Attack of the Prequels

This is a cross-post of an article which appeared on a different site, a long, long time ago. But with the release of X-Men Apocalypse, I still think it’s relevant. Enjoy!
Let’s be honest. Most of the time, “prequel” is a dirty word. Or if not a dirty word, at least a signal that the reader should be wary about what comes next. For me, no phrase other than “upcoming prequel” evokes as much dread laced with illogical optimism. No phrase other than, perhaps, “directed by M. Night Shyamalan.” Nearly every summer since the release of The Phantom Menace has given us our fair share of prequels. X-Men: First Class. Revenge of the Return of the Planet of the Apes. Even the original Captain America, while not really a prequel in the general sense, relies on a few of the same storytelling tropes through its use of the character Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) father. And it’s not limited to movies — plenty of video game prequels have hit the shelves in recent years, expanding on the stories of popular franchises such as Halo and Kingdom Hearts.

What makes these types of stories attractive? That’s not a very difficult question to answer. For the audience, we get more of the world and characters we love. For the creators, you’ve got a built-in audience, and much of the time, a pre-written story. But as we know from looking at the Star Wars fiasco, these things don’t always work out so peachy.
The main problem is that creating a prequel — a story before the story we already know — forces the author to fight the audience’s imagination. Sequels do this too, but in a much less violent way. Sequels can fail to satisfy our hopes — look at the Matrix sequels for examples of this — but they rarely crush our dreams. Prequels are another matter. Ever since the first time I saw A New Hope, I dreamed about the Clone Wars. Was it some sort of Dark Side plan that cloned Jedi and turned them evil? Was it an uprising from the clones in the galaxy, used as slave labor, that eventually led to cloning technology being banned? I had notebooks full of this stuff, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And then came Attack of the Clones. The less said about the disappointing reality of the Clone Wars, the better.
So are all prequels doomed to this sort of failure? No, of course not. The aforementioned X-Men: First Class received mostly positive reviews. The Godfather: Part II, while not 100% prequel, is told through heavy use of flashbacks, and is generally considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Metal Gear Solid 3 was an unexpected prequel, and many count it as the best of the series. So there’s a way to do this right. In fact, I think there are a couple of guidelines that the most successful prequels follow:
If you’re making a prequel to “answer questions,” you’re doing it wrong
One of the major problems with the Star Wars prequel trilogy is that it was created to answer questions that never needed answering. No one really needed to know precisely how Anakin became Darth Vader — if that was a fundamentally important bit of information, it would have been answered in the original trilogy.
Now, to be sure, there will likely be questions answered. For instance, First Class, in the process of telling its story, shows us how Charles Xavier lost the use of his legs. This is fine, and it ends up adding an interesting twist on the character. But the reason why it works is because the story isn’t based around telling us this information. The writers didn’t start by saying “Okay, let’s make a prequel that tells the story of how Professor X lost his ability to walk.” They said “Let’s make a story that explores the history of the X-Men,” and the mysteries solved were incidental.
Don’t subvert the inevitability — embrace it
The common wisdom about why most prequels suck is that we already know what’s going to happen; why would we be interested? Why would we want to watch a movie about Anakin if we know he’s going to become Darth Vader?
Some prequels try to get around this by slyly changing what you thought you knew was going to happen. This rarely works, and often just creates a lack of cohesion between the two stories. A good example is Padme’s death at the end of Revenge of the Sith. In Return of the Jedi, Leia specifically says she remembers her mother, but this actually proves not to be the case. Instead of creating an interesting moment where our expectations are subverted, it instead just leads to confusion. And even those who accept the logic that Leia’s feelings were metaphorical, or that she was speaking about her adopted mother, are in the position of having to wrangle up convoluted explanations instead of enjoying natural story tie-ins.
Problem is, the whole “we can’t know what’s going to happen” excuse doesn’t cut it. Plenty of stories tell you exactly what’s going to happen, and still manage to be entertaining. We know Ahab’s sense of vengeance is going to lead to his downfall. In Oedipus Rex, like almost all of Greek tragedy, the audience is specifically told the ending of the play in the form of prophecy — and yet, this doesn’t rob the story of its power.
Generally, the stories that do it best are the ones that consciously play with the idea of destiny through the eyes of the reader/player. The best example of this concept that I can think of is Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. For those not familiar with the series, Crisis Core is a prequel starring a young soldier named Zack. Zack factors strongly into the story of Final Fantasy VII, but he’s actually dead by the time the main story starts. For most of the game, Crisis Core is not really a masterpiece. It’s very anime-ish, and the new characters the game introduces fail to inspire much interest. However, as the game moves toward its end, we, as players, start to feel a tad of dread. Zack is going to die; we know this, and we’ve known this from the start. But as we move closer to it, that inevitability starts to become more and more real, until we get to the final battle of the game, with enemies closing in all around. We know this is where Zack dies — the original game shows us as much. But we can’t help but try to fight against the inevitable. We can’t help but try to down each soldier, one by one, even as they lay into Zack beyond any hope of success. This desire of the audience to strive against what they know must happen (what has already happened, in some sense) is something that prequels excel at. It’s a feeling, actually, that I don’t think good old traditionally temporal stories can evoke. The best prequels make use of it.
A prequel needs to be a good story in its own right
This is a “rule” that obviously needs to be true of any story: standalone, sequel, prequel, whatever. And it shouldn’t need to be said. A story needs to be good and complete regardless of what comes before or after, right? Sadly, a lot of producers don’t seem to understand this.
I don’t mean to pick on the Star Wars prequels, but I think I’m going to have to call out Attack of the Clones again. It’s just such a monumental failure when it comes to the idea that each part of a saga needs to be an interesting story by itself. What, if anything, happens? Really, there seems to be some sort of mystery involving who commissioned the clone army, but really, it’s not a mystery at all. Shocker: it was the Jedi that turned evil and is now fighting against the Republic! I know, you never saw it coming! Aside from that, there’s nothing. There’s no story arc. There’s really no character arc; Anakin and Padme’s love story comes apropos of absolutely nothing and is given no time to develop. The one exception I’ll make is for the scene where Anakin returns to his childhood home, finds his mother and slays the Tuskens. It’s a good plot point, but even that is only good because of what it foreshadows for future installments. It does not make a complete story.
It’s easy to say “Well, that’s a middle entry, so of course it’s going to feel less complete.” And that’s a cop out. Look at The Empire Strikes Back. While it’s not a prequel, it is a middle entry, and it absolutely plays its role well. It expands on the world of the first film while giving us a open ending to make way for the third. However, The Empire Strikes Back is a complete story with a satisfying arc (multiple arcs, actually). The easiest one to focus on is Luke’s: he starts out as an accomplished pilot, gets instructed to seek out Jedi training, ultimately quits his training before he’s finished to go rescue his friends, despite the warnings of his teachers … and his overconfidence leads to his failure. It’s not a happy arc, and without Return of the Jedi as a bookend, it would be pretty depressing. But it’s still a story.
Creating a satisfying, standalone tale is what many prequels fail to accomplish. You can’t necessarily write a prequel story to cater to the tastes of people who have never experienced the original, but that’s not the point. The point is to maintain the interest of people who do know what’s coming next.
Or say screw it, and jettison continuity
The Indiana Jones series (well, before the fourth one) cares very little for continuity. Some characters appear from previous movies, but for the most part, each film is a self-contained vignette. What happens in Temple of Doom matters very little to the overall franchise. Nintendo games, especially Zelda and Metroid, take a similar view. Hardcore fans may obsess over discovering an exact timeline, but it’s not the main point of the experience.
I’d almost argue that these works fall out of the scope of “prequel.” Sure, sometimes they may technically take place earlier than the original work, but if they aren’t making use of that backward shift in time, then it hardly matters.
Now you know what to look for

Other films aren’t quite so adept, though. Next time you see an ad for that hot upcoming prequel — and I assure you, you’ll see that ad sooner than later — remind yourself of what the artists are trying to create. Yes, promotional material lies, but it’s still easier to categorize a movie or a game than you may think. Does the movie seem to downplay a perceived lack of control while answering silly questions like “Want to find out how Bob got his giant sword?!” Does a tagline for a book proclaim “The story behind the story … is not what you thought!” If that’s the case, shy away … or at least check your brain at the door and enjoy the explosions and gratuitous sex. That’s usually the best you can hope for.

What I’ve Been Reading – 5/4/16

Happy Hump Day! Negativity’s got me kind of down. God knows I’ve been participating in plenty of it. With a certain orange-hued demon grabbing the GOP nomination for president, and the Rabid Puppies pooping all over the Hugo Awards floor, it’s hard not want to lash out.

So instead of that, I figured I’d highlight some of the great books I’ve read recently!

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s debut novel took the fantasy world by storm. It’s up for Best Novel in this year’s Nebula Awards and it’s got a boatload of critical praise to boot. Because of the language several reviewers used in regards to the book, I expected something paradigm-shattering. In that sense, Liu’s novel starts slowly. There’s an emperor, there’s a smattering of conflicting nations (though the world is Asian-inspired as opposed to European), there’s a roguish hero. I almost put it down a couple of times, actually, as the first quarter or so felt too bog-standard for me to enjoy.
I’m so glad I stuck with it! Once the book found its feet, I discovered a novel focused not on a single character arc, but a series of vignettes exploring several viewpoints in a continental war. Contrasted with something like Game of Thrones, these points of view are more limited in scope, but I didn’t mind that at all. Nearly all of them brought something interesting to the table, and whenever I found myself growing a bit weary of the central plot, Liu snuck in a new, exciting character or setting to perk me up.
Now, I have some mild criticisms. The novel felt very “male” to me–likely by design, as the primary conflict between the two main characters is arguably a conflict over the definition of masculinity. But even the female characters who were present felt flat. A princess who discovers her sexuality is a source of power! A wife who … is a wife! In the last quarter of the book, we’re introduced to a woman general, but even so I felt a little disappointed on the gender equality front. Still, not everyone will have issues with this.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders, the founder and former editor-in-chief of io9, just left the site to pursue noveling full-time. And while I’m morose as hell about her departure–she was absolutely the soul of that site–I can’t say it was a bad decision. If her debut is any indication, she’s got a long career ahead of her.
Birds is a wildly different fantasy novel than Grace of Kings. While the former is sprawling and epic, Birds is focused, insular and, dare I say, positively literary. Her prose shines, as do her characters who we see grow from confused, struggling adolescents looking for their place in the world, to confused, struggling adults looking for their place in the world (I joke because life doesn’t get particularly easier for the two of them, but there is character development, I promise). The novel hinges on the tension between magic and science, which feels like a particularly apt theme for a former io9 editor, as Science Fiction vs. Fantasy is an evergreen discussion topic around those parts.
The book won’t necessarily be for everyone. I wasn’t lying when I called it literary, so if you’re looking for something faster, bloodier and littered with twists and turns, this probably isn’t your cup of tea. And there’s a fair amount of absurdism–which is absolutely not a criticism, but it’s not quite my favorite style, and I could imagine others being turned off even more by it.


Hey! It’s May the Fourth, Star Wars Day, and I’d have to shut down my blog if I didn’t talk about some Star Wars books. First, one I’ve read: Battlefront: Twilight Company, by Alexander Freed, a loose, loose (I can’t overstate how loose) tie-in to the video game of the same name. This one starts out super slow, especially for fans of military sci-fi. I’d say the book doesn’t even get interesting until the halfway point (the choice to include a Stormtrooper POV and a series of main character flashbacks that never amount to anything pad the book’s length, but not its depth), so it’s hard for me to give an unqualified recommendation. 
However, those who stick with it will find some fascinating character development after the midpoint, especially in the character of Challis, an imperial defector who nevertheless isn’t really on board with the rebel cause. The existence of Twilight Company, a group of rebels with far more allegiance to their platoon then the Alliance, is similarly engaging. It’s readable for Star Wars fans, and likely enjoyable for Star Wars military sci-fi fans, but I wouldn’t hold it up as a master of the form.
Also new this week is Bloodline: New Republic by Claudia Grey, the author of Lost Stars, which is considered by many people, myself included, to be the best novel of the new Star Wars canon. I haven’t yet had time to start in on it, but a novel about Princess Leia? That ties in directly to The Force Awakens? That has her politicking and fighting the powers-that-be? Uh, yes please. I will have one of those, please.

Paladins of the Storm Lord by Barbara Wright

Friend of the blog Barbara Wright has a new book out this week: Paladins of the Storm Lord. This faraway science fiction tale is bit of a departure from her previous fantasy/romance novels such as The Pyramid Waltz and Thrall, but is certainly no less engaging. In fact, I think it’s her best work to date! It’s got spaceships, magic powers, mouthy military captains, arrogant gods and plenty of crazy critters as well. It’s also got lots of people trying to get in each others’ pants–and hearts! What more could you ask for?
I devoured this one as a beta reader, and while I haven’t yet read through the published version (it just arrived on my door this morning!), I’m looking forward to experiencing the story again.
And, uh, rumor has it that a sequel might be in the works 🙂
That’s it! I’m currently reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it’s still too early to give an impressions there. Any of you reading anything good lately? Any different opinions on the books above? Feel free to let me know!

The Hugo Nominations Are Again Filled With Garbage

Well, boys and girls, the Hugo nods are out again. And they’re slightly less fucked than last year! I don’t want to recap the situation too much, but here’s a short primer. The Hugos are the most prestigious speculative fiction awards. Last year, some gross, conservative bigots found out they could manipulate the system to get their garbage nominated. These are the Sad Puppies. Some even grosser, fascist bigots latched on to this, and got their barely-literate screeds nominated. These are the Rabid Puppies. All the nominees (most of which are terrible, some of which are innocent bystanders placed on the list without their consent) placed below “No Award Given,” which is basically the equivalent of the Leonardo DiCaprio presenting at the Oscars and saying, “You know what? All the acting this year sucked. I’m not going to give this to anybody.”

Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash … It’s called Poisoning the Well.

I was really hoping the Puppies would have gotten bored of ruining someone else’s party to make some sort of point, but they’re back again and show no signs of quitting. As Mike Glyer outlines, 64 of the 81 recommendations on the Rabid Puppy slate made it to the ballot. As Donald Trump would say–sad!

The biggest problem with this mess is I’m genuinely unsure which nominees are deserving, and which are simply there because they were on a slate (or a “recommended reading list” which is just a broader fucking slate), or because they were sticking it to the ess jay double-yous. Vox Day’s submissions are obvious, but the rest are up in the air to anyone who isn’t following this catastrophe on a daily basis.

For instance, let’s look at the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Four out of the five nominees appeared on the Sad Puppy list, which makes me immediately skeptical of their talent and really hesitant to read, let alone actually purchase, anything they’ve written. But! Let’s just take one example: Alyssa Wong. By all accounts, she seems to be a talented writer who has been published in multiple prestigious magazines and who seems to be generally supportive of diversity in fiction (which is something the puppies vehemently oppose). So, a false positive! I’m looking forward to reading her stuff.

But are we expected to do this for every single nominee? Will the casual Hugo voter? Probably not. Which is entirely the point of this year’s insidious campaign. Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash like “Safe Space as Rape Room,” an offensively inaccurate piece of work that appeared on both Puppy slates. It’s called Poisoning the Well. The thought is that, since the nominees aren’t all hateful, self-published nonsense this year, people either won’t notice or care about the trash that did make the list. The truth is, of course, that these nominations will utterly fail to place in the actual awards. My only hope is that writers like Ms. Wong aren’t unduly punished in the wake of it.

The silver lining, I suppose, is that a rules change set to take effect next year may mitigate some of this in the future. The bigger problem, though, is that several of the Puppies themselves make the circuit within the speculative fiction convention fandom, despite being actively toxic. Saying ‘Hugo nominated’ puts you quite far ahead of most panelists, so there’s plenty of damage done that will be hard to repair. We will continue to fight against this, but it’s clear this is a hissy fit that’s not going away any time soon.

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.
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.

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.

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.

Kerrigan and Consent

The following will contain plot details from Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm.

Sarah Kerrigan has long been one of my favorite video game characters. I love her design, artistically. Her voice acting has always been spot-on (who doesn’t love Tricia Helfer, Galactica’s own Number Six?), and I’ve always been a fan of the Zerg, Starcraft’s ruthless race of quasi-insectoid creatures whom Kerrigan commands. Worth mentioning is her role as an unapologetic female villain. All too often, while lauding representations of strong female heroes, we forget that antagonists are equally important, especially ones that can manage to break the standard mold of “insanely jealous” or “a woman scorned.”

Of course, Kerrigan tiptoes awfully closely to the latter. She certainly has the standard ‘tragic anti-heroine backstory’ box checked and double-checked. For those unfamiliar, Sarah Kerrigan was a soldier in Arcturus Mengsk’s rebel army until he left her to the Zerg after a failed mission. Infested, Kerrigan becomes the Queen of Blades and devotes herself to spreading the Zerg’s dominance across the galaxy, and getting her revenge on Mengsk in the process.

Not the most innovative motivation, but it is refreshing to see a female character who isn’t afraid of her own strength. The anti-Elsa, so to speak. But even fierce, audacious Kerrigan has a major problem: consent.

The issue of consent crops up in two places. The first is obvious; her entire character arc depends on it. Kerrigan does not choose to become infested, and even though she takes advantage of her abilities as a paragon of the Zerg, it’s never completely clear how much is Sarah, and how much is the result of the Zerg Overmind’s meddling in her psyche.

But given a lack of evidence one way or the other in the narrative itself, it’s easy to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that Kerrigan’s identity is perfectly consistent from her Terran self to her Zerg. While her transformation remains non-consensual, she owns her resulting identity.

There’s a second issue of consent that pops up at the end of Wings of Liberty, however. Assuming that Kerrigan is fully aware and in-control of her Queen of Blades identity, it means that Jim Raynor completely subverts Kerrigan’s consent when he uses the Xel-Naga artifact to turn her, once again, into a human.

Now, this course of action isn’t solely personal. The Queen of Blades is still responsible for millions of human deaths, and any way of neutralizing her is acceptable through that lens (after all, just outright killing her is also a betrayal of her consent). But there’s something deeply troubling about how the game frames this as a Big Damn Hero moment for Jim. At best, this is a sad but necessary action. Kerrigan was not a damsel-in-distress, and Raynor didn’t rescue her from a big nasty dragon.

Suffice to say, I was worried about how Heart of the Swarm would portray Kerrigan. The first few missions did not make me any more optimistic. Kerrigan is lovesick for Mr. Raynor and mostly thankful (though a little conflicted) for his actions.

But, a few missions in, Kerrigan inevitably becomes the Queen of Blades once again. Her motivation in this is pretty iffy — she thinks Raynor has been killed, and wants to use her Zerg powers for revenge. But even though the development is trope-heavy, there’s something important here. Kerrigan chooses to become Zerg once again. There are now no assumptions to be made about how accepting she is of her transformation; Sarah Kerrigan is fully, consensually, the Queen of Blades.

This is not trivial. It’s arguably the most important concept to Kerrigan’s arc, and the one thing that Heart of the Swarm needed to do to successfully advance her story. Starcraft 2 certainly had storytelling missteps. But affirming Kerrigan’s consent makes up for the hiccups. I’m assuming that her character growth is finished, for now. The game’s finale, Legacy of the Void, focuses more on the Protoss, and Kerrigan’s desire to exterminate the big baddy in the sky is a lot less interesting to me than what she’s done before. Still, if this is the last we see of her, I’ll be happy enough.

Go Set a Watchman – Climbing That Ethical Ladder

Who Sets the Watchmen?

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel. After reading its controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, I’m wondering if it should be.

Which is not to say that Watchman is a bad novel. Nor is it to say that it tarnishes the legacy of its beloved predecessor. It does complicate that legacy. Go Set a Watchman is an intensely uncomfortable experience. In my opinion, it is designed as such.

DOWN HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. While this isn’t really a novel that suffers when ‘spoiled,’ it’s worth warning anyway. If you want my one-paragraph recommendation, jump to the end!

The hows of Watchman’s drastic reversal of characterization should be plenty familiar by now: Atticus is not the hero we thought he was. Atticus is a bigot.

The easiest theme to identify here is disillusionment. Atticus Finch reveals himself to be a racist, and in so doing destroys the pedestal that Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, has placed him on.

While that development is interesting enough, the far more compelling conflict is the one that Harper Lee brings up in her reader. There is, of course, the controversy over the publishing of the novel. There’s not a whole lot I can add to that — plenty has been written about some of the creepy stuff coming from Lee’s lawyer and publishers — and I was absolutely cognizant of that while reading. Discomfort all around.

But there’s a deeper layer of connection with her readers, which plays directly on Lee’s characterization of Atticus. In breaking him before our eyes, Lee is telling us directly that we need to grow our sense of morality beyond a small town lawyer showing the most basic amount of humanity to a black man.

The official story, of course, is that Go Set a Watchman was written first and included several flashbacks to Scout’s childhood. When Watchman was rejected, a publisher suggested she turn those flashbacks into a standalone novel, which became Mockingbird. I don’t doubt the truth of that, but the implication has always been that this version of Watchman is essentially the original one Lee wrote, with the bits that went into Mockingbird excised.

That is the part I tend to doubt.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for certain, but Watchman certainly feels aware of its own place in history. While Scout’s disappointment in Atticus fuels her growth as a character, it’s hard not to read between the lines and see Lee trying to grow her readers in the same way.

This is all dependent, of course, in how much of Watchman you believe was written or modified after the publication of Mockingbird. My guess: a nontrivial portion of it. But your interpretation may differ. One thing is inarguable, however. Even if Harper Lee didn’t mean to challenge our understanding of Mockingbird, she absolutely means to challenge our understanding of morality.

The Ziggurat of Morality

The crux of Watchman, as I see it, is that while believing the right thing for the wrong reasons may be better than doing the wrong thing, it can still lead to disastrous consequences in the long run. After finishing the novel, I thought of nothing so much as psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

At the end of Watchman, Jean Louise learns her father is actually proud that she disagrees with his bigotry. Which doesn’t mean he’s going to consider being less bigoted, of course — only that he seems to recognize that he’s on the wrong side of the ethical line, but is going to stick to his guns anyway.

How does this relate to Kohlberg? Quoting Harvard’s phrasing of the first moral stage:

Stage 1: Egocentric deference to superior power or prestige

This is essentially Scout’s status at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. She worships Atticus. His actions in defending Tom Robinson are seen as moral and heroic, but mostly because he says they are. The novel draws significant attention to Atticus shaping young Scout’s morality, but it should be noted that, according to Kohlberg, this is the lowest level of morality. It is based on a logical fallacy, and can be exceedingly dangerous if the ‘superior power’ is himself an immoral person (or an immoral text, *cough cough*). It should also be noted that Jean Louise’s friend Henry seems permanently stuck in this phase. He’s mostly not a bad guy, but that’s because he’s modeled himself after Atticus. Everything he does is to fit in, and at the end of the book, we can see that he worships the man even more than his daughter did.

But where do Atticus’s morals come from? It’s easy to see in the subtext of To Kill a Mockingbird (this article has some good sources for this), but Watchman makes it explicit: Atticus’s morality comes from the law. Which is not a horrible place to derive morality. Heck, it’s number 5 on Kohlberg’s list:

Stage 5: Contractual/legalistic orientation

  • Norms of right and wrong are defined in terms of laws or institutionalized rules which seem to have a rational basis.
  • When conflict arises between individual needs and law or contract, though sympathetic to the former, the individual believes the latter must prevail because of its greater functional rationality for society, the majority will and welfare.

This is Atticus to a T. He is a hyper-rational, stoic defender of the law. While this is laudable in a sense — especially when contrasted with people who let their biases outweigh what’s legal — it’s easy to see how this can go wrong. Atticus, when employing this way of thinking, lacks any sense of empathy. He is Antonin Scalia. While he’ll certainly defend a black man accused of rape, because the law says that every man deserves a defense, he has no problem supporting Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan. Laws, by definition, can’t be unjust. Because they are the law.

While this is a higher state of reasoning than Stage 1, it’s still not the top of Kohlberg’s pyramid. The top stage is “individual principles of conscience.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps you haven’t read the quote on the back of the book beating the theme of the story into your head:

This comes from Scout’s Uncle Jack, in reference to Scout’s rejection of her father’s philosophy. It doesn’t get much clearer of that. Atticus has been superseded in Jean Louise’s mind by her own watchman, her own conscience.

It may be time for the rest of us to follow her lead.

Controversy aside, how is the rest of it?

Well … it’s not terrible. I realize that may be a presumptuous thing to say about Harper Lee, one of my favorite authors (though given the story’s warning against hero worship, perhaps she’d be proud of me). But considered as a standalone story, divorced from the context of its author and her previous work, it feels … sort of flat.

Lee devotes much of the book to describing Maycomb, Alabama and the South in general, but as a transplanted Southerner with a not-so-cheery view of the states below the Mason-Dixon line, it was hard for me, personally, to be all that engaged by the rosy hue Lee uses to paint setting. Or by Scout’s presumed decision at the end of the novel to stay and make Maycomb the place she imagined it was — it’s a decision I can respect, but I still feel like it portrays the region’s bitter hatred in far too much of an ‘aw shucks!’ way.

And until the last quarter of the book, when Scout’s conflict with her father presents itself, there’s nothing driving the plot. Sure, she’s a little bit nostalgic for her home, and there’s a hint of strife between Scout and her suitor, Henry. But it’s clear from early on that she’s never going to marry the guy, and most of her hemming and hawing is simply trying to identify why she feels that way.

Henry’s story connects nicely with Atticus’s, and is ultimately satisfying. But it doesn’t make his pleading and pestering for Scout’s hand any less of a slog.

But is it worth reading? Well, yes. It’s an enjoyable enough read, it adds unneeded but not unwelcome context to Mockingbird, and it does play with some interesting themes. If you’re okay with the Atticus twist, you should pick it up! If you’re not … well, you should definitely pick it up. If you’re one of those people who based their morals on Atticus Finch, who became a lawyer because of a fictional character and whose foundations would be shaken upon seeing him in a new light, you’re the exact person this novel is speaking to.

We Are Not the Favored Children

This piece originally appeared in Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, edited by Eric Guignard. The anthology was nominated for the 2013 Bram Stoker Award by the Horror Writers Association.

“One of those dwellings, high, high in the rocks, is bigger than all the others. Utes never go there. It is a sacred place.”

—Acowitz, preceding the discovery of the Ancient Pueblo Cliff Palace, 1885

I found him under the ground, at the bottom of my kiva, curled up in a ball. He had carved the words into his own arm, the knife still clutched in his lifeless fingers. Now that Tawa had risen into the morning sky and spread his light across my home, I could make out the message clearly: “We are not their favored children.”

This man was Honovi. I did not know him well,
only that he had married Sira not long ago, and they had recently produced a child. I had never once seen him here, in this kiva. He may have worshipped in his own—I could not say. But this kiva was mine and I had never seen him here.

“He must be buried immediately,” said Honovi’s mother, blotting her tears with a frayed cloth. It was a reasonable thing to ask. He had not disturbed anything, but I could not help but feel uneasy about the message. And why had he bled himself here, of all places, when he could have just as easily returned his water to the earth in his own house?

“Not yet,” I replied.

Honovi’s mother and sister broke into loud weeping at this. My own family looked at me with questioning eyes, but I did not care. This man had defiled my home and I wanted to know why.

I had requested that one of the cacique’s assistants come to investigate the scene. I did not expect for the cacique himself to appear in my doorway, alone, with none of his usual sycophants. I would have thought Cacique Koa’ki had more important matters to attend to, but I suppose Honovi’s message caught his attention as vividly as it did mine.

“I wish to speak to you alone, Kala,” he said, using my childhood name. Anyone else, even my family, would have gotten a tongue lashing for speaking to me in such a manner. But he was the Cacique, so I ignored the disrespect.

“Of course, Cacique. If you wish, we may speak in the kiva.”

He gave me a slight nod and we descended the ladder into the prayer chamber. The paintings of the kachina spirits eyed us as we entered. At the bottom, Koa’ki touched one knee to the ground and brushed his fingers against Honovi’s arm. I peered over his shoulder. Even though the dried blood blurred the edges of the symbols, Honovi had carved into his flesh deep enough to retain the meaning.

“It is as you said.” Koa’ki placed his hand over Honovi’s face and lowered his eyelids.

“Did you think I had lied?”

Koa’ki stood, brushing the dirt from his robes. “No. Of course not. I apologize. You should not have been involved in this. The gods have used Honovi to send me a message.”

“To send you a message? Then why did Honovi choose my kiva, Cacique?”

“Impossible to say.” Koa’ki stepped past me to the ladder, placing a hand on one of rungs. “I suggest you put it out of your mind. We have more important worries.”

“More important? What is more important than a dead man in my home?”

Koa’ki turned his head halfway around, presenting me with the side of his face. “Kala, you should pack your things. Prepare your family to travel.”

“Travel? Travel where?”

The cacique ascended the ladder back the to surface, leaving me without an answer, but only for a short time. Later in the day, when Tawa watched us from straight above, Koa’ki addressed the village. We gathered in front of the festival altar, which hadn’t seen use in months; there was little to celebrate. I brought my entire family: my older sister, Hwara, her husband, two young children, and one infant, cradled against her breast; my younger sister, Terala, not yet old enough to be wed; and my widowed mother, whose frail utterances of “what’s happening?” I answered only with “wait and see.”

Koa’ki climbed up the steps and onto the stone plateau, followed by a few solemn assistants in ornate robes. Most of them were old men, accompanied by a few women, just as old. When I was younger, I had asked the cacique—Koa’ki’s predecessor—for permission to study with him. I was denied, not because I was a woman, or even because of my age, but because I had not rejected the old gods as they did.

“My people,” said Koa’ki, spreading his arms out in front of him. “For many years, we have suffered through famine and disease. War and drought. We have looked to the spirits for an omen, a sign for us to follow. This morning, we were given one.”

A murmur rose up from the crowd. I saw Hwara’s husband, a short, timid man, whisper something in her ear, which she then relayed to me. “Is this about Honovi?”

I hadn’t told any of them about Koa’ki’s warning in the kiva; what good would it do? I shook my head and pursed my lips. “I don’t know.”

Koa’ki’s booming voice drowned out mine. “Our friend Honovi took his own life to send us a message. The spirits no longer want us here. We were once blessed, but no longer. We must seek out a new home.”

I expected my people to cry out in anguish. I expected them to fight back—violently, perhaps. I was too optimistic. I saw relief wash over the faces of those nearby, disgusting smiles spreading across their faces. My own family, who I hoped would feel betrayed as I did, joined the rest in excited chattering.

Terala tugged on my dress and sidled up behind me. “Where are we going?”

I could not answer her. My throat tightened, and I began to worry that my anger would suffocate me. I worked hard—sewing garments all day, firing pots instead of sleeping at night—to afford a home in the High Palace for my family. It had taken even longer to obtain our own kiva, so that I could pray to the old gods without any disapproving glares. The cacique wanted to take it all from us. I forced myself to breathe.

The people quieted, and Koa’ka continued. “We have no reason to stay here any longer. We have heard of the bounty in the south. Our ancestors have showed us our path. We leave with the dawn, tomorrow.”

I spat on the ground. How dare he invoke our ancestors, the ones who built our homes and blessed us with rain and harvest? It was only when we turned from them that they revoked their gifts.

“We must get started,” my mother said, limping back toward our home. “Only a single day… not much time…”

“Mother, stop.” I placed my hand on her shoulder. “We’re not going. We can’t. You won’t make the journey, you’ll die.”

My mother’s lips parted, revealing the few stubs of remaining teeth left in her mouth. “If we don’t leave, I’ll die just as surely. There’s no food left and Lowlanders will only leave us be for so long.” She patted my cheek, the same as when I was a child. “You must trust the kachina. If it is meant to be, they will protect me. If it is my time, they will take me into the sky with your father.”

I glanced at my sisters, who nodded in agreement. Hwara’s girl-child clutched her spirit doll to her chest and turned her eyes away. I often voiced my disapproval of the kachina figures and the children had learned not to flaunt them in front of me. It wasn’t as though I disbelieved in the spirits, but to me, the dolls represented a desertion of the old gods. Wasn’t there room for both? But now was not the time to reopen those wounds, so I gave the girl a smile, knelt down and kissed the top of her head.

“Hwara,” I said, standing. “Take them to our home. Begin gathering our things. I shall be along shortly.”

Hwara shifted the infant from her right side to her left and clucked her tongue at me. “What are you planning?”

“I just want to speak with the cacique. Perhaps I can change his mind, or at least get more time.”

Hwara snapped her fingers at the two older children and pointed them toward our home. Her husband, Terala, and Mother followed after them.

“Have you considered,” said Hwara, “that none of us want you to change his mind?”

I did not answer her, so she turned from me and walked away.

Koa’ka was still conversing with some of our people. I hoped that a few of them possessed the same concerns as me, but instead, they seemed only to be praising the cacique’s holiness and begging for blessings to keep their families safe. I waited for my turn, as I did not desire to speak to Koa’ka amidst all the adoration. I approached him when he was at last alone. He pretended not to see me, so I spoke first.

“Cacique Koa’ka. May I speak with you?”

He took a deep breath. “We have already spoken, Kala.”

I had bitten my tongue long enough. “My name is Mansi’kala, Cacique.” It was a name I’d earned in my consecration, and with all the things he wished to take from me, I would not allow him to have this one.

“Of course,” he replied. “I apologize. I prefer Kala. It is an elegant name.”

“But it is not mine.”

Koa’ka snorted and waved his hand at the ground. “What did you want to say to me?”

“You should reconsider your plan. We cannot leave our home.”

Koa’ka reached out to touch my arm, so I took a step back. He frowned and rubbed his chapped lips. “Our home is where the spirits watch over us, and they no longer watch over us here. Our people have seen it. Your family has seen it. Your cacique has seen it, Mansi’kala. It is time to move on. The spirits demand it.”

“You say the spirits wish this of us, but you refuse to speak to all of them!”

Koa’ka’s nostrils flared. “I will never understand why you insist on clinging to the old gods. You are like a wild horse; stubborn, unwilling to accept change when it is demanded of you. This is why you haven’t found a husband, I think.”

I felt the tips of my nails cutting into the palm of my hand. Were this anyone but the cacique, I would have struck him down with a single fist. “I have not found a husband because I do not want a husband. I have a family, Koa’ka. I work hard for them, and for my people.” I thrust my hand forward and Koa’ka flinched, but instead of striking him, I flicked one of the leather strips hanging from his ceremonial headband.

“I made this, Cacique, because your wife cannot tan skins or sew. I taught your nephew to use a bow after the rest of your family decided he was no good.” Koa’ka began to protest, but I raised my voice and continued. “I have plenty of work to do and people to support without a husband.”

The face on Koa’ka’s skin tightened and a bulging vein appeared above his left eye. “Do what you want, woman! For all the responsibility you think you have, I have more! It is my duty to ensure our people’s survival! If you believe the old gods have a better way, then go to your kiva and speak to them!”

He was goading me. He knew his words would infuriate me.

“The old gods do not visit the High Palace anymore!” I said.

“Precisely,” said Koa’ka. “They do not speak to us any longer.”

“If you would only send a few men to the Low Temple…”

“Out of the question!” Koa’ka raised a finger to my eyes. “The Lowlanders hunt at the Temple now. I will not send what few able men we have left to die on a quest to tell us what we already know. We are not wanted here.”

I folded my arms across my chest. “If you will not send them, I will go alone.” The Lowlanders did not frighten me. If I was right, the old gods would protect me. If I was not, then I was already lost.

“You wish to abandon your family and your people for this?” Koa’ka mumbled a curse to himself. “If you are so selfish, perhaps you are not as deserving of your name as you think. Perhaps you are a child after all.”

I watched Koa’ka leave. I was filled with such blinding rage that I could do nothing except stand in the courtyard and feel Tawa’s rays burning my skin. Tawa. The god of light. The god that my people no longer believed in. I watched the sky for hours, hoping for some sort of sign. But Tawa simply fell toward the horizon, as he did every day, lighting the heavens on fire. Dusk drew near, and I had no answer. If there was to be any chance of saving my home, it would be in the Lowlands.

The High Palace was unusually quiet tonight. Normally the children would be taking advantage of the last of the daylight, but a malaise seemed to have possessed the village. My people should have been making the most of their last night here but, instead, they were cowering in their houses. If this is what had become of us, perhaps we no longer deserved our home.

Inside my own house, my family had arranged our possessions in a pile. Put together, they looked so small and meaningless. A few sets of clothing, some utensils, some kachinas, a pair of bows and accompanying arrows. Water. A few sacks of vegetables, nuts and grains. This is what my life was worth.

I thanked my sisters for their help, and Hwara’s husband as well, though he only grimaced in response. He had never liked living with me, though he never voiced displeasure with eating my food or sleeping under my shelter.

“Mother’s already gone to bed,” said Hwara. “And the children as well.”

“Good,” I replied. “You should sleep too. If Koa’ka wants you to leave at dawn, you should be well rested.”

Hwara glanced at her husband, who nodded. It was a common gesture between the two. It meant that Hwara wanted to speak with me alone.

“What about you?” she asked. “You’re coming with us.”

“I don’t know. I will try to come back, but I don’t know.”

“Come back? Come back from where?” Hwara straightened her back. She liked to flaunt her height when she was angry with me.

“I am going to the Low Temple.”

Hwara’s eyes widened. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“I must speak with the old gods before I leave. I cannot walk away from our home without knowing the truth.”

“The truth?” Hwara stood on her toes, towering over me. “The truth is that we don’t have enough food to feed our people. What other truth matters?”

I needed to find for myself the meaning of the words Honovi carved into his skin, but I could not tell Hwara that. She accepted things too easily. If the cacique said the sky was brown, then it was brown.

“I don’t know. But I have to go.” I started to gather what I would need for the night. Nuts to quiet my stomach, a waterskin to quench my thirst, and one of the two bows to fend off any of the Lowlanders I might find.

“No,” said Hwara. Her eyes started to water. “I forbid this. Mother forbids it.”

“You cannot forbid me to do anything,” I said, strapping a bag of arrows over my shoulder.

“I am your elder!”

“In age only, sister.” I tied the food and water to my belt, then looked into Hwara’s face. Tear streaks cut into the dirt caked onto her skin. “I am sorry, Hwara. But I must do this.”

Hwara moved quickly toward me and I raised my arms for fear that she would strike me. Instead, my sister wrapped her arms around me and squeezed me into her chest. “Please, Kala. Please don’t leave us. What would we do without you?”

I stood paralyzed by Hwara’s sudden affection. She sobbed into my shoulder, pleading for me not to leave. At last, I circled an arm around my sister and kissed the side of her face.

“If I don’t come back, you will do what you’ve always done. You’ll be a better daughter to Mother than I ever was. You’ll be a better wife and mother than I could ever be.” Though I’d always considered myself more capable than my older sister, I still looked up to her, in a certain way. I had never told her.

“Momma,” came a voice from the room behind us. Hwara released me and turned. Behind her, I could see her girl-child, Ankti.

“Child, you should be asleep,” Hwara said, turning from me to kneel in front of the girl. “What’s wrong?”

“Is Aunt Kala leaving?” The child looked at me with puffy red eyes.

“Just for the night,” I told her. “I will be back in the morning.”

She sniffled and walked past her mother to hug my leg. “Do you promise?”

“I promise, little one.”

Ankti placed a finger in her mouth, and with her other hand, she held her kachina doll up to my face. This one had black skin, elaborate clothing, and a small cloth facsimile of a bow attached to its hand. “Will you take Cha’kwaina?” Ankti asked me. “He’ll protect you.”

Cha’kwaina was a spirit of exploration, not a protector at all. I felt no kinship to the doll; the grinning face and careless posture reminded me, more than anything, of our cacique. But I felt kinship to my niece, and so I took the doll and tied it to my dress. “Thank you, Ankti. I’m sure he’ll keep me safe.”

Hwara took her child back to the sleeping den then returned. Her melancholy gave way to a dull, emotionless expression. “When will you leave?”

“Now,” I said, checking the knots on my belt one last time.

“Be safe, sister.”

“And you.” I stepped close to her, forcing her to look into my eyes. “If I do not return in the morning, you must leave without me. Do you understand? You cannot wait for me. You must go with our people.”

“But you’re coming back,” she said simply.

“Yes. But if I don’t, you must promise.”

“If you insist,” said Hwara, crossing her arms. “I promise.”

“Thank you.” I took my sister’s hand in mine, squeezed it, and walked out into the night.

My eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness, and I was thankful to be blessed with a cool breeze. Most of the paths in the Lowlands had been erased years ago, but the faint few that remained were enough to guide my way. I encountered little in the way of wildlife, which was to be expected. It was hard enough to find game even when looking. At one point, I heard a rustling in the grass. Afraid that the Lowlanders had spotted me, I stuck my back to one of the large, wilted spruce trees and peered from over my shoulder. After a few terse minutes, I spotted the culprit: a famished weasel, no doubt hunting for his dinner. I tried to offer him a few of my nuts, but he dashed off as soon as he saw me. Poor creature. The gods had been as cruel to the animals as they had to us.

I continued on, treading for hours through the water-starved grasslands until I reached the village of our ancestors. My grandfather’s generation had left it behind when the Lowlanders began their war and worn bricks that had once been buildings were all the remained. The Lowlanders hadn’t taken it for their own, or if they did, it had been a brief occupation, as there was no reason to stay after the creeks dried up and the herds moved on.

The village itself sat in the shadow on a large hill. This, I knew, was my destination. I had only been here a few times, as a girl. My father brought me and my sisters here to show us the place where our ancestors worshipped. It was my father who told me never to forget the old gods.

The entrance to the Low Temple, a cave in the side of the hill, had been sealed with several large boulders to stop the Lowlanders from getting inside the sanctified chamber. As my father told it, the plan didn’t work; the Lowlanders simply moved the boulders to their current resting place beside the entrance and looted the few offerings my people left behind.

As I stepped over one of the large rocks, I again heard movement among the nearby grass. At first, I assumed it was the weasel, back to take me up on my offer, but then I heard the voices barking into the wind.


As quickly and silently as possible, I ducked into the Temple. I held my breath but kept my eyes open. The voices grew louder and soon I saw a faint light creep into the cave. A moment longer and I saw them—five Lowlanders with torches and spears, a hunting party by the look of it. I could not say why they would be out at this time, other than to guess that they were as starved as we were. They didn’t notice me and they didn’t pay any attention to the Temple. They passed by and soon the light of their torches faded into the distance. I exhaled and rolled onto my back, letting my nerves calm before progressing any further.

The Temple, if it could still be called that, was dusty and overgrown. Near the back, I could make out the faint outline of a small, cylindrical stone pedestal. I put my hands to its surface and found several large cracks running throughout. Any more force and I would have broken it entirely. From one of the pouches on my dress, I took a handful of seeds and placed them on the top of the altar. Then, using the tip of my finger to sort them, I picked the largest of them and placed it between my teeth. I sat, closed my eyes, and waited.

I focused on the image of Honovi. I focused on the message in his arm. I focused on the memory of my father, which had grown fainter and fainter as the years went by. My body tensed and my muscles relaxed as the breath of the gods filled my veins.

I saw Honovi. He sat, legs crossed, in front of me, a serene smile on his face. I reached out to touch his arm. The message was gone, and his skin was as smooth as mine.

“Why?” I asked. “What did you see that frightened you?”

Honovi’s smiled widened, but he did not answer me.

“Show me,” I said, to the spirits as much as to Honovi. “Help me see the way.”

And suddenly, the wind left my lungs. I coughed, grasped my throat, and fell to my knees. My vision blurred. I reached out toward Honovi, but he made no movement to help me. My eyelids fell and the world went black.

In the darkness, I felt a powerful hatred fill me. I heard otherworldly voices in my head, though I could not make out their words. These were not the kachina spirits that visited us in the High Palace. These were the old gods: frightful, commanding.

“Show me the way,” I repeated, gasping to try to regain my breath. “Help us.”

There is no path.

I panted and flailed in the darkness.

There is no way.

I held my arms against myself and shivered. A chilled despair overwhelmed me.

You are not our favored children.

My blood ran cold. This is what Honovi had seen. The old gods had visited the High Palace, but they had not brought a message of peace. I was filled with such devastating anguish at that moment that I wanted nothing more than to lay on my back and die. It felt as though all that was good had left the world.

The voice only laughed at me. It taunted me with images of the High Palace in ruins. I saw bodies, hundreds of them, and many more sick and dying. I saw our lands, dried out and desolate.

You are not our favored children.

I cried out for the voice to stop. As my screams grew louder, the visions faded. The voice dissipated, repeating its warning again and again. The old gods had abandoned us, just as we had abandoned them.

When I opened my eyes, the Low Temple had returned just as I had left it. I found myself on the ground, shivering like a frightened animal. I lay there for a long while, reflecting on the message the old gods had sent me. I understood now why Honovi acted as he did. There was no right path for me to take. Nothing I could do to help my people.

As I rolled onto my side, I felt Cha’kwaina, my niece’s kachina, roll with me. It landed on the ground next to me, still attached to my dress. I picked it up and stared into the slits that acted as eyes.

“And what about you?” I asked the doll. “What do you have to offer? Do you hate us as well?”

The kachina didn’t answer. He simply continued to smile, taking pleasure in my pain. I gripped him hard, tore him from my dress, and tossed him against the rock wall. He hit less forcefully than I’d imagined, landing on the ground with nothing more than a faint stirring of dust.

I turned my head from it and began to hear a strange laughter. I felt my pulse quicken, afraid that the gods had returned to torture me. But this wasn’t the same vile laughter from before. Instead, it was the high-pitched, mischievous laughter of a child.

Behind me, I saw Cha’kwaina float up from where I’d discarded him. A peculiar jade glow surrounded the doll, illuminating the cave and forcing me to shield my eyes. I had seen the kachina spirits appear before, in the kiva of the High Palace. But not like this. Never like this.

With his stubby, fingerless arms, Cha’kwaina raised his bow. At once, a green arrow of light appeared against the string. The doll pulled it back and fired it into the wall behind him. The light from the arrow splattered against the rock like spilled dye and began to spread out to all corners of the cave. The light enveloped me, and when my eyes adjusted, I was no longer in the temple. This vision did not fill me with dread, but with confusion. I saw layers of grey bricks piled up to create massive structures that stretched into the sky. I saw the ground layered with black rock. I saw great beasts of shining colored stone moving past me with daunting speed. I saw many people, but they were not like me. They had pale skin and wore strange clothes. Above me, I saw Tawa rising into a shimmering blue sky.

“What is this?” I asked Cha’kwaina.

He only tittered in response. This vision seemed no more useful than the one the old gods had sent me.

I pointed to the pale people walking beside us. “Are these your chosen people? Are these the ones you discarded us for?”

Cha’kwaina raised a single stubbed arm and pointed behind me. I turned, following the doll’s gesture, and saw a pair of figures behind me.

My heart pounded. Though they were dressed in the same strange clothes as the pale men, I would have recognized them anywhere: Hwara and Ankti.

No, not quite. The faces were different—a lowered eyebrow, a wider lip—but I still knew them. They were family. They were my people. My legacy.

“Is this real?” I asked the kachina. “The old gods showed me a different path. Which is true?”

And the answer came to me. Both. My blood flowed in my sisters. They would survive, even without the favor of the old gods. If they no longer needed us, then we no longer needed them.

“Thank you,” I said, tears falling from my eyes. “Thank you for showing me.”

Somewhere behind me, I heard more voices crying out. I did not let them distract me. I kept my eyes on the child, watching as she stepped past me and walked, hand-in-hand with her mother, into one of the large buildings. I wanted to follow her, but I found that my feet would not move me forward. The voices grew louder. One last laugh from the kachina and it fell to the ground, extinguishing the vision around us.

I was back in the Temple now. The Lowlander hunters stood in the mouth of the cave, balancing their spears deftly in their hands. The front one shouted a curse at me. I had nothing to say in reply.

In my head, I saw the spear flying through the air even before it left his hand. I slithered backward and the spearhead missed my thigh by only a hair. I pulled an arrow from the quiver on my back, nocked it into my bow, and fired. I was not the best archer, especially at night, but from this distance I did not need to be. The arrow pierced his neck and he fell to the ground.

I did not have time to savor the kill. Before I could reach for another arrow, two of the other hunters flung their weapons toward me. One missed, clanging uselessly against the wall. The other sailed into my shoulder.

I screamed. A haze fell over my vision, and the pain in my arm prevented it from reaching for my quiver. With my other hand, I retrieved an arrow and fired it. This one entered the leg of one of the hunters, but it seemed like a shallow wound. One of the remaining men stepped forward, appraised me for a moment, and threw his spear. To my surprise, I hardly felt it impale my chest.

As I slumped against the Temple’s altar, I felt a jostling on my legs. Cha’kwaina had appeared in my lap. I picked him up and squeezed his soft wool skin against my face. The warmth left my body, and I took comfort in his.

Authorial Consent is Bullshit – Why ‘Clean Reader’ is Okay

Chuck Wendig (of whom I’m a big fan and more than a little jealous) posted about an app called Clean Reader. Long story short, Clean Reader sanitizes a book to take out all of those naughty, corrupting, no good words (like ‘poop,’ or ‘Mike Huckabee,’ I imagine). A lot of authors are very upset about this.

Chuck talks about a concept called Authorial Consent. Basically, his issue is that he hasn’t consented for his work to be sanitized in this manner, and therefore it’s both legally and ethically unacceptable.

The main problem I have with this is that authorial consent is a nonexistent concept, and our society already recognizes this. To clear up a few misunderstandings first:

No one is infringing on your copyright

There seems to be some misunderstanding about what Clean Reader actually does. Really, the description is mostly in the name. It’s a reader. It is not a marketplace*. It does not sell the clean versions of any books. It does not even share detailed modifications between users. It requires the user to purchase an author-approved copy of the work. All Clean Reader does is read the file — the same as any number of ebook reading apps.  The only difference is that Clean Reader omits any profanity. That is literally all it does. And it does this ONLY for the user of Clean Reader. No one else who purchases your book will see any of those changes.
Sure, there might be a slippery slope argument to be made. Chuck points out his worry that today, it’s censoring out “fuck,” and tomorrow, it’s slapping Chuck’s name on a book full of Bible stories. But that’s not what’s happening here, and I’m not a fan of slippery slope arguments in general. Criticize what’s happening now, not what might happen later.
*(UPDATE: The CleanReader app does have a store of sorts. However, this is just a mirror of the Inktera eBook marketplace.)

We modify art — and ignore ‘authorial intent’ — constantly

Have you ever fastforwarded through a traumatic scene in a film? Or perhaps a scene you simply didn’t like? Have you ever skipped a song on an album? Have you ever skimmed a few pages of description because you found them intensely boring, or read some chapters of A Game of Thrones out of order to get to the characters you liked?
Well, bad news, bub. You just ignored ‘authorial consent.’ George Fucking Martin put the chapters in that order for a reason, you know. Tolkien put in that Elven (Elvish?) poetry for a reason, and you damn well better read every single word of it.
We can get even more absurd. Mystery Science Theatre 3000? A total subversion of authorial consent. Like, WAY more than Clean Reader. Watching a film with 5.1/7.1 audio through two (or one!) speakers? NOT AN INTENDED USE. 

Once it’s in the world, your art is not yours. And that’s okay.

Lots of artists have trouble with this concept, and I can understand why. As much as successful authors like to say “Your story is not your baby!”, well, it’s pretty clear that your story is your baby, in some sense. Or, perhaps not your baby — perhaps it’s you, a part of you, and it’s understandable that you don’t want people changing pieces of you without your consent.

But that’s simply not how it works. By far, the most important thing about a work of art is the meaning a reader or viewer gets out of it — and of course, that is the one thing that authors absolutely can’t control (oh god, how some have tried, though). You can write a gripping, emotional tale of a young black man navigating an oppressive society dedicated to protecting its prison industrial complex, and sadly some readers are simply going to see “lol yup, black people are all criminals.” It’s a shame, but there’s nothing you can do about it.

Similarly, you shouldn’t think you can control reactions to a certain word in your book, no matter how long you spent slaving over its choosing. And I think that Chuck would agree that, of course one can’t control the reaction to our words. But once we agree on that point, I don’t see why we have to be oh-so-protective about how our work is read. The reaction is the single most important part of the whole thing, and if we can’t control that, then why bother to try to control the rest of it?