Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

Some years back, I watched the deCappuccino version of The Man in the Iron Mask.  The movie was okay, but one line caught me.  It’s near the end, the second in command of the palace guard points to a dying d’Artagnon (it’s not a spoiler at this late date, is it?) and says, “All my life, all I wanted to be . . . was him.”

Damn . . . that moment.

You see, I grew up with heroes. I grew up with comics during the late Silver Age, Superman was the Big Blue Boyscout, when Batman wasn’t the cowled psychopath, when Robin was starting solo adventures with Batgirl (and while I knew I could never be Batman, I thought maybe Robin was achievable). I wanted to be the hero, dammit, or if not the hero, at least a competent sidekick.

Then I grew up and got “respectable”. But a part of me never quite grew out of that.

And so I like to write about heroes that are really heroes because I figure that there are other people out there, like me, who want to read about them.

I gave up on comic books, not because I outgrew them but because they “outgrew” (if you can call it that) me. In the interests of being “real” and “relevant” and “real” they wanted their heroes to be “flawed” by which they meant “scarcely better than the villains”.

I saw it in prose fiction as well. Bleah people living bleah lives with not a hero to be found.

When I saw the movie, I wrote out an anguished essay on the usenet group “rec.arts.comics” titled “Where have all the heroes gone.” The one line just struck so deeply to the core of my being.

I will never be that hero. I like to think that the dream, however, might make me a better person than I would have been.

And that’s why I love the idea of Human Wave.

And so I leave you with this musical interlude:



Watched Frozen today.

Bottom Line impression:  Wow.  That was awesome.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers here.

Okay, first things first.  This is “based on ‘The Snow Queen’ by Hans Christian Andersen.” Now, I haven’t read the source material yet, but if they go true to form what this actually means is that they made a Disney movie which uses some of the trappings of the “source material.” (Update:  I’ve now read the “source material” and, frankly, the only connection is that there’s a queen who has a connection to ice and snow.  Other than that, nothing whatever to do with the Andersen tale.)

I’m OK with that.  I like “Disney movies”.

The story begins when she who would become the Snow Queen and her sister are little girls.  They are playing, SQ to be is using her magic power over ice and snow to well, create ice and snow.  There’s an accident and the younger sister is hurt.  The parents, the King and Queen, take the girl to the “Trolls” (good people who apparently take the form of rocks when resting or to hide) who are able to “cure” her, but there’s a problem.  The older sister’s power is dangerous and the King and Queen decide she needs to “control” it (by which they meant suppress it) and to keep it secret they cut off contact with the world.  In fact, SQ cuts off all contact with her younger sister and, frankly, this was the first of many “feels” in this movie as my heart just broke for that little girl.

Time passes, the King and Queen go on a journey where they are lost at sea.  The new queen is to be crowned and. . . .

There’s adventure, there’s excitement, there’s betrayal, there’s true love (although not what you might think).

It is PG-13 and there are two places where I see possible problems for younger kids. The giant monster snowman might be a bit scary for some (I’d call it a bit less scary than the bear in Brave as a point of reference). The other point is the climax. If someone hasn’t figured out the real “solution” to the problem (again, trying to avoid spoilers here), that bit at the end can be heartbreakingly scary for a bit.

All in all, I will own this one on Blu-Ray.

Popular Fiction II

This comes from a discussion elsewhere, so there’s some recap from my earlier post.

When talking about literature, one has to consider what the purpose of “literature” is and what actually accomplishes that purpose.

I submit that, when it comes to written fiction, the purpose (if one goes beyond “make money for the author”–something which I do not disparage for its own sake, but we’ll come back to that shortly) is to create an emotional resonance within the reader.  The reader reads, and is touched in ways that generate that emotional response.

Now, some folk are given to sneering at “popular fiction”, claiming that it addresses the “least common denominator” and, I’ve heard it put rather crudely “shit floats.”

That, of course, can be trivially dismissed.  If it were that simple, then anyone could to it and sleep on big piles of money from the sale of same.  Excuses abound for why proponents of that theory don’t do it but as we go on and on and so very few do demonstrate that “anyone could do it”, it become eminently clear that the reason they don’t is simply that they can’t.  The “theory” doesn’t hold water.

You see, for fiction to be popular it has to strike a chord within a broad swath of the population.  That’s less a prescription than being very nearly a definition.  If it doesn’t strike that chord then people won’t decide that book is worth more than the six pack of cheap beer they could have otherwise purchased and the book doesn’t get bought, and certainly doesn’t become popular.

So, to be popular, fiction must strike something within people’s hearts and minds.  It must resonate with many people.  It must tap into the heart of what makes us human.  Jung might call that the “collective unconsciousness.” Whatever you call it, it’s something that, without which, fiction cannot be popular.

That something can be base in nature–appeal to sex drive and titillation, for instance–and some areas are certainly easier to get that emotional connection than others.  But that very ease only speaks to how very powerful the emotional drive in humanity is.  Porn, to use the classic example, is an economic powerhouse precisely because the drive is so powerful.  The danger with that one is that it is so powerful that in stories that evoke it everything else gets lost behind the power of the sex impulse.  And the stories become only about sex, with the rest being mere window dressing.

But another drive, one nearly as powerful, is that toward what we can call agency.  Whether a person has control over their own life, or not.  I note that a lot of “literary” fiction is about the lack of agency.  They are overwhelmed by events, swept along by circumstances over which they have no control.  Popular fiction often takes the other side.  People’s fates are to a greater extent their own.  While they may face enormous challenges, their actions matter, if only to them.  Agency is at the core of both events of the story (plot) and character development.

Now, some people might claim that that’s unrealistic.  That people have little control over their own fates that they are swept along by events beyond their control.  Perhaps.  In some places and some circumstances.  But he idea of agency is deeply rooted even in classical literature.  In Shakespeare’s tragedies, for instance, the tragic characters build their horror with every choice they make.  the events are only tragic because of the choices the characters make.  If Hamlet had made choices of the kind Othello would have made, he would have carved Claudius like a suckling pig the very night the ghost told him of his murder.  If Othello had made decisions of the kind Hamlet would have made, he would have delayed and waited, and checked and double checked until Desdemona’s innocence was at last revealed.  In neither case would the story have been a tragedy, not in the classic sense.  They built their prisons, brick by brick.

And so, it would appear, agency is at the heart of much, if not most “popular fiction” (genre or not).  It also appears to be at the heart of that “classical literature” that people actually read and enjoy.  Shakespeare survives not because professors of literature declare his works as “literature” but for the simple reason that through the centuries people watched and read and were swept away in his work.  He was among the popular fiction of his day . . . and to the present time, in fact.

And thus, we see that popular fiction is literature, in the true meaning of the term, in that which touches the heart, the mind, and the soul.  Without that touch, nobody would read it.  Without that touch, nobody would buy it.

Popular Fiction

I have been reading Terry Brooks, particularly the Shannara series recently.  Say what you will, the man is able to write best seller after best seller after best seller.  I’d really like to know how he does it.

There is a tendency among certain segments to dismiss popular fiction, a tendency expressed in the view that if it’s popular it can’t be good.

How do you figure?

Some make the claim that the “secret” to writing for a popular audience is to “dumb down” the story, to write to the “least common denominator”.  As one wag put it rather crudely “shit floats.”  However, if it were that simple a lot more people would be doing it.

Another claim is that it’s all from the “push” the publishers give certain works.  And there is some truth to that.  A publisher, and the book distributors, strongly backing a title, selling it aggressively to bookstores (particularly those bookstores that are counted for best-seller lists), getting end-cap displays (those displays at the ends of rows of bookshelves which feature certain works most prominently) and so forth can drive a lot of sales for a particular title . . . for a while.  But sooner or later, and usually sooner, people start noticing that a book is annoying or offensive or, worst of all, boring, and stop buying it.  Of course, by this time the publishers have found their Next Great Thing and are pushing that.

But popular fiction tends to stay in print.  People keep buying it even after the “push” (if it ever had any) is over.

Some people dismiss popular fiction as lacking meaning.  I happen to think otherwise.  You can’t write popular fiction that sells to large numbers of people, that continues to sell long after any “push” it may have gotten has faded, that continues to sell long after any “derivativeness” that let it ride on “coattails” of something else (Brook’s entree, The Sword of Shannara was actually marketed “for people who’ve read The Lord of the Rings and are looking for something else to read”) has been expended, without touching something in the psyche of the vast body of the human race.  Some psychologists might call that something “the collective unconscious.”  Whatever you call it, it’s something that you have to touch in order to be popular as I have described here, not just short term sales driven by lots of hype but to convince people, lots of people, to shell out money that could buy a meal, a six pack of beer, a couple of steaks to grill, or whatever else they might spend that money on and to keep convincing people to do that, to recommend their friends do that, to show it to their kids and have their kids do that in their turn.

I’ve used Terry Brooks and The Sword of Shannara here.  Another example is Heinlein’s juveniles.  I’ve had some people tell me that they “don’t work” anymore as juveniles because society has changed too much.  Well, that hasn’t been my experience.  Perhaps they weren’t so dated when I first read them back in the mid seventies (or perhaps they were–it was known that Heinlein’s Mars and Venus were no longer possible and Have Space Suit, Will Travel was already Alternate History rather than future fiction).  On the other hand, I read them to my daughter in installments as bedtime reading (got a little distracted before getting to Citizen of the Galaxy, which isn’t one of my favorites anyway, and I’m not happy with the new/original ending to Podkany of Mars so I’m reluctant to include it) and she loves them.  She even, without prompting, echoed my sentiment that Have Space Suit, Will Travel begs for a sequel.  Such a pity that there’s probably no writer alive who could do it justice.

Those books worked because they touch something deep inside people.  And even though “society has changed” (It Says Here) and the stories are “dated” yet they still can touch a nine year old girl so that she wants more.

That is what I want to do with my fiction.  Now if I can just figure out how Heinlein did it and how Brooks does it today.

Stories should be fun to read

Back when I was in the Air Force, I found a book in the base book store by a guy of the name of “Dray Prescott”. The book was titled “Beasts of Antares.” Dray Prescott was actually the protagonist, the story was told first person, “As Told To” Alan Burt Akers who I much later learned was a pseudonym for the late Kenneth Bulmer.

I suppose it wasn’t “great literature” but it was fun, it had a moral hero whose primary motivation was devotion to his family (he gets thrown about the world by forces beyond his control and given tasks to complete–and complete them he does since that’s the only way he’s allowed to return back to wife and family), an effort to end slavery on his adopted world, and unite the “civilized” portion of the world to prepare to stave off a potentially civilization-destroying invasion that’s on the way.

Dray was a sailor from late 19th Century Earth, transported to the world of Kregan, around the double star system of Antares making this a tale in the “sword and planet” mold pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs and others.

Dray gets caught in a complicated rivalry between two forces, both nominally forces for “good”, the Savanti (humans with some advanced capabilities mixed with sword-swinging adventures) and the Everonye or “Star Lords” who are something else.

The “diffs” that populate Kregen are often little more than humans with an animal head or an extra pair of arms and given to being little more than “racial stereotypes” might make purists cringe. Still, when Bulmer pulled one of the various “diffs” out of the background and made them a character of significance the main characters often learned that there was more to them than just the stereotype of their race.

Although the science is dubious at best, with birds and related animals large enough to carry humans in flight and mixes of minerals that can be used to create anti-gravity airships, other aspects of the story show a remarkable degree of research and thought.

Beasts of Antares, my first exposure to the series, was the 23rd of 38 books that were originally released in the US. (Books originally released in Germany carried the series to 52 volumes.) I bought every book from #23 through to the end and, a few years ago, made a point of completing my collection with the US released versions. I learned at the time that a web site had been releasing ebooks of the later volumes in English but had gone defunct.

Well, just recently I discovered that most of the series (through volume 45) has been released in electronic and paper format. They had plans to do the rest but apparently that’s not happening

So, I have the first “cycle”, starting with volume 1, “Transit to Scorpio” on my iPod Touch and am thoroughly enjoying it.


Revisiting old stories

Spent some time today retyping old stories. At the recommendation of another friend of mine (Sarah A. Hoyt, to be specific) I’m looking to release some of my previously published shorts as ebooks. I had originally had them in Microsoft Works (I know. I know. It’s what came on the computer, Okay? I was too poor to buy anything else.) whichever version was out around ’92 or so. Unfortunately, that was half a dozen computers ago and my old backup files have long since been corrupted. I don’t have a scanner here at home, and we don’t have OCR for the scanner at work. So getting it into an editable format means retyping or spending money I can’t particularly spend at the moment–it’s funny how my expenses have gone up right along with my income.  Part of that, of course, is that a married, middle-aged man with children is not generally willing to live like an unmarried college student.

So, retyped “Match Point” a short of about 7000 words that was originally published in the February 1993 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact.

So now I need to come up with some cover art, get it properly formatted for publication and it can go up soon.

Sometimes things just click

Yesterday, while I was out shopping with my wife and daughter, well, I got inspired with a story idea.  In a matter of minutes I knew the setting, the main character, and the basic plot.  It was going to be a short fantasy piece.

It helped that I already had a setting I had used a couple of times, and some elements of that setting drove the plot.  There was a scene that was essentially already written because it involved certain things that had to happen a certain way because they were already established for that world.  Lift the scene from another work, tweak it for the different characters and details of specific location and there it is, ready to go.

My usual “comfort zone” in writing is the longer novelette to shorter novella lengths (10-20,000 words).  This one, however, I knew was going to be a short piece, probably around 2500-3000 words.

Well, as I got to writing, the story just flowed.  It came right in at about 2800 words using the “average full line” method* I learned when first starting. (I use this method because it gives the best estimate of how much space the story will take in print.)

And so first draft is done.  Next step will be to let it sit a few days and go back to it for another pass and revision.  After that, I’ll send it out to “beta readers” and then go back for a final pass before submitting it for possible publication.

*The “average full line” method works as follows.  You find the average length of a full line in your story.  You ignore short lines.  Just get the average number of characters in a complete full line.  (In most word processors this would simply be lines that wrap rather than terminating in a carriage return.) Divide the number of characters in that average line by 6 to get number of words per line.  Then multiply that number by the number of lines in your story.  That’s your word count.  This method counts short lines such as brief snatches of dialog as if they were full lines.  This is justified because even short lines take up a full line on the page.

Some folk consider it a bit archaic in this day of clicking a menu item and getting a “word count” but it’s the method I learned and it’s the method I use.