I read an article today in the St. Petersburg Times by Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One.
In his essay, Prothero refutes the growing popular notion that religions are essentially the same, an idea proposed by the likes of the Dalai Lama and one of my heroes, George Lucas. He makes the valid point about the Iraq War and how our misunderstanding of Islam has created lots of problems for the U.S. I agree that if Americans had a better understanding of the Koran and its role in politics, we probably would not be trying so hard to turn them into a democracy. On the other hand, history has proven time and again that thinking the other guy’s religion is a heresy never leads to any Kumbaya sing-alongs. Prothero makes the point that each religion has different goals and ideas, that Buddhists are atheists and don’t believe in sin, unlike Christians and Muslims. But I don’t think that what the Dalai Lama or George Lucas meant was that all religions are identical, but that all religions end up in the same place. It’s like many highways going to the same city. Granted, Buddhists care about ending suffering, Christians about salvation, and Taoists well, if I were to say it wouldn’t be Taoism—but aren’t those things more similar than not? Isn’t Heaven a place where suffering does not exist? And wouldn’t Buddhists call a world without suffering a kind of Heaven?
I do think, we can all agree, that all religions do have certain things in
1. Religions strive to better mankind.
2. Religions generally advocate good over evil. (Aside from Satanism and
Norse God-ism, hurting others is a No-No).
3. Religions deal with the Other; in other words; they deal with things
beyond normal everyday experience.
4. Religions make life meaningful.
I long for a world without Internet, without GPS enabled cell phones, without Google Earth, without connectedness. I long for a world where a man can become lost in places no one has ever been. I long for a world where the map isn’t quite filled in, where there are still places where “Here Be Dragons.”
For many years, I have perused the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of bookstores, struggling with how to define these genres. Many people simply clump them together and are satisfied. But I’ve threatened myself with carpel tunnel debating how the genres differ. Of course, people bring up the obvious things: Sci-Fi is technological, whereas Fantasy involves swords and magic. While I do not disagree, there are always gray areas. I proposed a theory that Sci-Fi deals with the probable and Fantasy the impossible. But the truth is more simple. The difference between the genres is this, “Do you want to feel the bumps in the road or don’t you?” My mother drives a Jaguar. One of its features is masking the road—riding in it feels like you’re in a landspeeder on Tatooine. But I prefer to feel the bumps, which is why I rode my bike 16 miles today to meet my wife and daughter at the park, who took the car. And that, my friends, is the difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy. It’s not in the specifics, and I am well aware of those books, from the likes of Robert Heinlein and Dan Simmons, where the heroes feel plenty of bumps. But the question remains, why do we reach for one genre over another? Do you believe the future holds the promise for a greater day? Are you fascinated by the workings of an iPhone? Then I’d guess you prefer Sci-Fi. But if you’re like me, technology is more often a nuisance than not, and tomorrow never seems as bright as yesterday. Don’t get me wrong, my shelves are stocked with almost as much Sci-Fi, and my favorite book is Dune, but when I daydream it’s for simpler times, or more accurately, *for the mythical past that never was*.
It’s also why I haven’t been posting lately. No Internet on Aenya.
Susan J. Douglas argues that despite the recent surge of powerful female characters in fiction—she talked about Xena, La Femme Nikita, Dark Angel, Alias, Charlie’s Angels, and Lara Croft, that sexism still exists. Her premise is that: a) These women are tough and can take care of themselves but b) They’re still seen as sex objects and their primary virtue is beauty.
While I agree that sexism, like every other ism, still exists and will probably always exist, I have never agreed with the feminist position on this issue, mainly, that female heroines are somehow degrading and holding women back from equality, and this book did nothing to change my mind. Real sexism deals with women’s rights to reproduce, attain health care coverage for contraception, and of course, get equal pay for equal work. But Susan J. Douglas’ can’t find it in her heart to champion this modern era of kick-butt females.
Times have changed and sexism in the United States is no longer the status-quo. No longer are women in books and film relegated to damsels in distress. Certainly, the last 10,000 years has shed an unfavorable light on females in myth and history, and no doubt there are still plenty of backwards men who could use a good lesson in equality. But in the past century, women have moved up in the world, due in part to the enlarged roles of their fictional counterparts. In the world of fiction, there’s not a single role or attribute beyond a woman’s reach, and little girls the world over should be thankful for it.
In the chapter dedicated to this issue, “Warrior Women in Thongs,” Douglas admits to this new empowerment, but finds fault in that these heroines have to be sexy—or as she puts it, a size 0 with 34d breasts and showing lots of skin. For me, I do not see any bias in Xena. Just like her male counterpart, Hercules, Xena needs to be beautiful. This is human nature—design by evolution. It would be dishonest for men to pretend that they are not more interested in beautiful women. After all, it is hard coded into our DNA. While beauty standards differ widely between cultures and time periods (ala Rubenesques) beauty remains a universal selection process for breeding out, albeit subconsciously, genetic defects. The same standards apply for women who watch men. I have yet to see a balding actor play James Bond and I don’t think I shall ever see one. I have also never seen a fat Superman, a scrawny Batman, or any other unattractive male superhero. While women are typically less concerned with beauty, they all, on some level, are influenced by it. And yet, men do not cry foul that no unattractive men are chosen to play Bond. Traditionally, the fact that women are the fairer sex was viewed as part of a woman’s strength, not a hindrance. If Susan Douglas wishes to attack something, better to point the finger at the magazine and clothing industry for so narrowly defining what beauty is, whose chief consumer, incidentally, are women.
When writing Thelana’s character, I thought a considerable deal about sexism. I made certain that she wasn’t the only character without clothes on, and I also made certain that Xandr never got a free pass in the beauty department. He is, in every way, her male counterpart. But I also wished to avoid 20th century beauty standards so commonly and narrowly imposed on women in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Maxim. Whenever I ask an artist to draw Thelana for me, I always instruct that she not be too thin or busty (one artist called her fat). I have noticed that recently, the very busty physique has gone out of fashion in some respects; consider how Neytiri might have looked if Avatar had been released in the eighties.
So I hope that, should Ages of Aenya ever get published, I won’t get feminists mad at me for being a sexist. Certainly, my heroine enjoys leaving her clothes behind, but that is not a trait unique to her, and I have known many real world women that enjoy nudism just as much as men do. And if that aspect of her persona helps in some way to push book sales—well what can I say? That’s evolution.
It seems today that fantasy has been hijacked by “world builders”—writers so enamored by Tolkien, that their No. #1 priority is to build a convincing world. While I am all for convincing worlds, I am not all for it if it hinders the telling of a story, or takes the place of one. I won’t mention names, but many of today’s most popular fantasists don’t seem to so much be telling a story as writing a textbook for their daydreams. I am often left asking myself, what’s the point of this book? Tolkien was less a story teller and more a professor of history and linguistics. He translated Old English classics like Beowulf and Sir Gawain & the Green Knight into modern English. While this brought a level of expertise to his writing, it did not bode well for the future of writers wanting to emulate him. As much as we may want, none of us can be Tolkien or can hope to achieve the same kind of success. We would have to live Tolkien’s life and study everything he did to match his style, and even then, why would anybody want to? Writers must draw from their own experiences to tell their own stories. And most importantly, story telling must be our no. #1 priority. True story tellers, it seems to me, are more often found in Sci-Fi. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke were true story tellers. In the fantasy realm, Ursula K. Leguin, Peter S. Beagle, and J.K. Rowling are true story tellers. Rowling’s Harry Potter, by the way, also builds a believable universe, but she does so in a subtle fashion that services the plot. Did anyone really need a history lesson about Hogwarts before taking an interest in the tormented boy living under the cupboard?
Despite my love for speculative fiction, I more often find enjoyment in a good classic, or even in a real world setting. I adored The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaleed Hosseini, and wonder whether I can capture the same intensity of emotion in the fantasy genre.
I also hate it when books do not conclude, or do not conclude in meaningful ways. This seems to be another symptom of world building, in that the details take up too much room to allow for a conclusion. What is it about this new trend of books that doesn’t give an ending to a story? How can you tell if a writer is any good if he doesn’t even end it? I may be old fashioned, but a story for me must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones has no ending at all. Scott Bakker’s The Darkness that Comes Before does the same thing. It is for that reason that I have recently started to appreciate R.A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf Trilogy, and Margaret Weis’ and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance. While they may cater a bit more to the youth, at least they actually tell a story; at least they know how to end things in a way that feels satisfactory while leaving enough mystery and intrigue to make a reader want to pick up the next in the series.
When I was a kid, we could expect to have 3 or 4 cartoon shows to watch on weekdays. There were more than that, but they all played at the same time, so your choices were limited. There was no DVD, no DVR, no streaming internet video, no 24 hour cartoon channels. Also, I didn’t have a game system until I was 12, and even then you were lucky to have one decent game (Super Mario Bros.) It all boils down to this: we had to make our own fun. Every kid in my day had some measure of imagination and creativity. You had to, to be a kid. How else could you play with toys if you couldn’t make up a story or conjure at least the most basic of scenarios? Often, I would make back stories to games like Zelda, because the 2D top down graphics left too much to the imagination. It makes me sad to know that all of the imagining these days is provided by big companies. Children no longer seem to be masters of their world … they have been forced to becoming consumers. I imagine the makers of Halo Reach had great childhoods, and I imagine that when they were kids, they imagined something along the lines of Halo (I sure as hell know I did) but what will the children of today make tomorrow? If all the thinking and creating is done for them, what will they, as adults, come up with? Will it be just a rehash of what they grew up with . . . will we see a never ending slew of first person shooter games, or will imagination simply become passe, quietly dying from public awareness?
Of course, I am generalizing. I’m sure someone from Internet land will link me to a video of kids doing incredibly creative things—when one makes generalizations, they must be taken with a grain of salt. I certainly can’t prove my assertions, but this is by no means a scientific journal. But I believe there is truth to what I am saying—and that is, mainly, playtime doesn’t mean what it used to.
Unless something drastic happens in our culture, I can’t imagine too much new thinking in the world of tomorrow. When I was a teenager, I used to get excited about games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Dungeon Master. I would argue that there is more creativity in those games than in Halo or Gears of War. I miss being stranded on a planet for hours, looking through a junkyard to find parts to repair my spaceship; I miss the fast food space station where an alien with hypnotic eyes forced me to buy extra French fries; I miss the sad story of the sick child in King’s Quest, who you save with a bowl of magic porridge—something that brought tears to my eyes; I miss how, in Dungeon Master, you actually have to learn to read magic (with its own alphabet)—decades later, I can still remember the words to cast a fireball: FUL BRO NETA!
What do we have now in place of that? More space helmets! Bigger guns! Bigger shoulder pads! Guns with chainsaws! Blood and guts hitting the screen! More things to shoot and blow up! Quickly now, KILL KILL KILL till there’s nothing left to kill. And then . . . game over.