Tortured Shakespeare Analogy: To Be or Not To Be a Dragon

Hey George… not happy…

So HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy epic A Game of Thrones has finally come to an end in a rushed, haphazard final season that didn’t seem to please anybody.

Now I have neither the time or inclination to dive into the details of what went wrong/right, plenty of other places to get that on the internet. I always knew that landing this sucker was gonna be messy. Heck the creator himself can’t seem to wrap things up and at this point it’s likely Brandon Sanderson is waiting for the call from George’s estate begging him to write a finish that makes sense like he did for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epic.

It’s a bittersweet conclusion to a project that had so much promise, especially in comparison to the artful way the Russo’s closed the current chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame just a couple weeks earlier. I’m particularly melancholy because I was an early adopter, snagging my well worn and loved paperback of the first book way back in 1996 or so. I was an evangelist for Westeros, although it became clear that what I liked about the books, the subversion of tropes and the surprise (and sometimes brutal,) twists were not only off-putting to many, but also a crutch that was covering for the fact that Martin had gotten waaaaay out over his skis.

It was the most ambitious project of Martin’s career and the first three volumes are still some of the best examples of epic fantasy storytelling in the genre. But by the time the 4th and 5th books were finished, with five and six year gaps in between publishing, it became obvious to this reader at least that Martin had lost control of his story. And with the smash hit HBO show well under way, there was always a looming danger that the show runners might have to improvise a lot of the finish.

Which led me to this Tortured Shakespeare Analogy on Facebook, preserved and edited here for all time because I made myself laugh.

I drink and I know things… that’s what I do…

The primary person to blame for the mess that is the ending of Game of Thrones is George RR Martin. 

The last two seasons have been as if Shakespeare had handed the first three acts of Hamlet off to the director and actors with the promise he’d have it finished by the time Hamlet kills Polonius. 

But when Hamlet sets off for England, with the dictionary definition of extraneous characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in tow, all the Bard has is the rough draft of act 4. The directors and cast do their best with it and it’s not terrible, in fact they trim a few bits and get the story chugging towards an ending, but when they ask for act 5, how does the story end, Bill is all like…

“Here’s my outline… there’s a duel… everybody dies… it writes itself, you’ll be fine.” 

Then he wanders off to write comedies. 

“But who becomes king?”

“Oh… ummm Fortinbras… it’s a twist! They love my twists… it’ll be great!” 

“Say hi to the Queen!” (Waves as he sets sail for France.)

Me… being funny I hope

Instead of Dune: The Warrior’s Apprentice or Trading in Danger

Miles is up to something…

Military Science Fiction as a genre hasn’t been treated well by the big screen. Robert A. Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers (1959,) and Gordon Dickson‘s Dorsai (1960,) were the seminal works that established the sub-genre, and the only real attempt to translate the style to the big screen, 1997’s adaptation of Heinlein; Starship Troopers (and its associated sequels,) largely failed to be any more than a cheesy guilty pleasure. It’s a tough genre to get right. David Weber, one of the modern masters, lays out his expectations thusly.

For me, military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context. It is not ‘bug shoots’. It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn’t an excuse for simplistic solutions to problems

David Weber

Weber’s Honor Harrington stories and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, are both excellent modern examples and both are listed as in some form of “in development” on IMDB, so keep an eye out. Aliens (1986,) is probably the pinnacle of military SF on the big screen so far.

Military Space Opera, a term coined to cover more traditional space Opera stories that have a more military focus, are more common. The Battlestar Galactica franchise, Syfy’s The Expanse, and the venerable epic Babylon 5 are all great examples on the small screen. And this sub-sub-genre is where today’s two “Instead of another Dune,” entries come from. Both stories feature unlikely (not straight able bodied square jawed white dude,) protagonists, frustrated ambitions and gobs of family drama. Both heroes are flawed, and over the course of their sagas they must accept and overcome their limitations, surprise both their enemies and their allies, and create their own place in the universe against all odds. They would both make great tv series, but they could easily shine as stand alone films.

Trading in Danger (Vatta’s War #1)

Kylara (Ky) Vatta didn’t have to enter the Spaceforce Academy on her homeward of Slotter Key. As a scion of the Vatta family interstellar shipping empire she could want for nothing and have a place guaranteed in the family business. But the commercial life doesn’t spark her soul the way shipping out as an officer on an interstellar cruiser does.

While she is an excellent study, her habits of “taking in strays,” so to speak leads to a scandal that ends with her discharge in disgrace from the service. Returning home is torture for Ky, facing a family that never believed in her. But she gets a chance at redemption, captain of a ship… of sorts. The Glennys Jones is due at the scrapyards and someone has to captain it there. Supplied with a ragamuffin crew of outcasts and family loyalists, Ky manages to make a lot more than milk from this supposed milk run.

If that doesn’t sound like he cast of a SyFy channel series I’ll eat my boots.

Ky is a great heroine. She’s smart and resourceful, she’s aggravatingly confident, and she doesn’t know what “over your head” means. She turns her junker ship into the trading vessel it was meant to be, and when confronted with pirates she turns the tables on them with glee. She also continues her trend of taking in strays, shepherding refugees from the pirates clutches to safety.

Ky has a dark side as well. In combat she discovers a thrill she had never experienced before, a bloodlust that frightens and intrigues her. She quickly finds herself responsible for hundreds of lives and has to make hard decisions that both protect and endanger then ones she loves. And she is about to learn more about the family business than she ever expected.

Elizabeth Moon is an accomplished storyteller, a Nebula Award winner and a former Marine, which definitely shows in her appreciation of military life. But she’s also courted some controversy, in 2010 she was disinvited to the feminist science fiction convention WisCon for remarks she had made on her blog about Islam and assimilation. Looking over the controversy, I disagree with Ms. Moons’ position and was disappointed to learn of it, but I think she handled the fallout better than many might have and don’t think it reflects poorly on her work as an author, nor does it reveal a deep flaw in her character.

The Warriors Apprentice introduces us to the main character of Lois MacMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Miles Vorkosigan in contrast to Ky Vatta, is desperate to get into the family business of sorts. His father, Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, is Regent to the young Barrayaran Emperor Gregor Vorbarra. His grandfather General Pyotr Vorkosigan, was a legendary resistance fighter during the occupation of the planet by the Cetagandans. And to add spice to the mix his mother is the enigmatic Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, offworlder and veteran of the Betan Expeditionary Force.

But there is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to Miles’ dream. While still carrying her first and only child, Cordelia and Aral survive an assasination attempt in the form of a deadly chemical attack. While the Count and Countess survived largely unscathed, the antidote did teratogenic damage to the fetus, resulting in an inability to form bones correctly.

Despite the chilling prognosis, Cordelia insists on attempting to bring Miles into the world and he is transferred to a “uterine replicator,” a common technology Ibn the wider galaxy but unheard of on backwards and isolated Barrayar. Miles is born a stunted and fragile child in a world that treats him as a despised mutant. The odds are stacked against our hero, but he will not be deterred.

He throws himself into his studies and makes it all the way to the brink of acceptance into the Imperial Military Academy. But while his academic marks are above and beyond the mark, tragedy strikes when he cannot complete the physical tests, left with both legs broken at the bottom of a climbing wall, his ambitions betrayed by his brittle bones, the last victim of the civil war.

But where one door closes another opens. While accompanying his childhood friend Elena and her father, his bodyguard and aide Bothari on a trip to visit his grandmother on Beta colony, Miles manic personality leads him into a series of shenanigans that leads to the creation of his alter ego, the Betan Admiral Miles Naismith. While the future Count Vorkosigan is barred from military service at home, Admiral Naismith is able to craft an entire mercenary organization with nothing but his wits and chutzpah.

Much like Ky Vatta, Miles will find himself in over his head, with responsibilities he never imagined and consequences to is actions he never anticipated. He’ll suffer heartbreak, endanger those close to him, and almost inadvertently destroy his father’s political career. But he’ll create something, the Dendarrii Free Mercenaries, that will go on long after his own career grows in directions he never dreamed of.

Both of these novels begin extended series that would provide cinematic fodder well into the future. They also offer some intriguing casting options. Miles Vorkosigan, stunted and twisted by his condition, would be an opportunity for a differently abled actor too shine. Kylara Vatta is a great “strong female character,” but she’s also not necessarily white, her family certainly isn’t depicted as Anglo at least. And both universes are populated with intriguing side characters and innovative technology to explore. I recommend both authors for further reading, and if you know anyone at the SyFy network, maybe slip them a copy?

Friday Fiction: John Varley’s Titan, Wizard, and Demon

One of the great things that happens when a SF/F classic is adapted to the big or small screens is that there is a renewed interest in their works. Sales of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories skyrocketed when Peter Jackson finally brought The Lord of the Rings to cinemas, a book a lot of folks thought couldn’t be filmed. Unfortunately this exposure often comes long after the author is around to enjoy the experience due to our unfortunately mortal condition. But for the first installment in our “Please Not Another Dune Movie,” series we are fortunate to have the writer still with us, proud son of Austin John Varley and his SF trilogy Titan, Wizard, Demon.

Varley could be rightfully considered the hippy version of Robert Heinlein. Both authors shared a canny ability to describe the previously unforeseen, from technology to sexual relations. But while Heinlein, who gave us Starship Troopers as well as Stranger in a Strange Land veered between authoritarian and libertarian themes and some pretty creepy misogyny, Varley has always grounded his fiction in the liberation philosophy he learned at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in 1967.

Spoilers Below… You Have Been Warned

Titan, published in 1977 was the first of the trilogy. The story begins with a scientific expedition to Saturn aboard the ship Ringmaster. Commanded by the delightfully named Cirroco “Rocky” Jones and crewed by astronomer Gaby Plauget, the clone twin physicists April and August Polo, pilot Eugene Springfield, physician Calvin Greene and engineer Bill (just Bill,) the Ringmaster discovers a strange object in orbit around the ringed planet. A Stanford torus habitat. Before they can report their findings to Earth their ship is captured and the crew rendered unconscious and separated. They awaken inside the structure and are confronted with a surreal landscape, an entire alien ecosystem contained within the object.

Rocky and Gaby are reunited fairly quickly and begin exploring in hopes of finding the rest of the crew. When they find Calvin they confirm their suspicion that something or someone has altered the crew members while they were unconscious. Calvin has been gifted with the ability to communicate with the enormous hydrogen filled creatures called Blimps that float through the “sky” inside the habitat. With Calvin and the blimp Whistlestop they find the rest of the crew save for April, who remains missing.

Eventually they discover the dominant species on the planet, the centaur like Titanides, and become embroiled in their war with the Angels, winged humanoids who swoop down from their homes in the “spokes,” that connect the rim to the hub of the structure, pulled taught by the centrifugal force of the structure. From the Titanides they learn that the artificial world they are on has a controlling intelligence named Gaea who dwells in the Hub, 600 kilometers above. Gaby, Gene and Cirroco undertake to make the perilous climb. There’s some serious trigger warning shenanigans on the journey and Gene becomes more and more unstable, sexually assaulting both women.

Eventually Rocky and Gaby reach the summit and encounter Gaea, who appears in the form of a dumpy but charming middle aged woman. Gaea claims to be millennia old and has been observing Earth ever since TV signals reached her habitat. A movie addict, Gaea has created all of the species the crew have encountered. In fact she started the war below in order to prepare herself for the eventual encounter with humans, having watched how warlike we are. What’s more, Gaea’s own regional intelligences, located below each of the spokes, have begun to rebel, it was one of them that captured the Ringmaster. In exchange for ending the wasteful war and freeing the Titanides and Angels from their compulsion, Cirroco agrees to become Gaea’s representative to the Ring, her Wizard.

The next two volumes deal with what it’s like to live inside an eccentric alien and it’s relationship with both Gaea’s inhabitants and Earth itself. There’s love, rebellion, war, freaky centaur sex and a giant Marilyn Monroe. It gets really really weird.

Titan would bring some great characters to the big screen. Rocky and Gaby are smart, resourceful women. Cirroco Jones is a part that just begs for Charlize Theron to sink her teeth in. It’s primarily a quest against the environment, without a true antagonist other than the landscape (although Gene becomes quite villainous in the end.)

There is definitely some Heinlein like odes to the male gaze in Varley’s work. Pretty much everybody is sexy. The Titanides themselves are all strangely hermaphroditic, with very, very complicated breeding practices based on what’s between their front legs, but their top halves are all beautiful naked women. HBO would be salivating at the amount of boobs they could present the audience.

Titan gets this first nod because it’s one of my favorites, and one of the few works from it’s era that really holds up well to modern sensibilities. Varley is pretty woke for and old white dude. Give him a shot if you can.

Thanks to everybody who responded with suggestions last week. I’m adding a lot to my Kindle queue. Any other suggestions drop me a line!