Dead Not Dead – a Trope that Needs to Die

This article contains spoilers for Jurassic Park, The Rise of Skywalker and The Last Emporex. You’ve been warned.

There’s a trope that appears in fiction that drives me crazy, but I’m not sure I don’t violate it myself. So let’s deal with some examples, then I’ll let you know what I’m trying and you can decide if I’m being hypocritical.

Many years ago, I read Jurassic Park before I saw the movie. There’s a mid-point in the story that everyone knows: the T-Rex attacks the jeeps for the first time. In the book, the narration keeps shifting perspective so that you never see the attack from the person being attacked, but from the eyes of someone else present. Because of this slight of hand, Crichton appears to have killed off four or five people, including the children.

At that point in the book, I thought, “wow, what a brave writer, killing the kids!” Of course they weren’t dead. He spent the next fifty or so pages revisiting the scene to explain how just about everyone you thought he’d killed actually lived (except the lawyer).

I was so disappointed.

Fast forward to 2019 and what would turn out to be a very disappointing end to the Skywalker saga. The Rise of Skywalker contained a scene at around the forty minute mark where we believe that Rey has accidentally killed Chewie.

Hey it was the last episode in the series, and Chewie had been killed once in Star Wars canon already (now “legend” and no longer canon) so why not be bold and do that? I was thrilled to see that moment with all its emotional impact on both the audience and Rey. Not two minutes later we learn that was on a different ship. Yep, he was dead, not dead.

I love Chewie, and feel that The Force Awakens was the best presentation of him as a character, but killing him in The Rise of Skywalker would have given so much more weight to the fact that this was truly the end of the journey, that everything was on the line (Esquire agrees).

To the present: So I’ve been reading John Scalzi’s The Last Emperox, the final book in the Interdependency trilogy. I honestly haven’t enjoyed it as much as the first book, and have been struggling to complete it. Then, Scalzi “kills” the second female lead. I was skeptical. He doesn’t often kill off characters, they tend to have too much plot armour*.

Sure enough, two chapters later, she’s alive. Her enemies have conspired to fake her death and kidnap her, although exactly why doesn’t seem to be clear or sensical.

Now, a little further into the book (I haven’t finished it yet) Scalzi appears to have killed off the lead female protagonist. I’m skeptical about this one, too**. She’d just been talking with a shape-shifting AI about giving it a more prominent role in the current crisis. Her funeral was a closed casket, Scalzi makes sure to emphasize this.

Yeah, I’d bet dollars to donuts that she’s not dead either.

And I’m getting tired of this.

– – –

Now let’s look at what I’ve done and see if I’m not the biggest hypocrite going.

Two of my second tier characters, let’s call them T and M, get kidnapped by a ruthless enemy. One, M, is graphically tortured in front of the other, T, dying gruesomely for the pleasure of said enemy. That enemy then looks at T and says, “you’re next.”

We never see or hear about T’s fate after that. Nobody even claims that he’s dead. He’s just missing, lost, presumed dead. However, in the sequel we learn that he was never tortured, but kept prisoner to be used as a bargaining chip.

I don’t think this fulfills the “Dead Not Dead” trope because he’s never seen as dead, just threatened with a very powerful existential threat of death by torture.

What do you think, am I being a hypocrite?

——

* Plot armour is the trope that you can’t kill the star of the show, no matter how grave the danger appears to be. It’s very common in episodic TV shows, and when violated, like the death of Lt. Col. Henry Blake in M*A*S*H, can be shocking.

** I’ve finished the book. No spoilers for this ending, as the book’s only been out a few months. The more I think about it the less I like the twist.

“Real” Writer vs Imposter Syndrome

Alien invasion by Flame Tree Publishing
I’m in this book

I’ve been writing for most of my life. That’s a number of decades, if you can’t tell from my profile picture. In grade school I told my teacher I wanted to write and direct a play. She gave me the go-ahead, but I never finished the play and it never happened.

In secondary school I started drawing my own comic books – more vignettes than full fledged stories. Our school didn’t have a newspaper, and frankly yearbook seemed less about creativity than sentimentality, so I avoided that too.

Then came university… Our newspaper wasn’t particularly open or inviting to people who weren’t part of the clique. So I started my own very sarcastic one-page newsletter, published whenever the mood struck me. That might be once or three times per week. It turned out that the school newspaper was making enough enemies that another group started a second newspaper, and one of the founders sought me out about joining it, as he’d enjoyed my one sheet newsletter. So I became an associate editor of a new newspaper, wrote sarcastic editorials, news stories, short fiction, and learned all about desktop publishing, back when it was new. Eventually I became the editor. Along the way, I also wrote and directed a play (finally). It ran for five or six performances over four days (I’m not sure if there was a Sunday matinee). It sold out the Friday, Saturday and Sunday night performances. And I started two different novels, both conceived as epics, one fantasy, one space opera.

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

I’ve written a play, some short fiction, many editorials and a poem or twelve. I’ve got two trunk novels in my desk and a bunch more under development. After university, I went on to be the editor of a weekly entertainment newspaper, a copywriter for hire, and a communications manager for an educational charity. I’ve had big name clients (think pharmaceutical companies, expensive cars, large financial institutions).

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

SpecklitI’ve had six very short stories published on a curated website, and one longer short story included in an anthology published in the UK.

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

So why do I keep saying this? Because I suffer from imposter syndrome as much as the next writer. And it sucks.

I don’t feel like a real writer. I feel like a wanna-be. A friend of mine recently said of my writing career, “It’s really more of a hobby, isn’t it?” I don’t think she knows how much that hurt.

Book in book store
For sale in my favourite bookstore!

I can counterbalance that with an experience I had last year. The UK anthology that contains one of my stories showed up for sale in my local bookstore here in Malaysia. There it is, a book with my story in it, for sale to anyone who walks in. I almost cried (seriously) it was such a re-affirming experience. Hell, that one story also got me entered into the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

So I must be a writer, a real writer.

Why don’t I always feel like it?

Fever Dreams

It all started with open-heart surgery.

Yes, an odd spot to start. I was the recipient of that surgery. Afterwards, lying in the ICU recovery room, a very uncomfortable tube stuck down my throat, I started dreaming, perhaps hallucinating.

In this dream was a young man, looking like a cross between Harry Potter and Matt Smith’s Doctor Who.

Tonally, it was kind of Peter Pan for twenty-year-olds. It was innocent and playful, and just a little bit naughty. Other stories that I could compare it to would be The Magic School Bus and Carmen Santiago, with some Terry Pratchett mixed in.

He was walking on air, feet not touching the ground, spouting weird little limericks and other poetry-stubs. A lot of them were about how Meghan Markle is misunderstood. Some of them were about her blonde friend. I tried to remember them, I did, but I had no writing utensils, no digital tools to record what was unfolding in my mind.

The tighter I tried to hold onto the memories, the more they slipped away (or were replaced by a new one). The common denominator was that they were irreverent and fun. As much as I can’t remember the details, I remember the feeling it gave me.

And in my head, there was a word: Spybrarian.

One of the first things I did after being discharged from the hospital was to register spybrarian.com. Then I started writing down anything I could remember, but so much of it was lost.

I may not be a good enough writer to capture the fanciful tone and fantastical elements of my fever dream, but I hope I am a good enough writer to recreate, as best I can, what it made me feel. And, of course, they won’t be about Meghan Markel. Instead they will be about his interactions with two women, a blonde historian and her friend who has a passing resemblance to Meghan.

Character Intro: Char Osbaldistan

I doubt it’s a surprise that I’m working on a book. I’m actually working on a lot of them – a duology, a stand-alone novel, a novella and a five-novella sequence. Oh, and a few short stories, too.

The five-book sequence follows the crew of a ship as they get into a series of escalating adventures. I’d like to introduce one member of the crew here. Her name is Char Osbaldistan, and when we meet her here (in a flashback), she’s a smuggler, freshly captured by the Interplanetary Union (IU). But when we actually meet her in-universe, she’s a full-fledged member of an IU crew.

Char was first mentioned (but not seen) in the short story Dee, For the Win which you can read here.

Let’s meet Char Osbaldistan:

It was an office, why an office, Char didn’t know. Usually court rooms looked more like, well, court rooms and not offices. Yet there he was the tired old magistrate sitting behind a pompous desk, flanked by an inquisitor. The room was plush, velvet and wood against gold highlights. It spoke of power and authority, order and rigidity.

The inquisitor spoke first. “How many identities do you have? Your ship … what’s it’s name?”

“Why do you ask?” Char chafed against her bindings. There was a very comfortable chair in front of her, but sitting in it like this would be awkward.

“Your ship, for one, appears to have four different registrations.” Char bit back a smile – there were seven, but they’d only found four. That was good.

“For the record, what is your ship’s name?”

“What do you want it to be?”

“Don’t play with me, girl.” The judge’s contempt spoke of impatience. So, time to go slow.

“Woman. Twenty-seven. Clearly, I’m a woman.”

“I have grandchildren your age, child.” The judge dismissed her response with a wave of his hand.

“Still, woman.”

“You, yourself,” The inquisitor ignored the exchange, “appear to have five different identities, all of whom,” He spoke in an aside to the judge, “pay taxes, by the way.”

“Seriously?” Char always left the money laundering part of the operations to the experts. All she knew was that she got paid her share, and it was a nice share.

“Yes, it’s an efficient way to look legitimate – pay taxes on income earned from fictitious jobs to cover that it was actually earned illicitly.” As if he needed to explain it to her. No, he was stating it for the record. This was being recorded, surreptitiously.

“I pay my taxes. Still, you arrest me?”

“You pay taxes for five people, at least four of whom are fake. Before we finish, you will tell us exactly how and from whom you got those identities.”

She chuckled. “Probably not.”

“What’s with her ship?” The judge asked.

“It’s a little planetary system slug modified with a hyper drive.” The inquisitor read from a note screen. “Slugs are everywhere, working boats that might move cargo pods, align construction segments, move a hulk around. They often hitch rides with cargo carries from one system to the next. It’s so common, and so universal, that a new one in a star system would never raise suspicions. It’s the perfect smuggling vehicle.” He turned back to Char.

“From your vessel’s logs, we’ve learned that you’ve worked in the Hadriatik Republic, the Triple Alliance, the Non-aligned territories and around Melakka. The ship’s history appears to suggest that it originated in Melakka, which would tie you to the identification of Char Osbaldistan.” The inquisitor nodded toward the judge. “Thus we have determined that for the purposes of this hearing, you will be identified as such. Miss Osbaldistan, do you object?”

“Of course.”

“Then what name would you prefer?”

“No, any name will do. I object to being captured. I object to being tried. I object to my ship being confiscated. I object to it being the bloody useless Interplanetary Union that arrested me and not some respectable government. This isn’t a real judiciary, you have no authority. This is a kangaroo court.”

“Char Osbaldistan, you’re charged with illegal operation of a vehicle, four counts of impersonation, smuggling, piracy and theft. You will learn to respect this court’s authority and you will do so quickly.”

“Oh, please.”

“What?”

“You want me, you want people in general, to respect your authority? You don’t know the difference between smuggling and piracy.”

“Both act outside of the law.”

“So does speeding. You don’t equate it to piracy … bloody kangaroo court, full of amateurs.”

— 30 —

Books You Hate

stacked books

Have you ever been so disgusted with a book — the story, the editing, the whatever — that you’ve felt the desire to chuck the book against a wall? I have. As a reader, I’m annoyed, dissatisfied. As a writer, it’s an interesting lesson on what can go wrong, and pulls on the fear that maybe I won’t see the problem.

I’ll give you examples, but I’m not going to name names. In both cases, the book was traditionally published, and the author is a respected writer in their genre. Continue reading “Books You Hate”

Walking away from a sale

typewriter

The hardest thing for a new writer to do is to walk away from a sale. I should know, I just did it.

I sent a short story to an anthology. They accepted it. The money offered is not much, but then again, I’m not a ‘name’ writer (yet!). The exposure, or at least having another publication to list, was worth the money.

Then the contract arrived. Continue reading “Walking away from a sale”

Spice World – the seminal Dune story

Dune trilogy covers

Everyone knows Dune (you do, don’t you? If not, why are you here?), and if you’ve even given this blog a cursory glance, you know that lately I’ve been obsessing about Dune more than a little.

I happened to chance onto a book called The Road to Dune in a local second-hand book store (I live in Malaysia. English is not the first language here, so it was a find). Within this book, along with deleted or early draft scenes from Dune and Dune Messiah, was a novella called Spice World. Continue reading “Spice World – the seminal Dune story”

Writers I’ve Known and Their Books

William Kamkwamba is probably the best selling author I?ve known. He was a student at African Leadership Academy back when I was the Communications Manager. He made my live very interesting. His memoir, The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind became a big hit in 2009, leading him to make appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Good Morning America, appearances with Mitch Albom and Tavis Smiley, and many other news programs. Since he was a student at our school, I managed his time vis-a-vis his publicity and his school work, acting as the gatekeeper, often having to refuse requests (sorry, Sky News. One day you?ll forgive me like CNN did.). I don?t know that I learned a lot about the publishing industry from this experience, but I certainly saw the hustle that an author goes through to promote a book, especially a bestseller.

Back in the 1990s, I was the editor of a small weekly entertainment paper called ?Spotlight Magazine.? One of our writers, Michelle McColm, was documenting the process that she went through as an adoptee reuniting with her birth parents. The book is still available on Amazon although I think it?s out of print. Through Michelle, i got to see the author?s journey, specifically the edits and galleys that the publisher sent late in the process for final sign-off. It was invigorating to actually hold those.

More recently I?ve been hanging out (or more often, lurking) in an online community run by Janet Reid, a literary agent. Among the readers of her blog (or ?Reiders?) are a number published or self-published authors.

The community has recently been very excited because long-time contributor Donna Everhart?s first novel, The Education of Dixie Dupree has just been released. It?s been picked by Amazon as a book of the month, and other reviewers are giving it rave reviews. Donna recently recapped much of her journey on her site.

This isn?t the site?s only published writer. A month earlier, Heidi Wessman Kneale published The White Feather. W.R. Gingell seems prolific. Her book Masque has one of the best covers I?ve seen in a self-published book. Another writer, Anne Belov, writes stories about pandas, and has a few books out. Susan Pogorzelski recently published her second book, The Last Letter, about living wiht Lyme disease.

As much as writing happens alone, writers build communities, share experiences and listen to each others? challenges.