Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Lowering the Stakes - The Battle of Winterfell


The Night King is dead. Long live the Night King.

And with that, the claim I was backing for the Iron Throne has been snuffed out of existence.

Being Game of Thrones, it probably should have had more main character death, but the show has been steadily straying into the mainstream, and that should surprise no one. The Battle of Winterfell, though blurry and absent of strategic or tactical leadership, was indeed epic. It hit all the right emotional and pacing notes. The tension took off from the first shot and never let up. And the music was FANTASTIC.

It was the as good an end to the series as anyone could hope for.

Wait, that wasn’t the end? We’re only halfway through the season?

Let’s talk about stakes and storytelling. In narrative structure it is generally a good idea to move from low stakes to high stakes, steadily raising the stakes as it goes on. But after defeating the greatest threat to the world of men, we will watch our “heroes” go on to bicker over who can impose their rule on the poor beleaguered peasants of the Westeros.

Some people have argued that Game of Thrones was always about the THRONES, that the White Walkers and their army of wights were never meant to be the main villains. This take misses that the very first scene of the series is the coming threat of Winter. Not only that, multiple times we are shown that when it comes between the Iron Throne and the threat of the Night King, the threat of the Night King is more important. And now with the ultimate threat dealt with, it’s hard to see how Cersei is little more than a mop up effort.

I think that this anticlimactic result could have been avoided even allowing for the destruction of the Night King. I'm sure you can think of better ways, but here is one:

What if Cersei sent a token force to Winterfell, keeping her word? What if, at the climax of the battle, when all is won, Lannister soldiers assassinate, oh I don’t know, pick one of Dany, Jon Snow, or Sansa – or if they are too precious to you (this is GAME OF THRONES, what is wrong with you?) someone who would die protecting them – Jorah, Brienne, The Hound.

Even if Cersei is not as great a threat, that would at least push the conflict forward and give us a fresh reason to hate her. As it stands now, she doesn’t seem all that bad - especially when you compare her to villains already defeated.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Is it Dystopia?

Someone asked me the other day if my current work in progress is set in a dystopia. My knee-jerk response was that dystopias aren’t my thing. In fact, I think I unconsciously viewed the term as somewhat of a pejorative.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy classic novels like 1984 and Brave New World. But I see them as rich and interesting thought experiments, a brilliant way to convey particular ideas. But to me, dystopian settings are necessarily hyperbolic caricatures. The author pushes the extreme beyond the point where disbelief can be suspended.

In Fahrenheit 451, firemen start fires instead of putting them out. The entire setting is built around this concept, with fireproof material dominating the homes and businesses as a way to excise the necessity of fire departments as we know them. In 1984, a single party dominates all aspects of life – words and news and history, making crimes of thought itself. In Atlas Shrugged, the overreaching regulatory state seeks to freeze the economy in place, outlawing any increase or reductions of production, employment, or prices.

These situations are extreme by design. Orwell, Bradbury, and Rand were seeking to make a point about their own societies by building fun house mirror versions of them. What they were not doing was immersing the readers into rich, extensive and believable worlds of their own creations. When I write my settings, I want to explore the trade-offs, the realistic pros and cons that might arise in the challenges of my settings.

In my view of dystopia, the thought experiment overrides that.

But then I looked into all of the stories that have been given the the label “dystopian.”

These include titles such as Snow Crash and Ender’s Game – stories that could hardly be seen as mere* backdrop for thought experiment. There is some good and some bad about each of these settings, and neither push their premises into absurdity. (*Note that each of the dystopias I mention holds more prestige than either Snow Crash or Ender’s Game.)

The entire category is apparently something of a debate. There is even a popular hashtag asking the question: #IsItDystopia

So what do you think? Does any sufficiently grim future count as “dystopian”? Or does it require something more extreme?