Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Reflections on the DC reboot (and reboots in general)

08.01.11
by Daniel Abraham

As I write this, the DC universe is being remade. Next month, fifty-two comic book titles are going have their numbers set back to “Issue #1.” The origins of the heroes will be changed a little. The costumes will be different. Superman and Lois Lane won’t end their romance. Rather, the romance will never have happened. Or at least it won’t have happened yet.

This is just the latest in an apparently endless line of familiar stories that the entertainment industry has decided to try again. Consider JJ Abrams’ new Star Trek, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, and Steven Moffat’s modern remaking of Sherlock Holmes. Over and over we see the sense of history thrown out, the audience who have invested their time and energy (sometimes for decades) in a story told that none of that was real. Spiderman didn’t really marry Mary Jane after all.

Why do they do this? Why do the creators throw out all the old story, just to start over again?

I have a theory. I think they do it because it’s a really good idea.

Long-running fiction wants time to pass differently than it does in the real world. History tends to be slower in imagined universes. As writers and readers, we resist changes there because we can, while change in the world defies us.

I remember reading that Robert Parker’s Spenser aged twelve years in the thirty-six years following his appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript. At Comicon this year, George RR Martin talked about liking Spiderman because Peter Parker was a teenager when he was, that Parker went to college when he did. But Parker took eight years to graduate, while George took four.

Kal-El appeared full-grown as Superman in 1938, making him a little older than my own grandfather. His most recent incarnation, Brandon Routh, is ten years my junior.

Like a tectonic fault, the tension from this slipping builds up over the course of many issues or episodes or books or films. Slowly, it corrodes our suspension of disbelief, and it starts demanding a release. There are, as far as I can tell, only three options.

The first is the most honest: let our heroes age and die the way we do. If Bruce Wayne were a man, he would be past his century mark. There would be something noble and human and important in the story of a Batman wracked by age and dementia, of a hero who has outlived his enemies and suffering the ravages of joint damage from decades of violence . I can imagine a last issue of Batman Comics in which Wayne suffers the last of a long series of small strokes and dies in his nursing home bed, a hospice nurse at his side. While it would be a human and recognizable story, I can’t say I’d find it satisfying.

The second option is a cultivated and willful obliviousness. Spiderman is in his early twenties because he always is. Unlike a real person, he drags his past behind him at a certain length. Peter Parker was always in high school less than a decade ago, no matter when you see him. We make ourselves forget that Spenser served in Korea. We don’t ask how old Lois Lane is. Slowly, the sense of history warps and becomes inauthentic. The characters limp apologetically into a place outside time, with author and audience agreeing not to look too closely at how they got there.

The third alternative is to retell it.

There is a betrayal that comes with restarting a story, especially when the details aren’t the same as the time before. When you see someone arguing against rebooting, phrases come up like “none of it mattered” and “it didn’t really happen.”

Something that people creating narratives – authors, directors, game designers – ask is that the audience believe something is true that isn’t. The bedrock answer to questions like “Was the Joker really Joe Chill?” or “When did Ma and Pa Kent find Superman?” or “How did Spock and Kirk meet?” is that the questions are meaningless. There is no Joker. No Superman. No Kirk or Spock. Gwen Stacey never fell to her death. To ask what really happened is to assert that the fictional universe in which the characters exist is as constrained and consistent as our own. We, the storytellers, have asked our audience to pretend that it is. It isn’t.

And when we let ourselves shrug off the idea that a story exists only one way – when we abandon continuity – something interesting happens.

Take the Joker. We’ve had Alan Moore’s sympathetic Joker from The Killing Joke. We’ve had the camp Cesar Romero version from the 1960s television series. We’ve had Nicholson’s Jack Napier. We’ve Mark Hamill’s madman and sometimes-lover of Harley Quinn. We’ve had Heath Leger’s icon of chaos with nothing in his pockets but knives and lint. No two of these versions could exist together in a rigorous historical continuity, and yet they’re all the Joker.

Or Sherlock Holmes. The consulting detective of Baker Street can be the original Conan Doyle invention, but my favorite versions of Holmes come from Nicholas Meyer’s novels and Steven Moffat’s A Study in Pink. And to my money, the best Holmes of all time wasn’t even named Holmes, but Daryl Zero. These characters remain recognizable.

When the sense of historicity goes, the stories still have boundaries. Batman is always Bruce Wayne whose parents were killed in front of him. Spiderman always loses his Uncle Ben and learns that with great power comes great responsibility. Sherlock Holmes is always accompanied by his Dr. Watson.

I would love to see Star Trek’s pilot episode The Menagerie remade with a script by Alan Moore. I imagine it becoming a reflection on identity, reality, and confinement. I would love to see it retold by Howard Waldrop, where I think it would be comforting, involved with grief and nostalgia and – knowing Waldrop – Tennessee Williams. I want to see it remade by Karen Joy Fowler. And Spike Lee. And Christopher Nolan. With every version, the story would become deeper, wider, and more interesting.

So yes, DC should go ahead. They should tell me the story again of how Kal-El came to earth and was raised by two decent people to be a good man. How Diana Prince came to be Wonder Woman, or vice versa depending on how they do it. See what they can do with Aquaman. Maybe they’ll come up with something interesting. Maybe they won’t. We’ll see.

In the larger scheme, though, I am generally in favor or reboots and retellings. It’s how stories become larger and richer than any one version. It’s how they become more like myths or folk tales.

Or legends.

19 Comments

Aaron Sorkin Explains the Debt Ceiling Crisis

07.26.11
by Daniel Abraham

1 Comment

Comicon

07.20.11
by Daniel Abraham

Tomorrow, I wing my way to  Burning Man For People Who Prefer Climate Control, also known as the San Diego Comicon.

If you’d like to catch up with me, I’ll be at the following events:

THURSDAY 10 AM – NOON:

Signing at the Avatar booth for Fevre Dream comic book.  Oh, and George RR Martin will be there too.

FRIDAY NOON – 1 PM:

MLN Hanover signing at the Pocket Books booth

FRIDAY 3 PM until we stop:

James SA Corey signing at the Orbit booth

SATURDAY 3 PM until I stop:

Daniel Abraham signing at the Orbit booth

SUNDAY 10:30 – 11:30 AM:

Wild Cards panel

SUNDAY NOON – 1 PM:

Speculative Fiction panel

SUNDAY 1 PM – 2 PM:

Post-panel signing thingy.

 

Otherwise, I shall be having meals with my editors, interviewing and being interviewed (mostly at the Suvudu booth), attending a couple parties, meeting a man who helped to inspire the Expanse books, and hopefully bumming around with some friends.

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Signing Sign

07.09.11
by Daniel Abraham

For all y’all in Albuquerque, Ty and I will be signing and talking about Leviathan Wakes at Alamosa Books this afternoon at 2.

Come hang out if you can.

3 Comments

How I became a freak

06.28.11
by Ty Franck

Some portion of this was written by meSo about year ago, a good friend of mine named Victor Milan tried his very best to die of a raging infection in the lungs.  I’m happy to report he failed in this endeavor.  In fact, because he now is healthier than he was for probably a decade prior to the incident, I can call his failure utter and all encompassing.  He did the exact opposite of die: he got much, much healthier instead.

But enough of Mr. Milan’s failures.  Let’s talk about me instead.

While Vic was still in the throws of his lung related woes, I was called into the office by my boss, George.  The editor of the Wild Cards series.  He said (I paraphrase), “Vic is supposed to write a story for Fort Freak, but is instead trying to die.  He delivered a first draft of the story before going into the hospital to have his chest hacked open, but it will require some rewriting to fit into the book.  Since the doctors won’t let us drag a laptop into Vic’s oxygen tent, what would you think of helping out?”

I was pretty hesitant at first.  I had thought my contribution to Wild Cards had ended with my creation of the character Tinkerbill.  I was satisfied with the mark I had left.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to join the madhouse that writing an actual Wild Cards story was rumored to be.  In addition, Vic was a friend of mine.  And you don’t just jump in and rewrite your friend’s story willy nilly.  Stories are like children.  I wouldn’t just take it on myself to rewrite the DNA of a friend’s child.  Unless it gave them superpowers.  But it’s still something you have to think carefully about.

George, and his trusty sidekick Melinda Snodgrass were pretty insistent that it be me.  They flattered me by saying that I write fast, and they needed it post haste.  They said that I was a good collaborator, so they didn’t worry that I’d be able to work with Vic’s first draft.   Melinda went so far as to visit Vic and ask if it was ok if I did the rewrites.  He said yes, though he was probably high as a kite on morphine at the time, so I think he had diminished capacity.  Mostly though, all of this flattery boiled down to, “We need this right now, and you’re sitting here, so you should do it.”

They finally wore me down.

Continue reading ›

8 Comments

Twenty percent

06.28.11
by Daniel Abraham

For those of you who haven’t heard about it already, Amazon has put up its opinion of the best (F&SF) books of 2011 (so far)

While I haven’t read anywhere near as many of these as I’d like, I agree profoundly with their selection for #1.

And yeah, between us, me & Ty made the list twice.  So that was very pleasant.

11 Comments

New York Bison

06.22.11
by Daniel Abraham

I just came across this, and it reminds my why I love and hate my language.

New York bison whom other New York bison bully, themselves bully New York bison.

or

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

With thanks to William J Rapaport, Steven Pinker, and Pharyngula.

[NOTE: Edited for capitalization]

4 Comments

Apropos of Nothing

06.20.11
by Daniel Abraham

NPR was wondering what you thought the best fantasy and science fiction books of all time were.

I’d encourage everyone to head over there are vote your conscience.  Especially if you really liked my stuff.

15 Comments

A Brief and Profane Statement on the Russ Pledge (NSFW)

06.18.11
by Daniel Abraham

There’s always a problem for men advocating for women’s equality that we come across as something less than manly while doing so.  A woman I used to date had the solution of advocating for women in derogatory terms, as in “Ah, I say give the bitches equal pay.”

Though I rarely work blue, it seems to me that this is the occasion for it.  If you are offended by rude language or are a woman, you may stop reading now.  I’ll get back to a more genteel, open, and civil conversation next time.

Continue reading ›

46 Comments

The Cryptonomicon Rant

06.17.11
by Daniel Abraham

So over on the good Mr. Scalzi’s Whatever, Ty and I were lucky enough to get a chance to post our Big Idea. In the middle of it, as an aside, I included this:

(At this point, Daniel goes on a foaming-at-the-mouth rant about that one part of Cryptonomicon despite the fact that it’s in many ways a fine book and his friends assure him that Neal Stephenson is a perfectly decent human being.)

The Last Neal Stephenson Book Daniel Ever Read

There have been several requests to hear the actual rant, and I can see why folks would be interested.  But more than that, I can see how it might actually be useful and interesting.  So okay.

First off, I’m going to put in some caveats: Neal Stephenson is a damn good writer.  I have gone back and re-read Snow Crash and In the Beginning … was the Command Line more than once.  I admire his intelligence and his ambition, and that he lost me as a reader isn’t a reflection on his skill or the result of any kind of failure on his part.  It’s about his project as a writer and mine as a reader.

Another caveat:  I’m about to spoil the hell out of part of Cryptonomicon.  Really.  Stephenson did something in the book that was clearly an intentional choice and (I think) clearly signaled what he intended to do, and it’s the issue at hand.  If I don’t talk about it in concrete detail, it won’t make much sense.

So.  Yeah.  All right.

There I was, back in ’99, and I was an utter Neal Stephenson fanboy.  I’d read Snow Crash and shared it through with all my friends.  I’d reviewed The Diamond Age for my college newspaper.  And then here was Cryptonomicon, and it was built out of everything awesome.  High drama, cryptography, H. P. Lovecraft references, economics, Godel’s theorem, philosophy, Nazis.  I was aching to get my fingers on this book, and I dove into it like it was a swimming pool.  I engaged.

If you haven’t read it, the book has an alternating timeline.  One story is going on in the present day, the other in 1940s.  The 1940s timeline follows a group of people whose job it is to stage plausible events that would explain how the Allies could have found information even if they hadn’t broken Enigma (because if they knew things that they could *only* know by having broken Enigma, then the Nazis would know they’d broken Enigma).  It was tense and fascinating and it turned all my dials up to 11.

And then there was this one part.

I haven’t gone back to look at this in over a decade now.  I don’t really know how much of this is supported by the text and how much is my own fallible memory.  But here’s what I recall.  If you’ve read it more recently, you can correct me where I’ve strayed.

So we have a character — Bobby Shaftoe — who knows that Enigma’s been compromised.  He’s been captured, and is in a Nazi U-boat.  And he’s a morphine addict in the early stages of withdrawal.  And the whole Allied fleet is trying to sink the U-boat to keep him from spilling the beans about Enigma.  And the Allies have convinced the Nazis that the U-boat has actually been seized and the crew replaced by Allied submariners, so the *Nazis* are trying to sink the U-boat too.  And Bobby Shaftoe’s in the brig with the Nazi captain — the fate of the world in the balance — when the chapter ends.

Now you have to imagine me reading this, right?  I’m hunched over the book.  I’m blowing off my assignments for class.  I’m taking it with me to work to sneak in a few pages in the slow times.  The next chapter is the present-day one, and I’m going through page by page, knotted with suspense until I get to the next Bobby Shaftoe chapter.

Where he’s in Holland, in bed with this blonde woman we’ve never met before, and the resolution of all that narrative tension I was feeling?  Yeah, we covered that with an expository flashback.

Neal Stephenson isn’t a stupid man.  I believe he knew what he was doing when he built up those — very standard, very genre, naive even — narrative expectations and then didn’t follow the traditional path that they led down.  I understood that this was a signal that the novel wasn’t a standard narrative — not even a wildly baroque and powerfully intelligent one.  I got the point.  Intellectually.

How I felt was stupid.  And yeah, a little humiliated.

Because, y’see, I was that naive genre reader.  I was the sucker who’d actually taken it seriously.  I’d gotten excited by this silly, over-the-top scenario.  I hadn’t seen the wink, and so I was exposed as the silly, unsophisticated reader who’d actually thought he was reading that kind of book.

I don’t think Stephenson set out to cultivate contempt for his reader — by which I mean me — but that was my experience.  After that, I appreciated his writing and his intelligence, but I wasn’t going to be so silly and gauche as to actually *care* anymore.  And I haven’t.

I want to like Neal Stephenson’s books.  I really do admire his ambition and the depth of commitment he has for his projects.  He’s hellishly smart, and the work he’s doing is made of everything I want to read.  But I haven’t picked up anything after Cryptonomicon because we have different opinions about story and about sentiment.

The project he’s engaged with isn’t — or at least wasn’t — something that had room for emotional engagement, and I have emotionally disengaged from his body of work.  I feel that Cryptonomicon is a Fuzzy Bunny book where we’re all supposed to be laughing, albeit with a very intellectual and sophisticated kind of laughter.  What I thought was a story was conceptual humor. Or not humor.  Wit.

When I want a story, I go places where I feel safe caring about the characters.  When I want intellectual stimulation, I read non-fiction.  And, honestly, it’s a freaking shame, because I ought to love this guy.

21 Comments