Lemony Snicket’s Most Unfortunate Event Was the Netflix Ending

Dear reader, if you wish to avoid spoilers for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, then please, look away. Nothing but disappointment waits for you here.

The basic premise of Unfortunate Events is that the story has no happy endings – although it does occasionally have something like happy middles. Indeed, by the end of Daniel Handler’s thirteen book series (written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) the Baudelaire orphans will have lost just about every person they meet who is kind to them. Most to death, a few to circumstances a little more vague.

This is a children’s book series.

Now, Unfortunate Events is aimed at an audience on the cusp of young adulthood, intended to engage the growing minds of preteens and young teenagers with the kinds of questions that their rapidly maturing brains are starting to grapple with in earnest. What are good and evil? To what extent can people embody those traits? Why do adults do things that seem so incomprehensible to adolescents and children? The series also warns its younger readers of many things to watch out for in life. Authority figures are sometimes too untrustworthy, incompetent or emotionally comprised to be relied on. People are not always what they seem at first. And, of course, there are no happy endings in life – life always ends in death. And that’s rarely happy.

It’s not fair to say that nothing good ever happens to the Baudelaires. Their lives are hard, but they find friends and moments of peace. But they’re always moving on to the next thing, the next attempt to find the truth, the next attempt to find a home, the next attempt to get away from the evil Count Olaf. And by the time we reach the end of Snicket’s recounting of what he knows of their lives, including his own encounter with the Baudelaires, these warnings have proved true time and again, and the questions have found no easy answers. The Baudelaires do get away from Count Olaf.

It’s easy to run from someone who’s dead.

It’s not so easy to forget someone who chased you for years, setting fire to everything in his wake, and who died saving the life of a woman he hated – but loved in the past.

For a little while, the Baudelaires have peace on the secluded island where Olaf died. There’s food, shelter and no enemies to speak of. But there’s no challenge and when body and mind go unchallenged they rot. So they end the diary of their activities there – later found by their tireless biographer, Snicket – and set sail into the unknown. It is the end of their story by virtue of being all that is known to be told. Perhaps they thrived. And perhaps not.

In this mix of hope and melancholy the tale of the Baudelaires is summarized to perfection.

Netflix ruined it, as is their way.

Now I’m going to be very, very hard on the final episode of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but lest you think this means I disliked the production, let me take a moment to praise it. The writing carries over much of the book’s love of wordplay, incredible prose and sense of tongue in cheek fun at the forced dreariness of the story. Nothing in life can be as dull and depressing as Snicket’s take on the adventures of a handful of orphans. Part of the point of the novels is to point out how the endlessly bright and optimistic nature of many children’s books, replete with constant happy endings, is absurd. But rather than push this overbearing optimism to the point of parody, the absurdity is simply turned upside down. It might be easy to miss that and treat Unfortunate Events as something to be played straight. Nothing, from the written dialog to the actor’s performances, the set designs to the musical score, ever makes that mistake.

And speaking of production values, they are incredible. The sets are gorgeous and fun, the music fits the story perfectly and the actors are all spot on. In particular, the delightful Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf and the droll Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket absolutely nail their parts, bringing roles that could easily become grating or boring to life with a gentle touch.

The Netflix adaptation is, on the whole, excellent. But their ending undermines the entire premise of the story. You see… the Netflix ending is happy.

Now, I’ve come out in favor of happy endings in the past, particularly in the case of Edge of Tomorrow in contrast to its source material, All You Need is Kill. But the important caveat to that is the change of the core narrative from one of falling into fatalistic resolve to one of discovering hopeful courage – a change to the ending only makes sense with the change in message. Unfortunate Events has no such change in its core narrative.

Thus, the Netflix adaptation makes two core mistakes in its final episode. First, it explicitly shows the salvation of a mismanaged group of colonists on the isle. At the time everyone there was suffering from poison. In the novel the Baudelaires find an unconventional antidote but the leader of the colony takes it himself, but doesn’t tell anyone else, instead leading them off the island towards what he says is a place they can find what they need to formulate a conventional remedy. He’s the story’s example of incompetent leadership, contrasted against the Baudelaires’ parents, who leave a diary on the island which the orphans read to find their own solution. In the Netflix adaptation, the colonists set out for the dubious yet conventional antidote before the orphans find the unconventional substitute. We later see the substitute being delivered to the colonists as they row away – making it seem much more certain they survive. In the same sequence we also see a  number of side characters from throughout the series finding the end of their minor goals, giving them happy endings as well, something the novel also avoided. The core idea of Unfortunate Events, that there are no happy endings, is lost.

The second error is like the first.

Incidentally, it’s not Olaf’s Last Act. This tiny moment of redemption offered to Olaf’s character is thematically appropriate. Almost every other character is more complex and conflicted than Olaf is until he takes the time to save Kit Snicket and, by showing this tinge of good will in the character, we see the idea that people are more than what they seem paid off once more. It doesn’t make him a good man. But there was undoubtedly a capacity for good in him that went tragically underused.

No, the final failure of the Netflix adaptation is that, after we see the Baudelaires sail into the sunset to the new and unknown challenges of the rest of their life we come back to poor, lonely Lemony Snicket, who has spent all his time chronicling their life as a final tribute to his lost love, Beatrice, who, in the novels, closed knowing he would never know the end of the story – thematically appropriate because you can never guess the end of your life from the vantagepoint of adolescence – and we cut the knees out from under that moral. Because Lemony meets Beatrice.

Not his lost love, but the little orphan girl the Baudelaires take in themselves, Kit Snicket’s daughter and Lemony’s niece. She comes and finds him, and tells him the Baudelaires are fine. And we get closure, knowing that everything’s going to be fine.

That was not the point.

The point was to tell adolescents that, although their struggles are real and never really go away, they’re also good and they make you a better person. So take the good times when they come and never shy away from the bad things. There’s nothing guaranteed but a wild ride, and that’s okay. The wonder of the ending of Unfortunate Events is the unknown. The refusal to give pat, happy endings was what set it apart. And, in the end, Netflix lost that. It’s not like everything else the show achieved was lost. But it was unfortunate.

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The Incredibles 2 – Stasis Hurts

There are many movies that would be good if they stood alone but, produced as sequels, come up short. No one would have blamed Pixar if The Incredibles 2 proved to be one of those movies. The original film was a classic, easily one of the best five films Pixar has done, perhaps one of the top three. Following that kind of an act is hard. Very hard.

But the shortcomings of The Incredibles 2 are more than a little sequel driven disappointment. The film lacks focus, vision and the parts of its characters that we loved the most. As a story it’s disjointed and has no real arc for most of its characters. And worst of all, it feels like it started taking itself too seriously, where the original was so self aware it brought us the term monologing. What am I talking about?

Let’s start with the characters. That’s where the biggest and most egregious errors came from. The only character in this film that has anything that feels like an arc is Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible. That may be unsurprising, given that he was the last film’s main character, but everything else about the story feels like it’s constructed to make Helen the main character. She’s the one out in the world, confronting the driving conflicts. But nearly half of the film is spent on Bob trying to be a stay at home dad to his kids, which is funny and lets us see a lot of the three younger Parrs who were all very fun in the previous film, but the problem is Bob doesn’t really have any conflict here, he just needs to get to know his kids a little. He does, we do, and that’s it.

Now, one of the best parts of The Incredibles was how charming and authentic the Parrs felt, not just as individuals but as a family. And that charm and authenticity is in this movie as well. But in the original, we got to see the Parrs as a family engage with the story and its conflict. In the sequel, the Parrs are a quirky family or superheroes for most of the time, rather than being the quirky family of superheroes they were at the end of the last film. Bob getting more invested in his family is nice, and he rarely seemed deeply involved with his kids in the first film, so this is at least a step forward for his character. It just feels extraneous. The writers at Pixar didn’t take the time to work all these character bits into the story in any way, and that’s lazy because it leaves us with a bunch of stuff in the middle that feels aimless.

Violet also shows a little character growth in this film. Where in the first film she was too shy to talk to her crush Tony, now she’s putting a little too much of her own value in holding on to that achievement and when it slips away from her she’s crushed. By the end of the film we see her a little more confident in her own standing, willing to leave Tony on the street corner while she rushes off to help her family with a quick bout of hero work. Likewise, at the start of the film she’s irritated with being left in a defensive role but by the end she realizes that her skillset makes her more suited to play support than anyone else in the family and makes peace with it. These are both good character beats for Violet but we don’t see anything but the beginning and end of them, whereas the previous film clearly shows violet’s struggle with being confident and the very moment when she stands up and takes control of her fate on Syndrome’s Island. Also tying both of her character arcs back to Tony is kinda lame.

Beyond these poorly executed character arcs no one in The Incredibles 2 changes or grows. Dash’s desire to test himself from the first film was one of the most understandable and relatable things in the original, and he even got to formulate one of the film’s core ideas, that if everyone is special no one is. In the sequel he just gets distracted by gadgets. And Helen has something that could be a character arc, doing much of what Bob was doing in the last film and trying to push Supers back into the limelight, but again that doesn’t seem to challenge her in any way. Other than lampshading how it makes her a bit of a hypocrite, the story does not force her to justify what she’s doing in anyway or admit to Bob that he was right about how necessary bringing Supers back was. Likewise, while she misses JackJack’s first power, that’s never presented as a heavy moment for her. Helen just goes out, does some heroing, and comes home. It lacks weight.

In fact, the whole conflict in the film lacks weight. The original film made it seem like Supers were coming back already, a whole second film about making superheroes legal again feels extraneous. And the fights with the Screenslaver also lack weight. It’s not gory or in your face but the fact is, in The Incredibles people tried to kill each other and died quite a bit. There’s a suicide attempt in the first two minutes. Mr. Incredible finds the corpse of one of his friends rotted to a skeleton in a cave. A lot of Syndrome’s minions meet with fiery ends. That kind of immediate danger feels absent from The Incredibles 2 with its low impact mind control plot and general lack of menace. Perhaps that’s meant partly as a reflection on Evelyn, who is a pretty lackluster villain, but mostly it feels like the movie is just going through the motions.

There was an interview with Brad Bird which I recall reading in which he said the studio was open to making another Incredibles film so long as they could come up with a good story. At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant. Now, I suspect that he had set out to tell a story he had strong feelings about and had worked out all the details for, but once it was over he had nothing more he really wanted to say there. The problem was, people (Bird included) loved the characters and world that came out of that story. So Pixar cast about for ideas about what to do with them next, and over time half formed ideas drifted together and formed the core of this sequel. Pixar is an excellent creative studio, so they were able to grasp all the charm and heart of those characters. But without a story to drive them forward a part of the magic was lost. The Parrs remain in very much the same place they were at the end of their first film and it’s painful to see. Maybe they didn’t need a sequel. Maybe there is a better format to try this with. But for now, I’m content to consider the Incredibles franchise complete. If Bird is wise he won’t reopen it until he has somewhere to go.

The Shield Hero Complaints – Delete Anime Critics

I swear, I just wrote this post.

No, that’s not true. The problems with the Goblin Slayer reaction sprang at least in part from a failure to pick up on the symbolic threads of the story – and probably a few missteps on the part of the production staff. This time around there’s no real excuse, the people complaining about the story of Rise of the Shield Hero are just being stupid. Worse, they are guilty of dereliction of duty. If you complained about Shield Hero incorporating a false accusation of rape into its story then you missed the mark so badly you should never review anything again. Hang up your hat and go do something useful with your life.

This post is not aimed to my usual audience (although please read it if you enjoy reading me yell at people who aren’t you). It’s aimed at every vapid, intellectually lazy, useless idiot who saw the first episode of Shield Hero and immediately spouted the Culturally Approved Party Line. You should all be replaced with a thirty second propaganda video on loop because that would have the exact same value to the discourse.

Listen, I’m going to explain this to you slowly, in small words, in the hopes that some part of you can register what I say and process it enough that you might up your game, just a little bit, at some point in the future.

The job of a critic of fiction is to take a work of fiction and think about it in the context of the culture it was made in and what the author(s) of that work were trying to accomplish with it, then examine how well the author accomplished those goals and, finally, explain all that to their audience. For an anime critic in America that job comes with the added responsibility of translating the foreign culture of Japan into terms that makes sense to American audiences, not always an easy task given the very large gaps between what makes sense to us and what makes sense in Japan.

Except. In the case of Shield Hero that isn’t difficult at all. So listen, ignorant and stunted critics, for I am about to do your job for you.

Japanese culture values appearances very highly and, once you lose face, it can be nearly impossible to recover. The consequences of a single misstep can ruin a person for life, and damages the prospects of everyone associated with that person as well. Worse, it doesn’t require an actual misstep to ruin some people, just rumors, particularly if that person is from the bottom end of the social scale. Like in American literature, good and bad, confronting injustice is a running theme in Japanese fiction, and Shield Hero is no different.

The story of Shield Hero starts with a very worn premise about a normal person transported to a fantasy world, a bit like the Chronicles of Narnia. In this case, the hero is transported with three other strangers and each of these men (and they are all men) find themselves attached to a magical weapon. They have been summoned with the hopes that they will be able to save the world. As you might guess from the title, our protagonist is attached to a powerful magical shield. His fellows sneer at him for being stuck with a worthless looking “weapon” and none of the champions native to the world join to help him prepare for the coming dangers.

None, except for a woman who seemingly takes pity on him and helps him get ready for his work. But after a single day with him she steals his money and turns him over to the local constables as a would be rapist then runs of to join forces with one of the other summoned heroes, leaving our protagonist despised, scorned and traumatized by the betrayal.

That’s the beginning of Rise of the Shield Hero and, as you might expect, it leaves the hero at his lowest point so he can –as the title implies – rise up to greatness. It’s also not the whole story.

You see, the Shield Hero has a unique standing in the world he arrives in. Tradition speaks of him as a particular ally to demihumans (essentially a despised ethnic minority in the country where he arrives). In addition, it turns out that the woman who framed him is second in line to the throne. We see other characters in the world do equal or worse things than those the Shield Hero is accused of but since they target the weak or the despised, or they themselves are simply powerful, they suffer none of the indignities that the Shield Hero must go through.

This builds greater and greater resentment and anger in the Shield Hero, creating problems beyond the physical danger he must face and the social ostracization he faces. His very hatred is a danger to him and the small handful of allies he manages to collect. The story is as much about him recovering his own sense of self as it is about his overcoming the social and physical dangers he faces.

Astute commentators will note the biting commentary this story offers on Japan’s standards of social punishment, which are rarely applied equally. They might even go so far as to draw parallels between this storyline and works of American Literature like To Kill A Mockingbird or perhaps just known historical cases that bear superficial resemblance to the inciting incident of Shield Hero like the lynching of Emmett Till. The truly daring might bring up the fact that the way Title IX has been applied in the past several years has resulted in more and more minority men being run off of college campuses under very dubious circumstances, many of whom have later found some small solace in collecting millions of dollars in court damages from the colleges that wronged them, and how Shield Hero is an easily digestible warning to examine ourselves and make sure we’re not going down the wrong path.

But I’m not going to do any of those things.

Instead, I’m going to point out how you dissolute wastes of Internet bandwidth who have the gall to claim the title of Critic behave just like the villains of Shield Hero. Just as the nation where the Shield Hero arrives revels in its religiously granted superiority over demihumans and dismisses all their trials out of hand, demeaning their champion because he is a morally inferior entity without reflection on themselves or his circumstances, you have rushed to mouth your preapproved condemnations about disbelieving survivors so you can claim the moral high ground over misogynists who just want to get away with raping women. There can’t be any kind of nuanced discussion or examination of cultures or parallels, or even what the author might have originally been intending with his story, because you already have the gospel truth and that proves you’re a good person.

Well, if there was any justice in the world your total failure at meaningful criticism would result in your being driving off the Internet by jeering masses that see you for the self-righteous drones you are. But, as Shield Hero points out, there is rarely justice in this world. And that means that, while you may hate it, The Rise of the Shield Hero is the anime you deserve. I hope you choke on it.

New Year’s Update – And Goals!

Hello, faithful readers!

2018 was a good year for me, in terms of keeping this blog. Not only did I pick up several new subscribers and finish another novel, I managed to write some pretty decent criticism and kept a schedule to my satisfaction – I think I only missed one post this year that I hadn’t planned for. I managed to keep at least one week of backlog most of the time, usually closer to two, and got well over 90% of my posts scheduled ahead of time, rather than frantically scrambling to post them sometime on Friday.

This year I have more ambitious goals. I’m about 20% of the way through a rewrite of Schrodinger’s Book, which I hope to publish as an ebook sometime this year. I’m also working on a submission for a comic anthology, a webcomic (maybe?) of my own and another novel of a scifi flavor. I intend to do some more writing on writing, of course, and most of it will appear on this blog in one form or another. But to kick off the year, I intend to take a short break. My next post on this blog will come on February 1st, and it will likely be more writing on writing, as I plan to take another break in March to attend to personal business. In April I hope to start on my next big fiction project, tentatively titled Pay the Piper.

I am very, very glad for all those who have come to read something I’ve written and especially grateful to those who have stuck around to read my work week after week. I hope it’s brought you as much enjoyment as I’ve gotten in writing it, and I hope you’ll stick with me through 2019. Thanks,

Nate

Adaptations Analyzed: Goblin Slayer

A little while ago I talked about some of the failures of critique I saw swirling around the TV adaptation of the Goblin Slayer franchise, a fairly typical fantasy franchise from Japan with solid ideas about action and characterization. At the time we hadn’t seen much of Goblin Slayer yet and so I withheld critique of the show itself and confined myself to the rather narrow and one note response some people had. Now, looking back on things, I have a hard time blaming them. In part because writers of the show seem to have made the same oversights.

Let me back things up and start from the beginning. Goblin Slayer is a fantasy story about a man who was traumatized when goblins murdered his family at a young age and spent half a decade training himself to fight back, then several years more actually fighting goblins alone. It shows how he uses imagination and preparation to wipe out foes that outnumber him significantly, while at the same time showing how he teeters on the edge of becoming a depraved monster himself. It then introduces a series of friends and allies who struggle to understand him and slowly evolves his character from dangerously unstable to moderately reliable. Unfortunately, many of the things that makes this dynamic work in the novels doesn’t make the jump to the small screen.

The Pacing is Off 

The formula of Goblin Slayer, the novel, is simple. It swings back and forth between moments of fairly dark and frequently gruesome violence, whether perpetrated by goblins or the Slayer, and glimpses into the equally dark psychology of those who perpetrate said violence on one end of the spectrum to moments of mundane normalcy or lighthearted camaraderie on the other. At its darkest Goblin Slayer prompts comparisons to some of the darkest fantasies on the market, at its lightest it can almost be mistaken for a slapstick humor show.

I rather like this contrast, as it is gives a fairly realistic picture of how people in more violent times probably lived – doing their best to live like we do day to day, enjoying one another’s company, but much closer to violence and brutality than anything first world people have experience with. This sharp contrast also makes clear the greatest danger in their world, the sudden change from normalcy to deadly danger. People most frequently die in the story when the context around them changes unexpectedly and they don’t react in time – which explains why the Goblin Slayer always functions as if he is in a circumstance of deadly danger.

However, in its adaptation Goblin Slayer takes several steps to undercut this pacing. It throws out some of the smaller dark beats in the early story, probably because they revolve around unnamed side characters who die and thus aren’t important, and then it removes one of the darker stories in the mid point of its run, where Goblin Slayer has to defend his home against a roaming goblin horde and we get a look into the mind of a Goblin Lord (it’s a pretty dark place). With these dark beats removed, a number of the lighthearted moments all run together, occupying almost all of three episodes with either easy wins for the Slayer or goofy moments around town. This ruins the pacing that is supposed to keep us tense and on the edge of our seat, swinging from highs to lows, and is a real strike against the adaptation.

Insufficient Vicious Death 

Goblin Slayer is about people dying in unpleasant ways. The story doesn’t really endorse this, it just makes it clear this is part of the world, and part of what justifies the terrible decisions Goblin Slayer and his companions must make. Unfortunately, a lot of that justification doesn’t make it into the story as an adaptation. Yes, there is that controversial part in the first episode but after that, in the anime, the crimes of goblins are mostly alluded to in dialog rather than shown. Conversely, in the book and manga side characters dying is almost always shown, to remind us that Goblin Slayer’s creed – “That’s no excuse to let the goblins live” – has the force of a moral imperative for good reason. This could almost be part of the pacing issue, except moments of the Slayer’s violence are quite dark as well. Or they should be, except…

This is Not the Goblin Slayer You’re Looking For 

The internal conflict between Goblin Slayer is how closely his mindset has come to mimic that of the goblins he hunts. He has to understand them to kill them so effectively, but he’s neglected to also understand his own humanity. This sets up Goblin Slayer as potentially the greatest villain of the tale if he’s not careful, and creates numerous moments where his friends worry about his mental state and penchant for violence.

However, most of those moments are stripped out of the animated adaptation. They’re at the very lease minimized in favor of focusing on the action scenes – not entirely unjustified, it is primarily an action tale – and the humorous bits – a little harder to justify as it’s not a comedy. Losing this aspect of the Goblin Slayer’s character weakens the story measurably. And this is not a story that had a big margin for error – with the internal conflict for its protagonist Goblin Slayer is a good story, without it we then slip towards mediocrity. And I’m afraid that’s where the Goblin Slayer anime lands for me.

What Happened? 

I’ve seen some claim that the Goblin Slayer anime is what happens when people decide to pander to two audiences at once – creating an impression of a dark fantasy story while actually trying to make something that appeals to the fans of light-hearted fantasy romps as well. That’s not entirely improbable, and the end product does have a bit of that pandering feel to it. But it’s not like very dark and violent anime hasn’t done very, very well in the past. Just look at the success of Attack on Titan three years ago. And, of course, the source material doesn’t have this problem. The producers could have been trying to distort the source material to satisfy their own goals, but then again they might not. I think the real answer is a bit more simple.

Goblin Slayer has a 12 episode run. That’s about four hours of total screen time once you cut commercials, openings and credits. Not a whole lot of time. It seems the story team just wanted to focus as much as possible on Goblin Slayer and his adventures as they could, and cut all the fat. Side characters who serve to build tension but don’t advance the story of the main character any are cut. Introspection that reveals the Slayer’s character but don’t advance plot or action are cut.

The Defense of the Farm getting removed also suggests something along this line – it involves a lot of non-Goblin Slayer characters who the show doesn’t seem to think are important. (Although the one episode side story it does add focuses on those character anyway, so perhaps cutting this story was just a time saving move, as it would have taken at least three episodes to do well.) In short, the team rushed to tell Goblin Slayer’s story and cut everything they thought was unnecessary.

But this is what leads me to believe whoever was producing this adaptation didn’t understand the story very well. The internal struggle of Goblin Slayer was just as important as the external act of slaying goblins – in fact, symbolically the act of fighting goblins represents the internal struggle Goblin Slayer is going through. But the anime adaptation gets rid of all that richness and nuance in favor of just telling us as many things the Slayer has done as possible. In doing so, it misses the point and fails as an adaptation. Sad, but not at all uncommon.

The Past and Future – The Unique Speculative Fiction of Pumpkin Scissors

In my family we used big ol’ knives to carve pumpkins. For Ryotaro Iwanaga they apparently used a large and heavy set of scissors. The title of the story is drawn from the central cast’s role in the government – they represent a sort of internal affairs group that audits corruption in the military, government and associated contractors, cutting through the tough skin of bribery and backroom connections to try and bring relief to those suffering in a post war world. That’s not what really makes the story of Pumpkin Scissors interesting.

What makes it interesting is the way it uses old fashioned technology to shed light on how our current technology is changing our lives, creating one of the most unique approaches to speculative fiction I have ever encountered.

You see, the level of technology in Pumpkin Scissors is all over the place. They have high performance internal combustion engines but telegraphs are relatively new and they’re just starting to think about radio. Tanks and zeppelins are a thing but no one is talking about building airplanes. One of the protagonists has had his brain surgically modified but they can’t build a flamethrower that can be used without injuring the soldier carrying it. The reasons for all these absurdities is summed up in the name Caplan.

A recurring trope in Japanese storytelling is the genius. This is not a Sherlock style figure, who is knowledgeable in many fields and has a mind of frightening acuity. Rather it is a superhuman figure who dominates everything remotely related to their field of interest. A baseball genius will have unparalleled strength and footspeed, a magicians dexterity, the hand-eye coordination of a master sniper and a head for figures that can remember every player on every team now active in his league and most of the notable players from other leagues – even leagues overseas. A fighting genius will be able to medal in the Olympics in every fighting sport they put their hands to. And a scientific genius will lead the way in every field of study known to man.

Such a figure was the founder of the Caplan Institute. He pushed science forward to such degrees, and with such acuity, that in many cases the infrastructure and technology to test his theories did not exist. Every aspect of medicine, botany, biology and engineering had their borders vastly expanded by Caplan. Ultimately he would die with many of the mysteries he hoped to prove long out of reach. As the society around him built up their industrial capacity to manufacture the blueprints he left behind in his Institute they began to put them to use, and so, with the help of Caplan, some fields of technology grew in leaps and bounds, driven by the work he left behind combined with the needs of the governmental and industrial leaders who came to Caplan for aid.

This allows Iwanaga to create very interesting situations where technologies that would not normally have interacted because they existed in different eras do meet – with results that he can accurately predict because all the pieces in play did exist and had fully understood limits, even though they would not normally work together in such a way. He can also use some aspects of this antiquated technology to offer commentary on modern society, such as when terrorists seize a far-flung telegraph network to institute a miniature surveillance state, obliquely reflecting the way our own telecommunications create vast quantities of information that can be used against us and are not at all as secure as we might like them to be.

Iwanaga also offers commentary on the politics of academics through the controlling nature of the Caplan Institute and its patent systems, which allows it to quash scientific inquiry in other places through force of law and superior financial power. While Caplan does have very advanced theoretical work in its vaults, there’s no guarantee it’s the only solution to the problems Caplan imagined – much less the best. And, knowing what we know of much more advanced technology than Caplan put forward, some of which should exist alongside what exists in the present day of Pumpkin Scissors, the readers can see that yes, the scientists in Iwanaga’s world are, indeed, missing big pieces of the puzzle that have been hidden behind the walls of Caplan’s own vision of the future. How much, Iwanaga seems to ask, is missed by a modern scientific establishment that is driven by its own prejudices and politics?

Science fiction is often positioned as stories about the future and what it could mean for our society as technology progresses and we try to adapt to it. But the genius of Pumpkin Scissors is that, in spite of have a fairly normal story in structure, character progression and plot, it manages to fascinate by taking the strictures of its own genre and tinkering with them in a way that challenges our expectations while still delivering on that solid story. Many people delight in subverting expectations but they never stop to ask why that so often makes for surprising stories. The reason for it is simple – it forces us to look at a story, its tropes and morals in a new light. But if all you do is subvert expectations for its own sake then you’re just creating a new canon of tropes and morals – and probably not as interesting a canon as the old (it was there for a reason, after all).

But by subverting genres with intention, as Ryotaro Iwanaga does in Pumpkin Scissors, he revitalizes his story and makes his take on his story a little fresher and a little newer. Well done, sir.

Legend and Myth

Our society is obsessed with myths. We dig deep into those primal tales that define the limits of human nature in society after society, staring into the face of human greatness and frailty and seeking what precious lessons there are to offer. There’s nothing wrong with this, in fact it’s something that seems to be a necessary part of the human experience. Any attempt to expunge one set of myths seems to result in an entirely new set creeping in to replace them, so just as myths explore human nature, so also human nature needs myths to understand itself. This is right and good.

But legends. Legends are a kind of story of their own.

Where myths are about human nature, legends often tie back to the way cultures think they should be structured. Consider the legend of King Arthur – his position at the head of the Round Table perfectly embodied the feudal system in Europe. In reality feudal rulers relied on a sort of mutually assured destruction, where any rebellion by one feudal vassal would be quashed by the others in conjunction with the king. But the king was powerless against his retainers if they all chose to turn against him. In Arthurian lore the solidarity the lords maintain with one another and the king is a sign that these lords offer the king their loyalty and the kingdom is bound together by virtue – a noble idea and certainly something to aspire to. Perhaps made all the more precious by the fact that it was rarely the case.

There are, of course, legends more modern than these. Take the legend of George Washington and the cherry tree. Many people have heard how, after accidentally cutting down his father’s fruit tree and being confronted, Washington refused to lie and admitted to the transgression. It’s unlikely this story is true but it lives on as a testament to the moral fiber Americans would like to see in their leaders. Other legendary figures speak to the independence or work ethic, people like Johnny Appleseed and Davey Crockette, Paul Bunyan and John Henry loom in the public consciousness as embodiments of the sort of rough and tumble, single minded, courageous people Americans once wanted to embody their civilization. What’s interesting is how these legendary figures don’t have real counterparts in other cultures. Instead, other figures embody very different virtues.

In France legends revolve around thinkers like Voltaire or occasionally leaders like Napoleon, spinning tales of refined thought and action. Seafarers traveling far from home occupy the legendary halls of the British, keeping to their stations with grim determination in the worst of circumstances. In China it is the educated elites who walk the halls of legend, clashing against one another in a quest for enlightenment, embodying Confucian values of wisdom and filial piety or the conflicting values of Buddhism and its nihilistic enlightenment. And, while the semblance is imperfect, we can see these cultural values reflected in the cultures that gave birth to these legends.

Of course, the line between myth and legend is blurry. Arthur is both a mythic and legendary figure. Once and future kings are not unique to the West, for example, whereas his knights are very much legendary and not mythic figures that embody the virtues of chivalry and how they should relate back to a leader. The relationship between Merlin and Arthur is mythological – mentor and student go back to the Greeks and likely before. The love triangle between Arthur, Lancelot and Guenevere is legendary, showing the contest between the sides of love that can be fun but destructive and those that fulfill duty but sometimes feel dull, and painting their consequences across a national fabric.

The line between myth and legend is, in many ways, an artificial one. But classifying and naming kinds of stories is one of the ways that we break down and analyze why the work and why they do not. It’s a very important part of how human minds understand things and thus something that I, personally, find very important to look at when crafting stories. (Anyone here who still remembers when I had a running bit on the broad categories of stories called Genrely Speaking?) I began wondering about legends when I tried to pin down what count as the legends of our era and I realized I couldn’t think of any.

We have Joseph Campbell and the Monomyth to help inform our thinking about mythic stories and how they impact our consciousness. There isn’t any kind of system like that for legends, the stories that represent how we are now trying to reckon with the human nature myths describe. I find that disturbing, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not. This may be a sign of how unmoored our societal values have become from one another, or indicate some breakdown in culture. It could just be a consequence of mass communications disrupting our society and speeding the creation and replacement of cultural touchstones to absurd degrees. It could be that we just can’t see these things from our current place in the culture. It’s hard to tell. But it’s a problem worth a story or two all on its own, don’t you think?