When my nephew Kevin was about four years old (a decade ago, he's 14 now) ... he asked me one day what the difference was between good guys and bad guys. At first I thought I was getting a different question -- who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys? Well, the good guys are me and you, bud, of course --
But he's a smart guy now and he was a smart four year old. He didn't want to be told he and I were good guys -- he knew that already about himself, and when you're four, anyone who loves you is a good guy: at four when someone asked him whose boy he was, he said "I'm Uncle Danny's boy."
What he really wanted to know was, what's the difference between good guys and bad guys? What makes you good, or bad?
This is a harder question than it seems at first blush, even in the world of a small child -- you can talk all day about strength and courage and honesty and "doing the right thing" ... but where's the core? How do you know what the "right thing" is?
What's your Code? Can you explain it to a four year old child in a way that makes sense?
It took me about ten seconds, but I liked my answer and I still do. "Good guys," I told Kevin, "are strong, and they protect people who aren't strong from anyone who wants to hurt them."
In "All Possible Worlds," the main character, Sam Goodnight, is a member of the ancient Order of Navigators, an order of people who can travel in time, who can navigate probability, who can see when they and others are going to die -- about all that's left over from the version of the story where they were professional Deaths who led souls into the next life. (And we'll skip over the show that resembled that premise, now, and move on.)
Navigators are bound by a Code, and when I took a first pass at it I ended up with a Code that was 7 or 8 items long. It was too long, reeked of false Arthurian-legend Christian knight crap -- I disliked it as soon as I'd gotten done with it. Pretentious and inelegant at the same time -- I can tolerate one or the other, but both together is a killer.
I hacked away at it a couple times and it didn't get much better (though I lifted the phrase "hideous strength" from C.S. Lewis at one point, and that almost worked -- if I ever get past the pilot of APW I'm liable to come back to that: an angel says to Jake Two Knives, "To best that hideous strength, were you brought into this world.")
I was thinking of removing all mention of a Code from the All Possible Worlds pilot -- when I flashed back on that long-ago conversation with my nephew, and went back to my computer and typed:
The Code of the Order of Navigators:
1. Do No Harm
2. Protect the Innocent
I wrote that down about a year ago now. With a year to think on it, it seems to cover almost everything meaningful about what it means to be an adult, to be a man, a father, to behave morally in your interactions with the world. (I can't tell you what it means to be a woman, a mother -- different wiring there and I won't presume -- though the older I get the more I think that being a good man and being a good woman are very nearly the same thing.)
Every year on or about my birthday I watch Knightriders. The gag is this: they're a wandering troupe of performers who put on jousts ... atop motorcycle. Except that what's an obvious put-on to the outside world, is (to varying degrees) real to the people living the life ... late in the movie, watching the knights fight, a girl says: "They're crazy." And a scummy agent, watching them fight, grins and says, "Yeah ... but that's what makes them sellable."
There's a brilliant bit midway through where King William (played by the best actor of his generation, Ed Harris), sitting by the fire at the side of the road along with his lawyer, with Merlin, and a roustabout named Bagman, talks about his Code: "It's tough to live by the Code. I mean it's real hard to live for something you believe in. People try it and they get tired of it, like they get tired of their diets, or exercise, or their marriage or their kids or their job or themselves, or they get tired of their God ... you can keep the money you make off this sick world, lawyer, I don't want any part of it. Anybody wants to live more for themselves doesn't belong with us. Let 'em go out and buy some pimpy psychiatrist paperback says it's OK, don't ask me to say it's OK, it's not OK!"
And Bagman responds. He's just spent the night in jail having his ass whipped by a Bad Cop ... he tells a story about waking up in a jail in Alabama after having his ass kicked years back, and just wanting to die, trying to cut his wrists with a bed spring ... but now: "Well, last night, I got my ass kicked, and I came up laughing. Because now I'm in Camelot. See, the way I see it is this: you got two separate fights: the one for truth and justice and the American way of life and all that, it's gotta take a back seat to the one for staying alive, you gotta stay alive, man, you can have the most beautiful ideals in the whole world, but if you die, your ideals are gonna die with you. The important thing is we gotta stay together, we gotta keep this troup together, and if keeping this troup together means we gotta take some of this promoter's money, I say we take it and get some sleep."
And everyone does to go sleep, and King Billy stares into the fire ... and then wakes up Bagman and rants at him: "Listen, I been thinking about what you said, all that stuff you said earlier, I been thinking about it, I been thinking about it real hard ... there's not two different fights. There can't be two different fights. You've got to fight for your ideals and if you die, your ideals don't die. The Code that we're living by is the truth, the truth is our Code. I can't let people walk on that idea, I can't."
... and King Billy borrows his lawyer's motorcycle and rides off to go do battle with the Dragon.
Knightriders isn't a great movie. In places it isn't even a good movie. It's too long and embarrassingly sincere when Ed Harris and Tom Savini (Mordred, essentially) aren't on screen. But Savini is good and Harris gives one of the great performances in any movie ever -- something comparable to Peter O'Toole's Lawrence ... which last night and tonight I watched with my 4 younger children. None of them had ever seen it -- and a couple of months ago I got my hands on a 1080P copy.
We watched the first two-thirds, up to the original theatrical intermission, last night. Tonight we watched the final third. My kids are boys, 5, 8, and 11; and a girl, 15. (My oldest is 17, has a 4+ GPA and is being recruited by every college on the planet -- she doesn't have time for 3-1/2 hour movies unless Harry Potter is in them.)
So the younger four watched. We kicked the boys out for the scene where Lawrence got tortured by the Turks, and my five year old cuddled up with me every time we hit a battle sequence -- but the movie was made in 1962, and the real violence is almost entirely offscreen -- people swing swords, but they impact off the edge of frame, that sort of thing. And we had a 3-1/2 hour conversation (annoyed my wife at times) about whether Lawrence was, or was not, a good guy. Mostly they were on track with him being a good guy, because he was fighting for the people who didn't have any power -- until late in the movie, when Lawrence attacked a column of utterly defeated Turkish soldiers who were straggling off the field of battle. It's clear in context that Lawrence wants to kill the Turks because of what they did to him -- tortured and raped him, not knowing this pretty blue-eyed boy was really the famous Lawrence, and then cut him loose after the Turkish commander was through with him. My sons didn't see that -- but still, they worked their way through to it: no, killing the defeated Turkish soldiers this wasn't what a good guy would do.
... had a great moment of synchronicity today. Talking with my daughters and oldest daughter's Very Smart Friend at dinner -- 17 year old girl who describes herself as a nihilist and knows what she means by that -- when I quoted Trevanian at them:
...in the long run, the "minor" virtues are the only ones that matter. Politeness is more reliable than the moist virtues of compassion, charity, and sincerity; just as fair play is more important than the abstraction ofjustice. The major virtues tend to disintegrate under the pressures of convenient rationalization. But good form is good form, and it stands immutable in the storm of circumstance.
-- Trevanian: Shibumi
We hit that exact idea again, in Lawrence's attack on the Turkish column. Earlier in the movie, Prince Faisal (Alec Guiness, who shows up again later in this foolishly-long post) says:
With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.
-- Prince Faisal
I don't doubt for a second that the quote from Lawrence informs the bit in Shibumi. They're the same idea, expressed at different lengths. If my kids get anything from me, growing up, I hope they get this -- you can depend on people to do what is in their nature. So you'd damn well better associate yourself with decent people who will do the right thing because it's who they are ... because nothing else can be relied upon.
And man, Lonesome Dove.
The two best movies I've ever seen are Lonesome Dove and Lawrence of Arabia. They're similar works in interesting ways. Omar Sharif once described Lawrence as a movie four hours long with no love story -- of course Sharif is wrong (or forgiveably disingenuous, given the era in which he grew up.) Lawrence is a love story between O'Toole's Lawrence and Omar Sharif's "Sherif Ali." The fact that it's utterly chase, with no hint of sex, doesn't change the core of the movie, the love between the two men. Without Ali and the love he comes to feel for Lawrence, Lawrence is merely a sociopath -- we see something better in Lawrence through Ali's eyes, not our own.
Lonesome Dove is a triangle -- Gus McCrae, Woodrow Call, and Clara Alan. The two men aren't fighting over the woman: Woodrow and Clara are fighting over Gus. And Woodrow Call wins. Clara marries another man, a man she doesn't love because, as she says to Call -- this is close, maybe not exact, from memory: "I wasn't going to fight you for him every day of my life." And Gus and Call grow old together, and in their early old age, take a cattle drive up north to Montana, passing by Clara in Nebraska, along the way --
So my two favorite movies are Men On Horses -- OK, Horses and Camels -- with gay subtexts. (I was past 40 before I realized this, by the way. You'd think I'd have loved Brokeback Mountain, for which Larry McMurtry cowrote the script -- damn thing bored me silly.
(The core emotional relationship in Knightriders is between Morgan and King William, for that matter -- Men On Horses and Camels and Motorcycles ... oh my.)
So I'll just skip lightly over what all this says about me as a person, and on another day I'll post at length about the Unbearable Lightness of Being and Audrey Hepburn and Michelle Pfeiffer and my He-Man credentials and all ... but let's get back to Lonesome Dove .
Larry McMurtry might be annoyed at the suggestion that Gus McCrae lives by a Code -- but he does. When the evil halfbreed Blue Duck kidnaps Lorena, Gus sets out to rescue her. She's a sulky whore -- and when she laughs, she reminds Gus of the sisters he left behind in Tennessee. So Gus plays cards with her and tries to help her win, because he likes it when she laughs. When Blue Duck kidnaps her to trade her to a group of renegade Indians, Gus heads off after her without hesitating, almost without thinking -- misses Blue Ducks, kills the renegades, and rescues Lori. She might be a whore, but in the context of the terrible things about to happen to her, she's an innocent, and Gus rides off to save her.
The next half of the movie (6-hour miniseries, actually) is Gus gently disentangling himself from the woman he's rescued. A bit later, Gus and Call run across murdering horsethieves -- Gus mounts up, leaving Lori anxiously behind: "I can't let a horsethief go, Lori, particularly one who's killed a boy."
I read Lonesome Dove the way some people read the Bible. It sits next to my bedside and I read passages to myself before going to sleep at night -- I've read 4 separate copies of that book until they came apart.
Early on in Lonesome Dove, there's a moment where Gus has been out all night, whoring and playing cards, and Woodrow Call gets up in the morning and finds Gus cooking the morning biscuits, and reading the Bible. Call says, "I expect you sat up all night, reading the Good Book."
... and I always recognize myself in that scene. Though it's a different book I'm up with, usually.
It's the 40th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper. I don't have much to say about that -- I'm musically obsessed, but I'm not musically literate, so more musically literate people than me will have to comment.
And it's the 30th anniversary of Star Wars. That I can talk about a little.
I was fourteen when I saw Star Wars the first time. The debate team at my high school -- we must have been freshmen, looking back -- got to go see this new sci-fi movie as a reward for something-or-other. We must have been dreadful geeks to pick that as our reward, but -- OK, debate club; of course we were dreadful geeks.
We took a school bus out to the Chinese Theater (Grauman's Chinese, back then.) I was reading SF by then -- the first real piece of SF I remember reading was Robert Heinlein, when I was 8 -- Stranger in a Strange Land. (And no, I shouldn't have been reading that at 8 -- my mother was reading it, and was crabby I kept sneaking off with it before she could finish.) By the time I was fourteen in 1977 I'd read everything Heinlein had published, huge amounts of Asimov, Clarke, Niven, Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, Doc Smith, Clifford Simak, Fred Pohl -- OK, I really could go on for a good bit here, I think is my point. I read everything I could get my hands on -- every single SF work in my junior high school library, most of what was in the local public library, and almost all of the (pathetically small) collection of SF in my high school library.
None of this prepared me for Star Wars. We saw the first showing, on the first day the movie was open to the general public, and unless you saw that movie during its first run, you don't understand: you can't. You saw all the stuff that stole from Star Wars, and when you came to Star Wars, later, it lacked the shock of the new that all of us felt in 1977.
Star Wars changed the way movies were made; before Star Wars, and to a lesser extent Jaws, there was no "summer blockbuster." Spielberg and Lucas invented the category. But Star Wars didn't just change the way movies were made; it changed the way they were told. Star Wars moved like a rocket ship. Movies made pre-Star Wars may be great movies, but they seem a little stiff, a little slow, by post Star Wars standards. Today a movie can start in action, zoom through whatever passes for a story, never slow down, and know perfectly well that the audience will keep up: we've learned how. But before Star Wars, Empire -- Raiders -- movie makers didn't know that and almost never tried it.
I've never been sure how well Lucas understood what made Star Wars work. I can tell you the core of why Star Wars worked, when so many other similar movies don't: conviction. Look, Star Wars is a stupid movie. I won't bother to spend time trashing it, it's obviously, transparently stupid in so many ways there's no conceivable reason the movie holds together. Except this: Lucas didn't know he was making a stupid movie. He believed his story. He believed it so passionately that he took his tired plot and tired characters and better-actors-than-he-deserved and dared anyone to snicker at it.
And no one did. Star Wars wasn't camp. Lucas never ever winked at the audience. He didn't put a 9 year old boy in a spaceship and have him save the day, so that he could sell some damned toys. He didn't have 3PO get hauled through a desperate battle where people were dying left and right, moaning, "This is such a drag." Young George Lucas would have recognized those moments for the pure sellout they were. "Look," the filmmaker who made Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones was saying to the audience, "I know this is stupid stuff. But bear with me and we'll have some fun and I'll show you Natalie Portman's pokie little nipples."
Lucas made two great movies. Star Wars is brilliant and Empire is better -- though the best moment in Empire, the exchange between Leia and Han Solo --
Leia: "I love you."
Solo: "I know."
-- was improvised on set by Harrison Ford.
By the time Jedi rolled around, Lucas had lost the feel. By then Ford had a better feel for the material than Lucas -- Ford wanted Han Solo to die in Return of the Jedi. In an interview, Ford said about Solo -- this is from memory, but it's an exact quote across all the years: "He's got no mama, he's got no papa, and he's got no story."
But Lucas had lost the touch. He didn't kill Solo, and he inflicted on us the dreadful Luke-and-Leia-are-twins storyline that performed the amazing feat of travling back in time and making parts of Star Wars and Empire suck retroactively. He gave us Ewoks fighting and beating Stormtroopers -- until then Stormtroopers had seemed kind of badass, no? -- but it's hard to be scared of an Empire that can't whip a bunch of short guys in ugly teddy bear suits.
Though the shot of Luke burning Vader's body made up for a lot.
On balance, two great movies, one forgivable misfire. If Lucas had quit right then and never come back to it, he'd have saved his reputation from some substantial damage.
I wrote three Star Wars stories for Kevin J. Anderson, back in the mid-late 90s. I'm proud of them: I did my best with them. They were stupid in places -- plotting I couldn't touch, such as Lucasfilm's determination that Boba Fett could only spend a couple days down inside the sarlacc; names, such as "Labria" and "jizz bands" -- that were so unfortunate all I could do was ignore them as much as possible and move on. But I did what, to my understanding at least, Lucas had done with Star Wars: hid the stupidity beneath sheer force of conviction, and charged ahead. And I think it worked.
The first story, "The Devaronian's Tale," appeared in "Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina," and was written around a really nice story by Kathy Tyers -- she wrote about the Band; I made the devil Dude, the guy with horns you see for a couple seconds, a music fanatic who'd been trying to get to see the "Modal Nodes" for decades -- the piece follows his machinations to get the Modal Nodes away from Jabba, and to the cantina where he, Labria, can sit and enjoy their music. A slight story but I liked it and signed my name to it even after they told me I couldn't use the word "whores" -- apparently there are no whores in the Star Wars universe. Mostly the story is mine, minus a few textual changes no reasonable person could be particularly pissy about.
The second story went poorly. I turned in and had approved an outline for a story about what happened to Boba Fett after he fell into the Great Pit of Carkoon. Short form -- the sarlacc is self-aware, Boba Fett spends years down there being digested and commingling memories with the sarlacc -- eventually Fett breaks his way free, and returns to Tattooine for years afterward, to kill the sarlacc very, very slowly ....
I put a pseudonym on that story after I got done revising it to their spec, and then someone not-me revised it further. I got a call from a Lucasfilm employee at one point asking me to please not use the pseudonym -- no one had ever put a pseudonym on a Star Wars story, and the request was upsetting people. I didn't care at that point; told the woman to publish it with a pseudonym or publish my original piece with my name on it -- I was easy to get along with.
I think her point, when she got off the phone, was that I wasn't easy to get along with .... but the story was published with J.D. Montgomery's name on it. In it, Boba Fett falls into the sarlacc -- which isn't sentient. He squabbles with one of his neighbors ("Susejo" -- "O Jesus," backwards) -- for a couple of days, and then fights his way up out of the sarlacc. And the last line: "A dark angel ascended into the night" -- became "A dark spirit ascended into the night."
And then Kevin Anderson did a third collection, "Tales From the Bounty Hunters." And asked me to write the Boba Fett story.
I'm not often really surprised by people. Mostly people do what it's in their self-interest to do, as they understand it, and if you understand what other people think their self-interest is, most of the time you'll see them coming.
I don't really think it was in Kevin Anderson's best interests to hire me to write that story, and I suspect he knew it at the time. (I don't think it did him any particular damage, long-term ... but it wasn't the safe choice. I've always admired that decision.)
I turned in an outline for "The Last One Standing," and said, essentially, "This is it. This is the story. If Lucasfilm doesn't like any substantial piece of it, get someone else." (Admittedly, it was easy to be virtuous with those stories -- there was no money in them to speak of. More than you'd make selling to a magazine, surely, but a lot less than the guys writing the novels were making -- anyone who wrote those shorts, wrote them for love.) And KJ said, "Write the outline. I'll protect it." And he did -- when I turned the story in, Lucasfilm really hated one of my two favorite scenes -- early on Kardue sai Malloc, my character "Labria" from the Cantina story, the devil man -- gets caught by Boba Fett. Malloc is a war criminal wanted on his homeworld, and he tells Boba Fett how they execute people on his homeworld -- throw them into a pit of starving animals, and if you're smart, you throw your head back to expose your throat and get it over quickly --
IN THE ICY Devaronian northlands, beneath the dark blue skies that had haunted Kardue'sai'Malloc's dreams for over two decades, some ten thousand Devaronians had converged in the judgment Field outside the ruins of the ancient holy city of Montellian Serat, the city Malloc had shelled into its current state.
It was a beautiful day late in the cold season, with a chill breeze out of the north, and high pale clouds skidding across the darkened skies. The suns hung low on the southern horizon; the Blue Mountains lifted away up to the north. Malloc barely noticed the Devaronians surrounding him, the members of his family dressed in their robes of mourning, as they pushed him through the crowds; to the pit where the quarra waited.
He heard the quarra growl, heard the growl rising as he grew closer to the pit.
His daughter and brother walked a bare few steps behind him. Malloc recalled he had once had a wife; he wondered why she was not there.
Perhaps she had died.
A dozen quarra in the pit, lean and hungry, leaping up toward the spot where Malloc's guards brought him to a halt.
Devaronians are not creatures of ceremony; a herald cried out, "The Butcher of Montellian Serat"―and the screams of the crowd raised up and surrounded Malloc, an immense roar that drowned out the noise of the snarling quarra; the bonds that held him were released and strong young hands shoved him forward, and into the pit where the starving quarra waited.
The quarra leapt, and had their teeth in him before he reached the ground.
He could see the Blue Mountains from where he fell. He had almost forgotten the mountains, the forests, all those years on that desert world.
Oh, but the trees were beautiful.
Arch your head back.
I finished that piece and got up and walked around, bouncing, happy with myself. I sent KJ a letter saying "When I'm old and have sons, I will tell them, 'Daddy was bad once.'"
Lucasfilm -- I don't recall who and probably wouldn't, at this late date, name him or her if I did -- hated that scene. Referred to it in correspondence as "the torture scene." Wanted it out-and-we're-not-kidding ...
It stayed in. I don't know what happened, don't know if KJ went to bat on it or just sent it to the typesetters at Bantam without arguing any further -- but it stayed in. And I've always been grateful to Kevin for that.
Some years later I spent a few hours wandering around the World Science Fiction Convention up in San Francisco. I've been to maybe 8 SF conventions in my whole life; 3 of them were Worldcons and another I was the guest of honor. (Small convention, that one, only a few hundred people.) I don't like conventions for reasons too complex to go into here -- they take place on weekends for one, and I play basketball on the weekends, and it takes a lot to interrupt my basketball time. And other reasons I may write about another time.
I was l0oking for Kevin Anderson -- he and his wife Rebecca put up me and my then-fiancee at his house overnight, that weekend -- and found him on a panel discussing Star Wars. I sat down at the back of the convention hall -- I'm morally certain he didn't see me come in -- and listened for a while. A while later someone asked him what his favorite Star Wars story was -- and he said, "The Last One Standing," by Daniel Keys Moran.
I've always liked KJ.
The Last One Standing is not merely my favorite Star Wars piece; that's a limited universe. It's one of my favorite pieces of writing, overall. I went back to Harrison Ford's comment about Solo: "no mama, no papa, and no story." And I gave Han Solo a last moment in the sun, got the wife and kids away from him, got Chewie away from him, and sent him off to have an adventure by himself, to put him on the field with another old horse, Boba Fett, for one last confrontation.
At the time I intended to send a copy of that story to Harrison Ford; it's his story as much as it's mine, in genesis. I never did, and I still wish I had.
I'm pretty much past Star Wars these days. The second trilogy did for me what all the televised stuff did for Star Trek -- took material I cared about and diluted it until the elements that had made it unique and worthwhile were barely there. Sure, Revenge of the Sith is a good movie, in an everyone-goes-to-hell kind of way. (And Matt Stover's novelization is better than the movie, quite seriously. "This is the end of the age of heroes" ...)
But there are no Good Guys in the second trilogy. There are nice guys -- Yoda and Obi Wan seem decent enough, well-meaning chaps if a little dim. But my sons don't feel about Star Wars the way I felt about Star Wars, and that's probably a good thing.
My generation got Luke Skywalker. My generation got the kid who made good, who saved the day, beat the bad guys, did his level best to rescue his father and damn near succeeded at that --
And to my kids, Lucas offered Annakin Skywalker, bitter, angry, murderous, Darth Fucking Vader, and wrapped this inside a pretty little nine year old boy that all the little ones could identify with -- just to make it worse for them. Asked a generation of kids to identify not with the heroic Luke, but with the evil Annakin.
After Phantom Menace came out, one of my older sister's boys got told by the older kids that Annakin Skywalker was going to grow up to be Darth Vader. Little boy just shook his head mutely -- what kind of miserable bad joke was that? Not a chance: That Is Not How Stories Work.
There's a change Lucas could have made that would have made all this tolerable to me. Start with Annakin a little older. Give us a kid in his teen years, brilliant but already twisted by life, and start the story there. Not a big change -- but all the little kids out there who wanted to be Annikin Skywalker, wanted to win the pod race and blow up the space station, could have found some distance from the teenage Annikin, could perhaps have identified with an honorable Obi Wan rather than the infant Darth Vader --
What would it have cost? Some toy sales?