In Defense of Canto Bight

If what’s happening with recent Star Wars discussion can be called “The Skywalker Schism” – as posited by author Bill Bridges – I’m about to go full on Heresy here.

I think the Canto Bight sequences in TLJ are necessary because they not only fed into Finn’s journey from focused survivalist to declaring himself “rebel scum” but also shows us exactly why the New Republic failed. Let me talk about Finn, first.

Remember Finn from TFA was a focused survivalist. Once Poe apparently died, his mission was to get out of dodge and away from the oncoming storm of the First Order and it’s system killer. Only Rey gave him pause. By the end of TFA, his survival sphere expanded to Rey and Poe, but not to the Resistance as a whole. As far as he was concerned, the resistance was a futile effort. Even with Starkiller base gone, there was no way the Resistance would escape.

When he tried to jump ship, it was to make sure Rey didn’t fly back into a bloodbath. He told Poe and Rose to get out while they could. He accepted the mission with Rose because it provided a path for him to keep Rey safe. He was never in for the rebellion.

Then, Canto Bight. Canto Bight provided a vision of a world outside the First Order and the Resistance. To a soldier who’d never seen the outside of a Star Destroyer unless on deployment, this must have been heaven. But it’s heaven built on slavery, and torture (they shocked the farthiers!) and an Ayn Rand level of mercenary thinking. Everyone in Canto Bight used money to insulate themselves from the wars around them, and the suffering of others. They sat from the balconies and watched races, ignoring who tended to those farthiers.

DJ (Benicio Del Torro’s character) is a perfect example. He is not Han Solo 2.0. He’s a mercenary pure and simple, and sells out everyone for more money to buy a nice safe place while the wars go down. He takes advantage of folks with ‘true beliefs’ just as the First Order takes advantage of his skills.

But, during that trip, seeing Canto Bight through Rose’s eyes, seeing kids like he him – pressed into servitude – and the sacrifices others were willing to make, changed Finn. When he confronted Phasma, he proudly declared himself Rebel Scum (TM). And he went back to Crait, despite the desperate situation, when they could have gone most anywhere else. Now in, he’d sacrifice himself to keep the Resistance alive. That’s not the Finn we saw trying to get away from a fight. He confronted the First Order head on.

The second thing Canto Bight taught us is how the New Republic failed. From the Prequels (and especially the Clone Wars TV series) we saw how corrupt the Republic and the Jedi order became. The latter was so focused on maintaining their dogma, they violated the spirit upon which it was based. The former let slavery, private armies, bribery and other crimes go unchecked. They relied on the Jedi as peacekeepers and locals when Jedi couldn’t be there. There was no Republic agency fighting corruption and slavery, as far as I could see. When the Republic became the Empire, they just leaned into the corruption: Don’t rock the boat, and we’ll ensure you and yours don’t get touched.

When the New Republic came around, did they go after the collaborators? Apparently not. The same folks who were bankrolling the First Order were also supplying arms and services to the New Republic. My current screen crush, Cara Dune, noted the NR went from taking down Imperial warlords to making political concessions. Anyone expecting the folks who provided the Empire with Super Star Destroyers and profited handsomely to take a perp walk when the New Republic came in to power was surprised.

Unfortunately, it sent a very specific messages to the Canto Bight privileged: It doesn’t matter who’s in authority, because as long as you have money, you can buy safety. You control the guns and butter? You can dictate your terms. Seinar Fleet Systems produced ships for the Republic, then the Empire, then the New Republic and the First Order. All it needed to do was change it’s name to Seinar-Jaemus Fleet Systems.

So, the slavery continues. The war continues. And the people who profit from it continue to order small kids around, forcing them to clean up after their horses. In the shadows, though, the kids tell stories. Stories of someone who stood up and kept hope alive under impossible odds.

My only hope is after TRoS, the first thing they do is send Rose and Finn back to Canto Bight. With shock troopers, arrest warrants, and social teams to care for the slave families. Oh, and the kid? Someone get him a light saber.

End of Heresy.

Not-So-Cyberpunk 2020

The end of the year. Normally a time for reflection on the year. Honestly, though, my accomplishments can be boiled down to the following:

  • Published in two anthologies this year.
  • Completed draft of a full-length novel
  • Attended two (smaller scale) workshops
  • Kept my job for a full year
  • Kept my personal life relatively intact
  • Continued to appreciate how damn lucky I am to have found my wife

Things I did not get to do and wanted to included:

  • Drop a test podcast/video
  • Take more photographs
  • Promote myself more on social media

What is in store for 2020? Normally, I’d talk about our down-market, low-budget Cyberpunk future here but I’ve done a lot of that this year. Let’s just say any timeline which forces William Gibson to go back and rewrite a novel-in-progress because the current ‘fucked up’ factor in the real world outstrips his fictional one fairly gritty one.

I can only plan for myself. In addition to the three missed items above, I have the following on my list:

  • Read and revise novel
  • Find and attend more writing workshops, hopefully local.
  • Contacts, submissions, and other outreach attempts.

And the big one:

  • Revise that short story.

I wrote a draft last year for an on-line class. It drew from personal experience. Bad personal experience. After sending it about, and getting an editor to take a look at it (Birthday present thoughts for writers: hire an editor to read their short story), I knew I had to revise it.

The protagonist needed to take the lead, go to the forefront. They needed to be front and center. And the story had to be told from first person. Not the comfortable, distant third of the current draft. Which means walking down ugly roads in my head all over again.

I wasn’t ready, until PAX Unplugged. I was at the convention center, 8:15am to sign up for a miniature painting class. Turns out – they’d already gone to waitlist. Which was odd, as registration wasn’t supposed to begin for another 45 minutes. But that left me alone in the con, waiting for my wife to wake up and the expo hall to open.

I had my backpack. My notebook. My pen. And I had a short story to revise from word one.

The word count was unimportant; I wrote. I wrote and stepped back into an ugly, ugly memory. The rest of the story will probably be just as rough. But that’s how you know it’ll impact someone, yes? If it bleeds, it leads.

Or, to put it in true 2020 terms –

Got a bunch of small jobs, mostly routine, but there’s a big op staring me down right now. Wetwork, with legions of CyberPsychos and Black ICE between me and the prize. But there’s no room for winging, sabe? Got my rippers sharpened, smart-link tuned, and enough combat medication in my system for a tour in the last corp war. I’m chipping in…

Not So SMART Goals

SMART Goals: The holy grail of getting things done. Specific Measurable Achievable Realistic Timely goals. It’s a corporate mantra, spoken at every HR review. We want to set goals which can be achieved – vague language is for mission statements.

For writing, a SMART goal sounds like this:

  • Complete second draft of three (3), 5000-word short stories by November 28, 2019
  • Submit three (3) short stories to top markets by December 31, 2019
  • Finish planning revision structure for novel by January 31, 2020

Each is very specific and measurable. They are achievable and realistic (notice it says nothing about getting any of the works published) and it does have a timely deadline. That’s great. But it’s also about the mechanics of the process. Deadlines. What to get done when. None of it touches on the why.

This is where writing deviates from other businesses in quite a few ways. One of my favorite YouTube channels features a carpenter who demonstrates different Chinese, Japanese, and Western style joinery. You can see the how behind it all right there – you watch him measure and mark the wood, scoring and penciling in every cut. And then he picks out specific tools to build the joints – chisels, drills, planes so sharp they create long wispy films of shaved wood when run down the length of a plank.

I’ve never seen him address why he does it – why does he take so much time and effort to do what some would do with machine tools and CAD programs? I can only imagine, but I think it would lie between “I do this because I enjoy creating something from a simple blank of wood” or “I enjoy the process, the use of the plane and saw to build something” or “I get a great deal of satisfaction from a job well done.”

Right now, I’m having trouble finding reconnecting with what gave me joy in writing before now. Once upon a time, I’d sit behind a word processor and just type away, picturing the story, following the characters through and imagining how people would react while reading the tale. My goals were big hairy ambitions:

  • “I want my reader to feel something after reading my story.”
  • “I want folks who read my stories to think about creating their own, in a positive way! Fanfic or art or deciding they want to write.”
  • “I want my readers to want to read more stories with the characters.”

Those aren’t SMART goals. They’re impossible goals. At no point can I assure some invisible authority that I’ve made an emotional impact on a reader or create milestones to I can meet while getting someone to make fan art. I have to follow another path. A different way of seeing my work.

I have to stop seeing this a well-planned hike, where you know the end point and know the exact paths to get there. There are no GPS markers, or well-maintained paths with signs saying, “Next bathroom, 20 yards.”

This is a rough trek. A wander. This is navigation by trail signs and the sun alone. You walk in the general direction of your destination, work on becoming a better hiker, glean what you can from the folks along the way (and learn when to ignore the ‘ya kant get dere from here’ guys’). All goals you can set are to try and make you a better hiker, a better navigator, and a better trail reader.

You can still fail. You cannot reach the end of your trip. You can be amazing as a hiker, great as a navigator, and yet still run into an obstacle you can’t cross. You can burn out, too, getting sick of the sweat and bugs and people constantly telling you how awful the road is up ahead. Oh, and that town you wanted to visit? Yeah, filled with the worst kind of people.

What do you do, then? When SMART goals don’t get you where you want to be, and the end goal seems so distant, you’re wondering why you’re hiking?

You stop, and take a breath. You try to enjoy just being in the moment. You reconnect with what got you hiking in the first place.

And that’s what I need to do. I need to sit down, close my eyes, and listen to the wind in the trees. Because I’m having a hard time walking any further, and I’m feeling lost.

One Step from The Horror

Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” One of my media professors used to talk about this as dramatic distance. The closer you are to an event, emotionally, the impact of an event changes. Or, put it another way, it’s funny when a moose in heat humps someone else’s car to pieces. But when it happens to you? That’s a $30,000 car that’s been totaled – and who’s betting their insurance covers paint damage from moose semen?

I think that distance is what will help me crack horror writing. Comedy and horror are brothers, after all. They know the value of timing, of setup, and making sure you have just enough skin in the game to make you want to get the punchline.

This all started when I was listening to one of the best weird/horror authors out there, Gemma Files, on the “This is Horror” podcast.

Two things hit me. The first was a sponsorship ad for a book where a deep-voiced narrator described walking on the beach, alone, as darkness sets and seeing a woman in the surf. But when she turns around, she has razor sharp claws and shark teeth and runs at you, looking to devour you! I’ll let you hear it for yourself in the episode.

The second was a weird story idea Gemma threw out there of a man who sticks his hand under his pillow and finds a mouth there, in his bed, in the mattress.

Both cases had me thinking that most of the folks I write about would have had non-standard reactions to both scenarios. The guy on the beach, confronted by the shark mermaid? If he’s alone, wandering at night, he’s probably depressed. Most likely thinking about returning to a soul-crushing corporate job, thinking about his ruined dreams, when he sees something out of myth charging him. His first thought, and likely last, would be how beautiful it was, and how he wouldn’t have to deal with Toby demanding an update on his QBR numbers the next Tuesday…

Or, with the mouth, after yanking the pillows away, our protagonist would stare at the lips and teeth sprouting from the bed and she’d say, “Can you talk? Are there ears anywhere?” After the shock, there would be communications attempt. If it spoke weird languages, she’d try to figure it out so she could speak its language and figure out how it got merged with her mattress, and how to get it home.

That’s not how normal people react. That’s not how horror protagonists react. And part of the horror is the fact it’s a normal person in abnormal situations.

So, I have to step away. My protagonist isn’t the guy smiling as a shark woman rakes her teeth across his naked skin, devouring him. It’s the beach patrol officer, reassigned there after putting seven bullets into a pregnant black lady in her own home, and still believes it was the right thing to do. And the only way to make his beach safe is to take the same attitude to those things coming out of the water.

My protagonist isn’t the lady who finds the mouth, it’s the husband, horrified at the foul thing spouting unwholesome words, seducing his wife to Satan’s bedside. He’d need to get a crucifix, of course, and sharpen it into a knife to cut out it’s foul tongue before his wife went too far astray. The local Baptist pastor is right, after all.

Will be trying this out and seeing how it goes. Wish me luck.

That Voice – No, not that one. The other one!


Do you hear that voice? Just over your shoulder, at the edge of your hearing. No, not the one yelling about a Meat Bicycle! Or the one saying, “You’re the crunch, and I’m the Captain!” That voice we’re used to dealing with, because it’s the engineer on the Poop Train. Or Hamlet.

And I’m not talking about the Internal Editor. That bastard has been written about far too much.

No, this is the Inner Marketer.

This voice is looking at your first draft short story and saying, “Wait? You’re nearly at 4K words?? And you have two scenes left? You’ll never be able to market that! Shorter gives you a better chance of slipping in!”

Or, “So, this story about the android – where do you think that will get published? What’s your target market?”

Or, “When is the last time you did a blog post?”

“What was the last thing you put on twitter?”

“Have you tried to get your name out there more?”

“You need to work on that novel. No one will ever pay attention if you just keep writing short stories that only one market publishes!”

Notice one thing about this particular beast. Unlike the Inner Editor, the Inner Marketer doesn’t care about the quality of your story. It’s focused on the hustle. The sale. Everything except the quality of the story itself. In that way, it’s way worse than the Inner Editor.

When the two of them combine, they can completely tear your concentration apart.

Did writers of the past deal with the Inner Marketer? The Inner Editor was a bad enough. Adding this new psycho on the shoulder can be a bit much. It almost makes you want to go a little bonkers and say to both of them:

And play hopscotch on their rib cages.

The Quality of Character

J. Michael Straczynski has a new biography out. He’s been someone I’ve followed, knowing and unknowingly, through the years. The first time I recognized his name showing up was in episodes of The Real Ghostbusters.  

But one thing will always be tied to JMS in my memory:  Babylon 5 and its ill-fated successor, Crusade. The shows still set me thinking even twenty-some years after I heard the first rumor about its development and saw some early sketches designed to sell the show to prospective networks. 

What lingers are the questions: 

Who are you?
What do you want?
Where are you going?
Who do you serve, and who do you trust? 

These questions dominate the show, and specifically the titles of Crusade. They’re also the building blocks of characters, large and small.  And as I’ve been turning these questions over in my head for ages, especially after seeing so many writing guides asking you to fill out “character sheets” which ask similar questions. All of them lead up to this keystone question – the one every writer tries to answer when the bring a character into a story. 

Who are you? 

As much as the Shadows would disagree, that is the core question we ask about a character as a reader. It’s both the alpha and omega.  For writers, all other questions are part of answering “Who are you?” The add depth to an initially shallow response. And each answer defines a person a bit more. 

 Let’s take a few of these questions, and feel free to answer them in Gary Cole’s voice. (“Has anyone seen my bigger knife?” Man is a damn national treasure.) 

 

Who are you? –  Again, how someone answers this question will say a lot. Most folks will say, “I’m Biff Grointhrust!” But it’s when they add something to it, something that colors their identity. “I’m Biff Grointhrust, Captain of the Earth Defense League.” Or “Hey, I’m Trish. Just a writer…”  If you’ve read my short story in THE DEATH OF ALL THINGS, you know that Trish is a bit more than just a writer. What a person does not say when asked about who they are can speak as loudly as Captain Grointhrust. 

 

What do you want?This question is loaded with goals and desires. “I want to become a writer.” “I want to have it all – a career and a life as a house husband.” It interrogates what drives a person. What motivates them. But I also like to pair it with another question: 

 

What do you fear? – Fear rules us as much as desire.  “I want to become a writer… but I’m afraid I’ll be a mediocre failure, like my parents said I’d be.” “I want to have it all – a career and a life as a house husband. But I’m afraid I won’t be good at either, leaving me jobless and alone.”  Fear drives us. It makes us question what we want and even who we are. Yet, our fears are a part of us. No one is a fully rounded person if they don’t have something they fear.  

 

Where are you going? – It’s an odd question to ask about a person, a character, but it says a lot. Let’s take the scale. A character can answer it in a small way – “I’m just going to the bowling alley, dude” – or in a more metaphysical way. “I’m going anywhere that gives me a chance to practice my photography and philosophy.”  It builds on the “What do you want/fear?” because it shows how a person is responding to the tug-of-war between the two needs.   A character may want to become a writer, but their fear keeps them in a safe zone. So, the answer may be, “I’m going to work at this job I hate because I need life insurance.” 

 

Who do you serve and who do you trust? – They questions are asked together, because the answers may not be the same. And the contrast is important.  If “Serve” offends the character’s sensibility, that says something. “Hey, I don’t serve anyone. I work for the GRU.  And I trust no one.”  Or what if they come back with, “I serve Bob Dobbs, and I trust in slack!”  That certainly tells you a lot. Especially if that service is not returned with any kind of reward, and if the trust is broken.  

 

All of these questions spiral back to the big one: Who are you? 

“Hi, I’m Trish. I’m a phantom, and a writer, and that’s all I want to be. I’m happy traveling and writing about the lives of dead folk.  But thanks to certain abilities, I’m afraid I’ll never be just another phantom.  Right now, going to the site of horrific crime against the living – one which may be my fault.  Supposedly, I’m acting as a consultant for the local law, but as much as I trust my friends, I don’t know if I trust myself…”  

Not a half bad lesson, JMS. Now, if only I could absorb the lesson you got from Harlan Ellison over the phone… 

Happy Frelling Anniversary

I discovered one of my favorite TV shows, Farscape, by accident.  And frell me dead, I’m so happy I found it. If TV science fiction was either contemplative neoclassical prog rock (Looking at you, Star Trek: TNG) or southern-fried Americana (Stargate SG:1), Farscape was Space Ritual era Hawkwind, complete with Lemmy stoned out of his mind and Stacia Blake dancing to “Sonic Attack” wearing silk and body paint.  And gods, I loved it so.

I came in at possibly the worst place – an episode near the end of the first season called “Nerve.” What struck me was our hero, John Crichton, in the aurora chair while Scorpius purred over him. Ben Browder refused to play stoic, unbreakable hero. His eyes were bloodshot. He spat half the time he spoke. When they let him loose, he twitched and shook with genuine pain.  I’d never seen anything like that on an SF show. Real emotion, real fear. And all this while surrounded by puppets.

There are a lot of articles on what made Farscape tick. The cast. The writing. The visuals. But for me, it was the willingness to be weird and experimental. You had a ‘hero’ who was the weakest among the crew in terms of strength or power, but he became the emotional heart of the show. People had sex, got into messy relationships, and remained friends. We lost people we loved and were devastated by it. And even when the show came back to Earth, it held a funhouse mirror to who we are.

Oh, and then there are the “Scratch ‘N Sniff.”

Honestly, watch this episode. It’s a light episode, a comedic one, but I one no other show on television would even conceive of pulling off.

Did Farscape succeed in every episode? No. Gods, no. There are some real clunkers, and the creative team made some really bad decisions along with some really good ones. But it was never timid. If there’s one lesson I can take from this show, and one I wish I could internalize, is to never be afraid to try and put everything out there: life, sex, love, emotion. Dare to dream.

Look at the wonders out there. Because this world, this unbound galaxy of the imagination, is your playground.