime-green goo, I couldn’t take the demon seriously. A subtler approach, with a lot less makeup, would have been far creepier.

The famous scene in which the demon takes over the girl is easily the scariest in the film, and it’s frankly shocking: especially for a film released in the seventies. Among other things, the girl repeatedly jams a crucifix into her vagina. (The scene isn’t explicit, but it is disturbing.) It’s disgusting and profane—but then, that’s the point. The artist in me is impressed by the strong characterization of the demon. The rest of me is grossed out.

Despite its solid characterization and few scary scenes, the poor pacing and tasteless schlock of The Exorcist make it hard to recommend.

Hot Fuzz

Hot FuzzQuestion: Is Hot Fuzz A) an action movie, B) an old-fashioned murder mystery, or C) a fantastic comedy? The correct answer, of course, is D) all of the above.

In Hot Fuzz, straight-laced policeman—sorry, police officer—Nicholas Angel is transferred from London to the sleepy town of Sandford for making his colleagues look bad. Although Sandford is practically free of crime, a string of suspicious deaths leads Angel to believe the quiet town hides a conspiracy. With his incompetent partner, Danny Butterman, in tow, Angel sets out to solve the gruesome Sandford murders, watching action movies and eating Cornetto ice cream cones along the way.

Hot Fuzz is a unique blend of genres. It has a bit of an Agatha Christie feel with its murders in a rural British village. The gunfights near the end are an affectionate send-up of Hollywood action movies. Most of all, Hot Fuzz is a superbly-written comedy. I watched it because of this glowing review on Kotaku, which perfectly describes the film’s tight screenplay: “Nearly every line of dialogue is either an explicit joke, a set-up to a future joke, or a call-back to a joke that was set up earlier. Some manage to be all three at once.”

As noted in the Kotaku review, Hot Fuzz satirizes action movies in its cinematography. In one scene, two cops run from a bomb about to explode, the camera pulls back expectantly, and… the bomb doesn’t explode. Its a neat subversion of the stereotypical Hollywood explosion. There are also tons of quick, Michael Bay-esque edits, but instead of showing glimpses of action—explosions, gunshots, car crashes!—they punctuate ordinary tasks—filling out paperwork, opening doors, watering plants!

I have only two significant criticisms of Hot Fuzz. First is a jarring tonal shift near the end. The film transitions none too gracefully from detective-story satire to blazing action, with a number of people acting out of character. It feels forced. The other problem is the gore. This film has an astonishing amount of blood, including an icky scene in which a man’s head is crushed by a falling piece of masonry. The gory violence, all of which is flagrantly fake, is probably meant to be funny, but I found it a tasteless blemish in otherwise brilliant comedy.

Despite its overblown violence and some foul language, Hot Fuzz is a clever, well-written satire of British mystery and American action. I highly recommend it.

355. What I Want to Change about The Trials of Lance Eliot

I once wrote a novel titled The Trials of Lance Eliot, and readers have asked me whether I plan to write sequels. I may continue Lance’s story someday, but what I really want to do is rewrite its first part.

Well, I don’t want to rewrite The Trials of Lance Eliot completely. (That would take a lot of work.) However, having put a couple of years between myself and my novel, I’ve realized there are quite a number of things I want to change.

The Trials of Lance EliotHere’s what I want to change about The Trials of Lance Eliot.

In case anyone is interested in reading my little book, be ye warned: There be major spoilers ahead!

I want to remove Miles and a few other characters.

When I wrote the novel, I had big plans for Miles. He is a traveling companion to Lance, Regis, and Tsurugi, and I wanted him to balance the group by being a foil for each of them. With his soft heart, strong work ethic, and childlike faith, Miles was supposed to challenge Lance’s selfishness, Regis’s irresponsibility, and Tsurugi’s cynicism.

In the end, however, Miles doesn’t contribute much. He drops out of the story partway through, making a halfhearted encore toward the end. I don’t think the novel needs him. A few other characters could be just as easily removed: Atticus, for example, could be replaced by Petra. I think The Trials of Lance Eliot has too many underdeveloped characters, and could benefit from the removal of the unnecessary ones.

I want to clear up the disappearance of Maia and Kana.

The supposed deaths and eventual reappearances of both Kana and Maia make me cringe more than almost anything else in The Trials of Lance Eliot. Fake deaths are horribly clichéd.

However, the apparent deaths and subsequent reappearances of these characters are necessary for the story. The deaths of Maia and Kana drive the development of Lance and Regis, respectively: Lance becomes depressed, and Regis resolves to become an honest man. Maia and Kana must be reintroduced later in the story: Kana to rescue Lance, and Maia to send him home. I can think of no easy way to dodge these fake deaths.

However, I can be less coy about Maia and Kana’s disappearances. I want to state merely that they are “missing,” not that they are necessarily dead. That would still provide some tension, while making their inevitable revivals seem less contrived.

I want to start the story in the US instead of in the UK.

Full disclosure: I started the story in Oxford only because J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, my favorite fantasy writers, lived there. I’ve never actually been to the UK. Most of what I know about contemporary British culture comes from watching Sherlock and Doctor Who. I don’t know enough about the UK to make it a convincing start to Lance’s story.

Indiana, a place with which I’m all too familiar, would be a perfectly adequate place for the start of The Trials of Lance Eliot. If anything it would be better: a small Indiana town is far less interesting than Oxford, which would make Lance’s adventures seem more exciting by contrast.

I want to make Regis a girl.

Not long ago, someone on Twitter shared the following quote from Noelle Stevenson: “When you write a male character, think ‘does this character have to be male? Why?'”

Like The HobbitThe Trials of Lance Eliot is overstuffed with male characters. (I love The Hobbit, but its lack of female characters is appalling.) It wasn’t my intention to discriminate against female characters; I wrote mostly male ones because, well, I happen to be a guy. In the end, The Trials of Lance Eliot had only three female characters with any depth, and only one of them (Maia) received much characterization.

I’m no feminist, but I’ve realized it isn’t fair for my characters to be men by default. Of all the characters in my novel, Regis has probably the fewest reasons for being male. I want to rewrite the character as a young lady. I suppose that means I would have to change the name, wouldn’t it?

I want to change the orphanage in Valdelaus to a home for persons with disabilities.

Orphanages have become a cliché in storytelling. A home for persons with disabilities would offer far better opportunities for both pathos and comedy—believe me, I know!

I want to publish the book under my own name.

I’ve already discussed this, and have nothing to add.

I want to use exposition more evenly.

An early chapter of my novel is mostly exposition as Kana explains things to Lance. Perhaps Kana could offer his explanations incrementally across a couple of chapters? Whatever my solution, the early chapters should strike a better balance between action and exposition.

I want to rewrite some of the dialogue.

I prefer to use good grammar, but that isn’t how ordinary people talk. My characters should speak less like Adam writing and more like people actually talking.

I want Lance to swear like a normal person.

Lance’s dated British euphemisms are a bit silly. People don’t say things like “dash it” and “what in blazes” anymore. (Well, I do, but I do a lot of strange things.) My novel may be a case in which mild profanity would be justified. Ordinary swearwords like “damn” and “hell” would believably convey Lance’s lack of moral fiber toward the beginning of his journey.

These are the changes I would make to The Trials of Lance Eliot… and then, maybe, I could go back to planning its sequels. Maybe.