Monday, December 14, 2015

Star Wars and Fanservice

IT'S THIS WEEK, YOU GUYS! Yes, this Friday (even earlier for some of you lucky ducklings!) we're finally going to be watching a new installment of the Star Wars saga. I couldn't be more excited, even while trying to temper that with the knowledge that, even if it's good, it likely won't be as monumental or life-changing as the original films.

But God, let's hope it is at least good. There's no need to rehash the drama about the prequels, though I will say that they are in some respects both underrated and overrated, aside from Episode II which is borderline unwatchable. We've gotten some hints as to whether The Force Awakens is going to join them as critical anathema, or whether it'll be seen as a resurgence for the series. Several acclaimed filmmakers, from Kevin Smith to Steven Spielberg, have claimed that Episode VII is powerful, emotional and easily worthy of standing among the original trilogy.

But of course, The Phantom Menace got similar praise. Smith is known for heaping accolades on just about everything (which is a fine attitude, but not useful for gauging quality), and Spielberg is close friends with George Lucas -- he's not about to criticize something of this magnitude.

So let's talk a little bit about Lucas. He recently saw the movie, and from most news reports, enjoyed it. However, one line sounded particularly worrisome to fans:

“I think the fans are going to love it,” he said. “It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.”
To an outsider, it sounds like a boring, polite compliment from a mostly-uninterested old man. To those in the know, though, it brings up old memories of a director with a complicated relationship to the fans he created. The subtext is, "I'm an artist. I make films for the artistry, for the story, not to please fans. This film is a hackjob."

On Fanservice 

I'm going to use the term fanservice throughout the article, so it's helpful to define what I'm talking about. In general, fanservice is a piece of an artistic work that isn't there to serve the story or characters, but instead to make fans already familiar with the artist or series squeal with glee. It's often invoked in terms of anime, where it's defined as something like a panty shot or jiggling boobies. Fanservice doesn't have to be strictly sexual, but it is always gratuitous.

Are there moments like this in The Force Awakens? Surely. Here's an easy one: the second trailer ends with a shot of Han and Chewie on the Falcon.

To longtime fans, this was a moment to cheer. I got the shivers. To those who have never seen the film, though? This shot added absolutely nothing to the trailer. It was a half-second shot of an old man and a weird dog creature on a nondescript background.

You can find a worse example in Star Trek: Into Darkness, when "John Harrison," the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, reveals himself to be Khan. Star Trek fans immediately recognize the significance of this. The characters, however, have absolutely no idea why this would matter. He might as well have said "You thought my name was FooBoo. But actually, it's BooFoo!"

This is the definition of fanservice. Something that fails to add, or actively detracts, from the plot, and is meant to make followers of the universe grin.

The Problem

Fanservice is not necessarily a bad thing if used in moderation. Having Bones mutter "Dammit, Jim," in the new Star Trek movie is hardly a sin. But we start to recognize a problem when a film gets so burdened by the past that it's incapable of telling a new story. This was the defining failure of Star Trek: Into Darkness. The director of that film? J.J. Abrams. Who, incidentally, is also directing The Force Awakens.

Hmm.

So perhaps there is reason to be worried. Maybe Lucas correctly identified a film in need of a voice, too afraid to strike out on its own. However! It's hard to fully buy into this narrative for a few reasons (beyond simply hoping that Lucas is wrong). The first is that Abrams and Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy have gone out of their way to say that Episode VII strives very hard to tread new ground and tell new stories. The original trilogy characters, it seems, are cameos, handing off the universe to new characters. The fact that the trailers and merchandising have featured Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as opposed to Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford supports this.

But a bigger issue is that George Lucas is hardly blameless when it comes to valuing fanservice over story, regardless of his words. To put it another way -- he's one to talk.

Nostalgia, Moichendising and Winking

Let's be honest, here. Star Wars, especially the original film, is hardly a bastion of original storytelling. It's well-made, imaginative in many ways and a breathtaking accomplishment of visual effects, but it's basically just the hero's journey, and it's not even particularly camouflaged. Lucas conceived of the film in reverence to the old Flash Gordon serials of his youth. It was designed specifically for the fans of that genre.

And it didn't change as Star Wars grew up. Lucas made the wise decision to trade much of his film profits for the merchandising rights, and as the series progressed, the need to sell toys drove much of the writing (too many, Ewok-haters might say). I don't necessarily want to throw Lucas under the bus for this; he was responsible for a massive corporation at this point, and those gears require a fair amount of grease to keep turning. But all of the Ewoks and Gungans do make me raise an eyebrow at his insistence that Episode VII is some sort of banal fan tribute, whereas his films -- especially the prequels -- were high art with nary a thought about the fanatics. Do you really think the reaction to Boba Fett, who was originally just a henchman, didn't drive Lucas's decision to make him a crucial character in the prequels? Do you think fan squealing had nothing to do with the absurd Yoda lightsaber battle in Attack of the Clones?

We'll Know Soon!

Can we draw any real conclusions from Lucas's reaction? Probably not. He's not an idiot--he knows his words are being parsed by fans and media alike. But he's also not unbiased. He's struggled to deal with the monster franchise he created, and he's surely a little bitter about how he exited. His refrain has always been that the prequels were unappreciated because they lacked fanservice, though as noted above, it's hard to buy that. 

My prediction? His "the fans will like it" line refers more to the continuation of the central Skywalker storyline. Several sources, including the fantastic Secret History of Star Wars, imply that Lucas had several ideas for characters and plots that had nothing to do with Luke or Anakin. In addition, the scuttlebutt about the newest movies suggests that Lucas's treatments dealt with much younger characters, which would indeed have provoked a negative reaction from fandom. Perhaps dealing with young adults like Finn and Rey, just like the original trilogy did, is the form of 'fanservice' Lucas disagreed with.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Oyster, the Netflix of books, is done. I'm not shocked.

Insert your own pun about Oyster being fried, or failing to produce a pearl.
Most of you probably haven't even heard of it, but Oyster, the self-proclaimed 'Netflix for Books,' has been operating for a little over a year. It debuted to some pretty bad reviews and worries about the business model, but so did Netflix originally.

Of course, Netflix was adaptable, and proved that their ultimate vision was one consumers shared. Oyster? Not so much. It's shutting down.

The aforelinked IBT article feels prescient, but being a consumer and producer of written stories, I think there are a few simple reasons why Oyster failed, and why future startups with the same model likely will as well.

Books Aren't As Consumable

This was the big killer, and it was obvious to pretty much anyone in the business. As the IBT article says, none but the most voracious readers can finish more than a few books a month.  Add to that the fact that books are already sport a fantastically high time-to-cost ratio -- you can purchase anywhere from 3-9 Kindle Daily Deal books for Oyster's $9.99 subscription price -- and it's hard to see where Oyster's value proposition is.

Publishers Are Conservative and Fearful

Book publishers hate change. Of course, so do network and film executives. But the publishing industry has been particularly slow to embrace the digital age -- see all their petty fights with Amazon and Google about eBook pricing, archiving, etc. Oyster, from all the hearsay, had a a rough time getting some publishers on board, and though all the Big Six minus Amazon did eventually put titles on the service, even at the end the list felt anemic. The store is bulked up by entries that are actually just purchase links (imagine how infuriating it would be to click on a Netflix title only to hear that it'll cost you an extra $12.99). New releases are nonexistent, and even many older, popular books are unavailable (Want to read the original Game of Thrones, released in 1996? That'll be $6.99!)

There is Already a Netflix of Books -- And It's Successful

Thing is, we have a company that provides a service similar to what Oyster was trying to be. It's Audible, the largest audiobook provider (some would say monopoly). An Audible subscription isn't quite a buffet, but that's okay -- we rarely binge on books in the same way that we blaze through an entire season of a television show in a day. A single audio book often has a running time longer than thirteen hours, and the 'power user' audible subscription gives two books a month, which I'd equate to anywhere from one to three seasons, depending on how big of a doorstop you choose. That's plenty for all but the most dedicated Netflix viewers.

Some might claim that Audible is far less relevant to the publishing industry than Netflix is to the television industry. I kind of doubt it. As proof, I submit to you John Scalzi's post from a few months back showing that audio sales were fully half of his total sales. Not revenue -- sales. Audible has become a major player in this space, and while Scalzi's previous books might have grown him a bigger audio audience than normal (and his famous narrators don't hurt!), I suspect this is not wildly out of line with what other authors are seeing.

So what now? Well, as the article says, many from the Oyster team have jumped ship to Google (Alphabet?) Play Books, leading to some speculation that Google is going to start a book subscription service. I kinda doubt it. Google would have to overcome the same problems Oyster faced, and while they certainly be able to throw a ton of money at the problem, money doesn't change consumer habits by itself. And convincing publishers to participate might actually be harder given that industry's distrust stemming from the book scanning fight.

I think what's next is the status quo. eBooks, eBooks, eBooks, with a growing dominance of audio as well. Given Kindle's success, consumers seem pretty happy with the way books are purchased right now (unlike in the days before Netflix, where your only choice for rewatching a show was buying $40+ physical DVD sets). Until that changes, there's probably not much room for disruption.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Star Wars: Aftermath Discussion and Review


Aftermath is a controversial book. The reviews on Amazon make it clear: lots of five star reviews, and lots of one-star reviews. Let's be honest, though -- this is a Star Wars book. I love Star Wars (to the point where I think it's actually the defining American myth), but in the end this is still a licensed novel, and really not worth of the hemming and hawing that accompanied, say, .

I feel bad for Chuck Wendig, which is weird thing to say about an author who is at the height of his popularity and has no doubt brought in a nice chunk of change from this novel. He's waded into a fight that's not really about him, and he's born the brunt of the attacks in recent weeks. Detractors say it's because he's a bad writer, or because the book just doesn't feel like Star Wars, but that's not really the issue. The issue is that a subset of Star Wars are staunchly conservative.

Now, I don't mean politically conservative. Some of them are that as well, but the overall problem is that these fans simply can't accept change. In any form. And change is here, oh yes. The biggest and most infuriating, from the perspective of these "fans" (I don't like to put quotes around that word, but can we even call people who hate the property "fans?"), is the EU Apocalypse which relegated all the Star Wars stories told prior to the Disney-Lucasfilm merger to the dustbin of history. There's been plenty of dicussion of the necessity of this move (and yes, it was necessary), but none of that will convince the EU fanatics. To them, saying the EU is finished (or worse, not "real") is equivalent to retconning the original films. If you claim that Han and Leia don't actually have a daughter named Jaina, you might as well claim that Luke wasn't actually Vader's son.

All that's bad enough, but there are real-world changes to Star Wars as well. Wendig is a new author to the universe; if Disney had chosen to hire Timothy Zahn, the originator of the original Star Wars EU, some of the old school fans might have swallowed the change easier. Aftermath is also written in a very modern style -- very urban fantasy, which is something that hasn't often been seen in the tentpole Star Wars novels (though the degree to which this is new and mindblowing has been vastly overstated). It also contains not one, not two, but -- *gasp!* -- FIVE gay characters! If you think I'm exaggerating how big of an issue this is, I welcome you to browse some of those one-star reviews. CTRL-F 'gay' if you like, and see how many hits you get. The accusation is that the mere existence of LGBT characters (there is no sex, not even any kissing or same-sex hand-holding) is 'shoving it down our throats.'

Some people have accused me of conflating all of these complaints, but I think they generally stem from the same discomfort.

The organized effort to sink Aftermath has been operating under the assumption that if the book fails to sell, Disney will reverse course, bring back the old no-gay, Jaina-and-Jacen EU to canon status (or, more realistically, continue to release new stories in the Legends universe). This, of course, is not even an option. But assuming it was, the diehards have failed. Aftermath hit the NYT Bestseller list two weeks in a row. Force Friday was an amazing financial success. The change in the Star Wars universe cannot be halted anymore than the change in our universe (LGBT characters aren't going anywhere anytime soon).

And you know what? You're free to be mad about it. The appropriate response to those feelings might be, "You know what? I liked the EU, I'm not a fan of how they've changed it. I think I'll back my bags and move on to a different thing to get my nerd on about." Boycotting is always an acceptable course of action. The inappropriate, juvenile response is to throw a temper-tantrum and dedicate a non-trivial portion of your day to trying to sink the book and its author.

So is it any good? Yep, it is. The stream-of-consciousness does take some getting used to, but it only took me a chapter or so before I was immersed. Random-ass excerpts posted on Reddit do not do *any* written work justice, and this one suffers more than most from being digested out of context. Many of the new characters are some of the best I've seen in Star Wars in a long time -- I particularly loved the continuing development of Imperial Admiral Rae Sloane, as well as the introduction of the Imperial "loyalty officer" (read: torturer) named Sinjir. The vingettes interspered between the main narrative chapters give us a great glimpse into the post-ROTJ galaxy, and also provide neat little hooks for future stories.

Aftermath probably won't blow your mind, but it's easily the best Star Wars book to come out since the Disney purchase, and it's well worth the time of any Star Wars fan. If you refuse to try it, it might be time to accept that you're no longer a Star Wars fan. And that's totally fine.