We all know that 2020 was not exactly a banner year in most ways. It did, however, afford some time for good reading. Since everyone is doing year’s end compilations, I’m going to offer a selection of the new books I perused last year. They weren’t all newly published in 2020; that just happened to be when I read them.
Starsight (2019). For some reason, I still haven’t been thrilled by Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy (other than his completion of The Wheel of Time, which was masterful). I must be missing something, given his rep. But I was intrigued to see him venture into science fiction with Skyward (2018). His heroine, one of the young pilots defending an embattled human refuge on a far-off planet, is a near-outcast, fiery and determined. She shone in Skyward; the sequel, Starsight, took her in new directions amid unexpected developments. Her story appears to be complete as a duology, though the Wikipedia page for Starsight says there are two more books in that universe to come.
In the category of “best book about mercenary librarians,” I enjoyed Kit Rocha’s Deal With the Devil (2020). Dystopias aren’t usually my locales of choice, but I couldn’t resist a tale of near-future ninja-like librarians in a collapsed America, with a post-apocalyptic mission somewhat in the vein of A Canticle for Leibowitz or the Encyclopedia Galactica. The strong romance elements didn’t hurt either. There are more books in this series too, but I haven’t read them yet.
I’m still learning how best to appreciate John Scalzi, and his fabulously eccentric sense of humor. I didn’t take to his reworking of H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzy stories, but his Collapsing Empire trilogy (2017-2020) was great reading. It kept me eager for more, despite the atmosphere of inevitable disaster (see above re dystopias) and the deadly political infighting. The story has just enough likable characters and just enough victory to keep it from being a downer. It’s also a fascinating study in how to do space opera that’s sufficiently weird to qualify in today’s market—a subject in which I have great interest.
Kevin Wade Johnson’s Roads Between Worlds (2013) gives us a different take on the many-worlds theme, with unusual and engaging characters wielding conceptually mysterious talents. I’m pointing to the Amazon page here for reference, but Johnson is moving his books to another platform and I gather there may be a brief hiatus before they’re available again.
Shorefall (2020) is perhaps the winner in the category of “books that seemed like endings but weren’t.” I read Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside (2018) with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by its exotic magic system, colorful and diverse characters, and steampunkish city setting. As with Starsight, the sequel both doubled down and expanded the universe in new directions—a combination I’m coming to think is crucial for a series. Right up to the end of Shorefall, I had the idea this was a duology; until at nearly the last minute I realized, OMG, it isn’t over. Bennett raises the stakes almost unbearably in this second volume, and now I’m going to be watching the skies to see the “Unknown” listing for the third volume on Goodreads turn to something definite that I can anticipate.
Jo Walton writes not only crackerjack commentary on fantasy and science fiction, but some of the most offbeat and philosophically sophisticated fantasy around. I try to avoid buying hardcopy books these days—I’m running out of bookshelf space—but I sent away for a copy of Among Others (2011) to keep after I read it from the library (and promptly lent my new copy to my daughter). It’s not easy to tell where the story is going—it keeps you guessing; but the end is satisfying and appropriate.
Beth Overmyer’s The Goblets Immortal (2020) is a promising series opener, with plenty of adventure, sympathetic characters, and a unique system of magic. Aidan and Slaíne are an unlikely but engaging pair, on the run from their pasts, seeking to solve the mysteries of the Blest and the curious effects of the Goblets. The next book in the series, Holes in the Veil, comes out February 16. Join us here next time to hear a bit about how Beth developed the series.
As we wind up the Christmas season, I want to give a nod to the Dash & Lily books by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn (2010-2020), even though (a heavy burden to bear) they’re not science fiction or fantasy. I caught the Netflix series based on the first book, and was motivated to hunt up the books themselves (read two, one to go). Loved these characters; just the right combination of snark and warmth to celebrate the season.
Uncharacteristic as it may seem, I spent some time this year engrossed in nonfiction works too. Many of them I can claim as research for my next project—or maybe it’s just that when you’re focused on X, everything you read seems to have some relation to X. The nonfiction catch included—
Last time we talked about the sequels to the movie Tangled. But I didn’t say anything about the music. One song in particular deserves a comment of its own.
Music in the Movies
“I See the Light”
Disney generally gets good composers to do the music for its major movies. Tangled was especially productive; I already had on my playlists the charming love song “I See the Light” (video here), and the end-credits song (is there a name for that niche?), “Something That I Want” by Grace Potter.
The theme song for the TV series actually premiered in the short film Tangled: Before Ever After. “Wind in My Hair” deftly expresses Rapunzel’s excitement as she anticipates continuing to discover the wide world outside her tower—the “endless horizon.” And there’s a bit of humor in the title: who, after all, is more suited to having the “wind in her hair” than Rapunzel?
“Put On Your Sunday Clothes”
“Wind in My Hair” falls into a category that TV Tropes calls “Setting Off Songs,” like “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” or “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly!. There’s always a certain excitement when people are getting started on a journey, be it an epic trip to the Emerald City or just a Sunday jaunt to New York City. In keeping with Rapunzel’s character, “Wind” is upbeat and optimistic, adding to its charm.
But Rapunzel has much farther to go than we see in the short movie, or the first season of the series. Most of those stories remain inside the Kingdom of Corona. It’s at the beginning of the second season that Rapunzel and company set out into the real terra incognita outside the kingdom. And at that point we get yet another expeditionary song, one that simply knocked me over. Hence the inevitable reflection: why do I love this song?
“Next Stop, Anywhere”
“Next Stop, Anywhere,” by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, is a Setting Off Song squared and cubed. It appears initially in Season 2, Episode 1, at about 3:23.
Rapunzel has a mission: to backtrack the ominous black rocks that began to appear in the short film. The prologue to S2E1 gives us some rather grim history hinting at what she’s going to find. But when we flick back to Rapunzel and her True Companions in the present day, she’s mostly excited about venturing into the outside world (“It’s our first big city outside of Corona!”).
The song starts with a fast, steady beat, and a series of flute trills, which suggest movement and vigor along with the sunny lightness characteristic of our heroine. The visuals of a hummingbird and a field of flowers reinforce the musical cue. Rapunzel leaps out of their ambling caravan and races around in a montage, observing the heavens, using her hair to climb a giant tree, dashing off her signature paintings, turning cartwheels. The refrain comes in with a bouncy drumbeat that bears out the lyric: where might we be going next? Anywhere!
The steady beat continues throughout the following mix of dialogue and singing. Rapunzel’s enthusiasm is indomitable. Her romantic interest Eugene is not quite as keen on following “a bunch of creepy rocks” into the unknown; but at Rapunzel’s wry loving look, he has to admit that of course he’s excited: “I’m with you! What else could I be?” He alternates lines with her in the next verse, and they both participate in the next series of acrobatic misadventures. The theme of first love is an additional source of excitement.
The pointy black rocks turn up from time to time as they cross the landscape, but Rapunzel and Eugene ignore them; at this point their grim purpose seems trivial. That theme of leaping over the difficulties to focus on the adventure is refreshed when the caravan, driven by the wary Cassandra, catches up with them (2:05). Cass admonishes Rapunzel for running off and warns her that “the real world isn’t all fun and games.” Doesn’t matter. The song resumes, and even Cassandra can’t resist singing a line or two. Rapunzel is going to seek out her destiny, but that will cause her to grow: “find the best in me.”
As the canny viewer may have expected, Vardaros, the “first big city” they encounter, falls disastrously short of expectations. One character narrowly dodges death, and another, marriage. The mystery warrior Adira turns up with more ominous warnings about where they’re going. They’re not ready to move forward again until the end of the second episode (listed on the Web pages as Part II of Episode 1). (Actually, they spend another couple of segments in Vardaros anyway, but the reprise of “Next Stop” occurs in the second episode at about 20:50.)
The music starts with a tensely suspended organ tone. Then, over a somber bass note, Eugene begins singing more slowly—but his words are expressing determination to continue. Rapunzel joins in, and they clasp hands. As the music speeds up and brightens, they invoke their faith in each other. By the time we reach the refrain, we’re back to full speed and full strength. The “with you close to me” line expands visually to include Cassandra and the others: they can overcome the coming obstacles with not only the power of love, but the power of friendship. Even the serious aspects of the journey give way to the boundless exuberance with which the original song started. The music, as well as the lyrics, firmly rejects somberness in favor of joy—like the opening passages of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: not by ignoring the dangers and difficulties, but by acknowledging and surpassing them.
The theme of exploration and discovery is a favorite of mine, and the Setting Off Songs tend to live and move in that theme. “Out there . . .” is exactly how “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” begins. We don’t yet know what’s out there, but we’re eager to find out.
The theme isn’t confined to songs, of course. The iconic opening of the original Star Trek series and its Next Generation sequel hit exactly that note, invoking the “sense of wonder” SF is famous for: “The final frontier . . . To seek out new life and new civilizations.” To my mind, the intro to the “Star Trek: Enterprise” series is even better, with its sequence of daring steps in exploration (real and fictional) over inspiring music. Similarly, the best scene in the unfortunate first Star Trek movie occurs at the very end, at about 1:30 in this clip.
‘Let’s see what’s out there.’ That attitude, it seems to me, is highly to be prized: with the sense of incipient wonder, the expectation of finding amazing things, and some degree of confidence in our ability to deal with them. (Chesterton said, “Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures, and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them”—Orthodoxy, ch. 7.)
It’s important that we be able to see the trials and perils of life as an adventure, not merely an imposition. That attitude is one of the essential factors in a mature human personality, and it merits perennial refreshing and reinforcement. That’s why “Next Stop, Anywhere” is so pleasing: it hits just the right note.
So, okay, I gave in and signed up for Disney+. It’s not as if I needed the streaming service to see the Disney fairy tales, or Star Wars, or the Marvel movies; I have those on disc. But there were these other things. First, I wanted to see the Hamilton movie (just as impressive as it’s cracked up to be). Then, since I was already subscribed for a month, I figured I’d check out The Mandalorian, if only to keep up my geek cred—it had taken me a while just to figure out where all the “Baby Yoda” memes were coming from.
By the end of the first month, I’d scanned the offerings and marked down a bunch of other things that I’d sort of wanted to see, or that I hadn’t known about but looked interesting, and now could get without paying more than I already was. And I was off and streaming . . .
One of the unanticipated things I turned up was a set of ancillary videos related to the 2010 fairy-tale adaptation Tangled, Disney’s version of the Rapunzel story. And thereby hangs a blog post.
A Tangle of Sequels
I’ve always been fond of the Tangled movie. But the continuing story also turned out to be remarkably good. As a rule, sequels to Disney princess movies tend to be humdrum affairs dashed off to exploit the movie’s popularity—though I must admit that I say this without having seen very many of them; ventures like The Little Mermaid II or Cinderella II: Dreams Come True never seemed to deserve even a look. (Frozen II is a decided exception.)
But the Tangled folks managed to pull off some impressive work in the follow-up media. To discuss it in detail, of course, I’m going to have to deploy detailed spoilers.
In 2012 Disney released a six-minute cartoon, Tangled Ever After, which is basically a comic bit about the exploits of the animal characters during the wedding of Rapunzel and her romantic interest, Eugene Fitzherbert (who previously used the name of legendary rogue-hero “Flynn Rider”). Nothing of interest there.
However, in 2017 the Disney Channel debuted a 55-minute short film, Tangled: Before Ever After. As the title indicates, this story takes place before the wedding sequence. The day before Rapunzel’s coronation, her lady-in-waiting, a tough-minded and capable girl named Cassandra, helps her sneak out beyond the kingdom’s walls to get away from the stress and chaos of the preparations. At the site of the magic flower that originally gave Rapunzel’s hair its healing powers, they find a stand of mysterious pointed black rocks. When Rapunzel touches one, more rocks suddenly sprout from the ground, forcing them to flee. But Rapunzel’s hair, which was cut short and returned to its natural brown in the original movie, suddenly turns blonde again and reverts to its 70-foot tower length.
This business with the black rocks is the story’s “One Ring,” the MacGuffin that links the old story to the new and provides the plot driver going forward. It isn’t explained or resolved in Before Ever After, but serves as the hook for the three-season TV series (2016-2020) that followed. The series was initially labeled “Tangled: The Series,” but in its second season was rechristened Rapunzel’s Tangled Adventure. Season 1 follows Rapunzel’s experiences in her parents’ kingdom; Seasons 2 and 3 take her and her companions on the road on a long-running quest. Wikipedia has a handy list of the episodes.
The series is where most of the plot and character development occurs. It concluded in March 2020. At this point it’s pretty clear that no further follow-ons are necessary, though one can’t rule out the possibility (“never say never again”). There’s also a stage musical (a version of the movie) and a video game, which I haven’t seen and assume are not in the continuity. Wikipedia’s convenient overall reference for the Tangled franchise is here.
Opening Out the Ever After
The first challenge in making a sequel to a fairy-tale movie is what to do about the ending. Traditionally, these stories end in a romantic happily-ever-after. If the main characters marry at the end (or immediately afterward), we’ve resolved the romantic tension. In addition, it may be hard to reconcile the vague vision of enduring happiness with the kinds of perilous adventures that would give life to a sequel.
The “before ever after” notion is thus productive. The characters can have further adventures even before their happiness is, as it were, sealed. We can stave off the fairy-tale ending, without subverting it entirely. To ruin the romance would be opprobrious, diminishing the appeal of the original story; but there’s no reason it has to come to fruition (presumably in a wedding) at once.
It’s particularly easy to take advantage of this idea if the couple hasn’t actually become engaged in the original story (even though the audience knows perfectly well that’s going to happen). Some reduced degree of romantic tension remains if the character still has to work up the nerve to propose, though the issue becomes more comical than dramatic. (A similar tactic was used in Frozen II.)
Thus, Eugene proposes to Rapunzel several times in the course of the sequels. She doesn’t accept at once. She wants to marry Eugene, but she isn’t quite ready yet. This brings out the familiar “moral” that a girl’s future is not solely bound up in marriage. It also makes psychological sense—and this is one of the ways in which the Tangled sequels intelligently carry forward the original storyline. As other characters point out, Rapunzel has spent almost all her life locked up in a tower, never meeting another human being but her “mother” captor. It seems hardly appropriate to expect her immediately to enter into a marriage.
Of course, Rapunzel could marry and still have adventures. The story thus plays around with the notion that “happily ever after” means the end of adventures and of our interest in the characters—a notion I’ve criticized elsewhere. It both dodges, and runs into, that trap.
The World and the Plot
Since the continuing story takes Rapunzel into new territory, both within and later beyond the Kingdom of Corona (which turned out to be a somewhat infelicitous name for this year, however appropriate for a princess), it was also necessary to expand the world. The writers carry out this worldbuilding exercise with enough novelty to earn some credit. For example, one of the new secondary characters is a young alchemist named Varian. Although his alchemy is technically magic, he firmly takes the position that it’s science, not fantasy. He thus adds a sort of steampunk vibe to the whole business.
The second season of the series introduces a secret society of crack warriors who are in some way protecting or defending the source of the black rocks. An enigmatic woman named Adira provides them with clues, along with ominous nonspecific warnings, and occasionally ends up sparring with the suspicious Cassandra. She and other members of the “Brotherhood of the Dark Kingdom” sometimes end up opposing or challenging the main characters, though they are basically on the same side. This secret society’s stance is reminiscent of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The most striking element of the plot is the long-running plot arc, which begins with the black-rock episode in Before Ever After and isn’t completed until the final episode of the series. The black rocks are tied in with the “sundrop flower” that originally gave Rapunzel her powers, so they link back neatly into the original movie. Keeping such an über-plot going over sixty episodes is a challenge, and the writers lay in enough complications and reversals to make it work.
This long-term development isn’t perfectly uniform. There are one-off episodes sandwiched in, often with throwaway plots (Max the noble steed is threatened by a competing evil horse! The queen’s annoying sister shows up for a visit!). Nor do the “side quest” episodes always make sense. In one show (Season 2 Episode 6), Rapunzel and Eugene decide to go off on a “date” while the group is encamped on the road in the middle of nowhere. (Butterbur in The Lord of the Rings: “Well, you do want looking after and no mistake: your party might be on a holiday!”) At the same time, these one-offs do sometimes have a point. The “date” introduces some characters who eventually turn out to be crucial to the plot. For another example, in a primarily silly episode (S2 E18) which turns most of the characters into toddlers, we get a fairly interesting lecture on parenting styles, courtesy of Rapunzel and Eugene.
The metaphysics, the “theory of magic,” is somewhat murky. Rapunzel’s “sundrop” and the “Moonstone” source of the black rocks have a sort of yin-yang relationship, but the Moonstone power is sometimes presented as evil, and sometimes as merely complementary. Rapunzel’s long hair, as restored in Before Ever After, has lost its power to heal, but has now arbitrarily become invulnerable—uncuttable—just like the black rocks. The conclusion of the story does make some degree of sense, though, so this particular worldbuilding weakness isn’t fatal.
The story is willing to deal with serious issues. For example, the story introduces some genuine moral dilemmas, as when Rapunzel has to break a promise to Varian in S1 E16, which leads to no end of trouble for everyone. Some cogent sociopolitical points are raised, unlikely though that seems in a cartoon, in the second and third episodes of Season 2. Rapunzel and her followers want to reform the city of Vardaros, whose citizens have collapsed into a state of mutual distrust and predation. Rapunzel’s effort to use sheer niceness to show the inhabitants a better way doesn’t work: the locals don’t trust these strangers. Instead, Rapunzel and company have to convince the former “sheriff” everyone trusted to come back out of retirement and lead the reform. The success of this strategy is still a bit cut-and-dried, but for two 24-minute episodes, it’s handled pretty well.
Other character developments can also be surprisingly sophisticated. The scheming girl Eugene was supposed to marry ends up being reformed—but she still steals the party’s money; she doesn’t suddenly become sweetness and light. An entire episode (S1 E2) is devoted to showing that, even though Rapunzel is so adorable that everyone loves her, there’s one old guy in Corona who doesn’t—and he’s a good guy, respected by everyone, kind and helpful; he just doesn’t especially care for Rapunzel. And the moral of this story is that you don’t have to make everyone like you—a good thing for a young viewer (or even an older one) to recognize.
The sequels are thoroughly genre-savvy—a good platform for ringing new changes on the stock fairy-tale conventions. In S2 E 23, the characters are threatened by “…lethal, inescapable traps.” An array of nasty spikes springs up—and immediately crumble into ruin. “They’re old,” one character remarks, pinpointing one of the silly aspects of Indiana Jones-type adventures where centuries-old mechanical devices work perfectly without deterioration. And at the end of the second season, the characters walk into a whole series of classic Star Wars and Lord of the Rings tropes in succession—surely on purpose.
Carrying On the Characters: Rapunzel
The most interesting aspect of the Tangled sequels is the treatment of Rapunzel herself.
Rapunzel’s role in the movie is that of a “fish out of water” character—the naïve newcomer to the world, to whom everything is new and fascinating. That’s one of the things I like about the movie. Another is that she faces this brave new world outside the tower with kindness and wonder, though not without a sensible caution that’s sometimes deployed against the wrong targets, for comic effect. It isn’t by accident that Eugene calls her “Sunshine.”
Although she has to deal with progressively more fearsome and even heartbreaking problems as the series goes on, Rapunzel doesn’t lose that essential innocence. Yet, imperceptibly—and that’s the artistry—through the second and third seasons, she develops into the genuine leader of the group. She becomes capable of making difficult decisions. She isn’t intimidated by threats. When she has to take over governance of the kingdom, she falters at first, but later on becomes perfectly capable of running things without her parents. The changes are highlighted in the “dream trap” episode, S2 E19, where the matured Rapunzel speaks with her earlier self.
She even becomes a capable fighter in her own right. Rapunzel uses her long, indestructible hair like Indiana Jones’ whip, as both a weapon and a tool. Of course, this is cartoon physics. This slender girl hurls around what’s essentially a 70-foot rope without any issues of strength or leverage; it catches onto things and releases them just as she wishes, like Indy’s whip. The hair only gets in her way, or is used against her, when the plot requires it. It never frizzes or becomes unruly (fortunately for everyone nearby). Nonetheless, her trademark feature, which seems a romantic beauty mark at first glance, transforms her into a melee fighter, who can hold her own in a scrap.
While Rapunzel is no longer a magical healer, she does gain the ability to use ‘sundrop power’ over time. This power is erratic and not dependable, but it does rise to cosmic levels at the point where she can blow up an entire landscape at the end of Season 2. TV Tropes rightly cites her under the Films–Animation section of Badass Adorable.
The really remarkable thing about this maturing process is that Rapunzel is not altered out of recognition. She retains that essential sweetness of character that made her so likable in the movie. To depict a character who is both powerful and “nice” is difficult, and rare. When we have a chance to see the character visibly grow into that maturity, with both continuity and change, the writers’ achievement is noteworthy.
Romantic interest Eugene, in the sequels, gets somewhat dumbed down or, in TV Tropes’ term, “Flanderized”: turned into a caricature of himself. His vanity, a nicely balanced flaw in the movie, becomes tiresome when played out in every episode. His capability is uneven: sometimes he’s clever, sometimes clueless; sometimes he’s a formidable fighter, sometimes ineffective—as the plot may require. This is a classic problem in a continuing series, where different writers may produce inconsistent characterization.
Rapunzel’s parents, also, are not too well managed. In the movie, they’re merely props: the welcoming family to which Rapunzel can finally return at the end. In the series, we’re told that her mother, Queen Arianna, was once a sort of adventurer herself—but we see little of that. Her father, King Frederic (what a promising name!), tends to play the overbearing, irrationally restrictive father, generally as an obstacle to Rapunzel’s self-assertion. The two of them tend to fade out almost entirely toward the end of the series to give Rapunzel sole center stage.
The great prize among the new characters is Cassandra. Her edgy but loyal personality makes her a perfect foil for the sunny Rapunzel. That same sardonic cynicism makes it plausible when she veers from the path of righteousness and aligns herself with the enemies at the end of Season 2, a development that is carefully shaped over much of that season. In particular, she highlights an aspect of hero-stories that doesn’t get much attention. What happens if you’re not the Chosen One? If the whole motion of the plot is toward Rapunzel’s destiny, how does the henchperson feel whose role is simply to support the main character? Doesn’t she have a destiny too?
The series as a whole shows a certain bias toward what we might call the “Arthas Effect,” a plot staple in the World of Warcraft game: an initially good character becomes corrupted and turns into a major villain. The two most prominent secondary characters, Cassandra and Varian, are both subject to this kind of transformation at different times. The basically positive tone of the Tangled story is borne out by the fact that each eventually repents and returns to the side of good. But the “turn to the Dark Side” motif helps keep the tale from becoming too optimistic or Pollyanna-ish.
The Tangled sequels honor the original movie’s romance. We see from the very beginning that Rapunzel and Eugene do get married eventually. But that aspect is sidelined in such a way that the impetus of the romantic interest is largely lost.
During the entire first season, Rapunzel and Eugene hang around the castle, waiting for—what? We noted above that Rapunzel puts off the wedding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But her reasons remain rather vague, and we don’t see much of the longing or attraction I’d expect from a couple of young people who are very much in love. It’s as if the writers every now and then remember that there’s supposed to be a love affair going on, but mostly take that to be understood.
The diverging development of the two characters also creates a somewhat unsatisfying disparity. While Rapunzel develops in power, competence, and maturity, Eugene has no comparable character arc. As a result, by the end we may ask ourselves whether he’s really sufficient for her. The lovers are “unevenly matched,” a problem I’ve noted before.
The key theme of the extended Tangled story, as I see it, is that power and innocence are compatible. You can be a consummately nice, caring, pretty, cheerful sort—and still have the determination, endurance, capability, and courage to fight what needs fighting.
Rapunzel is not the only example of such a seemingly-paradoxical character. But the writers were able to take advantage of the extended development of the TV series to showcase in detail how a person can grow to take on that mantle. It’s something we always need to see more of.
The “conflict” we expect in a story can take many forms. External, internal; protagonists against themselves, against other people, against nature, against society. If you grew up on adventure stories, as I did, you may tend to focus on showy external struggles—wars and battles. (Explosions!!) Even more so if your formative reading included comic books: the first question for a new issue was always, who is Spider-Man fighting this month?—even if there might be more long-term interest in the issue’s developments regarding Spidey’s love life or character development.
But in some stories, or parts of stories, the focus is on building or making something, rather than fighting something. The underlying engine of such a story might better be called challenge than “conflict”—a struggle to achieve some definite end product, rather than to defeat an adversary. It’s a sort of engineering story, rather than a crisis—although there may be crises along the way.
Bob the Builder
Almost every possible kind of conflict can be found in Dennis Taylor’s “Bobiverse” science fiction novels: We are Legion (We are Bob), For We Are Many, All These Worlds (2016-2017). (Looking them up, I’m pleased to see a new sequel, Heaven’s River, is now out in audiobook form.) The series touches on a whole range of SF tropes, from first contact to space war to ecological catastrophe.
Bob Johansson, software magnate, dies in the 21st century and wakes up a hundred years later as a sapient computer program, intended to be the guiding intelligence of an interstellar probe, like a computerized version of Jerome Corbell in Niven’s A World Out of Time. Once under way, however, Bob strikes out on his own, becoming involved with rival probes from another country, the evacuation of a failing Earth, and (eventually) honest-to-goodness aliens. His probe is equipped with 3-D printers and other gear that allows him to “clone” himself—build new ships run by copies of the Bob program. Each Bob instance takes a new name and, once running independently, develops a slightly different personality. Hence the book titles: we eventually have a whole armada of Bob spaceships, single-handedly—if that’s the right description—planting new human colonies and conducting interstellar wars.
But you don’t bootstrap your way into an armada overnight. A good bit of the story, especially in the early parts, requires Bob to balance multiple demands. How much of his productive capacity should be directed to manufacturing new Bobs, and how much to hunting down dangerous opponents? Or transporting human refugees to new worlds? To make matters more interesting, some of the Bobs specialize in research, coming up with new scientific discoveries that need to be engineered and adapted for others’ use—as time, transport, and communications permit.
Part of the fascination involves how Bob gradually builds up a sort of interstellar network of cooperating AI ships. (Of course they cooperate; they’re all Bob. Sort of.) How he does this, what difficulties and complications he runs into, is as intriguing as the more exotic or action-oriented sequences. It’s very cool to see one lone intelligent probe gradually develop into an entire star-spanning civilization.
Building Ships and Planets
F.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen books (1976)—published in various combinations—are the saga of a young woman who starts out as an enslaved orphan under a vicious tyranny on Earth, and ends by bringing back a space fleet to overthrow the tyranny. She allies herself (both militarily and maritally) with the equally formidable Bran Tregare and the Hulzein family, who share that goal.
When I say “space fleet,” I’m not talking about thousands of massive ships. This is a bunch of modest-sized spacecraft manned by an assemblage of quirky, anarchic individuals—more like a Star Wars rebel fleet than an Honor Harrington space navy. Much of the middle section of the story is taken up with the long-term preparations needed for the eventual battles. Rissa and Tregare redesign and refit their stolen spaceships for combat; pull together the aforesaid individualists into a functional fighting group; and gradually, cautiously, get to know and love each other, after a battleground marriage for political purposes. That simultaneous slow build of machinery, financing, and relationships is as engrossing as Rissa’s initial escape from the “Total Welfare” system or the ultimate invasion of Earth. Even the engineering problems, solved in the context of these budding relationships, hold my interest throughout.
Or take Heinlein’s juvenile novel Farmer in the Sky (1950). Teenaged Bill Lermer emigrates with his family to Ganymede, which is being terraformed into a habitable site for Earthly settlers. The big moon is completely barren, devoid of life. The “terraforming” involves not just big technology, like the atmosphere plant and heat trap, but also the creation of soil suitable for farming, inch by inch. Rock has to be ground into soil, then seeded with Terrestrial microbes, earthworms, and the like, before the first crop can be planted. This process, which Bill sees at ground level—he’s a farmer-to-be, not a planner or engineer—is endlessly fascinating, though no doubt the details would differ if the book were written today, with seventy years’ more knowledge about the solar system. It left me with an abiding sense of how complex the web of geological and biological factors really is, underlying something so seemingly simple as dirt farming.
Building a Business
Not that you have to go to Ganymede to find a narrative about constructing something new. I recently mentionedR.F. Delderfield’s “Swann saga.” The hero (and the heroine) here are building up something apparently mundane: a trucking business, using the newfangled horseless carriages, to connect the railroad network to the small towns and hamlets of Victorian England. The characters tumble in and out of various conflicts, but the underlying thrust of the story is about the growth of a business. We see its material factors—vehicles, storehouses, roadways, Adam Swann’s unique organizational planning gizmo—but, more importantly, the varied people whose talents and peculiarities contribute to the success of the whole operation. Building a business enterprise can be as rewarding as building a spaceship—or a planet.
Occasionally this kind of constructive work also crops up in a modern corporate context. My catalogue of movie favorites contains only two stories I can think of that convey some of the excitement—the romance (in both senses of the word)—of big business. The Secret of My Success (1987), with Michael J. Fox and Helen Slater, is mostly a knockabout farce, but we do respond to the infectious enthusiasm of Fox’s character. What makes him more engaging than the other “suits” is that he’s excited about the idea of serving customers and making a productive business grow. Similarly, in Working Girl (1988), we’re mostly taken up in the plucky struggles of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill to break the glass ceiling of the secretarial pool; but we can also admire the artistry and accomplishment of the radio broadcasting merger deal she puts together.
Castaways and Escapes
Construction in the midst of a crisis can become an epic in itself. In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), much of the story is taken up with the desperate challenges the protagonists must overcome as they race against time to build the spaceship that will enable them to escape Earth’s destruction. (Pay no attention to the 1951 movie version, which is a catastrophe in its own right.)
The oncoming disaster adds dramatic tension to an effort that would be heroic even if it were undertaken without that threat in view. We see the thousand dedicated people of Cole Hendron’s “cantonment” working on the massive project; striving to obtain the necessary resources as civilization begins to crumble around them; making the scientific breakthrough they need to control atomic energy for their engines; defending the ship against attacks by mobs reverted to barbarism; and rejoicing in immense relief when they find they can construct a second ship that will allow all of them, not just a fraction, to escape Earth’s doom. Even the momentary pauses to describe the design of the ship, or the careful preparations to take along the necessary plants, animals, and knowledge to recreate Earthly life on the new world, are engrossing in the context of the mighty achievement. In fact, after all this build-up, the actual brief space-flight is almost an anticlimax.
The interest of stories like these is akin to the way we enjoy playing certain kinds of games, those with a “resource management” feature. I am, for example, perpetually fascinated with Sid Meier’s famous Civilization games. In managing a selected civilization throughout its history, we can get into wars with other “civs,” whether they are run by the computer or (in some versions) by another human player. But war is not essential to winning the game, as it is in chess. Exploration, the founding of new cities, and scientific development are vital, and offer other ways to win. While the danger of war with other cultures adds an important spice to the game, I find I’m more interested in discovering new places and developing a well-functioning culture.
Similar features can be found in other popular video games—Starcraft, Warcraft (but not World of Warcraft, which is a role-playing game), Settlers of Catan. Even the venerable Monopoly fits this description to some extent. To the extent to which these games are focused on winning, we do engage in a conflict; we seek a higher score than our competitors achieve. But sometimes it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t directly involve fighting.
I mentioned scientific development in connection with Civilization. Researching how to make new sorts of units and improvements is crucial to that game. (By contrast, in Monopoly all we need to build houses and hotels is money, and monopolies.) Stories about building frequently involve playing out the consequences of a new technology, if only because new tech opens new opportunities and hence new fields for development.
Old-time space operas sometimes touched on this factor, but tended to short-cut the extensive work of implementing a new technology in favor of getting directly to the action. E.E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne (1965), last of the Skylark tetralogy, alludes briefly in chapter 8 to the impact on Earthly industry of the fantastic scientific advances in the previous volumes. But those changes hardly have an impact on the story. We see a slightly more gradual and plausible development in a couple of books from Roger MacBride Allen, The Ring of Charon (1990) and The Shattered Sphere (1994), where a newly discovered artificial gravity technique gets put to use in progressively more advanced ways. Even the Delderfield Swann series mentioned above is based on the new opportunities created in the 19th Century by railroads and the internal-combustion engine.
Blessed are the Peaceful Makers
The peculiar enjoyment of stories about building comes, I think, partly from the sense we share with the characters of accomplishing something. The action of the story is constructive rather than destructive.
Granted, we’re perfectly willing to applaud destruction too, in a good cause. (Take that, Death Star!) And stories of violent conflict are perfectly suited to give us edge-of-the-seat thrills that are harder to come by in narratives of making. Still, we don’t always want an adrenaline rush all the time. It can be quietly satisfying when we don’t have to focus on winning a war, or on the danger of losing something dear to us and the desperation of defending it.
The satisfaction of successful making came up in a post last Christmas about the appeal of concreteness, whether in baking cookies or in building ships (as in the denouement of Pretty Woman). Both construction and destruction are sometimes necessary: “A time to build up, a time to break down.” But building responds to a different facet of our humanity than destroying. A good story may speak to one or the other, or to both.
In America, we have a presidential and congressional election coming up in November. I want to take a moment out to incite every American to vote.
Every now and then, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of first principles. In a democratic polity—a “republic” in the sense used in American law and political theory—the people of the polity govern themselves. (Please note that these terms are “small d” democracy and “small r” republic.) The way we do this, in a representative government, is to elect representatives. Since those representatives make most decisions as to law and government, voting in elections is the primary way in which we govern ourselves. It’s kind of a big deal.
The Crucial Hero(es)
In America, voter turnouts, even in presidential elections, tend to be relatively low. Why would people skip their key chance to take charge of their government? I suspect much of this failure to take part in governing ourselves stems from a combination of things: inertia (it takes some little trouble to register and vote), plus a pervasive sense that my one vote doesn’t affect the outcome. Why make the effort if it doesn’t matter?
The logical flaw in this understandable attitude is that things can matter in the aggregate, even if any one item is not the sole decisiveelement that changes the outcome.
The stories that inspire us, and help form our attitudes, tend to undermine this recognition and subliminally support our reluctance to participate. A story is more dramatic if everything comes down to the actions of one, or a few, people. If James Bond doesn’t pull off this next stunt, the World Will Come To An End. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum, alone, deliver the computer virus that takes down the mother ship in Independence Day, which conveniently disables all the rest; the entire tension of the plot is funneled through that one bottleneck, as it were. A few superheroes save the universe—well, half of it—in the Avengers movies. In Netflix’s just-released Enola Holmes movie (mild spoiler), the heroine’s actions save the one person who casts the deciding vote on a British reform act. We love this trope.
The desire to make everything come down to a few people’s desperate actions can even warp the adaptation of a story. A number of small, but annoying, changes in the plot of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies seem to stem from a tendency to have every crucial point depend on the actions of the nine members of the Fellowship. For example, in the books, the Ents meet and decide the time has come to attack Isengard. In the movies, the Ents decide not to act—until Pippin and Merry maneuver Treebeard to where he can see Saruman’s wanton destruction of the forests (on the absurd assumption that the Shepherd of the Trees didn’t know about that already).
In the books, Denethor sensibly sends a messenger from Minas Tirith to Rohan to call for help. But the movies leave it to Gandalf and Pippin to fire up a beacon that transmits the call to Rohan. (The fact that the lighting of the beacons is one of the most terrific scenes in the whole series doesn’t entirely mitigate the plot diversion.) When the Corsair ships sailing up the Great River to Minas Tirith turn out to contain relief for the city rather than further invaders, the movie makes this just Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, along with the faceless army of the Dead—rather than a whole array of human reinforcements from South Gondor, as in the books.
Aggregates and Bottlenecks
But when we return to the mundane world, we have to put aside this tempting way of telling a story. We don’t often see this pattern of world-saving heroic acts. We find instead that crucial changes depend on the combined actions of innumerable people, all doing the right (or wrong) things.
Milo Manara honors heroic women
The present moment can provide us a heightened appreciation of these unnoticed individual actions. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic saw an outpouring of support rightly directed to the unsung heroes—doctors and nurses and medical technicians, grocery store clerks, people who make toilet paper—unsung because they are too many to spotlight individually. (Although individual acts of appreciation are still a just way to honor those continuing acts of undemonstrative service.) Indeed, everyone has to act in concert if the pandemic is to be contained.
Of course, going in and making some marks on a piece of paper doesn’t feel much like heroism—even less so than wearing a facemask. Perhaps it feels a little more dramatic when we’re braving the chance of coronavirus infection to cast our ballots. And if that way of viewing our action as a daring deed spurs us to act, by all means indulge!
But in this kind of case, the only way to achieve anything is by small actions, each of which contributes to a whole. The entire set makes a difference; but there can’t be an entire set unless there are individual acts. In voting, as in picking up one’s trash, or in the innumerable actions that make up a free market, we must carry out the individual actions to produce the aggregate effect.
Turning the Tide in Real Life
If we need further encouragement, we can look to the additional fact that even one vote, or a few, can sometimes make the crucial difference.
Right here in Virginia, we had an election in 2017 that resulted in a literal tie: an equal number of votes for each candidate. A purely random action had to be used to break the tie. “Each candidate’s name was placed in a film canister; those were then placed into a bowl and one name was drawn.” (NPR, 1/4/2018)
Even a few votes, even one, can make the critical difference, as recounted here and here—notably including “the year 2000 U.S. presidential election, decided by a few hundred votes in the state of Florida” (Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005), “Further Readings” for ch. 16, p. 556) Over and above my contribution to the whole, I cannot know in advance whether my vote might not be, in fact, the deciding factor in a hotly contested election.
Moreover, even if the outcome of an election might be clear without my vote, adding to the total is not pointless. In today’s atmosphere of distrust and suspicion, the clearer and more decisive the result, the less opportunity there will be to cast doubt on the results. Every vote added to the total reduces the number of people who will be convinced that the results are false, and thus directly supports the rule of law.
This concern also bears on the notion of voting for a third-party candidate. In the upcoming election, many people may be sufficiently dissatisfied with both major parties to be motivated to cast their ballots for a third-party contender. It might feel virtuous to spurn both parties and “vote one’s conscience” in favor of a candidate who cannot win. But in practice, that action will only serve to make the results less clear, at a time when clarity is vitally needed.
Voting is much trickier—even perhaps a heroic act, as noted above—in these pandemic times. Nevertheless, there are avenues available by which all of us can safely exercise the franchise.
For my own locality in Virginia, here’s a guide to voting early, voting by mail, and voting on Election Day. The local paper has a Web site on How to Vote, by state; I haven’t researched that reference in detail, but it may be useful. Here are threearticles on drop boxes for ballots.
I urge every eligible voter to take part in this crucial action of self-government. Unless you’re actually in the hospital in a coma (or the like), there’s no excuse not to participate.