Category Archives: Evan Braun

What Kind of Year Has It Been?

So what kind of year has it been? A year of transitions—although that may not be saying much since it increasingly seems that all years are transitioning to and from one thing or another. The idea I once held in my imagination of a stable life and career seems more far-fetched every day.

The reality is that I didn’t make much overall progress on my fiction in 2016, although the business of my writing life is a different story. After a four-year absence, I dove back into the convention pond (I attended two, When Words Collide in Calgary, Alberta and World Fantasy in Columbus, Ohio) and emerged with some excellent prospects. I had a very good year in my writing-adjacent day jobs, as a newspaper owner/editor and freelance book editor. I broke ground on a novel which I expect to be my most challenging and ambitious project to date; it’s the sort of project that keeps you up at night for the sheer excitement of plotting it out.

And yet I didn’t actually do very much writing, an ugly truth which I must stare down. In the face of this, it can be small consolation that I’ve greatly strengthened the infrastructure of my life. I must do better in 2017. It’s as simple as that.

Let me talk about those convention appearance, which I came back from energized to produce more and better work. Every time I attend a convention, it solidifies my certainty that there’s a market for my writing. That’s the value of conventions, but they are really hard.

Well, maybe they’re not hard for everyone. For me they’re nigh impossible. Gone are the halcyon days when I went to my first conventions and filled my days with programming. It didn’t take long to realize that the panels are mostly doesn’t come at all naturally to me. You need the ability to walk up to strangers, or near-strangers, and find something to talk about instantly—without seeming needy and pushy. This is quite a tightrope.

Because that’s what you’re there for. You’re generally not there to listen to a panel of novelists talk about the importance of map-making in fantasy literature, nor are you there to listen to well-established professionals wax eloquent about their decades-long careers and the generally pretty unrelatable logistics of publishing fifteen-volume epics. Those are definitely perks, but eventually you’ll realize that those panels are more or less all the same, and they don’t get you from A to B. You could get a similar result from an afternoon browsing YouTube clips.

I spent the first evening of World Fantasy returning periodically to my hotel room to steal precious alone time, breaks from the stress of wandering through the convention halls looking desperately for people to talk to, like a feral animal.

At one point, a friend of mine said to me that most of the people there were just like me and they were wildly faking their smiles and easy-going manners. He pointed out that a majority of writers are probably introverted shut-ins, which explains why they would be attracted to a field where so much of the work happens when you’re, well, very much alone.

But anyway, you don’t spend hundreds (thousands) of dollars on convention fees and airfare and hotel rooms and pub food only if you’re going to actually dive into that pond. So when the second day dawned, I pulled on some swimwear and got wet. The water was excruciatingly cold at first, and only slightly warmer by the end when I finally crawled onto shore like a beached whale, but damn it I came away with a couple of manuscript critiques and some short story anthology opportunities. (One of those opportunities came when an editor inadvertently dumped his entire beer all over me, a soggy mess which ultimately paid off handsomely by weekend’s end.)

It’s not comfortable, and it’s not my favorite part of the job, but I’ve already booked a couple of conventions for 2017 and hopefully it won’t take me so long to acclimate this time.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy Good?

 

Contestant: I’ll take Geek Controversies for $500, Alex.

Alex Trebek: A Smaug-sized question of cinematic taste to tongue-tie any dwarven fellowship of thirteen or less at one’s local ComicCon.

Contestant: Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good?

Alex Trebek: Yes, well done. You are now in the lead.

The Hobbit

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good? Now there’s a hobbit-hole-burner for the ages, and the deeper you’ve burrowed into the gentle slope of Bungo’s figurative Hill, the more fervent your opinion is likely to be. While it’s less fashionable to impinge on the honor of Jackson’s near-hallowed Lord of the Rings trilogy, a plurality of fans have been giving The Hobbit films the side-eye since the first installment premiered. For many, those side-eyes turned to full-fledged eye-rolls by the time the credits faded on the final film two years later.

I prefer to shift to a slightly different but closely related question: was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy a good adaptation? Note that this is different than asking if it’s a faithful adaptation; as many have observed, a faithful adaption would have been… well, much shorter, it’s safe to say. It seems clear to me that Jackson wasn’t so much interested in faithfully adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel as reimagining it as an epic precursor to Lord of the Rings. I doubt there will be many dissenters to that. After all, Tolkien didn’t have the later events clearly established in his mind when he wrote The Hobbit, so the two works aren’t quite as much of the same piece as Jackson might have preferred.

Despite that, were The Hobbit films a good adaptation?

And now we get to the part where there will be more dissention. Deciding whether the films are good adaptations requires you to decide a few things about the original novel. If you have come to the conclusion that Tolkien’s novel is an untouchable classic, one of the high water marks of English literature—nay, of all literature anywhere—then the films must by definition fall short, because even the most charitable reviewer must acknowledge that the films are merely good films, not the high water mark of cinema.

But I’m not sure the book is all that and a bag of lembas bread. (I bet you didn’t know it came in bags.) Don’t get me wrong; I love the book. I have very fond memories of it, going back to my Grade Five year when our teacher guided us through the story chapter by chapter. I’ve read it several times since, and enjoyed each successive re-read.

The thing is, like many books written a long time ago, I’m not sure this book is good by current (modern) standards. Which is certainly not a problem for the book itself, because it must be judged according to its context, and The Hobbit is revolutionary in context with everything that was going on contemporaneous with its release.

But Tolkien makes some rather strange literary choices. Some might go so far as to unkindly call them shortcuts.

Let’s cast an analytic eye to the book’s structure. Bilbo Baggins is the central figure, the eponymous character, the dominating point of view for most of the novel, to the point of eclipsing the other characters with him. You’ve got Gandalf (who disappears midway through and returns only for a cameo at the end), you’ve got Thorin Oakenshield, you’ve got Fili and Kili… and as for the rest of the company (there are 15 of them in total), they are hardly mentioned.

Peter Jackson rightly points out in the supplementary materials that while this can work in literary terms, it’s impossible in filmic terms.

Not to sound too much the Jackson apologist, but he really had no choice but to flesh out the other dwarves as fully as he could, constrained by the fact that the dwarves really aren’t important; they don’t contribute much, and they don’t exert influence on the plot. They seem to have been inserted by Tolkien to serve as a bit of poetry, a literary grace note.

Tolkien was a minimalist. If a character didn’t significantly further the story, he all but erased them from the narrative. Gandalf is important, but the moment he’s not, he’s off to Mirkwood and out of sight; Thorin is a tragic figure, slouching toward his eventual demise (and redemption); and Fili and Kili are likewise destined for death. Sure, there’s Elrond and Gollum and Beorn and Smaug. They serve their purpose and exeunt stage left.

The movie can’t get away with this, so perhaps it overcorrects. Jackson gives us a bustling Hobbiton full of memorable characters. All thirteen dwarves are painted larger than life and given distinctive traits, running gags, and backstories. The small role of Radagast is writ large. Galadriel joins the fun in Rivendell, perhaps unnecessarily—and Saruman, too. The Goblin King wrests the spotlight from our heroes for an extended musical sequence (in fairness, this probably hews closely to Tolkien’s intent). We get a resplendent and scene-stealing Thranduil. Oh look, there’s Legolas! And now an all-new elven maiden named Tauriel who gets an awful lot of screen time. There’s Azog and Bolg, footnotes in the book but major villains fighting for relevance and attention on the big screen. Once we get to Lake-town, whose denizens barely register on the page, we get a host of named characters who demand motivations and personalities on their own. Did I mention Sauron, glaring at us all the while? At last, Dain rides over the hill in undercooked (overcooked?) computer-generated glory.

The oddest of Tolkien’s literary choices/shortcuts is the fact that the entire climactic battle, around which Jackson created a whole movie of its own, is played out in a few pages of exposition, told to Bilbo after he is knocked out in the opening frame. This is the best example of Tolkien getting away with something that no author today could get away with. Some would charitably call it a quirk.

My thesis is basically that Jackson didn’t have a choice but to flesh this all out. I suppose he could have fleshed it out a bit less comprehensively, and delivered two films instead of three. Maybe Galadriel and Saruman stay on the sidelines. Maybe you don’t bother to show Gandalf’s investigation of Sauron. Maybe you resist the urge to bring back Legolas. Maybe you leave out Tauriel and just accept the fact that this movie has no women in it. Maybe Lake-town gets limited only to Bard. Perhaps the extra dwarves are reduced to window dressing.

I contend that several of these choices would have been very bad choices indeed, and every fan is going to pick and choose which of them were most and least essential. Essentially Jackson didn’t pick and choose; he expanded everything, leaving on stone unturned. I don’t think it’s in Jackson’s DNA to do things halfway, and I don’t really blame him for that. (Granted, others do.)

In short, Jackson turned Tolkien’s one-man play into a 50-man ensemble, thus entirely changing the character of the story. But my god, if The Hobbit had been filmed in the same manner it was written, it would almost certainly have been the most baffling film of the modern era.

So the movie is different than the book, a wildly different experience. Is it better? No. But if you’re dead-set on adapting a strange, nigh unadaptable story like The Hobbit, you could do a lot worse. Peter Jackson didn’t give us great movies, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he gave us serviceable ones that at least hold together and stay consistent with his previous work.

And if you can’t have greatness, consistency is a pretty good consolation prize.

The Rewards of Glaciality (Which I Realize Is Not a Word)

Sense8Last summer, I got psyched up about Netflix’s new series, Sense8. I had no idea what it was about—I hadn’t even seen a trailer—but it had J. Michael Straczynki and the Wachowskis at the helm, and that was enough for me to give it a shot. I stayed up until 2:00 a.m., waiting for the show to appear in my Netflix queue. I was strangely drawn to the fact that the cast was mostly composed of people I hadn’t heard of before. After all, when I see Matt Damon onscreen playing a character, I have trouble seeing the character; I see Matt Damon onscreen playing a character. Know what I mean?

Anyway, I watched it all very quickly. Finished it in two and a half days. And then I read the reviews, and to my surprise realized that as a profound admirer of the show I seemed to be in a minority, at least as far as critics were concerned. And usually I’m on the same page as the critical consensus.

Sense8 is so many things to me. It’s beautiful beyond description, mostly. It’s atmospheric. It’s sensual. It’s sexy (I’m looking at you, Episode 6). It’s worldly, global. It’s cosmopolitan. It’s mysterious and coy. It’s haunting. It’s diverse. It’s profoundly moving.

It’s slow.

Glacially

s

l

o

w

.

.

.

Which is awesome! I mean, one of my favourite movies of all time is Meet Joe Black, so obviously I’m not averse to taking my sweet time getting to the point (and even then, perhaps being a bit vague about the point). Sometimes I don’t want something explained; I just want to dig in and experience every aspect and nuance of it.

As the years go by, I value plot less and less. When I read books, I skim right over the battles, the big action scenes. In movies, I drift off to sleep when everyone else’s pulse starts to pound. The setup, and the aftermath—that’s my jam. The long travelogue of meandering from Point A to Point B? The average person may throw their popcorn across the room and stalk out of the theater in frustration; I eat that shit up.

These weren’t always my preferences. So yeah, I admit that this is a surprising trend in my life.

At the heart of Sense8, you have a really powerful and beautiful idea—eight people, waking up slowly, suffering from confusion and long-dawning realization, discovering that they’re connected, that they’re sharing each other’s memories and emotions and experiences. They are strangers and they are intensely familiar.

This series, or at least the first season, is dedicated to exploring the underlying confusion of these eight characters as their very separate and independent lives begin to merge in surprising ways. They come from every corner of the globe, have different passions, different sexualities and gender identities (did I mention this show is diverse?), and they all bring unique skills to the table. And they don’t know what the hell is going on. They’re very slow—realistically slow—to put the pieces together.

And damn if that isn’t a beautiful thing to behold.

It’s a massively complex idea, on a character level. And there are eight main characters to be explored, and just as many interesting side characters. The best novelist would have trouble executing this, never mind a TV series. And if Sense8 wasn’t on Netflix, which is about a hundred times more patient than its broadcast cousins, it wouldn’t exist at all past the pilot.

As you make your way through the show, you realize that the show is not particularly interesting in explaining things. Well, it does explain things occasionally, but it’s never in a hurry to do so. The show knows that as long as it’s turning the spotlight on the characters and their relationships and interactions, and their inner struggles and emotions, it’s on solid ground.

But if you need plot bleeding from your every pore, Sense8 may not be for you. It’s character first. Character, character, character, and more character. So much character that you almost can’t stand it.

In a world of brainless action flicks, it’s pretty refreshing.

P.S. I also adore The Leftovers. Which is, now that I think of, Sense8’s spiritual sibling. It evokes very similar reactions in me, critics, and the overall TV-viewing audience.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.

The Ultimate Philosopher King

Picard3Jean-Luc Picard is the ultimate philosopher king (but this guy is a close second). The term “philosopher king” is thrown around quite a bit, but let me take you back to its origins. Plato wrote, in Republic:

Until philosophers rule as kings… that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide… cities will have no rest from evils… there can be no happiness, either public or private. (Encylopaedia Britannica)

And then, later:

…[the] true pilot must of necessity pay attention to… the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft if he is really to rule a ship. (Wikipedia)

In other words, Plato was saying that a community—or entire civilization—could not flourish or eliminate human vice, until those in power embraced wisdom, science, philosophy… and I think diplomacy probably fits well into that same category.

Well, I’m not sure it’s possible to read that and not think immediately of Gene Roddenberry’s revised Star Trek premise. When he developed The Next Generation in the mid-1980s, he conceived of a future a hundred years further along than Kirk and company, one in which no human vice existed in any form. It’s much more utopian in perspective than the original series, which contained, along with its high-minded notions of equality and diversity and peaceful coexistence, its fair share of fisticuffs. In The Next Generation, there were almost no fisticuffs to be glimpsed. Instead, problems were solved almost universally around a conference table, in long meetings presided over by a true philosopher king, with a crack team of scientists (and even a psychologist advisor) at his right hand.

(The ubiquity of The Next Generation’s endless meetings has been soundly mocked over the years, but I confess that I actually like them. I’ll take a serious philosophical discussion over thrown punches any day—both in real life and in my fiction.)

I think I fell in love with Jean-Luc Picard from the first moment I laid eyes on him. I admire his rationalism, his steadfastness, his urgency, his fairness, and his willingness to dialogue. He doesn’t have all the answers, but that’s okay because he doesn’t solve problems by himself; he surrounds himself with smart, qualified professionals who help him understand things. In one episode, literally moments before his ship is about to explode, as the bridge is shaking apart around him, he looks to his crew and barks, “Suggestions!” There is no crisis too great or urgent for a conference.

Picard can often be seen reading works of high literature; in a world of PADDs and digital technology (or should I say isolinear?), he still holds paper books in his hands. He appreciates art and sculpture. Again and again, he is shown to value theatre. He is a musician himself, and he often listens to opera and classical music. He attends concerts and poetry readings. He is also a scientific man, deeply rooted in history and archaeology. He speaks several languages. And perhaps most of all, he is a peacekeeper, a diplomat who brings opposing sides together and negotiates compromises.

Picard is a man of passions, but he is not governed by passion. In his romantic entanglements, few and far between (and always carefully considered), he is never depicted as falling head over heels. He is not subject to whims. Nor does he use sex or romance as a weapon or tactic.

I’m not sure a character like Picard would be so readily loved or admired anymore in the same way he was in the 80s and 90s. Picard is almost too perfect, too boring in our world of antiheroes and villainous protagonists. He is emotionally stable, and he rarely succumbs to errors in judgment, and when he does he acknowledges them and learns from the experience. All the same, when imbued with Patrick Stewart’s gravitas and intellect, Picard is awfully compelling.

He is the respected leader we all want to follow, a powerful figure when compared to the corrupt politicians and corporate executives we see everywhere in the here and now.

Indeed, he is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Plato would have been proud.

Evan BraunEvan Braun is an author and editor who has been writing books for more than ten years. He is the author of The Watchers Chronicle, a completed trilogy. In addition to writing science fiction, he is the managing editor of The Niverville Citizen. He lives in Niverville, Manitoba.