Saturday, May 29, 2010

Master of Worlds

Most of you probably know that through my son I have been immersed in the world of George Lucas' "Star Wars" for the past year or so.C'mon. It's not as bad as that.

All right, yes, yes, George Lucas is a terrible writer; his dialogue makes you want to claw off your cranium fins to break your eardrums so as never to have to hear Hayden Christensen say "I don't like sand" ever again. Because with six, or seven, you don't get to see "Attack of the Clones" once. You see it, or parts of it (the Boy has mercifully begun letting me fast forward through both the love scenes and the endless exposition) six or eight of fifteen times a year.

And yes, I know he'll grow out of it. But for now...that a hell of a lot of fecking George Lucas.

Here's the thing; I really do enjoy a lot of genre fiction. I've had enough of sorrow and trouble in life. When I read for relaxation I don't want to read about trouble, loss and sorrow. I don't want to learn how the characters grow to realization through hardship. I don't really want to read Faukner's tortured Southern mannikins, Updike's Topsider angst, hardship in salt mines or anguish in unhappy marriages.

I 'd prefer to explore unknown planets, enjoy Jeeves' imperturbably masterful service, deplore Flashman's roguish tricks. If I want to watch a movie I'd prefer to spend my time with Sugarpuss O'Shea or Buckaroo Banzai.

And, yes, ride into battle in a Republic gunship. It's not that the idea of the Star Wars franchise is so apalling. It's the execution. If only...if only...If only Mister Lucas was just plain better at what he does. From a fairly early age my conviction has been that to be considered a genuinely decent science fiction author you need three fundamental skills:

1. You need to be able to create a plausible, interesting "universe" for your story and characters to act in.This can be anything from a minor variation on our modern world, some re-created ancient time, or some wild speculative "galaxy far, far away". But it needs to be funtional and realistic enough - and interesting enough - to make the reader want to learn more about it and enjoy reading tales set in it. It should markedly enhance the other two elements of the work, which are;

2. You need to be able to construct a plot that engages the reader and works with the characters, at best, from the characters, their individual desires, wants, and needs, and that works naturally from the framework of the universe you've created and the characters you set into it. And,

3. You need to be able to create interesting, memorable characters that the reader can both find credible and interesting, and then write well enough to make all the three elements above work together in an entertaining fashion.

You don't have to make your universe appealing, your plot heartwarming, or your characters endearing. S.M. Stirling has made a good living about writing about fairly loathsome characters having a hell of a bad time in rather wretched worlds - the man can still write a cracking good story. Ban O'Bannon and Ridley Scott produced one of the most memorable horrific films ever set in space, and James Cameron followed it with an unrelentingly gruesome sequel; both are almost hypnotically watchable.

Lucas' universe-creation skills are off the charts. I can still remember my reaction to the opening shot of the original Star Wars; Princess Leia's ship flies over your head fleeing the "ray-gun" shots and you settle in for a typical space opera. And then the arrowhead tip of the Imperial Star Destroyer enters from the top of the screen. It broadens, showing you the incredible detail of the model-maker's art the ILM people always displayed. And it broadens...and broadens...and you are knocked back in your seat, thinking "Holy...leaping...fuck...that thing is...HUGE!"I was already 20 when "Star Wars" opened in 1977; too old to be really caught up in the whole action-figure-lunchbox-videogame magic of the thing. Being a somewhat literary and cinephilic child I had already encountered many of the themes that George dragged into his great space opera. I knew the trope of the second act, the hero at his or her lowest point, so I was neither shocked nor distraught when Darth Vader huffs "No...I am your father." It was thumping good fun, Darth is a terrific bad guy, the entire "Star Wars" universe is convincing and entertaining, and I was able to ignore the plot holes and cheesy dialogue as part of the whole franchise, the inevitable butter on the genre movie popcorn.

But the one thing I gave the man his props for then, and still do now, is his creation of the setting that he and others have expanded into the richly detailed universes of the Old Republic, the Empire, Rebellion and the post-Imperial "Legacy". Everything from his insistence in the scuffed, workaday appearance of his sets to the diversity of the characters moving through them makes Lucas one of the real masters of the creation of worlds. The incredible vitality of the works that have sprung out of his vision, everything from books to movies to comics to games to silly YouTube parodies to the damn Wookiepedia are a testimony to the man's range of vision and the richness of his imagination.Just as an example; if you have a moment you want to fill with some entertaining mind-candy, try Karen Traviss' "Republic Commando" series. Yes, it's a spinoff of a fucking videogame of a kid's scifi movie. Doesn't matter; good writing is good writing, and the author knows soldiers and how they think and act. They're damn good books.But, damn, George...your writing sure sucks pipe. Your characters talk like they are all emotionally eleven, your plots creak and gape, and you are at the same time callous - slaughtering countless of your characters for nothing more than pure spectacle - and twee; the fucking Ewoks should have told us to expect something like goddam Jar Jar or worse back in the Eighties.

How could you fuck this up so badly? I mean, just to take an example could you create a more dramatic moral dilemma in science fiction; a supposed Republic whose police arm is a semimonastic Order of spiritual religious magic users enters its final crisis by creating and employing an army of slaves bred to die in battle? The question of the Jedi - Lucas' identified heroes and the intended paragons of his movies - accepting and leading these men who have no voice or choice in their fates (and being Lucas his idea of tactics are "stand up and shoot until you die or there's nobody left shooting at you..." - drives me fucking nuts, the guy) And yet never, not once, does one of your characters; Yoda, Obi-Wan, any of the "Clone Wars" savants, stop and muse "I wonder if we're doing the right thing here..?"I'll be the first one to say it - I have a thing about the clones, being a sort of retired clone trooper myself, but don't have to be Feodor Fucking Dostoyevsky to see the moral gray area here, George! But you're too busy writing a fifth-grade romance for your couples where "I don't like sand" is considered a prelude to pillow talk. Shitfire, George!

And it's just me, but perhaps the thing that bugged me the most and still does, is that you had a timeless, classic story and between crappy writing and piss-poor storytelling you managed to completely fuck it up. We didn't get it, back in 1977, that the story we were seeing wasn't the beginning of the coming-of-age hero tale of Luke Skywalker but the middle of the grand fall-and-redemption tragedy of Anakin Skywalker. That we weren't watching young King Arthur or the Dambusters or Kurosaqa's "Hidden Fortress" but The Tragedy of Othellowith Ian McDiarmid as Iago.Othello; how the hell could you fuck that up, George?Sheesh.

Mir'osik di'kut...


basilbeast said...

A lot of the good stuff that came out of the Star Wars saga has been created by its fans.

Seen this?


FDChief said...

basil: Yep - like I said, I'm living with the World's Biggest Little Star Wars Junkie.

And you're right about that; either the fans or other writers working in Lucas' universe.

What sucks for some, tho, is that they have to work with the canon. The author I mention in the post, Karen Traviss, had to stop writing SW fiction because Lucas' people made decisions that gutted what she was doing. The sad bit is that their changes made no "sense" in the context of the SW universe - they were purely for commercial reasons (it was for a storyline on the new "Clone Wars" animated show) and I can understand why they did it. But the decision 1) made a mess of the backstory for the Mandalorians, and 2) cut the ground from under one of the best writers in the SW genre, pushing her out and cutting off what had been a promising fictional series.

The least creative part of the entire genre, sadly, is its creator...

Anonymous said...


FDChief said...

Anon (12/7/12): No, duh? Did you READ the fucking post? That was my point; the guy gets HUGE props for his world-creation skills. Yes, he DID create an entire universe (not from scratch but by pulling together about fifty different tropes and ideas that was an act of true inspiration and not alone - a hell of a lot of the Star Wars universe comes from the drawings of Ralph McQuarrie; Lucas himself has said as much) but my point is that so have others, and where they leave ol' George behind is that they have done more with their universes than George did with his, and better.

The fact that you and everyone's cat knows Star Wars but not S.M. Stirling's or Darid Drake's or Poul Anderson's or Joss Whedon's worlds is a tribute to the marketing skills of the Lucasfilm folks as much as Lucas' genius itself.

The point is that once the guy created his universe his limitations showed up like a coal seam on Hoth; other people have done better work in his own universe than Lucas himself, and that's fairly damning...