Look Away: A Series of Unfortunate Events

Houses burning down. Parents dying. Guardians dying. Untalented actors with ropes, knives, and nefarious plots. Hurricanes, deadly leeches, dangerous reptiles. Lumber mills with numerous safety violations. This is a series of unfortunate events, and you can pull up a chair and watch.

Or you could just look away.

This January Netflix premiered Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, an adaptation of the children’s series of the same name. To date, eight episodes have been aired, adapting four of the thirteen books. Like the books before it, the show revolves around the adventures, misadventures, and misfortunes of the three Baudelaire children. After their parents die in a mysterious fire, they must escape Count Olaf’s schemes to get a hold of them and the Baudelaire fortune – again, and again, and again.

I had heard of Lemony Snicket before, invoked as an example of the literary devices of lampshading and of breaking the fourth wall. Knowing only this, and absolutely nothing of the actual story, I tuned into A Series of Unfortunate Events. The two most prominent elements of this series are its tone and its humor. The tone is ostentatiously bleak, with the theme song warning that watching will ruin “your evening, your series-of-unfortunate-events-2home life, and your day,” and narrator Lemony Snicket promising endless woe, troubles, and inconvenience. A literal pall hangs over the show – much of it, especially the scenery, appears to have been put through a gray filter. And this grayness is a mistake, an overreach of cleverness that undercuts the specific pleasure of a visual medium.

The series’ showily dismal tone is part and parcel with its humor – sometimes dark, always absurdist. A Series of Unfortunate Events thrives on repetition (it’s not a sea, it’s a large lake); on smashing the fourth wall (Lemony Snicket explains the concept of dramatic irony in relation to a particularly unfortunate event); on the unnecessary definition of words (in this context, “unnecessary” means “not needed”); on repetition (it’s not a sea, it’s a large lake); on absurdity (your closest living relative is the relative who lives closest to you); on repetition (LARGE LAKE).

As a rule, humor should not be explained or defended. If you don’t like this sort of humor, you won’t like the show. Even if you do, the show sometimes goes too far. It’s funny that Lemony Snicket has a two hundred-page book written by the woman he loves, explaining why she can’t marry him, but the repeated jokes about an older woman’s unfulfilled desires for marriage and a family are merely sad.

The characters of A Series of Unfortunate Events, like its humor, lean toward the absurd. Even Count Olaf, the villain of the story, is ridiculous, though he is sinister, too. The Baudelaires themselves are loyal to each other, courageous when the moment demands it, and – considering what they have to put up with – remarkably polite. They can be stilted at times, but in the natural sort of way you might expect wealthy prodigies to be stilted, and there’s something charming about them.

There’s a story here, too, but not much of one. I can usually enjoy the repetitivity of the humor, and always forgive it, but the repetitivity of the plot is another matter. Virtually every adult is malicious, dense, or both, and this allows the series to spin pointlessly through several reiterations of the same storyline. Villain employs laughable stratagem to get the children. Clueless adult falls for it. Children avert total disaster at the last minute. Villain employs laughable stratagem to get the children. Clueless adult falls for it. Children avert total disaster at the last minute. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Villain employs …

A Series Of Unfortunate Events

The last episode suggests that the series may be breaking out of this cycle. I worry, however, that it will be crippled by a more fundamental flaw. You see, A Series of Unfortunate Events lacks heart. Sometimes it lapses into genuine drama, with ensuing moments of pathos, and there is poignancy in how fast the siblings hold on to each other. But all this seems almost beside the point – and in truth, if the show took Olaf and his schemes any more seriously than it does, it would be too dark. A disconnect exists in this series, and there’s no heart strong enough to unite it in meaning and emotion.

Despite this lack, A Series of Unfortunate Events has its virtues. It can be visually interesting, in spite of the overabundance of grey. It is sometimes fun, often delightfully absurd, and on rare occasions, moving. The cleverness and the humor are abundant, and who knows? We are only eight episodes in; the best may yet be ahead.

Grand Finale: Crossing Time


On Tour with Prism Book Tours.

Book Tour Grand Finale for

Crossing in Time

By D.L. Orton

We hope you enjoyed the tour! If you missed any of the stops, go back and check them out and grab ebook copies of the series on SALE while you can…

Launch – Note from the Author

Love is the most powerful force known to mankind. It wrecks kings, destroys barriers, makes us risk everything for a few stolen moments. . . . And all of this makes for a great story.

Reading for the Stars and MoonWhat are your favorite sci-fi books and movies?

I can never seem to remember book titles, and I struggle to recall all the plot twists, but the good characters stick with you. They teach you, change you, become a part of you. I aspire to that with my own writing.

Stormy Nights Reviewing & Bloggin’ – Crossing In Time (Excerpt #1)

The chubby gun trader shifts his weight and looks up at me, one eye squeezed shut. “What sort of rearm you lookin’ to purchase, ma’am?” He’s enthroned on a maroon chintz armchair in front of a burned-out Walmart.

“Handgun,” I say. “Something easy to aim and shoot.”

Hearts & Scribbles – Ask the Characters: How Difficult Is It to Be a Character in D.L. Orton’s Book?

Isabel: There were times when I wasn’t sure I wanted to trust a writer with my life. Still, Ms. Orton cares about the same things I do, and I’m dying to see how things turn out. In the end, I wasn’t keen on some of the scarier scenes (and I’m still sad about all those animals), but the author assures me that everything will work out in the end. Right, Diego?

I Love Books – The Journey Is the Reward

What’s the moral of the story? Don’t take the ones you love for granted. They could disappear at any moment—and time machines are pretty hard to come by. Put your arms around someone you care about and just enjoy the moment. The journey is the reward.

Rockin’ Book Reviews – Review

“This is a steadily progressing story of love gone awry, reconciliation, commitment, sacrifice for love and mankind, and time travel. The novel begins with a “interest-catching Prologue, then quickly begins to formulate the story on a solid foundation, constantly building in momentum until it ends in a solid climax, leaving the reader anxious for the next sequel in the story! It is complete with romance, suspense, adventure and life’s lessons.”

Kindle and Me – Review

“If you like other universes with the same people, nuclear bombs, physics, emergency preparedness, giving up your life for someone you love, dogs, cats, jokes, finding that one special person, biodomes, peeing on a handkerchief with smoke everywhere, and maybe a way to save us all from our mistakes then this might be for you!”

Wishful Endings – Crossing In Time (Excerpt #2)


“Still…” The gun trader waits for me to meet his eyes. “I s’pose I could use some fancy flavorings on my venison.”

I regard the only overweight man in a sea of famine, disgusted with the whole human race and embarrassed by my own full stomach.

Zerina Blossom’s Books – Author Interview

Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or is it purely all imagination?

Who hasn’t looked back at a turning point in his or her life and wondered how things might have played out differently?

I met and fell in love with the man I’m married to when we were twenty-eight, and one of the first trips we took together was to attend the wedding of his best buddy from college. At the reception, I ended up seated next to my husband’s ex-girlfriend! Despite an awkward introduction, she and I hit if off, and we ended up comparing notes. (You should have seen his face when he realized we were talking about him.) At the end of the evening, she said something that stuck with me: I wish I would have met him at a different time in my life.

Celticlady’s Reviews – How Does Time Travel Work in the Between Two Evils Multiverse?

Take a shower curtain, some ants, and a bowling ball.

Start with the shower curtain. It’s a two-dimensional object in a 3-dimensional world. Imagine, now, that you are an ant, walking, talking, and shagging other ants on this thin, flexible membrane (or a “brane” in physics-speak). Layered above and below you are a million other shower curtains, all of them with their own allotment of ants (some of which get paid 78 cents on the dollar due to slight differences in their copulatory organs).

deal sharing aunt – Review

“I enjoy a good time travel and that is what this book is. It has a great romance and a second chance at love. I enjoyed the world the author created and thought that the author did a great job traveling in time.”

Colorimetry – Lost Time (Excerpt #1)

I lie in the greenish half-light, my lungs on fire, panic forcing out any rational thought.

And then I remember where I am—or rather where I should be.

I pound my fists against the translucent coffin lid until I manage to hit the release lever. The top pops open and frigid air rushes in, smelling of damp earth and evergreens.

I gasp for breath, my heart pounding.

The last thing I remember is a panicked voice shouting to abort the mission. Stop the countdown because…

fuonlyknew – Review

“The beginning swiftly pulls you in. The plot deepens and the characters emerge. And as you draw near to the conclusion, you’re gripped in a vise of suspense that brings tears to your eyes, fearing and hoping for what comes last.”

Angels With Attitude Book Reviews – Dead Time (Excerpt #1)

I’m trying to be brave, Mom, but it’s harder than I thought.

All the jeeps and other equipment are gone now, and I count four dingy biosuits slogging toward me through the downpour. I gaze up at the sloped wall of the massive biodome, wishing it didn’t look so… alien.

What would Madders do?

He’d be collecting data, not blubbering like a D-2 who fell off a swing and scraped her knee. Identify the problem, engineer a solution, and Bob’s your uncle.

Bookworm Lisa – Review

“The book involves time travel, an orb with a message, seashells, love, and secret government projects. It is a fascinating book.”

Booklove – Review

“The book, Crossing In Time was a one sit read for me with intriguing and captivating characters, unique, thrilling and original plot and a hooking prose . A perfect read for every Sci-Fi and romance lover.”

And don’t forget to enter the giveaway, if you haven’t already…

Crossing in Time
(Between Two Evils #1)
D.L. Orton
Adult Sci-Fi Romance, Dystopian
Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook & ebook, 374 pages
April 7th 2015 by Rocky Mountain Press

A Publishers Weekly Starred Review
“Best Sci-Fi Love Story of the Year”

Remember How It Feels to Fall in Love?

Race against the clock through a dystopian nightmare. Climb naked into an untested time machine (carrying only a seashell and a promise). Wake up twenty years younger on a tropical beach, buck naked and mortally wounded, with your heart in your throat.

This is a journey of love, loss, and redemption that will make your pulse gallop and your palms sweat, have you laughing out loud through your tears, and leave you flush with the sublime pleasure of falling in love.

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Tour Schedule

April 17th: Reading for the Stars and Moon, Stormy Nights Reviewing & Bloggin’ & Hearts & Scribbles
April 18th: I Love Books
April 19th: Rockin’ Book Reviews
April 20th: Kindle and Me & Wishful Endings
April 21st: Zerina Blossom’s Books
April 23rd: Celticlady’s Reviews
April 24th: deal sharing aunt & Colorimetry
April 25th: fuonlyknew & Angels With Attitude Book Reviews
April 26th: Bookworm Lisa
April 27th: Booklove
April 28th: Grand Finale

Other Books in the Series

Lost Time
(Between Two Evils #2)
D.L. Orton
Adult Sci-Fi Romance, Dystopian
Hardcover, Paperback & ebook, 222 pages
July 1st 2016 by Rocky Mountain Press

If someone took everything you live for, how far would you go to get it back?

When a faulty time machine deposits Diego at the top of a pine tree, he knows he’s in the wrong place–but has no idea he’s in the wrong time. Naked and shivering in the chilly mountain air, he attempts to climb down, but slips, whacks his head, and falls into oblivion.

He wakes up inside a darkened room, crippled and disheartened, and must come to grips with the realization that he is marooned in a bleak alternate future. In this universe, what remains of the human race is trapped inside a handful of aging biodomes. With his mission failed, his world destroyed, and the one woman he loves, dead, he can find no reason to go on living.

But Lani, the emotionally scarred doctor who finds him, refuses to let him die, and as Diego heals, their relationship becomes… complicated. He struggles to let go of the past but is unable to get Isabel out of his head–or his heart. Just when it seems he may be able to find some measure of happiness in a world teetering on the edge of extinction…

Another note arrives from the future: Isabel is alive–but not for long…

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Dead Time
(Between Two Evils #3)
D.L. Orton
Adult Sci-Fi Romance, Dystopian
Paperback & ebook, 414 pages
April 15th 2017 by Rocky Mountain Press

If someone took everything you live for, how far would you go to get it back?

From award-winning author D. L. ORTON comes book three in the Between Two Evils series…

Shannon fights to stay alive inside a rogue biodome and discovers something totally unexpected… Peter. Lani is forced into the role of the reluctant heroine but rediscovers her street-kid mojo and sets out to find everything she’s lost. Diego receives another dirty sock (and a note) from the poorly aimed fireball express: “The window between universes is closing.” If Diego has any hope of getting back to Iz, he must get to the Magic Kingdom and power up the time machine before it’s too late.

What could possibly go wrong?

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About the Author

D.L. ORTON is the BEST-SELLING author of the BETWEEN TWO EVILS book series. She lives in the Rocky Mountains where she and her husband are raising three boys, a golden retriever, two Siberian cats, and an extremely long-lived Triops. In her spare time, she’s building a time machine so that someone can go back and do the laundry.

Ms. Orton is a graduate of Stanford University’s Writers Workshop and a past editor of “Top of the Western Staircase,” a literary publication of the University of Colorado at Boulder. The author has a number of short stories published in traditional and online literary magazines, including Literotica, Melusine, Cosmoetica, The Ranfurly Review, and Catalyst Press.

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Tour Giveaway

– 1 winner will receive a $25 Amazon eGift Card (open internationally)
– 1 winner will receive the Between Two Evils series, which includes Crossing in Time, Lost Time, and Dead Time (print if US, Kindle copies if international)
– Ends March 28th

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We Might Have Guessed

If you listen to critics of the arts, teachers of the arts, and even a fair number of actual realistic-fictionartists, you will hear many praises of and exhortations to realism. If you examine art, you will find that many people have been wildly successful while showing a flagrant disregard for realism.

A prime example of this is Twilight. (If you were an old, powerful, more-or-less immortal supernatural being, would you be in high school?) However, I am going to focus on Star Trek and Star Wars and their shared violation of realism in everything military. I have chosen this focus because that sort of (un)realism is widespread in fantasy and sci-fi, and also I like Star Wars and Star Trek and have enough firsthand experience of them to write about them.

I once read a detailed critique of a certain Star Trek episode that made a very strong case that, at the end of the episode, three important characters should have been court-martialed. This is how I learned that, in real militaries, staff officers (however senior) don’t take command from line officers (however junior).

But one doesn’t need that sort of knowledge to see that the entire franchise is built around a principle so lethally unrealistic only television can save these people. This is the principle that in any unknown or dangerous situation, senior officers are immediately placed at the point of greatest jeopardy. They routinely round the senior officers up into bands just small enough to be easily ambushed, just large enough to virtually exterminate the senior staff in case of disaster. The Next Generation made a show (hah) of not sending down the captain, except when he really wanted to go, but this did not improve the picture a great deal.

This is Star Trek’s main offense to military realism. There are smaller ones, such as the fact that the Enterprise keeps civilians as permanent residents. Consequently, they are always endangering small children, and you don’t want to think about what’s happening in other parts of the ship while the officers are hanging on for dear life on the violently-shaking bridge.

Of course, Star Trek would not be Star Trek if our heroes didn’t get to do the coolest part of everyone’s job. Star Wars’ offenses to realism are less fundamental, but somehow even goofier. Consider that the Rebel Alliance gives away generalships like Employee of the Month awards. They may give them away as Employee of the Month awards. There is no other way to explain why Han Solo is made a general fresh off the accomplishment of getting defrosted, nor why Lando is a general five minutes after being a shady businessman.

I know: the maneuver at Taanab. But look: No single maneuver will make you a general unless it wins the battle, ends the war, saves several major heads of state, and prevents an invasion of hostile aliens from another dimension.

Another premier example of Star Wars’ unrealistic war is the ground battle on Endor. I like Return of the Jedi better than most, but it is ludicrous that the battle was won by a horde of midget aliens armed with weapons that were obsolete at the founding of the Roman Empire. If the stormtroopers had stayed by the installation and defended it – which was the only reason they were on the moon – it would not have been possible for them to lose. Even when, strangely impelled to be idiotic, they charged into the trees, they should still have carried the day. Superior firepower beats superior numbers any day, and it isn’t possible to defeat professional soldiers with advanced weaponry by konking them with rocks.

Star Trek and Star Wars give every indication of having been written by people with a rather slippery grasp of military matters. That their lack of realism hasn’t kept them from smashing success doesn’t prove that a lack of realism is all right. But it does prove that when people turn to fiction, realism is not terribly high on their list of desired qualities.

We might have guessed.

Let My People Think

In the lately-renewed controversy surrounding The Shack, two defenses of the book, and now movie, stand out to me. Both are meant to silence theological critiques. “It’s just a story,” runs the first. The second is more varied and a bit harder to sum up, but it turns on how the book makes people feel, especially about God’s love.

These defenses don’t answer criticisms of The Shack; they dismiss them out of hand. They make me critical thinkingthink of what Ravi Zacharias called his radio program: “Let My People Think.”

To dismiss criticism of a novel’s theology by pointing out that it’s just a story implies one of two things. The first is that stories can’t present a theology. As a statement regarding stories generally, this is wrong; as a statement regarding The Shack in particular, it’s absurd. The whole purpose of The Shack is to expound on theology, and it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. No one who has read the book will doubt that it makes a theological statement with clarity and at great length.

I think, then, that It’s just a story carries the second implication, namely that the theology of a story is irrelevant. But once admitting that a story has a theology, how can that theology be irrelevant? A story’s elements differ in importance, but no element is simply irrelevant, and a story’s ideas about God are far from the least relevant. Further, stories have power in that they work through the imagination and the emotions, sometimes bypassing the head. A story’s ideas, especially about God, matter.

There might be a third, more sophisticated understanding of this argument; it may mean that stories shouldn’t be judged too strictly because their form creates limitation and an inherent ambiguity. Generally, this is true; specifically regarding The Shack, it isn’t.

C.S. Lewis, when he wrote a novel about a mortal demanding answers from God, set it in an ancient, mythical world that required something more imaginative and more allegorical than a straight-up discussion of Christianity. But The Shack takes place in our world, and it’s chock-a-block with straight-up discussions of Christianity. Unlike other novels, it doesn’t present its ideas through fallible characters, who might be wrong, or events, which are open to interpretation; it has the Almighty state its ideas in endless exposition. There are few novels more obvious in their theology, and any notion that that theology is beyond the bounds of critique is simply wrong.

Other Christians justify The Shack by how it makes them feel. I don’t dismiss the importance of feeling God’s love, or the value of a bridge between the head and the heart. And yet: Feelings are no justification in the end.

Human feelings, no matter how spiritual they may seem, are not incontrovertible proof of God’s work; God’s work is not necessarily a seal of approval on His instruments. Maybe God has used The Shack, as people say, but you know, He used Pharaoh, too.

That The Shack makes you feel (correctly) that God is love doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong in other respects; neither does it make significant errors all right. And it’s not enough to feel rightly about God; we need to think rightly about Him, too. Even the feeling that God is love, without any feeling that He is also majestic and terrifyingly holy, leaves us stranded a long way from home.

We live in an anti-intellectual age, where feelings are taken to be the basis of everything from moral truth to government policy. But Christians should swim against that current, too. We shouldn’t dismiss what a novel or movie says about God because it’s just a story; we shouldn’t be so carried away by how something makes us feel that we don’t want to think about what it means. Ideas matter, and they can be bad even when the feelings are good.

Let my people think.

When Fandoms Attack

We all have our fandoms, and other people have theirs. With the never-ending expansion of shows and movies and franchises, no one has the time to join every fandom. Even if we did have the time, no one would have the inclination; human tastes and interests vary too widely. But isn’t it nice to witness the endless enthusiasm other people can show for things that hold, for us, so little interest?

No, not really. Because to be subjected, at length, to enthusiasms you don’t share is so much aggravated boredom. You can’t tell other people you don’t think their fandoms are interesting, any more than you can tell them you don’t think their pets are cute, but you can certainly think it. Dwell on it, even, until your indifference is gradually transformed, by dint of another person’s passion, into implacable hostility.

Why should this be? For one thing, we are all self-centered. If I were a kinder and more generous person, I would have more patience, and even interest, for other people’s enthusiasms. But sometimes fangirlfans go too far in insisting on their opinions – over contrary opinions, and contrary evidence, and obvious disinterest. Sometimes, fandoms really do attack.

We all have our fandoms. In the interest, then, of not going on the offensive, here are three principles that we should all, as fans, try to live by.

Number one, in order to have an actual conversation on your fandom, you need another fan. Trying to talk fandom with people who are not fans is like trying to talk shop with people who are not in your business. They likely won’t know what you’re talking about, they probably won’t care, and they certainly will have nothing to add to the conversation. Indeed, this is one of the surest signs of a fandom attack: a conversation – in the loosest sense of the term – that goes on and on even though one party’s main contribution is “Uh-huh.”

Number two, retain your objectivity. I cannot stress enough the importance of this. The worst sort of fan is the one who has lost all critical judgment; who in regards to their fandom will hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil; who insist that the newest movie in the franchise is awesome before actually seeing it, and perfect after seeing it; who feel greater affinity for those who share their fandom than for those who share their nationality, religion, or blood; who can scarcely credit the intelligence or motives of critics; who still cannot admit that Tom Brady probably did not destroy his cell phone because he was innocent.

Don’t be this fan.

Number three, keep your perspective. The better part of no one’s life consists of his fandoms. It really is all right if other people reject, even strongly, your fandoms. And don’t be offended by jokes or parodies or insulting memes. It’s not worth the energy or a fight. Everyone has the right to object to, for example, parodies of his religion or jokes about his mother; no one’s fandom is that important.

These principles will help all of us to, in our fandoms, keep from going on the attack. And if we’re on the defensive when fandoms attack, there are three principles for that, too. Smile. Nod.

Back away.

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin was a man who cared for only one thing: a joke. As a private citizen, he made a fool of himself for his own amusement. As a king, he still made a fool of himself, but he quickly branched out to making fools of other people, too. He instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city and imposing on them an absurd glory. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

For ten years, the businessmen and bureaucrats endured the robes and trumpets and heralds. Then the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who mistook the whole thing for a drama and wanted to turn it into an epic.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. After a satiric prologue about the game Cheat the Prophet, the narrator sets the story “eighty years after the present date.” This adds up to 1984, and the colorless, moribund England of Notting Hill, languishing in a world made ever more uniform by imperialism, would have been dystopia to Chesterton. So this is another English novel presenting a dystopian 1984, but of quite another flavor.

Like all Chesterton novels, Notting Hill is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. A brief sample: “In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State.”

In humor, social criticism, spiritual opinions, and the well-used paradox, whole passages of Chesterton’s fiction are indistinguishable from his nonfiction. There’s a rambling quality to Notting Hill sometimes, and the long paragraphs of dialogue often serve Chesterton’s ideas more than his plot. Still, this book stands out as one of the most disciplined of Chesterton’s novels.

As obvious as Chesterton was in expressing his opinions through the pages of his novels, he also managed one of the most subtle interweaving of theme and plot that I have ever seen. The main theme of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is patriotism, but it takes until the very end of the book to see how the plot cross-examines the idea of loving your country. Notting Hill becomes a nation in microcosm, passing through in twenty years what takes real nations centuries, and new turns in the story present new arguments against patriotism. The slaughter at the end of the novel, uncharacteristic and startling, offers the most final argument.

Although a dystopian of a sort, and set far in the future of its writing, Notting Hill is an unusual specimen of speculative fiction. Neither technology nor magic has any real place in its world, which is the London of 1904 draped with medieval glory. The English government is altered in a few, somewhat metaphysical paragraphs in order to make the creation of Notting Hill possible. But there’s no menace to it, just plenty of room for absurdity. Big Brother is not listening.

notting hill 2Still, Notting Hill shares one great commonality with many better-known works of speculative fiction: It explores the present through the future. The glory of speculative fiction is that it is, more than other popular genres, about ideas, and Notting Hill is about nothing if not an idea.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Black, White, & Gray

Since its release, Rogue One has been proclaimed – and not only by Disney – to be a new kind of Star Wars movie. In various elaborations on this theme, all the usual suspects line up: gritty, realistic, Ambiguitycomplex, ambiguous. Rogue One mostly lives up to its billing, though in less than exemplary fashion. I would like to examine this, not for the sake of the movie itself so much as for the larger points of complexity and ambiguity in stories.

In the moral compromises of its heroes and a gut-wrenching shot of a little girl terrified in the crossfire of battle, Rogue One finds an ugly side of war that the earlier Star Wars movies do not (though this is somewhat undermined by the relentless battles, which leave the impression that war is endlessly diverting and explosions are more desirable in a story than, say, dialogue). It even gets its hands on a genuine moral dilemma that is latent in technologically advanced warfare. In the course of the movie, the Rebel Alliance plots to assassinate the Death Star’s chief scientist.

By the way: Spoilers.

The idea of assassinating a scientist has a moral queasiness about it, but a case can be made for it. A scientist can have just as much blood on his hands as a soldier, and no one who is dedicated to creating a weapon of crushing, unheard-of power can be considered a noncombatant. Such scientists, as paid employees of a government’s war machine, are civilians only on a technicality; some of them are not even that, being formal members of the military. Why should scientists be entitled to safety while they facilitate the slaughter of millions?

And yet assassination is always a dirty business, cold, cold killing.

Rogue One raises a thorny moral question but never reflects on it. It offers the briefest, blandest justification for the assassination (basically he’s a weapons scientist who builds weapons and those kill people) and then just sort of assumes that it’s wrong. I’m not sure the filmmakers even knew they had a complex moral question. This is why Rogue One, despite reports, is no more thoughtful than the supposedly “unreflective” classic Star Wars trilogy. It is not enough that stories raise a difficult question, nor is it necessary that they answer one; to be reflective you have to, well, reflect.

Just as Rogue One is not a particularly thoughtful movie, neither is it really a complex one. Oh, there’s plenty of ambiguity, which is interesting and, yes, realistic. But ambiguity is not the same as complexity. complexityIt may even be the opposite of it, to the extent that it is simply a muddying of the waters. True complexity requires greater clarity and more distinction, and it doesn’t discard simplicity.

The plot of Rogue One carries the potential for certain moral complexities – that being on the right side does not ensure righteousness, that victims are not necessarily innocent, that war is so terrible it can degrade even heroes. That potential is never developed, partially because the movie is devoted to rushing action and not fine moral points, but also because heroes and the right side are lost in the gray. There’s too much moral ambiguity for moral complexity. Good and evil mix in strange and tragic ways, but to see that requires a distinction between white and black where they do not simply swamp together into gray.

Rogue One is a new kind of Star Wars movie, less of a space opera and more of a war film, and above all a (very competent) action movie. But it’s a mistake to assume that any story will be more reflective because it is gritter, or more complex because it is ambiguous.

Review: Power Elements of Character Development

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Review: Rogue One

Rogue One needs no introduction, so I won’t make one. This review, however, requires an emphatic spoiler warning. So:

spoilers

SPOILERS

SPOILERS

SPOILER ZONE. ABANDON HOPE, ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.

Now to the review.

Rogue rogue oneOne is Disney’s first half-step beyond the traditional Star Wars trilogies. It’s a Star Wars story rather than an episode and officially outside the main arc, but it’s so closely bound to A New Hope it’s practically the prologue. If the praise is not too faint, Rogue One is the most epic prologue ever made.

There is an inherent dramatic difficulty in making a movie whose end everyone knows (they get the plans), but the makers acquit themselves well. To some extent, Rogue One is Disney retconning George Lucas. But it’s a creative and convincing retcon, and it brings a level of freshness to the story. The decision to star a new cast of protagonists and a new villain created a wealth of potential because A New Hope doesn’t dictate what happens to them – and the filmmakers mine that potential to its limits.

Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie without a Jedi in sight, and that creates another dramatic challenge. The makers attempt to meet the challenge with the warrior-mystic Chirrut Imwe, who succeeds in sustaining the presence of the Force in the absence of the Jedi. Although evidently not a Jedi, Chirrut exhibits Jedi-like traits – an intriguing idea that goes exactly nowhere, because the movie leaves him unexplored and unexplained. Possibly he belongs to a different Force-order. Possibly he’s a freelancer. Maybe he’s not even Force-sensitive. It’s not in the movie.

If Rogue One fails to take the idea of the Force anywhere new, it does present a whole new view of the Rebel Alliance. The Alliance’s plan to assassinate the Death Star’s intellectual architect raises an intriguing moral dilemma, and if the idea is unsavory, it’s still impossible to regard the intended victim as innocent.

Oddly enough, the Alliance’s assassination plot is more forgivable than its ruthless manipulation of Jyn into aiding the killing of her own father. Indeed, the portrayal of the Alliance is surprisingly dark, with little sense of higher ideals or aspirations to relieve it. Cassian, the principal Rebel character, brutally murders his own informant. The Rebels who ally with Jyn are declared to have done terrible things in their fight against the Empire. The Alliance’s leadership rejects a chance to destroy the Death Star through cowardice and sheer stupidity. The sad truth is that Rogue One goes rogue against the Rebel Alliance.

Rogue One’s primary failing is that it takes too little interest in its own characters. All of them suffer some degree of neglect. Cassian is the most developed of the lot, by virtue of having a cause and experiencing inner conflict, but he’s also a joyless character, consumed by a crusade against the Empire for reasons that are only hinted at. Why the ex-Imperial pilot defected from the Empire is a mystery, as is why he volunteered for the desperate last mission. Similarly, Chirrut and his friend, what’s-his-name – you know who I mean, the one with the fancy gun – intervene once and then just sort of tag along for the rest of the movie.

But no one is more neglected than Jyn, the main protoganist of the film. Rogue One can’t be bothered to invest in her the sort of quiet moments with which other Star Wars movies introduce their heroes – think of Luke playing with his toy ship or looking at the setting suns, or the brief shots of Rey’s handmade pilot doll and wall of marked-off days. It’s not even interested when Jyn makes decisions crucial to the plot. In the first half of the movie, Jyn disavows any interest in fighting the Empire, blames the Rebel cause for her suffering, and likens Cassian to a stormtrooper – indeed, this is the surest sign that she disapproves of the Empire: she compares Rebels to stormtroopers. And then suddenly she’s talking more Rebel than the Rebels and giving rallying speeches against the Empire.

Did she believe those speeches, despite blaming the Rebels for her father’s death so shortly before? Did she believe that the Imperial flag doesn’t bother you if you don’t look up, despite being orphaned by the Imperials? Who knows?

Rogue One is above all an action movie, and as it rushes from one action sequence to another, it seems hardly to care why its characters fight so long as they do. The characters are lost in the parade of explosions and firefights, and I think the meaning is, too.

And then, in the climax, it’s found. It’s ironic that the film waits until the penultimate action sequence to slow down and give the characters their moments, but every second is welcome. The end of Rogue One is fantastic, leading brilliantly into A New Hope and imbuing the fight and the sacrifice with meaning. Tarkin’s final use of the Death Star offends logic, but it also gives the villain’s end a kind of horrifying justice I’ve never seen any other story achieve.

No review of Rogue One would be complete without praising K-2SO and how masterfully he is used for humor, or without noting that every moment of Darth Vader’s presence is pure win. Rogue One’s frenetic pace crowds out too many quiet moments and too much thoughtfulness, and the absence of the Jedi and tarnishing of the Rebellion feel like losses. It doesn’t capture the Star Wars magic, but Rogue One is a skillful sci-fi action movie that possesses its own gleams of greatness.

Christmas Is Too …

Christmas FireplaceIf you listen long enough, you will discover that Christmas is too much of many things. It is too commercial, too materialistic, too Christian, too pagan, too saccharine and nothing but an excuse for shameless capitalistic mongering. These opinions will be with us until the end of Christmas, and I have no ambitions of dislodging them. But there is one I would like to dispute.

Christmas is a pagan holiday. I’ve heard this a lot, from people who approved and people who did not, and I’ve grown ever more skeptical. The historicity is vague at best, the thinking is demonstrably sloppy at times, and I see a fundamental confusion of the past and present tenses.

The historical details of the claim are often hazy. For example: Which pagan holiday? Saturnalia? The winter solstice – and if so, whose? Because strictly speaking, the winter solstice is an astronomical event and a good number of cultures have made it a holiday. More importantly, when and where did Christmas first begin to be celebrated? What descriptions of it, or commentary on it, exist in ancient sources? Is the “Christmas is a pagan holiday” claim really just an inference from general facts?

And this leads into the thinking that is, shall we say, less than rigorous. Very little is proved by the fact that Christmas takes place at roughly the same time as Saturnalia and several European solstice holidays (not to mention Hanukkah and Sanghamitta Day!). A midwinter feast is not a terribly original idea and it is quite possible that Christmas and Saturnalia both began in the Roman Empire and were still entirely distinct. That Christmas existed in the same time periods and cultures as pagan holidays may suggest associations, but it does not prove them.

Another idea in need of debunking is the notion that anything used as a symbol by pagans is forever a “pagan symbol.” Among my favorite instances of this are the Advent wreath, supposedly pagan because it is a circle and circles are a pagan symbol for eternity, and the Christmas Tree, which reputedly has its antecedent in pagan use of evergreens as symbols of life and fertility.

Part of the fallacy in this is the evident assumption that anything pagan is by definition anti-Christian. And this assumption is false; the divide between Christian and pagan may be large but it is not total. It is further obvious, as soon as you think it through, that the circle as a symbol for eternity and the evergreen as a symbol for life aren’t derived from some intrinsically pagan belief. They are derived from the nature of the things and from the universal cast of the human mind. A circle is endless, like eternity; an evergreen tree is living green when everything else is dead brown and gray. Pagans turned them into symbols before Christians did; there were, after all, pagans before there were Christians. But that does not make the symbols false or bad.

Another part of the fallacy, and perhaps the most significant part for this discussion, is that symbols change with culture. It’s likely that pagans had, in evergreen and holly, associations that Christians do not. It’s possible that certain Christmas rituals were adapted, long ago, from customs with pagan religious meaning. And so what? Who has those associations or cares for those meanings now?

And here we reach the confused tenses. Though I’ve never seen a compelling historical case for it, perhaps Christmas was pagan. It still wouldn’t mean that Christmas is pagan. No one can imagine that, if an ancient Roman were sucked through a time portal to our modern Christmas, he would say, “Why, it’s the Saturnalia!!!” Things change, sometimes beyond recognition. Their meanings change. Consider the symbols of Christmas – whether snowflakes and reindeer and Santa, or angels and the manger and the star – and it is plain that neither Saturn nor the sun-gods have anything to do with it.

What matters is not what Christmas was centuries and millenia ago, but what it is today.

So Merry Christmas.