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On Starfury Speed and other stories

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

One of the things about spending a chunk of your life writing about other people’s fictional tales is you think a lot about how stories get put together. And if you’re me, you then get kind of annoyed when other people miss the point and try and pull a good tale apart for all the wrong reasons.

I love good criticism. A well written review is an art in itself. And I adore it when someone takes a great story and takes it apart skilfully. What I can’t stand is when a work gets taken apart because the critic decides that the story itself is wrong. For example, someone complaining that a vampire movie is bad because the vampires can walk in sunlight without exploding1, ignoring the fact that it’s a story and the storyteller can do whatever the hell they like with the tale.

The Starfury Speed trope is a modern example of favouring story over accuracy. It comes from the 90’s TV show Babylon 5. The show featured small fighter craft that happened to be very quick and agile2. Various parts of the story had the ships turning up in the nick of time, or just too late. So obviously fans corner the show’s creator JMS and ask “How fast do Starfuries travel? Or for that matter, any of the show’s many cool spaceships?”

starfury

How does it work? Unless the story is about the science, or that engineering is part of the creators message, then rule of cool applies. And Starfuries are really cool. (Image via TMC-Deluxe )

 

His reply? “At the speed of plot.” It’s a perfect answer from someone whose job it is to tell stories. Expanding on this though, it should be taken as read that if, say, the tabletop miniatures game states that the SA-32A Mitchell-Hyundyne Starfury travels at a certain speed, that doesn’t make it a rule that applies to all other media. It’s just a thing they’ve done to make the game work.

Looking for details that aren’t relevant to the story in order to criticise a story is not productive. If your argument that Superman is a bad movie because in the real world people don’t fly, you’ve missed an important step somewhere.

There are lots of examples available. My personal favourite comes from the UK LARP scene, were myself and friends happened to be playing Samurai Badger people in a fantasy setting. Various geeks wanted to impress upon us their knowledge of Feudal Japan by asking us stupid out of character questions and lecturing us at length about how ‘Samurai don’t work that way’. We had to patiently point out to people that we weren’t aware giant badger people existed in the real world.

All of this ties into another frustrating trope, called The Thermian Argument.3 You see, just because a thing works in a story, and you can justify it in the context of the story, doesn’t make you immune from real world criticism. Claiming its okay to overtly mock a whole section of real-world society because you’ve made up this thing that says it’s okay, doesn’t make it okay.

Good criticism is an art in its own right, and it’s healthy to bring stories into their real world context. It is not a contradiction to enjoy a story in its context and then pull it to bits when your pop it on the workbench that is a the real world, or even the context of another genre with different conventions. But deciding that one made-up thing is more valuable than another made up thing because they contradict each other misses the point of stories.

—————-

1: Vampiric allergy to sunlight of course, being something that’s toggled from story to story, and a clue that all vampire stories don’t share the same universe. You’d think this was obvious, but no.
2: The design was so simple that apparently NASA drew inspiration from it during their research into smaller space vehicles. I understand it was a ‘Why didn’t we think of that’ moment.
3: Coined by Folding Ideas here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxV8gAGmbtk. To be clear, The Thermian Argument is where you use a made up thing to defend yourself from criticism about problems wih the stories real world context. You justify something awful by saying ‘It makes sense in the story’.

Categories: Rants, TV

Goodbye to The Nice Guy ™

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Friends and random internet denizens; it’s time we got rid of the term ‘The Nice Guy’. For those of you lucky enough to have missed it, it’s a dating stereotype that has evolved, grown then devolved over the years.

So much so that not only is it now a pretty useless time, it’s also toxic.
Let me break it down.

Back in the 80’s1 and 90s, ‘The Nice Guy’ was a chap who could never get past the first or second date. They’d ask a person out on a date and then never get beyond a nice evening, being let down gently2 with the words “You’re nice, but”3. Such gents would seek advice after the nth rejection. Idiots would tell them things like ‘treat ‘em mean keep ‘em keen’, others would point out that maybe have a bath would help. Mileage varied. But the Nice Guy in this case was something of a doormat. Unremarkable and in media, the target of gentle mockery.

At some point, The Nice Guy turned into someone who didn’t even ask people out on dates. Instead, they mooned round after the target of their affections instead. Romantically incompetent and prone to whining that the people they fancy never fancy them back. Filled with fear and bad advice, this version is a common target of hilarious romantic comedies.4

That prick Ross from Friends.

Ross from Friends. Not your Role Model.

It was then a short hop and a jump to something a lot more creepy. It became Nice Guy™, someone who feigned affection in order to achieve goals, had an almost narcissistic expectation for people to like them and thought of other people as objects. This lead to a whole ‘people aren’t vending machines’ meme, in which everyone was helpfully informed that being nice to someone doesn’t mean they owe you anything.5

So what we have here is a mess. A shift in perspective from the shy and clueless to a mean and entitled predator. None of which addresses the issue. What we need, instead of Hollywood stereotypes and memes is a frank and brutal conversation about romantic intentions and expectations.

You see, I understand Romantic Incompetence. Dating is, for many of us, terrifying. It’s not just rejection; for every charming tale of love and adventure they are many real world anecdotes of embarrassment, harassment and bodily harm. Ending a date and simply being told ‘You’re nice but no’ is, in fact, a reasonable if not terribly satisfying ending.

But of course, when you’re young and filled with nerves and conflicting emotions, that is impossible to see.

It’s all made worse by the fact that others take to it easily. We are surrounded by love stories that make no sense when examined closely. Attraction, love and lust are highly individual things and humans like ‘one size fits all’ solutions. The lovely tale of how your grand-parents met might be someone else’s worst date ever, or the premise of horror novel.

We need to drop the notion of the ‘Nice Guy’. All versions of him. For a start, nice isn’t really a thing to aspire to. Nice is the lowest level of remarkable, it sits in the same set of words as okay and reasonable. People expect nice, so aiming for ‘above nice’ should be the target. Nice is a bit too close to boring, and that’s not something most of us want. Like anything worth doing, relationships can be hard work6 and we need to start being blunt about that. Men, Women and all points in-between need to have a frank and honest chat about their hearts. We need to stop laughing at the lonely, and stop pretending that it’s easy.

We need to work together to make a world where dating is less scary7, and romantic comedies are less awful.


1: I’m grew up in the 80’s. My timing is probably off, but this seems a decent yardstick.
2: No one like rejection, no matter how gentle. It’s easy to see how, after a while, frustration sets in.
3: “You’re nice but you don’t have a nice butt”
4: It becomes more common if you flip it so the Nice Guy is a Nice Gal.
Because Hollywood.
5: It makes me sad that it needed saying, but then the obvious often needs to be stated repeatedly. Look at traffic signs – people need to be reminded of basic things.
6: Though to be mushy for a moment, so much worth it.

7: This would be that ‘smash the patriarchy’ thing people keep talking about. But that’s another blog post.

Categories: Rants

The Lime In the Coconut

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

I was listening to the Reservoir Dogs Soundtrack recently, a collection of music that many people who happened to be teenagers in the 90’s happen to own, partially because Reservoir Dogs was the coolest movie ever back in the 90’s and mostly because it’s a really good collection of songs. Anyway, after I’d finished my dive into nostalgia by jumping up and down around the room to Blue Swede’s Hooked On A Feeling, I started to ponder the question of my generation.

What the hell is Harry Nilsson’s song Coconut all about?

It doesn’t mean anything1. There’s no subtle message to the song, no hidden meaning. The simple truth is that both coconuts and limes are things that people eat when they’re feeling a little bit ill. Both bits of food are packed full of stuff that’s good for you (apparently) and the words have nice feel to them. The lyrics are sung in a very specific way and it’s fun to wrap your laughing gear round co-co-nut, preferably whilst shaking your bum and having fun.

"I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren't there"

“I love humans. Always seeing patterns in things that aren’t there”

That hasn’t stopped people from endlessly deciding that it must mean something. There’s something about humanity’s ability to take a simple song about nothing of real consequence and decide that it must contain the wisdom of the ages. For some of us it’s not enough to simply wiggle our bodies about and have a giggle, everything has to mean something. This makes everything terribly serious, even having fun becomes an academic endeavour.

“It means nothing” is as a valid and important meaning as any other.2 Sometimes simple is good. The world is filled with meaning and context after all, not everything needs layers. If you really need a meaning, try this one on for size; Coconut is a request to shut up and dance. Stop your jaw from flapping and your chin from pondering and have a little jiggle.


1: Okay, we could make a serious argument between Authorial Intent and Critical Response, but honestly if you’re critical response to a silly song about fruit is to turn it into something dark and mysterious then you’ve pretty much left the realms of valid criticism and moved into the mystical land of pulling stuff out of your arse.

2: As a response, it’s almost as important as that great and powerful answer “No one knows”, though the response to that should always be “well let’s find out”, even if the answer turns out to be a cosmic shrug of the shoulders.

Categories: Rants

Controversy Goblins

March 3, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m not going to talk about the Jonathan Ross/Hugo Awards debacle, or at least not come down on a side and try to analyse it. There’s been plenty of coverage both from the Geek and mainstream media, but long story short: Ross was announced as the host of the latest Hugo awards and then pulled out 8 hours later after twitter became filled with people objecting.

I ended up catching up on this particular rain of bird-poo1 after all the excitement was over, and one of the things I noticed wasn’t so much the insults, but the preening.

After a certain point, it would have been clear to anyone (especially the target of the attacks) that the LonCon’s choice of Master of Ceremonies was making people unhappy and yet people continued to join in to throw a stone or two; the barrage even continued after Ross stepped down. It had stopped being about the issue and had become about being seen to be involved.

What helped me understand why people kept throwing @ shaped stones after the fact was noticing how many made massively sweeping assumptions people were making so they could personally tie the events to themselves. In most cases this was done quickly with poor research and the most shaky of justifications, such was the rush to be seen as being involved.

Twitter is at least partially about ego; you make pithy statements in order to get people to ‘follow’ you and the more followers you get can equal a sort of approval rating.

It’s addictive, this sort of approval. Whereas web forums have their trolls, Twitter has the power to make even the meekest of person a sort of fast moving, rampantly self-involved creature desperate for the approval of others; a controversy goblin if you will.

Given the number of controversies the genre community has had recently, I’m rather worried that many of us have become addicted to goblinisation. That would be a shame; it’s a great community. Perhaps by looking out for such behaviour in the future, we can all avoid unleashing the little monster inside us and actually debate the issues like the forward thinking people we claim to be.

But then, I am an optimist.


1: There has to be a better phrase than ‘tweet-storm’ for these pointless fights.

Categories: Rants

Mr Banks versus The Grumpy

December 13, 2013 Leave a comment

More and more these days, it seems every Hollywood movie that comes out immediately hits a wall of criticism for simply existing, often weeks before anyone has actually seen the thing. The movie that’s currently enjoying this sort of attention is Saving Mr Banks, a star studded retelling of the production Mary Poppins, focusing on media mogul Walt Disney (played by Tom Hanks) and the creator of the Mary Poppins and children’s author, PL Travers (played by Emma Thompson).

Predictably, it’s already drawn criticism that the film doesn’t focus on Traver’s back story enough; she was an interesting person with a rich and full life, and the movie focuses on a narrow band of her experience. Those looking to fling mud also point out that Disney have made a movie about their founder that paints him in a positive light, which is an odd criticism when you consider it; why would a light-hearted feature about the creation of a classic children’s movie overfill it’s plate with the darker side of the human condition? Critics seem keen to dig out their grudges against Hollywood and Disney and particular, and whine at length at about how unfairly the material has been treated.

Partially, this post is an excuse to stick this image on my blog

Partially, this post is an excuse to stick this image on my blog

This approach both confuses and amuses me. Because if I wanted to be educated and informed, I’d pick up several books on the matter, perhaps seek out a few documentaries. Movies like this are meant to entertain first and foremost1. Being critical of this sort of movie whilst failing to acknowledge it’s validity as a source material is to fundamentally miss the point.2. A word to the wise; simply ranting about how a dramatisation isn’t as historical accurate as you want it to be is one of those things people do to appear deep and clever, but typically reveals them to be pedantic, shallow and rather mean instead.

Disney can be relied on to entertain; that’s their job and they’ve gotten better and better at it over the years. If you’re expecting Disney to teach you the real and true history behind some of its classic works, then that’s either naïve or you’re deliberately looking for things to be snarky about.

Let’s be honest, most of us had not even thought about Travers until this film came out. The movie is almost fifty years old, so many of saw the film on telly when we were too small to consider who made the film or what its origins are. It’s a familiar thing that has always been there, so it’s likely that you’ve taken its existence for granted. That fact alone makes Saving Mr Banks something I want to see, I would hazard a guess that those who already knew about Traver’s life are now vastly outnumbered by those who have gone out and educated themselves as a result of this recent exposure.


1: Put it this way, you are as likely to learn real Scottish history from Highlander as you are from Braveheart.

2 : I call this the Daniel Day Lewis effect. To my knowledge, Lewis has never appeared in a movie based on history that didn’t take total liberties with the source material.

Categories: Geek, Movies, Rants

International Please Don’t Pirate Books Day

February 6, 2013 8 comments

Over on Chuck Wendig’s blog Terrible Minds he invited people to talk about Book Piracy. Now it being me, the first thing that sprung to my mind was a dystopian Waterworld style future in which the most precious things in the world are books.

After all, if most of the landmasses on the planet became flooded and we all lived on re-purposed ships and barges, things that float would be at a premium. Those floating villages that could rig up enough power to run electrical devices probably wouldn’t waste that precious resource on e-readers, so it would be down to keeping surviving collections of books in a safe and dry place. Librarians would be more heroic than they are today, carrying shotguns and strictly enforcing fines.

All of this would lead to book piracy, of course. Tricorn wearing men and women would roam the seas in powerful ocean-going vessels, seeking out the precious booty of books. Libraries would be the targets of these terrible raiders (who presumably speak in Cornish accents), and librarians would have to protect those who wish to steal these stores of knowledge for their own selfish gain. Huge campaigns would be waged over the last surviving copies of House on Pooh Corner and adventurers would go off on quests to find the legendary “Amazon”, a mythical place that they say is filled with books.

Floating Villages are not a good place to store books

Floating Villages are not a good place to store books

Of course, when they say “Book Piracy” they might mean illegal file-sharing. It’s an interesting problem that isn’t as modern as we like to think it is. Art, be it movies, music, or books, needs to be shared and enjoyed by the community in order to be worth anything. As someone who makes a very modest living from writing, I want my work to do two things; be enjoyed by as many people as possible, and I also want to be paid. If the work isn’t good enough, it doesn’t sell. If I charge too much, it doesn’t sell, and both of those are fine; it’s on me to make sure it’s good work, reasonably priced and on time. If everyone steals my work then I don’t get paid at all, and I have to find something else to do in order to stay safe, fed, happy and living.

People will always seek to share art. This is such a fundamental thing that we even have a whole skill-set devoted to it. People train to be librarians, museum attendants and curators. A society that seeks to punish someone for wanting to enjoy music, view dramas or read books has gone wrong somewhere; we need to feed our brains almost as much as we need to feed our bellies, and if you try and deprive them of this right, then the metaphorical pirate ships will arrive.

The modern argument about file-sharing seems to be one of greed. On the one extreme you have people who wish to take everything for granted and never pay anyone for anything. On the other extreme you have people who want to charge people large sums of money for anything anyone has ever created. Neither of these are sensible approaches, a good book should not be the privilege of the wealthy or those with flexible morals. The middle ground for this debate is that of the public library, and subscription sharing services like Books Free. I like the idea of a service that mails books to me for a modest fee, though I’d be happier if they made sure the fee stayed modest and within the reach of everbody.

What is your take on this debate? Comments below please.

Categories: Books, Rants

Bring Back Jupiter Moon

January 28, 2013 1 comment

Once in a while, there’s a rush of interest when some actor/director/geek celeb mentions the possibility of a much loved TV series being remade, or coming back to TV in some way. In a way it’s the fault of Star Trek; there was a show that was cancelled, came back as a series of movies, and then went on to be re-imagined in many different ways. Collar a random nerd in the street and they will almost certainly have some show or other that they want to see re-done or just resurrected. These days it tends to be Firefly1, but it can easily be Blakes 7 or even Star Cops.

Do you know what TV series they should bring back? Jupiter Moon. For those of you who have never heard of it, Jupiter Moon was the flagship soap opera of the long defunct British Satelite Broadcasting company, and vanished shortly after Sky bought BSB out. The characters lived in a re-conditioned space ship that orbited Calypso, one of Jupiter’s Moons (hence the name). The ship, called the Ilea2 functioned as a university for students studying the cosmos. It had no aliens, no monsters, and at no point did anyone have a teleport accident and devolve into a weird lizard-duck creature. Set in 2050, all the technology was based on conservative estimates to what would be possible by then, so it had a very down-to-earth feel.

The ILEA. Beats the Rover's Return hands down in terms of awesome.

The ILEA. Beats the Rover’s Return hands down in terms of awesome.

So was Jupiter Moon any good? Well, not really. It spent far too much time telling the viewer that it was set in the future and not enough time on being a soap opera. However, when it did concentrate on the more mundane elements it really shone. This is because the show was really about people living in a remote place and having to work together to get on. Cramming characters into a confined space a letting them talk tends to work as a drama3, and the hazards and emptiness of space do a decent enough job of adding an element of the exotic to the show.

So why remake it? Because it would be a science fiction show for a people who don’t watch science fiction. In the same way that The Big Bang Theory isn’t for nerds, a remade Jupiter Moon would hand the wonder of the stars to those who have never really looked up. It would also allow the broadcaster to educate and entertain. The format would allow the public an ‘easy way in’ to the idea of space exploration, and could be used to gather more interest in the sciences. It’s also a rich vein of drama; sure you could do a similar show set on a remote island or oil rig, but neither of those settings are quite as awesome a reconditioned space ship orbiting a moon of Jupiter.

So the next time you watch a soap opera, ask yourself “Would this be improved by being in space?” Because surely, the answer is yes.


1: As much as I love the show and the movie, if they ever relaunch Firefly it will be with an all new cast. Though I can’t see it myself; Whedon has been given the keys to the Marvel toybox, I suspect he’ll be busy for a while.
2: A pun. Named after the Inner London Education Authority.
3: If you don’t believe me, consider why Big Brother continues to be on the air.

Categories: Rants, TV