So, here’s the Very Important News about my 2016 novel release:
Currently, there isn’t one. Not a new one, anyway.
Which isn’t to say I’m not writing a novel in 2016. In fact, I’m writing two(!). Merely that Tor has decided to wait until 2017 to release the next new one.
Why the wait? Among other things, because Tor just dropped a ton of money on me so we want to make sure we debut this next novel, the first in the new contract, just right. I’m on board with this plan — note the “we” in that last sentence — since (again, among other things) I actually want to try to earn out the silly large chunks of money Tor has dropped on me. I also don’t mind the extra time it gives me to write/tweak the novels I’m currently working on.
Note that 2016 isn’t the first year without a new Scalzi novel: 2009 and 2010 were likewise new novel-free. And then came the nice run of Fuzzy Nation, Redshirts, Human Division, Lock In and The End of All Things. We did all right after the last pause, is what I’m saying. I think we’ll be okay with this one too.
(For those curious about the novels I’m currently working on: One is a YA, and the other is a space opera, planned to be the first in a new series, the latter being the one that will likely be the 2017 release. For more details on these, you’re just going to have to wait. I know, I know, waiting sucks. I’ll make it worth it, promise.)
Does this mean that there will be no fiction work from me in 2016? Not at all. Here’s what you’ll definitely see on tap for 2016 (i.e., done and awaiting publication):
* The paperback release of The End of All Things, currently scheduled for May 31st.
* The novella “The Dispatcher,” which will debut first as an audiobook through Audible, and then later in printed/eBook form through Subterranean Press. This is my first foray into contemporary fantasy, and I think you guys are going to enjoy the hell out of it. No solid release date yet but almost certainly in 2016.
* A short story called “On the Wall” which I co-wrote with my pal Dave Klecha, which is part of the Black Tide Rising anthology, co-edited by John Ringo, for Baen. Yes, that John Ringo and that Baen. Pick your jaws up off the floor, people. I’ve made no bones about liking Baen as a publisher, and I’ve noted for a while that John Ringo and I get on pretty well despite our various differences and occasional snark. Also, it was a ton of fun to write in his universe and with Dave. The BTR anthology comes out June 7th.
There’s also a strong likelihood I will have something else released from Subterranean Press in 2016. More details on that when everything’s hammered out. Plus! I may have a short story or two out in ’16, pending scheduling. Again, more information on that later if something positive happens in that direction.
All of which is to say that you won’t lack for fiction from me in 2016. It’ll be there.
Every year about this time I do a review of posts and stats, because I’m a nerd like that. Are you ready for the countdown and nerdery? Then here we go!
Top Ten Whatever Posts: For 2015, here were the top ten posts on Whatever, by number of visits. The posts with asterisks are the ones that were written in previous years, i.e., posts from the archives.
That’s an even mix of pieces from 2015 and pieces from previous years, and the archive pieces are not a surprise; each of them were in 2014’s roundup, too. They’re in there because they’re classics, that word here being defined as “pieces that show up very high in Google searches on that topic.” I don’t mind this at all; like any writer, I like that things that I’ve written have staying power.
If we take out the archive pieces, here are the five other pieces from 2015 that would have shown up on this list:
Obviously, for 2015 there was high interest in the Hugo Awards, because this was the year a bunch of petulant whiners joined forces with a narcissistic bigot to systematically jam a bunch of their pals’ work onto the award ballot, all the while going out of their way to insult everyone who was not them. Naturally this was a topic of conversation in my circles (also, and unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out for those involved very well; also unsurprisingly, they continue to think the problem is everyone else). But this is also the year in which I started writing more about politics and non-nerd-related social stuff, after a couple of relatively light years in the topics. It’s not surprising to see that back on the year-end menu as well. I expect 2016 will have more of the same (the political and social stuff, that is; hopefully not more Hugo nonsense).
Social Media Stats: Well, let’s start with Whatever, shall we? On this date in 2014, Whatever had 5.768 million visits for the year. As of today, for 2015, Whatever has 5,788,858 visits (I’m positing the whole number because I’m amused at how many eights are in that number), which is to say, essentially the same number of visits as last year. That’s just a smidgen under 16,000 visits a day to the blog.
Note I say to the blog, because the site also has 21,635 WordPress followers, up from 12,242 on this day last year, which is healthy growth for followers, but also is a number of people who don’t visit the blog because the entries get pushed to them instead. To get a little(!) fast and loose with the stats here, if we were to take the average of the WordPress follower numbers of the last couple years (which would be 16,938) and multiply that by the number of Whatever entries for the year so far (603, not counting this one), that would be another 10.2 million “visits” to stuff I’ve written here this year, for an aggregate average of 44,000-ish daily “visits” to material written here. This also doesn’t count the people who see it through RSS feeds (Feedly, etc) or via Tumblr and other sources. Or the 2.2 million visits in 2015 to the previous iteration of Whatever not tracked by my ISP stats package, but not by WordPress’s (on account those pages aren’t WordPress pages).
All of which is to continue a theme which I’ve noted for the past couple of years, to wit: It’s getting more difficult to track who, and how many, are reading things from here, thanks to the increasingly fragmented manner in which material from here gets to people out there. It’s fun for me to look at my stats on an annual basis — and fun to share them — but I’m aware that the reliability of those stats, as relates to this particular site, is more uncertain each year. Not that they were ever particularly certain, mind you.
(Which is also why I don’t get put out when someone wishes to brag they get more visitors to their Web site than I do. One, good for you! You must be proud. Two, it’s not actually a competition. Three, even if it were, see above. The site stats don’t tell the whole story.)
Regardless, what the site (and other stats) do tell me: People continue to read what I write here. Hooray!
Aside from Whatever, Twitter is where I spend most of my time, and as of this very moment I have 93,494 followers, up roughly 18.5k from last year. I also tweeted (again, as of this second) 21,753 times in 2015, which amongst them garnered 137.61 million impressions. Note that not every tweet is seen by every single one of my followers — people have lives and are not tethered to Twitter 24/7, I mean, hopefully they’re not — and that tweets that are replies are usually seen by exponentially fewer people than the more general ones. Twitter reach is a funny thing. That said, when a tweet hits, it hits big: several of my tweets this year were seen by hundreds of thousands of people, thanks to massive retweets, the top tweet (this one), reaching 587,000 people. It’s interesting.
I’m also active on Facebook, where my fan page has 14K likes, and on what remains of Google Plus, where 18K people follow me, but I don’t have any real stats for them, so, meh. Likewise, hey did you know I’m on Ello? A thousand people follow me there! Hello, Ello!
Coming back to Whatever, here’s how people came to the site from other sites in 2015: Google was by far the largest driver of visits, followed by Twitter and Facebook. Reddit, interestingly, sends only a fraction of traffic that either Twitter or Facebook does; the only people there who have an a real interest in me are either the odious dweebs of Gamergate or the Redditors who poke fun of the odious dweebs of Gamergate (Gamergate in general, I should note, seems to have gone past its sell-by date, which is, you know, nice).
In all: 2015 seems to have been a reasonably good year for this site and for me on social media in general. If you’re reading this, you’re part of the reason. Thank you for that. Let’s see where 2016 takes us from here.
Being albums released during the band’s existence, not compilations, etc. Also, this is the UK not the US chronology, with the exception of Magical Mystery Tour, which I understand was released as a double EP in the UK or whatever.
Which sportsball team do I support? The Ohio Scamperbeasts, of course! Here I am with one of the star players.
Very big thanks to Scot Campbell for the design and the implementation — all I did was say out loud that it would be fun to have Ohio Scamperbeasts t-shirts. He did all the rest. I’m excited when things I wish for out loud happen through no effort on my part. I bought one for every member of the family!
I spend a lot of time on Twitter! And often I say silly and/or substantial things there, that I then post here for posterity, Twitter being quite intentionally an evanescent medium. Here are some of my favorite long-form Twitter postings of the year, arranged more or less chronologically.
As most of you know, at this point in my life I don’t ask for Christmas gifts, largely because if there’s something I want, I go out and buy it. That said, I do appreciate Christmas gifts that are thoughtful and have me as a person in mind. Like the jar pictured above, a gift from my wife Kristine.
The story behind it? Well, the short version is that, among other things, there are petty, shitty people out there, and from time to time they turn their pettiness and shittyness in my direction. Thing is, my life is excellent and my work and career is secure, and both in a way that none of their pettiness or shittyness will ever materially affect, so, really: Who gives a fuck? I understand they want me to give a fuck, because when you’re petty and shitty all you have is trying to make other people feel even for a moment like you are all the time, but: No. My jar of fucks to give to these people is empty.
I mentioned this to Krissy recently, and so for Christmas she got me an actual jar of fucks to give. And as you can see, it is indeed quite literally empty. It’s going to stay that way for the foreseeable future. This is a fabulous gift from my wife, and a physical reminder that, to paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, petty, shitty people can’t make you feel as petty and shitty as they are without your consent. Personally speaking, I’ve got better things to do.
I also got a sweatshirt from my mother-in-law. Which is very nice! Thanks, Dora!
I wouldn’t call 2015 a fantastic year for humanity in general — “not great years for humanity” has been a bit of a depressing trend recently, hasn’t it — but for me it was certainly a pretty good one, and here at Whatever, I wrote a number of pieces I think are worth remembering here at the end of the year, ranging in topics from writing to politics to online life to beloved pets. As is my tradition on Christmas Eve, here are those entries, this year arranged alphabetically.
As explained by me to my wife as we drove home last night from The Force Awakens:
Me: See, the reason the bad science in Star Wars films doesn’t really bother me is because the movies tell you right up front that they’re based on legends, right? “A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Far Away.” That’s the film saying “Hey, look, we know that some of what you’re seeing is totally unbelievable, but it’s myth. It’s an exaggerated version of what really happened so long ago that we can’t ever truly know what really happened.” Like, so, the Death Star probably wasn’t really the size of a small moon and Alderaan wasn’t really blown up, it’s was just probably heavily carpetbombed or something. So if you go in knowing it’s all meant to be exaggeration and myth, then all the parts like [SPOILER] and [SPOILER] in this film are totally excusable. Getting mad at Star Wars for getting the science wrong is like getting mad at Clash of the Titans for getting science wrong. You see what I’m saying.
Krissy: So does this mean you’re also willing to forgive “Red Matter” in Star Trek?
Yet again, the planet has swung around to the day wherein my wife and I burst into our daughter’s room while she is still sleeping, shout “Happy Birthday!” at her and shove a flaming pastry at her while she’s still groggy. We love it. Well, Krissy and I do. I suspect the kid tolerates it because she gets cake for breakfast at the end of it.
Athena is 17, the year in which one is allowed to watch R-rated movies without a parent, which as we all know is a momentous marker in any young North American’s life. She will not be celebrating by seeing an R-rated movie, although we did take her to see The Force Awakens last night and about halfway through it became her birthday, so there is at least some cinematic aspect to the day.
As my gift to you this day, I present you with the song that was playing in the delivery room the moment Athena was born, on this day, seventeen years ago. It’s “Waltz Across Texas Tonight,” performed by Emmylou Harris, from her 1995 album Wrecking Ball. It’s probably my favorite album, so I’m delighted to have it forever associated with one of the most important and joy days in my life, the day my and Krissy’s child was born. Enjoy, and have a wonderful Athenamas.
Which is to say that if you have any outstanding business with me for 2015, you’ll want to let me know about it today, because starting tomorrow and through to Monday, January 4, I am off the business clock and any outstanding business will be unceremoniously punted into 2016.
With that said: People still waiting to hear back on January Big Idea slots: Don’t panic (and don’t send me a raft of reminders today), they’re in process.
Inasmuch as I think most people who can have already clocked out for the year, businesswise, this will not be a hardship on anyone.
A: I’m Naseem Copely, and I’m the Reindeer Corps Manager for Santa Claus.
Q: What does that title mean?
A: Basically I’m responsible for recruiting, outfitting and caring for the reindeer who pull Santa’s sleigh on Christmas. If it has anything to do with the reindeer, I’m the one in charge of it.
Q: Why would you need to recruit? We already know who the reindeer are. Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and so on.
A: Well, that’s the first misconception. The canonical names of the reindeer aren’t of the reindeer themselves. The canonical names describe the role of the reindeer.
Q: I’m not sure I follow.
A: So, it’s like this: You have a football team, right? And a football team has a quarterback and full backs and half backs and centers and such. And in the role of quarterback, you could have Eli Manning or Andrew Luck or Aaron Rodgers or whomever.
A: So on a reindeer team, there’s a Dasher and a Dancer and a Prancer and so on. They’re roles. They’re positions. And the position of Dasher, as an example, is currently held by a reindeer named Buckletoe McGee. And before her, it was held by Tinselhart Flaherty, and before her, Ted Cruz.
Q: Ted Cruz.
A: Yes. No relation.
Q: All right. So the canonical names are the role of the reindeer, but this leaves open the question of why there are roles at all.
A: Because of varying the weather and various atmospheric conditions, basically. Depending on the weather, one or another of the team will be in lead position.
Q: So, for example –
A: So if the weather is clear, then Dasher is in the lead, because she’s fast and good with straight lines. If there’s a lot of turbulence in the upper atmosphere, then Dancer’s in front, because she’s good finding pockets of calm air for Santa to navigate into. “Donner” is the German word for “thunder,” so our Donner’s up when we have thunderstorms, and so on.
Q: Okay, but what about Cupid?
A: In the lead when we have to sweet-talk our way out of a moving violation citation.
Q: That really happens?
A: Lots of little towns have speed traps, man. They don’t care if it’s Santa. You see Santa, they see a wealthy traveler who won’t come back to town to contest a ticket.
Q: How does that even work? A reindeer mitigating traffic violations, I mean.
A: It’s technical. Very technical. I’d need graphs and a chart.
Q: And Vixen? What role does Vixen play?
A: Uh, that role’s currently in transition.
Q: What does that mean?
A: It means I’m ready for your next question.
Q: All right, what about the Rudolph position?
A: (Sighs) There is no Rudolph position. Never was. Never will be.
Q: You seem annoyed by this question.
A: None of us up here at the pole are big fans of the whole “Rudolph” thing.
Q: Why not?
A: Well, it makes us look like jerks, doesn’t it? A young reindeer is discriminated against up to and until he has marginal utility. I mean, really. Who looks good in that scenario? Not all of the other reindeer, who come across as bigots and bullies. And not Santa, who is implicitly tacit in reindeer bigotry.
Q: I have to admit I never really thought about it that hard.
A: You know, here at the pole we work hard to make sure that everyone feels welcome – it’s not just a legal requirement, it’s the whole ethos behind the Santa organization. And this one song craps on that for a reindeer who never evenexisted? Yeah, we’re not happy.
Q: You could sue for defamation.
A: No one comes out ahead when you do that. Anyway, Santa has his way of dealing with things like this.
Q: What do you mean?
A: Let’s just say a certain songwriter received lots of coal one year. In his car. The one with the white bucket seats.
Q: Okay. The next question: Why reindeer?
A: Why not reindeer?
Q: Generally speaking, they don’t actually fly.
A: Neither do sleighs, generally speaking, and yet here we are.
Q: We could talk about that. I mean, the general violation of physics that goes on around the whole Santa’s sleigh thing.
A: Look, I don’t pretend to know the science of the flying sleigh thing, okay? That’s not my job. You can ask Santa’s physicists about it if you want.
Q: Santa has physicists on staff?
A: Of course he does. He’s one of the largest recruiters of physicists outside of NASA. What, you thought all this happened because of magic?
Q: Well, now that you mention it, yes. Yes, I did.
A: See, that’s just silly. It’s not magic. It’s technology. Highly, highly advanced technology.
Q: So technology makes the reindeer fly.
A: No, that’s genetic.
Q: Oh, come on.
A: You’ll have to interview some of Santa’s biologists about that.
Q: Leaving aside the questionable physics and biology of flying reindeer, how do you recruit them? The reindeer, that is.
Q: You’re telling me the reindeer can read.
A: Of course not. That’s just ridiculous.
Q: Unlike them flying.
A: It’s not the reindeer, it’s their owners. Laplanders and Canadians have access to the internet too.
Q: So the owners of the reindeer show up with their deer, and then what?
A: Well, the genes for flying in reindeer are recessive, so we have to test for ability.
Q: With a DNA test?
A: With a catapult.
Q: Wait, what?
A: We chuck ‘em into the air and see what happens.
Q: That’s… that’s horrible.
Q: What if they don’t have the flying gene!
A: Then they come down.
Q: And you don’t see a problem with that?
A: It’s just gravity.
Q: There’s that little part at the end! You know, when the reindeer who have been chucked into the air hit the ground at 32 feet per second per second.
A: What? No. We put up nets, dude.
A: Nets. To catch them. Jeez, what do you think we are, monsters?
Q: I didn’t know!
A: PETA would be all over us for that.
Q: Maybe you should have mentioned the nets earlier.
A: I would think they would be implied.
Q: Okay, so you sorted the ones who can fly from the ones who can’t. What then?
A: Then we take the new reindeer and start training them, using various tests and exercises to see which role they would be best at.
Q: The fabled Reindeer Games.
A: Right. Once we know who is good at what, we slot them into the role.
Q: So how many reindeer are in each position?
A: Roughly a hundred.
Q: That’s… a lot of reindeer.
A: What did you expect?
Q: I don’t know, I thought maybe two or three for each position. Like a football team.
A: That was just an analogy.
Q: No, right, I get that, but even so.
A: Look, these are animals. They get tired. And the sleigh crosses the entire planet. You can’t have a single team of eight physical animals pull a heavy object that entire distance. That’s cruel. You got a swap ‘em out at regular intervals. So the couple of days before Christmas we truck them to various places around the world, and when Santa lands, we make the swap.
Q: Where do these swapouts usually happen?
A: Typically mall parking lots. They swap out and Santa can take a bathroom break. He’s drinking lots of milk that night and eating a metric ton of cookies. He’s gotta make space.
Q: And no one notices Santa landing and swapping out the team.
A: We’re quick about it.
Q: How quick?
A: Let me put it this way: NASCAR pit crews?
Q: Final question: the reindeer are on the job one night of the year.
Q: What are they doing the rest of the year?
A: I didn’t sneeze, you numbskull. It’s a traditional Scandinavian cheese originally made from reindeer milk.
Q: Santa’s a cheesemaker on the side, is what you’re saying.
A: And a damn fine one. His Leipäjuusto did very well at the International Cheese Awards this year.
Q: Did he say “Merry Curdmas” when he won?
Q: Maybe he could make Holy Infant Cheddar, whose selling points would be that it’s tender and mild.
Q: “Ho Ho Havarti!”
A: I’m going to have Vixen stab you with an antler now.
I’ve been a fan of The Academy Is… for a while now, basically since I discovered their last album Fast Times at Barrington High, and over the last couple of years I’ve become friends with William Beckett, the band’s lead singer, who also has a solo career and who many of you know I commissioned to write a theme song for my novel Lock In. The band broke up in 2011, before I could get around to seeing them live, but late this year they announced a one-off reunion tour to coincide with the 10 year anniversary of their second album Almost Here. Well, you didn’t have to tell me twice; I went and bought VIP tickets for me and the family to go see them at Bogart’s in Cincinnati.
Thoughts and observations and whatnot:
1. First, it was a pretty damn good concert, including the opening set by Partybaby, and it was clear that the band has a bunch of fans who were delighted that they got back together, even temporarily, to put up a tour. These kids knew all the words, sang along without prompting and generally had themselves a fine old time, and it was also clear the band was enjoying the fact the audience was just plain happy to see them on the stage again. You could be cynical about this and say this just means the band could have sung random Tweets and the audience would have been just as happy to make the scene, but I think it’s more that everyone in the room remembered why this stuff can be fun for everybody. This makes for a good vibe for a show.
2. I suspect that I may have been one of the five oldest audience members at the show, since most of TAI’s fans were (or at least appear to be) twentysomethings and, unrelated to age, also women. This is a) perfectly fine, b) nevertheless amusing to be a visible outlier at a concert. As I mentioned to Krissy last night, at this point in my life I am well-acclimated to my “dad” status, i.e., undeniably middle-aged dude who is at peace that his cool years are behind him (if he ever had cool years, which, well. I didn’t) and who adjusts accordingly.
For example, as VIP ticket holders, we were allowed to position ourselves early right in front of the stage before the show started, so we could be right there to see the band fling sweat at us as they performed. Did we? Hell no; we went back to the bar area where they had seats and a waiter to bring us drinks as the band played. You crazy kids go ahead and have fun up by the stage; we’re back here not being squished, with earplugs in so we can hear tomorrow. And that’s groovy.
3. Speaking of which, this concert was the first time I had ever done a “VIP” package at a show, in part because I wanted to see what something like that was like, and in part because William is my friend and I wanted to support him and his band a little more than the usual “ticket and t-shirt” level of things. With the exception of the venue making the VIP ticket-holders line up at a very early time and letting us freeze outside for more than a hour before herding us in, it was all right. We got in early, did a grip-and-grin photo moment with the band, and then had about a half hour where the band mingled with the VIP ticket people, chatting and signing photos and other stuff.
Krissy caught me grinning at that part, and this is why: While I make absolutely no claims of being a rock and roll star, I have in fact done the “VIP mix and mingle” thing, in which one works a room specifically for the purpose of circulating among a group of people who are there specifically to see you and/or you and a few other people. In my professional opinion, the band did a pretty good job of it; they were gracious with the fans, made sure to circulate and be available to people coming up to say hello, and seemed like they were having a good time which (whether you are or not) really is key.
That said, I’m not sure the VIP ticket thing is for me in general. This was a special circumstance in that I knew a band member personally, and I wanted to support his band, who I was also excited to see for the first time; I don’t know that many rock and roll stars on a one-on-one basis. I just bought tickets to see Journey next summer (I know, mock me if you want, I don’t care, I like Journey) and skipped over the VIP package. Being a middle-aged relatively successful dude, I could afford it. But honestly I don’t need two minutes with Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain, there are other people who I suspect want it more. I’m happy to let them have it, and to sit in the shed with hoi polloi, croaking out “Stone in Love” at the top of my lungs or whatever.
4. I don’t know many rock and roll stars, but I do now know a fair number of musicians, and the older I get the more I continue to be impressed with the skill and professionalism required to do the job of lighting up a stage. I know musicians as friends and admire their craft as songwriters, but the performance aspect always gets me the most. It’s fascinating to see people I know turn on the performance mode and become this other thing entirely — not a fake version of themselves but a version turned to being in front of a crowd — for the duration of an event.
I recognize it from what I do at events (I call it “performance monkey mode”), but again, to be clear, what I do is different from what musicians do. I dare say what they do requires more than what I do, not in the least because they have to carry a tune and/or play an instrument competently for an hour or more. Performance is hard; some performance modes are harder than others.
This may be another sign of me getting older. When I was young and I was at a concert I would mostly just rock out; now I watch the performance and note what they’re doing and see how hard they’re working and appreciate the effort. I don’t think it means that I enjoy the concert less, mind you, just that I enjoy it in a different way. I like watching people I like and/or admire do their job well, is what I’m saying. The Academy Is did their job very well last night.
5. Finally, here, have a TAI song to listen to. They didn’t play it last night, but it’s right for the season. Enjoy.
Super-short version: It’s not bad! Best since the original trilogy and arguably better than at least one of those. You’ll probably have a whole lot of fun with this film.
Non-super-short version: Star Wars is that friend of yours who you haven’t seen in a while, who was in a long-term relationship where everything was cool for a while and then things just plain went to hell, and the last time you saw them, they’d kind of hit the bottom. Now you’re seeing them again for the first time in years and before they show up you’re humming a little mantra that goes please please please please don’t let this be awkward and weird like it was the last time we saw each other.
And then they show up! And they look great. They sound great. You talk to them and slip into the groove with them, and they catch you up on what’s been going on in their life, including their new relationship with this fab-sounding person who seems to be doing good things for them. And you suddenly realize that for the first time in years your friend actually seems happy. They’re not exactly their old self again — who ever is, after all those years? — but the things you always loved about them are there once more, and you’re so happy to see them happy again that you almost want to cry.
So, yeah: If you’re a Star Wars fan, that’s how you’re going to feel about The Force Awakens.
This is an immense relief, but also, to use the words of a famous Mon Calimarian, it’s a trap. Because it’s Star Wars, and because you’ll have been used to Star Wars films being terrible for so very long, the highly-polished, super-competent and intentionally entertaining film that is The Force Awakens might feel something like a revelation. Finally, a Star Wars film you don’t have to make excuses for! That you don’t have to mumble something like “well, it’s part of a trilogy, you have to wait until the whole thing is done to see the entire structure” to yourself and others in a vain attempt to overlook massive flaws. This is the first Star Wars film in decades that you can relax into, and just sit back and enjoy. It’s not until the tension of having to pre-emptively rationalize your film choices is lifted that you realize what a burden it has been. The absence of that burden might just feel like greatness.
So: is The Force Awakens a great film?
No. It’s not on the level of great cinema. It’s not on the level of the original Star Wars (which I refuse to call A New Hope because fuck you George Lucas you’re not the boss of me) or of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not the best science fiction film of 2015, or even the best new installment in a long-running science fiction film series (say hello to Fury Road for both, although The Martian and Ex Machina are in the running for the former). It’s not a great film, and you shouldn’t be relieved into thinking it is.
But it is a pretty damn good Star Wars film, which at this point in the series is exactly what it needs to be. This shouldn’t be overlooked, either.
Things to love (or at least really like): The dialogue, by Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams and Michael Arndt, which for the first time since Empire sounds like words that might actually come out of the mouths of actual thinking human beings, and not merely declamatory utterances designed to fill up space. The relationships, of which there are many — more and more believable relationships in this one single film than in the entire run of the series to date. The care with which even minor characters are developed and seem like actual people, rather than toy manufacturing opportunities given a line or two in the film as an excuse to make parents buy the action figure for a stocking stuffer. The fact that Daisy Ridley and John Boyega’s characters (as well as one other character, who you will know when you see the film) are believably young and act like young people do, ie, make some questionable choices, without doing stupid things entirely for plot convenience.
In short, most of the best things about this movie relate to the characters in it — and the care with which the filmmakers use to make them as real as possible. This is the one thing George Lucas could never manage on his own, partly because he’s a leaden writer (Harrison Ford once famously quipped of Lucas’ dialogue “You can type this shit, George, but you can’t say it”), but primarily because I just don’t think he was that interested in it. He needed characters as chess pieces, not as people. In The Force Awakens, we get characters as people, and their game becomes more interesting.
Things not to like? Basically, the several points where the film has to bow to the tropes of the Star Wars universe mostly for plot convenience and fan service. Yes, yes, lasers and explosions and battles and the cute nods to the previous films, they all have to be in there. I get it (trust me, I get it). But for me all of that was a sideshow to the characters — and think about that! When was the last time you could say that about a Star Wars film? (Empire.) There’s also the fact that almost immediately after I left the theater there were a whole bunch of things about the film that I started to pick apart. Trust me, my friends, if you think the nitpickery of the Star Wars universe was positively Talmudic before, wait until the dust settles with TFA. There will be nitpickery galore.
Here’s the important thing about that last bit: On the drive home, I had things I wanted to nitpick — but the operative part of the phrase is “on the drive home.” When I was watching the film, I was in the film. I wasn’t focused on anything other than where I was. And that, my friends, is the goal. When I was the creative consultant for Stargate: Universe, that was actually my job: To read the scripts early and flag all the things that would throw people out of the story before the end credits rolled. It’s okay for the audience to be nitpicky, just afterwards. Managing that is not as easy as it sounds, and certainly the prequel trilogies never achieved it. TFA does.
Which is a testament to Abrams, his fellow screenwriters and to Disney. When Disney bought Lucasfilm I said that it was “the best thing that could happen, especially if you’re a Star Wars fan.” I said it because Disney, whatever other flaws it has (and it has many) understands better than almost any other studio that the audience must be entertained. You grab the audience, you carry them along for two hours, you keep them busy, and you drop them off at the gift shop when you’re done. Disney is relentless about this, and they’re not stupid about it, either, which is to say, Disney doesn’t treat its audience like marks, to be hustled. It treats them as opportunities for a long-term relationship, involving the transfer of cash to Disney.
Cynical? Well, yes. But, look, if what that means is we get good Star Wars films that aren’t painful to watch and tell a fun story while we’re shoving popcorn into our maws — stories with lightsabers — then I’m okay with that. Especially after having slogged through a Star Wars era where the only thing of interest was the merchandising. We’re getting more out of the Star Wars cinematic universe now than we were with Lucas. I don’t see this as a bad thing. “By the sweet and merry mouse above, you will be entertained,” I wrote, when the Disney deal for Lucasfilm was announced.
I was right. I was entertained. And because of the focus on characters in The Force Awakens — a focus I expect to continue through Episodes VIII and IX, and in the new “anthology” films — I am optimistic I will continue to be entertained in the Star Wars universe for a good while yet. I can’t tell you how giddy that makes me.
I don’t need greatness from Star Wars. I just want to have fun with it. And with The Force Awakens, I did. I’m glad my friend is back, and happy.
Perfect. Just, absolutely perfect. I could not be more pleased.
Ironically, as this was going down on Twitter, a bunch of MRAs/bigots/pathetic reactionaries were trying to impugn my manhood over there in various unimpressive ways. I trust my absolute delight at this picture communicates my concern about measuring up to their silly definitions of masculinity.