The moment when spectacle turns to story in Star Wars. (image: Lucasfilms)

The moment when spectacle turns to story in Star Wars. (image: Lucasfilms)

When I was a college senior, my friends and I walked into a movie theater near campus and sat down and had our brains blown open by the first 3 minutes of Star Wars. I will never forget the impact of that genius opening: first, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, then, in silence, those now iconic words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” As a reader of fairy and folktales, those words alone were enough to arrest my attention. But next – you know what comes next  – the title card and John Williams’ triumphant opening chords over the long crawl sliding into the distance. Then finally, gloriously, the slow pan down the star field to a moon, another moon, and a planet’s vast limb filling the bottom of the screen. Then a small ship shoots overhead, pursued by a larger ship that keeps growing large and larger and impossibly larger – until it fills the screen. And the story begins.

Seeing those astonishing 3 minutes on a big screen is still unique in my movie-going experience, even after 40 years. Read More…

Samuel L Jackson Margot Robbie Alexander Skarsgard in The Legend of Tarzan

Williams, Jane and Tarzan try to figure out if the village they’re in is real or green screen. (All images: Warner Bros)

Assuming you like action adventure movies to begin with, whether or not you enjoy The Legend of Tarzan depends at least partly on how much history you want in your historical period adventures. Tarzan adventures are usually set in an entirely mythical Africa, so the advance detail about The Legend of Tarzan that intrigued me the most was that it is set during King Leopold of Belgium’s genocidal colonial occupation of the Congo. (If you want just one reason why Africans in particular and people of color in general really dislike European and American colonialism, look up the history of the Congo Free State some time. It will make you sick.) Even better, one of the main characters is a fictional version of a real black American historian, George Washington Williams, who went to Africa and Europe in the 1880’s specifically to expose the Belgian atrocities.

Taken just as a period adventure and an addition to the Tarzan mythos, Legend is far more entertaining than I expected it to be (admittedly, my expectations were not especially high). Alexander Skarsgard is taciturn and intense as the resocialized “ape man,” and his co-stars hold their own: Margot Robbie’s strong-willed Jane, working almost successfully against her character’s inevitable damseling; Christoph Waltz’s creepily ambitious mastermind of the Congo exploitation; and Samuel L Jackson playing Williams as his most popular screen persona, by turns smartass, kickass, and deeply humane. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | July 6, 2016

Destroying Outdated Female Stereotypes in SF

While following a Facebook thread on women in Hollywood, I came across this excellent post on the blog Black Girl Nerds. In it, guest blogger Jahkotta Lewis talks about the evolution of women in screen SF and gives a great list of her favorite badass SF females. Here’s a taste:

I grew up watching television in the 80s, an era that portrayed women on the big screen as damsels in distress, sexy vamps, or alpha bitches that needed a good screw to chill them out. Women weren’t showcased for their brains, but were glorified for their bodies or their ability to elevate their male counterparts to stardom…

In the last few decades, there’ve been significant improvements in the portrayal of women on the silver screen. Shows like How to Get Away With Murder, Eureka, and Jessica Jones paint us as complicated, intelligent characters with narratives that are so enriching that they’ve basically helped coin the phrase, “Netflix and chill.”
We still have a long way to go in terms of providing empowered characters that don’t depend on their sexuality to have value and who can function on a level that isn’t peripheral.

Read the rest here:

And in case you need a refresher on the overall problem of “strong female characters” on screen, including the industry context, here’s a 4 minute video summary by vlogger Justin Dennis on Everyday Feminism, that’s one of my favorite short statements on the topic:

If you’ve read good stuff recently on the evolution of female characters in SF/F, please share a link in the comments.

Posted by: kshayes513 | August 2, 2015

YA or not YA: a matter of themes

HP6D-06331r (L-r) ALAN RICKMAN as Professor Severus Snape, EMMA WATSON as Hermione Granger, RUPERT GRINT as Ron Weasley, DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter and MAGGIE SMITH as Professor Minerva McGonagall in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

My version of ideal character balance: Lots more Snape and McGonagall, lots less teen angst

YA bores me. There. I’ve said it.

It didn’t always bore me. And I wish I’d read more of it when I was younger, because YA science fiction and fantasy includes a lot of stories I would have enjoyed if I had come across them when I was in my 20s.

I know a lot of people who read and love YA throughout their lives, and many who write it. But for me, an adult of near grandmother age, it’s rare to find YA that even starts to engage my full attention. (Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels and Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore series are the only new YA books in many years that have achieved that.) I like individual teenagers, but I don’t want to spend all my time in teenage society listening to teenage problems from a teenage point of view.

When I realized this, I also realized why I had become bored with worlds and story arcs I’ve been working in for a long time. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | May 16, 2015

“Ghost Noir:” Favorite New Writer Daniel José Older

Daniel Jose Older's Half Resurrection Blues is from Penguin

Daniel Jose Older’s Half Resurrection Blues is from Penguin

Is “ghost noir” a genre? Apparently it is, and if that’s what Daniel José Older writes, I love it.

I’ve met Daniel and heard him speak twice at Boston area cons in recent years, and I’m happy to say I own autographed copies of both his books of original fiction. I’m even happier to hear he’s got another novel coming out. Gawker has just published an interview with him.

This little excerpt about his approach to creating the world and the characters is probably at least half of why I like his stories so much.

“The concept of an “inbetweener” reads very similarly to the concept of a double-consciousness, like a two worlds lived and perceived experience of people of color. Is that something that you were going for?”

“Oh, absolutely. I was really interested in talking about the experiential level of it and the emotional level of it, more so than trying to create a construct where the living people equal the whites or and the dead people are people of color or vice-versa. That’s not interesting to me, because that’s a very facile way of approaching a larger analogy. More so, I was thinking about my own experience of being half white and half Latino, and sometimes passing for white—being a very light-skinned Latino—but being very aware of what those things mean in moving through my life in the city and my vocation.”

Cultures rubbing against each other – whether its 2 cultures within a story, or the culture of the characters rubbing against the culture of the reader – to me, that’s the most fascinating aspect of worldbuilding.

Who’s your favorite writer for creating cultures that rub against each other in believable ways?


The headline on Kate Elliot’s recent post is “Writing Women Characters as Human Beings.” Since I’ve never wondered how to write women characters, I started to read as a curiosity – what answer will she give to what has always seemed to me a rather ignorant question?

I realize, though, that for many men who are novice writers, it is a legitimate question. And that is thanks to a global culture which almost universally portrays women as some other kind of being than men, and less than men in almost every way. In media storytelling, we now have statistical studies showing that women appear far less often than men, and that when they appear, they are nearly always defined by a relationship to a man – sister, mother, lover, wife, co-worker or sidekick. And that’s when they’re more than just background, object of sexual desire or MacGuffin.

Elliot starts from those limited stereotypical roles and shows how the confused apprentice writer might start thinking about female characters to break out of the stereotypes. But this essay goes way beyond writing female characters. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | December 21, 2014

Watching The Hobbit and Kissing Middle Earth Good-bye

Should The Hobbit have been 3 movies? Almost certainly not. But not for the reasons most people give.

(Spoiler warning: this is not a “should you go see it?” review. This is a spoiler heavy analysis of whether and why The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies succeeds as a movie and as an adaptation of Tolkien. If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book, continue at your own risk.)

They may be pretty, but they're not main characters.  Image: New LIne

They may be pretty, but they’re not main characters. All images: New Line

Many critics talk about the book of The Hobbit as a “slight” little story. They’re wrong, fooled perhaps by the tone of Victorian children’s story whimsy that Tolkien uses in much of it. I always thought that at least 2 movies were doable, partly because of the book’s length (300 pages and 19 chapters is hardly a “little” story).  And even more, because of the real reason The Hobbit has endured. We don’t come back to it for the quaintness of the hobbit world, nor cherish it because Bilbo Baggins is flummoxed by having an unexpected Dwarf tea party, or learning to “burgle” a stone troll. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | December 9, 2014

Ursula K Le Guin at the National Book Awards

Last month at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin was honored with the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters, presented to her by Neil Gaiman. You probably know this already, unless you’ve been entirely ignoring any news lately, because video of Le Guin’s acceptance speech not only went viral, but made it into all the mainstream headlines as well.

Neil Gaiman presents Ursula K Le Guin with her medal. Image: National Book Foundation (screencap from video)

Neil Gaiman presents Ursula K Le Guin with her medal.     Image: National Book Foundation (screencap from video)

In his introduction, Gaiman talks about imitating authors as a young writer, and trying to imitate Le Guin and not being able to. This is immediately followed by Le Guin demonstrating exactly why he and everyone else has trouble imitating her. She gives an acceptance speech that says more in 4 minutes than most people can say in an hour, on topics that almost anyone else wouldn’t risk at an awards ceremony. Read More…

Giant cat or tiny person? Only the worldbuilder knows - for now.

Giant cat or tiny person? Only the worldbuilder knows – for now.

This week, io9’s Charlie Jane Anders has an excellent essay on the worldbuilding elements she considers raise worldbuilding from good and serviceable, to great and memorable.

Here’s a little taste from the beginning of the essay:

“…I’ve been obsessing about worldbuilding a lot lately, and trying to figure out what the difference is between good, decent, craftspersonlike worldbuilding — and great worldbuilding. And here’s what I decided:

Good worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters see every day, and the things that they notice about their environment.

Great worldbuilding shows you the stuff your characters don’t see, either because they take it for granted, or because they’ve trained themselves not to notice something unpleasant.”

She goes on to explore this with a discussion of the “unreliable narrator” and some of the character and cultural qualities that can make characters oblivious to important aspects of their world. Read More…

Posted by: kshayes513 | September 23, 2014

Remembering Madeleine L’Engle and Banned Books

Still one of the most challenged books. My original edition hardcover is now about 50 and autographed.

Still one of the most challenged books. My original edition hardcover is now about 50 and autographed.

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to take a couple of weekend writing workshops with Madeleine L’Engle. From her I gained insights, techniques and mental disciplines that are now so integral to my writing processes, that I can’t even separate them out as things I learned then.

Also, during one of those workshops, she told us a story about encountering a would-be book banner. (I’m sure she told this story many times during her life. This is how I remember it after nearly 30 years, so my apologies if others have heard it with different details.)

The woman approached Madeleine to complain about the language in A Wrinkle in Time, and told her exactly how many times certain objectionable words appear. Read More…

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