I don’t normally blog on a Saturday, but last night I caught up on Agents of SHIELD. And I have to say, Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, I bow down before your superior program-making skills.

I’m not saying that Agents of SHIELD is a flawless work of genius. I’m not saying that every line of dialogue, every moment of acting, sparkles with the dark brilliance of Damages or The Wire. But the way they connected the show together with Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best example of cross-property continuity I’ve ever seen.

Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?

Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?

Usually when TV shows share a universe the connections consist of cameos and small references, maybe a crossover plotline that emerges for a couple of episodes and then fades into the background. Agents of SHIELD has gone further than this. It has taken the plot, events and themes of The Winter Soldier, created a pair of episodes that run alongside that film, and emerged transformed. The dynamic of the program has been fundamentally changed in a way that makes it far more interesting. The fallout from Cap 2 is being explored in a way there was no time for on screen. It all makes sense, both in-world and aesthetically. And it’s been done not only in crossing over TV shows, but in crossing over with cinema, a more challenging and as far as I’m aware unprecedented approach to media.

What was previously an adventure-of-the-week action show has been turned into something darker, more twisted, more tense. It’s the same shift in world view that The Winter Soldier brings to Cap’s big screen outings, and that is presumably going to play into the next round of Marvel films. It can be read as a reflection of and comment on changes in comic books since Marvel’s early days.

It’s a glorious thing.

If you’re not watching Agents of SHIELD, consider giving it a go. Like all the best genre TV (Babylon 5, Farscape, Buffy) there’s far more going on here than you might realise at first glance.

Progress is a problematic idea, one that rings an idealistic bell for some people, but for others smacks of smug superiority. Once seen by our society as an obvious ideal, it’s now challenged and made more complex, struggling to retain its original idealistic shine.

It therefore seems appropriate that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, raises issues of progress in the Marvel universe, the Marvel brand and beyond. Because that description of the problem of progress is also the problem of Cap.

Captain America

 

A reader’s progress

My view of Captain America has changed over the years, as I suspect it has for any reader who’s stuck with him. When I started reading superhero comics I was put off by what looked looked like a symbol of blind patriotism. But then I started reading comics with him in, particularly those written by Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar, and I saw something else. Not jingoism but idealism, a dream of what a nation and a person should aspire towards. More nuanced and reflective than that costume might make you think, but still with his ideals intact.

This marked progress in my understanding of characters like Cap, the way that, even if I don’t buy into everything they represent, the way they represent it can be of value. I’m not patriotic, but Cap showed me how even that ideal could be a positive influence.

This mixed up Captain America, bound by an ideal of his country rather than blind loyalty to it, is the Cap that we get to see on screen. He’s a man out of time, a less cynical figure from a less cynical age, who challenges us to stand up for ideals. It’s not that he isn’t conflicted, but that he doesn’t let himself become jaded. Chris Evans is brilliant in that role, one of the best bits of casting in recent mainstream cinema, really bringing the character alive.

A company’s progress

Marvel have made great progress since they set up their own film production team. Sure, it hasn’t all been an upward curve – progress never is. But they’ve found the confidence to try different styles, as exemplified by the darker, half thriller tone of The Winter Soldier, and by the upcoming cartoonish space romp of Guardians of the Galaxy (for which I am super excited – seriously, have you seen how fun that trailer is?).

They’ve also gained more confidence in tying their films together. They started out with little nods and post-credit sequences. Then they gained faith in what they were doing and went a bit too far, with a chunk of Iron Man 2 that served continuity at the expense of the film. Now they’ve become more confident again and so don’t over-sell it, simply re-using characters and elements, like when Agent Sitwell emerges from bit parts and DVD extras to take on a significant role in this film. It adds richness for those who watch all the films, and does no harm for the casual viewer.

It’s this balance of variety and interconnectedness that’s making the Marvel movie universe so compelling.

Progress in the film

Which brings me round at last to the theme of progress within Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

There are some obvious nods to the wonders that progress can achieve, like when Cap gets introduced to the sweet sound of Marvin Gaye. There’s also an acknowledgement of its alienating effect, as Cap suffers from an extreme form of the alienation many people feel in a fast changing world.

But progress really comes to the fore when we learn about the plan of the film’s villains. This is forced progress, one group’s view of the future being pushed forward at vast cost to the rest of mankind. It’s the sort of progress that 20th century dictators were so fond of, pushing society down a controlled path towards what they saw as its inevitable destination. It’s progress towards oppression.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story of the benefits and the dangers of progress, but like Cap the film retains its idealism, showing that even through setbacks we keep moving towards better things.

Progress in our depictions

The film’s central plot is also a sign of progress in how we discuss one of the biggest political issues of recent decades – the ‘War on Terror’. At first those using the arts to critically discuss this movement were shouted down. Then critiques began to emerge on the fringes and through subtle metaphors. These became more blatant and more popular – The Wire being a fine example – until a decade later we’ve reached the point where a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster can turn a thinly veiled analogy for the War on Terror into its central villainous plot.

When a taboo subject becomes the centre of a Captain America film, we can feel confident that people feel free to speak their minds.

So that was good then

I really enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a cinematic experience it was full of action and excitement. As a source of reflection afterwards it’s been surprisingly thought provoking. It’s got to be seen as another success for Marvel, and I can’t wait to see the next.

If you like the Marvel movies then you should go out and see this one. If not then you can probably wait until it’s on TV. But you should all still be excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, have you seen that trailer? That’s some big, dumb, fun progress right there.

 

Today I was going to write about the commercialisation of art and the effect of economic markets on creativity. But I’m far too excited because I just booked tickets to see Postmodern Jukebox on the UK leg of their tour. So instead I’m going to enthuse about their music and then use it for a creative writing related lesson. Because, lets face it, drawing tenuous parallels to whatever’s drawn my attention is becoming my MO.

A painter’s pallet, but with notes

Postmodern Jukebox, like 2CELLOS, mostly perform covers of pop songs. But unlike 2CELLOS they don’t have a consistent musical style, instead playing around with different musical genres. The combination of styles is amusing, occasionally moving, and often better than the original version (depending on how you feel about the original, of course). I even enjoy their bluegrass version of Robin Thicke’s loathsome Blurred Lines (yes, I know it’s catchy, but that’s no excuse for misogyny).

Some people might argue that this isn’t really creativity – they aren’t writing new songs or creating new styles. But I totally disagree. Creativity is all about combining existing elements in new ways, like a painter mingling colours on her pallet.

Tolkien talks creativity

J R R Tolkien believed that the only acts of pure unadulterated creation came from God. In Tolkien’s view, what we humans do is a secondary act, using the elements that are already in place. As story tellers we create secondary worlds.

I don’t agree with a lot of Tolkien’s take on creativity,but I do think that he was onto something. In my view there is no pure, unadulterated creation, no bolt from the blue, flash of inspiration stuff, nothing completely novel and unprecedented. That’s a myth, a dream we’ve been sold that puts creativity beyond our reach, makes us feel like we can’t achieve it and so, in many cases, give up.

But creativity is about taking what’s already there and combining it in new ways. When you put together vampires and gangsters you get From Dusk Till Dawn. When you combine superpowers and food you get Chew. When you combine a pop song and a solemnly singing clown you get this:

 

These are all acts of creation, as pure and wonderful as any others. They all give us something new. They are all great.

Get creating

Idealising some pure form of creativity, over-using terms like ‘derivative’ as criticisms, these behaviours disempower us. No-one mocked the second cavewoman to bang two stones together and make fire. Hell, she probably used better stones than the first one. That’s creativity, a constant act of building on what’s come before.

Re-mixing, re-writing, copying a sketch, these are all acts of creativity. And that means we can all be creative, not because some secondary form of creativity is OK, but because this is the only form of creativity.*

This afternoon I’m finally going to watch the new Captain America film. Will it be uncreative because so many elements in it have been used many times before? I doubt it. And I can’t wait to see it.

In the meantime, here’s one more Postmodern Jukebox song to play us out. This one has a fantasy theme, and it makes me laugh every time:

 

*OK, if you believe in God then you might believe that he has another form of creativity. But humans don’t, and that’s what I’m concerned with here.

If you’re anything like me then you’re probably put off by a book that’s marketed as strange and mysterious. Anonymous author, being called ‘The Book With No Name’, stuff on the back about a dangerous book with no name… it all made me suspicious that this was going to be cheap style over substance. But the friend who pushed it on me also leant me the excellent Murder One, so I thought I’d give it a go.

I was right. This was a book of style over substance, though an entertaining one for all that. But it was also an object lesson in something frequently discussed in the Writing Excuses podcast – the importance of expectations.

Marketing mis-step

The Book With No Name is not what it claims to be on the cover. The atmosphere isn’t one of darkness and mystery, it’s a twirling Tarantino-style crime drama with elements of fantasy and horror. The in-story Book With No Name, touted on the cover as a significant part of the story, doesn’t turn up until halfway through, so using it as the name for the novel, putting so much weight of expectation on it, feels like cheating. And the mysteries around the characters are seldom as interesting as they want to be.

In short, this book doesn’t live up to the expectations it sets, and is frankly trying too hard to be something it isn’t.

The fun parts

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it. My enjoyment was reduced by that marketing mis-step, but once I got reading it was a fast, fun, easy read. It’s a story that’s told like an action movie, with short chapters and an emphasis on action over introspection. It’s carried along by a pseudo-Tarantino style, with cool yet oddball characters, criminal antics, jumps of time and logic, and some fun dialogue. I was never bored.

The missing parts

I was also never terribly engaged. This sort of thing often works on screen because the actors help us to engage with the characters. In a book the writer needs to get us inside their heads, and that seldom happens. I wasn’t given much reason to care about the characters, and there wasn’t much substance to the story. Just a lot of slick and speedy action.

To read or not to read

Despite that I enjoyed this. It’s a bit like reading Steve Aylett lite - neither as incomprehensible nor as interesting as his work, but with a similar emphasis of weird characters and fast-moving strange events. It’s a fun, easy read that reminds me in theory of Dan Brown’s writing style, but that somehow doesn’t annoy me like he does.

Still, I think I’ll stick with From Dusk Till Dawn for my supernatural crime adventures – whether it’s the medium of TV or the way that show’s written, it just works that bit better.

And as a writer what did I learn? As is often the case, nothing terribly new. Remember to match the expectations you set to the place your story is going. If you want people to care then you need to get them invested in the characters. And a new one for the danger list - don’t try to cram in dozens of significant characters, however cool they are – it won’t leave you time to give any of them depth.

Young adult fiction is a potentially powerful thing. At its best it explores the emergence of adult emotions and a sense of self. It shows characters finding purpose in a world that seemed beyond their control. It’s aimed at an age group who are forming their reading habits for life, and could be forever turned into bibliophiles by the right book.

This doesn’t mean that a YA book needs to be as emotionally draining as The Hunger Games. There’s also a place for a something jollier and more light-hearted, something that lures you round to a serious point through a fun adventure story.

In short, there’s most definitely a place for Curtsies & Conspiracies.

Curtsies & Conspiracies

 

A splendid sequel

C&C is the sequel to Etiquette & Espionage, about which I enthused in a previous post. These are the stories of Sophronia, a young woman at a unique steampunk finishing school, where she is learning to be a spy. In the background are the machinations of strange factions within Victorian English society, including vampires, werewolves and the mechanically-minded Picklemen. As befits a would-be spy, Sophronia’s life is increasingly tangled in this world of supernatural politics.

All the positive things I said about E&E hold true for C&C. Gail Carriger has a wonderful way of evoking the Victorian upper crust atmosphere. You can hear the collective voice of that era in the way that the characters talk, the things that concern them, the details they notice in the world around them. Class structure matters. Etiquette matters. Dress and appearance matter. These aren’t shallow characters, but they are working within a mental framework that can feel absurdly narrow to a modern reader.

Yet I bought into it. I accepted it on its own terms. I revelled in it, and enjoyed playing along to its own internal logic, where the way a woman faints in can give away her intent, and where a gentleman may be judged by the band around his hat.

Action and reaction

Sophronia continues to be a splendid central character, the sort of skilled and purposefully disobedient role model I like to see. But in this book we start to see that her actions also have consequences, not all of them good.

This is an area that’s tricky in a spy story, where the central skills of the protagonists are lies and deception. Think for a minute about James Bond. Sure, the most recent films have touched on the dark side of the spy game, but on the whole the franchise has skimmed over the fact that he’s doing bad things that could have terrible consequences. If you actually stop and think about Bond’s lifestyle you don’t get the cheesy glamour of Roger Moore, or even the grim sexiness of Daniel Craig – you get the sleazy destructiveness of Archer.

I didn’t really expect the Finishing School books to delve far into the consequences of a career in theft and character assassination, or of the restrictive society in which Sophronia lives. Yet this book is strong on consequences. It lets them creep up on you through the first two thirds, then burst out as the central theme of the final section. I don’t want to give any more away, but I thought that Carriger did a great job of making the world feel more real through exploring this theme, without forever losing the whimsical joy that makes the setting so appealing.

Growing up with your books

It’s become a common feature of YA series for events to grow darker as the character and the readers grow up. Harry Potter’s famous for it, but it’s a theme that stretches back at least as far as C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, where the children grew too old to return to a magical world.

It’s a pattern that’s good for writers, as they keep the attention of their growing readers. But it’s also a good thing for readers, showing them that life changes, that people change, and that’s not a bad thing, just as they themselves are facing enormous change. It can be supportive and guiding. It shows the power of books.

Gail Carriger is doing that here, and it makes these books all the more admirable. The fact that she does it through a plot that feels more immediate and compelling than the previous book only adds to the pleasure.

More please!

So yes, I enjoyed this book too, more even than its predecessor. It’s fun and whimsical, but with just enough of a serious side to show growth in the series, its plots and its characters. I look forward to reading more of Carriger’s splendid books.

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of 2CELLOS. Their particularly charismatic brand of classical pop song covers makes for a hugely energetic sound, and as my friend John pointed out, there’s something about the cello that gets you right in the gut. But this morning, listening to their cover of Kings of Leon’s ‘Use Somebody’, I felt the penny drop.

These guys play music like Robert Kirkman writes zombies.

The Kirkman hypothesis

Robert Kirkman is the creator of The Walking Dead, the hugely successful Image comic that’s become a hugely successful TV show. As a comic, The Walking Dead doesn’t have the sales of the big X-men books or the latest take on Batman, but it does have something those comics don’t – sales growth. Most comic books see their biggest sales at the point of launch. Lots of curious readers pick up the first issue. Less of them bother with the second. Sales keep dropping off in a slow death slide, until the comic is cancelled or re-launched amid a blaze of publicity.

For years The Walking Dead was the only comic that defied this trend. Its sales kept growing as word of mouth spread about how great this book was. Its success was unprecedented.

I once read an analysis of The Walking Dead that argued that Kirkman’s success came not from creating something completely new, but from getting the right balance of the familiar and the novel.* Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic soap opera got readers because they saw something they knew they liked – zombies – and found within it something even more fascinating that they’d never have looked for. If he’d just given them the new thing no-one would have bought it. If he’d written just another zombie comic it would have suffered that familiar slow decline.

Kirkman’s comic kept growing because it found the perfect balance between the two.

Nothing is new

When I read that analysis my mind was blown. It made perfect sense, and it was something I could use as a writer – combine the familiar and the unfamiliar, draw readers in with something they know but keep them reading with something new.

I started seeing this pattern all around, in many of the best things I read, watched and listened to. Hence the 2CELLOS connection – songs I like (except Coldplay) played in a way I wouldn’t have looked for (including Coldplay, I never look for Coldplay).

But actually, what Kirkman achieved wasn’t all that new. Just take a look at The Lord of the Rings, a foundational text of the fantasy genre. Tolkien wanted to share his own wacky enthusiasm for detailed secondary worlds full of magic, mystery and invented languages. The familiar trappings of medieval Europe gave it an aura of familiarity that let people get drawn in and find enthusiasm for this new world.

Balancing acts

It’s an interesting exercise to consider as you’re reading. Think about what’s new in a book, what’s familiar, and what all of that is doing to your interest in the story. The right balance varies with the reader, and even their mood. Some days I want to watch Breaking Bad, some days I want to wrap myself in the comfortable tropes of Castle. Being aware of that balance has even helped me judge my own mental state.

As writers it’s a useful question to ask as we approach the page. What am I including that’s familiar, that will make people comfortable and draw them in? And what’s new, whether in content, style, or the way I mash elements together? Because that’s what will make the story interesting.

And in the meantime, here’s 2CELLOS doing unexpected things with a Greenday song. If you like this I recommend watching their Arena Pula gig on Youtube – an hour and a half of fantastic stuff.

 

* Apologies to whoever wrote that article, but it was years ago and I can’t even remember where I read it, never mind provide attribution. But hey, you probably aren’t reading this, so we should be OK.

A lot of authors of speculative fiction are also gamers. Brandon Sanderson plays Warmachine. Jim Butcher does live roleplay. China Miéville, a significant voice in literary intellectual circles, has talked about the joy of reading roleplay sourcebooks.

At the same time, gaming is evolving. In terms of roleplay, this has included the emergence of more story-oriented games such as Fate and Inspectres. Story telling and game playing are merging in new and fascinating ways.

microscope-cover-300

One of the most fascinating, which I discovered via Everwalker’s blog, is Microscope, a roleplay game that’s more about world building than going adventuring. And last night I played it for the first time.

Explaining Microscope

Microscope is a game in which the players create a setting and then tell its history, though not in chronological order. The time and place could be almost anything as long as it’s fairly large – the rise and fall of an empire, humanity’s colonisation of a star system, an age of superheroes.

Within your imagined history, players take it in turns to skip back and forth in time, adding eras, events and scenes. Sometimes you play through those scenes together, taking on different roles in the story to answer a key question. Why did the president push the alien ambassador out of the airlock? Why did the crops fail? Who invented the clockwork gigolo? The questions will entirely depend on the setting you’re building and the wildness of your imaginations.

This is not a cooperative exercise in the conventional sense. There’s very little negotiation. If someone else adds a detail then you pretty much have to accept it, like it or not.

That’s what makes it so fantastic.

Microscope as a world building tool

Authors of the fantastic tend to like world building. We like to invent the people, the places, the technology, the races, the magic and mysteries and mayhem that make up our worlds. It’s something you can get entirely lost in, creating something rich and exciting.

But there is a smoothness that comes from a world emerging from one imagination, or even through collaboration. There’s little of the unexpected or the contradictory. Whatever sort of world you started aiming for, that’s what you’ll end up with, and while the possibilities remain limitless, they are also tamed by expectations, for better or for worse.

If you’re willing to let go of some control then Micrscope is a great way to build a more varied world, one that’s less familiar and rounded at the edges. The people you play with will introduce ideas you would never have thought of, and your responses will take those ideas in directions they could never imagined.

In our game last night a single sentence of dialogue transformed the religious future of our world, as it emerged that the singer of spring rites at a famous funeral was in fact an automaton, breaking the expectations of his own mechanical kin. And this happened in a world originally about the discovery of magic. That’s the way that Microscope goes – utterly and gloriously unpredictably.

Microscope as a roleplay game

I love Microscope as a game. But as a roleplay game? I’m still trying to work that out.

The moments of actual roleplay are brief scenes with characters you will probably never play again. As a player your aim is to answer a historical question, not to forward your character’s agenda as is usually the way in roleplay. This needs a very different mindset. It’s one we hadn’t quite mastered by the end of the night, and I think it’s one some roleplayers won’t enjoy. It’s too alien, too strange to wrap your head around.

You’re playing as a storyteller trying to tell the best story, not as a roleplayer trying to play the best character.

Also, you might not do a lot of roleplay. We played from eight in the evening until we grudgingly acknowledged that we were too tired at 2.30 in the morning. In that time we only roleplayed four scenes, some of them quite brief. You could include more roleplay in the game, but the mechanics don’t necessarily drive you towards it.

So, great story telling game, has some nice roleplay elements, but I’m not sure I’d call it a roleplay game.

So many possibilities

I love this game. I’ve already got a session planned with Everwalker and some others, and I’ll be reconvening last night’s group once we’ve caught up on sleep. If you enjoy world building, or story telling, or like roleplay games and are willing to risk something new, then you should give this a try. As a gamer it has some fascinating mechanics. As a writer it challenged my imagination and helped it to grow.

Heck, I might even write a story in the world we invented last night. I really want to know what happened to that singing robot; to the hill goblin sage; to Jonny Galzabo and his replica Golden Palace.

I want to return and put my creations back under the microscope. I expect you will too.

 

Thanks to Ben Robbins, the creator of Microscope, not just for inventing this great game but for offering me advice for my first game via the Microscope RPG Google+ group.