Sometimes, You Need a Carrot to Chase…And an Explosion to Outrun

Just a quick little post here. Sorry I’ve been absent for so long; I’ve been working hard on revising my novel and getting it ready to send off to the agent. And that has largely been happening thanks to adding some extra incentive. It has been a process of trial-and-error. At first I thought I could hold off on watching some of my favorite movies until the book was done.

Only problem is, movies have fed my imagination for my whole life. The realistic dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the creatures and frenetic battles of all six Star Wars movies, the action of much swash and buckle in Pirates of the Caribbean, the immense landscapes and intricate worldbuilding in Lord of the Rings. They’re largely what inspired me to become a writer in the first place. And holding off on watching some of the best movies that came out this year would end up starving my imagination more than inspiring it enough to finish a book. Besides, how long could I say no to John Carter and The Avengers?

So, in lieu of that prohibition, I’ve realized I needed to have something to lose. So, I bought a ticket for the midnight showing of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and told local friends that the ticket was going to one of them (I’d pull the names out of a hat) if the novel’s in-progress revisions weren’t done by December 3rd.

So, you can imagine that lighting such a short fuse compelled me to move. Quick. I’ve been editing chapter-by-chapter, often multiple chapters a day, and trying hard to get The Wolfglen Legacy: Revived finished so I can keep said ticket. Myyyy ppprreeeeecccioouusssssssssss….

Once in a while, it’s not enough for a writer to give themselves a reward to accept when they reach the finish line. It certainly may be enough for you. But for someone who has largely starved his fiction-writing addiction for a while, I’ve discovered that that’s not quite enough. “Light fuse, run away.”

What strategies work for you in getting creative projects done? Do you need to have something at stake?

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Tyrannosaurus Rex, Decapitator Extraordinaire

Is there anything we’ll discover about dinosaurs that isn’t awesome? Especially this one.

And the winning entry for Astounding Science News of the Week is: Tyrannosaurus evidently didn’t just eat Triceratops, but ripped its armored head off to get at the juicy neck meat underneath.

Museum of the Rockies paleontologist Denver Fowler led an examination of Triceratops remains from Montana’s Hell Creek formation, noting the strange T. rex bite marks on the herbivore’s bony neck frill. Strange because there isn’t much meat on that frill (so why would a Rex be chomping on it?), and because the frill marks didn’t have any signs of healing (showing that they were inflicted after the animal was killed). Equally strange are similar bite marks on the ball-and-socket joint where the skull connected with the neck vertebrae.

Given the size of the head, that’s not an easy place to get to. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia, originally posted to Flickr by Mrkathika]

Fowler’s study submits what looks like the most reasonable explanation: T. rex was tearing off the head of this heavily armored prey animal, and dining on the nutrient-packed neck muscles, along with whatever else it could eat off the carcass. If this is indeed what happened, it is very exciting news. Not only did T. rex and Triceratops fight each other, like every 8 year old boy dreams of, but T. rex earned his reputation as a “Tyrant Lizard King.”

Lots of people are glad T. rex is extinct. I for one am crushed. No animal this powerful, awesome, and violently majestic should die out. [Image courtesy of Wikipedia]

Not only is truth often stranger than fiction. Sometimes it’s just plain awesomer. (Awesomer isn’t a real word, but it should be.)

Feathered Dinosaurs: Vigilance and Room for Artistic License

I’m going to say this right up front: We have found dinosaurs with feathers. That’s a confirmed fact. Small carnivores make up most of the species with this particular trait. Velociraptor had quill knobs on its arm bones, which served as points where long feathers attached. Microraptor had four fully developed wings. Others were covered in what looks like a downy covering, possibly for insulation. There’s even a medium-sized Tyrannosaur with down on its hide (although I think T. rex in particular has been found to have scales instead, and any addition of feathers is pure speculation).

But as I look over the blogosphere and hear the words of fellow dinosaur fanatics, there arises a hysterical cry that scaly theropods (carnivorous dinosaurs), especially raptors, should be tarred and…well, feathered. Fictional treatments of dinosaurs in books, movies, and TV shows are practically burned in effigy if a small carnivore shows up naked (scaly). Tyrannosaurs and allosaurs and abelisaurs can be tolerated without down or full feathers, but God help you if there’s a Deinonychus or Ornitholestes that isn’t fuzzy.

Notice that I said fictional. As in, stories told for entertainment, which are often known for fudging scientific accuracy. That should be expected and understood, even when the creators try to be accurate. This gets you about as far as saying “You can’t hear explosions in space!” We already know that. Now are you going to sit down and watch Star Wars, or do I have to ask you to leave?

I kid you not, one unpleasant man insisted to me that the scaly Velociraptors of Jurassic Park were “abominations” even though their only crime is being outdated. Let’s get something straight, Jurassic Park was released in 1993, at which point any feathered raptors were speculative. The quill knobs on this species’s arms were examined in a paper published in 2007. Call me nuts, but “abomination” doesn’t quite fit.

Yes, he’s a real menace to scientific accuracy. You can see it in those knowledge-hating eyes.

To make matters worse, I’ve seen these self-important, melodramatic bloggers getting upset about episodes of Doctor Who and Terra Nova because they do have feathered dinosaurs, but they’re not “feathery enough.” Why count your blessings when movies and TV shows aren’t furthering your cause as hard as you want them to?

Allow a little artistic license. Come on, people know they’re not looking at real dinosaurs. The Doctor isn’t riding a real Triceratops, and Stephen Lang isn’t shooting an actual Carnotaurus. By all means, correct a museum display that shows a Deinonychus without a scrap of feathers on its skin, because that’s meant to be a scientifically accurate reconstruction. But even then, don’t lose your temper. That’s just childish.

And for the love of everything sacred and holy, stop telling me that dinosaurs had “denser” feather coatings than modern birds. That’s a little hard to establish when you point to feathers on (gasp) a dinosaur’s ankles. And when all you’ve got with dinosaurs is feather impressions in the rock…how do you know the coating was denser than on birds? This is pseudoscience at its finest, folks.

Bloggers and paleontologists, listen. I know you’re tired. You’re tired of people whining “Don’t take away my scaly raptors and replace them with foofy little peacocks with teeth!” I know you’re tired of creationists insisting that Microraptor was nothing more than a weird bird (I don’t even know that much anatomy, and even I can tell you that’s false). I know you specialize in the cutting edge discoveries of dinosaur paleontology, and a lack of feathers can be aggravating.

Nevertheless, seeing this aggravation bleeding out into long-winded rants about how important feathered dinosaurs are can get very tiresome. A raptor without feathers may be scientifically inaccurate, but it’s not a threat to scientific literacy. It’s just outdated. Don’t try saying “feathered dinosaurs are more beautiful,” either, because beauty is subjective, and some people just find a scaly raptor more badass. Too bad. Just because you have the benefit of scientific evidence doesn’t mean you can be a jerk to someone who likes scaly raptors better.

Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Image taken from Wired Magazine.

Eventually the public will come around and find feathered raptors “cool.” Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, however, when you’re doing more whining than they are.

UPDATE: I would also like to point out, just for the heck of it, that many of the same anatomical features on Microraptor that identify it as a dinosaur (lack of a beak, teeth set into the jawbone, large antorbital fenestra, etc.) are traits shared by Archaeopteryx. For this reason, I place Archaeopteryx within the Dinosauria, rather than call it a full-fledged bird.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: I think it’s more likely a given theropod was feathered if it was in a colder climate, such as the Antarctic Cryolophosaurus, Canadian Ornithomimids, or the Mongolian Tyrannosaur Yutyrannus. In warmer climates, they might simply not need them.

Craziness, Quirkiness, and Storytelling

There seems to be a lot more craziness in speculative fiction with the self and independent publishers getting so much more attention. Craziness meaning “everything and the kitchen sink and Cthulhu and steampunk and superheroes and werewolves and…” all crammed into one novel. And honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredible that writers have new opportunities to break away from the mold and unlatch their stories from genre conventions. It gives them more chances to be original, to entertain readers, and give their creativity free reign. I’m just worried that the focus of speculative fiction will move from “tell great stories and be original when possible” to “take all that is adored by geek culture and mash it together.”

When the story starts to look less like a harrowing tale of fantasy or science fiction and more like a written collage of everything featured in the last five episodes of Felicia Day’s “Flog,” I get a little nervous. Nothing wrong with Felicia Day, though. She’s awesome.

I’m a little wary of these types of fiction because there is a higher danger of the story’s quality and the characters’ depth falling prey to quirkiness and ADHD worldbuilding. That doesn’t always happen, of course. Some masterful craziness has been done, like China Mieville’s incredible 2000 novel Perdido Street Station. And I am confident that there is someone out there who can tell a great story about a ninja zombie pirate and his Victorian-dressed steampunk weapon-wielding girlfriend fighting psychic dragons in an alternate 1945 New York City that has been devastated in the wake of a Martian invasion.

But do you see how exhausting and confusing it is to get through all of those ideas, just to give the setting and larger story conflict? You’ll have a lot on your plate trying to tell a quality story through that Sargasso Sea of adjectives and mishmashed details.

Again, I’m not saying “Don’t write that story. Ever.” Merely asking you to proceed with extreme caution. Be sure you have a captivating story first, one that can uphold the weight of everything you intend to add.

Or maybe I’m just slow to catch up. Heck, the wildest thing I’m doing is putting dinosaurs in a far future fantasy world, and I’m wondering if even that much is a stretch.

The Reason I Love Speculative Fiction

I do not mean to say other genres suck or are inferior. I mean only to celebrate what I love in my own field, shameless optimist that I am.

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Alternate History. Together, these genres form the pillars of what is called speculative fiction. There can be lots of blending and subgenres that don’t quite belong to any one group (just look at steampunk and dystopia), but together they give an image of worlds that, as far as we know, don’t exist. Yet that’s not all they do. They can accommodate any other theme or motif, perform any other task, that characterizes fiction of other stripes.

Speculative fiction is a field of storytelling that specializes in “What if?” and “Why not?” It probes, challenges, questions, and explores in ways that no other kind of fiction is capable of. Yet it can take whatever has been produced by other sorts of fiction and give it more flavor, more chances for originality and finding what has been overlooked. Science fiction can probe as deeply into human nature as any literary novel you can think of. Alternate history can be as pulse-pounding as any spy thriller, or as romantic as a bodice-ripper from the checkout line. A fantasy can be a murder mystery, or even a slice-of-life tale (though it may be a slice of life from a magic student or an apprentice dragon-breeder).

Admittedly, there is a reputation which says speculative novels are not as introspective or deep or profound as “literary” novels. There are indeed thousands of shallow, hackneyed tales in all three genres, with little thought behind them.

However, one-dimensional stories do not remove the capacity for profundity or depth from any genre. Though fantasy may have its Twilights and Eragons, it also has its Name of the Wind and Song of Ice and Fire. Science fiction may allow The Fifth Element or Transformers into its ranks, but it boasts of  Star Trek, Fahrenheit 451,  and Dune. A million terrible novels could not extinguish even one book that doesn’t just ask “What if?” but also provides the best answer it possibly can.

I think bad fiction is usually bad because of untapped potential. The writer did not squeeze hard enough, or didn’t look in enough shadowy corners, to see what could nourish their characters, story progression, pacing, or anything else writers need to consider about their work. But when they do, they should be recognized for their incredible achievement.

In summary, this is why I love to read and write speculative fiction: It can always find a new place to go, and there’s nothing other fiction does that it cannot do.

Villains, Punishment, and Fiction

Electric Chair photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I decided to offer some thoughts closely related to another recent post, about how we view evil and punishment in fiction. Generally we are fine with the bad guy getting what he deserves, except in cases when the villain wins for the purposes of the story and the character development. But there is an opinion I’ve seen floating around pockets of the blogosphere that looks at punishment itself as if it is barbarism, even when a fictional character gets his just desserts.

Everyone’s still reeling from the massacre in Aurora, CO. My prayers go to the families and friends of all the victims. I can’t imagine how hard it will be for them to find comfort and acceptance in the face of this indescribable horror. It’s heartbreaking when we hear of another shooting. We have a hard time contemplating the kind of acidic evil it takes to point a gun at a crowd and shoot indiscriminately, a jolt of recoil ending the life of someone’s daughter or son. We recognize a need for the perpetrator to face justice because of their actions.

I have seen and heard of many dark things, and still I cannot picture the kind of monstrous transformation I would have to go through before I did something similar to what James Holmes did. Make no mistake: all of us are capable of such evil. All too often I underestimate the darkness that resides in my heart and think I couldn’t possibly become James Holmes or Charles Manson.

It’s not a question of “Can I?” but “Will I?” There but for the grace of God go I, as the saying goes. Even though we have a conscience and can choose good, the potential for evil is always there. It’s not restricted to sociopaths, the mentally disturbed, or people who subscribe to a different worldview. The key lies with human choice.

And since I think good fiction is true to life, I believe we should integrate that understanding into fiction — the realization that tremendous evil can come from anyone. Maybe that realization is why the notion of punishing others makes some people squeamish. Almost no one wants punishment for a crime to catch up with them, after all. By nature, punishment is rough, hard, and always should be treated as a somber affair. Some people are so perturbed by punishment, they start talking as if it shouldn’t even be delivered.

Even with fictional villains, some don’t like the idea of a villain receiving it. I won’t name names, but I know of three or four specific people (though I am sure there are many others) who have a sneering disdain for “good vs. evil” stories when good curb-stomps evil. As if these stories were crafted to appeal to people with anger management issues. They prefer stories where the ideals of forgiveness and mercy are always going to have the last say; good triumphs over evil by mercy, or diplomatic talk, or using something abstract but attractive (like beauty or decency) to entice someone away from dark intentions. They’re very emotionally disturbed every time the side of good throws a fist.

Or a hammer. I just had to use this photo again.

They think beauty can save the world. They can’t imagine a version of the Joker who isn’t just misunderstood and won’t be wiled away from his anarchy by the right painting or poem. Every bad guy becomes Darth Vader, bad on the outside but with a good streak on the inside that will surely enlighten them in the right circumstances.

To their mind, seeking punishment makes you a vengeful, vindictive, even cruel individual. Even when you honestly look for justice and not petty revenge, they can’t tell the difference. Most likely, a lot of these people don’t know what it really means to be the victim of true evil, never knowing what the need for justice tastes like to someone who has been beaten into the ground. I don’t know what it tastes like, either. I haven’t had to face that kind of darkness just yet. But there is more to punishment than getting even.

This romanticized view of human nature, that evil men surely will listen to diplomacy and kindness, crumbles away when we look at the implacable evils in the real world. I can already hear Alfred Pennyworth’s speech from The Dark Knight:

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

That’s why punishment is needed. That’s why it has a vital place in fiction. Because some men and women can’t be talked out of their depravity and injustice, and will not seek forgiveness. We should forgive them anyway, but forgiveness is not antithetical to ensuring they are punished.

Of course, not every story needs or benefits from villains. Some have their focus elsewhere. Sometimes it is best to show a villain mercy, or gently lead them away from their evil. And sometimes when there is a villain, they get away with everything. We need those stories as well, of course. But we also need to keep seeing villains punished in some stories, to remind us of the need to punish them in real life. If we keep saying “Oh, how sad,” at every single tragedy, and silence the inner cry for a penalty for a senseless and evil act, we will inevitably look for solutions to human evil in the wrong place.

Again, the need for punishment arises out of human choice. Mercy and forgiveness form a beautiful language, one I wish everyone understood and spoke. But some people refuse to learn it.

A Brief Thought on Superheroes, Justice, and Violence

I’ll just come out and say it: I am irritated. Sorry for the grumpiness; it seems I’m going through a phase right now.

The astounding Avengers movie and the mostly “Amazing” Spider-Man reboot are keeping bright tights and larger-than-life heroics on the silver screen, while Christopher Nolan prepares to unleash the conclusion of his masterful Batman trilogy later this month. So, just about every blogger or critic with an opinion is weighing in on heroes, antiheroes, and supervillains.

The reason for my griping, in a nutshell: There is an increasing trend in commentary on superheroes, the trend of ascribing the laws made by (and for) normal humans, and using them to indict comic book characters.

More and more of this commentary looks at classic heroes, no matter how noble or selfless, with a suspicious and sour eye. It’s starting to sound like the prologue from Pixar’s The Incredibles, where an increasingly litigious society contends that heroes are causing more harm than they prevent. Anthony Lane, from The New Yorker, has weighed in on this fashionable sport of taking potshots at the heroism of fictional characters, in a shoddy Avengers review. (My guess is that the New Yorker crowd is starting to realize they can’t spend all their time staring at abstract art and chuckling dryly over glasses of wine at dinner parties) If you’re not already a diehard fan of the Avengers and therefore biased in their favor, Lane waves off the film as an experience where the audience gets “mugged by a gang of rowdy sociopaths with high muscle tone.”

No, sure, let’s just let the UN get into a bureaucratic nightmare debating how to deal with an alien invasion. After all, heroes who save the world are no better than the villains threatening it! (See above — he actually implies that) Or let the NYPD deal with the Lizard (despite their repeated failures to do so) as he’s killing people. Peter Parker can’t just swing around a few skyscrapers and subdue him, because that would be recklessly disregarding the law.

In one especially insane online discussion, a certain…gentleman asserted to me that there is no real difference between Captain America and the Punisher, and that their actions and motives don’t look all that different.

What? All right, let’s do a little comparison. If you have read tons of comics and you can note moments where Punisher or Cap acted differently, let me know — I’m generalizing here.

Captain America, doing double-duty as a soldier and a patriotic symbol. Kills enemy combatants while defending others from unprovoked harm.

Versus…

The Punisher, antihero and vigilante who fights urban crime through many unsavory practices, including torture, murder, and extortion. Vents his anger on criminals by maiming and killing them.

I will go out on a limb here — I’m not quite seeing double.

And going back to The Avengers…what was the UN going to tell the Avengers? “Sorry, but this isn’t authorized under the Geneva Convention. You can’t just go firing weapons at assailants and throw the city into chaos.”

Yes, they can. The aliens were trying to kill innocents. When you just found out there is an alien invasion about to arrive in New York City, and you have at your disposal some assassins, a technological genius, a giant green rage monster, a Norse god, and a supersoldier, all of whom are willing to help, you get them between the incoming enemy and the civilian population. Forget about the question of whether the statutes of conventional warfare would, theoretically, apply to an alien race. When civilians are being targeted, you get in the way and throw the biggest hammer you’ve got.

This hammer, to be exact.

There are these little things in life called “emergencies,” when certain legal issues need to be put aside for the moment. Even though most comic books are fantastical, larger-than-life, and just plain wacky, they depict events that I would think qualify as “emergencies.” Regular cops and soldiers can be trusted to deal with the more familiar forms of crime and evil. Generally, superheroes are for super-threats.

When it comes to Batman…ah, now that might be a different matter. Certainly in the Nolan trilogy there are legal consequences to Bruce Wayne becoming the Caped Crusader, even though everyone with half a brain stem was glad Batman was there when Ra’s al Ghul or the Joker set their sights on Gotham. But that is probably best left for another rant, another time. This particular rant is, I think, finished.

Have your own thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Want to yell at me that I’m full of it? There’s the comment window. Use it as you please.