Revisiting the Need to Change the World

A few years ago, off the back of reading N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, I wrote about whether stories that involve magic that are set in the “real world” need to have a meaningful impact on that world.

I had started thinking about that issue thanks to an observation by a legal blogger (of all people!) about Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in which he concluded that:

it therefore strains credulity to believe that powerful sorcerers have been around for centuries, yet have never revealed themselves to normal humans, seized political power, or had any impact on history.

As I said in my post, I’ve wrestled with this in developing (or not) some of my own ideas. If the story is set in our world, but with magic, shouldn’t magic change things?

I was set to thinking about this again after reading R.F. Kuang’s Babel, which is up for a Hugo.

Babel is set in an alternate history version of England (for the most part) of the early Victorian era, just on the verge of the First Opium War in China. The main characters are training as “translators” at Oxford who practice a form of magic whereby they engrave pairs of words on silver bars that are then used to do particular things. Some of them are completely magical – there’s one that explodes someone’s heart, for example, and another that can heal the sick. Most of them, however, merely make things that already work do so more smoothly and efficiently – carriages travel more smoothly, gardens are more pleasurable, factories require fewer employees, etc.

For our purposes, what all this means is that the British Empire is precisely the same thing that it was in our real history – a globe-spanning colossus that exploited its colonial territories and other weaker, developing nations for fun and profit. There’s nothing about the world of Babel, in broad strokes, that is different from our world. Does that matter? Is it a flaw in Kuang’s world building?

At one time I would have said it was, or at least leaned that way, and you can certainly find reviewers on Goodreads who find that to be a major flaw. But I think what Kuang has done is use the fantasy element to crystalize the themes she wanted to talk about that are very real in our world and our history, namely colonialism and its legacy. In Babel the raw silver needed to fuel the magic works almost like spice does in Dune, a purely extractive industry conducted in a faraway place for the benefit of entrenched, moneyed interests back home. Sure, the actual silver trade did that, too, but the magical gloss heightens the inequity of it.

Could Babel have told the same story without the magic? A few specifics would have to change, but in general, sure it could have. It’s a book about a character who at first thinks he’s been plucked from a dead-end life to live a life of learning and privilege who slowly learns what that privilege is based upon and rebels against it. Magic isn’t required for that, but it doesn’t hurt, either. There’s also the possibility, of course, that what Kuang is saying is that whatever resource we’re talking about, including magic, was going to fall into the service of the most wealthy and powerful anyway, which is not wrong.

In my conclusion back in 2020 I suggested that writers are leaving some interesting ideas on the table by not playing out the impacts of their world’s fantastical things on the world as we know it. I still think that’s true, largely, but I’ve come to accept a caveat – that, sometimes, what you’re after isn’t a big world building “what if?” exercise and trying to do so would just take away from the story you’re trying to tell. As usual, the focus should be on what best serves the character and the story, not anybody else’s idea of how world building should be done.


Weekly Watch: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Sometimes the ideas the animate a movie are better than the movie itself.

As with many films of the 1930s-1960s I’ve seen recently, I stumbled into The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on Turner Classic Movies.

Not only that, it was part of a slate of movies programmed by Steven Spielberg, so there was a little intro discussion between he and Ben Mankiewicz about the film. It was the last of the great westerns directed by John Ford (a huge influence on Spielberg, among others) and they talked about how it confronted issues about the transition of the West as a conflict between an older regime built on violence and self-sufficiency to a new order based on the rule of law. As a lawyer, and someone with a degree in history, that sounded like something I should just eat up. Damned if the actual movie didn’t get in the way of that.

The “old” West is represented by none other than John Wayne, whose performance here spawned a million impressions punctuated by the word “pilgrim.” He plays a rancher, Tom Doniphon, who has made a hardscrabble living out of the land and thinks everyone needs to be capable of using a gun to protect themselves (he is, naturally, a crack shot). The “new” West is represented by Jimmy Stewart as Ransom Stoddard, a lawyer from the east who believes in bringing civilization to the West. They go back and forth about the best way to handle the titular Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), a local brigand who furthers the interests of big cattle ranchers who don’t want the unnamed territory to become a state.

That setup is fine so far as it goes, but Ford doesn’t really do a lot with it in the end. Stoddard’s stagecoach is robbed on its way into town by Valance. When Stoddard complains to the town marshal about it he dodges responsibility by pointing out that it occurred outside of town and therefore outside of his jurisdiction. But we later see Valance do all sorts of criminal things right in the middle of town and not only does the marshal do nothing, Stoddard never demands that he do so. Stoddard never tries to take the job and be the law. Hell, we never actually see him practicing any kind of law in the movie (he does some school teaching, though). No, what does Stoddard do? He pretty quickly gets himself a gun and starts practicing how to shoot.

It’s no great spoiler that Valance winds up on the wrong end of a gun (it’s right there in the title, people), although it’s a little unclear precisely who “the man who shot Liberty Valance” is, in the end. Both Doniphon (from the shadows, we later learn) and Stoddard shot AT him, but it’s unclear who hits him and which shot is the fatal one. Regardless, what is beyond clear is that Stoddard fully joins in the game of dealing with Valance through violence, leaving any real pretense of the law behind. And it’s Stoddard who gets the honor of being that man, even if he doesn’t really want it (which is a really interesting conflict that could have been explored more deeply).

So the movie kind of fizzles in its portray of the “old” versus “new” West, but how is it otherwise? Well, it’s a tale of two movies.

The first, which focuses on the leads – Wayne, Stewart, Marvin, and Vera Miles as the love interest – is pretty good. All those performances are good and the have good scenes together. Marvin, in particular, is really menacing as Valance (and has a young Lee Van Cleef as a sidekick). The love triangle between Stoddard, Doniphon, and Miles’ character is underbaked (Doniphon is building an addition onto his house for her, but she doesn’t have any apparent desire to move in), but, hey.

The other movie is the weirdest feast of overacting I’ve ever seen. There are multiple characters – the Cowardly-Lion-esque town marshal, the drunk town doctor, the (also drunk) newspaper publisher – who perform so broadly that had they wandered off this set onto the one for Blazing Saddles Mel Brooks would have told them to tone it down. If you’ve seen the episode of Futurama where Zoidberg’s uncle directs a “serious” movie but demands that the background actors run around throwing pies at each other, you’ve got the picture. Big ideas can be great drivers of a story, and fiction can be a fantastic way to explore how people grapple with those big ideas. But the idea is not the story. The story is the characters in it, what they do, and why they do it. The biggest and most important idea can be felled by a poorly executed story. That’s what’s the most frightening for us creative types – the big ideas are the easy part, but there’s so much left to do once you’ve hit on one.

When Copyright Kills

A couple of weeks ago John Oliver pointed out that the original version of Mickey Mouse is about to slip into the public domain and out of copyright control. Naturally, he has plans for this, but it’s worth remembering that the last time Steamboat Willie was in danger of passing out of copyright control Congress snapped into action and extended the term for copyright protection. I haven’t seen anything indicating they’re going to do it again, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea was at least floated (probably without success, given the current GOP jihad against Disney), particularly given what’s happened to poor Winnie-the-Pooh.

As a writer and musician I’m a fan of copyright. The basic idea is that allowing the producers of art to have a monopoly on its sale and distribution incentivizes the creation of more art. But there’s always been a question of how much copyright is too much and when works should move into the public domain and be free for adaptation by others. The Copyright Act of 1790 established a 14-year copyright term, renewable for another 14 years, but those terms were doubled in the 19th century. Then between 1976 and 1998 (when The Mouse roared) terms ballooned to the current life of the author plus 70 years or 120 years if a it was created by a corporation. So in the brief life of the United States we’ve gone from copyright that expired while the creator was not only still living but probably still creating to a term that runs for decades.

Weird things happen when copyright terms run so long that they outstrip the lives of the work’s creators. Recently there’s been controversy about changes to books by the likes of Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie to better reflect modern sensibilities (I talked a bit about the issue here). What’s interesting is that both authors made such changes in their lifetimes, presumably without much fuss. What makes it seem wrong now is that it’s not the authors making the changes but their current copyright holders, who didn’t create a thing. Without lengthy copyright terms that extend beyond the lives of those authors this wouldn’t be an issue – anybody who wanted to could publish the original versions or whatever bowdlerized versions they wanted.

Thanks to this in-depth video, I recently learned about another problematic case of long-term copyright. Remember “Down Under,” by Men at Work? Particularly the flute riff that repeats several times during the song? 

Released in 1981 it was a huge international hit, hitting number one in the US and UK. It wasn’t until 2007 when a TV quiz show noticed that part of the flute part matches almost perfectly the melody of “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gumtree,” a popular Australian song. After the show aired, people called the company that held the copyright to “Kookaburra” about the similarities, resulting in a lawsuit against Men at Work and their record company for infringement. The company won, a result which Colin Hay has suggested helped speed flautist Greg Ham’s depression and death (Ham played the famous riff, but wasn’t actually one of the listed songwriters).

What makes the “Down Under” story so concerning is that this wasn’t a situation of the writer of “Kookaburra” herself, or even her descendants, making the claim, it was a company that bought the rights at auction after her death. It was purely a commercial maneuver and could not have contributed in any way to encouraging the writer to create more art (her being dead, after all). And while the riff has become fairly iconic, it’s hardly essential to the song, providing a little bit of extra flavor in the arrangement.

Questions on the persistence of copyright always bring me back to Spider Robinson’s Hugo-award winning story “Melancholy Elephants.” It’s that rarest of beasts, a sci-fi story about the law. In this case, it’s about a proposed law that would extend copyrights indefinitely, and the widow of a famous composer beseeches a legislator to not pass the bill – even though it would financially benefit her. She makes the point that there are only so many combinations of notes, rhythms and such out there (echolyn’s “Suite for the Everyman” covers this with sections titled “Only Twelve” and “Twelve’s Enough,” respectively) and if they’re all placed off limits for future composers people will eventually stop making new music.

The same is true for stories, whether they’re written in books or told on screens. New writers often worry about sharing ideas for stories, unaware that pretty much no “idea” is new. What makes a story worth writing is what you want to say with it, not what others have already said. Not only has Romeo and Juliet given birth to adaptations as diverse as West Side Story, a ballet, and a Dire Straits song (which produced its own amazing Indigo Girls cover!) – it was based on a history of similar stories dating back centuries. The idea of Romeo and Juliet was not new – Shakespeare’s presentation of it was.

It was Picasso who said “good artists borrow, great artists steal” – and even that wasn’t an original thought. That’s probably a bit flippant, but the core of it is true. Every creative person is the sum of their influences, the things they’ve read, heard, or seen. Placing those things eternally off limits will do more to stifle that kind of creativity than it will to encourage creators to create in the first place. Killing off creative endeavors altogether is probably too high a price to pay for some author’s grandchildren being able to live of their book sales.

As in nearly all things, balance is key. It’s just that I’m not sure we’re particularly well balanced at the moment.