I think you got some splainin’ to do.
If you’re not familiar with #SaturdayScenes, it’s a thing started over on the Plus by a Mr. John Ward (he paid me to say that) to encourage writers to share scenes from something they’re writing so we can all spend our saturdays reading stuff instead of doing chores or shopping or boring stuff.
This week’s scene is the opening to this week’s episode of my Oliver Black e-mail serial. For context, at the end of last week’s episode, Oliver got the crap beaten out of him.
When he got to his feet, Oliver spat a wad of bloody spittle onto the cobblestones. He wiped the remnants from his chin with the back of his hand and looked around.
He saw a vaguely humanoid, mostly brownish shape heading in his direction. He turned and went the other way.
He heard footsteps following him. He walked faster.
“Wait,” a voice said.
He walked faster.
“I need to talk to you.”
He walked faster.
The footsteps came faster, and Oliver left the alley and turned to make his way back to the rooftops. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned quickly, aiming a punch at the mostly brownish, vaguely humanoid head.
It didn’t step back so much as it leaned out of the way, letting Oliver’s punch whoosh past, hitting nothing.
“What?” Oliver spat when he’d regained control.
The mostly brownish, vaguely humanoid shape turned out to be a girl in brownish clothes with hair the color of mud.
“I need to talk to you,” she said.
“Go away.” Oliver said, and turned to leave.
“It’s important,” she said.
Oliver ignored her.
“I can help you keep safe.”
Oliver walked away.
“You won’t make it on your own.”
Oliver walked faster.
“You need my help.”
How the Heartstriker Series ISN’T Popcorn Fiction
The other day, I was having a discussion online with an author I respect. He referred to Nice Dragons Finish Last (affiliate link) as popcorn fiction. I disagreed and I’m going to explain why, but before I get started with that, I wanted to point out that there is nothing wrong with popcorn fiction. The world we live in is pretty messed up. Just yesterday—as I write this—the House passed an atrocious bill that would make it impossible for me and million of others like me (self employed with a pre-existing condition) to get health insurance. If this becomes—and stays—the law of the land, I’ll die sooner. Sometimes when you face an evil backed by an entire government, it can seem impossible to do or see anything that’s any good.
When that happens, simple escapist fiction is one of the greatest things in life.
If you think I just got too political, I’m not sorry and you should just go fuck yourself. My existence, and the existence of those whose lives are more fragile than mine aren’t political.
He’s Not Like Other Dragons
Soo…what was that I was saying about the Heartstriker series not being popcorn fiction? That claim rests primarily on two things, the fundamental reality that what we read shapes how we look at the world and the entire premise behind the Heartstriker series.
See, the protagonist of the series is Julius, the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan and one that rejects the typical deviousness and everyone-is-an-enemy-ness of dragons. Everyone—in clan and out—is plotting and scheming all the time. Any alliance is simply a betrayal in waiting. Everyone is the enemy every minute of every day.
It’s messy and dangerous and stupid and Julius rejects it all. In doing do, he demonstrates several fundamental principles of being decent people.
Being Yourself in Spite of Family
Julius refuses to be just like his family. He’s been taught since he was a hatchling that it’s his nature to be callous and devious—that the right way to behave involves manipulating people into doing things for his benefit.
In refusing to accept these lessons, he’s not only refusing to be a stereotype, he’s insisting that his own moral compass is sufficient. He’s asserting that there’s more than one way to be a dragon, and that everyone else has it wrong.
When Julius has to deal with a dragon from a rival clan, he rejects the instinct to treat her as an enemy and treats her like a person. Sure, she’s similar to her clan in a number of ways, but she’s different in many ways as well. The result is an alliance built on mutual respect and understanding rather than political convenience.
Guess which lasts longer.
When a Weakness is a Strength
Sometimes, something that’s perceived as a weakness is actually a strength. You can see it today when the enemies of decency decry diversity. They think—in the words of V for Vendetta—that strength comes from unity and unity comes from faith.
Strength doesn’t come from unity, at least not in the sense they mean it. They take unity to mean sameness. Same background. Same religion. Same music. Same art. Same whatever, I’m already bored.
Strength doesn’t come from sameness, it comes from acceptance. It comes from humility. It comes from understanding that everyone has the right to be who they are. It comes from having a diversity of perspectives that offer a number of different solutions to every problem.
If all you know how to do is plot and scheme, you’re going to try to plot and scheme your way out of things that would be better faced with cooperation. When you see each person as an individual and not a stereotype, you can open yourself up to addressing different problems with different solutions.
You Can’t Fight Evil by Doing Evil
But none of that is the fundamental point of the Heartriker books—at least not so far. The further Julius gets in his adventures, the more pressure there is on him to succeed and the more dire the consequences are for him if he does not.
And yet, he persisted—or persists, I suppose, if you think grammar is more important than a callback to the real-world. There is a point at which Julius is in a fight—not figuratively—and he’s getting his ass kicked by a dragon he could beat.
He refuses to fight back, not because he doesn’t want to win and not because he doesn’t think he can win, but because winning the fight would mean losing the war. Julius understands one very significant principle. You can’t fight evil by doing evil. If you want to make the world less evil, you’re not going to accomplish it by doing evil. You’re going to accomplish it by doing good and letting other people see you do good.
And that, ultimately, is why the Heartstriker series isn’t popcorn fiction. It has a message behind it, and if more people heeded that message, well, we’d live in a better world.
How Phaethon is Trying to Save the World
It means “Shining One” and has been used to name everything from birds to more than one character in Greek myth to an asteroid and a maybe planet, but for our purposes, Phaethon is an attempt to save the planet.
This attempt comes in the form of a novel by Rachel Sharp (affiliate link) featuring a millennial couple that for some strange reason that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with ships and icebergs go by Jack and Rose. Jack and Rose are just folks, cobbling together a living with a part-time job and whatever they can scrape together by what my generation might call dicking around on the internet.
Some of that dicking around involves taking apart pieces of tech to see what makes it tick. When they get the newest, super-coolest phone—the Phaethon—they do what their followers expect and take it apart. What they learn sends them down a rabbit hole of weird that ends with them fighting some big-ass fae who are trying to take over the world.
When I say the book is trying to save the world, that’s not what I mean. I mean that if we were all like Jack and Rose, the world would be a much better place.
It starts with curiosity. Jack and Rose don’t take apart a Phaethon simply to generate YouTube ad revenue. They do it because they are curious about how the world works. They take apart tech because they understand tech, because they want to see what new devices do with existing tech, and because they want to pass on the knowledge to others, the philosophical underpinning of which is simple. The more we know about how our world works, the better we all are.
What they discover—and this is all in the Amazon description—is that the components in the phone cannot possibly do what the phone does. Do they chalk it up to magic and let it be? Hell no, they investigate and hack and pry and conclusively demonstrate that it’s magic. Their new phone is powered by a living being.
Very few living entities are happy being the power source for a magical new phone. Rose and Jack rather quickly realize that this entity isn’t one of those few exceptions and take it upon themselves to track down the real location of this entity and see what’s what. When they accomplish this—using one of those sufficiently advanced technologies that is indistinguishable from magic—they realize that not only is the entity behind their phone being held prisoner, she is far from alone.
Someone else’s problem, right?
Jack and Rose have more than a bit of compassion for their fellow creatures and even though they’re more than a little freaked out by the existence of things that really aren’t supposed to exist, they do everything they can to help.
As one might expect, this causes problems. The evil overlords that are enslaving the fae aren’t really thrilled with the idea of someone coming along and freeing all their phone-enablers. It messes with their plans for global domination, don’t ya know?
Which is to say, the Big Bad fights back.
Jack and Rose are just folks and even though they have semi-unwillingly roped some friends into the battle, they’re not really equipped to fight with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
But…who else is there? While they use their tech skills to get the truth out there, that’s the kind of thing that takes time for people to grok and time is not something they have much of. The fight is now and they and their friends are the only ones who know there is a fight happening at all, so of course they go into the fight with everything they have even though it looks hopeless.
In many ways, we are what we read, especially when we read it at those ages where we’re figuring out who we are. If enough people read Phaethon, it will do its part to help save not just the planet, but those of us who inhabit it.
The curiosity to seek out knowledge of our world, the compassion and conscience to try to improve the situation of those who are being oppressed, and the responsibility to tackle a problem—even an absurdly large one—when nobody else is in a position to, these are traits we need more of in this world.
If you’re not familiar with #SaturdayScenes, it’s a thing started over on the Plus by a Mr. John Ward to encourage writers to share scenes from something they’re writing so we can all spend our saturdays reading stuff instead of doing chores or shopping or boring stuff.
That said, my scene this week is from the rebooted version of Oliver Black Season One, Episode One in which Oliver gets frisky but not in the Happy Days sense.
Outdoor time the next day was as troublesome as ever. The other boys were just as aware of the special treatment Oliver received as Oliver was. Being removed from class to visit with church officials is not something that could be kept secret. Oliver saw the visits as a trial, but the other boys just saw someone being treated differently and took that as their cue to do the same.
“Who’s that you were meeting with, Oliver?” one shouted at him.
Oliver ignored him. He was too busy scanning the yard for escape opportunities. There were none. The fence was climbable, but not quickly. Any of the sisters could cross the yard and clamp their hand on him before he made it over. If the sisters were all inside, it would be easy but the boys were never let out without several of the sisters to monitor them. “Well that won’t work,” he muttered to himself.
“What’s that you say?” the same boy asked. It was Elphren and as Oliver’s attention returned to the here and now, he realized that Elphren wasn’t the only one looking at him.
“I asked you what you said,” Elphren said in one of those artificially calm voices that drip with barely restrained violence.
Oliver sighed. Elphren slept in the next bunk and sat next to Oliver at meals and in classes. He was always the first to notice when Oliver was doing something other than what the other boys did. Worse, he resented the difference.
Elphren didn’t see that the meetings with church officials were a nightmare. He didn’t see that whatever special treatment Oliver received came with heightened expectations. If Oliver was forgiven for breaking some of the lesser rules, he was also held to higher standards in class and out.
Oliver sighed and lifted his voice so it could be heard by all the boys, “I didn’t say anything. I asked if you’d managed to get through the night without wetting the bed again.”
Most of the boys laughed. Some pointed. Elphren and those few boys who had decided it was safer to be his friend than his enemy kept quiet. “What. Was. That?” Elphren muttered.
Oliver took it all in with one glance. The glint in his eye. The clenched fist. The hangers on closing in. A smile lept to his face as he made a decision. If a fight was inevitable, it would be better fought on his terms.
“I said you pissed the bed last night. And the night before. And the night before that. And the night before that.”
Elphren’s face reddened with every syllable and by the end, Elphren had crossed half the distance to Oliver. Oliver waited until just the right moment then, stepping forward to get all his strength behind him, he punched Elphren square in the nose.
Elphren fell, rolled over, and curled up into a ball, blood slipping through the hands covering his nose. Oliver turned and hailed one of the nuns. “Sister Alys, come quick, Elphren’s hurt himself!”
In short order, three of the sisters were on the scene. Sister Alys was tending to Elphren. Sister Maybelle was shooing away the onlookers, and Sister Gelia was questioning the witnesses.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It was an accident,” Oliver said, “he was running and tripped over something. He landed face first and when he rolled over he was bleeding badly. That’s when I called for Sister Alys.”
“That’s not—” Elphren began, but Sister Alys shushed him immediately.
“Did anyone else see what happened?”
Three of the boys spoke up, echoing what Oliver had said. Elphren, being the prickly sort, had few real friends.
Elphren was sitting up when they were done. He glanced at his cronies and shook his head slightly. He turned to Oliver and gave him a glower that returned all the ill-will Oliver had directed his way earlier.
Oliver allowed a half a grin to slip onto his face.
How Rogue One Showed Me What I Hate About Epic Fantasy
I love epic Fantasy. I’ve been reading it for as long as I can remember—at least since first grade, and probably earlier. But somewhere around junior high, I started feeling this little tickle in the back of my brain telling me there was something wrong with it. It wasn’t enough to stop me from reading and enjoying it, of course. If there was a world I could get lost in, surely it was better than the real one even if it was under imminent threat by the greatest evil of all time. It was just that when the hero saved the universe, it always felt like there was something missing. It wasn’t until I saw Rogue One that I realized what it was.
A New Hope had something Empire and Jedi Lacked
As far as I’m concerned, Rogue One is the best Star Wars movie since the original. True Star Wars Fans (TM) will almost universally point to Empire as the best and they have a point, but I don’t really care about movie making and while I care quite a bit about stories, their structure, and what creative people can do with them, Star Wars gets a pass on all of that.
The original came out in 1977. I was six years old when I saw it. When I hear that theme and when I see the crawl, I’m six years old again and all I really care about is how the movie makes me feel. Rogue One made me feel much like the original and I think that’s because it has something the original had that Empire and Jedi lacked.
Empire, for all its excellence as a film, is pretty bleak. We end the movie with Han Solo frozen in carbonite and Luke Skywalker getting his hand replaced while dealing with the worst news he’d ever received. It wasn’t pretty.
Jedi was pretty and a lot of people knock it for that, but it had a bit of hope. After all, the second Death Star was destroyed. Vader and the Emperor were dead. The Rebel Alliance had just achieved a tremendous victory that was going to overturn the power structure of the entire galaxy.
It’s a big hope and, in some ways, a very impersonal one. To be sure, it was personal to Luke and the gang, but they had been joined by a whole bunch of people you didn’t know or care about unless you read the extended universe.
The hope in Rogue One was different, as was the hope in A New Hope and it’s that difference that showed me what I was reacting to in all the epic fantasy I was reading (it was a lot, folks).
No Chosen One, Just Folks
The original Star Wars didn’t have a chosen one. The retconning of one in the prequel trilogy is, was, and will always be asinine and midichlorians can kiss my entire ass.
I have at least two problems with the concept of the chose one. First, I find the notion of destiny to be entirely repulsive. If we don’t have some degree of free will, we aren’t really people.
And while we’re at it, people who present that false choice to the chosen one have a seat reserved for them right next to the people who talk in theaters. You know the false choice I’m talking about, it’s the one where the chosen one is presented with the choice between fulfilling the prophecy or of everything and everyone they love being destroyed.
It’s bullshit. I dare say there isn’t a one of us that would choose to have our entire world destroyed just so we could avoid doing battle with Lord Voldythings.
It’s About the Choices of Ordinary People
But there’s more than that. Epic Fantasy—and despite the spaceships, I think it’s entirely appropriate to fit Star Wars into the genre—is about the entire known universe fighting a tremendous evil, but in much of it, we don’t see the entire universe. There are often references to enormous armies fighting somewhere but it often happens off screen—until the movie adaptation, of course—while we center on the “real fight” which is always a one-on-one between the hero and the villain.
This, too is nonsense. Evil is not someone else’s fight.
The average everyday person is often seen as a bystander even if they take part in the fight. They may have names but they don’t have agency. They are, essentially, sitting around making time and watching the hero do everything.
This is what has always struck me as wrong. Maybe it’s the current political climate that made the issue so stark, but in Rogue One—as in A New Hope—we see ordinary people making the decision to make a difference.
Luke Skywalker is just a moisture farmer dreaming of something bigger. Ben Kenobe is just a crazy old man with memories of being something more. Han Solo is just a smuggler with a pile of debts and a price on his head. Leia—even though she’s introduced as a princess—isn’t very princess-like. We see her give a message to the droids and convince them to abandon ship, but we don’t know it’s her ship unless we’ve read it outside the film. And after those initial scenes, where she hides the plans in R2D2 and confronts Darth Vader, we see her get tortured and her planet blown up. By the time we see her do anything princess-like, we’re minutes from the end credits and she’s not much of a princess anymore.
They were just people. The same can be said of Jyn Erso and the rest of the main (ish) characters of Rogue One. They’re just normal folks who got it in their head that the world should be better than it is and decided to do something about it. Sure, Erso had a connection and the other guys had specific skills, but isn’t that true of everyone?
Two Hundred Thousand People
As I write this, #climatemarch is trending on Twitter as organizers estimate two hundred thousand people marched in Washington DC to draw attention to the problem.
Two hundred thousand people.
Some of them have skills. Some of them have connections. Some of them are just looking for some way to make their world a better place one tiny bit at a time.
And that, ultimately, is the problem I have with Epic Fantasy. They are tremendous, engrossing stories of the battle of good and evil, but they rarely involve the everyman. Sure, sure, farm boy made good and all that, but by the time they’re making a difference, they aren’t a farm boy anymore.
It’s like people took a look at Tolkien and saw how only a simple hobbit could carry the ring to Mount Doom and ignored the fact that all the simple hobbit did was carry the ring to Mount Doom. He didn’t raise an army. He didn’t battle the Dark One. There was no abstruse wand lore that meant Lord Voldythings couldn’t kill him. There was just a guy who wished he could go putter in his garden doing something he felt he had to do and it made all the difference.
Stories Change Lives
I could give you a list of stories that have changed enough lives to change the world, but I don’t have to. You know stories change lives because it’s happened to you. You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t–at some point in your life–read a story that did more than simply entertain you. It spoke to you. It helped you get through a rough time. Maybe it even made you a different person.
I am re-emphasizing this space because I realized I wanted to do more than just write books and marketing copy. I wanted to do more than just write about books. I wanted to write about books that are doing something that can help–in a small way–build a better world.
So that’s what I’m going to do here. You can expect a post here every Tuesday morning. It won’t always be about a book. I hope the things I write will be worth the time it takes you to read it and that just maybe they cause you do look at the things you read and watch a little bit differently.