Grow or die: What happens when a story’s protagonist doesn’t change?

Alexander Dreyman

Alexander Dreymon stars at Uhtred of Bebbanburg in The Last Kingdom. Image courtesy Carnival Film & Television.

Fishermen love a good fish story, especially the one that got away. I was hooked by the BBC America television series The Last Kingdom, but the hook is loosening and I may spit it out. Why? Because the writers made a huge narrative mistake.

Premiering in 2015, The Last Kingdom stars Alexander Dreymon as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a dispossessed Saxon noble who fights, often reluctantly, for a united England envisioned by the ninth century king of Wessex, Alfred the Great. The series is based on novels by Bernard Cornwell, who counts the historical Uhtred as an ancestor.

I’m halfway through season two, but I’m fast losing interest. It’s too bad, because this historical drama dives deep into each of its characters, from the intelligent, fearless warrior Uhtred to the pious, visionary Alfred. Each of the series’ minor characters are multi-dimensional, all fully fleshed by uniformly good performances. With a forceful plot driven by internal court intrigue and external enemies—the Viking raiders that still frighten English children—The Last Kingdom presses all my buttons.

Possible spoilers ahead.

Unfortunately, the series stumbles badly in episode three, when Uhtred returns after an enemy in an allied camp has him seized and sold as a slave. After six months as a galley slave a la Charleton Heston in Ben Hur, Uhtred is broken in body and nearly in spirit.

The protagonist is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

Herein lies the rub. One of the great joys of reading and watching fiction is seeing how a character changes over time. How do his experiences within the story change him? What does he learn? This mimics the normal growth of most people; I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago, due in part to my unique experiences as a worker, a husband, a parent, and as a writer. Good fiction compresses this universal process.

In The Last Kingdom, Uhtred goes through a horrific experience as a slave. Up to this point, the character of Uhtred is predictably immature and self-serving. By the time he returns, he has lost virtually all his dignity as a man and a nobleman, feels responsible for the death of a companion, and is nearly handed over to his ultimate enemies, the Danes. His recovery is slow and painful, physically and emotionally. He is the biblical Jonah after the whale vomits him out.

The experience poses fascinating questions, broad and narrow. What happens to your personality when abuse is routine and escape from captivity is out of reach? Will Uhtred understand how his womanizing hurts himself as well as the women he’s lost? Will he see that theft as a way of gaining wealth invites deadly retribution? How does this experience affect his view of life?

The answer: Not at all. A short time after his rescue from the slaver, Uhtred kills the man who orchestrated his betrayal. It’s a murder that shocks everyone, except Uhtred. Even if he hadn’t been sold into slavery, Uhtred might kill his enemy, because that’s what he does. It’s who he is. What’s more, he resumes his former life without offering the audience any reflections on his experience or more importantly, change in his behavior. No reference is made to the experience in succeeding episodes; Uhtred is the same warrior who fears nothing, chafes at his obligations, and acts almost entirely out of self-interest.

It’s hard to believe that a human being could go through six months of degradation without some damage that affects how he lives afterward. It’s a scenario for hopelessness, suggesting humans are forever trapped by their own prejudices and habits, and not even a daily brush with death can alter the course of a life. While one could argue this reflects real life, it makes for a disappointing narrative, because nothing emotionally substantive has changed after 11 episodes. A viewer could almost turn from liking Uhtred to not liking him, and perhaps abandoning him.

I have a few more episodes to go, and the producers could still redeem themselves with Uhtred showing that he is not the same man he was when he lost his family in the early episodes of season one. If he doesn’t, I’m not sure I’ll make the time to see how he fares in season three.

Netflix has yet to announce a season three for The Last Kingdom.

Review: Don’t worry. Everything will be fixed by 2037. Or will it?

artwork

Art by Saiful Haque from Seat14C.com

In the year 2037, all the uber-wealthy will be Canadian. Because they will have all the NiceCoin.

In 2037, you earn NiceCoin by being nice. For example, you open the door to let a lady through before you, instead of hitting her up for sex. Canadians, by reputation at least, are the nicest people on earth. Therefore, they will snatch up NiceCoin as if it were poutine.

NiceCoin is a fantasy, one of nearly two dozen visions of the future at Seat14C.com, a project of the XPrize Foundation, best known for its high-tech contests. In 2004, the foundation awarded its inaugural prize to SpaceShipOne, the first privately funded craft to make a suborbital flight.

XPrize wants to encourage ideas, not just firsts, and sci-fi writers love to speculate.

Continue reading

Review: Thank God King Arthur will survive ‘King Arthur’

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword poster

The latest take on the King Arthur legends opened in US theatres May 8.

The legends of King Arthur and the Round Table are possibly the most abused of the West’s mythic texts, more than the Greek myths, and certainly more than venerated texts, such as the Bible. It’s amazing they’ve survived almost 1,500 years of telling and retelling by most of Western Europe’s cultures, aristocratic Victorian poets and painters, and in the last century or so, Hollywood producers.

I’m certain they’ll survive King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but the tradition never had it so hard.

Fans of the Arthurian legends—Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and the world of Camelot—have waited a long time for a fresh version of the story. The last big attempt of note, King Arthur, was released in 2004. This year’s effort, directed by Guy Ritchie, whose last hit was the action-adventure retelling of the Sherlock Holmes novels, brought together stars Charlie Hunnam as Arthur, Jude Law as Vortigern, and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as “The Mage,” a follower of Merlin, the famed sorcerer and Druid priest.

Except for the names and a few popular themes, you’d hardly recognize the narrative from your reading of The Once and Future King or children’s books on King Arthur. Vortigern, Arthur’s uncle, usurps the throne of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon. The boy escapes an assassination attempt and is raised in a brothel. He grows into the leader of a gang that protects the brothel and extorts money from whomever crosses him. When Excalibur appears at the bottom of a bay embedded in a stone, Vertigorn fears a threat to his power, and (taking a lesson from King Herod of the New Testament) orders all men of the right age to attempt pulling it out so he can kill him. Continue reading

Overheated: A weak narrative undercuts the urgency of climate change

Overheated cover

Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change

Climate change is one of the most difficult subjects to tackle, and I admire any writer who attempts it. Though the reality of climate change is not in doubt—repeat, NOT in doubt—so much of its impact is speculative. Scientists can predict the rise of sea levels, the melting of Arctic and Antarctic ice, more powerful hurricanes, and so on, but no one can say with certainty how these will affect humanity in any detail.

In Overheated: The Human Cost of Climate Change, Andrew Guzman takes his best shot. The University of California, Berkeley law professor tries to show how global warming will change the lives of practically everyone on the planet. Clearly worried about the power of denialists, led by President Donald Trump (though the book was written before his election), he answers each of the counter-arguments with unassailable rigor. If this were an argument before a judge and jury, he’d win going away.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem with this 2013 book, and many books like it. With a couple of notable exceptions, he offers few anecdotes or detailed speculations on climate change effects you and I might experience. The best story concerns the Chacaltaya Glacier, which disappeared from a Bolivian mountain in 2009. He also offers an alarming scenario involving disputes over water between two nuclear powers: India and Pakistan. Beyond these, however, much of the future impact of warming is theoretical. Writing about the potential for water wars, he says, “[C]limate change threatens to magnify existing risks, perhaps making the difference between an uncomfortable peace and a shooting war.” It’s hard for average folks to get excited about these unseen margins. Continue reading

Star Wars: Rogue One has a peculiar relationship with death

Grand Moff Tarkin - Peter Cushing

Star Wars: Rogue One created a digital Peter Cushing to reprise his role at Grand Moff Tarkin.

Warning: Lots of spoilers.

The movie Star Wars: Rogue One is a fun way to pass a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, especially if you’re a kid without much exposure to the Star Wars franchise. For anyone who has a bit more experience with the series, or who thinks much about storytelling, the movie can leave you scratching your head.

For one thing, viewers who know the characters and the plots starting with the original Star Wars (now called A New Hope) release in 1977 will spend much of their time puzzling out the way in which the plot line of Rogue One fits with the series arc. The screenplay by a multitude of writers does a good job of meshing with the rest of the Star Wars’ canon.

You can also spend a lot of cycles looking for the two dozen or so nuggets from other Star Wars films. In the process, you might lose a line of pithy dialog or miss a well-photographed shot. These “Where’s Waldo?” moments can be fun, or they can take you out of the total immersion that makes good storytelling an almost out-of-body experience. Continue reading

I’ll remember this Black Mirror episode until I’m dead and buried.

Black Mirror still

Alex Lawther as Kenny in Black Mirror’s “Shut Up and Dance.”

Warning: Black Mirror: Season 3 spoilers ahead.

How do you measure greatness in science fiction television? Quantitative measures such as the number of positive critical reviews or the “star” ratings by viewers can set a series or individual episodes apart, but a fan can also measure quality with his or her memory. What image or scene sticks in your mind long after you’ve switched to another show? Is it the broken eyeglasses in the Twilight Zone’s “Time Enough to Last?” Is it the god-like voice of the time machine in Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever?”

Does Black Mirror have such an image or scene? The Charlie Brooker-produced series has already achieved acclaim on par with Outer Limits, Battlestar Gallactica, and others, but for a series to have historical legs, something has to stick in the collective memory. It’s a shot, a bit of dialog, a premise, or a twist ending that’s talked about twenty years later, or that writers borrow or imitate for another generation of viewers, or that makes you wake up in a cold sweat.

Season 3 of Black Mirror, available on Netflix, has several of these moments. As someone who pays attention to sound effects, the dribbling pitch of the protagonist’s falling rating in “Nosedive” is comic and heartbreaking. The benign, and ultimately murderous robot bees in “Hated in the Nation” bring to mind the moral and practical costs of environmental loss. Continue reading

Aliens, linguistics, and disruptive storytelling make Arrival must-see sci-fi

Arrival movie poster

Arrival uses disruptive storytelling techniques effectively.

We rarely think about our relationship with time. Life is just one damned thing after another. One word follows another. Cause and effect follow the arrow of history. What if you had a different relationship with time, one in which you perceived past, present and future happening at once, so that you know the future in the same instant you know the present and the past?

Science fiction writer Ted Chiang explores the idea in a 1999 short story, “Story of Your Life.” In 2016, Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve adapted the story for the motion picture Arrival, which arrived in theaters November 11. Both stories are told through the eyes of Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist brought in by the military to translate the language of aliens visiting the earth. The film builds on the short story, adding some Hollywood pizzazz and a different ending. Fortunately, the additions don’t obscure the main point; our daily experience of time is only one of many possibilities.

In both narratives, a new kind of language “rewires” Banks’ brain, and the writer and director use non-linear storytelling as a way to demonstrate Banks’ transformative encounter. Non-linear stories don’t follow most people’s experience of events in time, that is, one thing following another as you walk a path through life. Sometimes called “disruptive narratives,” these stories jump around in time, as in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. If handled poorly, non-linear stories leave readers confused and disoriented. Handled well, they seem more like paintings, best encountered as a whole. Continue reading

Ted Chiang’s sci-fi genius arrives with laser-like precision

cover art for Stories of Your Life and Others

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Possible spoilers ahead if you haven’t seen Arrival.

The release of the movie Arrival last month prompted my interest in Seattle science fiction writer Ted Chiang. He has published only 15 short stories, novelettes, and novellas in print, including “Story of Your Life,” the inspiration for Arrival. He’s won Nebulas, Hugos, and host of other awards, far out of proportion to his published output, judging by most other writers I know. As a writer who’s only published one short story (not counting self-publishing), I had to read more by this man.

Penguin Random House has collected eight of his stories in Stories of Your Life And Others, including “Story,” most of them the award winners. It’s a remarkable collection that may become part of the core canon of science fiction and speculative fiction in general. None of the the stories hits a weak note, though I have favorites among them.

If there’s a single word that describes them all, it’s “precise,” demonstrating Chiang’s penchant for picking only the right words and phrases, and crafting every sentence as if his writing life depended on it. Chiang’s style may reflect his training in computer science; every line of “code,” if you will, is elegant and purposeful, and the result is often mesmerizing. Continue reading

Review: Doctor Strange: It’s All Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch actor

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange dominates the eponymous film.

I’ll be honest. Movies based on comic books don’t interest me. The only reason I went to see Doctor Strange over the weekend was Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve become a major fan after his performances in the latest BBC version of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and his movies, particularly The Imitation Game, in which he played mathematician Alan Turing, and as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Doctor Strange was another chance to see him in action.

My wife, a teacher who works with autistic children, pointed out rightly that Cumberbatch has a knack for playing individuals with personalities on either end of the bell curve. Armchair diagnosticians might argue he plays characters who are “on the spectrum,” as “average” people say, sometimes with a mocking laugh. Holmes, Turing, and Assange are all high-functioning, extremely intelligent people with trouble connecting emotionally to others. They aren’t mentally ill, just so different they make others around them uncomfortable. Continue reading

Review: Augments of Change salient in a time of racial tension

Augments of Change cover

Augments of Change

America is going through another paroxysm of racially tinged violence, reminding everyone of our failure to reconcile our history with our ideals. In my own lifetime, the country has experienced urban riots (e.g, Watts in Los Angeles), violence after the Rodney King verdict, and last week, two more in a long string of deaths of black men at the hands of police, followed by the mass murder of five Dallas policemen by a African-American assailant with a military-style assault rifle. It’s as if a murderous virus is spreading through the culture.

The news has left the country morose and pessimistic. People feel that the issues of race, as well as related issues of immigration and income inequality, will never be resolved or mitigated. As citizens of a democracy, we’ve entered a time of madness when everyone whom we don’t know and don’t agree with is The Other. We’ve lost the ability to listen to and respect other views. Demagogues such as Donald Trump say out loud what many people feel, forgetting that civilized behavior in the public sphere requires a certain suppression of thought and feeling in order to get along without fearing someone will strike back in anger. Respect and tolerance are out of style.

Speculative fiction writers have long tried to tell stories of race. In an genre dominated until recently by white men, only a few black voices have stood out, among them Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delaney, and N.K. Jemisin. Less well-known in the sci-fi mainstream is Kelvin Christopher James, whose most recent novel, Augments of Change, takes the myth of race, as well as it taboos and tropes, and turns it on its head. His unique voice brings a new clarity to race as an illusion that influences daily thought. Continue reading