Thursday, February 23, 2012

What Were You Expecting?

Current Reading: The Return of the King

Inspirational Quote: "Well, that... happened." -- Johnny Blaze, Ghost Rider.

I went with Telemachus to see a movie on the weekend. We saw "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," or "Nicholas Cage acting crazy with his head on fire."

It wasn't good.

But the important point here is that I wasn't expecting it to be good. If I want good, I'll go rent The King's Speech. What I expected was flaming special effects, and Nicholas Cage chewing the scenery like a rabid, fiery pirhana*. I got those things in spades, so I walked out of the theater entertained and feeling my money was well spent.

Character? Plot? Theme? Sure, I suppose they were in there. You know, something to connect the action set-pieces and provide some sort of motivation for the Cage-craziness so wonderfully on display. But really, those parts of the movie were so pathetic that I'd not be surprised to discover they were afterthoughts cooked up in the editing room.

"We have some amazing footage. What story can we make out of it?"

Like every piece of entertainment, though, you can learn something from Ghost Rider.

It's about expectation. If I crack open a book with a cover that shows a ninja fighting a dragon and back-cover copy proclaiming a tale of the intrigue surrounding the ninja infiltration of the dragon palace, I do so with certain expectations. Foremost among those is that somewhere in the succeeding pages, a ninja will indeed fight a dragon. I'm also expecting a certain amount of covert action (otherwise, why have ninjas? (although, let's face it, everything should have ninjas), and a fair bit from the fantasy bestiary.

What I'm not expecting is a cross-species romance. Nor an alien space-ship exploring the universe, a re-telling of the battle of the Alamo, a treatise on the finer points of law with regards to wine handling, or any comedy in which walruses play a chief part.

I'm not saying you can't include any of those things. Go ahead. I love surprises. Just make their inclusion good, logical and sensible (as much as such things can be). Make it REALLY good though. You've just upset my expectations, so you'd better replace them with something even better. Otherwise, I'll walk away from your story unlikely to seek out your next one.

Now if Ghost Rider actually had a coherent emotional character arc and a solid plot that illustrated a thought-provoking theme, then I'd have walked out of the theater with my mind blown, because the movie would have exceeded my expectations in a completely unexpected way.

It didn't, though, and that's just fine. It gave me what it said it would and by that measure, it succeeded.

My point is this:

Every audience member has a set of expectations in place when they decide to take in a piece of entertainment. If you fulfill those expectations, then you've succeeded with that audience. If you exceed those expectations, give them a rich story of intrigue and heartbreak set in the palace of the Dragon Lord on the eve of the ninja uprising, you'll have an audience that will come back eager for your next piece.

* Bonus: Christopher Lambert (Highlander) shows up briefly, and yes, there's a beheading involved.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Book Report: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

There are two writers whose work I will pick up without bothering to read cover copy. For me, the presence of their name on the cover is sufficient to trigger my buying reflexes. One is Terry Pratchett. The other is Tim Powers.

My first Powers book was On Stranger Tides. If your only exposure to this title was Jack Sparrow's screen antics in the latest installment of Pirates of the Caribbean, then go out, buy a gallon of memory bleach and this book. After that I read some of his earlier work (Anubis Gates, Drawing of the Dark), and almost all of his later work (Stress of Her Regard, Earthquake Weather, Declare).

His work is often set in an alternate history where the history we know is merely the surface, perceived veneer that covers up forces of sorcery, mysticism, mythology and superstition that truly shape events. He seems to take disparate notions (pirates, Greek mythology, voodoo... WWII spies, Genies, Noah, and the Cold War) and mixes them together in ways that are startling and confusing, but which make perfect sense as presented. OF COURSE Blackbeard's odd, psychotic behavior was driven by requirements of a voodoo ritual based in Odysseus's trip to the Underworld and would somehow result in his becoming immortal. Kim Philby, the English double-agent, was trying to gain the favor of Arabic spirits in his own bid for Mortality... And don't get me started on Einstein's time machine, or the Fisher King's rebirth in California.

The Bible Repairman is a collection of Mr. Powers' short stories. Although nowhere near the complexity of his novel-length work, these stories share his unique approach to the strange, the magical, and their lurking presence under the mundane. It also includes a novella which forms a sequel, or a coda, to the Stress of Her Regard, featuring Trelawney (a friend of Byron).

His work is not an easy read. His research is deep, and many times I've pulled my head out of one of his books with dozens of unanswered questions. I often get the feeling that if I had an encyclopedic knowledge of history and mythology, I'd be able to follow everything. As it is, I feel I miss something sometimes. The Bible Repairman is no different in that regard.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this.