Dear Critics, we need to talk about fantasy and sci-fi.

It’s been long established that critics prefer realism to flights of imagination. And by realism I mean commentary on the existing world as oppose to actually being remotely realistic. In the mind of the average critic the ability to build and entire world with cohesive culture, history, language, geography and mythology and then weaving a compelling plot on top of that is a feat far short of taking a swipe at what currently exists.

In the minds of such critics, Jane Austen is the revered Goddess. She wrote about what she knew and will therefore be forever brilliant, while Tolkien created so therefore it will forever be lightweight and in no sense ever profound. Apparently, imagination is a non-existent virtue in such thinking.

This view has always annoyed me, not least from a creative perspective when you consider the general difficulty of the two models. I’ve always felt fantasy and sci-fi writers (perhaps genre writers in general) have been unfairly judged when what they do is in many ways considerably harder.

Lately, this thought has bugged me less as I’ve felt since the Lord of the Rings films that kind of dullard thinking has been in retreat. Once Tolkien’s work moved off the page and on to the cinema screen it attained a level of respect hitherto denied to fantasy. Through a direct line this led to Game of Thrones which (albeit begrudgingly) has managed to snatch a few Emmys along the way. Arguably, less than it deserves but progress nonetheless. The traditional prejudice seemed to be wearing thinner to the point that critics could accept fantasy and sci-fi on its merits and not dismiss it out of hand.

And then the last few months happened and I feel we are back to square one. The reason is for the reaction to the trio of releases in that time; The Last Jedi, Bright and Altered Carbon. I’m not saying that the critical responses to these films is necessarily a reaction against sci-fi/fantasy. My argument is that they show the mainstream critics are ill-equipped to evaluate sci-fi/fantasy.

I’m going to start with a highly controversial assertion. If the critics say one thing and the public says another, the critics have failed in their job. I can immediately hear a flood of counterarguments rolling my way at that idea but hear me out. What I’ve stated is unequivocally wrong if, 1) a critic’s job is to tell us what we should like and not what we will like and 2) a critic is not there to recommend but only give their personal take. I tend to think both of these ideas are deeply flawed. The idea of someone appointing themselves as an arbiter of tastes is incredibly dubious from the outset, while the idea of a personal take doesn’t sit with having a paid position in the media as a gatekeeper to culture. It’s either personal or it’s a judgement on what people will enjoy; it can’t really be both. There has to be a compromise somewhere.

The next argument would be the idea that what is popular and what is good are not necessarily the same thing. I would completely agree with that statement. On the other hand, there are far too many who seem to take the view that because something is popular it is disqualified from being good. If 3 million people rate something as 8 out of 10 there is a reason for that. You don’t have to agree with that reason but you should acknowledge it exists. And if your conclusion is that reason is people are idiots I go back to my previous assertion. If it is your job to recommend things to idiots, then you should recommend what idiots like; anything else is an indulgence.

All this is very black and white and too easy to pull apart. In reality, there is a middle ground and for the purpose of this piece I will focus on the discrepancy factor. If the critics say a film is a 93% film and the public say it is an 87% film, (or vice versa) it’s probably fair to say that most people think it’s good. There may be reasons why one group likes it more than the other but there is a consensus. Example, ‘Aliens’; on Rotten Tomatoes critics say 98% and public says 94% based on a considerable amount of reviews. It’s fair to say that reviewers professional and amateur think this is a very good film. I would say more often than not there is this kind of agreement.

Where I grow wary is when there is a huge discrepancy, let’s say more than 20%. There’s clearly two ways this can go. You can have something loved by critics that leaves fans unmoved and you can have something appreciate by the public that is dismissed by the critics. In the case of the former this seems to happen with film that are quirky, understandably so. Critics see a lot of derivative and formulaic films, Anything that breaks the mould will be appreciated. By the same token, fans who see maybe a handful of films in a year are generally less bothered by cliches and more concerned about entertainment.

In the latter case, it happens more often with genre films or blockbusters. The critics get fixated on a couple of details (something they deem people ought not to like) or parts that seem derivative and miss out on the sense of escapism and the fact that the average audience member may never have seen something like that before.24218725477_c283330936_b

All of which brings me back to the trio of sci-fi released that have so far divided critic from fan starting with the first release; The Last Jedi. At time of writing rotten tomatoes has this as 91% from critics and 48% from the public. I’ve read some articles (which I’m not going to link as they don’t deserve the attention) that have summarily dismissed this discrepancy with justifications ranging from mass bot attack to a backlash against the progressive nature of the film.

My judgement is that the bot attack theory is nonsense. There are too many reviews on rotten tomatoes that are simply from people who are disappointed; not people with agendas. Not everyone is giving one star and claiming it is the worst thing ever. Many are three star reviews fairly explaining what they felt was lacking. For the record, I’d put myself in this group. I don’t think it is worth 91% nor is it worth 48%. It wasn’t awful but it was far from being great.

As to the PC backlash. It’s fair to say that is a thing for a few people but it does not seem to be a majority. Anecdotally, the most common criticism I’ve read, heard or seen is that there were elements of the film that were off (ahem, flying Leia), poorly plotted and lore-breaking. And I think here we have something close to an explanation for the 50% discrepancy.

Generalisation warning: critics like to be surprised. Fans like continuity. Critics applaud when Luke throws aside the lightsaber. Fans irk at the seeming change in Luke’s personality. Critics enjoy the change of the good guys plans not going to plan. Fans get irate that people on the same side aren’t talking to each other for the sake of a plot contrivance. Critics swoon at an artful silent black and white shot. Fans pull their hair out when a hyperspace ram is suddenly a thing, apparently going against all previous logic of not just the film in question but the entire series.

In essence, the critics think they are watching a piece of cinema and do not have sufficient respect for the world in which it is set. Sure they may consider themselves above such things but now we’re in the territory of music magazines sending someone to review the gig of a band they hate. It all gets a bit pointless.

Next up Bright, which according to the critics was the worst film of the year…(continued in next blog).

 

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It’s all about the antagonists

Here’s a quick question for you; who is the most important character in the Harry Potter series? The answer is obvious, right? It’s the Harry Potter series; every book is called Harry Potter and the…It has to be Harry, surely? I would argue not: it’s Voldemort. That’s not to say Harry is some dull empty vessel who’s only purpose is to be he reader’s eyes into the world. On the contrary, Harry is a great character. He’s far from being a Luke Skywalker, true blue hero who is less interesting than the folk around him. Harry is wounded and sympathetic and occasionally flawed (although I’m not sure you’d get all this by just watching the films). Harry has many qualities but he is not the main mover of the narrative: that is Voldemort.

voldyThink about it. The book begins with the apparent first defeat of Voldemort. Harry is only famous because of the fame Voldemort bestowed on him by being unable to murder him. Likewise, the Harry potter series finishes with the final defeat of Voldemort. His absence is what tells us it is all over. Harry has a life after this but the series doesn’t continue to follow him in his life without Voldemort. Sure, there may be Cursed Childs and whatnots to come but they are addenda to the story of how Voldemort was defeated.

Speaking of Luke Skywalker. How interested are we in his life when there is no big bad around? The main story finishes with the death of Darth Vader. We don’t rejoin him until the reboots have another antagonist to throw at us. Likewise, it’s no surprise that we leave Middle Earth with the demise of Sauron.

I’ve been thinking about antagonists recently while reviewing the Defenders’ respective series. The broad consensus seems to be in terms of quality they go; Jessica Jones, Daredevil and then, someway behind, Luke Cage. Is it just merely a coincidence that while Jessica had David Tennant’s brilliance as Kilgrave and Daredevil had the grinding fury of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, Luke Cage had to contend with the short-lived and nonthreatening Cottonmouth and then the silliness of Diamondback?

I’m only halfway through Iron First but the major problem so far seems to be the lack of a good antagonist. All of which makes me think, maybe it’s all about the antagonist after all. At least when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy. Other genres have other considerations. Detective novels while benefiting from good antagonists are more about the protagonist.So what is it about sci-fi and fantasy that make antagonists so important? Partly, it is that a lot of sci-fi and fantasy is about conflict against an exceptional threat. If the threat is not sufficiently threatening then defeating it is less compelling.

Another reason is sci-fi and fantasy is often (though not always) less morally ambiguous. In a fight between good and evil the only way the evil is going to be defeated is through terminal justice. There will be no accommodation or settlement. The bastard needs to die and we need (for the most part) to be ok with the bastard dying. Therefore, their death must be both utterly necessary and morally and narratively satisfying.

joffYou might argue that some fantasy is not so black and white, A Song of Ice and Fire, for example. While there may be some truth in this, the series does also provide us with some genuine hate figures for whom we will endure all kinds of suffering to our heroes just to see them get what is coming, like Joffrey and Ramsay. Equally, the Ice and Fire overarching it all pretty unambiguous. Those white walkers/Others have to be defeated.

Ah, that’s fantasy but sci-fi is different, you might argue. Sometimes there is an accommodation in sci-fi, like in the Matrix and Mass Effect. In the case of the Matrix films, they clearly cottoned on to the fact that we were more interested in an antagonist battle so they made it more about the recognisable Smith than the amorphous Matrix itself. While Mass Effect 3 has one of the worst endings ever, so let that be a lesson about deviation from the template.

Other examples? Look at Star Trek. What are considered to be the best Star Trek films? Generally, people say Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact. For which we have Ricardo Molteban’s Khaaaaaaaan, Christopher Plummer’s Shakespeare quoting Klingon and, arguably the greatest Star Trek villain of all, the Borg.

For that matter, look at the series. What turned around DS9? The introduction of proper antagonists in the form of the Dominion. What was often the difference between a good Babylon 5 episode and a cringe-worthy one? Did it have the Shadows in it? In the same vein, I never really had much interest in Star Gate but I bothered with Stargate: Atlantis because the creepy Wraiths seemed like a genuine threat. Oh and lest we forget, what’s the surefire way to up the stakes in any series of Dr Who?I give you everyone’s favourite demented space nazis wailing EXTERMINATE!

It’s a lesson to all of us when we write. While we all want to give the world the next brooding hero who will show us complexity, humour and virtuoso fighting skills so far uncontemplated, make sure there’s someone out there for them who is capable of killing them and and shaping the narrative of the world they wish to terrorise. As much as heroes, villains have a challenge to answer. Let us hope they rise to the occasion.

loki

 

 

 

 

Am I getting more childish or has childish got more mature?

I went to see Captain America: Civil War last night. Nothing wrong or strange in that by itself, but then I thought about the last few films I’d seen at the cinema. Before this it was Deadpool and before that it was Star Wars. Two comic book adaptations and a family film. Going back further, the last film I saw that wasn’t a comic book film or a family film was The Martian, a sci-fi film.

Still nothing wrong with this. Thanks principally to the cost of a visit I don’t visit the cinema very much any more so when I go, I want to be guaranteed to be entertained. Seeing something that may challenge me or not be to my tastes is more of a risk when there’s the best part of £20 on the line.

So then I thought about TV. Currently, the two shows I’m watching most are Game of Thrones and iZombie. Again, both somewhat genre. Over the last few months, I’ve also eagerly consumed Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Gotham – three more comic book conversions. Bear in mind this is from someone who is not a comic book reader (send your hate mail to no1 Noteveryonehastolikeeverything). That same description can be levelled at many of my friends who have also enjoyed these shows. So what, one might ask, is up?

I think the answer is partly about me and partly about what is is we consume. I’ll address the first first because it’s easier. I’m something on an expert on myself.

When I was in my late teens studying English literature at A-Level, I voluntarily tried to read a number of classics. I switched genres and read things out of my comfort zone. At the same time I was happy to go to art house cinemas and watch indie films about a dysfunctional family in the mid-west (as I write this I’m not entirely convinced that wouldn’t have bored me then but the point stands). Scenes of actors looking out silently at the landscape seemed to hold meaning for me then.

Now in my thirties when I’m supposed to be sensible and mature I just don’t have the patience for this any longer. I tried to watch the much-critically acclaimed The Master a few years ago and was almost to the point of tears for the lack of plot or action. Cohen brothers’ films seemed to send me to sleep. As for challenging documentaries, I can honestly say there’s enough depressing stuff in my head already. In short I have become a total pleb.

These days entertainment is paramount in my entertainment and this is one of the reasons genre films appeal. They don’t waste my time, usually. They have a plot and they have action and, most of the time, they have a resolution. I don’t have to spend time afterwards wondering about the meaning of what I just saw or interpreting what the message was. My post-game analysis focusses on whether I enjoyed it or not. In a sense, in a life with a job and worries and writing as my creative outlet I can only spare so much brain-space for films as well.

With TV I think it is slightly different. In a post box-set revolution world of binge-watching streaming services, TV has changed. TV has become more like novels with long narrative arcs and plenty of time for reflection. Actors can now stare out into space because they’ve got another 9 hours to do the action stuff. Contrary to films, it doesn’t feel like eating up valuable time.

TV has also become emboldened and a lot of what we’re watching now just wouldn’t have been made previously. Budgets weren’t forthcoming as they now are and this is another reason I think we have so much genre TV now. Fantasy used to look naff and cheesy on TV because they hadn’t paid for it to look otherwise. The acting was hammy because good actors couldn’t be lured to do it. It’s less embarrassing to watch Game of Thrones than Hercules, principally, because it’s a much higher quality product.

Now we are in a virtuous cycle for genre pieces. They get more money and make something good, because it’s good it gets more credibility; with credibility more quality actors, directors, writers etc get drawn to these projects and they are consequently better, starting the cycle again. That’s why, my decreasing maturity notwithstanding, I’m not alone in watching about dragons and superheroes.

Is there a downside to any of this? Simon Pegg wrote an interesting piece a while ago about how as adults we are having our childhoods sold back to us to keep us infantilised. There’s a lot of truth in this. Many things that used to be for kids now successfully populate the adult world. You see people who were once considered too old for it getting excited about Dr Who, lining up to watch the latest Star Wars film and openly discussing which superpower they’d have. The average age of a gamer is 35 not 15, as all non-gamers would love you to believe. People proudly instagram themselves at conventions, where before it might have been a guilty pleasure. Fear of being labelled a nerd isn’t what is used to be.

All this might be more concerning if genre pieces were cheap and unthinking. Fortunately, this is increasingly not the case. If you see a number of films this year, the dumbest one you see won’t be a genre piece in all likelihood. Increasing success has led to increasing confidence and genre TV shows and films are more prepared than ever to ask deep questions. Having a costume doesn’t mean you can’t have the same existential trials as someone in a beret and turtle neck.

What if this is the only place people are finding this though? Is it not a bad thing if we are substituting real intellectual rigour for their slick, simplified versions in entertainment? Yes, thinking a little should not be a substitute for thinking a lot but I’m not sure it works that way. Most the people I know who love genre are also highly-engaged, informed and politically active. Ultimately, if dumb fun becomes a little less dumb then that’s a good thing. After all, I was never going to watch a documentary tonight anyway.

What kind of wizard are you? – A Quiz.

Ever wondered what kind of wizard you would be? No, we not talking sorting hats here, we’re talking about how your personality and power would come together. In the Book of Water (Enchantress Trilogy) by our author JW Whitmarsh there are four different kinds of wizard; enchanters, illusionists, seers and druids. Each have distinct approaches and perspectives but, ultimately, it is the person inside who shapes how the wizard comes to their power.

After a quick word from the author find out where you would sit

Nexus-Fiction: We’re trying to decide what kind of wizard people would be if they were born gifted in the world of the Elemental Cycle. Maybe we should start with some famous examples.

JW Whitmarsh: OK, but bear in mind this would mean they would have to be limited by the lore of my world. You can’t really dump a character from another world into a distinct fictional construct cohesively.

NX: Indulge us.

JW: Very well.

NX: Right. Let’s start with a biggie. Gandalf?

JW: Difficult. I think you’d have to treat Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White differently. Gandalf the Grey seems to have an affinity with fire magic principally, which says enchanter, but he also does defensive wards and shields in the manner of a seer. I’m going to say seer with exceptional skills in elemental charms. Gandalf the White on the other hand is all about light magic and in the Elemental Cycle world he’d probably be a summoner like Loreliath, but that’s not an option in this test.

NX: Alright, Merlin?

JW: The recent TV Merlin on BBC seemed to be a seer mostly but if we’re talking about the Merlin of legend he would definitely be an illusionist.

NX: Prospero?

JW: He is quite controlling and gets others to do his bidding a lot so I’d say he’d be an enchanter.

NX: Who’d be a druid?

JW: Radagast the Brown would fit very comfortably into the druid role, I think. Or Herne the hunter.

There you have it. Now it’s your turn to decide what you would be.

Question 1: If you had to face one of the following, which would you LEAST want?

  1. Going blind
  2. Losing both hands.
  3. Losing sense of taste and smell
  4. Going deaf

Question 2: It’s raining hard outside and you want to pass the time. Pick the game that would amuse you best.

  1. Poker
  2. Chess
  3. Blackjack
  4. Dominoes

Question 3: Your bedroom is drab and spartan. You can cheer it up with one thing, which would you choose?

  1. A teddy bear
  2. A plant
  3. A ceiling painting of the stars
  4. An encyclopaedia

Question 4: You have to go onstage and entertain a crowd for a short time. What is your act?

  1. A Stand-up routine
  2. Juggling
  3. Magic tricks
  4. A poetry recital

Question 5: Which danger sign would most likely adorn your workshop.

  1. 1024px-Flammable-symbol.svg 2. electricity 3. 2000px-WHMIS_Class_D-1.svg.png4. 2000px-Danger_radiation.svg

Question 6: You’re worried about security for your home, which do you invest in?

  1. A state-of-the-art alarm system
  2. Beefing up the neighbourhood watch
  3. A guard dog
  4. Hidden traps

Question 7: Which of the following phobias bothers you LEAST

  1. Crowded places
  2. Spiders
  3. Heights
  4. Snakes

Question 8: You’ve got some time to relax, what do you want to do?

  1. Take a walk in the park
  2. Visit an art gallery
  3. Listen to classical music
  4. Have a massage

Question 9: You have to commit a bank robbery and want to use as little violence as possible, how would you go about it?

  1. Fill the bank with smoke and set off the fire alarm to get all the employees out first.
  2. Hack the security cameras so you can pass by unseen.
  3. Convince the bank manager that you have his family hostage
  4. Pump a sedative into the air conditioning to send everyone to sleep

Question 10: You are in fear for your life, how will you protect yourself?

  1. Find a vantage point from where you can see anyone approaching.
  2. Escape to deep within the forest
  3. Surround yourself with the best guards you can find
  4. Retreat into a cave network that you know intimately

Answer Time.

Add up the following scores for each question. Pens and pencils ready.

1: 1)d  2)b  3)a  4)c        2: 1)d  2)c  3)b  4)a    

3: 1)b  2)a  3)d   4)c       4: 1)b  2)c  3)d  4)a

5: 1)b  2)c  3)d  4)a       6: 1)c  2)b  3)a  4)d

7: 1)b  2)d  3)c  4)a       8: 1)a  2)d  3)c  4)b

9: 1)d  2)c  3)b  4)a        10: 1)c  2)a  3)b  4)a

Mostly As Click Here     Mostly Bs Click Here    Mostly Cs  Click Here     Mostly Ds Click Here