One Demon’s Hell is Another Demon’s, um, Hell?

Last week was really busy as I tried to catch up from the holiday break. This week was really busy as I tried to catch my breath from last week. Why has that involved staying up past my bedtime after stating my intention to go to bed early? *sigh*

Now, however, I finally have a 3-day weekend in which to recover from my vacation. Amusingly, William seems to be in the same condition. He has been impossible to roust out of bed, vocal in his desire to go to bed early, and completely incapable of actually making that happen. It appears that he has too much of his father in him. Hopefully this means he’ll sleep in for Beth, this weekend, because she needs the sleep just as much as we do.

The Demon Storyteller’s Guide came out last week and is currently available as a PDF (with print coming soon) on DrivethruRPG. My contributions to it were the crossover sections on Mage and Mummy, as well as the exploration of the Hell the Unchained seek. This last was particularly enjoyable, as I’ve spent an almost embarrassingly large amount of time considering what it is that fallen angels on the run from their creator would actually want to achieve on Earth. Other authors have touched on several of them in previous books, but it was fun to actually lay out “how to achieve this,” as well as “now that you have everything you always wanted, what kinds of threats will you have to face down to keep it?”

Of the sixteen different Hells I describe, though, my favorite was the personal mission of the average Integrator. This was something that sort of bothered me ever since I saw the first drafts, which seemed to assume that Integrators would jump at the first opportunity to return to the God-Machine that they encountered. This would have worked if the rest of the game showed the Enemy as unwilling to accept the Unchained back into its service or if It was somehow beyond their reach, but all over the place we talked about how rare and precious angels are to their creator, and while the Machine isn’t truly omnipresent, it is world-straddling in scope. By the final draft, of course, the game clarified that Integrators may want to return to the God-Machine’s service, but they want to do so on their own terms. In particular, they want to retain the free will that demons have and angels do not.

That works, but I always felt that there could be so much more to the Integrators than that. As time has passed, we’ve seen a bit more of what you might think of as the Blue Pill Integrators – demons who are actively working against other Unchained in hopes of convincing the God-Machine to grant them concessions beyond mere freedom. Yet that still tended to make them less sympathetic than the other Agendas, and I saw a lot of folks on the Internet who literally could not see Integrators as anything but team-killers – the kinds of characters beloved by players who use “it’s just what my character would do” as a shield for being dicks at the gaming table. That made me sad – not because I think that people who play Integrators should always adhere to the PC halo but because I have so little difficulty seeing other ways to play a Loyalist that don’t involve acting like an Alpha Complex Troubleshooter gathering dirt on your teammates until you can justify executing them all as traitors.

The personal hell was my attempt to point out something nobody ever seemed to talk about but that I found glaringly obvious because, well…

Waaaaaay back in the days of 1st Edition Exalted, I created a Solar (Akilla) who Exalted during the fall of Thorns to the undead army of Mask of Winters. She was a lifelong believer in the Immaculate Order, including their condemnation of the Anathema (which now included herself), but she also knew that booting a Deathlord out of Thorns was not beyond the abilities of a Solar at the height of his power. Rather than turn herself over to the Immaculate Order immediately, she reasoned that she would do so as soon as Thorns had been liberated from the undead. She was even very above-board about this when she fell in with other Solars, and as she warmed up to the rest of her Circle, she offered them the heartfelt pledge that she would give them reasonable warning before turning herself over to the Immaculate Order and betraying them.

So when I first heard Integrators pitched, that was where my mind went immediately. I’m not gonna lie. The hero who is tortured by what he has become but nevertheless uses the power it gives him to accomplish objectives that would otherwise be far beyond his grasp is probably one of my favorite themes. It showed up in that Exalted game so long ago. It’s a key character element in Lesson of the Fire. I embraced it again in Beth’s Hunter: The Vigil chronicle (during which my character Awakened, putting a target on his cell’s back and becoming its secret weapon at the same time).

It has its place in Demon: The Descent, too. Not all Integrators are enemy Agents looking for any excuse they can get to betray their ring. Not all Integrators fear the loss of self that will come when the God-Machine casts them into one of its forges and erases their memories. Sometimes an angel just can’t let go of a mission – whether it is one given it by the God-Machine or one they discovered along the way – and she doesn’t so much reject the embrace of her creator as put it off for awhile.

I think of the fiction bits I wrote for the core book. The one about the demon who chooses to live out the life of his cover’s grandchild because her death would pain his mortal family too much. The one about the demon who clings to its freedom in hopes of preventing a catastrophe from befalling the city he once helped to guard – a disaster that he is certain will come about because of his actions at the moment of his Fall. Those were Integrator stories – ones that simultaneously give the demon reason to long for a return to the God-Machine while also ensuring that he has no desire to do so today or tomorrow or even a year from now. Stories that could end with “and having achieved the personal goal for which she hid herself from her creator’s eyes for several years, she returned to Its embrace,” but is just as likely to merely give her time to experience mission creep. “I will save this city from the disaster my hands have wrought” flows naturally into “I will protect this city from the disasters that threaten it until it is destroyed by a cataclysm I could not prevent.” “I will be their dead daughter” evolves into a never ending series of self-sacrificial acts that protect the family from grief but also keep the demon from making her return journey to the God-Machine.  Is it sincere, or is the Integrator just as terrified of the death of self-awareness that recycling promises as his Saboteur ringmate? Even if it is, will the Integrator ever admit her fear of oblivion to herself, or will she continue to proclaim her loyalty to the God-Machine in spite of the number of times she has moved the goal posts?

That’s the kind of story I would love to tell in a Demon game, and I really wanted to make sure other people had the opportunity to tell that kind of story in their own groups. It sure beats the perception of Integrators as demons who would sell out their fellow Unchained to the God-Machine for a Klondike bar.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Spoilers

As I more or less expected, the week between Christmas and New Year’s completely ate me. I try to cram so much into that one week that I’m lucky if I have two hours of free time to rub together. It’s always a lot of fun to see my family and a large percentage of my friends from high school, college, and beyond, but it isn’t conducive to writing blog entries. That said, I knew early on that I wanted to write a spoilerific post about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I knew it would be a really long one. This is that post. If you’re concerned about spoilers, steer clear of this entry until you’ve seen it.

First off, I must say how impressed I am with the Internet geek community when it came to spoilers. Due to the need to arrange childcare, Beth and I weren’t able to secure a chance to watch it until December 26th – more than a week after its release. Despite our inescapable exposure to the geek community online and my son’s insistence that we watch every Star Wars trailer a zillion times since that first teaser most of a year ago, we managed to avoid spoilers. During that week, everyone clearly labeled their spoilers so it was as easy as scrolling down without reading. Some even went so far as to post a spoiler warning and then create a link to the actual spoilers so that it wasn’t even possible to accidentally read spoilers.

This is your second warning: Star Wars spoilers ahead.

There’s a long history of action movie trailers giving away half the plot of the movie, and Star Wars had a lot of trailers ahead of its release. Every time we got word from the Mouse that no really, this is the last trailer before the movie, someone on the Internet would unearth a completely new trailer from China or Japan or Mars or wherever else Disney thinks it can sell a lot of movie tickets. In watching the movie, however, I discovered that the trailers used footage from the film in a calculated effort to mislead or at least misdirect. I mean that in the best way imaginable. I had a pretty good sense of the main characters’ backgrounds, and I knew that Han, Leia, Chewbacca, Luke, and the Millennium Falcon would be in it. But despite having seen the trailers a hundred times I didn’t really know the plot until I was in the theater. It was like arriving at a local watering hole to celebrate my birthday with a few friends and then being whisked away to my absolute favorite restaurant and discovering that a hundred of my friends had shown up to celebrate with me. Any disappointment I might have felt about not getting what I expected was completely swallowed up in my delight at what I received. (I’m speaking as an extrovert, of course, for whom “everyone shows up to hang out with me at the same time” is a cherished fantasy and not a nightmare scenario.)

This is your final spoiler warning. After this, I stop being coy and start getting specific.

The Wonderful Lies the Trailers Told Me

We get a glimpse of the Knights of Ren in the rain looking all badass, but they only appear in a single flicker of a Force vision, leaving Kylo Ren the only one of them to make more of an appearance in the movie than we get in the trailer. I’m okay with this. It sets them up to be more important in later movies, and after seeing how much of a badass Kylo Ren I’m looking forward to seeing them wreck some Resistance forces.

The trailers also show the Millennium Falcon fleeing TIE fighters above the desert junkyard planet of Jakku. This obviously happens, but the trailers cut in shots of Han and Chewie in such a way that it seems obvious that they’re the ones piloting it when in fact this scene takes place after Finn and Rey steal the Falcon and are fleeing for their lives in one of the most exciting sequences of the early part of the movie. Han plays an important role in the new Star Wars, and his presence in the trailers surely built up fan excitement ahead of the movie’s release, but this isn’t his movie any more than A New Hope was Obi Wan’s (and in the exact same way that it wasn’t Obi Wan’s movie, as it turns out…).

One of the trailers shows Rey bent over a body, looking upset, and then Leia weeping in Han’s arms. One of the geeky sites I saw analyzing that trailer frame-by-frame noted that the person Rey is worrying over appears to be Chewbacca. The shot is actually a bit vague, even if there is absolutely nothing confusing about it in context. In reality, Leia weeps into Han’s arms as they discuss their son, who has become Kylo Ren. And the vague body is actually Finn, who has been badly injured in his fight with Ren. Well-played, trailer editors. Well-played.

The trailers also show Finn with a lightsaber and introduce him in the first teaser immediately after the mysterious voice says, “There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” Both implied that he’s the proverbial Luke, but it turns out that his co-star is the wildly Force-talented member of the cast (with a caveat that I’ll talk about more later). Similarly, Luke isn’t so much a character in The Force Awakens as he is its MacGuffin. The glimpse of him we get in the trailers is half his total screen time, and he actually has more dialogue in the trailers than he does in the movie. There are other, similar touches, but you get the idea.

Passing the Torch to the Next Generation

At its heart, The Force Awakens is about passing the torch of Star Wars from the previous generation to the current one, and the movie carefully aims to please both audiences. It does a great job of this. The first movie I remember watching in the theater was Return of the Jedi. I would have been five years old, and I vividly recall being terrified of Jabba the Hutt (and covering my eyes), but I also remember staying in my seat through the whole thing and obsessing over all things Star Wars for years afterward.

We took William to see The Force Awakens on the 30th. It was his first movie in the theater, and he spent it by turns scared and fascinated, but whenever we offered to take him out of the theater for a little while he flatly refused to budge from his seat. He has talked about little else but Star Wars ever since. He will be four in February – so within a year of the age I was when Jedi was released. Not that he never talked about Star Wars before, but then while the first movie he ever watched was The Empire Strikes Back (last Christmas, on a day when both of us were home sick), I distinctly remember the asteroid scene on my parents’ TV when I was right around that age.

Given his age, we weren’t sure how he would handle it. We’ve shown him the other Star Wars movies here and there, but big screens are another thing. So we chose a 9:30am show on a weekday. We discovered that the theater was almost completely deserted except for about a dozen families with small children whose parents were doing exactly the same thing we were. This was, to be honest, kind of cool.

A Timely Update

Even aside from what was happening in the theater, though, The Force Awakens concerns itself with moving the focus from Luke, Leia, and Han to the next generation of heroes – Rey, Finn, and Poe. While I respected the boldness of a true Star Trek reboot that read as an alternate universe of the Trekverse everyone grew up with, it nevertheless resulted in a Trek that preserved many of the flaws of the original movies that just wouldn’t fly today – an overwhelmingly white, male cast and a lead character with, um, outdated romantic proclivities, which make it a hard sell to a generation that is collectively working to slowly stamp out the universality of both of those tropes.

The newest Star Wars offering doesn’t deny the franchise’s past, but nor does it merely try to dust it of a bit in hopes that contemporary audiences won’t notice that it still has only one person of color and one woman of consequence. Leia is feisty and cool, but she also gets damselled more than once, spends a lot of time acting as a romantic interest (first for Luke and then for Han – not to mention the slave outfit thing), and never gets any cool Force powers despite the movies making it clear that she has the same potential as Luke.

Instead we get Rey, Finn, and Poe. This choice gives me hope that we can finally, finally put to rest the bullshit Hollywood “wisdom” that says a movie with a black or female hero can’t succeed. Seriously, guys, we also have the Twilight series (not my cup of tea, but that changes nothing) and The Hunger Games, so they really should have figured it out by now, but with Episode VII now the highest grossing movie ever (and it’s only been in theaters for three weeks) – in spite of none of its leading heroes being white men – that counterfactual article of faith really needs to go away forever.

Rey

Rey is what Episode I Anakin Skywalker should have been. She has a lot in common with him – a mysterious past, a gift with building machines and piloting ships, and a natural aptitude with the Force that causes other Force users to shit themselves in terror. Seriously, if prequel Anakin had sealed his deal with the Dark Side by taking down several Jedi at the height of their power instead of by murdering an elementary school we might have been willing to believe he was some kind of corporeal manifestation of the living Force and not just a whiny, child-murdering, easily manipulated brat.

Anyway, with Rey we have a plucky, self-sufficient young adult who is just trying to survive in a society that insists on cheating her on a daily basis. Her existence is defined by picking over the literal wreckage of the previous generation’s wars and selling it in exchange for starvation wages. Despite her prodigious talents and willingness to work hard, she cannot escape an endless cycle of life without purpose. She waits for relief from a family who has (for whatever reason) abandoned her to this fate, and it is her patience in that vigil that is ultimately holding her back from achieving greater things.

It somehow doesn’t strike me as an accident that Rey is played by an actress whose age places her firmly among the Millennials. This is a generation that faced an impossible choice – go to college at a time when post-secondary education costs were rising so quickly that they would be deep in debt by the time they graduated and be told that they were childish, selfish, and lazy because they couldn’t afford to do “adult things” like buy houses and start families, or skip college and live from paycheck to paycheck because apparently no one who didn’t go to college deserves to make a living wage. In short, Rey is every Millennial who is just scraping by, by turns abandoned by or cheated by an older generation that sees nothing of value in anything she produces unless it has some connection to her elder’s glory days. And yet it is through a relic of that era (the Millennium Falcon) that she secures her freedom – not by merely exchanging it for money from her elders but by taking it and making it her own. In some ways it strikes me as J. J. Abrams subtly telling us that yes, he’s taking the franchise in a different direction, but that he thinks that’s a good thing, and he hopes we’ll agree.

Finn

Then we have Finn, who was recruited from birth to be a Stormtrooper – a soldier for the evil Empire whose entire on-screen purpose throughout the original trilogy was to be faceless enemies that killed innocent people or died unmourned in conflicts with the heroes we were supposed to be rooting for. It was simply understood that these were faceless minions whose deaths meant nothing to anyone. The first time we are able to distinguish Finn from his fellow faceless goons is when he recognizes and is recognized by a fallen Stormtrooper. The death of that unnamed Stormtrooper marks Finn – both figuratively and literally – and sets him apart from his companions in arms. It is the first time any Stormtrooper has been humanized in the movies. I understand that the Clone Wars animated series has clone trooper characters, but even in the prequels where they are initially the good guys, the clones are not fully developed characters. Finn refuses to participate in the massacre when Kylo Ren orders him to do so. Later, he takes off his helmet to reveal a black man underneath, and his superior officer promptly chides him for doing so without permission.

Let’s talk about this for a little bit. The Stormtroopers are not given the choice of whether to join the First Order. They are all either indoctrinated into the army from childhood or, in the case of clones, manufactured as soldiers for the Empire and its successor. An accident of birth determines not only their careers but whether or not anyone – their commanding officers or the Rebels/Resistance – will value their lives or mourn their deaths. In the original trilogy, both sides of this conflict were overwhelmingly white, which can be attributed to the previously mentioned time those movies were released. Even in Episode VII, though, the leaders of the First Order are white men, and given the relative diversity of the rest of the cast, that does not seem like an accident to me. Nor was making the humanizing face of those faceless goons a black man.

Knowing as he does that Stormtroopers are ultimately victims of a military-industrial that recruits poor children and indoctrinates them as fanatical killers, it is a bit disappointing that Finn does not hesitate to kill them. This franchise is not exactly renowned for its moral complexity, mind you, but it would be nice to see someone regret mowing down former brothers-in-arms like wheat with TIE fighter blasters. At least we still have Kylo Ren (more on him later). The way the First Order recruits its Stormtroopers also echoes what many of us have been saying since our first glimpse of the younglings in the prequels, which is that the way the Jedi Order recruits its padawans is super creepy and not indicative of the moral superiority of the Republic.

Poe

Finally, we have Poe Dameron, whom the Internet has already dubbed “nice guy Poe Dameron” and whom a friend of mine affectionately describes as “PC Han Solo.” Here you have this amazing pilot who is also concerned about the safety of the mysterious Resistance ally and visibly fond of his astromech droid. He treats Finn warmly even though he immediately recognizes that the deserter is really only jail breaking him because he desperately needs a pilot. He helps the Stormtrooper leave behind his old life by giving him a name to use in his new one, and he is visibly happy to see Finn when they meet again later.

Having watched the movie twice, I can see why so many fans are hoping for a romance between Poe and Finn, because they really have strong on-screen chemistry. Even if the franchise doesn’t take his character in that direction, Poe is an undeniably likable character – like the high school football star who never lets it go to his head and is still really nice to everyone. Others have pointed out that he even manages to radiate charisma during the planning scene ahead of the attack by standing quietly in the background and letting other people take the lead in their areas of expertise. I look forward to seeing more of him in future movies.

From the Ashes of Empire

As the Resistance and its heroes accept the torch offered to them by the Rebellion and its legends, so the First Order and its followers spring forth from the Empire and the villains of the original Star Wars trilogy. Despite these similarities, however, we see some stark differences between the two generations of bad guys.

New Order

First off, the First Order is younger and less organized than the Empire was. Look at the faces of its officers. In Episodes IV-VI, everyone on the Death Star is middle aged or older – bald spots and grey hair as far as the eye can see. Grand Moff Tarkin is a model of military discipline who shows himself perfectly capable of keeping even the frequently impetuous Darth Vader in line. When the Death Star comes under attack and his aide warns him that defeat is possible, Tarkin stays at his post. We are given no indication that anyone under his command flees the Death Star before it explodes, and that stands as a testament to the structure the Grand Moff maintains. Moreover, his decision to destroy Alderaan is cold and calculated. Had the Rebel base been in a more prominent location, he might have ordered it destroyed instead, but he feels that making a statement is more important at that juncture than winning a military victory while the Empire’s enemies continue to multiply. It is only after Tarkin dies that Darth Vader no longer has anyone to prevent him from Force choking every admiral who disappoints him – behavior that made him an iconic movie villain but probably didn’t help further the Empire’s goals. After all, seasoned, high-ranking officers are not exactly easy to replace.

By the end of Return of the Jedi, the Empire has lost all the officers on the second Death Star, as well as those aboard the various star destroyers the Rebels destroyed during the Battle of Endor. Moreover, the early parts of The Force Awakens pretty strongly hints that the Empire’s war with the Rebellion has cost it more star destroyers, which quite likely included other veteran officers. We see the consequences of this continual loss of command and control centers in the comparative youth of the First Order’s officers.

Hux

General Hux cannot have left his 30s, yet, and almost everyone else we see is as young as or younger than him. Where Tarkin held Vader’s leash but also trusted his judgment enough to risk letting the Death Star plans fall into Rebel hands, Hux and Kylo Ren spend most of the movie sniping at each other in front of their mutual boss, Supreme Leader Snoke. As soon as Starkiller Base is operational, Hux does not hesitate to trumpet its potential to his followers in a public address that expresses his fanaticism and fascist world view, and then to immediately use it to destroy five planets that he claims (without offering any proof) are state sponsors of the Resistance (do you get the idea that maybe current events had some small influence on the plot of this movie?).

When the Resistance wins the day and his doomsday device is breaking apart, General Hux abandons his subordinates to their fates and never looks back. Nor do his junior officers overlook his absence. We hear a lieutenant ordered back to his post, only to reply that even General Hux has abandoned ship. It’s worth noting that Hux evacuates in part because Snoke orders him to do so (and to bring the injured Kylo Ren with him), but this only illustrates how much less concerned with the First Order’s imperialistic ambitions he is compared to the dictatorial Emperor Palpatine.

The Empire was dangerous because it was well-organized and had access to tremendous resources. It could also be devious enough to set elaborate traps or to expend those resources to hire bounty hunters for jobs to which it was not as well-suited. Ultimately, though, the Empire existed to maintain the Emperor’s hold on his Empire. The Death Stars were meant as a deterrent, a threat that Palpatine was not likely to use lightly or often. He wanted to rule the galaxy, after all, not destroy it.

The First Order is dangerous because its leaders (like Hux) quite obviously feel that they have something to prove. They want the galaxy to fear them, and they do not hesitate to destroy planets and institutions that they might more profitably suborn or conquer (as Palpatine did). Unlike the Emperor, Snoke seems almost disinterested in the politics of the First Order. He is much more interested in finding Luke and completing the training of Kylo Ren than in the completion, use, or destruction of Starkiller Base.

Kylo Ren

Speaking of Kylo Ren, I found him to be a fascinating and believable villain. He is everything Anakin Skywalker should have been in Episodes II and III. There are plenty of parallels between the two characters. Both are young, arrogant, and believe they are doing the right thing every step of the way. They’re both prone to lose their temper, and they both indulge in whiny monologues.

That’s where the similarities end, though.

Let’s face it. If you strip all of the absurd and boring out of the prequels, Anakin doesn’t exactly have it easy. He is born a slave. The Jedi take him away from his home and simultaneously hail him as a Messianic figure and refuse to train him. His mother dies as a direct result of the Stoic devotion the Jedi demand, which did not allow him to return to Tatooine to release her from bondage. Jedi rules also prevent him from pursuing a romantic relationship and, when he not-quite-admits that he has formed a strong emotional attachment, Yoda essentially tells him his lover is better off dead. So yeah, Anakin doesn’t have a whole lot of reasons to love the Jedi Order. It makes sense that he would leap at an opportunity to learn the ways of the Force without having to kowtow to the Jedi Council. And once Palpatine kills Mace Windu in front of his eyes, there is no way Anakin is going to be able to simply go back to the Jedi and expect to be treated as other than an accomplice, so he has nowhere else to go except into the arms of the Dark Side (into whose arms the Jedi have been driving Anakin since Episode I).

Lucas made a grave mistake, though. He tried to convey this through a series of contrived conversations and over-the-top monologues – a classic case of telling the story instead of showing it. That is a blog post for some other time, though.

The Force Awakens does not repeat that mistake. Thankfully, we don’t get three movies focused on the rise and the fall of Kylo Ren. At the time Episode VII opens, he is already at a point in his narrative that his grandfather didn’t reach until the end of Revenge of the Sith. He’s not as far gone as Vader was at the beginning of A New Hope, but we certainly see plenty of evidence that he’s not above murdering younglings and other innocent people in the service of his ambition.

We didn’t need a virgin birth, a midiclorian count, a prophecy, or Jedi chin-stroking to tell us that he is strong with the Force. First, we all know his pedigree thanks to the movies that preceded this one. Even if you ignore the prequels, Vader is a scary dude. More importantly, the movie gives Kylo Ren plenty of opportunities to show off his powers – starting with the frozen blaster bolt, continuing with the interrogation of Poe, and culminating in the no good, very bad day when he fights two lightsaber duels after taking a blast from a bowcaster that should have thrown him off the bridge of Kazad Dum. Perhaps more tellingly, it is clear from the end of the end of the movie that he isn’t even fully trained, yet! Nor is he without obvious holes in his powers. We see him struggle to call Luke’s lightsaber, which is a far cry from Darth Vader flinging machinery at Luke during their duel on Bespin, and his lightsaber skills are nowhere close to as well-honed as those of the Jedi in the prequels (which I actually find completely appropriate given that Luke didn’t exactly have years of training in which to learn the old Jedi martial arts). Ren is a strong, worthy opponent, but his journey to the Dark Side is not yet complete.
The filmmakers chose to save the reason why Kylo Ren turned against the Resistance for some other movie, which is fine. Again, we know a bit about the world he grew up in, so it’s easy (even fun) to speculate about what led this child born to a family of the Rebellion’s greatest heroes to betray everything they believe in. Some fans even argue that he hasn’t actually betrayed them but is, in fact, engaged in an ambitious nd probably-misguided attempt to infiltrate the Sith and destroy them (sometimes described as the Snape theory). Was his father too distant? Was his mother too busy running a rebellion to spend as much time with him as she would have liked? Did Han and Leia find themselves clashing so much that they couldn’t hold it together in front of their son – possibly even to the point where they couldn’t stay together at all? Was Luke too gentle with Kylo Ren, or was he so intent upon not showing favoritism toward his nephew that he ended up being way too hard on this young apprentice?

If Rey is a hero for a new generation, then Kylo Ren reflects our culture’s evolving understanding of evil. When we first see him, he is a masked figure who strikes down unarmed prisoners and orders a massacre of innocent civilians. When he takes off his helmet in front of Rey, however, we see a kind of goofy-looking, skinny white kid. Over the course of the movie, he makes several grievous errors, any one of which would have gotten him Force choked if Darth Vader had been his commander – the escape of BB-8, the escape of Poe Dameron, the escape of BB-8 and company, his failed interrogation of Rey, Rey’s escape (due to the classic mistake of leaving one Stormtrooper to guard a Force-user prisoner), and the destruction of Starkiller Base at the hands of his father. Not only does Kylo Ren fail more times in a single movie than any villain since the arms dealer in The Fifth Element, but we’re given the strong impression that he is not as sure about his life choices as he wants everyone to believe.

I remember the almost universal laughter when we fans got our first glimpse of his lightsaber with the absurd cross guard. Sure, we eventually warmed up to it, trusting that it must have some purpose. Having watched The Force Awakens, I’m pretty sure our initial reaction is actually pretty close to what was intended. Ren’s weapon is trying so hard to be badass that it’s actually kind of sad, and it makes the villain a kind of pathetic figure by extension. It is exactly the right lightsaber for this villain, as it expresses his character perfectly – a powerful Force-wielder with a massive case of imposter syndrome that drives him to do horrific things in order to prove that he’s as evil as he wants people to believe he is.

The evil Kylo Ren represents isn’t the fanatical devotion of the original trilogy, where the bad guys never once question the rightness of their cause even when they’re blowing up entire planets. He isn’t a comic book Nazi or a Cold War era propaganda caricature of a Communist leader. He is someone who has done something awful, to be sure, and his better nature even seems to recognize it. Instead of atoning for his crimes and returning to the embrace of a family who clearly still cares for him, however, he stubbornly doubles down on the mistakes he has made. He doesn’t want to kill his own father, but he is so certain that murdering Han is the only way to prove himself to Snoke – and to prove to himself that he can be just as ruthless as Darth Vader was – that he takes yet another tottering step into the Dark Side.

In many ways he is a pathetic villain, in spite of his power. This aspect of his character has given us the wonderful Twitter account Emo Kylo Ren (@KyloR3n), which is hilarious. What is less comical is that his behavior is troublingly familiar. He is the quintessential “quiet kid who decides to go on a shooting spree at his school.” He has that reek of the toxic masculinity that mistakes bravado and violence for strength – prompting him to fly into rages at the slightest provocation. He allows himself to become entangled with jingoistic fascists like General Hux and a megalomaniac who clearly doesn’t have his best interests at heart (Snoke) because they are willing to stroke his ego and feed his delusions. Despite his posturing, Kylo Ren’s confidence in his own abilities is so fragile that he regards anyone whose power might be the equal to his own (such as Rey) as a threat. Moreover, as soon as he takes off his helmet, he looks no different from a million other goofy-looking, skinny white kids. You couldn’t tell him apart from the random guy you shared an elevator with this morning.

It is not without reason that I’ve seen more than a few fans compare Kylo Ren to the men who make up the ranks of Gamergate, Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs), and anonymous racists who clog the Internet with screeds belittling or demonizing women and minorities. Like Kylo Ren, these folks are ultimately pretty pathetic and clearly have other problems they need to address, but that in no way excuses their repulsive behavior.

Final Points

I have just a couple more observations before I wrap up this beast.

We Need to Talk about Ben

The fact that Kylo Ren was once Luke’s apprentice, and that he murdered his fellow students in his turn to the Dark Side, really explains so much about why Han, Leia, and Luke went their separate ways. There’s no question that all three of them blamed themselves and that they would naturally assume that the other two blamed them too. The sense of failure must have been overwhelming.

I Count Two New Force-Users

It’s about as painfully obvious as Hollywood can make it that Rey has Force powers. I’m surprised by how few people have come to the conclusion that Finn is also Force-sensitive, if not the kind of wild talent that Anakin and Rey are. Those articles I’ve seen that agree with me on that point argue that Finn couldn’t have held his own in a lightsaber fight with Kylo Ren even for as long as he does except through the power of the Force. However, I’ve also seen arguments that his lightsaber skills aren’t a product of bad writing that hinge on the fact that another Stormtrooper wields a stun baton in a fight with him – implying that Finn has had the same training and so would benefit from it when he faced Ren. My argument is actually simpler:

When Finn looks up and sees the Starkiller Base weapon’s beam in the sky above Maz’s cantina, we hear a chorus of screams. I think most people just sort of assumed it was a reaction to the arrival of the First Order’s fleet, but they haven’t shown up yet, so that doesn’t seem to be the case. Is it maybe the freaked out screams of bystanders looking on in horror? I don’t seem to remember there being enough people nearby to justify that kind of a sound decision. But I remember the way Obi Wan described the disturbance in the Force at the moment Alderaan was destroyed – “as if a million voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” I generally try really hard not to speculate too much on sequels (since that always struck me as a bit of a sucker’s bet – the fandom equivalent of buying a lottery ticket), but if I have one prediction for the future of the franchise, it is that Rey’s obvious Force use was at least partially misdirection to prevent us from noticing the Finn has a burgeoning talent on par with Luke’s at the beginning of A New Hope.

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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (or whichever holiday you and yours celebrate at this time of year). I’m currently hanging out at my in-laws’ house while William expends the last of his day’s energy on the year’s toy haul. After that, I get to handle bedtime, as usual. Let’s see if I can get this written before my intervention is required…

I had a really productive weekend. In all, I added 12,500 words to my current draft of Kingmaker‘s sequel of the course of three days.  Most of that was revision or rework – scenes I had already written but that were in the wrong order in the story – but I did a pretty hefty amount of writing, too. I’m now past the place where I got stuck previously, and I have a pretty clear idea of what needs to happen between now and the end of the book. The length is looking to be much longer than I ever dreamed this story would require – possibly even longer than Lesson of the Fire was, and that made no pretense of being aimed at younger readers. Matt might trim that down on the next go-around, but it might simply be that the story needs to be longer. Certainly it is more complicated than the book that preceded it, which didn’t delve as deeply into subplots.

It’s a work in progress, but it is certainly coming along, and I hope to get a good chunk of work done on it during our ten days of travel and holiday festivities.

I finished reading Assassin’s Quest (by Robin Hobbs), yesterday. Some spoilers for that book and the two that precede it in the trilogy ahead. I’m enjoying this author’s work. Where she really shines is in getting deep inside her characters’ heads and in inventing complications that make sense and yet remain entirely unexpected. I remember thinking to myself when I set the book down on Wednesday that I had a couple suspicions about some of the things that would come into play, but I really had no idea how it would end. I even had a conversation with Beth (who read these books years ago – long enough ago to have written an awesome trio of songs about the trilogy in the same world that follows it) that evening in which I said I could see no way that the book wasn’t going to end without resolving a few loose ends. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually wraps everything up nicely – both as a book and as a trilogy.

It is a solidly epic fantasy series, and while it doesn’t have the complete disregard for the lives of its heroes that made A Song of Ice and Fire (and its TV adaptation) famous, Hobb comes up with some really clever complications and resolutions to them. Sometimes it’s clear that Fitz is doing something absolutely stupid that is certain to fail (like when he decides that his only course of action is to assassinate the king even though he has neither resources, help, nor even a germ of a plan). In some cases it seems like things will work out the way he imagines it, but Hobb kindly drops us enough hints to the contrary that it isn’t jarring when they don’t (like how when Buridge and Molly believe Fitz is dead and take up living together to care for Fitz’s daughter, somehow that could *gasp* blossom into a romantic relationship). The whole “a man dying on the horns of a stone dragon causes it to stir closer to life” line of inquiry was one of those things that I was pretty certain would be critically important later, but Hobb performed a sleight of hand routine for so long that it almost had me convinced that she had dropped the plot to save it for a later story. Regal’s real scheme should have been obvious (there’s even an outright “Fitz tells us it was obvious to him when looking back” section in the framework story), but I didn’t realize it until way late in the book. It was interesting how the body swapping was foretold by the queen’s earlier comment that Fitz was a comely youth, and that whole bit leaves me wondering that more isn’t made of the fact that Fitz is still the biological father of Verity’s son. I’ll admit that I was tickled by the “failed” plot to poison the soldiers sent to capture him, only to discover that he had succeeded after all (an entertaining reversal of the author’s more common preference for frustrating expectations by introducing unexpected complications to an otherwise serviceable plan).

In the end, Hobb really didn’t waste any of the pieces at her disposal. Pretty close to every concept and every interesting character plays some role in the conclusion. Probably my favorite was the vengeful ferret’s victory, although Fitz’s final handling of Regal was at once poetic and kinda terrifyingly awful. Of course, the same could be said about Verity’s final request of Fitz, because yikes.

Next up is Stephen Erikson’s Memories of Ice, the third book of his Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Now for something completely different, in other words. I’m sure I’ll come back to Hobb sooner rather than later. Her particular style of story braiding is actually quite close to what Matt and I favor for the books in our own world. For now, however, I have a small child to coax into falling asleep.

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Calm Before the Storm

I’ve been busy on Kingmaker’s sequel this week and haven’t reached any major media milestones. I’m almost done with Assassin’s Quest, I have a big writing weekend planned (I took Monday off), and I have tickets to a showing of Star Wars VII scheduled for 12/26. Yes, there was a day I would have been there for opening night, but finding childcare on a weeknight is complicated – especially when it seems like most of your friends are already going to the same midnight show you would have liked to be at. I can wait a week, although I must admit that it heightens anticipation when William insists on watching the trailers with me every evening.

I showed William the first two of the Lord of the Rings movies last weekend. He couldn’t stop talking about FotR on Saturday night, although his response to TT was a bit more muted by comparison. He has, as usual, already incorporated it into his games of pretend. He has also started demanding to watch the Honest Trailers of all the Tolkien movies on a nightly basis. I hope to find the time to show him RotK before we leave town this week, but we’ll see what happens.

We had a bunch of people over last night for a sort of beer tasting party where everyone brought their weirdest and/or snobbiest beers to share in small pours. It was a lot of fun but not, as you can imagine, conducive to writing a blog. As you can see, however, I don’t have a whole lot to talk about this week anyway. Next week should be more interesting.

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Human Privilege

I’m going to talk a bit more about the BBC show Humans. I’ve only seen the first three episodes, so I’m sure there’s a lot more going on as the season progresses, but I want to talk about the killer quote from episode 3. If you’re bothered by spoilers for this show, give this post a miss.

As I alluded to last night, I’m seeing a lot of commentary in this show on the nature of class and privilege. Partially, the android story has always included an element of moral peril that is inherent in forcing one sentient being to serve another. That, by its nature, establishes humans and androids as different classes – one ruling and one serving. But this was the first time I had seen an apparently human character (albeit one with android-like cyberware) in one of these stories identify as an android (called synths in this show) instead of as a human (Leo). Adding to this, he’s both a white man and the de facto leader of a group of androids who are women and people of color – a white woman, an Asian woman, and two black men. Despite Leo’s role in the group, his authority by no means goes unquestioned, and it is clear on a couple of occasions that he hasn’t made the right decision.

We learn that Niska (the synth who presents as a white woman) has been recaptured and returned to service in a brothel. Leo and the others know she is there, and he even goes so far as visiting her. She clearly expects him to rescue her, but he instead tells her that he can’t extract her because it might reveal that the other two synths who were captured with her have similarly developed self-awareness (a secret they’d all rather keep from humans). Pretty reasonable decision, right?

Then we see Niska’s current existence and how she has been reduced to a sex object servicing an endless line of Johns. This isn’t just a job. She has been placed in a tight, infinitely repeating loop of being used and then sanitized for the next time she will be used – like a cloth napkin that is soiled and washed so that it might become soiled again, or like silverware, or like an undergarment that ends up in the washer every laundry day – until it is worn through and so ratty that it must be discarded and replaced by an equally disposable object of its type. The scene isn’t lengthy and isn’t played up for titillation; rather, it is disturbing to watch.

At the end of this horrific little montage, we get a slightly more drawn out scene in which the latest John – a middle-aged, middle-class-ish white man – tells Niska that he wants her to act “young and scared.” She finally gives up the charade, strangles him to death, and leaves the brothel. As she does, she tells the madame, “All the things you let them do to us they want to do to you.” She makes her way back to Leo and, when he protests that she should have waited, demands that he tell her, “Would you have left me in that place if I had been a human?”

Both of those lines are pretty powerful coming from an android, but it is almost trivially easy to read something more immediate to our modern experience in them. They ring out as an indictment of those whose privilege largely protects them from having shit like this happen to them. It reminded me a bit of the “Earn this!” line from the climax of Saving Private Ryan – directed at a character but actually meant for those members of the audience who didn’t fight alongside the heroic soldiers who didn’t come back from the war. ”

The honest answer to the second question is that humans have been allowing other humans to suffer horrific exploitation for thousands of years. Involuntary sex work is an almost hyperbolic example. It’s one that is very real, but its extremity and frequent use as an example of “labor without the hope of achieving a better life through one’s work” and “the job that will slowly kill you if it somehow doesn’t kill you quickly instead” often makes people forget that there are plenty of other jobs that pay poverty wages (or worse) and are just as dangerous and monotonous. And yet as a society we are leaving those people – those fellow humans – in that situation because it would be economically, politically, or personally inconvenient to bring them out of it. It’s damnably depressing, to be honest.

And the first line has a whole onion’s worth of meanings. It’s easy to read it as a reminder directed at every comfortable middle class woman who looks down on poor women who resort to terrible methods just to survive. It can also be seen as a message to the bosses and middle managers that those at the top of society don’t care about them any more than they care about the plight of the workers at the bottom of the ladder. The madames and middle managers who help keep the oppressed workforce in line are mere tools of an oppressive system that would not hesitate to victimize them, as well.

Anyway, it’s a really interesting show, and I’m looking forward to watching more of it.

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A Sleepy Blog Post

It has been an exhausting 24 hours. William had a flu bug last night, and I got to stay home with him today. This turned out not to be that bad a gig after I got the first hour of it out of the way, but that first hour? Well, let’s just say I had to break out the rug shampooer for the first time since he was born…

The good news is all our carpets are the cleanest they’ve been in four years. The bad news is I’m starting this blog entry at midnight.

My family’s Thanksgiving weekend has become “Mom and William stay in Eau Claire while Dad works a short day on Friday and converts the remainder of the weekend into an orgy of writing.” I got a lot of work done on Kingmaker’s sequel, but it’s hard to describe in terms of word count because a lot of it was intense revision. I’ve actually had a pretty good writing week overall, and I’m looking forward to getting more done this weekend. I swear I will eventually finish this project. I’ve more or less given up on guessing when, however.

I watched a couple more episodes of Humans, this week, which continues to be a very thoughtful show about white privilege, er, androids. To clarify, one of the “escaped androids” said some stuff that implies that he’s not actually an android but is some kind of cybernetics junkie who identifies as an android most of the time. The money quote from the third episode that had me impressed with the show’s writers involved an accusation by one of the androids (currently trapped in the role of an android prostitute) that the android ally never would have left her to work in a brothel if she had been a human. As with the old man and his obsolete android from episode 1, this situation kind of won a “that’s what some folks would actually do” award from me. Cyber-man is obviously sympathetic to the androids’ plight on an intellectual level, but it’s clear that sometimes he fails to see these artificial humans as people. Interesting stuff.

Assassin’s Quest is coming along. I’ve probably reached the 60% mark. Solid work by Hobb, to be sure. I’ll post a more detailed response once I’ve finished. In a similar vein, we’re slowly absorbing the current season of Doctor Who and the new series Dark Matter. I’ve enjoyed this season of Who more than I did the last. Capaldi is fantastic regardless, but the writing has been a lot better this season than it was last. Dark Matter is a solid and entertaining show. I could complain that it takes its premise (six people wake up on a ship and have no memory of who they are) and applies a Firefly-esque filter/formula to it, but I’m enjoying the overall arc enough that I don’t mind that the individual plots aren’t all that groundbreaking.

At the moment, however, I’m falling asleep on the (oh-so-recently-scrubbed) floor of my office, so I’m going to head to bed, now.

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The Plotter’s Paradox

I’ve been hard at work on Kingmaker’s sequel this afternoon and expect to spend a lot more time on it tomorrow, so this entry will be fairly short.

I generally consider myself more of a plotter (writes with a plan firmly in mind before setting down the first words) than a pantser (figures out the story as it is being written). I’ve read a fair amount of writing advice from pantsers (Stephen King, Chuck Wendig, and Anne Lamott) over the years, and they do a pretty good job of describing the pitfalls of making it up as you go along (or at least until you figure out what’s really going on). Pantsers run the risk creating twists that come out of nowhere, dropping plots or characters, and writing themselves into corners (necessitating brutal cuts of tens of thousands of words that turned out to be the wrong path for the story to take). As a bit of a plotter, I feel that I have my own obstacles to overcome.

Telegraphing: When you know from the outset who your secret villain is and what the plot twists will be, it’s easy to telegraph these things without really meaning to – or at least while only intending to give the reader enough of a hint that these things don’t come completely out of left field. I find this especially challenging when writing a young protagonist whose musings really shouldn’t demonstrate a nuanced understanding of, say, politics, economics, or obscure lore. The wise old mentor has long been a crutch for these kinds of tales for a reason, after all, and while it is important for the protagonist to have agency, a sixteen-year-old with a deep sense of how to navigate in a world of espionage had better have at least as good an excuse as Frank Herbert gave Paul Atredes (but don’t do that, because it has already been done). Anyway, I sometimes discover that my characters are thinking or speaking as though they’ve read my outline and know exactly what is going to happen next. This is bad, and I end up having to cut out a bunch of foreshadowing because it amounts to telling the reader too much too soon.

90% Preparation, 10% Action: Sitting down and just pouring out words does not come naturally to me. Quite possibly this is true of every writer – plotters and pantsers alike – but I suffer a very predictable kind of delay at the beginning of each new scene or chapter as I carefully plan my next move. Wait. Don’t I have an outline? Well, yes, but the outline only tells me Big Themes, describes what plot or character purpose each scene will serve, and offers some world-building details or minor characters that I can sprinkle in at any time to make everything seem a bit more real (i.e. to hide the fact that I’m working from an outline). It doesn’t tell me exactly what the characters will say, where the events will take place, or (perhaps most frustratingly) what the first sentence of the chapter will be. So
in addition to the countless hours of planning and outlining that goes into a project before I even type the first sentence, there are innumerable smaller planning sessions ahead of each scene. I often complain that I only write about 500 words per hour, but that pace would be significantly higher if you didn’t count all the pre-work before each scene and all the time-outs to perform research or map out some world-building iceberg whose mere tip will make it into the book.

Mission Creep: Hofstadter’s law says everything always takes longer than you expect, and for me that not only applies to the literal number of hours and days of writing stand between the beginning and end of a project but also the number of words the story will take me to tell. A significant cause of this problem is the previously mentioned danger of telegraphing, because one way I’ve found to steer clear of that is by introducing red herrings or by simply burying the correct answer among incorrect ones. Unfortunately, red herrings fall into the category of things that are very rarely included in the outline. Occasionally these false paths take a lot longer to lay than I anticipated. On rare occasions, what I thought was a mere red herring actually makes more sense than the answer I originally wrote into the outline, which leads me to:

The Plotter’s Paradox: As the old saying goes, “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” No matter how much I plan and outline, once in awhile I discover that the path I’ve painstakingly charted out is the wrong one. At that point I have very little choice except to back up a few chapters, change the outline, and then make some radical revisions to the work I’ve already done. Usually I can salvage most of the words I’ve already written, but it isn’t exactly rare to lose hundreds or even thousands of words that simply don’t make sense anymore.

This last is something that happened to me just last week. I discovered too much telegraphing and too little willingness for my protagonist to fail. A week later, instead of pushing forward to reach my 30,000 word goal for November, I find myself engaged in the laborious process of revising what I have. It will make for a better story, and it isn’t exactly a miserable task, but let’s just say I haven’t been watching my word counts very carefully.

Now I need to sleep, however. I have a lot more work ahead of me tomorrow.

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The World of Darkness in My Neighborhood

The God-Machine Chronicle introduced the concept of Infrastructure, which it was my pleasure to write the explanation for. One of the features of Infrastructure in the World of Darkness is that it should have some features or qualities that make it stand out to those who know what to look for. I described the concept in the books (GMC and Demon) but never gave it an actual name. However, one of the regulars on the Onyx Path forums recently dubbed it the Infrastructure’s “tell,” which I think is a fitting name for it. In short, the tell gives Infrastructure a flavor of the bizarre in-world so that the players’ characters can be creeped out enough to investigate further. Outside of the game fiction, the tell allows the Storyteller to, well, tell the players what their characters should investigate. If you have tells without Infrastructure, players are going to get frustrated when they check out the weird noises coming from the warehouse and find out that it’s just an air conditioner that’s at the end of its mechanical lifespan. If you have Infrastructure without tells, the players’ characters end up wandering around the setting with absolutely no way to find the plot. You see similar devices in horror movies all the time, where they serve to increase the audience’s dread of the bad things that must inevitably happen to characters in scary movies.

I have written hundreds of thousands of words for various World of Darkness games, so it isn’t so surprising that it has come to color my perception of the world around me in some way. It’s not that I believe any of it is real, but every aberration I see in my day-to-day life tends to inspire thoughts about what it would be if this were the World of Darkness. My work on Demon: The Descent has left a particularly strong impression on me, such that I can see potential Infrastructure of the God-Machine in just about anything that has a hint of the bizarre.

I’ve lived in Northeast Minneapolis for more than six years. Mine is a quirky neighborhood along the Mississippi River. Factories and warehouses rub shoulders enthusiastically with a wide variety of popular (and frequently strange) bars and restaurants. Local artists maintain studios next door to luxury apartment buildings. Some of the shops have been operating here for decades, while others just opened this year, but there’s a strange shortage of chains of any kind within walking distance. A major food hub a mile from my house has several microbrewery/taprooms, probably a dozen different kinds of ethnic food options,  and somehow it’s the Subway that looks out of place.

Moreover, there are a couple sights around my house that have always struck me as truly bizarre. These inexplicable artifacts must have some mundane purpose, but I’m at a loss to guess it (without doing something as tedious and unnecessary as researching them). Many times as I drove by them I thought I should take a pictures and share them with the Internet at large and World of Darkness enthusiasts in particular. But the lighting was always wrong, or I was in a hurry, or parking was too difficult to find.

Until now.

I decided that today would be the day I drove around my neighborhood and documented some of its weirder objects. I’ve posted them below with brief captions explaining why they strike me as the tells of Infrastructure. I’d love to see others come up with creepypasta (short horror stories) using them as prompts. Use or ignore the captions as you prefer. I’d also love to see photos of the Infrastructure in your neighborhood, too.

A bowling supply store, a Mercado, and a Masonic lodge with a huge freaking sign announcing its presence in a single building? Either it's painfully obvious Concealment Infrastructure, or the Guardians of the Veil are trolling us.

A bowling supply store (those still exist?), a Mercado, and a Masonic lodge (loudly announcing its presence with a huge sign?). Either this is the worst Concealment Infrastructure ever, or the Guardians of the Veil are trolling us.

IMG_0128I drive by these every day – sometimes multiple times a day. I walked by them multiple times while taking William to the playground. They are clearly visible from less than a block away from my house. I didn’t notice them until I had lived here for three years, which still sort of weirds me out. Someone has spray-painted the letters UFO on the side. Somehow this only makes it even stranger that I didn’t notice them before.

IMG_0122

I’m not sure whether this served a practical function at some point (the building behind it used to be a train station and is now a library) or whether it’s someone’s art project (this is at the heart of the art district). What makes it strange is that you can’t see it from the street from any point within my neighborhood. It is only when you are standing across the river just beyond the border of the neighborhood that it is visible.

FerrisWheelA year ago there was a car wash here. It serves Tex Mex food but is decorated like an over-the-top country club. It has a Ferris wheel and a miniature golf course. A little odd, sure, but did you know that they didn’t demolish the car wash? They actually built the restaurant around it.

Klash

This picture is a bit fuzzy. It’s a drum store with an anti-theft steel grid inside its doors and windows. This isn’t interesting in itself, but the history of the site makes it a bit more remarkable. In the first three years that we lived here, this building was a graveyard for small businesses. Whenever a new shop would open here, you could be sure it would go out of business within three months. The location was absolute poison for no discernible reason (most of the other businesses in the area appear to be thriving). Then this drum store set up shop, and it has mysteriously survived the last three years. I’m not sure whether the owners are just plain more competent than the previous tenants or whether they just found a good exorcist soon after they moved in. Sorry the picture is upside-down, but I spent thirty minutes trying to get it to display properly, and it keeps showing up flipped the wrong way up. Make of that what you will.

LittleJacksThis is Little Jack’s. Longtime residents of the area tell me it was once one of the oldest restaurants in Minneapolis – an old school supper club that fell into its current sorry state after its original owners died. It has remained an island of blight in a sea of vibrant small businesses for decades. Soon after we moved here, a grand announcement went out to the neighborhood that a new owner had purchased the property and intended to develop it into a commercial and residential center. You can see they even put up a sign to show what it will look like once it’s finished. It has been several years, and the building hasn’t even been demolished yet, much less transformed into a new retail center. I’m not sure what the hold-up is, but it’s almost as if something or someone doesn’t want anyone to tear down the Little Jack’s building.

Alright, your turn. Tell me what these landmarks “really” are. Or post your own pictures of weird stuff around town.

(Hat tip to Matt McFarland of Growling Door Games. His call for creepy pictures to promote a supplement for Chill 3rd Ed. ultimately tipped the scales so that rather than driving by these landmarks I actually bothered to take pictures of them as I’ve been meaning to do for years.)

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In Medias Media

It’s been less a week of endings and more a week of, well, not beginnings, either. Maybe early-middles? That’s sometimes the way it is, I suppose.

We’re three episodes into the new SyFy series Dark Matter. It’s kind of Firefly meets Memento. It’s premise is that six people wake up on a spaceship with no memories of who they are, but they have a certain muscle memory or intuition that means they still have all the skills they had before their memories were wiped. It doesn’t take them long to discover that most of their skills involve ultraviolence and/or illegal activities, and it soon comes out that all of them are wanted criminals for some pretty heinous shit (without giving anything specific away, one has apparently assassinated a major political figure in the recent past, sparking a massive civil war, and that might not be the worst dirt any of them have). For the moment it is *slightly* formulaic, with the kind of clear, if twist-strewn arc you might expect from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Babylon 5. That isn’t bad per se, but it’s pretty clear that the events of these early episodes are simply a backdrop against which the overall plot of the series is being introduced.

I mentioned Humans a couple weeks back, and it occurs to me that one of the story lines that is so obviously riffing off of Blade Runner has some other familiar material in its DNA. You have androids who gain self-awareness and attempt to escape their masters, and you have people who hunt down those escaped androids, wipe their memories (apparently not very well, since we’ve seen no android who has been successfully wiped, yet), and then resell them at a deep discount. Hm, where have I seen that before…

jawas

From: http://www.starwars.com/databank/jawa

 

 

 

 

 

Oh yeah. Them! Jawas with British accents and without the heavy, flammable robes.

Assassin’s Quest continues. I feel that Robin Hobb is really worth studying as an author, because she has some interesting techniques. I could tease about all the “heads pounding with pain” and other silly quirks that involve redundant descriptions, but she does quite impressive things with plotting. Sometimes her characters must wish things went their way as often as they do for the heroes in Game of Thrones. The two golden rules appear to be “no good deed goes unpunished” and “no bad or poorly-thought-out deed goes unpunished, either.” An obvious bit of irrelevant “random encounter world-building” turns into a way to illustrate just how much trouble the protagonist is in and also gives a peek into his character. The world-building isn’t exactly blowing my mind, but she’s leading me by the nose with every plot twist and character exploration. My feeling has always been that if I feel like I can’t put a book down and I’m not sure why (intellectually), it’s probably worth enough of my attention to figure out how it’s doing that.

My parents are in town this weekend – ostensibly for the grandparents show at William’s daycare, although that is much more an excuse than an actual reason. Beth is playing a show as Windycon in Chicago this weekend, but it looks like a whole gaggle of grandparents will be at this thing. This means I have to get up at a kind of early hour tomorrow, so I’m going to sign off for now.

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NaNoNot in the Face!

I’m definitely not doing the full NaNoWriMo thing this year, but as I mentioned on a previous entry, I’m using the month to mark a 30k word push on the Kingmaker sequel. And as anyone who has done NaNo can tell you, the act of trying to do NaNo tends to attract reasons to fail at NaNo. In my case, this entailed worryingly distracting problems with our furnace on Sunday and two days of illness. So, 3,000 words behind before I even started. Pretty much par for the course, really.

Ah well. I’ll catch up somehow.

Doctor Who continues to have a solid season. There have really been no clunkers at all, so far. We’re grateful for this, especially after the unpleasantly rocky previous season.

The new Star Wars trailer came out recently, and fan theories are flying fast and fierce. The most interesting concerns Jar Jar Binks, prompting the most “someone owes George Lucas a dollar” comment on the prequels that I’ve ever seen, which was along the lines of “I’d be interested to watch the prequels with all the voices cut out except for that of Jar Jar Binks.” My opinion on the topic is that whatever Lucas’ original plans for Jar Jar, he scrapped them before the release of Episode II, and there’s no way J.J. Abrams or anyone else will try to revive that character. As interesting a theory as it is, it would take a full erasure of fan memories of the prequels and a thorough and excellent remake of them to bring back Jar Jar Binks as an undercover Sith lord or whatever. I’m not sure what it is about Jar Jar Binks that makes Star Wars fans twist themselves in knots trying to find reasons to like the prequels, but I’m not exactly immune to the impulse myself.

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