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Here’s a lousy plot for a Batman story: the Joker plants a bomb of lethal laughing gas that will choke half of Gotham City, and the bomb is set to go off in sixty years.

And here’s what looks like a non sequitur but isn’t: I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night.

In the case of the Lord of the Rings movies, waiting eleven days to see one of the films would have been cause to revoke my nerd card. Not so with The Hobbit; the scuttlebutt on these movies has been so atrocious that even the most die-hard Tolkien fan has to walk into the theater with dread rather than excitement.

I’d heard two things going in. 1) The movie is horrible. 2) The movie isn’t so bad, if you just pretend that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the novel. I’m not sure I can agree with either of those.

It’s not a good film, but I think there is a pretty good film in there, probably about 90 minutes in length, which I’d argue is the length Peter Jackson should have been shooting for. The Hobbit is a kid’s book, and nobody should expect a kid to sit still for three hours. When they first talked about doing two films, I thought two 90 minute films would have been just about perfect. You’d still take your kids to some good kid’s movies. Three 90 minute films would have been stretching it. Three three-hour films is just a really bad idea.

Okay, says the marketing department, but doesn’t the audience already expect an epic Tolkien trilogy from Peter Jackson? Wouldn’t it run against the audience’s expectations to deliver a kid’s movie when the last trilogy was composed of complex, violent, scary, and otherwise distinctively un-kid’s-movies?

Sure. And you could make the argument that The Lord of the Rings is the worst sequel ever written. The Hobbit is 200 pages of light reading, while its sequel is 1200 pages of some of the densest reading in the genre, including appendices and untranslated Elvish poetry. Myself, I think The Lord of the Rings is the better read, but as a follow-up to The Hobbit, it’s a change of pace to say the least. 

And here’s where we get to why this hobbit movie disappoints: there just isn’t enough source material. Yes, there’s tons of Tolkien source material.  Believe me, the day they want to film the Silmarillion is the day I pre-order the DVD. But The Hobbit itself is light fare, and Jackson stretches it out with an overburdened subplot about a mysterious necromancer who isn’t mysterious at all.

Now perhaps I ought to warn people that this paragraph contains a spoiler, but if so, it doesn’t spoil much.  The Lord of the Rings films were such blockbusters that even people who aren’t Tolkien fans can guess who this mysterious necromancer really is.  Those who are fans –or even those who paid attention to the first 20 minutes of this film– know perfectly well that Our Heroes won’t actually get around to dealing with the necromancer for sixty years.

The upshot is that I felt the same way about An Unexpected Journey as I did about the film adaptation of 300: my least favorite parts were the extraneous bits the director decided to cram in there. In the case of 300, it’s the subplot with Leonidas’s wife and the corrupt senator, which amounted to maybe ten or fifteen minutes of screen time. In the case of the newest installment from Peter Jackson, it’s more than an hour of screen time, and none of it has any tension for me.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that there are plenty of built-in bathroom breaks, which you need in a film that runs nearly three hours. For those who haven’t seen it yet, anytime Radagast or Galadriel walk on stage, feel free to get up and stretch your legs.  You won’t miss much.

I saw John Carter last week, and ever since I walked out of the theater I’ve been trying to figure out why I liked it.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot to like.  The action scenes are fun, a lot of thought went into the world-building, and the special effects supported both of those brilliantly.  Dejah Thoris is as sexy as they come, the Martian Marilyn Monroe, and that’s even considering the fact that she wears more clothes in this film than in any of her previous incarnations.  (Google images of Dejah Thoris and you’ll see what I mean.  It comes as little surprise that the people at Disney dressed her in more than just tattoos, but somehow they managed to wring more raw sex appeal out of a fully dressed Lynn Collins than the most iconic images from Frank Frazetta or Adam Hughes.)

I would have enjoyed this movie even without the sword-wielding goddesses and four-armed aliens, and I’m having trouble figuring out why.  I couldn’t stomach Avatar.  In that one the dialogue was so bad that I had to watch it in Spanish—I figured I might as well try to learn some new vocabulary—and even then I had to rely on my fast forward button to get me through the movie.  At the end I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to call it Dances With Wolves III or The Last Samurai II (The Last Samurai being Dances With Wolves II, of course).  It was just another haole-guy-lives-among-natives-for-three-or-four-days-and-instantly-masters-their-traditions-then-leads-them-to-a-victory-they-could-never-have-claimed-for-themselves story.  We’ve seen it in Dances With Wolves.* We’ve seen it in The Last Samurai.  And here we can see it again in John Carter.  So why did I like this movie?

I’ll admit to some nostalgia from reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, but that by itself doesn’t explain it.  A few years ago I went back and re-read some of those Tarzan books I used to love, and yeesh, there’s some dodgy stuff in there.  It’s safe to say my old infatuation with Burroughs is dead.

I’ll also grant that if you’re making a Dances With Wolves sequel, it really helps if in casting your Haole Guy Hero you choose an actor with some range.  Tom Cruise plays Tom Cruise as well as anyone, and in the right movie that’s a great role for him, but Dances With Wolves II ain’t it.  (Compare that one to Magnolia or Jerry Maguire and you’ll see what I mean.)  But though Taylor Kitsch is good in the role of John Carter, he isn’t so good that his performance is the only reason you need to like this movie.

I suppose it could be that John Carter isn’t Dances With Wolves on Mars so much as Dances with Wolves is really a John Carter story set in the American West.  (Burroughs predates Michael Blake by a good bit.)  But I don’t think that’s it either.  Most of the time I find haole-guy-lives-among-natives-for-a-few-days-and-instantly-masters-their-traditions stories to be pretty annoying regardless of era.

I’d like to say it’s as simple as the fact that while Dances With Wolves (which I liked a lot) and The Last Samurai (which I didn’t) are meant to be thoughtful and thought-provoking, John Carter is just a romp, a fun summer action flick that happened to be released in the winter instead.  But surely Avatar was meant to be a romp too, and yes, it had its share of nifty action sequences, yet every one of them fell flat.  Why?

I think my problem with those scenes in Avatar was that I just didn’t give a shit.  None of the characters were compelling to me.  It didn’t help that every twist and turn of the plot was predictable—action scenes are better when they’re surprising—but primarily, the dialogue was so stilted, and the story so shallow, that I just couldn’t muster the energy to care.

I can’t claim that John Carter was chock-full of surprises.  For one thing, I’ve read all the stories.  For another, it so happened that I saw the tail end of the movie in one theater before I saw the whole thing in another.  But most of all, it’s a great summer action movie, and that means it follows a certain formula.  Spoiler alert: there’s a big battle scene at the end, and a brief denouement that follows it, and somewhere in there the hero hooks up with the Martian Marilyn Monroe.  Duh.

I think the one thing that separates John Carter from the Dances With Wolves clones is that these characters are actually interesting.  (And here there might be legitimate spoilers; consider yourself forewarned.)  Willem Dafoe’s Tars Tarkas first appears as a friendly guy, then turns out to be a manipulative ruler, and then turns out not to be manipulative enough to retain his rule.  Dejah Thoris isn’t just a sex kitten; she’s also a scientist and a badass with a sword.  She proves tougher than the tough guys and smarter than the smart guys.  The badguys spend a fair amount of time screwing over other badguys, which is exactly what badguys ought to be doing, but which so few storytellers actually let them do.

By these lights, John Carter himself is actually one of the least interesting characters in the film, but hey, at least he doesn’t commit some of the sins I most despise in haole-guy-leads-primitives-to-victory stories.  He doesn’t learn the local language overnight.  (He needs alien technology for that.)  He doesn’t learn the local martial arts overnight.  (He’s a badass in his own right.)  And he doesn’t beat the aliens at their own game.  On top of that, he has nifty powers in low-G and a cool frogdog.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking it ain’t, but as a romp it’s good enough for me.

*Which, by the way, claims to be based on the book of the same title, despite the fact that in the book—which is excellent, and begins with one of the best opening sentences you’re likely to find—all of the principal players are Japanese, and the Tom Cruise character of the film doesn’t even exist.

In my first post on this site, I mentioned that I might someday write a post explaining a reference to the cantina scene in Star Wars. That day has come.

Once again I violate my ban against discussing those god-awful prequel movies that everyone else seems to think are Star Wars movies. I hope my own cardiac tissue will forgive me for this. I also hope you’ll bear with me if I nerd out for a bit. Now [insert deep breath here] please allow me to clarify terms:

• by Star Wars I mean the movie entitled Star Wars, later entitled Star Wars: A New Hope;
• by “Star Wars movies” I mean the first three;
• by “the first three” I mean the three that actually came first, in 1977, 1980, and 1983.

That said, what made Star Wars brilliant, and what made the Star Wars movies brilliant, was that the universe in which they took place was so much larger than what you saw on screen. Lucas establishes this beautifully in the cantina scene—which, for those of you who are either under 25 or not nerdy enough to know what I’m talking about, is the scene where Obi Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker go into a bar full of aliens to meet Han Solo and Chewbacca. But you don’t even have to know who any of those dudes are. What you really need to know is that those dudes walk past, talk to, get in fights with, and happen to be the same room with members of dozens of different alien races, almost none of which ever show up again in any of the films.

Think of all the effort that went into the costume design for that scene. You’ve got to envision not just their anatomy but what they’re going to wear, what they’re going to drink, even how they’re going to drink (if you design strange mouths for them), what sort of weapons or musical instruments or wristwatches they’ll have (and, if you give them strange hands, how they carry their stuff), how their facial structures define what speech patterns they’re capable of, yadda yadda yadda.

On top of all of that you want some of them to look pacifistic, others to look malicious, others to seem stupid or panicked or drunk, and in making those choices you cause your audience to think a little bit about their cultures and dispositions. In other words, just by deciding to put that scene in your movie, you create scores upon scores of planets, languages, customs, civilizations, technological eras, and so on. Just by panning your camera through the cantina, you develop the world in which your characters live.

That’s why Star Wars blew audiences out of their seats. It wasn’t just the aliens; it’s the starships, the guns, the droids. None of them ever get explained; they just pass on by in the background, begging us to ask, “Where’d that come from?”

Now, is the cantina scene ripped off from Barliman Butterbur’s Prancing Pony? You bet. Is the whole Star Wars galaxy based heavily on Middle Earth? As sure as Glamdring and Sting glow the same color as Luke and Obi Wan’s lightsabers. But to paraphrase Picasso, good artists copy while great artists steal. Lucas was right to base his universe on Tolkien’s, because Tolkien’s has the same quality of seemingly infinite depth. We in the audience get the feeling that the storyteller could have followed anyone out of the Prancing Pony or the Mos Eisley cantina and taken us on an equally thrilling ride.

This pops up in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi too. Boba Fett isn’t cool because of his costume. He’s cool because the baddest badass in the galaxy goes out of his way to tell him, “No disintegrations.” He’s cool because not only does Han Solo know the dude by reputation but he’s actually afraid of him. (Don’t ask me who’s making that wimpy Wilhelm Scream off-camera just before Boba Fett falls into the Sarlacc pit. I don’t know; I just know it ain’t Boba.)

So, if you want to make a prequel movie to Star Wars, the one thing you absolutely must not do is make the world smaller. You can’t, for example, have Boba Fett show up. At all. And you definitely can’t make Boba Fett’s dad a hireling of Darth Vader’s boss, thereby transforming the coolest bounty hunter ever into a petulant whiner who went into daddy’s profession because he couldn’t come up with anything more original.

By the same token, given the hundreds of unique droids puttering around namelessly in the backgrounds of your first three films, you cannot have R2D2 or C3P0 show up in your prequel. Oh, and if you make the world-shrinking mistake of putting R2D2 in your prequel, you certainly can’t have him meet Obi Wan Kenobi, because Obi Wan’s very first bit of dialogue establishes that he’s never seen R2 before.

The alleged prequels have plenty of other problems too. They get the ending wrong, for instance. (Natalie Portman’s character doesn’t die.) But what I was talking about in my first post was the genius of the cantina scene for developing a richly textured setting with just a few sweeps of the camera. No dialogue! Just show us the cantina and we can see how much bigger your galaxy is than anything we’ve seen before.

I wandered across a little piece of wisdom a few posts ago, captured in the word bloodrust. Okay, okay, so bloodrust ain’t a word. It’s a neologism coined by China Miéville, to describe a phenomenon in his fictional city of New Crobuzon. In writing that post, I started thinking about what a word like that says about the culture in which it arises. In this post I’m going to do some more thinking on that topic.

Think about how much exposed metal and how much bloodshed you’d have to have in your city to come up with a word like bloodrust. So much blood is been spilled so often, and so ubiquitously, and cleaned up so seldom, that you have to name this phenomenon you see blooming all around you.

Bloodrust. It’s perfect. It describes exactly what it is, without a single extra word of description from Miéville. He drops it in a single sentence and then moves along, leaving us to wonder how the bloodrust got to be there. And when we ask ourselves that question, we discover volumes of information about the world Miéville has created.

Drive-by shooting is equally elegant. A monstrous event, to be sure, but the term has a lot to say about the neighborhood (and the country, and the culture) in which it happens. Only people who shoot each other tens of thousands of times a year need to discern this kind of shooting from that kind of shooting.

The fact that the American medical establishment needs to distinguish between the overweight and the obese is another commentary. So is the fact that the Japanese have the word karōshi—“death from overwork.” Another Japanese favorite of mine—again, monstrous but fascinating—is shokushu gōkan, or “tentacle rape.” Only in a society obsessed by erotic art and porn will you find an established vocabulary word for something like this. (And this one goes back centuries; shokushu gōkan is the subject of woodblock prints, not just Wandering Kid movies.)

As a storyteller, there are few talents more important than word choice. I find it interesting that cultures engage in some pretty sophisticated word choice too.

The good people at the Ford Motor Company are doing their part to ensure that no matter what the calendar says, it will always be 1984 in the US of A.

The new 2011 Taurus SHO comes with one of two engines: the standard 3.5-liter V6, which they advertise at 18 mph city/28 mpg highway, and the 3.5-liter “EcoBoost” V6, which they advertise at 17 mph city/25 mpg highway. That’s right: designating an engine as “EcoBoost” reduces fuel economy by 11%.

I see an entire new world of science fiction possibilities opening up, one in which new technologies become increasingly heavier, clunkier, and less efficient. For years we’ve all been wondering when we’ll get the jetpacks envisioned by SF writers of decades past. Now we know the answer: with the geniuses behind “EcoBoost” technology leading the charge, we’re lucky to have motorized vehicles at all. Perhaps next year’s Taurus will actually be a mechanical bull.

As soon as the credits rolled in Episode II, allegedly of the Star Wars film franchise, I said Episode III would have to be the greatest sci-fi story of all time. Somehow III’s script would have to explain how the sleek, super-high-tech world of episodes I and II would degrade into the blocky, dirty tech level of episode IV. Natalie Portman flies around in a shiny, dagger-sharp spin-off of a SR-71 Blackbird. Carrie Fisher flies around in a boxy hunk of junk. Even the handgun technology needs to retrograde a few hundred years. The guns in the new pretenders are all trim, streamlined, Star Trekky things, whereas the guns in the real trilogy are all big and cumbersome. (Hell, Han Solo’s is actually a modified German WWII pistol.)

At last we have an answer: the Galactic Empire put all its starship and small arms engineers through internships at Ford Motor Company. I can see the ads now: “Are your droids capable of laying down blazing fields of fully automatic laser fire while protected by their own self-generated force fields? Don’t worry! The Wizards of EcoBoost can have them tottering around like humans in bulky costumes in no time. Before you know it, they’ll be incapable of overcoming so much as a flight of stairs, and any backwater bumpkin with a crowbar will be able to dismantle them in no time.”

Thank you, EcoBoost Wizards, for filling in this gaping plot hole between the real Star Wars films and the new pretenders. Your next assignment: explain to me how I’m supposed to believe Darth Vader can possibly have come out of Little Orphan Ani.

Pablo Picasso said, “good artists copy; great artists steal.” As far as I know, he never elaborated on the cause-effect relationship there. If I’m great, does that give me license to steal? Or is stealing the act (or dare I suggest the habit) that will lead me to greatness? I don’t know the answer to these questions. All I know is, what I’m advocating in this post encourages outright theft. So be warned.

Lesson three: invent new compound words to create meaning, deliver imagery, and develop a world.

There’s a neighborhood in New Crobuzon called Riverskin. What does that name conjure in your imagination? I see a filthy ghetto with an even filthier canal cutting through the guts of it. For me oil and scum and detritus are gangs fighting a turf war for ownership of the water’s surface.

Now how about Bonetown or Flyside? Those are neighborhoods in New Crobuzon too. In these neighborhoods you can go up to the roofworld, and swooping menacingly above the roofscape are the slake-moths, snuffling up psychoscents and jonesing for dreamjuice.

Perdido Street Station is chock-full of neologisms like this. The psychosphere is home to psychonauts like the slake-moths, who can recognize you by your mindprint. There’s a drug called dreamshit, a weapon called a rivebow (wielded by intelligent, ambulatory cactuses, no less!), a phenomenon called quasivoltage and another one called bloodrust.

Think about how much it says about a city if its residents have to invent a word like bloodrust. It speaks volumes, doesn’t it? In fact, I think it says so much that I’ll have to contemplate that in a later post. In the meantime, though, I’m going to think about the worlds I’m creating in my fiction, and I’m going to see what kind of neologisms people in those worlds are going to come up with. Sorry, China. I’m stealing that one from you.

If you’ve just stumbled across this, be aware that there’s a part one. Given the post’s title, I’d be inclined to think this is obvious to all, but then I recall leaving the theater after seeing Kill Bill vol. 1 and overhearing two fellow audience members complaining about what a letdown it was. As I am both a huge Tarantino fan and a huge fan of chop-socky flicks, my ears pricked. “Who knew you were going to have to wait for the sequel?” I heard the one guy say. “Yeah,” said his pal, “like Lord of the Rings.”

Wow.

Anyway, so there’s a part one. Read it or this post is just one long non sequitur.

Lesson two: If you want to make your settings real, develop a poet’s ear for detail.

First, what is “a poet’s ear for detail”?  It’s a bit like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when I see it.  A critic said of another one of my favorite authors, Elizabeth McCracken, that “Only poets have the same obsessive concern with language that philosophers do, and McCracken is clearly a poet.”* Being a philosopher by profession, I thought this was quite a nice thing of him to say. Then I realized that my only “short story” published at that point came in at an elephantine 15,000 words, which is something like 25% of a McCracken novel. That’s when I realized I have to work on this obsessive concern thing.

Miéville’s got it down pat.  I can’t offer you a representative selection of examples from Perdido Street Station because they appear two or three times on every stinkin’ page. New Crobuzon, the city where his Miéville’s story is set, is described so vividly that I want to wash my hands after reading. I’ll share one example of what I mean:

“Rain began to fall, quite suddenly. It was sluggish, huge drops falling indolently and breaking open, as thick and warm as pus.”

New Crobuzon ain’t Honolulu. Rain doesn’t fall like pus in Honolulu. The first time it rained on me in Honolulu, the sun was shining and the sky was nearly cloudless. I thought, If I open my mouth, I’ll only be the tiniest bit surprised to find Hawaiian rain tastes like pineapple juice.

This sentence alone tells me so much about Miéville’s fictional city—and the jerk has the audacity to have a sentence like this on every single page. Or two sentences. Or ten. It depends on how much he wants to show off.

So instead of getting jealous, and instead of wondering where is the justice in a universe where so many people get to have so much talent while the rest of us have to work so damned hard for every scrap we can come by, go read Perdido Street Station and see if Miéville can help you learn how to distill just the right details.

*Props to Geoffrey Stokes, who wrote that for The Boston Globe.

First, if you don’t know of China Miéville yet, stop reading this right now and go get a copy of Perdido Street Station.  It is one of the weirdest, darkest, grittiest novels I’ve ever read, and—maybe paradoxically—it’s beautifully written to boot.  I am already itching to get to the library and pick up my next Miéville book.

If you’re interested in writing, Perdido Street Station is more than a great novel; it’s a writing workshop.  Miéville can teach you volumes about writing with élan, but I don’t want to go on for volumes here.  Instead, I want to encapsulate a few of the lessons I learned from Miéville, with references to specific turns of phrase.

Lesson one: If you want to write gripping fantasy or science fiction, inundate your reader with the bizarre.

In the first paragraphs of Perdido Street Station we already see a building dribbling mucus.  That one goes up into the sci-fi firmament right next to Heinlein’s dilating door: it tells me volumes about what I’m looking at in just two words.  Not only do I know that humans didn’t build this building, but I can guess that it must have been intelligent insectoids.  (If you had the same guess, you’d be right.)  Since this building stands beside ordinary brick-and-mortar cousins, I know humans and aliens live in close proximity to one another, and most importantly of all, I know this city is a slimy, gritty, stinking, disgusting place to live.  How could it not be if its buildings dribble mucus?

By the end of chapter two we’ve encountered khepri, refflicks, and pterabirds pulling rickshaws; we’ve seen lumbering constructs, intelligent badgers, and the Remade; we’ve seen buildings and artwork made of khepri spit and flying baskets that run errands for you.  By the end of chapter three we add to the list the vodyanoi, their water sculptures, and a garuda.  Don’t know what these are?  It doesn’t matter.  Everyone in the world of Perdido Street Station knows what they are, and that makes the world real for the reader.

The list keeps growing, by the way, and it keeps getting weirder, until you meet beings so strange that not even the inhabitants of Miéville’s world can comprehend them.  And that doesn’t make things harder to understand; it throws the utterly bizarre into sharp contrast with the so-far-so-good-I-can-dig-it-bizarre.  If you can get your head around the cactus warriors, the wyrmen, and the ambassador from Hell, it’s really saying something that no one can sort out what the hell Mr. Motley is or understand the motivations—or even the physical and metaphysical existence of—the extradimensional Weaver.

In a nutshell, lesson one is it’s okay to think of your otherworldy setting like one big, long, panning shot through the Mos Eisley cantina.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then A) I’ll bet you a shiny nickel you’re under 25, and B) go watch Star Wars.  Maybe I’ll post later about why the cantina scene alone makes the real Star Wars movies so much better than those awful pretenders claming to be prequels.)

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