Writing Fantasy: The Problem of Lineage

“I have encountered a vergence in the Force . . . a boy. His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form. It was possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorian.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“The Force is strong in my family.”  -Luke Skywalker, Return of the Jedi

“His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I’ve ever seen in a life form. It’s possible he was conceived by the midi-chlorians.” -Qui-Gon Jinn, The Phantom Menace

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. It’s energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you. Here, between you…me…the tree…the rock…everywhere! Yes, even between this land and that ship.” -Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The examples of the problem are countless, though that hasn’t stopped us from trying to count them anyway. Whether it comes from destiny or something about who your dad was, we know this much; in fantasy fiction, it really fucking matters who your parents were. Your real parents, at least. Your powers are something you are born with. Sure, maybe you need training, maybe you need an eccentric mentor type to help you hone your talent, but that all comes later, typically after you inherit your ancestor’s cool weapon.

We could be talking about Star Wars, like with the above quotes. Or maybe we’re talking about Aragorn and the Lord of the Rings. Or with a bit of stretching, we could include any superhero whose powers are the result of their inborn biology as opposed to what they might have constructed in a cave, with a box of scraps.

In fact, because there are so many examples and variations on this theme, we’re going to narrow it down to Star Wars, not simply because Star Wars (and more specifically, the prequels) are the most egregious offender, but because there is such a clearly defined timeline that explains the problem. Even though I’m talking specifically about the Force and the Jedi here, these are themes that can be found in almost any fantasy story that has some kind of magical power and a specific group of people that can wield that power. So you could substitute “magic” and “mages” here, if you really wanted.

We begin with the original trilogy. Despite all the references to Luke’s destiny as a Jedi, because his father was a Jedi, by the time we get to Yoda, we see someone who doesn’t seem to give a shit who your dad was. If you want to be a Jedi, get off your ass and work on it. You better have the deepest commitment and the most serious mind if you want to make it through Jedi training, or your ass isn’t levitating anything.

Sure, there’s still privilege here in the story as presented. Not everyone gets to be a Jedi. But why not? Maybe you don’t have the natural patience to sit still long enough to let a green elf lecture you while inhaling swamp gas. Or maybe you couldn’t afford to take a top-of-the-line military starship and fly off to some random swamp planet to meet the right teacher because you have to ride the space-bus every day. Maybe you don’t believe in hokey religions and ancient weapons, so the whole thing is just a waste of time.

Regardless of the barriers that might keep you from Jedi training that exist mentally, physically, or practically, at this point, the metaphor is still clear; if you really want to become a space wizard, you can. It’s going to be hard as hell. You could fail and die, or turn into an evil tyrant instead. But you can still try. It doesn’t matter what your blood type is. It doesn’t matter who your dad is. The Force is everything, even in the trees and rocks.

And then it turns out that none of that is accurate, because while it is true that the Force is super-cool and it’s all things and we’re all luminous beings, it’s also true that you won’t have a chance in hell at graduating from Jedi school unless you won the genetic lottery the moment you were born. A single check of your blood type (so to speak) determines whether you can be a space wizard . . . or, you know, something else. Maybe a queen, if you’re lucky enough to live on a planet with a democratically elected monarchy system.

Sorry, the Force isn’t for you. You don’t have the right blood for it. Even though the number of little organisms in your blood isn’t actually the source of the power, it’s still the bridge, the gateway, but ff you don’t have it, you never will. If you do have it, you can start working hard on developing it.

The parallels to fantasy fiction’s love of the aristocracy should become apparent here, if they aren’t already. The special people get all the best perks because they were born special. Again, and again, we see this theme.

You could argue that this accurately reflects real life and I’d agree with you. Unfortunately, the circumstances of your birth determine a lot about what opportunities are open to you and which ones are closed. Even before we consider anything else about me, the fact that I was born straight, white, and male meant that I had fewer barriers starting out than other people.

But my feeling is that it’s not the role of fantasy fiction to tell us how the world is, but how it should be. We don’t live in a world where good always triumphs over evil . . . but we should. Our fantasies tell us a lot about what we value, what we consider to be important. And so we come to the actual core problem: our Jedi fantasy started telling us that we believed anyone could become a hero, but shifted into telling us that only special people can be heroes.

We learn from stories. In particular, we learn about what’s important because we intuit what people want to tell stories about. Overcoming evil is more important than making breakfast in the grand scheme of things, so we usually focus our grand narratives there. And at one point in time, Star Wars knew this.

Participants: George Lucas, Richard Marquand, Lawrence Kasdan, and Howard Kazanjian
Location: Park Way House
Note: Many of the ideas here are conceptual only and should not be considered canon in the Star Wars saga.
Lawrence Kasadan: The Force was available to anyone who could hook into it?
George Lucas: Yes, everyone can do it.
Kasadan: Not just the Jedi?
Lucas: It’s just the Jedi who take the time to do it.
Marquand: They use it as a technique.
Lucas: Like yoga. If you want to take the time to do it, you can do it; but the ones that really want to do it are the ones who are into that kind of thing. Also like karate.

That’s the solution. It’s the direction that I went with in my books, although I hadn’t read this transcript at the time. If you make the magic powers a skill that someone can learn, you reinforce the idea that what you do matters more than who your parents are.

In Dinomancer, I intentionally keep it vague on whether or not I think of the ability to wield the Geas is a supernatural power or not. Where does it come from? What powers it? Right now, I’m not saying (gotta save material for future world building).

What I do explore is the relatively egalitarian nature of the skill itself; it really is true that anyone can learn it, just like anyone can learn French. But just like learning French, just because anyone can learn it doesn’t mean the deck isn’t still stacked in some people’s favor more than others.

Obviously, the easiest way to learn French is to be French. Barring that, going to France and living there for a while probably works. Barring that, taking a class or having a French teacher. Barring that? Maybe a book or something; at this point, you have fewer advantages working for you, so most people don’t really try. Sure, there’s the occasional self-starter who really manages to pull it off, but most of us don’t.

Anyone can train to be a dinomancer, which is my current working title and term for the protagonists until I can come up with something better. As discussed in the aristocracy post, this creates a form of social mobility, in that anyone can learn the skills needed to become a dinomancer, and the skills are so valuable that you’re guaranteed adoption into a noble House if you can master it. In theory, anyone can raise his or her station. All it takes is a bit of hard work, can-do attitude, and know-how . . .

Oh, and you need to be willing to stand in front of a bull tyrannosaurus as it charges toward you while all you do is hold out your hand and think really hard to make it not want to eat you and somehow believe that this will work even while your instincts are screaming at you to run away.

And the mortality rate for learning the skill is about 50%, but this risk isn’t evenly distributed. It’s lower if you’re a highborn, considerably higher if you’re lowborn.

Highborn will train for this challenge their entire lives. You can’t take your title or be considered a true member of your noble family unless you’re a trained dinomancer. Those highborn kids that don’t or can’t learn might remain comfortable all their lives as their parents care for them, but they won’t inherit any land, titles, or power ever, so if they don’t want to end up out in the cold one day, they best get to work.

Fortunately, there are plenty of trainers available for these highborn kids to help them prepare. Most families specialize in breeding one particularly powerful species, such as a Tyrannosaurus or Spinosaurus, but many smaller, less dangerous dinosaurs are common enough to be used for early training. From the time they can walk, these kids will grow up around dinosaurs, learning to interact with them, care for them, and everything else they’ll need once it’s time to learn the skill. They’re given every possible advantage to help them succeed.

The lowborn kids . . . are not. Any lowborn can send a child for dinomancer training to the noble family that rules over them. In point of fact, anyone of any age can go to learn, but culturally, it’s just better economic sense to send your little tykes off when they’re young so that if/when they fail, you’ve only invested six years into raising them instead of sixteen. You’re playing a numbers game when you’re lowborn; all you need is one kid to survive long enough to graduate, then they’ll have enough resources to care for you. You don’t get to become noble yourself, obviously, but most former lowborn provide enough for their families to lift them into a pseudo-middle class. Not all do, but it’s common enough.

Unlike the highborn, lowborn don’t have to send kids for training. There are plenty who don’t, since there’s no social expectation for them to do so. Lowborn kids can grow up and live lowborn lives. But the rewards are great enough that for most lowborn families, it’s worth risking a few sons or daughters.

The system isn’t fair. The powerful hoard their resources to ensure their own progeny retain their grip on power. We’re not creating a perfect world here, after all; we still need enough problems so there are things for our heroes to overcome. But the important distinction is that the core philosophy of the world itself is coded as “anyone can learn” instead of “you must have the right blood to learn.”

The elite of this world twisted things to serve their own interests. If someone more enlightened came along and wanted to open a dinomancer public school, there’s nothing inherent in the setting that would stop them. In contract, you don’t get to be a public school Jedi if you’re not born for it. Don’t even try.

How we construct our pretend worlds says a lot about us. My hope is that we’ll continue to see fantasy settings that trend in this direction. You can still make magic and magical powers rare and special without making them restricted to the genetically gifted. I still love magic and hidden places and lost arts. I just hope we see more things like the Jedi as envisioned in 1981 (“it’s like yoga”), instead of 1999 (“microscopic organisms living in your blood”).

Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires, #1)The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Man, I wanted to love this one. I was ready to love it. I was prepared for it. Consider the background context: Jim Butcher absolutely dominates my list of “Most Read Authors” at a lofty 26 books. I’ve read almost everything that’s flowed forth from his pen and I use the word “flowed” in the most enthusiastic and positive sense: the summer I was introduced to Dresden was a reading feast as I plowed through eleven books with complete abandon. I still remember where I was when reading “Summer Knight,” for instance (I was camping on a beautiful mountain in southern Arizona, if you’re curious).

I remember picking up the Codex Alera books and being skeptical at first, but Tavi’s story drew me in and to this day, I consider the entire Alera series Butcher’s most underrated masterpiece. Alera showed me that I don’t need urban fantasy and wisecracking wizard detectives to enjoy his work.

I started this book in January. It proved to be slow going for me. I’d read a bit and I’d enjoy myself . . . but there was no hook. I’d put the book down for a few days and a week or two would go by as I read something else. I tried changing things up by going with the audiobook version during my walk to work each day . . . but more often than not, I went with a podcast instead. Eventually, I returned to the physical version of the book, mostly so I could finish.

Where do things go awry? The meeting with the Spirearch felt like a poor version of the First Lord from the Alera series and my feeling was the entire thing about “I can’t trust my guard because maybe traitors” was contrived to explain why these untrained kids were being sent off on an important mission.

For how prominently the aeronauts and the ship Predator featured in the title and the opening chapter, it’s quite surprising how little the airships actually figure into the book. Predator spends most of the story docked, with the action on “land” as it were. This was unfortunate, because the Predator and the airships were the most interesting and exciting aspect of the world. The battle at the end is suitably thrilling, but it’s such a small section of the book that by the time it rolled around, I’d be working slowly through the book for almost two months.

Also, the title bothers me. My understanding is that a windlass (in this universe’s context) is basically a barge or a ship that’s slow and weak. But Grimm (the presumed aeronaut in question) never has his ship turned into a windlass, so . . . where exactly is the windlass referred to in the title?

Other problems with the plot included the sudden and abrupt disappearance of the main antagonist, to the extent that I went back and reread a few chapters to make sure I didn’t miss a brief mention of the antagonist’s demise. Turns out, that wasn’t the case and the last few pages show that the antagonist managed to escape.

It was hard to tell whose story this was. Characters move around and disappear for long enough stretches of time that I can’t comfortably saw that it’s Grimm’s story, or Gwen’s. Maybe it’s really Bridget’s? But even she isn’t there for the finale, so who knows.

I’m almost 100% certain I can figure out the identity of the mysterious Enemy. Possible spoiler warnings, although I’m really just speculating wildly: considering the use of the word “unmake,” who’s willing to bet that the giant robot-thing is actually one of these deific Builders and that the oft-invoked “merciful Builders” aren’t quite so merciful after all?

I’m not a steampunk fan, so I can’t attest to how well (or not) this book will fare with fans of the genre. I’ve long been of the opinion that good writing will work regardless of genre and that good stories don’t need to rely on the genre conventions to be good, that the conventions are just fun embellishments or a form of adornment. Thus, I don’t consider my lack of familiarity with steampunk to indicate that “the book wasn’t for me” or “I just didn’t get it.” Hardcore steampunk fans may find otherwise, but that’s there business.

So, in the end, I’m left with a book that I picked through for two months. There are some good bits here, even some great bits; the airships and the chase at the end immediately made me want to go pick up a book about Victorian Era naval combat. You can see the familiar Butcher magic, you can grasp the pieces and see how they could come together to tell an epic story. But those pieces don’t come together here. It’s hard to see the characters as more than their archetypes: stoic captain, mad wizard, feisty aristocrat girl, etc.

I’m not going to write off the series yet. I recall how it took until the third Dresden book before I felt that the author had really hit his stride and found the magic, and so I’m willing to give the next adventure a look when it comes out. I think there’s potential. I don’t hate it when a beloved author works on other projects or other worlds. But on its own merits, I don’t feel the the aeronauts are taking flight and so we’re left with a book that’s merely okay. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t love it.

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