Lessons in Brevity

Dear writers, if you’re going to write a 700+ page novel, please have more than one central point-of-view character – especially if you’re writing a portal quest Fantasy which spends 1/3 of the book inside the POV’s home city and/or the POV is an adolescent. Listen. No matter how interesting your character is, no one wants to live in one teenager’s head for 700 pages. Our teenage years were hard enough. Don’t make us relive that angst.

I suppose I should mention the title of the book I’m ranting about. Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy is actually half decent – once it starts going. Although the first book, The Outstretched Shadow (2003) is a slow crawl, by the second book, To Light a Candle (2004), Lackey and Mallory seem to have learned their lessons and we see the perspectives of a number of protagonists. In the first book we meet Kellen, son of the Arch-Mage (Head of the High Council which rules the city). We are also introduced to the city of Armethalieh, ruled by a totalitarian system of mages (the High Council). Within the first few pages, we are given a description of how magick effects every single facet of the city: “There was virtually no aspect of life that could not be enhanced by magick” (p. 5). This statement is bracketed by detailed examples, establishing just how integral and integrated magic is in the city. Once this is confirmed, we move swiftly into seeing the extent of the High Council’s authoritarian rule: “They, and not the merchants, determined what could be sold in the marketplace” (p. 8), right down to the patterns and colours allowed in ribbons for decorating clothing. As these details are established within the first 10 pages, it seems a bit… overkill to spend the next 150 pages reinforcing this message.

Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory’s Obsidian trilogy

We finally get to our first exciting incident at the quarter mark, as Kellen is expelled from the city. And the sense of urgency and suspense is handled-well, showing us that the authors are equipped to write exciting scenes. But once Kellen finds safety, the pace slows to a crawl again, as Kellen begins to gather information and evaluate his pre-conceived notions. Although there are a number of interesting events to keep the plot moving – as Kellen encounters a number of fantastical creatures that are outlawed from the city – the emphasis is on his reactions to these encounters which, unfortunately, take the form of introspection, a lot of quiet solitude ambles as Kellen ponders the nature of good and evil (seriously).

I should note that throughout the trilogy, we also see the perspectives of a handful of antagonists, a device I deplore except when handled in prologues like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. If your readers don’t like living in the head of a 17-year-old, they’re also unlikely to like seeing the perspectives of an evil – no nuances, wholly dark – character. It’s boring. And uncomfortable. So your character enjoys torturing people and doing other nasty unspeakable activities. Yuck. Do you really need to hammer out that detail over and over again? We don’t need continued reminders of why we should be rooting for the good guys. And, if you ARE going to keep reminding the reader, then we don’t need to have nearly 2/3rds of the book dedicated to introspection with the hero worrying that he’ll turn evil. I assume the contrast was supposed to establish a sense of horror if the hero gives into “temptation” and turns dark. But if you’re having such an all out black and white binary, it seems extremely unlikely that this good-hearted, conscientious person is going to turn so evil that he’ll sacrifice others for profit or pleasure.

In Story Engineering (2011) Larry Brooks describes the ideal structure of a novel. I’ll highlight the key points here:

  • Set-Up – first 20-25% – introduces character backstory, backstory, foreshadows antagonist
  • First Plot Point – everything changes for the hero
  • The Response – hero’s reaction (analysing, responding to)
  • The Attack – hero becomes proactive and tries to fix things
  • The Resolution – wrap things up (I.e. no new information introduced. The hero has everything they need to handle conflict)

Let’s apply this outline to The Outstretched Shadow. As I said above, the first 25% of the book gives us background information. While the first few pages describes the totalitarian government, we then spend the next 150 discovering just how extremely authoritative the government is. At 25%, right on cue (according to Brooks’ structure) Kellen is summoned to appear in front of the High Council and is then banished. So we have our first plot point, where everything changes for the hero. From there for the next 350 pages, the story is in “Response” mode. But, as I said above, this response mostly takes the form of deep introspection each time new information is revealed. 350 pages… in Response mode is… a snoozefest. Luckily Kellen is introduced to a number of interesting things that makes the reader preservere on and push past the tedious introspection bit. But you really don’t want your readers to “push past” any point of a book. At page 510 we get to “Attack” – except, significantly, the plan to attack does not come from Kellen himself. HE is not proactive. Instead, he is made to follow strict instructions, and, to top it off, he is given very little accompanying information about the whys. Kellen is sent out as a champion without being told even the smallest tiny detail about the antagonist. Heck, he’s not even told there even IS an antagonist. The language is all very vague and obscure and it’s only at page 592 that Kellen learns that he’s been sent off to face Demons. Let that sink in. Page 592. It’s at this point that we can really see the narration move into “Attack” mode, where the hero is given enough information to make a decision. But – even here – Kellen is in a position where he’s reacting and responding to the information. He’s already well into his journey that he doesn’t have a chance to make many active choices.

At about the 630 page mark we are introduced to a new character – one that is absolutely fundamental in helping to resolve the first novel (and ultimately the trilogy as a whole). From there, I would like to say that the final 80 pages go quickly. They don’t. The resolution itself is another series of introspection as Kellen faces temptations and internal conflict. It follows a fairly Cambellian and Jungian trajectory where the Shadow / Antagonist that the hero must face is himself. Which is absolutely fine, as a central goal of a journey. But not when you have nearly 710 pages dedicated to the deliberations of a single 17-year-old man-child. If you’re a writer and want to go down that route, then my advice is take a page from Jordan’s Wheel of Time and add enough characters that the introspections and self/shadow themes are varied and interesting. (Despite this rant, though, I’d like to add that I thoroughly enjoyed the next book in the series. So I still recommend it to read, but perhaps not if it’s your first introduction to Fantasy Fiction).

So You’re Considering (Post)Grad School?: A look back at a research proposal, and 12 years and 32 drafts later

**Note that different countries use different terminology. In Canada and US, a grad student is someone pursuing further education after completing their undergraduate studies. In UK, a graduate is someone who has completed their undergraduate studies, full stop. So, in UK, a postgrad is someone who has gone beyond being a graduate. I’m more familiar with UK terminology, but if you’re not clear on the specific jargon I’m using throughout this University 411/811 blog series (which I started here), please comment and ask so I can edit the blog for other readers as well.



32 drafts. I don’t know why I decided to sit down and count my drafts. And by ‘drafts’ I mean some form of submission or completedness – i.e. I sent it to someone else to look at or I said to myself “I’m done for now. I’ll focus on my other chapters and come back to it.” So ‘drafts’ doesn’t even count the number of tweaks and changes I’ve made daily while I worked to achieve that draft. And I’m also not talking full manuscript here. I’m talking about one chapter. THEE chapter. The one that put me on this path.

Chapter 1 of The Shape of Fantasy from start to finish – from the initial kernel of an idea taken from a short undergraduate paper to published chapter in an award-nominated book – was a process that took 12 years and 32 drafts. The chapter plays an integral part of my life. But the profound impact it had on me probably doesn’t come across in the dry academic chapter description:


Chapter 1 – The Shape of a Hero’s Soul: Interrogating the Destiny of the Hero in Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001)

Prophecy or the idea of the ‘Hero of Destiny’ are essential motifs in Heroic Epic Fantasy fiction. This chapter argues that while prophecy may drive characters and events in a narrative, the hero’s free will is not limited. Drawing from a tradition of Stoic philosophy, chapter one explores that, while the shape of the hero’s nature is pre-determined by a metaphysical entity, it remains up to the hero’s free will to determine whether to fulfil the functions of their design. This analysis utilises Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (2001), the first stand-alone novel of the Chalion universe (2001-present), as a case study. Using the novel as a model of Heroic Epic Fantasy, chapter one demonstrates that in a narrative with prophecy and fate, the hero interacts with these devices through an assertion of free will.


The TL:DR version: in chapter 1 I look at fate and free will in epic fantasy.

The Curse of Chalion     225

"No, don't waste the wine!" Cazaril protested, as Umegat reached for the jug. "I've seen it demonstrated before."
Umegat grinned, and desisted. "But have you really understood how powerless the gods are, when the lowest slave may exclude them from  his heart? And if from his heart, then from the world as well, for the gods many not reach in except through living souls. If the gods could seize passage from anyone they wished, then men would be mere puppets. Only if they borrow or are given will from a willing creature, do they have a little channel through which to act. They can see in through the minds of animals, sometimes, with effort. Plants ... require much foresight. Or"--Umegat turned his cup upright again, and lifted the jug--"sometimes, a man may open himself to them, and let them pour through him into the world." He filled his cup. "A saint is not a virtuous soul, but an empty one. He--or she--freely gives the gift of their will to their god. And in renouncing action, makes action possible."
Excerpt from Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion p. 225
(the sermon of the cup scene)

I’m trying to determine if it’s coincidental or not that a chapter about fate ultimately determined the path I took in life. At some point in my undergraduate studies I became fascinated with the concept of fate. Being a thoroughly unreligious person, I instead fell into a deep dark hole of tarot cards, astrology, numerology, and all the other pseudoscience paraphernalia. I’m almost too ashamed to admit just how much money I poured into astrology books. (Although I don’t regret my tarot card collection because the art work is awesome and tarot is fun when approached with the right sense and humour, i.e as a tool for introspection).

It wasn’t until 2007, in an undergraduate Classics modules on Greek Literature, that I started exploring the rich histories and nuanced philosophical debates of fate versus free will at an academic level. Taken from a context of Greek theology, my final paper for the class compared King Croseus in Herodotus’ Histories with Phaedra in Euripedes’ Hippolatus and considered whether their falls were fated. Did the Greek Gods plan for these characters to fall? Or was fate outside of the control of the Gods as well? Does even Zeus have to follow its dictates? Or do humankind have some measure of control in their lives?

These were all questions asked but never fully answered in my undergraduate paper. But for the rest of my undergraduate career, I kept coming back to the question of fate and free will. (If you remember in my discussion of how to prepare for seminars and lectures I talked about identifying things that interest you; fate and free will was big for me). Later, in a Roman Literature class I was introduced to the phrase:

ducunt voluntem fata nolentem trahunt

Seneca

Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling. While the English translation adds “the” and “and” to the sentence, these words aren’t strictly required in Latin. As well, in English word order is important. (For example, subject verb object. I like books: subject, verb, object.) But in Latin, instead of word order the spelling ending of each word indicates its function in a sentence. Thus, in Latin the phrase is perfectly balanced:

Leads. Willing. Fate. Unwilling. Drags.

5 words with “fate” in the middle sandwiched between 2 possible choices: “willing” and “unwilling”. That phrase became everything to me. It combined fate and free will together in this beautiful perfect sentence.

This concept sat in my head gestating for years. And finally, three quarters of the way through my MA studies, I had my eureka moment. The eureka moment wasn’t a “I figured out the answers” moment. Instead, the eureka moment was a moment of “I’ve identified a gap and a possible method of addressing it.” If you’re considering postgrad/grad school, focus on that. Find a gap. A gap that you’re passionate about. A gap that makes you ask “WHY HASN’T ANYONE LOOKED AT THIS??”

Now, before you get excited, Stop. First ask yourself if the gap has an obvious answer, or if you’re attempting to answer it with something most people won’t object to. Your thesis shouldn’t set out to argue things like “the world is round.” Yes, I realize that, in a world where everyone has an opinion on everything, there will always be someone that refutes obvious statements like that, but most educated people won’t object to that statement so it’s not an argument for a research project. Even if an educated person does object (i.e in the form of a peer reviewed publication), consider the statement within the larger field. DON’T set out to pick a fight with just one person/publication. That may work for a small section of an article, but NOT for the entirety of your dissertation. Also don’t argue for the value of something: “We should be looking at x.” That can be where your start exploring what research questions to ask. But WHAT should we look about with x? “We should be looking at climate change and taking it seriously.” Yes. Agreed. Not going to argue that. But now what? What exactly are we looking at and how?

Do some preliminary research. First make sure there IS a gap. If you find someone else has addressed the gap, that’s okay too! Remember the second part of my bolded statement? “And a possibly methodology for addressing it?”. Does your proposed methodology give you a different insight into the gap? Something new and different from what’s already out there?

During my MA in Comparative Literature I was fortunate enough to take a module on Popular Literature and Culture. I was doubly fortunate to have an instructor who let us use any popular culture text for a final paper. I decided I wanted to do a paper on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I loved the trilogy of course, but part of my decision was pure spite; we had studied the first novel for an English Literature class in Children’s Literature and the instructor danced around talking about agnosticism/atheism instead of tackling it head on because he did not want to “open up that can of worms” when I broached the topic in class. (15 years later and I still remember his exact response, so yes, that is a direct quote.) So here was my step towards finding a gap, with an instructor that didn’t want to talk about religion/anti-religion in Pullman’s trilogy. Of course, when I sat down to do the research I quickly realized how WRONG I was. This wasn’t a gap at all. There is a ton of material out there on religion and Pullman.

But while reading these articles and chapters I noticed another interesting trend: a struggle to successfully marry fate and free will together. That is, most of these literary critics saw the concepts in opposition to each other, as mutually exclusive terms. Why did no one see the beautiful marriage of fate and free will? Maybe it was because they didn’t know about Seneca and stoic philosophy? I quickly noticed this opposition of fate/free will applied to Fantasy criticism in general (in what little of it that was available in 2011). Given that Epic Fantasy is rooted in Epic Literature, this baffled me. Hasn’t anyone looked at the theology and philosophy of classic and contemporary epic literature and noted the connections between them?

This idea launched my PhD proposal. It set me on a path to Lancaster University, a journey that included moving from Canada to UK, from my parent’s house where I lived my entire life to my own flat in a city and country where I knew no one. I went on to make some amazing friendships as well as meeting the man I would eventually marry.

Despite all that, while the gap I had identified launched my academic career and my personal life, it was NOT the research question I ended up answering or the methodology I ended up using for the entirety of my research project. My PhD dissertation, followed by my monograph, became so much BIGGER than that. My initial research question and methodology is still there for chapter 1. I examined the question of fate and free will using a comparative methodology that took Roman philosophy and applied it to a contemporary fantasy text. When I started my PhD, I have envisaged a dissertation that either: 1. answered the question of fate and free will using a number of different methodologies and perspectives, or 2. used the comparative methodology of comparing Greco-Roman philosophy and literature to contemporary epic fantasy literature in order to identify and see more connections. If you take a look at my chapter descriptions for The Shape of Fantasy, I did neither. My project shifted entirely from what I envisaged in 2011 when I planned my research proposal. And that’s okay. It’s okay if you’re unsure at any stage about your research. I know sometimes it feels like you have no idea what you’re doing, but that’s okay. You’re learning. If your research has not changed the slightest from proposal stage to submission stage, if your ideas are exactly the same at the end of your PhD as they were at the start, then have you learned anything? That’s the point of all this, right? To learn something new.

32 drafts. From start to finish, it took me 32 drafts to write just 1/10th of my book. So, whether it takes you 10 drafts or 100, don’t stop. Keep going. A new draft means you’re learning.

Today we’re going to start discussing how to tackle the dreaded blank page. Until then, take care!

An Unexpected Journey – Re-Reading The Hobbit Chapter 1

Gif from Hobbit film, with Bilbo Baggins running, captioned with "I'm going on an adventure!"

After a 2020-apocalypse-driven hiatus, I’m diving back into reading with a Tolkien re-read. I hope you’ll join me on my adventure!

I haven’t read The Hobbit in nearly a decade. I’m sure the events of chapter one amused me when I was younger. But as my 34th birthday has passed me by a couple weeks ago, this time I was struck with feelings of ire on behalf of Mr. Bilbo Baggins. Here’s this polite, friendly guy, greeting a stranger with a hearty “good morning” and from that small interaction Bilbo gets stuck with a houseful of uninvited guests demanding seedcakes and telling him how they like their breakfast done in the morning.

At least most of the dwarves are a friendly, affable sort. But Thorin Oakenshield … well I wouldn’t him as my employer. Someone who’s too good to help clear the dishes? No thanks. Tolkien does an amazing job of painting a picture of someone who is puffed up with his own importance, while also indicating that the pride isn’t deserved. (Reminds me of the Tory party…..) Just look at his lineage. Grandfather Thrór is ran out of the North for reasons unknown. Luckily he stumbles across a huge pile of gold in his new mountain and declares himself King under the Mountain. In the South. (Nevermind the dwarves in the North.)

All that gold attracts a dragon, of course. Damn those greedy dragons. Which means Thorin is forced to flee with Grandpop and Dad and a handful of unnamed dwarves. (He doesn’t mention his dear mum. Guess dwarves are born from the ground or something.) The mighty king and heirs are forced to (make their people) work for a living. The horror! Instead of doing fancy smithing work for kings, the dwarves have to resort to the lowly job of blacksmithing and working mines. Thorin’s pride obviously takes a huge hit that his people have to do something so base. (Can you all see me rolling my eyes?)

I’m not sure how I would react if this guy showed up on my doorstep, judging my character while ordering his breakfast. To Bilbo’s credit he handles it with – not exactly grace – but with extremely good manners, going so far as to sacrifice his share of the cakes in order to be a good host.

Of course, it must have been the Baggins part of his nature that has instilled all that politeness and respectability as Tolkien goes on for a lengthy paragraph to state that the adventure-spirit comes from his mother’s side. And not just from his mother, the (im)famous Belladonna Took, but potentially there’s a fairy wife in the Took ancestry too. So the mother’s line damns him twice over. (Un)Luckily for Belladonna, she loses both identity and character when she becomes Mrs. Bungo Baggins. She stops going on adventures, gains respectability through her new name, and her husband builds her a beautiful and luxurious home – with her money. And really, what more could a woman ask for?

Who Owns Star Wars?

I sincerely hope this is my last post on Star Wars for a long time, but I felt the need to speak after seeing so much “fan”-bashing over the latest film.

I’m putting fan in quotes here because I’m not entirely sure if the *real* fans are the haters or the lovers. Both sides seem to equally claim and deny to be a fan. It’s a confusing mess.

There are a lot of flaws in the last film. I’m not going to deny it. BUT, I think a lot of these issues were a result of trying to cram in too large of a story into too small a space. There are rumours floating around of a potential director’s cut as J. J. Abrams had said he wished he could have done a Part I + Part II of Episode IX – but it would’ve broken the 3 trilogy structure.

So yes, there are problems with pacing and character development, and not much time to just breathe and enjoy the film.

That being said, I’m not sure I understand the venemous backlash against the film. “Dumpsterfire” and other less tasteful words have been used to describe the film. But probing into these emotions doesn’t seem to get me any real answers. Vague statements that cover general concepts (like issues of pacing) may be aired, but these concepts don’t seem to correlate to the sheer level of hatred. (If you have more concrete ideas, please do comment below. I would love to get to the heart of it). A similar outcry occurred with Episode VIII. (Go read the blog at BitterGertrude for an absolute fantastic breakdown of the response to the last film; you’ll see a number of similar complaints being made for Episode IX).

Part of the reason, of course, is because popular culture is personal. It’s owned by the fans. Any deviation from what they would like to see is a betrayal to the *real* fans. But, then we’re still left with the lingering question of “how do we define “real” fans?”. And, more importantly, “why are we gatekeeping?”

There have been cries that the studio gave into “fan service”; a criticism that confuses me to no end. (Tangent: if Disney really gave into fan service, they would have backed the Poe/Fin-ship instead of raining down hard with hints of heternormative relationships. Really, my biggest problem with the film is the lack of aliens in character roles that are played by humans purely, it seems, for hints of romantic interest. But I guess interspecies relations would be even more of a transgression than LGTBQ+ ones). So who are the “fans” that Disney is supposedly giving into? For instance, while Kelly Marie Tran (who plays Rose Tico) was cyberbullied after the release of Episode VIII, there was also a strong fan movement supporting her. Her character was downplayed in the final film, but is this due to the “backlash” of people rejecting her character, or due simply to intricacies of the plot and lack of time? Interestingly, it seems to me that the same people who complained that Episode VIII focused too much on character development and not on plot, are now decrying the lack of character development. So did the studio give into the cries from (mostly) hetero normative, white, middle-class males?

Yet, we not only still have a strong female cast (more females than male supporting characters as in the first 6 films), but we also have a complete revision of the hero’s narrative so that Episode IX re-frames Leia as the Skywalker hero. While it’s almost impossible to break the epic narrative cycle, it IS possible to shift it into something new. And Star Wars does that. As I said in my last post, Episode IX confirms and reveals Leia as the hero of the story. She passes on her torch to Rey; a matriarchal lineage, rather than the patriarchal heritage from Anakin to Luke to Ben. It’s this shift, I suspect, that the “fans” are reacting against, rather than anything else.

Which brings me to my final thought. The criticism that “George Lucas didn’t want it done that way.”

Okay. Well. 1. Then he shouldn’t have sold the rights to the movies. But he did. For a lot of money. And he did knowing they can do what they want to the story. Why are you giving your loyalty and allegiance to a man who didn’t return that favour to his fans?

2. George Lucas also gave us Jar-Jar Binks. So, use a more valid objection, please.

Which leads me to 3. George Lucas is not infallible. His original trilogy was based on the heroic pattern found in Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was published in 1949 – 70+ years ago! Campbell’s theories, while at times useful, are also restricted and limited. The new series revises the heroic pattern by shifting the story onto Leia and Rey.

And finally 4. This shift, in my mind, undoes a lot of the damage that George Lucas did with Episodes I-III. And no, I’m not talking about Jar Jar Binks (although :/ ) , I’m talking about Padme. Here we have this kick-ass female leader; queen, solider. And she’s relegated to the place of abused wife who dies because “her heart is breaking.” I mean. COME ON. Leia would never had said that line. Neither would Rey. Can you picture it? (I’m now visualizing Leia saying anything remotely like that to Han Solo, and I’m sure Carrie Fisher is looking down and giving me the finger at the very idea.)

So. Who Owns Star Wars? Well, I’m sorry to tell you fanboys that the torch has been passed. And that, I believe, is the heart of much (although not all) of the vehement, emotional, disgust aimed at the last film. Turns out, women can be the hero of the Epic journey too.

(Yay! It’s 2020! We finally made it! … :/ )

The Skywalker Saga and Why the Latest Trilogy Kicks Ass

*Major Spoiler Alerts*

2 days later and I’m still thinking about The Rise of Skywalker (2019) screening. (Yes, I’m late to the game. It’s hard to get out to the cinema when you have a small infant.) I’m not going to sit here and tell you that there AREN’T any flaws. Every work has areas where it can improve. Yes, there are pacing issues, and character development isn’t as nuanced as it could be. But really, I think *some* of these complaints are a bit out of place for a movie that is trying to encapsulate an epic narrative within 2-2.5 hours. (More on my thoughts of the Epic and Star Wars here.)

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think The Rise of Skywalker is brilliant in its subtly. All along, the story that the last three movies have been trying to tell us is that of Leia’s. Leia is the most important Skywalker. She is the Last of the Jedi.

Let’s go back to episode VII (The Force Awakens, 2015), where Luke doesn’t appear on screen until the very final moments of the movie; and, when he does appear, he has no lines. Yes, the story is all about anticipating his arrival. But, at the climatic moment, his entrance on to the screen achieves nothing.

This continues in episode VIII (The Last Jedi, 2018) as Luke is reluctant to return to the story. And even when he does, he manages to do it without leaving his hermitage, through astral projection only. Meanwhile, we have Leia throughout the three movies as the head of the rebellion. She’s The General, leader of the Resistance. While Luke is passive and inert, Leia acts.

And remember the moment in The Last Jedi where Leia survives by using the Force. (Who didn’t hold their breath and breathe with her?). It was there all along, The Last Jedi isn’t Luke. Even after he’s gone, there’s another trained Jedi in the rebellion.

While Leia’s training isn’t mentioned until the final installment, this story, Leia’s story, is hinted at all the way back in episode V (The Empire Strikes Back, 1980) when Luke abandons his training (launching him toward a path to the Dark Side) and Obi-Wan states that “all hope is lost”. Yoda replies that “no, there is another.” The word “hope” of course evokes the title of the episode IV (A New Hope, 1977), which, I would argue, is also about Leia’s journey more than Luke. She brought hope to the Resistance, more than Luke does. This idea is enhanced by the final words of Rogue One (2016), when Leia responds to the question “what is it?” (i.e the data package just handed to her) with “hope”.

The Rise of Skywalker fulfills the potential of Yoda’s cryptic words. It’s not only that Leia is another Skywalker, Luke’s twin, and has the potential to bring back the balance. It’s that she does, on her own merits (i.e not through her relationship to a patriarchal figure). She organizes a resistance with a movement and message so powerful that no single man can hope to take her place. (The exchange between Poe and Finn on Kef Bir and then again at the rebel base really drives this home.)

So while there have been a number of criticisms launched at the new trilogy complaining that we’re still stuck on “the Skywalker story” with all the events of the universe boiling down to a family feud, I’d argue that there is so much more depth to this simplified narrative. The Skywalker Saga (which is what I will be henceforth referring to it as for the rest of my days) is not just about balance, the Force, and a decades long war against the tyrannies of government. It’s also about one woman’s strength; a woman who had the mind and heart to keep a resistance together for decades, even after her entire family (brother, son, and partner) walks out on her.

What a brilliant message to end the series on.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharata, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.