Ends of Eras

Part of the journey is the end.
—Tony Stark

“The Saga Comes To An End”

We have a lot of extended stories coming to a close this year.  At this writing, eleven years of Marvel Cineverse movies have concluded with Avengers:  Endgame.  It won’t by any means be the last Marvel movie—we’ll see many of these characters again—but the overall story that began with Iron Man in 2008 has reached its end.  The TV series Game of Thrones released its finale on May 19, 2019.  In December, we anticipate the conclusion of the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies (The Rise of Skywalker).

On the book side, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (she first appeared in 1992) arrived at a conclusion of sorts with Uncompromising Honor (2018).  There are plotlines still unfinished, and Honor herself may reappear in later stories, but it seems clear her personal narrative arc has closed.

Even a blog post by the FCC’s General Counsel, of all things, has given a nod to this convergence of endings.

I’m going to assume it’s coincidence that these sagas of different lengths are finishing up together.  It does seem like a good moment, however, to reflect on what the resolution of these stories says to us.

(Miraculously, this post seems to have managed to avoid any actual spoilers for Endgame.  But please note that the links, if you follow them, are full of spoilers.)

 “A really long story”

The fact that we have all these long-running series, by itself, brings up some topics that are familiar in this blog.  For instance, it confirms that readers and viewers of our own era are not as lacking in attention span as pundits might claim.  An article by Douglas Wolk, the weekend of Endgame’s release, was titled:  “Americans crave complex ideas.  Just look at the Marvel universe.”

Wolk credits Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, back in the 1960s, with bringing extended stories spanning multiple magazines to comic books.  He notes also that such vast tapestries draw us together by giving us shared topics to talk about:  “to be drawn into conversation to understand them better”—to share reactions, insights, theories about stories that “mean more to us together than alone.”  I can testify to this, as a veteran of many an animated office conversation on what was so good about Captain Marvel or whether people were satisfied with the ending of GoT.

A wide-ranging story also satisfies our appetite for visiting a fully-realized world.  This is the value of what Tolkien called “Escape” in his pivotal essay On Fairy-Stories—the refreshing sense of leaving our ordinary world temporarily behind to immerse oneself in a new and different world.  It was Tolkien who (in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings) gave his primary motive as “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story”—but who is also one of the great worldbuilders.

The Craving for Epics

But these aspects mostly reflect the sheer size of the saga.  More to the point, perhaps, is that many of us also share an appetite for what we might call the epic:  a mighty struggle in which one side is clearly fighting for something worthwhile, and gains some success, as distinct from a tragedy.

Not everyone has this taste:  some of us prefer more limited stories about individual people’s fates (for example, in the romance genre), or stories that disdain the whole good-versus-evil business as insufficiently gray.  And some massive sagas fit the epic pattern better than others.  Game of Thrones is notorious for its ambivalent characters and refusal to grant unambiguous victories.  Still, from what I hear, the finale did at least bring the Westeros civil war to an end, and (mirabile dictu) many of the more decent characters survived.

Mark Ruffalo (who plays the Hulk), discussing the Avengers movies, said:

You also see the power of storytelling.  One thing I think about these movies that’s really exciting is they’re forward-leaning in the narrative of good versus evil.  We’re able to transcend some of the divisive narratives that are happening now.  (Quoted in Anthony Brezican, “All for One,” Entertainment, April 19/26, 2019, p. 20.)

It’s fascinating to hear a good-versus-evil narrative described as “forward-leaning,” after so many years in which such stories have been derided as passé.  But the remark has further implications.  It matters how things come out in the end—good, bad, or mixed.  And this means there has to be an ending in which some kind of resolution occurs.

Letting a Story End

I can’t really evaluate a story until I’ve seen how it comes out.  I’ve seen stories that were pretty off-putting in the early stages, but managed to redeem themselves at the end.  And I’ve seen some that seemed promising, but ended in a way that ruined everything that had come before.  One is reminded of the ancient adage about a human life:  “Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known” (Sirach 11:28; Aristotle discusses a similar statement by Solon in Nicomachean Ethics I.10).  Since a person’s life is a story, the connection makes sense.

That a story needs an ending might seem a truism if it weren’t that we have lots of stories that don’t end.  For example, comic books and soap operas (“daytime drama”) go on indefinitely, as long as people are willing to read or watch.  The occasional subversion of this pattern is noteworthy for its rarity—for example, the story in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comic where a costumed hero called Jack-in-the-Box, himself a son who has taken on his father’s hero identity, deliberately trains a successor to take over the role (“Father’s Day,” in Astro City:  Family Album (1999)).

In more conventional literature and movies, we find other timeless, perpetual characters.  The irascible detective Nero Wolfe figured in tales spanning the period from 1934 to 1975, without major changes in his age or situation, despite the major changes in world events and American culture over that time.  The character’s fixity is actually kind of appealing; it seemed odd when a later Wolfe book written by Robert Goldsborough shows Wolfe’s sidekick Archie Goodwin using a computer in place of his trusty typewriter.  Similarly, P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster survived innumerable scrapes and confusions from 1923 through 1974, with similarly unsettling chronological consequences (Bertie encounters a protest march in one of the later books).  In the movies, James Bond has eternal life, though actors may come and go.

Dragonflight coverBut barring these iconic perennial characters, a series that goes on indefinitely without an ending—or past its ending—is in danger of becoming humdrum.  When Anne McCaffrey started her Dragonriders of Pern series in 1967, the charcters were fighting the periodically recurring scourge of “Thread,” but aspired to find a way to end it once and for all.  In All the Weyrs of Pern (1991), they actually accomplished that goal.  That wasn’t the end of the stories; almost twenty other Dragonrider books have been published since by McCaffrey and her children.  But I found that I lost a good deal of my interest once the driving force of the original plot ended.  It was always pleasant to visit Pern, but the motivation of an ongoing plot was absent.

This may be a personal predilection; it may account for why I have difficulty staying interested in a TV series for very long.  The exceptions occur where the ongoing character or story arcs are sufficiently compelling to keep me engaged.  The Good Place, for example, achieves this by turning into a quite different kind of story in each of the three seasons so far, but with continuing characters who still seem to be reaching toward an end.  Chuck succeeded in a somewhat similar way, but the original premise was clearly played out by the last half-season; it was a good thing the series ended when it did.  When even a major movie comes across as “just another episode,” that’s a buzz-killer for me.

Closure and Continuation

Theatre critic Ann Hornaday focused on the virtues of conclusion in an excellent article upon the release of Endgame.  One such virtue arises from the very existence of an overall arc, and the associated worldbuilding:  “When contemporary experience seems to be composed of narratively nonsensical shocks to the system, the attraction of coherent, well-constructed alternative realities cannot be underestimated.”  Moreover, a good long story can engender a powerful sense of fulfillment, of achievement, from the closure of an appropriate ending.  It’s worth keeping mind that the word “end” means not just where something stops, but also a goal toward which we strive.  A fitting close is a good thing even if the ending also involves dealing with death—“absence and interior loss,” as Hornaday puts it.

As noted above, the conclusion of an iconic hero’s story is unusual enough that to see such a character retire and reach an end is both somber and refreshing.  We hate to see them go, but if they’ve lived a full life, we feel a kind of elegiac nostalgia.

This works best when the world goes on, but new characters take over—just as in real life.  It won’t surprise anyone that some of the heroes in Endgame do reach their ends; others continue.  Honor Harrington retires, but her successors will carry on while she finally enjoys the fruits of a well-earned victory.  As readers and viewers, we ought to be willing to let a beloved character go.  This reluctant release may be echoed in the story itself.  When one of the characters in Endgame tells another that it’s okay for them to go, it reminded me of what I said to my own mother, at the hospice staff’s suggestion, when she was ready to die.

While we love our heroes, the hero’s journey does have an end (which need not be death; the cited Wikipedia page labels it “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”).  We need that fitting closure to make a good story.

Is it unrealistic to expect neat endings that wind up lives, or at least careers?  Not really.  The wise Sam Gamgee was right to suggest that the great stories never really end (The Two Towers, Book IV, ch. 8); and as Bilbo said, “the Road goes ever on” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, ch. 1).  But the episodes, the substories that make up those grand tales, do have their moments of closure.

We do achieve or complete things, sometimes.  We go through high school or college, and then graduate (mostly).  After a courtship, we marry—which starts a new story.  Elsewhere I’ve quoted Alasdair MacIntyre to the effect that in Jane Austen’s novels, marriage occupies the place of death in real life—an ending we don’t move beyond.  Yet we do move on; and the milestone event is no less an achievement because another phase of the story continues afterward.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”  We need both closure and continuation.

This duality is most prominent when one person’s arc winds down and others begin.  It’s not just one story with its phases and milestones, but a vast array of overlapping stories.  Everyone has a story, and they are all woven together.  “In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed” (Perelandra, ch.17).

So we celebrate the closing of these mighty sagas, and we look forward to the new stories that will follow them.

Worldwasting: Ragnarok and The Last Jedi

Recently, as the DVD releases became available, I re-watched Thor:  Ragnarok (Thor 3) and Star Wars:  The Last Jedi (Star Wars VIII, “TLJ”).  I enjoyed both movies very much.  But each takes a direction that leads to some reflections on the fine art of worldbuilding.

Making the World

World in geometric pattern (worldbuilding)F&SF writers talk a lot about “worldbuilding”:  constructing a whole background for your story, an imaginary world.  Other kinds of fiction also do some of this. A romance or a Western or a mainstream novel may take place in a fictional town, let the characters eat at an imaginary restaurant, have a marketing maven write slogans for a nonexistent product.  But fantasy and science fiction require the author to invent much more and take less for granted.

Worldbuilding is a fascinating exercise that can become an engrossing end in itself.  We can spend hours on developing languages or family trees or maps.  Tolkien (of course!) famously referred to this process as “sub-creation,” analogous to the creative power of God.  (On Wikipedia, “sub-creation” redirects right back to the main page on worldbuilding.)  There’s even a Worldbuilding Magazine and a Reddit subsite for “sharing your worlds and discussing the many aspects of creating new universes.”

But the primary purpose of worldbuilding in fiction is to provide a background for the story—one with enough depth and verisimilitude to aid the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The fictional world is most of all a resource for the story.

. . . And Unmaking It

But a resource can also become a constraint.  Every decision you make for a world limits what you can do later.  If I’ve placed a mountain range here, I can’t put a flat desert in the same place.  If my main character’s father is a heroic pilot, he can’t also be the threatening villain.  (Er, or maybe he can—with enough feverish “retconning” to patch the gap.)

The more the world accretes additional detail over a series of books or movies, the more it may become a confining “Procrustean bed” to which later stories must be fitted.  The problem reaches its height in comic book series, where the same characters’ adventures may run for decades, at the hands of many different writers and artists.  The characters’ backstories and the background details eventually are almost bound to become a “continuity snarl,” with so many contradictory elements that no one can figure out what’s going on any more.  The authors or producers can be driven to “reboot” their world—start over from scratch—as a desperate way to clear up the mess.Colorful spiral

Even if things doesn’t reach this pass, however, a writer may want to get rid of some pre-existing elements.  Maybe they’ve just gotten boring:  who wants to see the same character angst and relationship issues recur over four hundred episodes?  Maybe an old bit of worldbuilding or character history would get in the way of an appealing new development.  Maybe the writer just wants to emphasize how big and menacing a new threat is by having it destroy something that seemed like a fixture of the universe—or simply shock the reader by defying those status quo expectations.

Alongside the draw of building out an ever more fine-grained world, then, there’s a corresponding temptation to tear things up and make radical changes.  In search of greater drama, let’s go all the way!

Such dramatic reversals can be productive.  Sometimes the status quo has become boring and needs to be upended.  But it’s a dangerous enterprise.  The built world is our resource.  The reader’s or viewer’s attachment to characters, enjoyment of well-established locales, and appreciation for long-running history provides a good deal of the continuing interest for the audience.  We risk throwing that away, piece by piece, if we throw away large chunks of the world-background unwisely.

Bags of seed cornThere’s a problem known as spending your capital, or “eating your seed corn.”  If you have to use up the resources necessary for the next step or the next generation – consuming the seed you need to plant for next year’s harvest – the needs of the moment may imperil the chances for longer-range development.  The worldbuilding “resource” represents the capital the writer has on hand to engage readers and develop the story.  It has to be invested wisely.

We’re finally ready to look at the two movies I mentioned—and, unavoidably, to warn—

Here Be Spoilers!

Thor:  Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok movie posterFirst, a qualification.  Both of these movies are middle pieces:  we don’t know how the stories end.  (Ragnarok’s “sequel” is Avengers:  Infinity War—and we’ll find out how that develops later this week.  For TLJ, we’ll have to wait for December 2019.)  So we can’t yet fully evaluate what the authors are doing.  But both spend their worldbuilding capital rather freely.

Ragnarok’s villain is Hela, queen of the underworld.  She’s powerful.  How powerful is she?  The first thing she does upon entering Asgard is to kill Fandral and Volstagg, two of the beloved “Warriors Three” that comic-book readers have been following since 1965 and movie viewers since the original Thor.  (The third warrior, Hogun, meets his end a few scenes later.)

Hela wipes them out without breathing hard.  Does that prove her sufficiently badass?  Sure.  Is it a fitting end for such long-standing heroes?  It seems rather abrupt—not even time for memorable last words.

More important, the summary termination deprives the series of those three characters for later stories.  That’s a loss.  If any young ladies were swooning over the dashing Fandral, they will swoon no more.  We won’t see Thor’s three battle buddies at the climactic engagement of the Infinity War.  Of course, given the enormous number of major characters Marvel already has to accommodate somehow in Infinity War, maybe reducing the count by three is seen as an advantage.  But the Marvel Cinematic Universe has lost some potential energy.

Hela crushes Thor's hammerThor’s iconic hammer Mjolnir is featured prominently in the opening scenes of Ragnarok—so it can be caught and shattered by Hela when Thor first meets her.  While Thor (as Odin dryly points out) is not defined by his hammer, it’s his characteristic weapon, and we’ve been shown many times that no one else can even lift it.  Again, Hela’s casual treatment of Mjolnir is startling enough to establish her threat level.  But it’s hard to picture Thor going through the remaining battles of the Cineverse arc without his trusty hammer.

By the end of the movie, Asgard itself is destroyed, and the surviving Asgardians are setting out to find a new home.  While the moment is certainly moving, the universe is a little poorer for the absence of the classic afterworld so brilliantly realized in Thor’s scene design.

Most strikingly, Ragnarok essentially drops the romantic element that’s played a significant part in the story so far.  It appears Thor has simply broken up with Jane Foster (or vice versa)—an ignoble offstage end to what we were to regard as a serious love affair.

Sif (comics)Now, those of us who remember the original comics might be content enough to have Jane replaced by Sif, who, after all, was Thor’s wife in the mythology—and whose interest in Thor was specifically established in the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.  But Sif is also absent, and we don’t even hear an explanation.  It’s possible these two characters were cleared away to make room for a potential romance with the new character Valkyrie (Brunnhilde).  But we don’t really see any sparks fly or bonds form for Thor and Brunnhilde in Ragnarok.

The MCU has backstory to burn, and it’s still quite possible that these will turn out to be resources well spent to build dramatic potential for the overall Avengers plot arc.  One hopes so; a world is a terrible thing to waste.

The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie posterThe Force Awakens knocked out one of the pillars of the Star Wars universe by “expending” Han Solo.  That was surprising, but not alarming.  These original-trilogy characters have lived full lives (if not entirely satisfactory ones).  We expect them to give way to the new generation of main characters.  It wasn’t startling to see another New Hope stalwart bite the dust in Episode VIII.  But TLJ goes considerably further than that.

It seems pretty clear that Luke has shuffled off this mortal coil at the end of TLJ:  he’s preformed the Jedi-master trick of evaporating out of his clothing, like Obi-wan and Yoda before him.  We can expect to see him again as a Force ghost, but not to do anything except offer sage advice.  (On the other hand, the ghostly Yoda seems to have called down lightning to burn up the old tree—a more direct intervention than we’ve seen a departed Jedi accomplish before.)

In addition, we won’t see Leia in Episode IX; the character is still alive at the end of TLJ, but is sadly now subject to what TV Tropes has called “Actor Existence Failure.”  That eliminates all three central characters from the first Star Wars picture.

We have the new characters to carry us forward.  But in several ways TLJ weakens their potential plot energy as well.  The most important issue, of course, is Rey and her parentage.

Rey cries out to departing spaceshipRey’s origin probably excited more speculation than any other topic between Episodes VII and VIII.  The solution presented in TLJ is brilliant, in its way:  Rey’s parents are nobodies, uncaring drifters who sold her to a junk dealer for drinking money.  Director Rian Johnson’s solution succeeded in surprising us, since it avoided all the plausible speculations fans had offered over the preceding two years.  More important, this revelation strikes at the heart of Rey’s stubborn, anchoring belief that her parents would return for her someday.  It would be a major character issue to see how she deals with the blow—if we get a chance to see it; she was in the middle of a major battle at the time and there was very limited opportunity to see how she was taking the news.

We should pause to consider whether Kylo Ren was telling Rey the truth, or presenting a lie designed to play on what he’d just called her weakness.  She says she recognizes the truth of his statement at some level herself (reminiscent of Luke’s reaction to Vader in Episode V).  But in her state of confusion, that may not be decisive.

On the other hand, there are a few things that don’t fit well with Kylo’s claim.  In the Force Awakens (“TFA”) flashback scene, we saw young Rey crying out to a departing spaceship.  Would these poor, anonymous drifters have been likely to own a spaceship?  And it’s always been a bit mysterious how the young Rey, if she was essentially a slave to Unkar Plutt without any family connections, was somehow allowed to buy herself free (presumably) and attain even the subsistence life of a scavenger in which we first see her.  It could turn out that the real truth is yet to be revealed.

But I consider that a long shot at best.  Like “I am your father,” the “nobodies” option is simply too good a narrative move to throw away.  It subverts the “Chosen One” theme that’s been running in Star Wars since the beginning, bringing us closer to a more Lord of the Rings-like “democratic” trope.  That shift in attitude is consistent with several moves in TLJ, including the introduction of Rose, the change in presentation of the Force, and especially the wonderful scene at the very end.

If we do accept Kylo’s description of Rey’s parents, it dissipates a lot of potential interest.  There are no hidden connections to be discovered; the mystery is no mystery, but an anticlimax.  There are no further plot developments to follow on Rey’s parentage.  That highly-charged element of TFA simply seems to have been abandoned—dare I say wasted?

Rose kisses FinnAs with Ragnarok, romance also seems to be relegated to a minor role.  TFA gave us a fascinating relationship between Rey and Finn that seemed to be developing toward a romance.  But they’re separated for most of TLJ, and meanwhile another well-wrought character, Rose Tico, is lined up with Finn.  After Rose tells Finn she loves him, we get a final scene in which Rey rather ruefully turns away from seeing Finn tenderly tucking in the near-death Rose (although Finn himself hasn’t made any declaration yet).

If Rey doesn’t fall in love with Finn, who else is there?  There’s no sign of any mutual interest with Poe, and if she were going to converge with Kylo (as I’ve occasionally feared), the place for that would have been during their mutual battle on Snoke’s flagship—and no romantic move was made.  Like Luke, Rey may be meant for a single life.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se—but declining the potential for romance is, again, letting a degree of character interest fade away.

Finally, there’s the Force itself.  That’s always been a tricky concept, right back to A New Hope—something worthy of more specific discussion one of these days.  But whatever tricks TFA added to the repertoire, TLJ seems to take away.

Does the Force have purposes?  Does it act on its own?  There are things in the original trilogy (IV-VI) that suggest it might.  And in Episode I, we were told that that Force apparently engendered little Anakin Skywalker without even requiring a father.

The title of the series’ revival in Episode VII, The Force Awakens, suggested that Something Big was happening, with its source in the Force itself.  But two movies later, I still have no idea what “an awakening in the Force” is supposed to mean.

J.J. Abrams built up the potential for some kind of revelation in TFA.  But in TLJ, Johnson seems to dissipate that anticipation entirely.  Yoda’s new instruction appears to be that the Force doesn’t act on its own, we simply use it as we will.  Frankly, in a way I like that approach better:  the notion of the Force moving us around like puppets for its own purposes was a bit creepy.  However, our expectation of some revelation about an “awakening” seems to have been scuttled.  Again, it’s not that the new plot development is bad; it’s that the worldbuilding set up by previous episodes seems to be ignored or undone by the most recent film.

Conclusion

Good worldbuilding and plot development are like winding up a spring:  you’re infusing energy into the system that can later be released to power the narrative.  These two recent stories seem to have the opposite effect:  they’re blowing off steam, releasing pressure, without fully utilizing that energy to enhance our interest.

Since we have yet to see how either story line comes out, it’s also possible that my comments could be entirely mistaken:  the apparent untwisting of plot potential may be twisting up new possibilities that aren’t visible yet.  We’ll have to wait and see; that’s the fun of it.

Arabella of Mars

Arabella of Mars book coverArabella of Mars, by David D. Levine (New York:  Tor, 2016), may be described as a Regency steampunk planetary romance.  Better yet may be the flyleaf testimonial from Madeleine Robins:  “If Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, and Patrick O’Brian had sat down together to compose a tale to amuse Jane Austen, the result might be Arabella of Mars.”

Genres are getting complicated these days.  But sometimes that cross-fertilization produces some entertaining mixes.

Our young heroine’s British family maintains a plantation on Mars, as if it were the Caribbean islands or India at the dawn of the nineteenth century.  The native Martians, filling the role of the local population, are considered primitive by the British colonists.  In this respect the setup is faintly reminiscent of the Martian sequence in Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast.

Physically, however, Levine’s Martians are more reminiscent of the green Martians of Burroughs’ Barsoom:  large, nonhuman, living in a desert world.  In keeping with modern sensibilities, the “natives” actually possess a respectable culture and can be formidable opponents.  This accounts for the “planetary romance” aspect—“an extension of late 19th and early 20th century adventure novels and pulp romances to a planetary setting,” as Wikipedia describes the genre.

When tomboyish Arabella is removed with her mother and sister to Earth, the Austen angle takes over.  Arabella finds the Regency-era dinner parties and promenades boring; she’d rather be tinkering with mechanical piano-players and other automata.  The swiftly thickening plot, which involves period devices like entailed estates, forces our heroine to disguise herself as a boy and take a menial position on an East India, er, Mars Company vessel bound for Mars again.

At this point the Burroughs and O’Brian factors collide in an extraordinarily droll description of the Age of Space as an Age of Sail.  Captain Jack Aubrey would have been perfectly at home on the quarterdeck of this interplanetary ship crewed by rough sailors and featuring three masts, not in a row, but protruding from the top and sides of the boat at 120-degree angles.  The Diana is lifted by hot-air balloons (coal-fired, of course) into the extremely high-speed interplanetary air currents, which make travel to Mars a matter of a few months.  These vessels are reminiscent of Burroughs’ Barsoomian airships, bringing us back to the planetary romance theme.

Levine gives us with a straight face his depiction of a Solar System filled with breathable air, without deigning to worry about trivialities such as how the planets could maintain their orbits in such a resisting medium.  The absurdity of the premise simply makes the description more delightful.  As we deal with pirates on the (very) high seas, stop at a convenient asteroid to cut down trees for repairs, and make charcoal to fuel the balloons for the perilous descent to Mars, one can only ride along enjoying Levine’s inventive adaptation of one set of tropes into an entirely different world.

But it’s not just silliness.  The book isn’t a farce.  There’s a good sound story with believable characters strung through this cockeyed worldbuilding.  There’s even a real romance, in the love-story sense, though this plays a somewhat muted role.  Overall, the tale has more of the sea story than of the Regency romance about it.  But it might serve an aficionado of either genre as a cordial introduction to the other.

The novel is billed as “Book One” of “The Adventures of Arabella Ashby.”  One can only imagine what sort of eccentric scenarios might come next.  (For example, I don’t believe anything has yet been mentioned about Venus—which is bound to be a jungle world, perhaps with dinosaurs, if it’s based on the Burroughs-Heinlein model.)  I look forward to seeing where this whimsical tale may lead.