Down with Dull Dystopias

The other day, Prof and I were at the library borrowing some light evening viewing. On my way to the circ desk my eye fell on the Just Returned cart and on a relatively recent SFF novel that I’ve heard good things about. (I always stop to check the cart. It’s often the best spot to pick up the popular new acquisitions.)

I picked it up and flipped over to the book description to remind myself what it was about. The novel is set in an apocalyptic or dystopic world with major environmental issues. And that made me promptly put it back down. I didn’t even finish reading the book description.

What my reaction made me realize is that, for now, I’ve reached my tolerance for dark storylines with brooding characters in dire situations.

Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting

My little episode at the library collided with two random online pieces.

I was reading’s coverage on the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In his acceptance speech, winner Adrian Tchaikovsky praised the other five shortlisted nominees for a recurring theme:

“One of the things that struck me about the shortlist for this year is empathy as a theme that runs through a lot of these books. Empathy across races, across borders… One of the things [my] book is about is the ability of humanity to seize value in things that are different, and the danger when that doesn’t happen.”

Tchaikovsky’s comment made me conscious of not just how done I am with dystopia, but also how much I’ve been missing stories where the nicer aspects of humanity are clearly present. That doesn’t mean all feel-good stories all the time. It does mean that lifting the darker side of humanity up into the limelight is not enough if, at most, the positive universals get slapped on like a thin coat of paint on a dilapidated theater.

The next day, I ran into an article at Literary Hub by Brandon Taylor. “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You” focuses on the importance of empathy as an aspect of the writing craft:

“Stories have many functions: entertainment, healing, education, illustration, explanation, misdirection, persuasion. Stories have the power to shape worlds and to change lives, and so there is a lot at stake when an author sits down to write. Many people fold stories like delicate paper ships and launch them from obscure corners of the world, hoping that their ships land on distant shores and spread some of the truth of their lives to strangers. It is an act of communion, an act of humanity, the sharing of your story with another person. We each contain within us a private cosmos, and when we write of ourselves, we make visible the constellations that constitute our experience and identity.


“There can be no story without empathy. Our stories begin because we are able to enter the lives of other people. We are able to imagine how a person might move through the world, how their family might operate, what their favorite foods might be, how their nation works, how their town works, and the smallest, most inconsequential aspects of their lives rise up to meet us at our desks. You can’t write if you can’t empathize. Solipsism is anathema to good writing.”

Taylor’s piece crystallized in my mind why dystopias drag me down. It’s because many dystopic stories ignore or trivialize humane acts or traits like cooperative labor or generosity, and in doing so, they omit crucial aspects of humanity. And that—unless extremely, extremely skillfully executed—makes dystopias unsatisfying for me, exactly as I tend to think many utopian stories boring.


Just like darker traits, selfless characteristics exist today because in the past they helped us survive. They still do. We need them, and we’re better for it.

So much of my reading lately has included dystopic worldbuilding. I didn’t realize quite how much that’s been subconsciously bothering me. I’m full, thank you. No wonder books like The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers—one of the Clarke nominees, by the by—make such joyful reading experiences.

Images: Supermoon Lunar Eclipse Starting by Eppu Jensen; Empathy by Pierre Phaneuf (pphaneuf) on Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.


Quotes: I Don’t Need Characters to Be Likeable

Author Chuck Wendig shared a list of reasons that will make him put down a book he’s reading. Number 16 includes this bit:

“I don’t need characters to be likable. I do, however, need them to be livable — meaning, I need to find some reason to want to live with that individual for 300+ pages. Some things are dealbreakers, though, and a character who is too vile or somehow unredeemable by my own metric… then I just can’t stay in the story.”

– Chuck Wendig

Hear, hear. Well-written characters can save an awkward plot or shoddy pacing, or make an otherwise outdated novel from the 1800s enjoyable. But even a detailed and rich world suffers if there are only unpalatable or cardboard-thin individuals inhabiting it.

Fiction—or non-fiction, for that matter—is at its best when readers form an empathic connection with one or more characters. Depend upon it, readers will notice if authors treat their cast merely as a walking, talking plot delivery system.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Quotes: Our Ability to Come Together

“Because it’s those things we celebrate as ‘other’ that make us truly human. It’s what we label ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ that makes civilization possible. It’s our empathy, our ability to care and nurture and connect. It’s our ability to come together. To build. To remake. Asking men to cut away their ‘feminine’ traits asks them to cut away half their humanity, just as asking women to suppress their ‘masculine’ traits asks them to deny their full autonomy.

“What makes us human is not one or the other–the fist or the open palm–it’s our ability to embrace both, and choose the appropriate action for the suitable situation we’re in. Because to deny one half […] is to deny our humanity and become something less than human.”

– Kameron Hurley: The Geek Feminist Revolution

Because people are not stereotypes. Stereotypes aren’t just lazy, they’re outright dangerous if carelessly applied.

Hurley, Kameron. The Geek Feminist Revolution. New York, NY: Tor, 2016. Chapter “Women and Gentlemen: On Unmasking the Sobering Reality of Hyper-Masculine Characters.”

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Why Wouldn’t Playing Games Get You a Job?

This wall ad by the Finnish game house Remedy deserves wider circulation:

NYT Jussi Pullinen Remedy Wall Ad

“Mom always said that playing games won’t get you a job. From Espoo with love since 1995. Thank you Remedy crew, friends, families, Finnish dev community, fans and gamers around the world. This one is for you.”

Remedy (of the Max Payne and Alan Wake fame) designed this ad to celebrate their April 05, 2016, launch of a new game, Quantum Break, reportedly the most expensive entertainment production ever made in Finland.

The ad’s irony at one’s own expense sounds very Finnish to me. In Finland, it’s a little embarrassing to be successful or rich, and Finns don’t tend to draw attention to their achievements. At the same time, as a Finn, it’s very satisfying to see Finnish game companies grow up into mature businesses with large, world-wide audiences.

It’s also high time for people to recognize that storytelling is an integral part of human nature and that games are just as viable a medium for telling stories as are myths, songs, novels, image-based art, and the like.

Image by Jussi Pullinen via Nyt.

Disclosure: A friend of mine works at Remedy, but this post is in no way compensated or even requested by them.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Proud and Prejudiced Zombies

160212ppzI’m really the wrong person to say anything about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, since I am not a fan of zombie stories to begin with, but having a fondness for Jane Austen I went to the movie hoping for something entertaining. I was not entirely disappointed, but something about the movie bothers me.

It’s not just that it feels like a joke that has gone on too long without getting to a punchline. It is Pride and Prejudice with zombies added, exactly as advertised. The confined and unvarying quality of the movie is a feature, not a bug, and I can live with that. What bothers me about it is what it does to Austen’s characters and in particular the female characters.

Continue reading

Things I Can Do Without

We all have our storytelling pet peeves: the things that make us yell in frustration at the screen or put down a book in disgust. Some things have been done to death already and we want to see something new. Some things play on outdated assumptions and problematic tropes. Some are just lazy writing.

Misery loves company, so let’s share. Here’s a few of mine.

1. Fathers and sons who have a bad relationship.

A father who was never emotionally available to his son and is now disappointed in his son’s failure to live up to his expectations? A son who resents the pressure put on him to be like his father and craves the love and approval his father never gave him?

It’s been done. Really, it has. Everyone from Homer to Shakespeare to George Lucas has done it. That dead horse has been pounded into subatomic particles by now. There is nothing new to be said on the subject. Time to move on.


160107Kirk2. Heroes who have no plan

Or if they do have a plan, it depends on factors that the hero can’t control or predict.

This doesn’t mean that plans have to be perfect or go off without a hitch. You can’t control for everything. Plans have to change in response to unforeseen events. There can be plenty of good drama in the uncertainties of chance, and I’ll even take the occasional deus ex machina if it’s clever enough. But a hero who’s counting on the deus ex machina for victory? That’s right out.


160107Moriarty3. Villains who have no goal

A good villain has a goal they are trying to accomplish and a plan for achieving that goal. No matter how fiendishly complicated the plan, if the goal is just to indulge a vaguely sexual obsession with the hero, something has gone wrong in the writing.

“Annoy the hero and force them to play with me” isn’t a goal, it’s a toddler tantrum.
160107CSI4. Weirdos who can’t tell fantasy from reality

A terrible murder has happened at an SFF convention. When the police show up to question witnesses, the bystanders refuse to speak English and answer all their questions in Klingon. It turns out a vampire cosplayer killed a werewolf LARPer. Why? Because vampires hate werewolves! No other motive required!

This one isn’t just lazy writing, it’s insulting. The usual targets are fandom or kink communities, but anyone who isn’t in the mainstream can be a victim. I’m a history professor. According to popular media, that means I must show up in class wearing a toga and insist that my students address me as “emperor.”

Writers of the world: the inability to distinguish reality and fantasy is a sign of a serious mental illness. It is not how those of us who belong to non-mainstream interest groups go through life.


160107Se7en5. “Gimmick” serial killers

This one is really just the intersection of 3 and 4, but it shows up often enough to merit special mention. These are the characters who kill people as part of some elaborate symbolic game. “My God, the killer is targeting people whose names are anagrams of Alice in Wonderland characters and staging their bodies to look like scenes from Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, and they’re doing them in reverse alphabetical order when translated into Albanian!”

That sound you hear is my suspension of disbelief repeatedly slamming its head into a wall in hopes of inducing a coma.


I could go on, but that’s enough from me for now. Your turn. Got something on your mind that you could do without ever reading or watching again? Share in the comments!

Images: Community via ScreenCrush. Kirk via Memory Beta. Moriarty via Baker Street. CSI Blood Moon via dkompare. Se7en via Crash/Burn

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

Our Star Wars Rewatch Project: Epsidode VI

Our Star Wars rewatch concludes with Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

1. Best Fight

Eppu: The space battle above Endor! Epic! (Even if it’s modeled after aerial dogfights, but nostalgia…)

151217atstErik: Ewoks vs. stormtroopers. I know some people think it’s too silly, but I disagree. The rebellion vs. the empire was always a case of guts and inventiveness vs. industry and regimentation. The fact that the empire never even considered that the ewoks could be a threat was their undoing. Besides, there’s nothing like seeing an imperial walker get smushed between two dropping logs.

2. Best Line

Erik: “I don’t know. Fly casual.” Han’s approach to life in five words.

Eppu: “How are we doing?” Luke: “Same as always.” Han: “That bad, huh?”

3. Best Minor Character

Eppu: This may be a little corny, but Admiral Ackbar! (“It’s a trap!”)

Erik: The commander in charge of the Death Star construction. He seems like a well-organized, conscientious leader, just the sort of person you’d want to put in charge of such a huge project. Too bad he works for a genocidal totalitarian dictatorship.

4. Best Reveal

Erik: R2-D2 was carrying Luke’s lightsaber in Jabba’s palace all along. The moment that lightsaber handle pops up out of the droid’s top is the moment when “Luke, you naive idiot!” turns into “Luke, you cunning bastard!”

LG_CRACK lennongirl Han epi626

Eppu: A two-parter: Luke finds out on Dagobah that Leia’s his sister, and Leia tells Han that Luke’s her brother. Mostly the latter because of the expression on Han’s face (click, click, click… you can see the wheels turning).

5. Best Save

Eppu: Chewie and ewoks commandeering a walker on Endor and turning its guns against the Imperial troops. Pew pew!

Erik: Luke Force-floating C-3PO in the ewok village to convince the ewoks to let them go. C-3PO’s mid-air freak-out pushes it just far enough over the top to go from ridiculous to hilarious.

6. Best Visual

151217MFErik: The Millennium Falcon racing the fireball out of the exploding Death Star. It still gets me on the edge of my seat.

Eppu: The rebel fleet coming out of hyperspace to attack the new Death Star.

Extra: Best Guess for an Episode VII Hook

Eppu: Leia’s become a Jedi. Her title has been revealed to be General, which lines up nicely with her holo-message line to Obi-Wan in Episode IV (“General Kenobi. Years ago, you served my father in the Clone Wars…”).

[And a week after writing the above, the world came crashing down: J.J. Abrams revealed in an interview with IGN (as reported by Moviepilot) that Leia chose to lead the rebellion instead of becoming a Jedi. Ohwell.]

Erik: Palpatine has been pulling the rebellion’s strings all along. He’s a master manipulator who can foresee the future. Did he have a contingency plan for Vader’s betrayal and his own (apparent?) death? Are his dead(?) hands still pulling the strings?

Images: Ewok log trap via History Bomb. Han’s bafflement via lennongirl / LG-CRACK on LiveJournal. Millennium Falcon escaping Death Star via Starscream & Hutch

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Our Star Wars Rewatch Project: Episode V

The Star Wars rewatch returns with Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.

1. Best Fight

Eppu: As Han and Leia et al. are trying to flee Hoth, Millennium Falcon vs. three Imperial destroyers and their T.I.E fighters. You can tell that the special effects technology had taken a huge leap forwards in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Spin it!

Erik: Snow speeders vs. imperial walkers on Hoth. The fight feels like a desperate, doomed rearguard action, but even in doomed rearguard actions there is room for heroism.

2. Best Line

Erik: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.” An elegant description of the Force from a more civilized age, before the dark times, before the midichlorians.

Eppu: There are so many fantastic lines in Episode V, it’s really hard to choose! I guess it’ll have to be “Who’s scruffy-looking?” by the one, the only Han Solo, delivered as if that’s the most insulting term in Leia’s outburst. Also, C-3PO’s “Sir, it’s quite possible this asteroid is not entirely stable.” is fantastic, and one of Leia’s shiny moments that I really like is “You’re not actually going into an asteroid field?”.

QuotesGram Norma Rapier Whos Scruffy Looking

3. Best Minor Character

Eppu: Rebel officer Toryn Farr, played by Brigitte Kahn. Incredibly, she’s the only other woman besides Leia to have a line in Episode V. (WTF, Lucas?!?) I’m terribly fond of her line for no discernible reason and, in fact, use it in daily life – “Stand by ion control. Fire!”

FANGirl Blog Hoth-3-ESB

Erik: General Rieekan who commands the rebel forces on Hoth. Plainspoken, understated, and you can tell that he cares about the people under his command. He’s exactly the sort of person who should be in charge of a military operation.

4. Best Reveal

151210YodaErik: The strange old hermit on Dagobah is Yoda, former head of the Jedi council. Frank Oz gives the character such life that you can tell he’s not just playing the fool to test Luke’s patience (although he’s totally doing that, too), but that Yoda is wise enough to take a childish delight in rummaging through Luke’s luggage and playing with his flashlight. It’s a test and a lesson wrapped up in one.

Eppu: A three-way tie: 1) this funny, disheveled character on Dagobah turns out to be Yoda; 2) Lando is actually not a traitor, but looks out for his people – his decisions are often the least worst in tough situations; 3) Darth Vader = Luke’s father. Having seen the original trilogy young, when the Internet didn’t yet exist (so no spoilery rumors through there) and having grown up a non-native speaker of English (didn’t pick it up from the zeitgeist), the latter was a surprise to me. [I think. It’s too long ago to remember for sure.]

5. Best Save

Eppu: R2-D2 tweaking the hyperdrive on Millennium Falcon to allow for our POV characters to flee the Cloud City.

Erik: The Millennium Falcon dodging TIE fighters and star destroyers as it escapes from Hoth. Now we know that Han isn’t just all talk when it comes to his piloting skills.

6. Best Visual

151210atatErik: The pan up from an enormous foot landing on the ice of Hoth to see an imperial AT-AT walker, then zooming out to see more of them coming. Even on a small screen, it’s a great “Oh crap” moment.

Eppu: Vader standing on top of the stairs in Cloud City’s carbon freezing room, silhouetted against blue, with reddish light on the stairs below. Emily Asher-Perrin in her write-up at calls The Empire Strikes Back “a shockingly beautiful film”, and it fully is. The lighting, especially, is breathtaking; love it. Also, Cloud City against a red sky / sunset.

Vader Cloud City carbon freeze room

Extra: Best Response

Eppu: One of Leia’s brilliant lines – although terribly frustrating for her – is “I am not a committee!”. He’s awfully dry and (sadly) played as a comic relief, but I like a lot of C-3PO’s retorts, too (e.g. “Of course I’ve looked better!” and “R2-D2, you know better than to trust a strange computer.”).

Erik: “Yeah, you’re a real hero.” Han to Lando, when Lando tries to dodge the blame for letting the empire set a trap for Han and Leia in Cloud City. It says a lot about how Han’s character has changed since we first met him in the cantina at Mos Eisley.

Images: Who’s scruffy-looking? by Norma Rapier via QuotesGram. Ion control via FANGirl Blog. “Mine!” via Walden. AT-ATs on Hoth via Star Wars Technical Commentaries. Vader in Cloud City via

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Our Star Wars Rewatch Project: Episode IV

Our Star Wars rewatch dives into the original trilogy with Episode IV – A New Hope.

1. Best Fight

Eppu: Escaping the Death Star, Han and Luke at Millennium Falcon’s guns face off four T.I.E. fighters.

Erik: Han’s running battle with stormtroopers in the corridors of the Death Star. It gives you a real sense of Han’s fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants character.

2. Best Line

Erik: “Who’s the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?” Obi-Wan shutting up Han.

"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"Eppu: It’s a tie between “That’s no moon. It’s a space station,” so memorably delivered by Alec Guinness, and “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” by Leia, said from her Death Star cell to Luke who was about to rescue her.

3. Best Minor Character

Eppu: Lt. Pol Treidum, the Imperial gantry officer who almost discovers Luke and Han in their stormtrooper disguises (he’s the one who says “TK-421, why aren’t you at your post? TK-421, do you copy?”). He’s such an efficient problem-solver that any operation should be glad to have him. What does he get for his troubles? Whacked on his head by Chewbacca; poor thing.

Erik: Aunt Beru. She’s the one who really understands Luke and who gets why he doesn’t want to stay on Tatooine and be a moisture farmer.

4. Best Reveal

Erik: Luke can still hear Obi-Wan even when Obi-Wan is gone. Episode IV is tantalizingly vague about just what the Force is and what it can do, but when Luke hears Obi-Wan’s voice, it’s clear that there is something real and powerful to this “ancient religion.”

Eppu: Ben Kenobi = Obi-Wan Kenobi. Such nostalgia.

5. Best Save

Eppu: At the end, during the rebels’ last attack run on the death Star, Han blasts Vader’s T.I.E. fighter so that Luke can take his shot.

Erik: When Leia grabs a gun and blasts open an escape route from the detention block. Just because she’s a princess who needs rescuing doesn’t mean she won’t step up and get blasting once she gets a chance.

6. Best Visual

151203DSMFErik: The Millennium Falcon being tractored into the Death Star docking bay. You really feel just how massive the Death Star is.

Eppu: The first four rebel X-wings in a line pivoting and diving down towards the surface of the Death Star trench to start their attack run. A clumsy and slow special effect by today’s standards, but nostalgia!

Extra: Best Nostalgia moment

Eppu: The beginning scroll with John Williams’s theme! Also, Vader’s looooong ship pursuing Leia’s in the very beginning.

Erik: Han on the radio trying to cover for their jailbreak. It’s just as funny today as the first time I saw the movie.


Images: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” via Little Pink Stormtrooper on reddit. Millennium Falcon and Death Star via “We’re all fine here now” via mama loves tech

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Our Star Wars Rewatch Project: Episode III

The rewatch continues with Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

1. Best Fight

Eppu: The first part of the Obi-Wan vs. Anakin fight on Mustafa. The second part (after they leave the facility and fight outside) doesn’t work for me; it’s too prolonged.

Erik: Yoda vs. Darth Sidious in the Senate chamber.  Ian MacDiarmid’s performance as Palpatine is nicely subtle and nuanced. As Sidious, he chews the scenery up one side and down the other and it’s glorious.

2. Best Line

Erik: Palpatine: “Good is a point of view.” One of the most chilling hints we get in this movie that the difference between the Jedi and the Sith is not so great as we might have thought.

Jedimaster Tumblr Another Happy LandingEppu: “Another happy landing.” Obi-Wan after crash landing the droid cruiser that “kidnapped” Palpatine was kept on. Ewan McGregor’s delivery retains just a little of a young man’s cockiness that he’s not supposed to have as a Jedi master.

3. Best Minor Character

Eppu: Well, there weren’t that many minor characters (with lines) in this movie. It’ll have to be Senator Organa.

151126CodyErik: Commander Cody. He has a nice bantering relationship with Obi-Wan, before the whole Order 66 thing happens.

4. Best Reveal

Erik: When the clones start attack the Jedi. We knew it was going to happen, but it’s still shocking how easily they switch sides.

Eppu: Palpatine so callously trading Dooku in for a younger apprentice. The expression on Dooku’s face was of such shock, there’s no way he saw it coming, which means Palpatine’s successfully played him for years if not decades. This man clearly would sacrifice anything and anyone to get where he wants, in case anyone was still wondering.

5. Best Save

Eppu: Again, Obi-Wan and Anakin crash landing the droid cruiser that “kidnapped” Palpatine was kept on. How epic is that!

Erik: When Yoda kills the clones who were coming to Order-66 him. You don’t get to be head of the Jedi council by collecting box tops.

6. Best Visual

151126templeErik: Anakin/Vader entering the Jedi temple with clone troops behind him. One of the few times that Hayden Christensen actually managed to be as menacing as the character was supposed to be.

Eppu: In the very beginning, two one-man fighters rotate around a cruiser and reveal a huge space battle over Coruscant. Of course, there’s no sound in space, but the hand-waved-let’s-pretend-there-is sound design worked so seamlessly with the visual that I’m willing to forgive it – just this once.

Extra: Best Foreshadowing

Eppu: Visibly pregnant Padmé in a completely black outfit after Obi-Wan left Coruscant to go after Grievous and Anakin came to see her. Easy to miss its significance, because Padmé has worn navy blue or other dark-colored dresses before. Of course we know what her fate’s going to be, but it’s a nice reflection of the future in a visual form.

Erik: Palpatine in the chair on the droid command ship, ready to sacrifice one apprentice in order to gain another. Comparing this scene with its echo in Return of the Jedi says so much about the difference between Anakin and Luke.

Images: Another happy landing via The Jedi Master. Commander Cody via Jedi Temple Archives. Attack on Jedi Temple via Wookiepedia

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.