Tell Me What You’re Doing

Shakespearean Description

A few years ago my kids gave me a copy of The Jedi Doth Return—or, in full, William Shakespeare’s The Jedi Doth Return:  Star Wars Part the Sixth, by Ian Doescher (2014).  This little book is a retelling of the movie Return of the Jedi in the form of a Shakespeare play, with the entire text in iambic pentameter.

The Jedi Doth Return, cover

It’s great fun to see the swashbuckling space epic transformed into sixteenth-century poetry.  And the reading is surprisingly good as well, with some memorable phrases bringing out nuances not necessarily detectable in the movie; at least one passage was striking enough to make it onto my Quote of the Week page back in 2017.

But one thing in particular caught my attention, perhaps because of the contrast between SF subject matter and Shakespearean technique:  how frequently the characters describe in words what’s happening.  For example, in Act I, Scene 3 (p. 25), Leia sneaks into Jabba’s palace to rescue Han Solo:

In stealth I move throughout the palace dark,
That no one shall bear witness to my acts.
Now cross the court, with footsteps nimbly plac’d.
Ne’er did a matter of such weight depend
Upon a gentle footfall in the night.
Put out the light, and then relume his light—
Aye, now I spy my goal:  the frozen Han.
Thy work is finish’d, feet.  Now ’tis the hands
That shall a more profound task undertake.
Quick to the panel, press the needed code.
O swiftly fly, good hands, and free this man
From his most cold and undeservéd cell.
O true decryptionist, thy codes are quick!
The scheme hath work’d, the carbonite doth melt.

Han & Leia illustration from The Jedi Doth Return

She’s narrating what’s happening, in just the fashion of a true Shakespeare character (“What light through yonder window breaks?”).  Of course, if she were actually saying this aloud, she’d have roused the whole palace; but of course the Shakespearean convention of the inaudible (except to the audience) soliloquy is also in effect.

This self-description seems to be even more necessary in an action sequence.  When Luke peels off from Leia to pursue Imperial scouts in the landspeeder chase through the forest (Act III, Scene 1, p. 77), along with stage directions, we get a similar blow-by-blow account:

LEIA:  ‘Tis well. Be safe, and I shall see thee soon.
LUKE:  [aside]  O sister, all my thanks for tender words.

[Luke falls behind, alongside
Imperial Scouts 5 and 6.

Now shall this bike’s keen blaster find its mark!
I shoot, and one is dead; the other next.

[Luke shoots and kills Imperial Scout 6.

LEIA:  I shall fly high o’er this one’s bike, that he
May think that I have fled.  Then shall I from
Above make my attack.  Ha!  Now beside
His bike, surprise is my sure strategy.

[Imperial Scout 4 shoots at Leia.

Alas!  My bike is hit, and off I fall!

Reading this as a book, the narration helps me figure out what’s going on (and helps me visualize the appropriate scenes from the movie I know so well).  Of course, if I could see the play actually performed, some things would be clearer.  Still, a stage play can’t provide all the visual background we’d get in a movie.  I have no idea how they’d depict the land-speeder chase on stage—though I’d like to see them try!  Maybe it’s the shortage of visual imagery that requires the dialogue.

But it’s not quite that simple.

The Comic-Book Monologue

In an old-style comic book, we also see characters providing a lot of description.  The villain doesn’t just whip out his infernal device and fire it at the good guys; he’s also likely to announce something like, “Now, tremble before the power of my unstoppable Meson Beam, as it suppresses the strong nuclear force and disintegrates your very molecules!” Here’s an example from Fantastic Four #52, the first appearance of the Black Panther (1966):

3-panel action scene from Fantastic Four number 52

Sometimes a quantity of prose is expended on a mere landscape scene, as with this magnificent Kirbyesque high-tech jungle shot.

Fantastic Four enters Black Panther's high-tech jungle

Why all the verbiage?  The trouble is, the special effects alone doesn’t tell us much.  In primarily visual media, we don’t get internals or narrator comments.  A genius like Reed Richards may be able to figure out instantly what an exotic weapon is doing, but we poor readers can’t.  Even in a non-action scene, the implications of the Panther’s “jungle” might not be obvious without having someone to explain.

Of course, as the first panels above illustrate, wedging all this dialogue into an action sequence requires another convention, as arbitrary as the Shakespearean soliloquy:  “talking is a free action.”  We are simply to accept the notion that a character can deliver a lengthy speech while taking split-second actions.  The expository lecture is more plausible when cruising through a landscape, as in the second image.

Thor's instantaneous declaration, From Beyond This UniverseWhen my brother Matt and I were working on our great unfinished comic-book epic back in grade school, we faithfully replicated this convention, allowing a hero to get off an appropriately heroic declaration while a roof is falling on his head.  (Apologies for the black-and-white shot; I don’t have the full-color original ready to hand.)

 

Sailor Moon manga attack sceneNot all graphic novels use this convention.  It may not be as common in manga, for example, where there’s a lot more action without explanation—and where, as a consequence, I sometimes have trouble figuring out what’s going on.  This discrepancy may reflect a cultural difference; I didn’t grow up with Japanese comic culture and may be missing some clues.  Still, I think it’s harder to make out events  without the occasional verbal aside.  In the Sailor Moon manga and anime, for example, if there’s any dialogue at all that relates to a superpower, it’s likely to consist in calling out an attack name like “Moon Princess Halation,” which by itself communicates even less than “magnetic anti-polarity.”  I’ve encountered some similar problems reading contemporary American graphic novels like Monstress.

On-Screen Obscurity

Visual media have some advantages in being able to show directly what people are doing, depending on the medium.  However, the audience for a stage play is likely to be at some distance from the performers, which means that very small actions may be hard to make out.  If a character on stage is, say, picking a lock, there will probably have to be some setup to make clear what they’re going to do (especially if the locked door is invisible and not actually part of the stage set).  In a movie, on the other hand, the director is free to show the character crouching next to the door with her tools, then cut to a close-up shot of her hands working the tools in the lock, then back out to the door opening.  Comic books can do the same thing.

This assumes we already understand what picking a lock is.  The need for explanatory narration is accentuated in science fiction and fantasy stories, where the things that are happening may be extraordinary.  When the action is more mundane, we can get by with less explanation.  If the villain fires a pistol at the good guys, we don’t need to be told how a pistol works.  But if the action uses superhuman powers or advanced technology that we haven’t seen before, an explanation may still be necessary.

Consider Marvel Comics’ Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff).  Her powers originally consisted rather vaguely in casting a “hex,” which caused things to go wrong (in unspecified ways) for the target of the hex.  Later retcons and expansions introduced a number of different power sets.  But in the Marvel Cineverse movie versions, her powers are hardly explained at all.  We may see her blasting Thanos, but we don’t actually understand (even in the lenient comic-book-movie sense of “understand”) what her powers are supposed to be.  For all practical purposes, she might as well be Sailor Moon.  (Now there’s an idea for a crossover . . .)

As always, there are good and bad ways to supply the necessary explanations.  As I’ve mentioned before, the original Star Wars is good at this:  Han can snap out the line “. . . while I make the calculations for the jump to lightspeed,” and that’s all we need to know.  On the other hand, there’s what Shamus Young describes as “Super Exposition” in a 7/6/17 blog post:  “The villains blabbed their plans for no reason. Heroes narrated their own actions to themselves, out loud, during a fight. Characters would stop and explain why something was good or bad right in the middle of it happening, because the writers didn’t set anything up ahead of time.”  Overdone, the practice falls into condescending overexplanation.

On the whole, the different media seem to require different types and levels of exposition.  In a purely verbal medium like a book, when we have only the words to work with, every action must be described.  On stage, at least some forms of presentation describe the action verbally as well.  And even in a movie, where we can see what’s happening in detail, we may still need to have the events analyzed.

The Backyard Spaceship

When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods.  As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic.  It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.

But I wanted to believe it.

There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard.  Of course, “backyard” may not be literal.  I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.Cover, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954).  Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.”  They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.

Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully.  A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work.  A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story.  If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions.  Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale.  It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy.  He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet.  These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.Cover, Rocket Ship Galileo

A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys.  They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys.  Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”

Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible.  Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion.  The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert.  Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”

The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s.  That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.”  In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.

A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier).  When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power.  The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture.  No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.cover, Red Thunder

We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder.  The passage of time has made some differences.  The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself).  Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon.  The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses).  Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience.  Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.

 

Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?

This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder).  The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.

More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations.  We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person.  It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”).  We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”

The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight.  It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering.  And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager.  Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.