The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3. Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression: As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader. Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos. At present, the electronic book, and the ingenious online retailing machine perfected by Mr. Bezos, are blowing up the assumption that books are physical objects and (as such) governed by the particular economic laws that obtain in conditions of limited supply. Electronic books are not in limited supply; electrons are far more abundant than readers, and even electronic computers are cheap and plentiful enough to stay ahead of any conceivable demand for books. The wise old publishers who built their business on controlling and restricting the limited supply of paper books, and the limited shelf space in the bookshops, are falling now like new hay before the scythe. Their whole training and temperament, which made them such able buccaneers under the old system, completely unfits them to survive in the new. They still have not seen what hit them; they are only just beginning to realize that they have been hit. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, while printing was relatively cheap, paper was an expensive commodity. It was made mostly from waste linen, and consequently, the quantity of paper manufactured could never exceed the quantity of linen that was thrown away. (You could make paper directly from flax fibres; but it was much cheaper to let the linen industry use the flax first, and buy up the worn-out linen afterwards.) Men and women made a decent, if undignified, living as rag-pickers – the recyclers of their time. Ragpickers scavenged all kinds of useful stuff from the rubbish-heaps of the world, but their chief stock in trade was linen rags for the paper trade: hence the name of their profession. So long as the supply of paper was limited in this way, books remained a luxury; literacy for the masses, a pipe-dream. In the 1840s, separately but almost simultaneously, two men invented machines for turning wood into a fibrous pulp. One was a German, F. G. Keller; the other a Canadian, Charles Fenerty. This wood pulp, it turned out, could be used to make paper almost as good as linen-rag paper, and much cheaper. For a few years before this, a few small firms in London had been turning out cheap pamphlets containing lurid adventure stories for a mostly working-class audience. The new pulp paper allowed the pamphlets to be printed by the millions, and ‘pulp fiction’ was born. When The String of Pearls appeared, the usual thing was to release a novel in weekly instalments, and charge (in England) a penny for each issue. The stories were not chosen for highfalutin literary quality; they were written to please a large and not very sophisticated audience. The English upper classes ignored the new medium. The middle classes, who feared anything that might diminish their advantages over the working class, hated it and sneered at it, dismissing all stories so told as ‘dreadful’. This was a calumny. As Theodore Sturgeon would certainly have said, nine-tenths of the penny serials were crap; but then, nine-tenths of the expensive books favoured by the middle classes were crap. The real sin of the penny dreadfuls was not that they were bad stories, but that they brought printed books within the reach of the Lower Orders. Half a century later, a great moral crusade swept Britain like a new broom. The crusaders were filled with a high and holy desire to cleanse the culture of the (alleged) low morals and (admitted) sensationalism of the penny dreadfuls. The dreadfuls were blamed for every social evil from beer-drinking to Jack the Ripper. In much the same way, in the following century, heavy metal lyrics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and teen suicide. If this high and holy desire was mixed up with an even stronger desire to make a quick buck – well, that was a point that the crusaders liked people to overlook. In the 1890s, Alfred Harmsworth led the crusade to victory. He began by putting out clean, moral, sermonizing stories for a halfpenny; and when the public ignored these, he put out lurid and sensational stories for the same halfpenny, and made a fortune. As A. A. Milne put it, ‘Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.’ One of G. K. Chesterton’s early essays was ‘A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls’, in which he declared firmly: ‘Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.’ He went on to say, with a scorn worthy of Jonathan Swift:
But instead of basing all discussion of the problem upon the common-sense recognition of this fact – that the youth of the lower orders always has had and always must have formless and endless romantic reading of some kind, and then going on to make provision for its wholesomeness – we begin, generally speaking, by fantastic abuse of this reading as a whole and indignant surprise that the errand-boys under discussion do not read The Egoist and The Master Builder.
What working-class readers, especially young boys, wanted was vicarious adventure. They liked a good ripping yarn well told; but if they had to choose between a ripping yarn badly told and a dull, insipid story well told, they would take the ripping yarn every time. Young girls were more likely to go in for vicarious love-affairs. In Victorian times, both kinds of cheap fiction, the adventure stories and the love stories, were called ‘Romantic’; but by an accident of linguistic drift, the label of ‘romance’ is now applied to the second kind only. The penny dreadfuls were replaced as the dominant form of working-class fiction by the ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’. It was Harmsworth’s company, the Amalgamated Press, that published The Gem and The Magnet, in which most of Charles Hamilton’s school stories appeared. The paper shortage of the Second World War killed those papers, along with most of the dime pulp magazines that were their American counterparts. They in turn were replaced partly by paperback books, and partly by television; and the mass-market paperback, these last few years, has been largely replaced by electronic books. Each of these forms, in turn, has been subjected to the same withering scorn, accompanied by the same hysterical predictions of the Downfall of Western Civilization. The ‘cultured’ middle classes, it would appear, want a monopoly of culture; the thought that the poor might have a culture, and that it might be a different culture from that of the bourgeoisie, fills them with horror and alarm. At any rate, it produces horror and alarm among the media moguls and bohemian artists who mass-produce the stuff that is sold as bourgeois culture. The actual bourgeoisie, from what I know of them, do not much care, and take their fun wherever they please. They do not take very much of their fun by reading the stuff that the moguls and bohemians call ‘literary’. Literary Fiction is not literature; it is a publishing category, less profitable than most, but marketed with greater cynicism. The average publisher’s attitude towards Westerns or space operas or ‘nursy novels’ is roughly, ‘It’s trash, but it sells, and who am I to question that?’ But the same publisher’s attitude towards Literary Fiction is an interesting combination of fetish-worship and humbug. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century (it is hard to imagine it now) it was impossible to get a degree in English from any university in an English-speaking country. The proper job of a university was to teach the old-fashioned liberal arts, solidly rooted in the Classics – in Greek and Latin literature. The general opinion among academics was that the English language and English literature were not difficult enough to be taught at the university level. To give a degree in English to a native English-speaker was a foolish notion; you did not get a B.A. for learning things you were supposed to know already. Linguistics and philology, on the other hand, were considered highly suitable subjects for university study. Both those fields were fresh and fascinating then. It was only in 1786 that the philologist William Jones founded Indo-European linguistics with this shrewd observation:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
If it was proper to study Latin and Greek at university, why, it must also be proper to study Sanskrit, Gothic, and other ancient languages – Old and Middle English among them. There was a surge of interest in the history of languages; in how one language changed by degrees into another, or gave birth to many daughter languages, as Latin gave birth to the Romance tongues. And what better way to study those ancient languages than to read and interpret their literature, if any survived? So the degree program in English language was born. At Oxford, the most prestigious English-language university, that meant studying English and its literature up to the time of Chaucer – roughly the tail end of Middle English. But it was clear that the language and literature of later times were still of scholarly interest, and difficult enough (though this point was long disputed) to justify the award of an Oxford B.A. So the degree in English literature came into being: a sort of poor cousin at first, quickly growing into a bumptious nouveau riche. For the ‘English Lit’ curriculum proved hugely popular among students – partly because it was interesting to them, and partly, alas, because it was easier than fussing about with dusty old books like Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The professors of the Classics department (and ‘English Lang’ as well) shook their old grey heads in disapproval; but the thing had been done and they could not well go back. But the professors of the new discipline keenly felt their lack of scholarly stature. If you could study Shakespeare at Oxford, why, you might study any kind of low trash – even penny dreadfuls! The new professors urgently needed some material to give their field cachet – to make it look as difficult, and therefore as important, as Latin, Greek, or Anglo-Saxon. This brings us down to about 1900: a time when the arts generally were in wild ferment. Painters were taking up Impressionism and Cubism; composers were flirting with atonality; the recent toy of photography, and the brand-new toy of the cinema, were claiming places as arts in their own right. Literature was no exception. East of the Atlantic, Henrik Ibsen broke with centuries of tradition by writing plays in prose, in at least an approximation of everyday language. To the west, William Dean Howells was spending fantastic sums of money to publish and promote stories about everyday life, from which every trace of wonder and adventure had carefully been expunged. These new literary movements ran together and acquired the name of Modernism. And Modernism, it turned out, was exactly what the English Lit professors wanted. The central message of Modernist fiction is that life is empty and the best thing a man can do is go and hang himself. This is an exaggeration, of course; but it fairly describes some of the most praised Modernist stories, and it exactly explains why most of the reading public found such literature revolting and rebelled against it. This, too, was to the professors’ liking. Modernism evidently was an acquired taste, shared only by the intellectual élite; and who better to help people acquire that taste than an English Lit professor? So with almost unseemly haste, the likes of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf were recruited into the curriculum. Before this change, ‘Literature’ (with a capital L) meant the Great Books out of the past, the books that had endured and helped to form the permanent bedrock of Western culture. But James, Wharton, and Woolf had not endured yet; they had not been subjected to the test of time. So the professors had to change the meaning of the word. This they did by a subterfuge. Most ordinary people had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Classics. Most ordinary people positively loathed the ‘highbrow’ Modernist fiction. To include them both, the professors (and their untenured allies, the literary critics) redefined ‘Literature’ to mean ‘books that uneducated people don’t like’. Greek tragedy was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to learn Greek. Chaucer was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to understand Chaucer’s English. Woolf was an acquired taste, because – well, never mind why. Most people found her work pretentious, ponderous, and dull. The English Lit students found her delightful; or rather, they found it delightful that they could gain entree to the intellectual élite merely by skimming her books and dropping her name at the right sort of parties. A few years later, James Joyce wrote a book tailor-made for this new audience. Ulysses was deliberately written in an English as difficult as anything in Chaucer. The events of the story were deliberately made as dull and trivial as anything in Woolf. The classical allusions were as recondite as any Professor of Classics could wish for; and this, too, was deliberate. Moreover, the book was obscene in a rather joyless way, like Rabelais on downers; so it had to be published in France at first, and one had to have money and connections to get a copy into England or the U.S.A. To name-drop Ulysses (but not necessarily to have read it) became the infallible touchstone of membership in the cognoscenti. This set a pattern for the century-long swindle of Literary Fiction. If you write about dull characters doing dull things in dull ways, if you labour over your language until every sentence glitters like pyrite and pinchbeck, why, your work is not rubbish; it is merely too good for the plebeians who don’t understand it. If, in addition, you go to the Right Schools, know the Right Sort of People, and have (this is very important) the Right Opinions about politics and art, then you may be anointed as a Great Author; your publishers will brag about your greatness, and about their own astounding acumen in ‘discovering’ you, even before your first book is published. Your book will be labelled a ‘prestige book’, which means that your publisher has no intention of making a profit from it; it is an elaborate public relations exercise designed to give that money-grubbing worthy a shining reputation as a Patron of the Arts and a Bastion of Literary Culture. And the people who care about these things will always think about them with the Capital Letters in the Right Places. Modernism, meanwhile, went in another direction, not of the professors’ choosing. The next generation of Modernists, led by the gigantic figure of Hemingway, got out of the drawing-rooms and into the streets and the suburbs, cornfields and battlefields, boxing matches and bullfights: that is, they got as close to adventure as they could without breaking the rules of Modernism by actually making things up. They tossed aside the obscurely pretty language and worked in an elaborate pastiche of everyday speech. For a time, they achieved enormous commercial success; their tricks and techniques are still used in films and television and ‘mainstream’ fiction. Raymond Chandler became famous by writing detective stories that sounded like Hemingway instead of Agatha Christie. Robert A. Heinlein became famous by writing science fiction that sounded like Hemingway instead of H. G. Wells. Modernism conquered so completely that it ceased to be exclusive – and the professors moved on to other fashions. Chandler and Heinlein had to be sneered at: they were popular. You could not prove your intellectual superiority by teaching people to acquire tastes that they had already acquired for themselves. In time, the professors moved in on popular culture as they had moved in on popular literature, and largely in the same way. The avant-garde cinema of Bergman and Antonioni rejected story in favour of cinematography, bored the general public to tears, and so became the fashionable acquired taste of the 1960s, as Joyce had been in the 1920s. The ‘New Hollywood’ was in part an unsuccessful attempt to impose avant-garde tastes on the public. The ‘Death by Newbery’ school tried to do the same with children’s books. In each case, they merely succeeded in driving away a large part of their audience, which stayed away until a Lucas or a Rowling brought them home by giving them what they had actually wanted all along. By the 1980s, it was becoming extremely difficult to pretend that Literary Fiction and its cousin Art Film had any technical superiority over their hated commercial counterparts. In both fields, first-rate talent followed the money. The professors could rail against this and call it the prostitution of Art; but they could not stop it from happening. The shibboleths were beginning to break down; the humbug was wearing thin. There remained one avenue of escape. If you could not prove your superiority over the despised masses by a morbid obsession with technique, you could still prove it by a morbid obsession with morbidity itself. So Bret Easton Ellis, one of the anointed darlings of the ‘Literary’ crowd, wrote a critically acclaimed (and popularly ignored) novel about an ‘American Psycho’ who liked to do things like cut off women’s breasts and eat them. So Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant and cultured intellectual who made gourmet meals out of human flesh. The chase had come full circle: the self-styled literati had retreated into the ground of the old penny dreadfuls, which their own ancestors had killed stone dead a hundred years before. Only this time the monsters themselves were the heroes. The great sin was not to kill people and eat them, but to judge those enlightened and liberated souls who had outgrown the primitive tribal taboos against murder and cannibalism. This movement, too, was quickly carried into the mainstream of the entertainment business by enthusiastic proselytizers. Some of them, I am afraid, genuinely believed that a man like Lecter was superior to a person with a functioning conscience or at least a sense of disgust. Most of them saw one more opportunity to make easy money off the old game (grown so much more difficult now) of shocking the old ladies in Brighton so that their grandchildren would spend money to see what the fuss was about. They had made it their life’s work to explore the cesspool, and now they were determined to drag popular culture into the muck with them. The moralizing crusaders of the Harmsworth type were gone – their place taken by a generation of immoralizing crusaders, just as convinced of their own utter rightness. Critics of this ghoulish persuasion were pleased to see Tim Burton make a big-budget film of Sweeney Todd. But in fact Mr. Todd and his partner in crime, though they commit the same sins as Hannibal Lecter, are not at all like him. For they are not portrayed as heroes, or even as misunderstood. For The String of Pearls, like the bulk of the penny dreadfuls, for all its ostentatious gore, was at bottom a moral tale; even a moralizing one. You can write moralizing stories in three different ways. There is the road of melodrama, in which the Hero triumphs over the Villain. There is the road of comedy, in which the Hero achieves a happy ending by his own good qualities, though there may be no Villain at all. And there is the road of tragedy, in which the Villain is punished for his sins – though he may appear, at first, to be a heroic figure, and it is generally better art if he does. Sweeney Todd is a tragic protagonist, like Oedipus or Macbeth; his story tells how he was tempted, fell into evil, and finally got what he deserved. This is true in the original, and in all the important adaptations of the story. It remains true in the Stephen Sondheim musical which Tim Burton used as the basis for his film. Burton’s Sweeney Todd is more elaborate than The String of Pearls, and as I believe, the added elements make it a more satisfying story. Todd is a barber who was sentenced to transportation for a crime he did not commit, because the magistrate, Judge Turpin, lusted after Todd’s wife Lucy. We see him returning to England under his assumed name, bitter at the world and hungry for revenge; with him is a young sailor, Anthony, neither bitter nor vengeful, but moved to pity by the story of Todd’s betrayal. The villains will follow one path, and the innocent people (not heroes as such) will follow another, so that the deeds of the latter form a counterpoint to the crimes of the former, and a moral commentary which stands at the heart of the tale. The villains: Todd returns to his old shop in London, upstairs from the shop where Mrs. Lovett sells ‘the worst pies in London’. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his beloved Lucy is dead by suicide, having been raped by Judge Turpin, and his daughter has been brought up as Turpin’s ward. Todd plots his revenge: he will go back into business, establish a reputation as the best barber in London, win Turpin as a customer – and cut his throat. The scheme miscarries; Turpin escapes. It is at this point that Todd becomes a definite villain. He decides to take his vengeance on the whole human race, slitting the throat of every man that he can lure into his barber’s chair. Downstairs, Mrs. Lovett will dispose of the bodies by making them into meat pies; and so they will make their fortune. In the climax, Todd murders Turpin, but finds out that Lucy survived – that she is the beggar woman whom he has just killed to protect his secrets. Mrs. Lovett was lying to him and using him all along. He flings Mrs. Lovett into the bakehouse furnace and kneels to cradle his dead wife in his arms. The innocents: Anthony sees Todd’s daughter, Johanna, looking out of her window at Turpin’s house and pining for freedom. He falls in love with her, but Turpin forbids him to see her. Anthony takes Todd into his confidence, and after various stratagems and schemes, he sets Johanna free. In the end, they both pass through the horrors of Todd and Turpin’s feud without becoming involved in either man’s crimes. We are left to assume that they marry and live happily ever after; but this is not actually shown. There is a third strain, of sins atoned and wickedness redeemed. Young Toby Ragg is a juvenile delinquent straight out of Oliver Twist, the shill for a mountebank who calls himself Adolfo Pirelli and sells a miracle hair tonic. Pirelli is actually Todd’s old apprentice, who knows too much about his past and tries to blackmail him – only to become fresh meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. Toby goes to work at the pie shop, never suspecting what horrors are going on in the bakehouse. When he does find out, Mrs. Lovett tries to kill him; he escapes by hiding in the sewers. At the end, it is Toby who plays the role of Nemesis, slitting Todd’s throat with his own razor as Todd holds dead Lucy in his arms; and we come out feeling that this killing, at least, is both just and merciful. At no time are we meant to approve of Todd’s vengefulness, though we never feel as if Turpin’s death would be any loss. When Todd begins to kill strangers, we see at once that he has crossed what is sometimes called the moral event horizon: he is now a villain pure and simple. The battle lines are drawn, and the rest of the story merely brings that battle to its necessary conclusion. Virtue is not exactly rewarded, but Anthony and Johanna at least escape; vice is amply punished. The only people who don’t get exactly what they deserve are the customers at Todd’s barbershop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop; and it is precisely for their crimes against them that Todd and Lovett must die.   While Sweeney Todd is a moral story, it is far from being a great story; perhaps not even a very good one. It relies too heavily on cheap sensationalism and obvious gross-outs. The evil is too theatrical to ring true. One would imagine that a barbershop where scores of customers walk in, and nobody ever comes out again, would draw unfavourable attention to itself even in Fleet Street. And a woman who makes ‘the worst pies in London’ out of ordinary butcher’s meat is not, I should think, the best candidate to make a profitable gourmet dish out of human flesh. In Sondheim’s musical and Burton’s film, these faults are cheerfully handwaved away; we come along for the grisly ride, as with any good B-grade horror movie, and leave our brains at the door (where they will doubtless be served up to the audience at the next show). It is a celebration of the mere dreadfulness of the penny dreadful. Still, Rymer and Priest’s tale survived and was retold for over a century before Sondheim wrote his musical; and that alone confers a distinction upon it that thousands of serious and skilful novels missed. Before I launched upon this digression, I asked what elements made the three breakthrough fantasies so much more popular, so much better attuned to the tastes and needs of the big public, than any of their rivals. I believe that the enduring success of Sweeney Todd, in spite of its obvious flaws, can give us the key to that riddle. Let us now see if the key fits; let us try and open the lock. Concluded in Part 5, which appears in Superversive: Recovering the Tao of Fantasy. Oh, the humanity!

The exotic and the familiar (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1. Throughout the 1970s, the ‘New Hollywood’ had been establishing itself. Heroes and villains, Westerns and war movies, were out of fashion. The critics’ new darlings were men like Coppola and De Palma, who pointed their cameras at the mundane and the sordid. The good characters in the new films were ineffectual; the effectual characters, as a general thing, were unselfconsciously evil. This refusal to engage ethical reality was called ‘moral ambiguity’, and praised; the tight focus on a narrow and unrepresentative segment of modern city life was called ‘realism’, and praised more strongly still. So far as the film business was concerned, fantasy, like animation, was banished to the realm of children’s movies. Such things were considered beneath a grown-up audience, and Hollywood as a whole was trying to be very grown-up indeed. One or two cracked auteurs tried to make animated fantasies for adults, and succeeded in making cult films for stoners and adolescents. The leading director in this strange movement was Ralph Bakshi, a graduate of Terrytoons, the knacker’s yard of animation studios. Bakshi made his name with an adaptation of Fritz the Cat, which had all the ‘moral ambiguity’ and ‘realism’ of any good 1970s film, except that the characters (all properly cool and urban) were depicted as talking animals. In the spring of 1977, Bakshi released his own magnum opus: a strange little movie, part drug trip, part twee morality tale, about the resurgence of Evil Technology in a post-apocalyptic fairyland. The protagonist was a hairball in a pointy hat who smoked cigars with his toes; the love interest was a bimbo fairy with porn-star curves and protruding nipples. Several scenes are delivered in the form of chalk drawings with voiceover by a dreary hippie-chick narrator: Bakshi had not enough money to finish the animation. The second half of the movie is filled with nightmare images made by rotoscoping black shadows over old war movies and Nazi propaganda reels – another money-saving device. The film was called Wizards. It was hailed by the critics as an animated cartoon for grown-ups, and promptly bombed. Within a fortnight of its release, hundreds of cinemas were yanking it off their screens and searching desperately for a replacement that would fill their empty seats. Unlike fantasy, science fiction was considered hip and intellectual enough to fall within the purview of the New Hollywood – as long as it confined itself to dreary post-apocalyptic morality plays that required little in the way of special effects. The age of Harryhausen was over; monster movies had been banished to the Late Late Show. In the New Hollywood, science fiction meant Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, Zardoz and Rollerball. These movies tended to follow a reliable formula. Humanity, being evil and stupid, destroyed itself and ruined the earth; the few survivors lived in dreary dystopias full of unnecessary suffering, with enough joyless sex and mindless violence to hold the attention of a marginally profitable audience. Science fiction critics (this was the heyday of the ‘New Wave’) praised these films to the skies, as mainstream critics praised The Godfather or Midnight Cowboy. The movie-going public remained serenely indifferent. One of the dystopian films was THX-1138, by a very green young director named George Lucas. It was regarded as an interesting failure; Lucas himself, as a less talented version of his friend Coppola. He abandoned SF to make a nostalgic film about the car-mad California of his teenaged years: American Graffiti. It was not cool or trendy, ‘realistic’ or ‘ambiguous’ or even urban; therefore it was a massive hit. Lucas found himself with the money and clout to make anything he wanted; and what he really wanted was to make a film that combined nostalgia with science fiction. He wanted to remake Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon as a big-budget ‘A’ film with modern effects and modern production values; but he could not get the rights to those properties. So he did the next best thing: he plagiarized them, and borrowed a plot from Japan, and made an SF film that evoked the adventure serials of the thirties and forties. It was a remake of an original that never existed: a movie that created nostalgia for itself. That movie was Star Wars. It was the sleeper hit of 1977: the cuckoo egg laid in the nest so carefully prepared for Bakshi’s abortive triumph. In the movie business, it changed everything. That summer, those hundreds of cinemas that had given up on Wizards were showing Star Wars instead, and making more money than they had ever dreamed possible. You could say that the nostalgic appeal of Star Wars represents ‘the familiar’ in Aldiss’s formula, and the science-fiction elements ‘the exotic’. But you would need to define your terms carefully, because the elements of the story are not divisible in quite the way you would expect. We can begin with the Leitmotiv of the movie, the unforgettable line that begins the opening crawl – the line that announces, with perfect confidence, where this story is going to take us:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….
This is a perfect opening line: balanced, poetic, paradoxical. It recreates the form of ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and does it in a way that adroitly advertises the subject-matter of the story. A long time ago: a classic fairy-tale opening, just sufficiently removed from ‘Once upon a time’ to seem fresh and exciting. In a galaxy far, far away: an opening from the pulp era of science fiction, from the gigantesque imagination of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith or Edmond ‘World Wrecker’ Hamilton. Nostalgia for the myths of the past; nostalgia for a future that never was. Lucas himself has said that Star Wars is not science fiction at all, but ‘techno-fantasy’; and this is clearly announced in the very first frame of the film. Here again we have the strange reversal of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’. To a young viewer in 1977 (myself, for instance), it was science fiction that was the familiar element. We were brought up on Star Trek and 2001 and Planet of the Apes; we had seen the Apollo landings on TV, had played the first commercial video games, and some of us were beginning to play with the first home computers. Life was science fiction, and the future, far more than the present, seemed like our native country. The mainstream culture, for the time being, still belonged to jocks and businessmen; but we already knew that the geek would inherit the earth. For us, ‘the exotic’ was precisely the intrusion of fantasy into this technological wonderworld, naked and unabashed. Like us, the denizens of Star Wars lived in a world of (often frightening) technical marvels, but the permanent and transcendent things were once more intruding into their lives. The military men of the Empire were delighted with their new toy, the Death Star; but Darth Vader was not impressed. ‘Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed,’ he told them. ‘The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.’ The Force was exotic; the Force was otherworldly – was alien even to the creatures that inhabited this superficially alien world. We loved the Millennium Falcon at first sight, as we loved the souped-up deuce coupe in American Graffiti, and for the same reasons. It represented the familiarity of technology; the tameness of machines grown old. But the Force did not grow tame. If a man could use the Force for his purposes, so could the Force use the man; could turn him to light, like Obi-wan Kenobi, or darkness, like Darth Vader. And as Luke Skywalker proved in the climax, it could even offset the world-wrecking power of the Death Star. At bottom, I suppose, ‘the Force’ is a manifestation of the old adolescent wish for infinite power, in a democratized form. It seems odd to talk about infinite power as a democratic thing; but it is true to the emotional experience. A child wants to be the centre of the universe. An adolescent knows, or is beginning to know, that he is not that special; that the universe was not built around him. In the older style of fairy tales, it is the One True King who can remove the sword from the stone; the One True Prince who can break the enchantment and wake the princess with a kiss. The Force gives us a free ride to destiny. So far as we knew at the time, Luke was not anybody in particular; there was no hint that the Jedi were a super-powered hereditary élite. Luke was an Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer, and we could imagine the Force doing as much for us as it did for him. At the same time, in our fantasies, the Force did that only for us – certainly not for the dull grown-ups and mundanes around us. Han Solo was a dashing rogue and a wizard at keeping old spaceships in repair, but he would never learn to use the Force. That was reserved to the special ones – that is, to all the millions of us in the audience. But we never stopped to think what it would be like if every kid in the cinema had the powers of a Jedi Knight. We were never meant to. Since the day that Star Wars was released, dull-minded critics have complained about the badness of the science, the impossibility of the technology. All such complaints miss the mark. They would matter in science fiction; but Star Wars is not science fiction. It is fantasy that happens to include spaceships and robots. Because science fiction was a recognized category in the film business and fantasy was not, it was sold as science fiction; and it helped science fiction and fantasy become inextricably muddled in the collective mind of Hollywood. All this, of course, leaked back into the world of literature; or flooded in. Del Rey Books published Alan Dean Foster’s ghostwritten novelization of Star Wars, and his non-canonical sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (since consigned to the memory hole). They already held the rights to The Lord of the Rings, and published the Thomas Covenant books. They had, through no merit of their own, cornered the market on three big combinations of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’: the story about the good magic of nature and the evil magic of the super-weapon; the one about a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away; the one about the unbeliever and the leper. The third of these, so expressed, seems rather small and unsatisfactory alongside the other two; and it is true that Covenant has remained a specialized taste, not very accessible to the bulk of fantasy fans, not much imitated by other writers. But it showed that the formula could be commercially successful even without the shock-appeal of novelty. Big Fantasy did not have to be sui generis; it could be replicated. And it was replicated, to the point of ennui and beyond. All through the next decade and change, SF publishers cranked out trilogies and tetralogies and as-many-as-we-can-sell-ogies, all cashing in on the form, if not the formula, of The Lord of the Rings, and selling largely to the market that had devoured Star Wars. The process culminated in the early nineties, when Tor Books, with cynicism and malice aforethought, commissioned Robert Jordan to write a mash-up of all the ologies, a shameless recycling of Tolkien and Frank Herbert and whatever else he could lay hands upon – The Wheel of Time. That gigantic series sucked the oxygen out of the room, and there was less space for Big Fantasies thereafter; until the literary version of the ‘New Hollywood’ people retooled and began cranking out ‘gritty’ and ‘grimdark’ and nihilistic anti-fantasies. That fashion is with us still, but there are beginning to be signs that it has reached its sell-by date. By the middle of the 1990s, the fantasy field, thanks largely to the tunnel vision of publishers, was in a state of apparently hopeless stagnation. Then came a Scottish welfare mother, with a series of children’s books that stubbornly refused to confine themselves to an audience of children. (Continued in Part 3….)


So far, I have described my thoughts about ozamataz up to the point where I asked whether one could attract that kind of self-sustaining fan participation, and if so, how. This is also the point at which the Muse, or the Guardian Angel, or the Collective Subconscious, or Something, stepped in. Perhaps it was the Great Oz himself. Having worked out something of the nature of ozamataz, I asked my brain: ‘OK, brain, what is it that makes some things have ozamataz when others don’t?’ And my brain, without missing a beat, obligingly answered: ‘Legosity.’ I was duly annoyed, for I then had to figure out what legosity was. My brain is cryptic and has no manners, and seldom troubles to explain itself. The one thing my brain did deign to tell me is that legosity has something to do with Lego. This made sense on the face of it. Lego toys have an ozamataz of their own. They have inspired movies, games, theme parks, and of course, the imaginations of millions of children the world over. The manufacturer’s recent habit of producing specific single-purpose Lego sets like model kits, which hardly fit together with other Lego and are hardly intended to, is most regrettable. These kits tend to take up shelf space at the toy shops and displace the kind of Lego that you can really play with. But the original bricks and doors and windows, Lego people and Lego cars and Lego trees, and so on – those are still available, and you can do anything with them. Nowadays, you can even buy Lego with moving parts and electric motors, and build Lego machines that can be controlled via computer. There are Lego robots in the world, and serious men with doctorates in the hard sciences have been known to play with them. As the unfortunate history of the kit-model kind of Lego shows, it is not so much the brand name, or even the mechanical ingenuity of Lego that gives the toys their unique quality. It is the concept. At bottom, Lego consists of a whole range of bits and pieces, all designed to fit together easily and without fuss, so that they can be used to build anything the imagination can conceive. You do not have to be a skilled carpenter, or a watchmaker, or know how to build ships in bottles, to build houses and cities and fairy castles out of Lego. The skill in your fingers (especially a child’s fingers) ceases to be a limit on what you can achieve, and the mind is set free to soar. Even the name Lego is well chosen, and means, I think, more than its inventor intended. We are assured that it comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, ‘Play well’. But it is also Latin and Greek, and in those languages the word has a wide and subtle range of meanings that reach right down into the guts of the human psyche. In classical Greek, λέγω means ‘I put in order, I arrange, I gather’: which are certainly things that you do with Lego, and indeed with any toy worth having. It also means ‘I choose, I count, I reckon’: the basic methods by which the creative process works on the raw materials furnished by the imagination. It means ‘I say, I speak,’ and even ‘I mean’. And – most important of all, for our present purpose – it means ‘I tell a story’. Stories, in whatever medium, are more complex than toy bricks, for they have extension in time as well as (imagined) space. They move, within their own confines, or they do not exist at all. But the tropes and elements and imaginative bits and pieces that go into a story function very much like Lego bricks. You can spend years of your life inventing a monster that will metaphorically express the horror of death and the fear of lost identity; or you can dip into the barrel of Lego bits and fish out a ghost, a zombie, or the vampire’s enslaved and unwilling bride. Every story ever written, probably, uses some of this conceptual Lego; for some of the pieces are older than writing itself. If I wanted to make up a bogus etymology for legosity, I would pretend that it did not come from Lego at all. I would choose the Latin form, lego, which means ‘I choose’, and ‘I gather’, and also ‘I read’ (originally in the sense of reading aloud). I would make up an adjective legosus, which would mean ‘well-chosen’ and also ‘worth reading’; from which one naturally gets the abstract noun legositas, which goes into English as legosity – and there you are. But I shall not dissemble. I got the word from my brain, and my brain got it from Lego. Legosity, then, is the quality that makes an idea go easily into stories. Things that have legosity tend to connect together easily, like Lego bricks. They are adaptable and reusable; their play-value is not exhausted in one telling. There are thousands of stories about Robin Hood, and tens of thousands about vampires. Kings and queens, heroes and villains, monsters, perils, and things of nameless dread: these are some of the simple bricks that have gone into stories from time immemorial. They are conceptual Lego, and they are free for anybody to use. Because they are free, they are taken for granted; because they are not original, they are not striking. They don’t contribute to any story’s ozamataz. The Wheel of Time contains barrels of conceptual Lego, swiped or stolen or recycled from every great story-cycle known to Western man: which, I believe, was the author’s intention. But it has precious little originality. When you take it apart to play with the pieces, you find that all the pieces are somebody else’s. From Dune, you have the secret magic sisterhood that controls the fates of families and nations, the Bene Gesserit (renamed Aes Sedai); and the shockingly male creature that sets the world on its ear by having access to the magic and ignoring the sisterhood, the Kwisatz Haderach (renamed Dragon Reborn); and the wild desert-dwelling people who have a hard-won lore of their own, with whom nobody can tangle and not regret it – the Fremen (renamed Aiel). From Tolkien – well, the very first page of Jordan’s interminable saga mentions ‘the Third Age’ and ‘the Mountains of Mist’, and if that isn’t straight-up theft with the serial numbers left in blatant sight, I don’t know what it is. Nobody writes Wheel of Time fan fiction – at least none worth speaking of – for The Wheel of Time is itself fan fiction, in which all the fandoms collide together. The works or franchises that I mentioned earlier, the ones that have long-lived and fruitful fandoms – the ones, as I put it, with ozamataz – all have this in common: they have original toys. They contribute new conceptual Lego to the barrel. ‘Who can invent a new leaf, or a new story?’ Tolkien asked – and then answered his own question, by inventing a whole botanical garden of new leaves, and resurrecting old ones that had been forgotten since the Middle Ages. It is this quality of primary invention – the new ideas, the new toys – that I shall refer to as ‘legosity’ hereafter. And I shall refer to the ideas or toys themselves as lego, with a small L, to distinguish them from the (trademarked) building toys. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has had ozamataz for more than a century, has this kind of legosity in abundance. Everybody in our culture knows the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears; but few people know that the Three Bears were invented less than two hundred years ago by Robert Southey, or that Goldilocks was added to the tale at a later date (to its great improvement). Everybody knows the legos of the first Oz book; and everybody attributes them. The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion; the Good Witches of the North and South, the Wicked Witches of the West and East; the Silver Shoes (which became Ruby Slippers in the movie, the better to show off in Technicolor); the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, the Munchkins, the Land of Oz, and of course, the Wizard himself, hiding behind a curtain while he dazzles the world with special effects – all these things are part of our popular culture, and we know exactly where they came from. You can go through each one of the works or franchises that I listed in ‘Ozamataz’, and identify the bits that give each one its legosity. When I perform this exercise, I find myself marvelling at the sheer richness of our storytelling heritage – the vast and delightful variety of legos that our imaginations have to play with. So— From the original Star Trek: the U.S.S. Enterprise; Starfleet and the Federation; Vulcans, Romulans, and Klingons; warp drive (very differently imagined from the point-to-point ‘jump drive’ then common in science fiction); phasers, photon torpedoes, communicators, tricorders; the transporter beam; the Vulcan Nerve Pinch. From the original Doctor Who: Timelords and the TARDIS; regeneration; sonic screwdrivers; the Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians, Sontarans; the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, which is narratively important, because it sets boundaries on the kinds of paradoxes that so many time-travel stories have snarled themselves up in. From Star Wars (the first film only): Darth Vader, droids, Jedi Knights, light sabres, Storm Troopers, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, jawas, dogfights in space, the Force, and of course Mos Eisley, the ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’, of which the cantina was merely the most theatrical part. From The Hobbit (leaving aside The Lord of the Rings): hobbits; Gandalf; Thror’s Map, with its runes and key; the Stone-trolls; Elrond Half-elven and the Last Homely House; orcs and the Great Goblin; Beorn the skin-changer, the Eagles, the Wood-elves; Mirkwood, Lake-town, the Lonely Mountain; and of course Smaug the Magnificent, Chiefest of Calamities. You can, I am sure, make lists of your own, from the fandoms you participate in, and from things you know to have ozamataz; and they will probably bear a fair resemblance to the five I have given. Let us look over these lists a little more closely, and see what they have in common, and whether we can draw any conclusions from that. To begin with, you may notice that the lead characters of each work are not included. There are several reasons for this. In fantastic fiction, the protagonist is often a sort of Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer (who is not a giant himself) or Alice in Wonderland – a relatively ordinary sort of person with whom the reader can easily identify, and to whom all the fantastic new inventions can be revealed and explained one by one, so that we can follow along. There is another kind of protagonist, the larger-than-life kind, who participates in the legosity of the story himself. Bilbo is a very minor example of this, for he is a hobbit, and we have to be introduced to the concept of hobbits; but he is so very much like a solid English squire of the nineteenth century, or the earlier twentieth, that he is encountering all the other marvels of Middle-earth for the first time, and therefore serves as our Everyman once we have got him soundly introduced. Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Robin Hood, are all examples of the larger-than-life leads. Let us take Superman as an easy case to analyse. Much of the legosity of the Superman comics is embodied in the lead character himself; but he has to be unbundled. ‘Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings at a single bound’: there we have three legos to start off with. Moreover, Superman can fly. He has X-ray vision. He is vulnerable to Kryptonite. He is really Kal-El, the last survivor (so far as we knew at the outset) of the catastrophe that destroyed the planet Krypton. He has a secret identity as Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter on the Daily Planet. We can easily take Superman to pieces in this way, and each of the pieces can be reused and recombined independently. So it is not the character of Superman who is a lego, but each of his salient qualities taken individually. In the same way, Luke Skywalker begins as a farm boy, and only slowly learns to become a Jedi Knight. Dorothy is an ordinary little girl from Kansas before the cyclone transports her to the Land of Oz. Captain Kirk is thoroughly familiar with the workings of his own ship, but for the most part he discovers the new lego bits along with his audience, as he boldly goes where no man has gone before. It would seem that we can make a general rule: Protagonists themselves are not legos, but their special attributes can be legos. What else do we find? Supporting characters can be legos by nature, either because of their abilities or because of their kinds. Gandalf starts off, in The Hobbit, as a lego by ability: he is a Wizard, and can do various kinds of interesting magic, and is moreover a kind of walking travelogue, who can instantly explain to the other characters what kind of trouble they are getting themselves into. (He had to go away in the middle third of the book, by narrative necessity. Having him around would have made things too easy for Thorin’s Quest.) In The Lord of the Rings, it turns out that Gandalf is a lego by kind: one of the Five Wizards, the Istari, the messengers (angels, literally, in the etymological sense) from the West, sent to oppose the evil of Sauron. Places and things can also be legos. Spaceships are a kind of generic lego; we use them without attributing them to any particular creator. But the Millennium Falcon is a new lego in its own right: the rickety, patched-together old smuggler’s ship, not the least bit elegant or streamlined or futuristic – space travel’s answer to the rusted-out jalopy. The Death Star, the space warship so huge that it can be mistaken for a moon, becomes an original lego by sheer force of scale. Things blow up in space battles, but the power to blow up a whole planet becomes a threat of a different kind. Mirkwood is a lego – the very name tells us what kind of trouble to expect there, and Tolkien delivers abundantly on its promise. Mordor, too, is a lego, the terminally diseased and polluted country, ‘dying but not yet dead’, where tormented nature is an adversary in its own right – the country whose very name sounds like murder. Lothlórien, the enchanted elfland where time stands still, is a lego, some of whose properties I have used for other purposes myself. Technologies and ‘magic systems’ – a hateful phrase, for magic and system are two things that seldom go well together – are also common types of lego. The phaser is not just a zap gun, but a gun that can be set to stun: that is, a lethal weapon that, by a deliberate exercise of prudence or mercy, can be used non-lethally. The light sabre is not just a fancy sword, but the Jedi version of a Swiss Army knife: it can cut through metal or deflect blaster fire, and yet be safely and unobtrusively stowed upon one’s person. The Force is a lego, and not just a fancy name for ‘psi’, because of its quiddity, its determinate and often inconvenient nature. A Jedi controls the Force, but the Force also controls him. It has a light side and a dark side, and if you make a habit of using the dark side, ‘for ever will it dominate your destiny’. There seems to be a kind of critical mass for legosity. To develop ozamataz, it seems, a work needs to have something like ten to fifteen good, solid legos that people will readily remember and enjoy playing with. This, I think, is what sets apart the major imaginative works, the ones that have their own fandoms and ozamataz, from merely successful books or films that never give rise to that kind of audience participation. Some examples: The chestburster from Alien is a fine and memorable lego, but it is the only new lego in that movie; the rest is a recycling of common science-fiction tropes. You can easily play with chestbursters by combining them with legos from other sources (Alien Vs. Predator), but the world in which they originated does not have enough of its own legos to be worth playing in. Back to the Future has many fans, and several legos of its own – the time-travelling DeLorean, the flux capacitor, the ‘Mr. Fusion’ converter kit – but most of the story is constructed from existing pieces, so it does not inspire further creativity and has never really developed its own fandom. There are, sadly, some properties that have abundant legosity, but have been blocked from developing ozamataz by some fatal flaw. A good cautionary example is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Stephen R. Donaldson is one of the world’s great lego inventors. From the first book alone, I can think of a good dozen. Since most of my Loyal Readers are not Donaldson fans, I shall give a brief account of each, and what gives it the power of legosity:
  • The Land. This place, the setting of the series, is virtually a character in its own right; the whole country is almost sentient. It is a place where good and evil, health and sickness, are as plainly visible as red and green; where every tree and river, every rock and patch of soil, is alive with the organic magic called Earthpower.
  • The Council of Lords. This is not merely a collection of wizards, but a kind of church or mandarinate of wizardry, in which the leaders are linked by telepathy and by a common vow to serve the Land.
  • Kevin’s Lore. Not just a ‘magic system’, but a very complex and weird set of what you might call magical scriptures. It was encoded by its creator in the Seven Wards, each of which contains the clues that will help you find the next. These Wards range from a locked box full of scrolls to a living being constructed out of pure Earthpower.
  • The Giants. These are not ordinary fairy-tale giants, not monsters or villains. They are a race of long-lived seafarers, who love to tell long stories, and to laugh even in the face of tragedy. Their motto is, ‘Joy is in the ears that hear, not in the mouth that speaks.’
  • Stonedowns and rhadhamaerl. About half the humans in the Land live in Stonedowns, villages where all the tools and utensils of everyday life are made of stone, and manipulated by the stone-lore called rhadhamaerl. Even the fires are fuelled by a magical stone called graveling.
  • Woodhelvens and lillianrill. A Woodhelven is a village built in the branches of a single giant tree. As the Stonedownors use stone for every ordinary purpose, the Woodhelvennin use wood. They even have wooden knives, which work because of the lillianrill magic that awakens the Earthpower in the wood.
  • Lord Foul the Despiser. The principal villain of the piece, Lord Foul is trapped in the Land, and wants to destroy it so that he can escape. Failing that, he seeks to torment the Land’s people so horribly that they will destroy it themselves, just to put him out of their misery. He hates every form of life and existence, possibly including his own, and is very good at laying the kind of double-bind trap that TV Tropes calls a ‘Xanatos Gambit’.
  • The Ravers. These three malevolent spirits have no bodies of their own, but work their will by possessing others. They can flit from host to host, using their stolen bodies to kill, destroy, and wreak havoc. The people of the Land call them by (Hebrew) names that refer to different aspects of Hell, but the Ravers name themselves by the (Sanskrit) words for different forms of enlightenment.
  • Ur-viles and Waynhim. These two strange races were created by a mysterious people known as the Demondim. They are outside the Law, since they were constructed, not born; their DNA, so to speak, is entirely artificial. The ur-viles are black, eyeless, and sorcerous, and serve Lord Foul because he gives them lore and genetic material to continue the Demondim breeding program. The grey Waynhim have renounced all that, and devote their lives to serving the Land in their own peculiar way.
  • The Staff of Law. This rune-carved staff both embodies and controls the laws that govern the Earthpower. It has, roughly, the power of life, death, and transformation over anything that exists by Law – that is, anything that has its own determinate nature. (Later on in the series, the Staff is destroyed, and Very Bad Things Happen.)
  • The Illearth Stone. A source of almost infinite power, the Stone warps and diseases everything it touches. It is a kind of Instant Mordor in a can.
  • White gold. This metal, not found in the Land, contains ‘the wild magic that destroys Peace’. It is right outside of the Law; it is ‘closed’ to the second sight of the Land’s people, so that they cannot perceive it as either good or ill, but only as an enigma.
These are all striking and engaging legos, with immense play-value; and the Covenant books, back in the day, sold millions of copies. Yet there is relatively little in the way of Covenant fandom, and hardly any fan fiction or other signs of ozamataz. Partly, this is because Donaldson himself is jealous of his creation, and has made it known that he does not like other people to play with his legos; and his fans, unlike those of some other authors, generally respect that. But mostly, it is because the Thomas Covenant books are flawed, and the name of the flaw is Thomas Covenant. The protagonist of the series – you cannot possibly call him a hero – is one of the most repulsive characters in modern fiction, and that is saying something. To begin with, a protagonist is supposed to be a character with a problem that he wishes to solve; but Covenant has a problem that he cannot solve, and he has invested his whole identity in the proposition that it is insoluble. He is a leper, and in the 1970s, when the books were written, leprosy was still an incurable disease; historically, it had the same kind of stigma that AIDS has had in more recent times. To help him survive, he has been trained in a rigorous discipline that puts physical self-preservation above all else. ‘You cannot hope for a cure,’ he is told. So when he is transported to the Land, where a cure is possible, he flatly refuses to believe in any of it. When his leprosy is apparently cured by Earthpower, he thinks he is dreaming, and rapes the young girl who gave him the cure. This is the point at which thousands of readers threw the book against the wall, never to pick it up again. For those who remain, the story becomes a dreary slog through Covenant’s self-loathing and self-pity, occasionally redeemed by his efforts to save the Land. He is uniquely equipped to resist an enemy called ‘the Despiser’; everyone already despises him, himself included. Lord Foul cannot manipulate him with despair, because he is already living without hope. This is ingenious, if you like, but it is also very depressing. The sort of people who build up fandoms and generate ozamataz, as a general thing, do not care for dreary and depressing stories. Most of them give up on the Covenant books before they even get to the fun bits. They are repelled by the lead character, and never find out about the legos. So it does seem that the protagonist, who is never a lego in his own right, has a vital role to play in legosity. The lead character in a story or series, we might say, has to be a good playmate. He has to be someone that the reader likes to identify with; someone who plays with the legos himself, and whom the fans can imagine playing with them in different ways and combinations. A child can play at being Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker. Nobody with a healthy disposition would play at being Thomas Covenant. Of course, it is perfectly possible for a work to have a likable protagonist, clever worldbuilding, and a barrel of perfectly wonderful legos, and never catch on with the public. Examples are hard to give, for obvious reasons. The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson, is an instructive case. Hodgson’s very strange and arresting novel was published about a century ago, and unlike the Oz books, attracted no interest and virtually no audience. It did not help that it was written in a strange, mock-archaic style, weirdly at odds with the far-future setting. Still worse, it was a fantasy aimed at an adult audience just when Modernism was getting its literary grip, and fantasy was generally thought to be fit only for children. But what legos it had! The Last Redoubt! The Watchers! The Air-Clog! The Earth Current! The Abhumans! The Diskos! The Night Land itself, where the sun has been extinguished and the earth is overrun by alien monsters, is a more powerful bit of lego than anything in H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself described The Night Land as ‘one of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written’. It deserved a following, and just lately, thanks largely to the efforts of the late Andy Robertson, and to the brilliant (and professionally published) fan fiction by John C. Wright, it has finally found one. But for a hundred years, it languished in obscurity, because it lacked one crucial element: luck. To an extent, an author can make his own luck. This is far truer now, when anyone can publish an ebook and make it available to the whole Internet-connected world, than in Hodgson’s day, when books had to be expensively printed, and distribution was difficult and dodgy. As recently as ten years ago, a book could go out of print in months or even weeks and be forgotten, seemingly for ever. But now we are living in wonderfully different times. The sheer overabundance of books (and films, and TV shows, and games) available to us is daunting. But we need not be daunted as authors; for our audiences know how to find us, if we know how to make ourselves findable. Other people have written more ably than I ever could about the problem of discovery; but I shall, I hope, have something to say about that, from my own angle, another time. Meanwhile, I can say this with confidence: There is not much truth in the slogan, ‘Build it, and they will come.’ But if you can get your work discovered, it is quite fair to say: ‘Make the legos, and they will build.’ Legosity leads to ozamataz, just as surely as seeds lead to plants. Not every seed is viable, and not every viable seed falls on good soil. But every tree and blade of grass grew from a seed; and every fandom with ozamataz grew because a story had legosity.


I have spent the last week or so (when not sleeping off my medications) in a fairly continuous process of brainstorming, chewing over several new-to-me ideas and figuring out how to turn them into actual writing techniques. I forget exactly what prompted me to revisit the Key & Peele skit I reposted some time ago, in which the duo performed a thorough piss-take on the silly (and often self-inflicted) names one so often sees among American football players. Of all the daft monikers they introduced to the world, one in particular seems to have caught the public imagination: ‘Ozamataz Buckshank’. The name Ozamataz has been ‘repurposed’ for any number of online game characters and social-media personas. I think part of the reason lies in the delivery: in the original skit, the name was pronounced in a drawl reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart. It is, in fact, a fun name to say aloud, and I think that contributes to its popularity. But there may be more to it than that. A name like ‘Jackmerius Tacktheritrix’ or ‘Javaris Jamar Javarison-Lamar’ is too Pythonesque, too blatant in its silliness, to have much staying power. ‘Ozamataz’ is almost, but not quite, realistic; it could plausibly be an actual word. And so, hearing the name again, I asked myself: If ozamataz were a word, what would it mean?  It is fairly clear, at least, how Key & Peele (or their writers) came up with the name. It is a portmanteau of Oz with razz(a)matazz. My handy Oxford dictionary app defines the latter word: ‘noisy, showy, and exciting activity and display designed to attract and impress’. Oz, of course, was the name (or title) of the great and powerful and eponymous Wizard, whose magic consisted of little else but razzmatazz. Ozamataz must be the kind of razzmatazz in which the Wizard of Oz specialized. Oz, by his own admission, was a humbug. He was, he insisted, a very good man, but a very bad wizard. This gave him an endearing quality that one does not usually find among frauds and con men. Dorothy and her friends very much wanted his magic to be real; and the Wizard’s three bits of real magic all worked powerfully on that desire, and gave three of the lead characters their hearts’ desires through a cunning twist on the placebo effect. The film, in this respect, is better than the book. Oz gave them recognition for the qualities that they actually had, but believed themselves to lack entirely: a diploma for the Scarecrow, a testimonial for the Tin Woodman, a medal for the Cowardly Lion. Alas, no amount of recognition could send Dorothy back to Kansas: placebos have their limits. But we leave Oz with the feeling that the Wizard not only meant well, but did well and even ruled well; even though his magic was three parts bluff and one part showmanship. The American children who made up L. Frank Baum’s original readership felt this quality keenly. None of Baum’s other books were very successful, but children took Oz to their hearts. They loved the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman precisely for the brain and heart that they themselves never knew they had; and they loved the Wizard for the very real magic that he could do, despite thinking of himself as a humbug. Literature is full of characters who are merely flawed. The heroes of Oz are heroic precisely because of the battles they fight to overcome their flaws – battles that they win, generally speaking, without knowing it. Baum did not want to write any sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It was the children who made him do it. After several years, he gave in to the overwhelming pressure of his fan mail (and the dead, gloomy silence with which his other works were received), and wrote The Land of Oz, a brilliantly successful sequel, and a comic-strip spinoff, which was successful without being brilliant. Still further delays followed before he began the long string of Oz sequels from Ozma of Oz to Glinda of Oz, the fourteenth book in the series. He then died; but Oz did not die with him. On the whole, none of the sequels matched the quality of the first two books. At the time, Oz was something fresh: a joyous head-on collision between the traditional European fairy tale, with its trappings of magic and royalty, and the anarchic humour of the American tall tale. The first Oz books represent a spree of inventiveness never seen in either of those literary forms, and seldom rivalled in the fantasy genre of later times. After that, Baum had to ration out his creativity more carefully. Most of the later Oz books have glimmers of the original brilliance, enough (eked out with shameless recycling of the original material) to keep the fans entertained and the letters (and royalties) coming in. The later books are somewhat spoilt by sentimentality. Baum kept dragging in the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman long after he had run out of things to say about them, because the children demanded it. In the fourth book, straightforwardly entitled Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz, he brought back the two leading characters from the first book, and completed the ensemble. Ozma taught the Wizard real magic, and Dorothy made her permanent home in Oz; and that, though it was just what the fans had asked for, killed them both. The essence of the Wizard is that he was a humbug who accomplished good and great deeds by clever fakery; the essence of Dorothy is that she wanted to go home. Without their essence, all that remained was a rather twee appearance. But if the fans of Oz could tell the difference, they were not experienced or critical enough to tell why the revived Wizard and Dorothy were less successful than the originals. Baum’s death did not end the clamour for more Oz books. The series was handed off to Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote more than twenty books in the series before tiring of her own formula. She gave it up in 1939, the very year that the film version of The Wizard of Oz brought Baum’s creation to a new mass audience. The series was then continued by John R. Neill, who had illustrated every book from The Land of Oz on. Neill wrote three more books before his own death. At this point, Ozamataz begins to resemble Ouroboros, the world-serpent biting its own tail. The next author of an official Oz book (after the hiatus of the Second World War) was Jack Snow, who had been a twelve-year-old Oz fan when Baum died, and became a Baum scholar when he grew up. The fans had captured the citadel; and they have been there ever since. In the 1970s, two more of Ruth Plumly Thompson’s books were published by the International Wizard of Oz Club; this fan organization went on to print many more Oz books over the following decades. Most recently, Sherwood Smith’s three Oz sequels have been officially recognized by the Baum family trust. On the other hand, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist retelling, Wicked and its sequels, has been officially snubbed, for good reason. The moral of Wicked, as of so much modern nihilist fantasy, could be summed up in a sentence: ‘Evil is Cool, and anyway, it was forced to be Evil because Good is Even Worse.’ This is a sentiment that Baum (like nearly all of his generation) would have regarded with plain horror. And then there is the straightforward Oz fan fiction, not commercially published, and not officially recognized or deprecated by anyone. We can say that Ozamataz, the peculiar fake-but-effective magic of the Wizard, leaked out of the books, made its tour through the lively century-long phenomenon of Oz fandom, and eventually came full circle as the fans grew up to write Oz books themselves. In this wider or larger sense, ozamataz could be defined as the particular blend of creativity and publicity that inheres in a self-sustaining fandom, which has the power to call forth new work in the canon if the original authors cease to supply it. Oz, of course, is not the only franchise with this kind of ozamataz. Sherlock Holmes was a still earlier example. Arthur Conan Doyle thought he had done with his famous consulting detective when he killed him off at the Reichenbach Falls; but the fans would not let ill alone, and forced him to go on writing stories about the resurrected Holmes for thirty more years. Since then, everyone and his dog has had a go at writing unofficial Holmes stories. The pastiches are beyond counting, from Sexton Blake to House and Sherlock. Several of the modern media franchises have definite ozamataz. Star Trek, after the early cancellation of the original series, was kept alive by fan fiction, and Pocket Books’ line of Trek novels became a stepping-stone for many young science fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s. Today, the Trek franchise has entirely escaped the de facto control, though not the de jure ownership, of Paramount Studios. Groups of fans from America to Turkey have produced films in the style of the original series, some as remakes of the original scripts, some with new material written for the purpose. Doctor Who had a large and thriving fandom when the BBC axed the series in 1989; the novels and radio plays kept coming all through the show’s 16-year hiatus, and in the end it was a lifelong fan of the show, Russell T. Davies, who brought it back into production. When Davies left the revived series, he handed it off to Steven Moffat, another old Whovian, who first came to notoriety as the screenwriter of the parody, Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death. Star Wars fandom has a more complex and ambiguous relationship with the creator of its franchise. In the earliest phase, the fans contented themselves with the strange ritual activity of watching the original film over and over, obsessively, often dozens of times – a substantial act of devotion in the pre-VCR era, when each viewing meant paying admission to the cinema. They collected the toys, posters, comics, and other merchandise, of course. But the real breakthrough came after George Lucas himself lost interest in his creation. Once it became clear that he would never tell us what happened after Return of the Jedi, a host of fan writers and young SF professionals brought us the Expanded Universe, more or less with the blessing of Lucasfilm. The Expanded Universe received a heavy shock with the release of the prequel films, which contradicted much of the fan canon. Many of the fans hated the prequels, but they accepted them as canon, and the Expanded Universe was reworked to fit the new official corpus. Then Lucas sold the whole Star Wars franchise to Disney. The corporate entity known as ‘The Mouse’ first thrilled the fans, by announcing that Episodes VII through IX would be produced at long last. Then it alarmed and consternated them, by handing the job of directing Episode VII to J. J. Abrams, and leaking bits of story and casting information, which suggested that this would be yet another ham-handed Disney effort to cash in on a creative property that it might own, but did not understand. Then came the war. Earlier this year, The Mouse announced that the entire Expanded Universe was no longer regarded as canon. The slate is being wiped entirely clean. A new canon of post-Jedi stories is to be called into being, starting with Chuck Wendig’s widely panned Aftermath. The far superior work of Timothy Zahn, as well as decades of writing and other creative work by countless fans, has been summarily dismissed. You could hear the screams of the neckbeards from Greenland to Antarctica. So what will become of Star Wars? History suggests some possibilities that ought to give Disney pause. Several years ago, Hasbro, through its Wizards of the Coast subsidiary, made a similar head-on attack against its own customers. The third edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons game had been a resounding commercial success. Part of that success was due to the crowdsourcing of the basic rules. D&D 3.0 and 3.5 were based on the ‘d20 System’, an open-source rules set to which many hands contributed. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tabletop role-playing games based on that system. Players can move freely from one setting to another without having an entirely new set of game mechanics to learn; settings and adventures written for one game can be easily adapted for another. D&D benefited hugely from this creative cross-fertilization. But the bean-counters at Hasbro were not satisfied. They wanted to recapture control of the D&D franchise, to make it their own exclusive property again. And the only way to do that was to abandon the d20 System and create a new, incompatible set of rules. This was bad enough; but Fourth Edition D&D was a conceptual disaster. All previous versions of the game had attempted to recreate the tropes and atmosphere of sword-and-sorcery fiction on the tabletop. D&D 4.0 tried to recreate online role-playing games on the tabletop. Instead of being a game about a fantasy world, it was a game about another game. And the complex real-time mechanics of something like World of Warcraft, which work smoothly enough when you have computers and server farms to do all the heavy calculation, are impossibly cumbersome when human beings have to crunch all the numberrs with pencil and paper. The Fourth Edition failed abysmally; and since Hasbro discontinued all the Third Edition products when it released the new system, the fans were left to twist in the wind. They were rescued from this fate by a tiny startup company. Paizo Games released its own heroic fantasy rules based on the d20 System (which still remains in the public domain, available for anyone to use). Pathfinder is cleverly reverse-engineered to be maximally compatible with D&D 3.5, while introducing certain changes that tend to make the mechanics more elegant and streamlined. It is exactly what D&D 4.0 should have been. At first, Paizo did not even have the money to release Pathfinder in print; the original rules were made freely available for download as a PDF file. This was a stroke of genius. Thousands of disaffected D&D players switched to the free Pathfinder rules, then clamoured for printed and bound copies. That gave Paizo the pre-orders it needed to start mass production of printed Pathfinder products; and now, if you go to any tabletop game shop (except Games Workshop, which sells only its own proprietary kit), you will find racks full of Pathfinder products and a distinct dearth of D&D offerings. It remains to be seen whether Star Wars fandom will reject the new Disney canon and cleave loyally to the old Expanded Universe. They have the disadvantage that nobody can reverse-engineer the original films. Disney will always have a hold over the fans through its control of the copyrights. But fan fiction and fan art operate in a world right outside the fences of intellectual property law. It may be that the ozamataz of Star Wars will be preserved through a kind of fan samizdat; that the really dedicated (and therefore profitable) fans of the franchise will tune out the official Disney offerings, and keep their own collaborative work as a separate canon in its own right. Or it could be that neither the Disney canon nor the Expanded Universe fandom will thrive. One thing is certain: The hand of Oz, the Great and Powerful, has been turned against The Mouse, and The Mouse brought it on itself. I do not mean to give the impression that ozamataz has become exclusively a property of game and film franchises. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien exhibit ozamataz par excellence. Tolkien’s story, in one respect, is curiously like Baum’s. After the publication of The Hobbit, he was bombarded with letters from children wanting ‘more about Hobbits’. But being a more serious and scholarly writer than Baum, and haunted moreover by a legendarium that he had been working away on for over twenty years, he was unable to tread Baum’s path. He did not grind out dozens of children’s books about the further adventures of Bagginses and Tooks, as he might have done. Instead, he wrote The Lord of the Rings; and the ozamataz jumped to an adult audience. The entire modern category of epic fantasy is the offspring of his work. The magnum opus was traduced on film through the efforts of well-meaning, if not well-informed, Tolkien fans, and so became known to hundreds of millions. At the opposite end of the media scale, a tiny but devoted coterie of fans write and publish pseudo-learned journals about Tolkien’s invented languages. Nobody has yet got round the Tolkien estate’s blanket prohibition on the commercial publication of fan fiction; but when Tolkien’s copyrights expire, we shall probably see that as well. A few other literary properties have ozamataz: most notably Harry Potter. One fandom exhibits the strange property of anti-ozamataz. The Wheel of Time had millions of readers, but did not attract a large community of creative fans; there is, I believe, comparatively little Wheel of Time fan fiction or fan art. This may be because nearly all the imaginative elements in the series were stolen from earlier and better writers, and any free play being done with those elements is happening in those writers’ fandoms – most notably the fandoms of Tolkien and of Frank Herbert’s Dune series. But the reverse ozamataz shows up very clearly in the Amazon reviews of the later Wheel of Time books. Nobody has begun a series with such lavish promises, or so blatantly failed to keep them; though George R. R. Martin may eventually come close. Beginning with about the fifth book, and with increased volume and stridency thereafter, Jordan’s fans complain about the glacial pace of the story, the bad writing, the endless chasing of side issues and subsidiary characters. Hundreds of the reviews, both on Amazon and on innumerable fan blogs, end with the reviewer swearing never to buy another instalment; but all too often, that same reviewer will return to the series like a dog to his vomit, and make all the same complaints, with the same hollow threat, about the next book. It reminds me of an old joke – speaking of dogs. An old Kentucky colonel was sitting on his veranda, sipping julep and greeting the neighbours as they passed by. His old yellow hound dog lay near him. Every so often, the dog would lift up its head and emit a heart-wrenching howl of pain and distress. ‘What the nation is the matter with that dog?’ a visitor asked. ‘Oh, don’t pay him no mind,’ said the colonel. ‘He’s just a-settin’ on a nail.’ ‘A nail! Well then, why don’t he get up off of it?’ The colonel thought gravely about this. ‘Well, sir, I reckon it only hurts enough to complain.’ Some fandoms are held together by admiration for a creative artist’s work; some by emulation. And then there are those, like Jordan’s fandom, or the Star Wars fans when discussing the prequels, that are held together by the shared pleasure of criticism, because it only hurts enough to complain. The one impulse leads to fan fiction; the other, to fan deconstruction. Both are legitimate amusements, I suppose; but I know which I would rather spend my time on. The great trouble of any writer, in this world of soundbites and YouTube and virtually free publishing, is to stand out from the crowd; to get his work noticed. The traditional methods of promotion hardly work at all any longer, unless backed by (at minimum) the hype machinery of a major motion-picture studio. On the other hand, an obscure and unheralded artist may suddenly ‘go viral’. When this happens, or at least, when it endures beyond the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ prescribed by Andy Warhol, it is proof of the power of ozamataz. The question, then, is how to attract ozamataz. Can one catch that particular kind of lightning in a bottle, or draw it down with a lightning rod? There do not seem to be any sufficient qualities to guarantee that a work or a franchise will develop a self-sustaining fandom. But perhaps we can identify the necessary qualities; and if we can work with those things in mind, we may increase our chances from zero to something that gives grounds for hope. For it is the fans, in the end, who work the real magic when it happens. Would you know the secret of Oz, the Great and Powerful? Look behind the curtain, and you will find it: ten thousand geeks in hall costumes.
  Read about what makes Ozamataz possible in ‘Legosity’.

Coming back from walkabout

I’m just stopping in to let the Loyal 3.6 know that I am still alive and (approximately) functioning, but I have been submerged in a wallow of trashy pop culture whilst waiting for my brain to return from going walkabout. Thanks to all who spoke up in favour of my M*A*S*H pieces; I shall continue the series, and have the next instalment in drydock, waiting for the hull to be put on. This language may possibly be figurative. At present my shipyard has three or four unfinished essais, also including a new piece by H. Smiggy McStudge, and some all-new content to put in the Style is the Rocket collection, in a mean and scurvy attempt to part you all from three of your hard-earned dollars. My resident mathematical genius informs me that $3 × 3.6 = $10.80 or thereabouts, and I plan to squander this ill-gotten fortune upon riotous living. I may buy a pizza. However, those pieces remain unfinished at present, because I took them up to the point where I required my brain to put in some work, and it was off doing Crocodile Dundee stuff somewhere in Western Australia. When last heard from, it was lounging about in the Pilbara, contemplating the ancient rock formations. Over three billion years ago, Pilbara was joined up with a chunk of what is now South Africa to form a primaeval continent which the geologists call Vaalbara; the oldest stone yet dated in the Earth’s crust, so I am told, is a chunk of sandstone from Vaalbara nearly four billion years old. Since sandstone is sedimentary, this rock formation was made up of the eroded rubble from still older Vaalbaran rocks – which takes you impressively close to the origins of the Earth itself. It is soothing and reassuring, at my brain’s age, to keep company with things even older than oneself. Needless to say, I myself have never been to the Pilbara. My brain is ashamed of me and never takes me anywhere. So I stayed behind, as I have said, wallowing in pop culture. I mentioned a while back that John Williams wrote the incidental music for both Star Wars and Gilligan’s Island; and I have come to the important conclusion that both these works are, in fact, the same story – if you squint at them just right. Five passengers and a crew of two board a rickety old vessel and set sail on what is supposed to be a short and routine voyage, whereupon everything imaginable goes wrong. It is true that the five passengers were never aboard the Millennium Falcon simultaneously; this is one of the ways in which George Lucas filed the serial numbers off of his sources. But once you have made the basic identification (as the folklorists would say), the rest becomes clear. Consider: Han Solo and Chewbacca are obviously the Skipper and Gilligan, respectively. Han is in charge; there are any number of times when, if he had owned a hat, he would undoubtedly have whacked Chewie on the head with it. The Falcon is Han’s Minnow, an ancient tub which ought to remain in a museum somewhere, but which he insists on jury-rigging with bad repair work and shoving off in, and to hell with the consequences. C-3PO and R2-D2 are clearly the Howells, an aging married couple with more money than brains. Nothing says billionaire bling, after all, like a solid gold protocol droid. Threepio is obviously Mrs. Howell. They not only speak with the same accent, they even have similar mannerisms, including a way of throwing their hands up (just from the elbow) for emphasis. Artoo, like Jim Backus, is a reliable scene-stealer. His personality, however, probably owes more to another of Jim Backus’s characters, Mr. Magoo. Artoo and Magoo are both short, bald, and on occasion, stupidly brave, one because he doesn’t know what he is getting into, the other because he is too nearsighted to see it. Obi-Wan Kenobi is obviously the Professor. He knows everything, explains it to everybody, and is nearly always wrong. This leaves a conundrum, for we have left two female roles and only one woman in the Star Wars cast. A little thought compels the conclusion that Princess Leia is Ginger Grant. The Slave Leia costume is the sort of thing one can well imagine Ginger wearing, but that Mary Ann would not have been caught dead in. Besides, the equation of glamour between movie stars and princesses is well known, as Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth especially could attest. This leaves one with the inescapable conclusion: Luke Skywalker is Mary Ann. At first this seems odd, but a closer look reveals the similarities. A farm kid from the middle of nowhere dreams of travelling and seeing the world, or galaxy, as the case may be. The first time away from home, he or she has the bad luck and poor judgement to book passage on a doomed vessel, on which, as mentioned above, everything imaginable goes wrong. He or she never reaches the intended destination, but winds up running aground on the sandy shore of an uncharted Death Star. Clearly the two stories are the same, and if they had been traditional folktales, Sir James George Frazer would have devoted a chapter of The Golden Bough to this surprising but incontrovertible mythological identity.

Creative discomfort and Star Wars

The fact is that this script feels rushed and not thought out, probably because it was rushed and not thought out.

—‘Harry S. Plinkett’ (Mike Stoklasa)

They’re already building sets. God help me! I’m going to have to start this script pretty soon.

—George Lucas

It is not actually true that ‘all good writing is rewriting’. It would be nearer the truth to say that all good ideas are second ideas — or third, fourth, or 157th ideas. Writers are notoriously divisible into two warring camps, ‘outliners’ and ‘pantsers’. One of the most common triggers for a rewrite happens when you come up with a brilliant new idea halfway through a draft — and that idea makes a hash of everything you have already written. This, in the war of the writers, is a powerful weapon against the pantsers. Jeff Bollow, for instance, in his book Writing FAST, recommends that you get your ideas right first, and write the draft later; but he also tells you never to use the first idea that comes to mind, for that only trains your mind to be lazy. If you do your brainstorming properly, and don’t start actually writing until your ideas are solid, you are much less likely to have to tear up a draft and start over. John Cleese touched on the same point in his 1991 talk on creativity:
Before you take a decision, you should always ask yourself the question, ‘When does this decision have to be taken?’ And having answered that, you defer the decision until then, in order to give yourself maximum pondering time, which will lead you to the most creative solution. And if, while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say: ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide till Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then. That’s too easy.’
That creative discomfort can make all the difference between great writing and dreck. One could argue the point endlessly, for there are examples to the contrary — snap decisions that turned out to be brilliant, slowly gestated ideas that still turned out useless. I would maintain that such cases are outliers: so much depends on the talent of the individual writer, and on sheer luck. What we want here is a controlled experiment. We could learn a great deal by taking the same writer and putting him through a series of similar projects. In half of them, he would have all the time he wanted to brainstorm, to throw away ideas when he came up with better ones, to tear up drafts, to indulge his creative discomfort. In the other half, whenever he had to make a decision, he would simply take the first workable idea that came to mind. Unfortunately, we can’t hire a writer to go through such an experiment. Fortunately, the experiment has already been made. The writer’s name was George Lucas. Michael Kaminski’s Secret History of Star Wars (both the book and the website) describes the experiment and its results in fascinating detail. For my present purpose, however, I will take only a few points from Kaminski’s (and Lucas’s) work, specifically about the writing process: two from the ‘Original Trilogy’, and three from the prequels. To begin, then: In the early 1970s, fresh off the unexpected success of American Graffiti, Lucas decided to try his hand at a rollicking space opera in the style of the old Flash Gordon serials. Thwarted in his attempt to buy the film rights to Flash Gordon itself, he began scribbling names and ideas on notepads, trying to come up with a space opera all of his own. He read and reread pulp science fiction stories obsessively, especially E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman books. After a million and three false starts (this number has been verified by Science), he sent his agent a very brief synopsis called The Journal of the Whills, which began with the following helpful sentence:
This is the story of Mace Windy, a revered Jedi-Bendu of Opuchi, as related to us by C. J. Thorpe, padawaan learner to the famed Jedi.
The agent, Jeff Berg, reacted approximately as follows: ‘Mace Who, a revered What of Where, as related by the Whatsit learner to the famed How’s That Again? You gotta be kidding me!’ He gently advised his client to rewrite the synopsis in English. This was not an easy request for the young Lucas to fulfil. From beginning to end, the Star Wars saga — as it would eventually be called — is filled with characters who speak no English at all. But he did approximately comply, and eventually came up with a treatment for a project called (at this point) The Star Wars. He lifted most of the story from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. As in the Kurosawa film, the lead characters are a general and a princess, who are trying to escape the clutches of a wicked and decadent empire during a period of civil war. The general’s name is Luke Skywalker. It took four years to turn this sketchy treatment into a movie. Along the way, Lucas put the script through four full drafts and innumerable small revisions. Seldom has a script been so struggled over. In some versions, the hero’s name is not Skywalker but Starkiller. (Sometimes both names, confusingly, are used in the same draft for two different characters.) The Jedi were written out of the second draft entirely, and then put back into the third. ‘The Force’ (sometimes called ‘the Force of Others’) is sometimes a purely mental power, somewhat similar to hypnosis, sometimes a physical super-power accessible to a trained mind. Han Solo was conceived as a repulsive green alien; then the green alien was renamed Greedo, and Han Solo (now a human) killed him. Lucas, in those days, had a well-justified lack of confidence in his writing skills. Fortunately, he had continual recourse to help from better qualified people — Gary Kurtz, Francis Ford Coppola, and his wife Marcia, among many others. Important bits of the script were reworked on the set by the actors. Harrison Ford famously told Lucas: ‘George, you can type this shit, but you can’t say it’ — and then turned it into something that he could say. Lucas borrowed lines and motifs wherever he could, and when he could not borrow, he stole; but he remained in control at all times, and gradually shaped this magpie’s collection of material into a classic fairy tale — a fairy tale in space. The original Star Wars became the surprise blockbuster of 1977, the biggest pop-culture phenomenon since Beatlemania. (I first saw it, as a boy of ten, at the old North Hill cinema in Calgary. In addition to the title, the marquee carried a shameless political plug: ‘R2-D2 FOR MAYOR’.) Lucas’s share of the profits was enough to bankroll a sequel without any financial input from a studio. Writing and directing the first film had nearly killed him; this time he hired help. The sequel was directed by Irvin Kershner, who would leave his own imprint on the story; but we are concerned here with the script. For that, Lucas wanted an honest-to-goodness, old-school space opera writer. A friend suggested Leigh Brackett: ‘Here is someone who wrote the cantina scene in Star Wars better than you did.’ Kaminski describes what happened next:
[Lucas] contacted the elderly Brackett, who was living in Los Angeles at that time, and asked her to write Star Wars II. ‘Have you ever written for the movies?’ Lucas asked her. ‘Yes, I have,’ Brackett replied simply — she began recounting her credits, which included Rio Bravo, El Dorado and The Big Sleep, co-written with William Faulkner, the Nobel-prize-winning novelist. An awkward silence followed. ‘Are you that Leigh Brackett?’ Lucas gasped. ‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Isn’t that why you called me in?’ ‘No,’ Lucas said, ‘I called you in because you were a pulp science fiction writer.’
The Empire Strikes Back took less reworking than the original Star Wars. Partly this was because most of the principal characters had already been established, and much of the world-building was already worked out. Also, Leigh Brackett was simply a much more accomplished writer than Lucas. Unfortunately, she died shortly after completing the first draft, and Lucas was once more thrown upon his own resources. He did a very rough second draft — more like a treatment based on Brackett’s first draft, incorporating some of the changes he wanted to make — before turning the job over to Lawrence Kasdan, whose work on Raiders of the Lost Ark had thoroughly impressed him. The general sequence of the script remained much the same in each version, starting with the rebels on the ice planet, then splitting up the cast as Luke went for his Jedi training, and ending with the climactic encounter with Darth Vader. The love story between Han and Leia was developed — here, again, Lucas stole what he could not borrow — with dialogue lifted from, of all places, Gone With the Wind. Here is a bit of dialogue from the book, between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara:
‘I’ll bet you a box of bonbons against—’ His dark eyes wandered to her lips. ‘Against a kiss.’ ‘I don’t care for such personal conversation,’ she said coolly and managed a frown. ‘Besides, I’d just as soon kiss a pig.’ ‘There’s no accounting for tastes and I’ve always heard the Irish were partial to pigs — kept them under their beds, in fact. But, Scarlett, you need kissing badly.’
A good thief steals without getting caught; a great thief doesn’t care whether he is caught, for he makes the stolen goods his own. Somewhere along the way, someone — Lucas, Brackett, Kasdan, or Kershner — came up with a change that turned this rather arch dialogue into a defining moment for the characters and a classic scene in cinema:
Han Solo: Afraid I was gonna leave without giving you a goodbye kiss? Princess Leia: I’d just as soon kiss a Wookiee. Han Solo: I can arrange that. You could use a good kiss.
This was all very well; and between Kasdan’s snappy dialogue and Kershner’s mastery of emotional range as a director, the Han–Leia element of the story blossomed spontaneously. But that was only a subplot. A terrible shadow hung over the main plot: the shadow of Luke’s father. Father Skywalker had actually appeared in one draft of the original Star Wars script, before Lucas decided that he was already dead when the story began. Now he somehow had to be worked into the sequel. One could hardly film a dramatic scene about a man who had been dead for twenty years. That meant that the other characters had to talk about him. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is a much abused bit of advice, but in drama and film, it really does apply. Showing saves time, and uses the full visual effect of the medium to convey an emotional impact that mere talking can never match. The conflict between the good Jedi, represented by Father Skywalker, and the evil Sith, represented by Darth Vader, could not easily be shown. The only way was to bring in Father Skywalker’s ghost along with Obi-Wan’s, as Leigh Brackett did in her first draft; and that, clearly, was one ghost too many. Unless— Inspiration struck. Unless Father Skywalker and Darth Vader were the same person. It was a brilliant idea: simple, dramatic, crackling with emotional force. It simplified the story, got rid of the extra ghost, and gave the whole script a powerful new unity. Before the change, Luke was separated from Han and Leia, not just physically, but thematically. He was going off to Dagobah to follow in his father’s footsteps; Han and Leia were fleeing to Bespin to escape from Vader’s fleet. But if Luke’s father was Vader, that tied their motives together and welded the plot into a single, consistent emotional arc. This is the kind of idea that is worth tearing up a draft for. From the original Journal of the Whills, it took Lucas five years to come up with it. Fortunately, this change did not require any changes to the first film — though it made Obi-Wan a liar, a fact for which his ghost would offer a lame excuse in Return of the Jedi. (He would have done better to admit that he was afraid to tell Luke too much of the truth.) It turned the second film into a tour de force. And it set up the conditions and the conflicts for the third film. What’s more, it did not require any significant change to the scene-by-scene structure of Leigh Brackett’s first draft; it only gave the scenes a new and deeper meaning. Unlike the four major drafts of Star Wars, which changed the original story beyond recognition, the redrafts of Empire only added strength to a structure that was already sound. When it became clear that Star Wars was a hit, and sequels would be called for, Lucas gave out that it was the first episode in a twelve-part series that he called ‘The Adventures of Luke Skywalker’. In 1979, this idea disappeared down the memory hole. The first film became Episode IV, with the subtitle ‘A New Hope’ — which was added to the opening crawl for the theatrical re-release in 1981. Star Wars became the overall series title — a sound commercial decision, given the immense value of the brand name Lucas had created. The number of films in the projected series was cut down to nine. In a particularly Orwellian move, Lucas published the ‘official’ screenplay of Star Wars in 1979, labelled ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’, and incorporating many changes made between the fourth draft and the final movie; but he let on that this was the actual fourth draft, as written in 1976. It was the first of many attempts he would make to rewrite his own history. ‘Greedo shot first’ has a long lineage, if not an honourable one. The Empire Strikes Back, as it turned out, was a brilliant movie; the trouble was that Lucas didn’t want brilliance, didn’t particularly understand it, and had not much idea how to make use of it. All along, he had wanted Empire to be short, quick-moving, and upbeat, like its predecessor; he was unhappy that Kasdan and Kershner turned it into something slower and grander and more introspective, and furiously angry with Kurtz for letting them go far over budget to do it. The immediate upshot was that Kurtz was replaced: Howard Kazanjian was hired to produce Return of the Jedi, in the hope that he would prove more obedient. Jedi begins the downward spiral of the Star Wars sequels. Already we begin to see Lucas losing patience with his creative discomfort, taking snap decisions, seeking the easy way out of plot difficulties. He had already had the idea that Luke would have a sister, another potential Jedi; she appears under the name of Nellith in Brackett’s draft. That, and Yoda’s cryptic statement in Empire, ‘There is another,’ seem originally to have been intended as setup for Episodes VII through IX — and to heighten the immediate tension, by suggesting that Luke himself was expendable after all, and might not survive. But by the time he began work on Jedi, he was growing sick of the whole Star Wars phenomenon; he no longer had any intention of making six more episodes. So he took the easy way out by making Leia Luke’s sister, and also the ‘other’ that Yoda spoke of. There was nothing in Leia’s character to suggest a potential Jedi; but she was already there, and indeed, the only significant female character in the series. It was simply easier to write her as the ‘other’ than to introduce a new character for the purpose. However, Jedi still works reasonably well. It carries on with the momentum generated by Empire, somewhat diminished by disco dance numbers and burp jokes, and by the need to find screen time for far too many Ewoks. Kershner and Kurtz were gone, but Kasdan was still on board as co-writer, and he outdid himself in developing the final three-way confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. Lucas’s snap decisions, at this stage, were all about tying up loose ends of subplots; they could not detract from the main story of the film. Let us skip forward a bit. Fifteen years later, Lucas was hard at work on Episode I, to which he gave the puzzling title, The Phantom Menace. This time, he was the sole (credited) screenwriter, as well as the director, executive producer, chief cook, bottle-washer, studio mogul, greenlighter, Howard Hughes, and Citizen Kane. Unlike Empire and Jedi, the new script was his baby, solely — and he had not improved as a screenwriter with the years. When Kasdan was brought in to rewrite the second draft of Empire, he was incredulous at the sheer badness of the dialogue; he had not heard the inside story about all of Lucas’s helpers on the original Star Wars script. This time, Lucas’s inadequacies would be exposed to the world’s naked and unforgiving gaze. I will pass over the inadequacies of the dialogue in the prequels, except to point out that with a very little more creative discomfort, Lucas could have hired a script doctor — a younger equivalent of Kasdan — to go over the lines and make them read more naturally. Lucas’s dialogue is too literal, too ‘on the nose’: he never learnt the discipline of trusting his actors to act. Things that could be better conveyed by indirection — an elliptical remark, delivered with the right tone and facial expressions — were stated baldly, in terms that left the actors very little to do. Partly, as I have heard, this was done to make the script easier to translate into foreign languages, in which the subtleties of the original might be lost. If that is so, it would have done no harm to save Lucas’s version as a master script for translators, and then hire a script doctor to translate it into English, inserting subtleties as required. But nobody seems to have thought of doing this. What made Phantom so disappointing to grownups, and especially to those with fond memories of the characters and lines from Empire and Jedi, was that apart from the brilliant CGI work, it seemed to be built out of Tinkertoys. Every character and every action were obviously designed to get from one plot point to the next with a minimum of creative effort, and most of the plot points were apparently designed to lead into the visual set-pieces — the pod race, the battle on Naboo, and the utterly ridiculous scene in which the nine-year-old Anakin blows up the droid control ship with a one-man fighter that he doesn’t even know how to fly. The cumulative effect is bizarre: you might say that the picture had the brush-strokes of a Turner landscape, but the composition of a connect-the-dots puzzle. Lucas did not write the Phantom script quickly; but he had many other cares, thanks to the multitude of hats he was wearing, and the script shows abundant signs that he skimped on the work. I will take one case as a sufficient example: the dire origin story of C-3PO. Let us begin with the obvious. Young Anakin claims that he built Threepio to help his mother around the house. His mother, mind you, is a slave: she is supposed to be the help, not receive the help. This raises an awkward question. Droids are the accepted substitute for slave labour in the Star Wars universe. Why, then, does a scrap dealer, with a shop full of robots in assorted states of repair, need an organic slave as well as all his mechanical ones? It is never made very clear what kind of work Shmi Skywalker does for her master; her only function in the plot is to be owned, and to make her son grieve when he is separated from her. One wonders why she would be allowed to have a robot to help her at all. Why not just have the robot, and dispense with the human slave? Suppose we let all this pass. Why, then, did Anakin build a protocol droid? Surely, if your mother were a maid-of-all-work and you wanted to build a machine to help her, you would not immediately think of making a slow-moving mechanical man who was ‘fluent in over six million forms of communication’. Owen Lars, in the original Star Wars, had no need for an interpreter; he bought C-3PO from an obvious fence, presumably at a bargain price, to talk sense into his moisture vaporators. But apparently Shmi, a scrap dealer’s slave on the same unimportant desert world, does need a translator; needs one so badly that her son decides to make her one out of spare parts as the ideal gift. It does not begin to be plausible; it hardly even pretends to be. But these are side issues. The crucial fault, of course, is that young Anakin (as we, the audience, know in advance) will turn out to be Darth Vader; and yet, when they meet face to face after a lapse of many years, neither will recognize the other. Lucas made an attempt to save the appearances in Episode III, where Threepio’s memory is wiped. Even devoted fans of the series admit that this is clumsy. So why was it done this way at all? The only answer appears to be that Lucas wanted C-3PO in all six episodes, and he needed a way to shoehorn him into Phantom — a film that otherwise had no need of him. So he gave him a cameo in the first place he could think of. This, surely, was a case that cried out for some creative discomfort. Lucas settled for a lazy idea when it would have been much easier, and immeasurably better artistically, to sweat over the problem until he came up with a good idea. Before I sat down to write this essai, I spent a few minutes brainstorming for ideas on how better to introduce Threepio in Episode I. By your leave, I will offer the one that seemed to work best — the one that solved the most problems in the story. I don’t claim that it is the best possible idea; it is merely the most interesting of several that occurred to me when I troubled to think about the problem. Here it is: What if C-3PO was a protocol droid working for the Trade Federation? We see an almost identical droid (silver, not gold) in the opening scene aboard the Trade Federation flagship; it’s the one that serves drinks to Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan while they wait in the conference room. This would improve the story in several ways. To begin with, it would give some personality to the protocol droid in the conference room — a scene that desperately needed something to make it interesting. It would give the two Jedi a better motive for going down to Naboo. Their stated motive is nonsense: you can’t warn somebody that an invasion fleet is coming by stowing away on the invasion fleet itself. But as a protocol droid, Threepio would have been a witness to the machinations that led the Trade Federation leaders to the brink of treason and open war. That information could have been vital to the Naboo side, and politically important to the Republic itself, and to the Jedi Council. One can easily imagine the two Jedi taking Threepio by force, removing the restraining bolt that his previous master presumably gave him, and using him to bluff their way through to a shuttle that would take them down to Naboo. Threepio would likely have helped them, moved by a combination of gratitude (they set him free of the restraining bolt and some unsavoury owners) and timidity (these are, after all, Jedi, and we see them using the Force to smash droids into kindling). On Naboo he would have met R2-D2, who was assigned to the Queen’s yacht. They would have been a robotic Montague and Capulet; much could have been made of the process by which they learnt to work together, and turned from official enemies into bickering but steadfast friends. This kind of comic relief was something Lucas knew how to write and direct; the byplay between the droids is one of the best things in the original Star Wars, and indeed they carry the action all by themselves for much of the first act. That suggests the best reason of all for introducing C-3PO this way: it would have cut Jar-Jar Binks completely out of the story. The idea of Jar-Jar was not fundamentally a bad one, but the execution was embarrassing. He introduces an element of the lowest slapstick into otherwise serious, or at least seriocomic, scenes; and Lucas simply has not got the skills to handle slapstick. Physical humour is a ‘low’ form of comedy, in that it makes few demands on the intelligence of its audience; but it requires tremendous technical skill to do properly. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were enormously respected by their fellow actors, who knew how hard it was to make people laugh in that way. Episode II sees Lucas resorting to more and more implausible devices to rescue himself from his own hasty decisions. The movie scarcely hangs together at all: the characters go rabbiting all over the Galaxy on slight pretexts, and in consequence, have little time to interact with one another. What this episode should have done — what it needed to accomplish — was to show Anakin growing into an idealistic young Jedi knight, ‘the best star pilot in the galaxy’, and ‘a good friend’, as Obi-Wan called him in the original. The romance between Anakin and Padme could have been deferred to Episode III; or it could have been made a complication in the second act of Clones, a wedge that came between Obi-Wan and his apprentice. But here again, Lucas took the easiest way out. Instead of showing us these things, he simply told us — in the most static and unconvincing way, by having Anakin and Obi-Wan reminisce about their adventures together for a minute or two in a moving lift. The adventure they alluded to would have made a splendid overture to the main story. It would have served the same function (and could have been about the same length) as the battle of Hoth in Empire or the Jabba the Hutt section of Jedi. That would have put the characters, especially Anakin, on a firm footing, and given the audience a solid impression of Anakin as a good guy. Instead, our first long look at the grown-up Anakin comes in static indoor scenes, where he paces up and down and complains incessantly about Obi-Wan to anyone who will sit still for it. He comes across as a whiny, spoilt adolescent, self-important, consumed with petty grievances, but too cowardly to complain to Obi-Wan himself. This is a disastrous error. It undermines the whole character of Anakin; we almost feel that his turning to the Dark Side is redundant. Lucas, in his own mind, firmly believed that the story arc of the prequels was about the good and virtuous Anakin being seduced by evil. But the good and virtuous Anakin only existed in Lucas’s mind. He never made it into the films. Let us finish off with an example from Episode III: the death of Padme, which is a crucial point in the plot. We have a world in which the most hideously maimed and broken men can be put together again with prosthetic parts. We see it done with Anakin, who loses all four of his limbs, has the skin burnt off the rest of his body by hot lava — and lives. He is rebuilt into the dark and menacing form of Darth Vader. And yet Padme, having what (as far as we can tell) is a perfectly ordinary pregnancy, lying in an aseptic delivery room, surrounded by droid doctors and the best medical technology in the nascent Empire, can die in childbirth — not even from eclampsia or an infection, but simply from a broken heart. Women do die in childbirth sometimes, even with advanced medicine, and it is at least debatable that some women die of broken hearts; but never the two in combination. The presence of a newborn child concentrates the instincts and the affections wonderfully; it gives the most broken-hearted mother something to live for. Worst of all, Anakin has just turned to the Dark Side specifically to learn how to prevent Padme’s death — and yet he does absolutely nothing about it. Once again, a few minutes’ thought suggested a number of alternatives to me; here is the one I personally like best. Lucas himself almost stumbled into it — but instead of filming it, he made it a lie told by the Emperor. When the newly built Vader takes his first lurching steps (so painfully reminiscent of Frankenstein), he asks what has happened to Padme. ‘You killed her,’ says the Emperor. Very well: What if Anakin really did kill Padme? How would that come about? We know that Anakin saw little of Padme during her pregnancy — the Jedi and the Emperor kept him too busy, and usually too far away. On the evidence of Vader’s dialogue in Jedi, he never knew that she was carrying twins. Let us suppose, then, that Padme is safely delivered of her two children while Anakin was away; that she knows he has turned to the Dark Side and is now the Emperor’s apprentice. What does she do? The obvious thing is to hide the children. She places Luke in the care of Anakin’s kinsman, Owen Lars — on the face of it, a fearfully stupid thing to do, for Vader knows that place all too well. But we may suppose that she works out her plan with Obi-Wan, and he chooses to go into retirement on Tattooine specifically to watch over the boy and protect him from the Empire. Then she hides Leia by having her adopted into the powerful Organa family on Alderaan. At this point, both her children are in safe places, and all the witnesses are in hiding as well. (Except the droids in the delivery room; but she could have had their memories wiped, and we would be much more willing to accept it than we were with a known and beloved character like Threepio.) The only really dangerous witness — the first one Vader would seek out and interrogate — is now Padme herself. So she gets on her fancy ship with a skeleton crew, devoted family retainers who will join her on a suicide mission — and goes to seek out the command ship on which, even then, Vader and the Emperor are searching for her. She goes to meet her fate, and challenge it. Either the Emperor will die, and the threat will be ended, or she will die, and her children’s secret will be safe. The final scene would be very short: it would fall like a hammer blow to the vitals. There might be a short radio conversation between Vader and Padme while her ship locks in a collision course with his. ‘I can’t let the Republic die,’ she might say. ‘You can’t let the Jedi die, Ani. Search your feelings!’ (When you are conducting a life-or-death negotiation and every second counts, the dialogue can afford to be on the nose.) The Emperor looks on, unconcerned and sneering: he knows how strong the Dark Side is, and what chains of shared guilt bind his new apprentice to him. We see Vader on the bridge as the ship approaches in the viewport. He looks back and forth between the Emperor and his wife, indecisive — as he will one day look between the Emperor and Luke. But this time, he is not strong enough; he capitulates. At the last possible moment, he gives the weapons officer the order to open fire, and Padme’s ship is obliterated. Cut to an exterior shot of the command ship, bits of burning metal glancing off the hull. On the soundtrack, we hear Vader’s cry of loss and grief, and the Emperor’s triumphant laughter. This scenario, or something like it, would give Padme something to do, instead of being a stereotypical damsel in distress, and dying pointlessly of a broken heart. We could believe that a firebrand like Leia could be the daughter of such a mother. (Natalie Portman could have prepared for the role by carefully watching Leia’s scenes in A New Hope, and adopting similar mannerisms.) It would set up a resonance with the ending of Episode VI. Lucas is very fond of such resonances: he exploited them incessantly, even shamelessly, in the prequels. ‘Each stanza sort of rhymes with the last,’ as he puts it. The ending of Jedi would appear in a whole new light: Vader’s second chance, which he thought would never come: an opportunity to redeem his failure when Padme needed him most. Lucas had the right idea, or part of it, when he thought of making things rhyme. But rhyme in poetry is most effective at the end of a line. The word that rhymes is also the last word. Those, at any rate, are the ideas: they took me all of fifteen minutes’ creative discomfort — much less time to invent them than it took to write them down. I have no doubt that Lucas could have come up with better ones than these if he had seriously tried. But he was too used to making snap decisions and having them obeyed. Lucasfilm had become his perfect machine, a machine that incorporated hundreds of talented men and women in its works; a machine that would instantly do, not what he wanted done, but what he told it to do — as literal-minded as a computer. The days when he worked with equals, like Coppola, Spielberg, Kurtz, or Kasdan, were long gone; now he had only subordinates, too timid to question him, too small in stature to challenge him to do better. With such servants, his own capacity for creative discomfort atrophied and, I fear, eventually died. And to a great extent, the Star Wars prequels died along with it, leaving behind only a gigantic mausoleum of bloodless fight scenes and visual effects. They could have done so much more. They could have lived.

Disk Vader

For those benighted souls who haven’t yet seen it (and I was one of you, five minutes ago): The Imperial March from Star Wars — played on two 3.5-inch floppy drives!