Friday, January 6, 2017

Why I Don't Like Most Modern Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Or, Why D&D Rocks

So, my last post generated quite a bit of dialogue, all of which I found really interesting and it got me thinking. I don’t watch a lot of American-made TV shows and I have been to see a movie in a movie theater maybe three times in the last decade and barley remember the last time I either wasn’t disappointed or wanted to go back and see the movie I had just seen again. Part of it is that much of the entertainment business in the U.S. (and the English-speaking world) holds me in contempt for my religious views and that contempt is shoved in my face frequently enough that I don’t readily commit a lot of my entertainment dollar or time to their product.

However, I also think that the entire industry suffers from the very same problem that the show The Magicians does: at its core is a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. As long as our story-tellers are dedicated to this view of life, the universe and everything then they are incapable of telling good stories.

Let me explain: as did the ancient Greeks, I categorize every story as either a comedy or a tragedy. In other words, the hero succeeds or the hero fails. Comedy or tragedy alone, however, do not make a good, compelling story because comedy and tragedy are simply about how the hero succeeds or fails, not why. The best heroes and villains are broken. Their journey towards success or failure depends upon why they are able to transcend that brokenness or why they cannot.

For example, one of the best movie trilogies to come out in the last decade or so, as far as I am concerned, is the Kung-fu Panda series. In each movie we are presented with a flawed hero (Po) who is a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan who does not know who he is. The trilogy is his journey of overcoming his flaws, his preconceptions and his circumstance to become the Dragon Warrior. The why in all of this has to do with love, sacrifice, humility and the ability to understand that each of us does, in fact, have a role larger than ourselves.

The trilogy also presents us with three flawed villains who are the hero of their own story. Each of them has a reason for their villainy, a reason that is relatable and understandable. Should the audience find themselves in the villain’s shoes, they could easily make the same choices.

At the climax of each movie, Po tells each villain how to win. In each case, their own ego and burning desire for revenge prevent them from seeing the truth about who they are and the victory that is within reach.

At the heart of all of this is a world-view where the divine exists. Po overcomes his shortcomings because there is something greater in the world that he can tap into and be transformed by. The villains all fail because they do not have the humility to see the divine in themselves to be transformed. It is their very insistence on doing everything on their own without the divine that spells their doom.

In a world without the divine, Po cannot transcend his flaws. He is doomed to be a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan that has no chance of defeating the villains. Without the transformative force of the divine, Po makes a completely unbelievable hero. If Po is to succeed in a world without the divine, he must simply be bigger, badder and better than the villains he faces. There is no transformation. There is no real why. The hero simply succeeds because that is what heroes do.

For an example of this, look no further than Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Rey has no flaws. She does not grow. She has no need to transform in order to overcome the challenges and villainy that are placed before her. Before anyone starts complaining that the Force is a type of divinity and she uses the Force in the movie, compare the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker to Rey. Skywalker was a loser at the beginning of the movie who had to learn about the Force and how to trust in it and allow the Force to flow through him. When he tries to do things on his own, he fails. When he finally internalizes his trust in the Force, he succeeds. Rey never has to do any of that. No one teaches her anything. She just knows. The Force is reduced to being part of why she is bigger, badder and better than the villains she gets to overpower.

There are various ways that post-modern story tellers try to overcome this inherent flaw. They construct these massive mysteries as distractions (who are Rey’s parents? why did Luke run away? what happened to the republic and the empire? who are the First Order? etc.) or make use of cliffhangers or surprises (which character won’t survive this week/this movie?). I won’t deny that these devices can be entertaining; however, once the surprise wears off and the mystery becomes less mysterious there really is no meat or heart to the story.

The timeless stories we tell are timeless because they are transformative. They show us that we can be the hero of our story and that we can be transformed and overcome our own flaws. As a kid who was a loser and a nerd I can totally identify with Po and Luke. I can be like them. I can trust in the divine and through learning about myself and my place in the larger world I can be transformed into something beyond my own expectations and hopes. In contrast, I can’t identify with Rey at all, nor can I ever be like her. She’s a superwoman who can do no wrong. There is no mechanism by which I can be like her.

This is why I love RPGs, especially D&D in all its various iterations. By its very nature, D&D defies a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. Not only is the divine assumed because of divine magic and clerics, but every character begins as a loser who must learn to cooperate with others using their own special skills and abilities in order to find out their place in the larger story of the world. The better they get at this, the more they are transformed. They get to go from being 1st level nobodies who are one goblin hit away from being worm food to being 9th level Lords who cleanse the Wilderness of monsters and now protect the land from a stronghold they built.

This is also why I think D&D became so popular and has survived so long. It taps into the transformative, timeless tales human beings have told since the beginning of time. It allows us to be that hero and to find out why we succeed or fail.


  1. Yes, the post-modern denies the divine, replacing it with irrational evolution and cosmotology that defies entrophy.

    The human brain/soul* is extremely expensive calorically, does not significantly assist in reproduction, has non-Darwinian properties and the brain does not even completely develop until more than half people have already died.

    In the high middle ages, mortality from disease was high; 25% in infancy, then again, another 25% by twelve years of age. War, conflict, accidents and criminal violence were relatively common, further reducing expected life expectancy of males to the mid-thirties.

    *blogged about this today

  2. Great post! Our culture is so enamored with and distracted by perfection.

  3. Curiously, the stories you describe, for pretty much the reasons you describe, are the ones that appeal the most to me as well, but I'm not a religious person.

    1. I don't even mean that I like hero's journey stories over Mystery Box ones (although that's usually true - most plot-centric, mystery-for-sequel's-sake stories are unmemorable and empty-feeling), but specifically the experience of the divine that some stories get to is what I'm after in a story (I'd probably use a word like "humanity" instead of divine, and you'd probably mentally roll your eyes, but we're ultimately talking about at least similar things). Have you ever read "The Neverending Story"? I think it's the best fictional version of what a Christ-like love looks like. I'm also curious if you've seen any of Hayao Miyazaki's films and if so what you thought of them.

    2. I wouldn't roll my eyes, but I would point out that humans are made according to the image and likeness of God, so your use of "humanity" in this case is still referring to the divine.

      I have never actually read Neverending Story, now I will have to...

      Miyazaki is hit or miss with me. I certainly will more readily watch something from him than most animation studios here in the U.S., but with full knowledge that I might not enjoy the experience. I own three of his movies: NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, and Porco Rosso; however, my favorite Ghibli film is not directed or written by him, The Cat Returns. It's prequel, Whisper of the Heart exemplifies why so many of Miyazaki's film miss with me. The story is a perfectly lovely romance but it is an uncomfortable and creepy watch because the main characters are children. There is always something just off that plummets the whole experience into uncomfortable and creepy when I don't like his films.

    3. That makes a lot of sense to me even if it's not the frame I'd use myself. It's certainly a quicker way of describing it.

      I read the book version first, so the film was kind of a letdown, mostly because it only adapts the first half of the story, and there's a LOT of heavy lifting in the second half where we're asked to grapple with the implications of escapist power fantasies and basically the idea that no amount of power and prestige will actually fix what's broken inside us, while true love (here present in the form of familial love and the love between friends/brothers, because Bastian is I think 12 - although the metaphor in play by the end heavily invites a Christian reading as to the ultimate source of all those things) can.

      Interesting. I haven't seen Whisper of the Heart, but I've heard some people react uncomfortably to children in Miyazaki films too, and I've never really gotten why. I think it's because his romances are so... sexless isn't quite it, although that's part of it. "Drawn with a light touch," I'd say. I read the love stories in Spirited Away, Kiki's Delivery Service or Ponyo as a director taking children's emotions seriously, rather than any kind of voyeuristic fetishism. Even his pseudo-romances between older characters (Marco & Gina in Porco Rosso, or Ashitaka & San in Princess Mononoke) feel like they're primarily about the quiet power of human connection rather than traditional romance. Usually by the end of his films I'm not left with the idea that the two characters are necessarily going to stay in romantic love forever, just that they've come to mean a lot to each other and that that knowledge and acceptance of each other contributed to a pivotal moment of growth/challenge/healing.

      Nausicaa (in comic form) is my favorite because it establishes her early on as a hero in the traditional mold, including her bona fides as a powerful warrior, which makes her commitment to pacifism a choice rather than her only resort. I also like that the story doesn't flinch from engaging with the challenges of pacifism. Doing the wrong thing is usually easier than doing the right thing, and I think a lot of adventure stories don't really acknowledge that (like how you pointed out that the way is continually being made clear for Harry Potter, and he keeps being told that he doesn't actually need to change).

  4. Rey was not written for men and boys to relate to; she was written for women and girls to relate to. Separated from her family and with nothing but her wits and hard work, she survives on a hostile plant among a hostile population and she carves out a small place of comfort and refuses to let her dream of finding her family die. She is forced out of this comfort zone by a well-meaning interloper and must use those survival skills to survive in a new hostile environment, and her skills are then recognized and complimented by an older male, and only then is her value to the rebellion recognized, so much so that when she is kidnapped by the First Order, the rebellion is willing to risk their entire efforts on a rescue mission--and only because the legendary Han Solo says the girl is worth it. As it turns out, the girl does not need the rescue, as she is perfectly capable of rescuing herself. She had the power inside her all along and was overlooked and undervalued by those around her; Solo, Finn, and Chewie are just a convenient way off the First Order weapon, as she was well on her way to getting off the planet on her own. Finally, she faces a spoiled man child who thinks he can mansplain the Force to her, but, hey, look, she already has this Force thing figured out thanks to another woman (Maz) who told her to trust her damn instincts, despite not trusting Maz or herself at first -- she had to overcome her own self-doubts to Become One With The Force.

    So, yeah. Not for men. For women. Any girl or woman can recognize themselves in Rey because they have lived the life of being overlooked or being treated like second-class citizens or merely as objects of male desire.

    Rey is not on the hero's journey. She is on the heroine's journey, which is similar but different to the heroe's journey (see here:'s_journey.htm#Heroine).

    Rey's journey is transformative as she already had the divine inside of her, but was treated as if she didn't and came to believe the social and cultural messages about her status and role in her world. It was not until she was exposed to a twisted version of the divine via Kylo Ren's Jedi Mind Reading that the Force inside Rey was truly and fully awakened (as divine recognizes divine and wants to become wholly united) and she acknowledged that she was part of the divine (the Force) that she was transformed into what we recognize as the True Hero. But notice again, that her transformation trigger happened with the actions of male (Ren) and not of its own accord. In essence, then, the message of SW:TFA is that a Woman cannot become who she is truly and divinely meant to be without the guidance of a Man. Hardly progressive or even truly feminist, but then it was directed by J.J. Abrams.

    But I totally agree with what you say about the Kung Fu Panda trilogy.

    1. Rey's a tough character because I get what they were going for, and I can see that the effect was powerful and inspirational for a lot of people I know, but I can't help but feel it would have been better with some humanizing element (read: minor character flaws - "doesn't trust character X yet" doesn't really count, since it's a way of drawing out tension and runtime rather than a personality trait) or even an explanation for some of her skills - like she doesn't need to be magically good at flying spaceships with no experience. She lives in a crashed spaceship, we could easily have had a brief moment of her using a cobbled-together flight simulator during her home montage, which is meant to establish what the pattern of her life is like. But then JJ Abrams does seem to have a real pattern of characters discovering their excellence/expertise without needing to put in
      any real work, which I can't help but think reflects his own personal journey to directorhood, which basically involved his dad handing him an opportunity and saying "not sure what to do with yourself after college? Here, give this a shot," and then becoming a runaway success in a relatively short period of time (see also: it is exactly as easy to get from anywhere in Abram's Star Wars galaxy as it is to get anywhere else. There's little sense of time or scale, because everything is easy and it's all moving at the pace of the plot, rather than plot flowing from character).

      And I think most of the mystery box elements get in the way of the story. When the audience understands character motivation tension/suspense is enhanced, not lessened. Leaving out key information helps sell sequels but doesn't do much for the actual story.

      I do love the idea of Kylo Ren as a manifestation of the entitled Star Wars fan though. And I like them showing that evil is often pathetic and dangerous in equal measure, often with the insecurity fueling the danger. I do wish that Rey's fight with him at the end didn't look so dang easy though. I get that it's a triumphant moment for many in the audience, but it feels off to me.

    2. The heroin's journey, as depicted in the link, is useless in terms of telling the kind of timeless, transformative stories I'm most interested in. One of the biggest flaws in this "arc" is the lack of humanity, by which I mean the accessibility to people of all walks of life across all cultures. By design, half the world's population is shut out of having any kind of meaningful relationship with the story. If you feel like you need to do that (whether as pro-male, pro-female, anti-male or anti-female) you are doing it wrong. In contrast, there are plenty of stories with female heroes that go on the hero journey that everyone can identify with. Cinderella is an example of this.

      Speaking of Kylo Ren, I think he is a spectacularly bad villain. I have no idea why he is who he is or why he made the choices he does. He is a villain because the movie needed a villain. I only saw the pathetic aspects of his character as a way of covering for the fact that he needed to lose to a girl.

  5. Thanks for this post, it looks at stories in a way that I have not been exposed to before, so thank you.