Lonely Hearts of Star Wars

The Conclusion of the Skywalker Arc

I’m going to assume that by now, everybody who wants to has seen Star Wars IX, The Rise of Skywalker (“TROS”).  So we should now be able to discuss the plot freely, though I will hang out a

Spoiler Alert!

just in case.

Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker posterAnd we are now in a position, after forty-odd years, to reach conclusions about the story as a whole.  We can consider the main storyline or central arc of Star Wars complete.  That universe is already expanding (for the second time) into side stories and prequels; and it’s quite possible that we’ll see more stories set after the end of TROS, even including some of the same main characters.  (Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing about four separate spinoffs from the ending of TROS—for reasons discussed below—as long as there are NO MORE DEATH STARS.)  But it appears we’ve seen a conclusion to the main story.

There are, of course, a lot of things one might say about the nine-movie saga.  The one I want to consider here has to do with love stories.

Star Wars and Romance

Star Wars isn’t primarily a romance.  But adventure stories, particularly of the swashbuckling sort that Star Wars set out to revive, frequently do end up with a pair of characters getting together romantically.  Sometimes more than once; I’m looking at you, Indiana Jones.  Even James Bond movies always end with a sex scene.

So it’s not unreasonable to expect a sweeping space opera like this to include, as a minor element, at least some romantic achievements.  Do you recall how many successful romances, in the sense of “happy ever after” (“HEA”) endings, we see in the entire Star Wars saga?

None.

Not one romantic combination in the entire series leaves us relatively content with a couple’s life story, despite the number of such combinations that are teased over the course of the movies.  This fact strikes me as remarkable, and it’s puzzling how to account for it.

The Original Trilogy

The original Star Wars movie (the title later changed, for those of us too young to remember, to A New Hope) did suggest a conventional romantic development—although with some ambiguity.

Luke & Leia kiss on Death StarLuke is recruited into the Rebellion through seeing an image of a beautiful damsel in distress.  He’s clearly infatuated with her (I always enjoyed the fact that even in stormtrooper armor, you can see the bashfulness in Luke’s tilt of the head when he finally meets Leia in her prison cell).  Just before they swing across a pit, she gives him a quick kiss “for luck.”

And then there’s Han.  Though he starts out merely kidding Luke about taking an interest in Leia (“Do you think a princess and a guy like me—”), by the end of the movie, one imagines the interest could become real.  The three of them exchange characteristic glances at the final ceremony, showing a certain affection, but leaving it up in the air whether a genuine romance will develop in either case.

When the first movie became a howling success and Lucas decided to continue the trilogy, he had to pick a side.  Empire gives us a pretty straightforward Han-Leia romance, albeit one interrupted by a cliffhanger.  (“I love you.”  “I know.”)  In Return of the Jedi (“ROTJ”), the writers terminate the competing Luke-Leia possibility permanently by making them siblings.  To all intents and purposes, the finale of ROTJ includes a traditional HEA conclusion, in which we can expect a successful marriage between Leia and Han.

Nobody else in the original trilogy has a romance going on.  Lando doesn’t get a girl, at least not onscreen.  It would be entertaining to imagine a Madame Yoda (especially now that Baby Yoda is a worldwide favorite), but we don’t see that either.  But at least we did have Han and Leia.  From 1986 through 2015, we could assume that the series had achieved one HEA ending.

The Prequel Trilogy

A romance is in some degree central to the plot of Episodes I-III.  Anakin Skywalker’s troubled attraction to Padmé Amidala is a major motivator in his descent into the dark side.

Star Wars - Attack of the Clones posterOne of the things for which I admire the prequel trilogy is a convincing depiction of how a basically decent, if unstable, person can gradually be corrupted into an evildoer.  There are a number of factors involved, some of which could be attributed to “the system.”  I’ve never been convinced there was a good reason for the Jedi order to take children away from their parents when barely toddlers, or to forbid them to marry.  And the fate of Anakin’s mother Shmi is another strong driver.  But his fixation on Padmé is where we see his “Face-Heel Turn” working itself out in action.

For a nine-year-old, the boy Anakin is already oddly focused on Padmé in The Phantom Menace (episode I).  Attack of the Clones (episode II) lays out a burgeoning love affair between them as young adults, culminating in a secret marriage at the end.  Unfortunately, this star-crossed romance is handled ineptly by the movie-makers, IMHO; there is absolutely no chemistry between the characters on-screen.  Nonetheless, the plot requires us to consider this a compelling romance, in order to set up the third episode.

In Revenge of the Sith, Anakin is besieged by nightmares of Padmé dying in childbirth.  His desire to protect her makes him more and more obsessed with acquiring forbidden powers to save her life.  In a well-managed ironic turn, this obsession takes him down a path that ends with Anakin killing Padmé himself.

Given the backstory we already knew from the middle (original) trilogy, it was clear that the Padmé-Anakin romance was fated to fail.  Anakin would become Darth Vader, and something was bound to happen to Padmé, since the children (Luke and Leia) were raised separately by foster parents.  So no HEA for the main characters was in store.  While there are various side characters involved—most notably Obi-Wan Kenobi, who seems to have faithfully carried out the marriage proscription by never having a romance at all—none of them contributed anything to the tally of Star Wars love stories.

Deconstruction

When the new third trilogy opened, the writers of the first movie, The Force Awakens (episode VII, “TFA”), made a crucial decision:  to sour the one romance standing by undermining the ending of Return of the Jedi (VI).  In the intervening years, Han and Leia’s son Ben (Kylo Ren) has turned to the dark side.  Lucasfilms might have depicted this tragedy as pulling his parents closer together.  Instead, it apparently shattered their marriage.

Han and Leia meet in The Force AwakensTFA shows Han and Leia meeting each other again after a long separation, in which both of them have gone back to their earlier selves.  Leia is leading yet another rebellion, while Han has returned to pointless smuggling.  The characters have regressed rather than progressing.  The character arcs we thought had been completed in the original trilogy have been reversed.

More important for our purposes here, Han and Leia’s love affair in retrospect seems limited and bitter.  One hopes they had happy years together while Ben was a child.  But we don’t see any of that.  And any hopes for a long-term return to a life together are eliminated when Ben kills Han.

One must admit this outcome is realistic.  It could happen that way.  But it’s also unsatisfying, in a particularly frustrating way:  it undoes the happy ending of the middle trilogy.  This is a classic fault in sequels—to negate or deconstruct what the characters achieved in the previous episodes.  And that fault occurs in the Star Wars saga in more than one way.

We might expect that at least some of the numerous new characters introduced in the sequel trilogy might find love.  But while the writers tease us with all sorts of possibilities, they never deliver on any of them.

Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker, final group hugThus, TFA suggests that Rey and Finn will end up a couple.  But they don’t.  In episode VIII, The Last Jedi (“TLJ”), Finn is involved with another new character, Rose Tico, who at least is clearly in love with him.  Nothing comes of it.  The final episode, TROS, hints that Finn might become involved with still another woman, Jannah, who like Finn is a former stormtrooper.  But there’s no suggestion at the end that they’re actually going to get together.

Meanwhile, we keep getting hints that Rey is eventually going to get together with Kylo Ren, the redeemed Ben Skywalker.  They are supposed to be a “Force dyad,” whatever that means.  But Ben gives up his life to save Rey, as they share one kiss.  There’s thus no real Rey-Kylo romance (fortunately, in my view; I never liked Kylo anyway).  Nor does Rey get together with anyone else.  She doesn’t have to; she’s a great character regardless.  But it’s one more romantic potential that came to nothing.

Poe Dameron, the third main character of the sequel trilogy, finally gets a possible soul mate in the last episode.  This is new character Zorii Bliss, an armored fighter with a grudge against him from earlier events.  He actually extends an invitation to her at the end—and she turns him down.

It’s not impossible that some of these tenuous relationships might turn out to develop into something later.  I wouldn’t mind seeing Poe and Zorii continue their prickly antagonism into some kind of romance; or Finn getting together with somebody; or Rey having further adventures, in the course of which she might meet that special someone.  But as far as the nine-movie main storyline goes, we’re left with nothing.

Why Don’t Fools Fall In Love?

There’s nothing wrong with an adventure story that doesn’t contain a romance.  But as I noted above, going through nine episodes in this genre without a happily-ever-after is a little peculiar.

Illustration for Edmond Hamilton's The Star Kings

Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings

Look at classic space opera for a minute.  The archetypal space operas, E.E. Smith’s Lensman and Skylark series, each include more than one satisfactory romance.  Jack Williamson’s pulp-style epics, such as the Legion of Space series, generally gave the stalwart hero an irresistibly beautiful woman to rescue and marry.  Edmond Hamilton, credited by Wikipedia with creating the space-opera genre along with Smith, often did the same, as in The Star Kings.  On a more popular level, Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers had their Dales and Wilmas.

Of course this isn’t a universal rule.  Early SF authors could be so focused on imaginary technology and adventure that romance wasn’t a consideration.  For example, John W. Campbell, a close competitor to Smith with galaxy-spanning adventure tales in the thirties (later a formative editor in the field), not only eschewed romance but seldom even included women in stories like The Black Star Passes.

Why were romances common in old-time space operas?  A HEA ending was part of the reward for the hero, who “gets the girl.”  (Or vice versa, in principle.)  More than that, I think, the preservation and fulfillment of beauty and love is part of what save-the-world stories are trying to achieve; they show vividly what is at stake.  Thus a romantic commitment, or even a wedding, is a natural part of the celebratory ending of an upbeat adventure story.

By and large, then, one tends to associate colorful, sweeping space opera with a romantic element, even if it’s not very sophisticated or central to the story.  So why is that factor absent from this nine-episode extravaganza?  All the lonely Star Wars people:  where do they all come from?

We can ask this “why” question in two ways.  Internally, from a narrative standpoint, what is it about this universe that seems to discourage HEA endings?  And externally, from the writers’ point of view, why didn’t they put some in?  Of course, we can only speculate about either matter.  (If anyone knows of an explanation from the screenwriters or showrunners that would shed light on the latter question, I’d love to hear about it.)

In terms of the narrative itself, maybe the answer is that the Star Wars universe just isn’t hospitable to happy endings.  It’s a very violent world, for one thing.  Slavery on the outer planets, the ascendancy of tyrannies on the more civilized worlds.  When you come right down to it, how many people do we see living happy, contented lives anywhere in the Star Wars ’verse?

Star Wars awards ceremonyThis cheerlessness is itself an odd thing, given the way the series started out.  The relatively lighthearted original trilogy, and especially A New Hope taken by itself, gave us the sense that once the Death Star was destroyed, the galaxy could prosper in some kind of freedom.  But the more detail additional episodes added to the background, the grimmer the universe seemed to become.  In the end, post-Episode IX, it just doesn’t seem like a very nice place to live.

In terms of the authors’ intent, it seems to me that changes of directing or authorial handling may have taken a toll.  The J.J. AbramsRian Johnson team that handled the final trilogy is a different ‘voice’ than that of Lucas’ original trilogy.  Johnson’s middle episode of the last trilogy, TLJ (VIII), seems to have devoted itself deliberately to deconstructing all the expectations created in TFA (VII).  And Abrams’ partial re-reversal in TROS (IX) didn’t save the love affairs.  Apparently the third-trilogy directors simply didn’t want a HEA romance.

But why was that?  I don’t know, of course, but I think part of the answer is simply that times have changed—again.

The original A New Hope in 1977 was a blockbuster precisely because it broke a long string of jaded, cynical movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It invited us to enjoy a kind of upbeat adventure story that had long been out of fashion.  And that atmosphere was one in which a relatively light, upbeat romance could also flourish.

But any romance in the prequel trilogy, as noted above, was bound to be downbeat.  And the sequel trilogy directors/writers seem to have felt that audiences today wouldn’t buy a sentimental HEA ending—or to have been so bent on defeating expectations that they were unwilling to close the deal on any romantic interest, because a romantic happy ending is something we expect.

Personally, I think the sequel trilogy would have been better off with one or two successful romances, out of the several possibilities.  But that isn’t the story we’ve got.  So, until someone decides to remake the whole Star Wars saga from scratch—and at the current turnover rate of remakes, maybe that’ll start in another ten years or so—we’ll have to enjoy Star Wars for virtues other than those of the happily ever after.

The Phantom’s Lighting Contractor

I never saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical The Phantom of the Opera on stage.  But I am fond of the 2004 movie.  I can’t compare the two formats, so I’ll have to duck quietly out the back door if people want to debate their relative merits.  But the movie does bring up an entertaining, if minor, point.

Phantom Candles

If you’re not familiar with the story of Webber’s musical, check the Wikipedia link at the top of this post.  What we need to know here is that around 1870, a reclusive villain haunts the Paris Opéra House; he’s obsessed with a young singer named Christine Daae, who is in turn mesmerized by the Phantom’s music; and the partially-masked man lives in extensive caverns under the opera house, which form the backdrop for scenes in the movie.

When I say “caverns,” you may be picturing some dark, gloomy retreat.  Not at all.  The Phantom’s lair is not only pretty plush; it’s brilliantly lit by what seem to be thousands of candles.

Phantom & Christine with many candles

The Phantom’s well-lit lair

My family was watching the movie one time and started speculating about exactly who manages these candles.  To begin with, someone has to have lighted them all before the Phantom spirits Christine away to his hideout.  Did the Phantom himself spend a couple of hours going around with a Bic lighter beforehand?  It’s not as if he has a crew of minions to do it for him.  The Phantom is strictly a one-man operation.

Nor is it enough simply to turn a light on, as might be the case for, say, a gas lamp.  Candles burn down and have to be replaced.  One imagines the Phantom singing the languorous lyrics of “The Music of the Night” while breaking off every few lines to change out a guttering candle for a fresh one.  It would kind of ruin the effect.

It gets worse.  Where do all the candles come from?  Even if we assume the mystery man can afford them (he demands regular protection money from the opera in exchange for not killing people), remember that this is a secret hideout.  If a big lorry pulled up outside the cellar doors every week—“Order of 5,000 candles for Mr. P.”—someone would eventually notice.

Of course, The Phantom isn’t exactly a model of realism, and we don’t begrudge the producers another minor lapse in logic in exchange for the visual spectacle.  It’s an example of what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic”: the plot holes that occur to you half an hour after the movie is over, as you’re rooting around in your refrigerator.

Still, it’s surprising how common this particular anomaly is.

Richelieu’s Firepots

In Disney’s 1993 version of The Three Musketeers (still my favorite version), the primary villain is Cardinal Richelieu, hammed up to the hilt by Tim Curry.  He too has an underground lair:  a dungeon somewhere near the palace, which can only be reached by rowing a boat across a subterranean lake.

The path to the dungeons is lighted by plenty of torches; no doubt the Cardinal’s numerous henchmen can take care of those.  But in addition, there are firepots spaced strategically around the lake, presumably with wood or coal feeding their bonfires.

Cardinal Richelieu's underground lake, with firepots

Cardinal Richelieu’s underground lake

I suppose there must be minions whose sole job is to row around the lake, periodically replenishing the firepots’ fuel.  And I expect they are under strict orders to skedaddle off the lake whenever the Cardinal himself comes to take a boat across, lest their mundane tasks interfere with Richelieu’s august progress.  Still, it seems a rather elaborate, not to mention wasteful, setup.

It might well be more economical, instead, for Richelieu to hire a contractor to come in and handle the job.  That method would solve the minionless Phantom’s problem as well.  Clearly, there’s a market niche here in providing this key service for villains.

But why shouldn’t heroes also get in on the game?

Carroll’s Oil Troughs

In National Treasure (2004), Our Heroes spend most of the film searching for a fabulous hoard of valuable artifacts originally collected by the Knights Templar, passed on to the Masons, and eventually hidden by Charles Carroll, one of the Founding Fathers of America.  They finally discover this treasure in—you guessed it—an underground cavern, this one under Trinity Church in New York City.

This vast array of shining gold would be unimpressive if it were lighted by a single torch.  Fortunately, Our Heroes find that the designers of this particular display hall have run troughs filled with oil down from the entry and across the whole expanse.  All Nicolas Cage has to do is touch his torch to the basin of oil at the top, and flames race along the entire network of open tubes, providing them, and us, with a wonderful view of the goodies.

National Treasure treasure room

Treasure cavern in National Treasure

This neat bit of eighteenth-century construction still works perfectly after all these years, reminding us of the kind of Durable Deathtraps Indiana Jones is always running into; except that this isn’t a deathtrap, just a convenient lighting effect.  At least we don’t have to imagine fires that have been burning continuously for two and a half centuries.  We needn’t worry about plausibility as long as we don’t wonder why the oil hasn’t evaporated or leaked away long since.

If those fridge thoughts do occur to us, however, clearly the answer has to be that Carroll got in touch with the Phantom’s lighting contractors to renew the oil supply every so often.  The movie has already presented us with several secret societies functioning for centuries; what’s one more?

Conclusion

This particulat subtrope seems to occur mainly in the movies, since it’s primarily a matter of visual spectacle.  A verbal description can more easily skate around the problems, though it still wouldn’t be quite as satisfying to write about the wonderful sight of a vast treasure if it were almost entirely shrouded in gloom.

It’s primarily in a historical context that we need the lighting contractor’s services.  A story set in the present or future would face less daunting challenges if it merely had to explain long-lived electric lighting rather than candles or other fires.  And of course it’s in underground settings that we tend to need the light most.

Athos with sword and torch (Three MusketeersA little stretching of the imagination was always needed when visualizing exploration, not to mention swordfighting and such, in underground areas without an obvious source of light.  One could stipulate that Dungeons and Dragons adventurers were carrying torches in one hand while wielding swords in the other—but at best that always seemed like something only a master swordsman could pull off.  I was rather relieved when the players in my D&D campaign came up with the idea of casting Continual Light spells on coins that they could hang around their necks.  The wildly shifting shadows as they darted around in a melee, lanyards swinging, would be headachy to imagine; but at least they could get rid of the dratted torches.

What really justifies (and I use the term loosely) these candles and firepots is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Cool:  we’re willing to grant some logical leeway to a storyteller to allow a really impressive effect.

But I’m still tempted to add to the traditional Evil Overlord List an additional bit of advice:  If you want cool lighting effects, and the technology level is such that it’s not just a matter of making sure your utility bills are paid up, look up the Phantom’s lighting contractor.

Describing the Indescribable

Showing the Unshowable

In our last exciting episode, we noted that fantasy and science fiction stories often seek to transcend the boundaries of human experience—to show us things beyond our ordinary understanding.  Take it further:  the author may wish to present things that are beyond all human understanding.  How do we get across to human readers, or viewers, something that we’ve just postulated as indescribable or incomprehensible?

We’re not asking whether there can be things the human intellect or senses cannot grasp.  Kant or Aquinas, for example, would have rather complex answers to that question.  Rather, we’re focusing here on how to put the ungraspable into a story.

Beyond the Senses

Doctor Strange casts a spellThere are plenty of things that are impossible, but easy to describe; we can detail how they appear to our senses, though explaining how they can actually occur is another matter.  For example, magic spells cast by Doctor Strange frequently manifest as flat discs suspended in space, generally with symbols or letters inscribed.  Both the comics and (using CGI) the movies can show us these with no problem.  That’s not what we’re interested in here.

What’s intriguing is a sensory experience different from any we normally experience (or, perhaps, can experience).  In James Schmitz’s The Witches of Karres, our hero Captain Pausert, who is just beginning to exhibit witch powers, detects an extra-universal entity called a “vatch.”  His young witch companions have referred to “relling” a vatch, but this is the first time Pausert himself has had the experience:

The Witches of Karres, coverIt was something like smelling a grumble, or hearing dark green, or catching a glimpse of a musky scent.  As Goth had suggested, it was not to be described in any terms that made sense.  But it was quite unmistakable.  He knew exactly what he was doing—he was relling a vatch.  (ch. 9, p. 250)

I tried this same technique of combining nonsensical sensory references to suggest something magical about spell-casting music in my short story The Green Song.

While Schmitz chooses to present this supernormal power as “magic,” such special powers can just as well be described in science-fiction terms (often as “psionic” powers), which is how we normally use words like “telepathy” and “telekinesis.”  Though it’s worth noting that fantasy characters like Gandalf and Galadriel can “speak mind to mind” as well—they just don’t call it telepathy.

I’ve just finished The Pursuit of the Pankera, a recently-discovered earlier version of Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast which takes off in a quite different direction.  In chapter 38, one character, Deety Burroughs Carter, meets a Lensman from E.E. Smith’s Lensman series and tries to describe the famously indescribable Lens itself:  “The nearest I can think of is an enormous fire opal with a light behind it—but take that and cube it.  It’s all colors and the colors keep changing and the lights come from the Lens itself and dance like a color organ but brighter and more alive—and I still haven’t described it.”

Heinlein’s method is instructive.  In this brief passage, we start with a known image—fire opal—and are told to extend it in an unspecfied way (“cube it”).  The second sentence is a run-on, piling image on image in a way that suggests an inability to capture the item in any single description.  She finishes by apologizing that the result is still inadequate (“I still haven’t described it”).

An extraordinary experience like Schmitz’s “relling” is neutral—just an unfamiliar new sense.  But once we’ve postulated the non-natural, it’s easy to transition to the “unnatural,” in the pejorative sense of the term.

The Colour Out of Space, magazine illustrationI recently revisited H.P. Lovecraft’s short story The Colour Out of Space (1927)—the only Lovecraft piece I’ve ever actually read.  According to the story, a meteorite arrives on earth in 1882, in the Arkham area (there’s a reason why the lunatic asylum in Gotham City is called the “Arkham Asylum”).  Weird growths emerge from the meteorite and transform plants, animals, rocks, water, and humans in horrible ways.  The creatures so affected are characterized by an unearthly color, first noticed in globules in the meteorite:  “The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the metetor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossbile to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all” (p. 150 in the anthology I have).  Skunk cabbages infected by this influence are described unpleasantly:  “. . . they held strange colours that could not be put into any words.  Their shapes were monstrous, and the horse had snorted at an odour which struck Stephen as wholly unprecedented.”

The notion of extra colors that can be seen with ordinary vision is dubious, given what we now know about neurobiology and the electromagnetic spectrum.  But the notion does communicate a sense of the weird and unnatural.  That’s what Lovecraft was driving at, according to Wikipedia—“to create an entity that was truly alien.”

More important, Lovecraft, like other horror writers of the pulp era, was quick to treat the incomprehensible as evil, or at least destructive to humans.  If you’re writing horror, I suppose that comes naturally.  But it isn’t a necessary conclusion.  Something not naturally perceivable could be neutral, as in Karres—or it could also be incompehensibly good.

The Extraordinary and the Supernatural

An extra sense or a psionic talent would be beyond ordinary human capabilities, but not beyond the range of nature itself.  Those powers needn’t be good or evil—just neutral, like most human abilities, able to be used for good or bad purposes.  Bur we’re especially likely to run into the indescribable when we speak of the supernatural.

The supernatural tends to have an evaluative charge, so to speak:  either good or evil in itself.  Lovecraft’s unnatural horrors tend in that direction; he doesn’t describe them as theological, exactly, but they’re definitely horrible (at least to humans).  Something supernally good, however, may be just as difficult to describe.

At the end of C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, two eldila—planetary angels of a sort—ask Ransom, the main character, in what form in which they should appear to do honor to the new human masters of the planet.  Their first attempts aren’t very successful:

A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom.  Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void.  “Stop it . . . stop it,” he yelled, and the scene cleared.  He gazed round blinking on the field of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that ths kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations.  (ch. 16, p. 197-98)

Lewis handles the incomprehensible by referring to some familiar things, but placing them in unexpected or incoherent contexts (darting pillars, with eyes; bird imagery and pure geometry).  He also uses Ransom’s reaction, as Lovecraft used the horse’s reaction to an “unprecedented” smell, to evoke the strangeness and unbearableness of the experience.

A Wind in the Door, coverMadeleine L’Engle is also talking about angels, more or less, in The Wind in the Door (sequel to A Wrinkle in Time) when she introduces a being called Proginoskes.  The human characters first see—

wings, it seemed like hundreds of wings, spreading, folding, stretching—
and eyes
how many eyes can a drive of dragons have?
and small jets of flame

On a closer look, Meg reacts this way:  “She had the feeling that she never saw all of it at once, and which of all the eyes could she meet? merry eye, wise eyes, ferocious eyes, kitten eyes, dragon eyes, opening and closing . . .”  (ch. 2-3, pp. 53-54)  Again, some familiar things are mentioned, but in unexpected relationships.  The notion that “she never saw all of it at once” acknowledges the inadequacy of her perception, along with the baffled question about which eyes to meet.  (The cover illustration shown on the Wikipedia page attempts to show in pictorial form what Meg is describing.)

These examples occur in a theological context, but they’re not good or evil themselves.  Lewis and L’Engle are showing us that creatures of a different kind may be beyond our perception.  But in some cases there emerges a sense that the very goodness of something may exceed our ordinary knowledge.

Lewis’s The Great Divorce adopts the fanciful notion that souls from Purgatory or Hell (or both) may be allowed a “vacation” in the lower realms of heaven.  Our narrator, one such soul, finds that heaven is not the vaporous or cloudy region we sometimes imagine; on the contrary, it is more solid and more real than lower things.  Blades of grass are so solid that  don’t bend under the feet of the visiting shades (ch. 3, p. 27); the rain so substantial that it penetrates them like bullets; the flowers are hard like diamonds.

The men were as they always had been; as all the men I had known had been perhaps.  It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.  (p. 28)

Simply being in this region causes the narrator’s sensory capacity to expand.

. . . something had happened to my senses so that they were now receiving impressions which would normally exceed their capacity.  On earth, such a waterfall could not have been perceived at all as a whole; it was too big.  Its sound would have been a terror in the wood for twenty miles.  Here, after the first shock, my sensibility ‘took’ both, as a well-built ship takes a huge wave.  I exulted.  (ch. 6, p. 49)

Lewis’s evocation of strangeness here is in the service of a theological point:  he wants to demolish our tendency to think of the spiritual as less real than the solid earth and propose that it is more real.

The Ball and the Cross, coverIn a similar way, G.K. Chesterton suggests that ordinary objects can be subtly transformed for us—can appear to a greater degree as what they are—when we are transformed by the dawn of love.

The difference between this experience and common experiences was analogous to that between waking life and a dream.  Yet he did not feel in the least as if he were dreaming; rather the other way; as waking was more actual than dreaming, so this seemed by another degree more actual than waking itself.  But it was another life altogether, like a cosmos with a new dimension.  (The Ball and the Cross, ch. 9, p. 111)

As Lewis’s Heaven reverses our usual reactions to indicate something more substantial than our ordinary world, Chesterton reverses the usual relationship of dream and reality to imagine a vita nuova more awake than waking.

Finally, attempting to show us complete transcendence at the very end of the Narnian books, Lewis can only fall back on very rough metaphors and, again, a confession of inadequacy.

“’The term is over:  the holidays have begun.  The dream is ended:  this is the morning.’ . . . but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.”  (The Last Battle, final pages)

Where Lovecraft presents the transcendent as unintelligible, repelling our comprehension, these examples rather seek the superintelligible, something that draws our comprehension deeper.

How It’s Done

From these examples, we can throw together a list of some techniques used to evoke the incomprehensible.

  • Deliberately mix sensory references in a way that’s literally nonsensical, so as to suggest an unknown sensation.
  • Astronaut in bedroom, near end of 2001: A Space OdysseyRefer to ordinary objects, but in a surreal sort of way, as in the ending of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.
  • Lead us up to the pinnacle of something that we know, and then point beyond it: the method of “supereminence” that I spoke of last time.
  • Describe people’s reactions to the indescribable thing: horror, exaltation, comfort.  This is particularly appropriate and effective if we’re dealing with supernatural good or evil, as in The Colour Out of Space, or the descent of Venus in That Hideous Strength (ch. 15.1).
  • Acknowledge the insufficiency of our explanation; leave much of the description mysterious and unaccounted-for.

Such methods may be helpful if we want to write about what is beyond description.  They might even be of some use in interpreting our own experience if we should encounter such things ourselves . . . which is never entirely out of the question.

Portraying the Transhuman Character

More Than Human

Kevin Wade Johnson’s comments on my recent post about The Good Place raised a couple of issues worth a closer look.  Here’s one:

Lots of science fiction, and some fantasy, deals with characters who are greater, or more intelligent, or more gifted in some way, than mere humans.  But we the authors and readers are mere humans.  How do we go about showing a character who’s supposed to be more sublime than we can imagine?

It’s one thing to have characters whose capabilities are beyond us.  Superman can leap tall buildings with a single bound; I can’t.  But I can easily comprehend Superman’s doing so.  (I can even see it at the movies.)  On the other hand, if a character is supposed to be so intelligent I can’t grasp their reasoning, or has types of knowledge that are beyond me, that’s harder to represent.  I can simply say so:  “Thorson had an intelligence far beyond that of ordinary men.”  But how can I show it?

Long-Lived Experience

There are a number of ways this can come up.  For example, if a character lived a very long time, would their accumulated experience allow for capabilities, or logical leaps in thinking, beyond what we can learn in our short lives?

I’m thinking of a Larry Niven story—I’m blanking on the name:  maybe one of the “Gil the Arm” stories?—in which a character who appears to be a young woman turns out to be centuries old, and when she drops the deception, she moves with uncanny grace—she doesn’t bump into anything or trip over her own feet, because she’s had that long to train herself in how to move (without the limitations imposed by our bodies’ degeneration from aging).

Of course, a story about long-lived people doesn’t have to take long-lived learning into account.  The depiction of the “Howard Families” in Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough for Love almost seem dedicated to the opposite proposition, that no matter how long we live, we’re basically the same kinds of personalities; we don’t learn much.

Galadriel, radiantIn a similar way, Tolkien’s immortal elves may seem ineffably glorious to us, but their behavior often seems all too human—especially if you read The Silmarillion, where elves make mistakes, engage in treachery, and allow overweening pride to dictate their actions in ways that may surprise those of us familiar only with LotR.  On the other hand, the books and movies do succeed in convincing us that characters like Galadriel and Gandalf are of a stature that exceeds human possibility.

Logic and Language

There are other ways to have transhuman abilities.  As Kevin observes, Niven’s “Protectors” fit the description.  Niven imagines a further stage of human development—something that comes after childhood, adolescence, and adulthood—that we’ve never seen, because when our remote ancestors arrived on Earth from elsewhere, they lacked the plants hosting the symbiotic virus necessary for transition to that final stage.  The “trans-adult” Protectors are stronger, faster, and more durable than ordinary humans.  They also think faster.  Thus Niven shows them as following out a chain of logic with blinding speed to its conclusion, allowing them to act long before regular humans could figure out what to do.  Because this is a matter of speed, not incomprehensible thinking, Niven can depict a Protector as acting in ways that are faster than normal, but are explainable once we sit down and work out the reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes, arena fight sceneA visual analogue is used in the 2009 and 2011 Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr.  Unlike most other treatments of the character, Guy Ritchie’s version supposes that Holmes’ incredible intelligence can be used not only for logical deduction, but to predict with lightning speed how a hand-to-hand combat may develop.  Holmes thus becomes a ninja-like melee fighter, so effective as to confound all opponents.  The movie shows us this by slowing down the process that to Holmes is instantaneous:  we see a very short montage of positions and moves as they would occur, or could occur, before we see Holmes carry out the final “conclusion” of his martial reasoning.  This allows us to appreciate what the quasi-superhuman character is doing and why, without actually having to execute the same process ourselves.

Preternatural intelligence may be more subtle in its effects.  Such a person may, for example, be able to understand things fully from what, to us, would be mere hints and implications.  So, for example, when Isaac Asimov introduces the members of the Second Foundation in his Foundation series, he tells us that their tremendous psychological training allows them to talk among themselves in a manner so concise and compressed that entire paragraphs require only a few words.

Speech as known to us was unnecessary.  A fragment of a sentence amounted almost to long-winded redundancy.  A gesture, a grunt, the curve of a facial line—even a significantly timed pause yielded informational juice.  (Second Foundation, end of chapter 1, “First Interlude,” p. 16)

Second Foundation coverBreaking the fourth wall, Asimov warns us that his account is “about as far as I can go in explaining color to a blind man—with myself as blind as the audience.”  (same page)  He then adroitly avoids showing us any of the actual conversation; instead, he says he’s “freely translating” it into our ordinary language.  This move illustrates one of the classic ways of presenting the incomprehensible in a story:  point out its incomprehensibility and “translate” into something we can understand.  (Note that this is much more easily done in writing than in a visual medium such as TV or the movies.)

A similar technique is used by Poul Anderson in his 1953 novel Brain Wave, which starts with the interesting premise that in certain regions of space, neurons function faster than in others.  When Earth’s natural rotation around the center of the galaxy brings it into a “faster” area, the brains of every creature with a central nervous system speed up, and human beings (as well as other animals) all become proportionately smarter.  Anderson notes that the speech of the transformed humans would be incomprehensible to us and, like Asimov, “translates” it for our convenience.  When a couple of the characters, in a newly invented faster-than-light spaceship, accidentally cross the border back into the “slow zone,” they are unable to understand the controls they themselves designed until the ship’s travel brings them out and lets their intelligence return to its new normal.  (Anderson’s concept may have been the inspiration for the “Zones of Thought” universe later developed in several fascinating stories by Vernor Vinge.)

Showing and Telling

We can glean some general principles from these examples.  If the extraordinary acts don’t actually have to be shown in the medium I’m using, I can simply point to them and tell the reader they’re there.  In a written story, I can say my main character is a world-class violinist without having to demonstrate that level of ability myself.  (Although if I have some experience in that particular art, I’ll be able to provide some realistic details, to help make my claim sound plausible.)  But if the supernormal achievement is something that can be shown in our chosen medium, we have to be able to demonstrate it:  a movie about the great violinist will have to exhibit some pretty masterful violin-playing, or those in the audience who know something about the art will laugh themselves silly.

Flowers For Algernon coverWe should note that there are good and bad ways of telling the audience about a character’s superiority.  In the unforgettable short story “Flowers for Algernon,” which consists entirely of diary entries by Charlie Gordon, the main character, the text vividly shows us the effects of an intelligence-raising treatment on a man of initially lower-than-normal intelligence.  The entries improve so radically in writing competence and understanding that when Charlie describes how his brainpower is beginning to exceed that of ordinary humans, we believe him, because we’re already riding on the curve of rising ability up to our own level that is apparent in the text—a true tour de force of writing.  On the other hand, in the drastically worse movie version, Charly (1968), the screenwriters are reduced to having Charly stand in front of an audience of experts and scornfully dismiss the greatest intellectual achievements from human history—a weak and ineffective technique at best for conveying superiority.

Summary

This quick review of the problem turns up several methods for handling supernormal abilities in a story.

 

  • If the superior ability is intelligible to us ordinary people in the audience—maybe it’s just doing normal things faster—we can have the wiser or super-enabled person explain it to someone less wise: our last post’s Ignorant Interlocutor.
  • If the advantage is mainly a matter of speed, we can slow it down to a speed at which regular people can follow the action.
  • If we can get away without actually showing the ability in question, we may be able to point toward it, or “translate” it into something we can understand, and convincingly tell the audience about it—if we can achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief.
  • If a character is supposed to be, let us say, preternaturally wise, and there’s simply no way to avoid showing that in the dialogue, the best we can do is to evoke the best we can do—have the character be as wise as possible—and imply ‘like this, only more so.’ This method—like “projecting” a line or a curve—is the method of “supereminence,” which is sometimes employed in theological talk about things that are inherently beyond our full understanding.

 

Kicking around this question makes us aware that portraying the more-than-human character is only a special case of a more general problem.  When our stories try to incorporate anything that’s indescribable, incomprehensible, how do we handle that?  Our F&SF stories frequently want to reach out beyond the boundaries of human experience, yet in a tale written for ordinary humans.  We’ll talk about the more general question next time.

The Ignorant Interlocutor

The Convenient Newbie

It helps to have someone to explain things to—especially if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction.

How do we introduce our audience to the world where our story takes place?  It’s something we have to think about even in a normal, contemporary setting.  We have to give a sense of where our characters are and what they’re doing there, even if the answers are as mundane as “middle America” and “going to work on a Monday.”  But this task is much more challenging if the setting is in the far future, or the distant past, or some entirely separate reality as in Game of Thrones.  The same problem applies in some degree in a historical novel, or a tale set in a very different culture.  How can we get readers or viewers acquainted with the milieu if much of it is unfamiliar?

Of course we can simply tell them about a setting directly:  “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .”  But the audience won’t sit still for indefinite amounts of backstory before the main story gets going.  On the other hand, another time-honored F&SF approach is just to throw the reader into the deep end and let them swim.  But that makes for a steep learning curve, trying to absorb a lot of strange peoples and places and customs all at once.  The throw-them-in approach may discourage readers or viewers not by boring them, but by making them scramble to keep up.  Some will enjoy that challenge; but others may be daunted and close the book (or video).

One way to inform the audience is to make one of the lead characters an inexperienced person who doesn’t know much about their own world.  Other characters will have to explain to this person things that they know perfectly well, but that this character is unfamiliar with.  The “ignorant interlocutor” is a convenient stand-in for the reader, making the necessary exposition seem natural.

Some Convenient Examples

Frodo and Gandalf at Bag EndHobbits might have been designed specifically for this role.  The hobbits of the Shire are back-country unsophisticates, living quietly in a little country without much contact with the rest of the world.  Once they’re taken out of their homely environment into the wider world, Gandalf or Aragorn or someone frequently has to explain things to them, helping the audience get acquainted with Tolkien’s vast world and history—or, at least, with those parts that are important to the story.  (At the same time, we should note that Tolkien also uses other forms of exposition that no new writer could get away with nowadays.  The Lord of the Rings actually opens with a sixteen-page Prologue providing background on such essential matters as pipe-weed—followed shortly in Chapter Two by fifteen pages of explanation in which Gandalf instructs Frodo on the challenge they face.)

Luke and Obi-WanThe most well-known SF parallel is Luke Skywalker, the unsophisticated farm boy who is catapulted into galactic affairs by the death of his foster parents and the charismatic advice of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  When Obi-Wan tells Luke “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world,” he isn’t merely refering to the Force, but implicitly to Luke’s need to learn many things as he emerges from the backwater planet Tatooine.

We don’t see quite such an inexperienced protagonist in the other trilogies, with Anakin or with Rey.  By the time we see the prequel or the sequel trilogy, we’re already familiar with the Star Wars background, and not as much needs to be explained.  Interestingly, Lucas too adds a more artificial form of exposition, the screen crawl at the opening of each film, perhaps primarily for its nostalgia value.

An Earthly culture of another time period can be just as unfamiliar as an extraterrestrial.  Friday’s Child was the first Regency romance I read, and I found it a particularly good place to start.  The naïve heroine, Hero Wantage, marries the kind-hearted but rakish Viscount of Sheringham and is carried off into the whirl of London society, whose manners and mores are often peculiar to modern eyes.  We are introduced along with Hero to these rather arbitrary rules—if a carriage-race between females is high entertainment at a private country gathering, why is it a terrible social gaffe in public?—where her lack of understanding frequently lands her in a “scrape.”  Similar inexperienced heroines also appear in other Heyer stories, such as Arabella and Cotillion (in descending order of ignorance or naïveté).

Citizen of the Galaxy coverA science-fiction example of the socially inexperienced character can be found in Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy.  Thorby, the main character, must learn to copy with several unfamiliar environments in succession over the course of the story, but especially with the strict customs followed by the Free Traders, nomadic interstellar merchants.  An anthropologist traveling with the Traders to study their culture is invaluable in explaining these customs to Thorby—and the reader.

The ignorant interlocutor in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon, by contrast, is a minor character, “the Man from the Past,” who has been preserved from the present into the story’s centuries-later future by a time stasis field.  He comes into the story only briefly, but long enough for Heinlein to get in some exposition about facets of the future society that are well-known to the other characters, but need to be explained to the archaic survivor.

A more well-known Heinlein story, Stranger in a Strange Land, uses space—and species—rather than time as the cultural differentiator.  Michael Valentine Smith, the “Man from Mars,” is a human being raised from infancy by Martians.  Many of the most interesting parts of the story show Mike trying to grapple with human customs when he arrives back on Earth as a young man—which also allows Heinlein to make satirical commentary on these peculiar creatures, the humans.

Some Storytelling Advantages

Having someone to explain things to is helpful because dialogue is often a better way to present information than authorial lecturing.  A scene in which our puzzled naïf asks questions and gets answers—or makes mistakes and is corrected—is easier to make interesting.  These interactions can accomplish other things at the same time.  The way a conversation goes can reveal character and show relationships developing.  It can be mixed with action—characters talk while they’re hiking, exploring a wrecked spaceship, dancing.

Making one character’s knowledge limited similarly allows us to avoid the dreaded “As you know, Bob” problem, in which characters tell each other things of which they are already well aware, to educate the reader at the expense of in-story plausibility.  (The term comes from the Turkey City Lexicon, a guide to F&SF tropes for use in writing workshops.)  TV Tropes has a particularly good discussion of this whole issue.

Where to Find Them

If we want to include an ignorant interlocutor in a story, what kinds of situations might naturally produce this sort of character?

North by Northwest, Mt. Rushmore fightYouth and inexperience tend to go together; and a curious child can serve the purpose (perhaps a precocious child, who is uninformed but capable of grasping the explanation once offered).  TV Tropes’ term is “Little Jimmy.”  But the explainee may also be a competent enough adult who has simply been thrust into a situation or milieu they’re not ready for.  Cary Grant’s character Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is a good example:  he may be a fine advertising executive, but the world of international espionage is new to him.  Captain Pausert of James Schmitz’s classic SF novel The Witches of Karres is an expert ship-handler and a pretty effective trader, but the young witches need to bring him up to speed quickly when he gets involved in Karres business.

The innocent naïf who needs to be told how the world works is another category, particularly if the story is going to deal with gritty realities.  Several of our examples above count, and we might also mention yet another Heinlein character (he was fond of the trope), Max in Starman Jones, who’s described by Wikipedia as “a farm boy who wants to go to the stars” and learns the ropes from the cynical rogue Sam Anderson.

The uninformed party may also be the student of a new art—the beginner or newbie.  Harry Potter is new to the wizarding world and has to have all kinds of things explained to him, including his own backstory.  In Anne McCaffrey’s YA novel Dragonsong—one of the best of the Dragonriders of Pern books, in my opinion—it’s musicianship that young Menolly is learning as she’s suddenly brought into the Harper Hall’s training program.  Captain Pausert’s induction into Karres witchery reflects some similar elements, in a very different situation—learning on the fly rather than in a structured environment.  The character’s new situation may involve learning the art itself, or the folkways of the school, or both.

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor WatsonFinally, one of the functions of the sidekick can be as a foil to whom the principal character can explain things.  Robin has played this role for Batman—at least in the wacky 1960s TV series.  A classic case, of course, is Holmes and Watson; TV Tropes even dubs such an character The Watson (“the character whose job it is to ask the same questions the audience must be asking and let other characters explain what’s going on”).  Master detectives, who are supposed to be smarter than the audience, form fertile ground for such relationships:  Archie Goodwin, who is no dummy, regularly receives nuggets of wisdom from his immobile employer Nero Wolfe.

Finally, the person who graciously explains things is often a mentor figure—the wise or knowledgeable one, a Gandalf or an Obi-Wan, the polar opposite of the uninformed interlocutor.  When the mentor’s job is primarily to educate the main character, this may explain why the mentor is around early in the story, but may disappear or become unavailable when the action starts to heat up.