In Search of Rey’s Parents… Or Not

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Prefacing this entry with the usual SPOILER ALERT for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, although seriously, if you’re one of the eight people left in the world who hasn’t seen it yet, what’s stopping you already?  I’m gonna get into major storyline discussion here, so please stop now if you don’t want to have the movie ruined for you.  Should you proceed past this paragraph, you are tacitly agreeing to hold me blameless.  Putting on the hold music while you consider wading further…

…doo dee doo dee doodeedoo, da da da da, dara dada daa.  (That’s the Cantina Band song, FYI.)

Now that we’ve had a little over a month to watch, re-watch, digest, mull, contemplate and postulate regarding the implications of the newest Star Wars movie, not to mention its – in the modest opinion of this scribe – gobsmackingly awesome lead character, we turn our lonely eyes to imagining what lies beyond the horizon of December 2017 and revelations promised to us by the ambiguous finale there on that isolated mountaintop in the middle of an endless sea where nascent Jedi Rey presented the fabled blue lightsaber of Anakin Skywalker to its last master Luke, just before the iris wipe to credits.  One of the biggest mysteries left unanswered as those blue names began fading in and out surrounded Rey herself, how she was able to achieve a decent mastery of the Force so quickly, and if perhaps the solution lies in her parentage.  There are three main theories circulating the Internet to that regard:  that she is Luke’s daughter, that she is Obi-Wan Kenobi’s granddaughter, or she is another child of Han Solo and Leia Organa whom they chose not to acknowledge during their many interactions with her in The Force Awakens.  While it’s very possible that one of those theories is the correct answer, I would argue that from a story perspective, it’s better if Rey is none of the above.  Why?  Let’s get into that.

1.  The Star Wars universe is incestuous enough already.

One of the loveliest aspects of the narrative of the very first Star Wars movie is how each character guides you to the next through a series of what seem like chance encounters.  Princess Leia hides the Death Star plans inside R2-D2, who meets up with C-3P0 and crashes with him on Tatooine.  They are abducted by Jawas who then sell them to the family of Luke Skywalker, who takes them to Obi-Wan Kenobi, who takes him to Han Solo and Chewbacca, who takes the whole gang back to Princess Leia, completing the circle.  With the sequels we learned of familial connections that made that journey in the first film seem like an amazing series of coincidences.  Indeed, it’s well known that making the villain the father of the hero did not occur to George Lucas until well into the second draft of The Empire Strikes Back, and likewise had he known that Luke and Leia would turn out to be siblings in the next movie we would have escaped the notorious makeout scene in the Hoth medical bay.

You can’t argue the dramatic impact of those revelations – the original trilogy probably would not have had as much resonance without them – but as modern writers and directors, you can’t go back to that parched well yet again without risking the audience’s suspension of disbelief.  The prequels made things worse by establishing that C-3P0 had been built by Anakin Skywalker himself and that R2-D2 had been present for every significant event that transformed the Republic into the Empire, the cumulative effect of which was to retroactively make old Obi-Wan Kenobi into the biggest exaggerator/outright liar this side of Coruscant.  (Theory #2, that Rey is a descendant of Kenobi, would make him an even bigger liar, and render all his sanctimonious teachings to Anakin about forsaking attachment for the greater good pretty well moot.)

It almost escalated into the realm of the ridiculous:  we were spared, thankfully, an “Anakin, I am your father” moment from Episode III when a planned monologue from Palpatine about how he used the Force to will the midichlorians (ugh) to create the young Skywalker was dropped from the final script.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, space is really, really, really, really big.  Are we to accept that every major happening in the really, really, really big Star Wars galaxy centers on three generations of a single family who keep running into each other in amazingly convenient fashion, and hold back just enough truth from their encounters to keep the plot moving right along?  The Force Awakens was fairly criticized for having its story rely too much on coincidence, and Episode VIII should endeavor to move away from that – not turn the whole enterprise into a “who’s your father” exercise that would embarrass Maury Povich.

2.  It weakens Kylo Ren’s character arc.

Kylo Ren, a.k.a. Ben Solo, sees himself as the natural heir to Darth Vader (the evil part of Vader, not the redeem-yourself-in-the-end-by-killing-the-bad-guy-aspect).  As a member of the hallowed Skywalker line, Kylo believes he has been chosen by the Force itself to fulfill a grand purpose left unfinished.  When he is using the Force to extract information from Rey’s mind and finds his own mind under siege by her awakening Force powers, his deepest fear, that he will never achieve that goal, is revealed.  After Rey rejects his offer of teaching her and defeats him in their climactic lightsaber duel, the implication for Kylo going forward is an escalating path of bitterness that he is not, in fact, the Chosen One he believes himself to be.  That his destiny is one of mediocrity, being vilified for his murderous actions, and ultimately being forgotten.  How much more brutal for his ego does it become, how many more lightsaber-slashing tantrums ensue, if the person who is fated for greatness in the Force turns out to be a mere nobody from a backwater world plucked from obscurity, instead of being yet another scion of an already famous family?

Kylo feels entitled to greatness by virtue of being descended from greatness.  If he is pitted against someone descended from that exact same greatness, what results is petulant cries of “mom and dad always liked you best” as glowing blades clash (and Kylo is teetering a little too far on the emo scale for the liking of many to begin with).  It becomes the equivalent of Kim and Kourtney and Khloe duking it out for Force supremacy, and honestly, nobody really roots for anyone in that contest, do they?  Instead, Kylo’s rage at failing to measure up to someone who has not a drop of Skywalker blood in her would truly push him over the edge – and if he is to follow Anakin Skywalker’s ultimate path of redemption, the choice to save someone who was not family (especially after he had no problem murdering his own father) would be all the more meaningful.

3.  It makes Rey less special, and it reinforces the dubious lesson that greatness depends solely on where you came from.

Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey elevated her above contemporary genre female heroes simply by how much whiz-bang joy she invested in it.  Rey wasn’t one of these downtrodden “sigh, I guess I have to go reluctantly save the world now because I’m the only one who can” tropes yanked from dystopian teen fiction.  While her choice to join the fight was not a willing one, once she committed she went all in, and brought a sense of wonder to the new world she was discovering both without and within.  Despite her initial and understandable fears, she embraced her abilities with the Force and became stronger than the young “no one” had ever dreamed.  Obviously Rey’s connection to her family is a pivotal component of her character; when we first meet her she is marking off the days since she was abandoned by them on the desert planet Jakku, and she longs to go back and continue waiting for them to return.  In the vision that accompanies her first touch of the lightsaber, we see a young Rey begging them not to go, and a spaceship rising into the sky in the distance, the faces of her family conveniently kept off camera for a possible future revelation.  If we see a future reprise of this scene and the camera whips around to reveal Luke Skywalker, or anyone else we already know, Rey’s choice to grow becomes less about personal courage and more about inevitability and predestination.  In that iteration, the choice was never hers – her DNA made it for her.  Put it in more contemporary terms:  a young man is born to a legendary major league home run hitter and eventually grows up to hit even more home runs than his father.  How interesting is that story, versus that of a young man born to an non-athletic minimum-wage day laborer who against much longer odds achieves the same goal?

The Chosen One is a trope that stretches back to the beginning of human storytelling, and resonates because there is a part of every single one of us that sometimes wishes we were “chosen ones” ourselves.  But in a way, this fantasy is abdicating a very precious responsibility – free will, our ability to write our own destiny – by wishing that someone else had set everything in motion for us long before we were born.  That we were born into royalty, or a long line of millionaires/magicians/mutants, or whatever, and all that is needed to rise from the puddle of mediocrity in which we think we swim is that fabled call to adventure.  There is something to be said for the concept of a true nobody who comes from nothing rising to seize the lightsaber by virtue of her own determination and hard work (a concept sure to appeal to the libertarians out there) and righting the course of history.  It would certainly be a positive message to send to the young women who identify with Rey that they don’t need to be of noble blood (or marry someone who is) in order to make something remarkable of themselves.

We know, based on the existence of Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi and the countless other Jedi who populated the prequels, that the Force is not confined to the members of the Skywalker family.  Kenobi says in the first movie that the Force exists in all living things, and as much as you might hate the whole midichlorian concept, it reinforces this idea that everything has the ability to touch the Force on some level.  We also know that the Force is sentient, and is constantly attempting to balance itself by investing individual people with an enhanced ability to use it.  For all we know, there could be thousands of young men and women like Rey spread throughout the galaxy, gifted in different areas with an unusual level of aptitude that they don’t fully understand.  Poe Dameron’s ace piloting skills, for example, might even be another manifestation of the Force, if to a more limited degree.  But only Rey has the courage to “let it in,” which, if it speaks to her fortitude and not her parentage, makes her all the more compelling a character.  It tells the audience that every last one of you has the potential for greatness, and nothing about that requires that your last name is or has ever been Skywalker.

4.  And it’s exactly what we’re expecting them to do.

And that is my biggest gripe with the potential big reveal about Rey’s parents in Episode VIII.  J.J. Abrams et al did such a phenomenal job in keeping Rey’s story secret for The Force Awakens that watching her discover her true self was the most wonderful surprise about a movie that relied so much on echoing the story beats of the first, classic trilogy.  I can’t help but thinking that if Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (respective directors of Episode VIII and IX) go down the well-trodden road of hanging the emotional stakes of the next two movies on a tired, obvious theory about Rey that everyone has already guessed, then the audience response will be a fairly giant collective shrug – and it’s not as though those movies don’t already have enormous expectations to live up to the standard set by TFA.  Certainly it’s fun to speculate about who Rey could really be, but we want the answer to be something that nobody ever saw coming.  We want to be surprised again, and frankly, given the amount of money and talent going into producing these things, we should see nothing less than their best efforts to do just that.  The greatest stories are those where your expectations are turned on their head, not just met (barely).

It was announced this week that Episode VIII‘s release date has been bumped from May to December 2017, ostensibly due to that being a window that steers it clear of the comic-book adaptations and other summer movie fare that might eat into its potential box office take.  But it was also revealed that writer-director Rian Johnson is doing another revision on the script (even though filming has already begun) to pare back the roles of some new characters and ensure that the spotlight remains on Rey, Poe and Finn (umm… obviously?).  If they are going to take that extra time to make sure we get the best movie possible, then use it to give us a story that will keep us guessing or make us admit in hindsight that “I never would have thought of that.”  Don’t count on holding the audience’s loyalty if what you are serving is a lame, obvious “Rey, I am your father” reveal.  (The latest theory about Rey is that she is descended from Emperor Palpatine, based on, I don’t know, the fact that they both have British accents?  Not quite sure how old Palps was getting some on the side while he was so single-mindedly plotting to take over the galaxy.)

Rey is such a wonderful addition to the Star Wars universe, and to the motion picture science fiction/fantasy genre in general, that it would be a shame to see her lessened by a cheap, easily anticipated plot twist about her parentage.  She, and her fans cheering her on from the theater seats, deserve far more.  It may be fun to speculate about such things, but I have a feeling that if any of these theories turns out to be right, the result will be only disappointment – and everyone knows we have endured far too much disappointment from this franchise already.

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Vintage, Part Twenty-Five

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We might just get this monster finished after all.  Here is Part 25.

Grief was an inconvenient emotion at the quietest of times, and it was certainly no more accommodating when one’s enemy had his hands about your throat, or when the world was collapsing around you.  Etienne could not spare a half-second to mourn his lost love, not when Girard Noeme was attempting to kill him, not while the ceiling caved in and the floor continued to crumble.

Devastation from both above and below careened toward Etienne and Noeme as they grappled.  Noeme’s elegant dining table and his priceless wine cellar both succumbed and fell out of sight.

“Shall we join her, Etienne?” A sardonic smirk twisted Noeme’s lip.  Etienne loathed the increasingly pressing idea of letting the man go, but not badly enough to sacrifice himself for it.

Noeme knew it.

The rack nearest them began to warp and crack as its furthest edge sank over the rim of the approaching hole.  The nerves inside Etienne’s teeth throbbed as he clenched them.

Out of options.

He delivered an uppercut to Noeme’s jaw and ran, making a hard break for the slanted side wall of the cavern, where a modicum of safety might be found.  Noeme spat blood, shook off Etienne’s hit and set out on a parallel path.  Both men leaped to the wall.  They clung to desperate handholds as the last of the floor vanished beneath them.  Heads buried themselves in the crooks of elbows to avoid inhaling the gale of shattered bedrock and loose soil spinning throughout the cavern.

Hovering safely inside a protective shell of magic, Elyssia never took her empty eyes from Nightingale as she dropped the entirety of the earth upon her.  More tumbled from above, most of it falling straight through the maw in the floor, the rest piling up along the sides of the cavern in drifts, blanketed by fragments of what was left of the structure of the five sub-floors of the Bureau building.

The wrath of a goddess was thorough.

She did not relent until a new element joined the bombardment, though this one floated into the cavern more gently than the rest:  warm shafts of morning sunlight, casting an amber glow upon the billions of motes of dust suspended in the air.  A fifty-foot wide crevasse opened to the surface now, and in the silence that settled over the cavern as the last of the rock fell, faint sounds of the battle being waged up there drifted down to where Noeme and Etienne were lying.

Noeme pushed himself up from the dirt.  He looked at Elyssia, who floated quietly in the middle of the devastation she had wrought.  Her task accomplished, her broken mind awaited further orders.

“Ma belle,” he called to her.  Glowing white eyes fixed on their master.  “Nightingale is gone.  Now your power is free.  This country is yours.  Do as we planned.”  Gleeful at the impending realization of his vision, Noeme’s tone swelled into spit-drenched hysterics.  “Faites de chaque âme votre esclave!”

Etienne burst from the darkness and tackled him.

Languidly, Elyssia stretched out her arms.  From open palms threads of gold light began to rise and tangle together, like the first shoots of vines climbing from the soil.  Laced at the heart of the light though was a stream of onyx-dark energy, a tentacle of malevolence.  The light spun together, gold and black intertwined, into a single, flowering whirlwind that fanned out as it surged up through the opening to the surface, cracking eardrums with the sound of lightning ricocheting inside hollow tin.

Bureau soldiers and St. Iliane rebels hacking at each other halted in mid-slice.  Energy erupted into the sky in a single pillar and blasted outward, bathing every living person in its glow.  The treacly black tentacle lanced through the initial warm embrace, snaking and twisting through mouths, noses, ears and eyes, embedding itself in minds, sponging away every trace of independent thought.  The battle stopped and men of both sides stood silent, their wills erased.  Subjugated as one to Elyssia’s power, bodies pledged to undying service of a goddess – herself enslaved as much as they.

The spell’s strength was magnified with each foot it traveled.  Unimpeded by the structures of men it hurtled across the very limits of the city of Calerre.  Magic did not discriminate:  at kitchen tables, at casino tables, on the docks or beneath the streets, in the fur-lined echelons of political power or in the fetid rot of the slums, people were changed.  Husbands forgot the faces of their wives.  Fathers forgot their daughters.  In an instant, the collected thoughts of a hundred thousand people went silent.

Exempt were those who bore the brunt of Girard Noeme’s lifelong hatred.  Throughout Calerre and beyond, witches young and old, confused and terrified at what was happening in front of them, tried to free their loved ones from the grip of the dark spell, meeting only empty glares.  In the cavern below the Bureau Centrale headquarters, light continued to sail upward from her hands as Elyssia de Navarre swept her irresistible control out across the country, claiming new souls from every county and rural village, adding mindless conscripts to Noeme’s army ten thousand at a time.

As a single mass they waited for her instruction.

As she waited for hers.

Etienne and Girard Noeme flailed about on the sloping dirt ledge like a pair of hormonal schoolboys battling over the favor of the prettiest girl.  Etienne tried to wrest himself free of the man’s arm coiled about his neck, squeezing on his windpipe.  He elbowed Noeme in the groin, climbed out from under him and pinned him beneath his legs.  The attacks that ensued were wild, an animal fury made human.  Noeme’s gashed and swollen face bled raw from almost every pore, and still Etienne did not stop.  The skin of his knuckles purpled with bruises.  He wanted to beat the man’s smile from his mouth.  Blow followed blow, delivered with such furious conviction as if every single punch could demolish those qualities in Noeme that Etienne hated most in himself.

Girard Noeme was who Etienne had so desperately wanted to become, and was now determined to destroy.

Noeme’s fingers scratched for a handful of dirt.  He flung it into Etienne’s face.  Black chunks stabbed Etienne’s eyes.  Filled them with tears.  He wheezed, stumbled back as he grabbed at them.  Noeme seized Etienne’s disorientation and landed two jabs in his stomach, then finished with a hook to his right cheek.  Etienne crumpled.

The older man lumbered to his feet, brushed past his fallen opponent and descended the slope on which they fought.  Elyssia was floating out there in the middle of the cavern, sending her spell up and out into the world, and Noeme had but to speak to her to set his final, terrible play in motion.

Blindly, Etienne thrust out his leg.  Noeme’s foot caught on it.  He pitched forward.  Slid to the edge of the precipice.  Etienne dove after him, his field of vision a scattering of blurs.  Noeme grabbed at a handhold.  Caught Etienne’s arm.

Pulled them both over the side.

Etienne’s arms jerked painfully taut as he latched onto a spiked crag of rock that arrested his fall.  Noeme was hanging a few feet lower, trying to paw his way back up.  Frosted gusts of wind tugged at them from the massive hole beneath their feet while the flaring and hissing of Elyssia’s spell above cleaved at their ears.  Etienne stretched his hand out for another cleft in the rock, one that brought him closer to where Noeme was holding on.  Noeme watched him.

It did not require genius to divine Etienne’s intent.

“What happens after you kill me, mon gars?” Noeme bellowed.  Echoing his earlier words.  “I’m trying to save civilization, not destroy it!  Can you imagine ten thousand witches battling like this for control?  Our world will be ashes!  Balance needs to be restored!  It’s the only way!”

Etienne let go of the crag, dug his fingers into the new crevice and pulled himself over.

Noeme’s tirade continued, hollered from below like a demon trying to tempt the mortals that walked above.  Planting doubt so that they might chance to look down.  “You can’t stop your mother.  You’ve accomplished nothing.  All you’ve done is march your beloved Nightingale to her death.”

Gripping at the rock face, Etienne hung above him now.

He lowered his foot.

“Do you ever wonder why your parents abandoned you?  They knew what you were.  You betrayed me.  You betrayed Valnier and the men under your command.  You sacrificed the men you brought with you today, and you let your lover die right in front of you.  Your very existence is poison, Etienne.  How does it feel to be a man who destroys everything and everyone he touches?”

Etienne answered by pressing the toe of his boot onto Noeme’s strained hand.  He kept it there and gazed down at his old mentor, the man who had directed and controlled the course of his entire life, and so many other nameless lives as well.  The man whose life he now held in his grasp for the first time, and who, for the first time, he knew he no longer needed to fear.

Girard Noeme’s scarred mouth foamed with fury.  “You’d do this, Monsieur le Commissionaire?  I made you.  What were you before me… the unwanted offspring of a worthless drunk?  I gave you everything you have.  And there’s nothing out there for you if I’m gone.  You are nothing.”

Abruptly, Etienne’s role became clear.

“I know what I am,” he said.  “I’m the villain in this story, Girard.  We both are.  The difference is, I know my side is supposed to lose.”

He stomped his boot.

Finger bones shattered.

Noeme slipped.

Genuine surprise pried his mouth open and snapped his eyelids back, but the darkness took him before he could scream.  There was nothing more.  No sound of limbs scraping against rock, no clatter of abrupt impact.  He simply disappeared, down there in that empty mass.  Etienne heard only the cold, impersonal wind crying out from an abyss whose hunger could never be sated.

The satisfaction, the vindication he had been expecting did not come.  He did not even feel an inkling of relief.  He couldn’t.  There was no time.  Etienne could not imagine what his mother would do now that her master was gone.  He pulled himself back up to the ledge, rose to his feet and stared out at Elyssia across the great maw.  She still floated above it, power rising from her outstretched hands and seizing every mind it touched.  There was no limit to how far she could go.

He could not let it continue.

Whatever the cost.

Near the ledge on which Etienne stood, broken fragments of a weapon rack that had escaped the fall littered the ground.  Underneath twisted steel frames lay a handful of bows and a few dozen arrows tipped with piercing heads made of the silvered metal.  He knew it could cause damage, even to a godlike sorceress.  Elyssia’s shoulder still bled from where he had stabbed her with the table knife.

Etienne hoisted the bow in his arm and nocked an arrow in it.  She was facing away from him.  She would not see it.  He aimed at the center of her spine.  Drew the string back.  Felt a wave of sickness churn through his stomach and the sting of warm saltwater pooling at his eyes.

“Maman,” he whispered to himself.

Etienne, said someone else in his mind.

The bow fell from his hands.

He ran.  As he had once run in fear from the bier of his father, now he ran with renewed hope.  Over the mounds of rock and debris, around the edge of the opening in the world, toward where he had last seen her, to the very place from where he somehow knew her call had sounded out.  He fell to his knees and began tearing away the dirt, cutting his fingers, wearing them raw, biting through bloody lips as he drew upon strength he did not have.  Elyssia’s magic crackled and spat behind him as he dug.

At last he saw it.

A glimpse of flesh.

He plunged his arm into the ground, wrapped it around hers and wailed at the sky as he wrenched her from her premature tomb.

Nightingale crawled up and gulped greedily at liberated air.

“You’re alive!” Etienne declared, incredulity a hair short of the hammy instinct to slap his head in disbelief.

“Barely,” coughed Nightingale through dirt and dust.  “It took everything I had left to shield myself.”  She looked away from him, out at Elyssia in the eye of the cyclone of golden light.  “I can feel her spell.  I can feel the minds out there in its grip.  She’s so close.  She almost has everyone.  Even without the weapons… so many of our sisters are going to die.”  Resignation dimmed her features.  “I can’t stop her.  I’m not… I’m not strong enough.  She’s much too powerful.”

The inevitable cloaked itself about Etienne’s shoulders.  “Then we can’t stop her.  But what if Noeme was right, about one thing?”  Nightingale stared at him.  “Maybe balance is the way,” he added.  “But it’s not the world that needs balancing.  It’s her.”

The witch understood, but her brow tightened.  “Etienne, I don’t know if I can–”

He clasped her shoulder and smiled.  “Just be ready.  You’ll know when.”

Etienne stood, brushed the dirt from his trousers.  He straightened himself and descended the hill of stone towards the maw where his mother waited.

Nightingale called after him.  “She’ll kill you!”

He stopped and gazed back at the woman he loved, finding himself bereft of anything more substantial or reassuring to say.  Instead, he winked.

And he went on.

Nightingale secreted herself in the shadows.

With the crunch of his boots on shattered stone, Etienne thought about the occasions upon which he had been called upon to sway minds with his words.  To paint chilling scenes of violent retribution for those who would not surrender to the Bureau Centrale.  Latterly, to weave a tapestry of heroic possibility to spur those who were reluctant to stand up against it.  On more than one occasion, simply to preserve his own skin.  All those precisely crafted, flowery metaphors, dancing about multiple clauses couched in gilded sentences, defining the most pivotal moments of his life like the multifaceted flavors in the finest vintages of wine.  Mere rehearsal.  An infant’s incremental ascent to the unexpected summit on which he now stood, and where he quivered with an infant’s own fear.

Etienne toed the edge of the precipice.  He gazed up at Elyssia.  Her pale face was tilted toward the sunlight and draped in the golden glow of her magic.  Long whitish hair frolicked about her.  She looked ethereal, and oddly serene.  He knew that inside, she was far from it.  He refused to believe that somewhere in the broken soul, there did not linger still a spark of the true spirit of the loving woman who had given birth to him, fighting against the years of vile, unspeakable conditioning imposed upon her by Girard Noeme.  Etienne needed to locate that spark – and pour fuel on it.

“Mother!” he shouted over the wind.

She did not respond.

Etienne spread out his arms.  “Mother, I know you probably don’t realize who I am.  The last time you saw me, I was a little boy tripping over his toys.  You don’t recognize the grown man standing in front of you now.  Your son.  For so long you’ve been locked away in the darkness.  Starved, maimed, subjected to unending pain.  So desperate for human contact that you’ve believed the lies and the distortions of the only voice that has condescended to speak to you, all those lonely years.  Mother… it doesn’t have to go on.  The pain, being alone… it can stop now, and you can take back the life that was taken from you.”

Elyssia gave no indication that she had heard a solitary word.  Her magic kept spiraling up, through the opening in the ceiling and out across the world.

“None of this is fair,” Etienne said to her.  “None of this should have happened.  You never should have had to run.  You should have been free to be who you always were.  I wish I’d been able to know that person.  I might have made different choices in my own life.  But I do know that everything that is good about me came from you, and if there is enough of you in me to make me realize that what I was doing was wrong, then surely there must be enough left of the real you to know that you are too.  Mother, you are about to murder thousands of innocent people, and you have to stop.  The real Elyssia de Navarre, the one hiding beneath that gruesome costume they’ve wrapped you in, would never do anything like that.”

Etienne chanced leaning even further forward.  “Maman… do you remember when I was four, and I was scared that Papa would never come home, and you told me that I didn’t ever have to be scared of anything because there were people who loved me?”  He swallowed.  “I’m scared now.  I’m scared of what you’re about to do.  I know that you’re scared too.

“I need you to love me now, maman.  I need you to know that I’m here, and I won’t let you go.  You are stronger than what they did to you.  You have a generous heart, and if you can still feel that heart beating, then you know you can’t do what the lying voice has told you to do.  You can come back.  It’s not too late.  Listen to me.  Remember my voice.  Remember my face.  We don’t have to be what they made us.  We can beat them.  You can beat him.  You’re more powerful than any of them.  You have the choice, not them.  You can decide to stop.  Maman, please.  Look at me.  That’s all I ask.  Just look at me.”

Etienne willed his words to cross the divide and reach her.

It did not seem to be enough.

But there, in the middle of a pillar of magic, a goddess heard the long-silent stirrings of her human soul.

A dark sorceress felt a breath’s caress of tender light.

And a mother looked down at face of her son.

“Maman,” Etienne pleaded.  “I love you.”

The blinding white mist contaminating her eyes evanesced into wisps, falling away like a curtain.  The adoring, deep brown eyes that had watched over him as a baby emerged and beheld him again.

“Etienne,” Elyssia whispered.

Etienne smiled.

And felt fire explode in his chest.

A blade.

Piercing him through the center of his back.

Two.  Three.

Four times.

Blood bubbled over Etienne’s lips as his knees met the earth.

Girard Noeme towered over him, a sword drenched in crimson clutched in his hand.

Elyssia screamed.

From behind, Nightingale surged into the air and slammed her hands against Elyssia’s scarred face.  Searing violet light poured out from her fingertips, saturating the sorceress with healing magic.

The world washed away in a flood of pure white.

* * *

Vintage, Part Twenty-Four

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So in what appears to be a recurring theme, this part got too long so I had to split it in two.  Herein the more digestible part twenty-four.

There were as many religions in the world as there were grains of sand on a beach, and each had its own version of the creation myth.  The universe had sprung, depending on one’s choice of faith, from accident, indifference, boredom, meticulous design, or in some cases, a war between the gods.

Etienne wondered, if early man had stumbled upon the spectacle unfolding above, if he too might have thought he was witnessing the birth of a new world.  Perhaps that was exactly what it was.  One could not understate the significance and the consequences of the contest about to commence between Nightingale and Elyssia de Navarre, the witch and the sorceress.  Between the two most formidable women he’d ever known.

His lover, and his mother.

However, this time Etienne would not be the gambler merely placing a stake and attending on the outcome in a velvet-draped chair.  With the piercing scrape of metal he wrenched a broadsword from its pine rack on one of the endless stacks of weapons and ventured deeper into the dimly illuminated maze.  His part in this creation myth was less clearly defined, though he was certain he was not its hero.  He was a side character hunting for another:  the leader of the Bureau Centrale, the man responsible for transforming his mother into the soulless, obedient avatar she had become.  For making Etienne into a soldier, some might argue equally as soulless.  Girard Noeme had stolen both lives, and now he had stolen away among his arsenal of horrors.  Intent, perhaps, on waiting out the battle, until the expected arrival of the Armée Royale which loomed less than ten minutes away.

Etienne could not predict what would happen then.  He doubted that even the full army would make much of a stand against either of the two women.

In any event, he did not mean for Noeme to live to see it.

He masked his footsteps by slow, patience-taxing progress along the edge of each row of shelves.  Deliberate caution was both maddening and necessary.  He was a stranger in this place, while to Noeme it was a familiar sanctuary.  Etienne could not fathom how many secret nooks and alcoves might suit to conceal his quarry throughout the extensive underground.  He had to rely on an inadequate minutes-old, faint working comprehension of the outlay of the cavern, and he could only guess in which direction he was moving.  Yet he continued on, knuckles aching as fingers bent around the hilt of his new sword, his ears straining for any careless hint of his enemy’s presence.

High overhead, Nightingale and Elyssia floated opposite one another.  Gathering magic blazed at their fingers.  They did not speak.  Elyssia’s stare was mechanical, betraying little thinking of her opponent, if indeed her broken mind was thinking much of anything.  There was nothing behind her eyes but instinct and power, enhanced now thanks to what she had drained from her adversary.  There was no debate, no delay, no consideration of the options, or the ethics.  She was only as they had made her.  A weapon, created for a single purpose.

She attacked.

Hands raised, she flew at Nightingale.

Waiting not to see what havoc the sorceress could wreak, Nightingale launched herself toward Elyssia.  Goddesses collided in a percussive eruption of gold and purple sparks as the protective barriers in which the two had encased themselves struck and repelled one another.

The two women spun apart.  Elyssia whirled and let loose a snarling stream of golden energy, the same spell she had used to bind Nightingale a few minutes earlier.  The ground beneath them wheezed, and the roof of the cavern shivered and dislodged spittles of rock.  So overpowered was Elyssia’s magic that it seemed to split not only the air but the very fabric of the world…

Etienne squinted at the darkness, trying to pick out traces of movement.

Nothing but murmurs of wind.

He pressed himself against the shelves.  As a sorceress’ son he was supposed to have adept perception and intuition, and he tried to trigger those senses now, to conjure an image of where Noeme might have gone.  It was difficult to ignore the sizzling of the air as the women tossed volleys of lightning back and forth like so many balls of string.

It was even more difficult to avoid being undone by the hate simmering in his heart, the burgeoning, festering need for his foe to suffer gross, maniacal torment.  That impetus to run screaming like a raving fool with sword held high.  If Etienne managed to find Noeme, would he slash at the man’s body until nothing remained but ribbons of meat clinging to shattered bones?  Would that give him back his lost life, would it return his mother to him as she had once been?  Would it restore that precious balance to the world that so transfixed Noeme’s mind?  The unlikelihood of any of those results didn’t make him want to snap the man’s neck with his bare hands any less.

Etienne continued ahead.  The lingering light abandoned him.  Darkness became whole.

And then he heard a voice.

“What do you want, Etienne?”

Nightingale’s palms flew up.  Her teeth clenched hard.  She heard herself grunt.

Elyssia’s spell bent around her and dispersed, winking out as though it had never been.  Nightingale answered with a quick return burst of violet light from her hands.  A casual wave of Elyssia’s hand reduced the counter to a harmless bloom of embers.

The sorceress peered down, at the nearest stack of shelves, and stretched her fingers toward it.

The unit rumbled.  Bolts and screws flew from the corners.  Inches-thick steel plate covering peeled itself back as easily as skin from a fruit, and from the opening a flurry of a thousand swords and knives and spears hoisted themselves into the air.

They enclosed Elyssia within a spinning aura of metal, saturating the air with the frigid and bloody taste of iron.  As one, they tilted up and aimed themselves toward a single target.

Elyssia’s fingers twisted, and the lethal blades hurtled toward Nightingale in a single massive barrage that the fastest soul alive could not hope to dodge.

Nightingale froze, her nerves ignited and–

“What happens… after you kill me?  What will you do then?”

Noeme’s voice was a beacon of whispered taunts from somewhere in the black.  Etienne refused to answer.  Instead he took another step forward.  Sword stood at the ready.

“If the Bureau is gone… do you think the witches’ rule will be better than ours?  Power is addictive and transformative, Etienne, even to the noblest intentions.  Do you think the common people will not still suffer?  Do you not see the privileged castes, the stronger witches dominating the weak, segregation, discrimination, endless bloody wars fought with the most ungodly magic, and men… men diminished in status and freedoms until we are nothing but breeding stock?”

The voice grew louder as Etienne edged to the end of the row.

“There will be no going back.  The balance of the world, our very way of life will be made extinct.  Can you not see the moral responsibility of the Bureau to stand against this vision of tyranny?  Can you not see the wisdom in what I have done?  Or your own duty to stand with me, as you always have?”

–and she vanished in a hard flash of white beneath the storm of flying swords.  The thousand blades impaled themselves into the cavern wall, their target simply gone from their path.  Nightingale had often used her ability to disappear from one location and reappear in another only for dramatic effect.  Here, it had saved her life.

She emerged behind Elyssia.  A quick bolt of energy thrown from her hand speared the sorceress through the back.  It spread out like glowing purple spiders prancing across Elyssia’s body and chewing at her with their millions of tiny pointed incisors.  Nightingale allowed herself the precious respite of a breath as Elyssia writhed–

“Standing with you was the greatest mistake of my life,” Etienne declared.  “Made when I was a stupid and naive child.  I mean to correct it.  Right now.”

“A true pity, mon gars.  Before you do, first look up, and witness the dark future to which you would condemn our entire people.”

Thinking of Nightingale, Etienne lifted his eyes from the shadows.

From those shadows, a sword flashed.

–but it was not to be a long respite, as Elyssia clenched fingers into fists and blasted herself free of the pestering tendrils.  She spun around, flattened her palms and pitched lance after lance of golden fire at Nightingale, the salvos flying one on top of the other.

It was a different, much harsher spell.  Meant not to drain, but to burn.

Burn it did, searing easily through Nightingale’s protective magic, her clothes, and finally her skin.  Nightingale’s torso jerked back with each hit as though she was being pummeled with fists of flame.  Her arms cavorted in a fruitless effort to block them.  Eventually she could not keep herself aloft.

The witch plummeted between the columns.  Acid gnawed in her limbs as she panted and tried to rally her ebbing strength.  Nightingale had feared she was overmatched from the start of this contest, and her confidence had not been given reason to grow.

The ground growled in the distance, its anger spiked with metal squeals rending, tearing, tumbling across the floor, storming closer without impediment.  Suddenly the entire array of racks in front of Nightingale was wrenched up and tossed to the side, contents spilling across the cavern in a lingering rattle like hundreds of spoons being dropped in a drawer.

The fog of steel debris settled to reveal Elyssia strolling towards her, removing thousand-ton obstacles from her path one column at a time with casual flicks of a single silver-nailed finger, as commanding of the trifles of the world as a conductor over an obliging orchestra.

The sorceress smiled, and pointed at Nightingale.

Etienne noticed the falling longsword with scarcely time enough to shove his own weapon in its way and prevent it from carving off the starboard half of his body.  Bolts of blue erupted at the clash of the spell-forged metal.

Girard Noeme was not a barroom brute like Serge Meservey.  His training was gentleman’s combat in the classical style, and he compensated for any deficiencies of age with masterful swings and flourishes that seemed to hit twice as hard as they actually did.

Etienne could rely only on instinct and the few tricks he’d picked up from watching Corporal Valnier over the years.  He understood enough of the basic principles to know that giving ground was losing, and so he leaned forward and parried Noeme’s slices as best he could.  Etienne could not find an opening to try a more aggressive stance.

Noeme kept swinging.  He alternated his attacks without any predictable pattern.  Etienne kept up his clumsy counters.  Magic blade clanged against magic blade, cascading both men with flecks of icy blue.  Etienne’s arm screamed at him.  He could sense that he was being deliberately worn down.  He tried battering the blade away with more force, trying to jostle it from the grip of unsteady older fingers.

One of his parries finally pushed the tip of Noeme’s blade against the floor, where it caught on a rough tile seam for a fraction of a second.  Just a fraction.

A fraction enough.

The rhythm was broken.

Etienne pressed his opportunity by drawing back his free fist and planting it in Noeme’s face.  It connected with a dull slap-thud.  The older man dropped his weapon and staggered back.  Etienne lunged for him and swung again.

Another slap-thud.

Noeme fell against the racks.  A thick stream of blood from his nose stained his pressed ecru jacket, but he was smiling.

Simmering temper bubbled over to a boil.  Etienne grabbed Noeme by the collar and hauled him to his feet.  “You think this is funny?” he spat at him.

“Your little bird,” Noeme said.  “See how she flies.”

Held in Elyssia’s power, Nightingale was no bird.  She was a rag in a dog’s mouth.

Elyssia wagged her finger to and fro, and the witch was thrown from one side of the room to the other.  The sorceress slammed her against the jagged roof of the cavern.  Nightingale wailed at the crush of her back against the unforgiving stippled rock.  Elyssia dropped her even faster to the floor, picked her up again and propelled her end over end through the shelves of weapons.

It was not the tactic of someone trying to win a fight, but rather that of a superior combatant relishing the humiliation of an inadequate challenger.

Nightingale whimpered.  Lacerations and bruises tattooed her entire body.  Stabbing breaths told her of broken ribs.  She clutched at her chest and tried to heal them before Elyssia seized her again and lobbed her into the wall.  Excess magic ruptured the ground beneath wherever she was thrown, splitting and coughing up fragments of rock, leaving long, twisting scars trailing her.

Nightingale rolled to a stop.

Fear seeped into her bones.  Every witch, even those as strong as she, had grown accustomed to living with a certain degree of permanent fear, like a chronic ache that could be ignored on days when the hunters seemed far from the door.  What claimed her now was far more acute.  It was a throttling fear that if she failed here, she might very well be the last free witch to walk this world.

She looked back along the nearest fissure, at the slow approach of the pale, white-eyed, white-haired Elyssia alongside it.  Nightingale did not think she could endure another round.  And attacking the sorceress directly was futile.

Perhaps there was another way.

Nightingale drew back her arms and plunged her hands inside the fissure.  Fingers melted through stone.  Purple light shot along the length of it, connected with the other ruptures in the floor that Elyssia’s spells had created, and spread until each one of them glowed with Nightingale’s power.

White eyes blinked.

A tremor rocked the entire cavern.  A moment of stillness followed.  Popping sounds pierced the silence, piling on one another and cresting to a wave.  At the edge of each fissure, bedrock saturated with violet sparks began to split and crumble away into pebbles.  Cracks widened into chasms that grew wider still, emptying into a light-devouring, swelling maw.

As the hole opened beneath the nearest racks of weapons, strong steel bracings strained, bent, buckled and crashed into the growing abyss, sending their deadly cache falling forever out of reach.  The hole pushed its ravenous edge outwards, toward the surrounding walls of the cavern.  The next column of steel – waiting idly, expecting to wait on – broke, tilted and fell in, followed by the next.

Noeme’s magnificent arsenal was being swallowed by the earth.

Elyssia frowned, and as ground shattered under her boots, she lifted herself into the air.

Etienne pressed his face closer to Noeme’s, close enough to taste the Cygne Reine on his breath.  He grinned.  “There go your precious weapons, Girard,” he said, tightening his grip on the man’s collar.

Noeme grinned back.  “I’ll just have your mother make more.”

Etienne answered the blunt rebuttal with an equally blunt fist.

Nightingale and Elyssia traded stares as the floor of the cavern collapsed and took the weapons with it.  The witch feigned the simper of the bully who had broken her sister’s toys.

The sorceress wore the confident indifference of the adult who had long outgrown them.

Locking the void of her eyes on Nightingale, Elyssia lifted her arms above her head.  Ripples tore through the dimpled ceiling of the cavern.  It heaved, gave way and sent stone daggers plunging to the floor across its entire span.  Some of them vaporized in flashes of purple as Nightingale deflected the closest projectiles.  Elyssia pulled at more of the earth, drawing down a choking storm from a seemingly limitless reserve.  Hail swelled in size and escalated to a deafening deluge.

The spell ate upwards, like a giant worm devouring itself a path to the surface.  It burst through the Bureau sub-levels above and added manmade debris like twisted steel bars and splintering concrete slabs to the punishing torrent.  Five floors’ worth of furniture, flooring, pipes, vents, all of it joined the flood of rock and dirt crashing through the gaping belly of the world.

Nightingale’s attempts to spirit herself free were frustrated by the more immediate need for breath.  She felt her hands grab at nothing, tasted precious air clogged by peat and dust and cement, tried to kick legs frozen in a tomb of earth rising fast to enclose the rest of her.  Consciousness and awareness slipped from clawing fingertips, stealing any lingering traces of hope with it.  Time itself hesitated, enough for a final, clear and saddening truth to take root in her mind.  She knew.

It was over.

She was beaten.

She could not even gather enough air for a scream.

Etienne watched the witch disappear beneath a tumbling sheet of black earth.

“Nightingale!”

* * *

It’s not over yet!  Stay tuned for Part 25 coming next week!

That Voice

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Not been a great week, folks.  I saw a tweet this morning that suggested we should call an early end to it and head over to the pub to drown our sorrows.  The news of actor Alan Rickman’s passing from cancer at the age of 69 has left me inclined to agree.  Between him and David Bowie earlier this week, we’re losing too many of our heroes.  People we were never going to meet and who never knew of our own existence but still occupy that special place in our hearts reserved for family.  Alan Rickman was a compelling actor for whom no one ever seemed to have a bad word, either in regard to his work or the man himself.  And yet it’s surprising to know that for someone who provided so many indelible, endlessly quotable screen moments, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, never broke out of the character actor mold for a really meaty lead part, never achieved the level of stardom someone of his talents really deserved – although by the reaction seen on social media this morning, it’s clear that he was considered something by millions that many more “famous” actors can only dream of being:  a treasure.

I did not know the man, I have no personal anecdotes about chance encounters with him to share.  I have only what most people have:  his legacy.  Few on this side of the pond had heard of Alan Rickman when he signed on to star opposite Bruce Willis in 1988’s Die Hard.  In retrospect it seems hard to imagine how risky a gamble that movie was considered at the time:  an expensive action picture with an untested TV actor in the lead and an even lesser known British stage veteran as the villain.  Yet it’s almost a perfect piece of cinematic entertainment, and so much of its success hinges on the strength of the two men pitted against one another.  Rickman, with his singular, resonant, sepulchral tones coiling themselves lovingly around clever, sophisticated, literate dialogue with the slickness of an eel drenched in light sweet crude, crafted the perfect foil for the wisecracking, blue-collar Willis, and established a standard for memorable villains that led every single movie casting agent to burn through their Rolodex hunting for the next Shakespearean Brit they could pluck from obscurity to face off against the mumbling American action star du jour.  You could argue that without Alan Rickman in Die Hard, there would have been no Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, no Jeremy Irons in The Lion King, no Gary Oldman in… pretty much everything.  And there certainly would have been no Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, emoting to the rafters about calling off Christmas and carving out innards with a spoon because “it’s dull, it’ll hurt more.”  Rickman became so identified as the prototypical villain that it’s interesting to note he never played another straight baddie after that.  (Your daily trivia:  the villain in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fourth-wall busting Last Action Hero was written for Rickman, literally – the script features the movie’s young hero calling him by name – but after Rickman begged off, Charles Dance took the part and wore a T-shirt to the set reading “I’m cheaper than Alan Rickman!”)

Wary, perhaps, of being relegated to what might have in fact been a profitable career of snarling and firing guns every few years, Rickman stepped back into smaller features, deploying his talents instead in period pieces and romantic films, and when it suited him, riffing on his own pop culture image.  He was brilliant in Galaxy Quest as a character inspired by Leonard Nimoy, a classically trained stage actor typecast as an alien in a cheesy sci-fi show and reduced to spouting his tired catchphrase at department store ribbon cuttings.  (His best moment in the movie:  challenging co-star Tim Allen to find the motivation of a marauding rock monster and accusing him of never being serious about “the craft.”)  And perhaps no one else could have so beautifully captured the hilarious over-the-top melancholy of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the underappreciated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy either – one cannot help but smile when Marvin first descends from the ceiling warning everyone in Rickman’s voice that he’s feeling very depressed.  Our instinct to immediately love an Alan Rickman character worked against us in Love Actually when we couldn’t believe what a heartless prat he was being to his adoring wife Emma Thompson, but our faith that there was more to him than the obvious notes was rewarded when we saw at the end that he was clearly trying to atone for his terrible mistake for the sake of their family – just as we hoped we would under the same circumstances.

And then, of course, there is the cherished Severus Snape in Harry Potter.  However well-intentioned or made, the movies simply can’t capture the intricate details and backstories provided in the books, and so we rely on the performances to fill in the blanks.  In the early films Snape always seems to be a character very much on the periphery, vacillating between heroics and villainy, and, atypically for Rickman, rather understated.  In a few of the early movies you almost forget Snape is there, so minimal are his contributions to the plot.  In the first film Rickman’s presence serves as an efficient red herring, so focused are you on the notion of this blatant bad guy that he distracts you completely from the true puppet master.  From then onward, he lurks about in the background, and yet, because it’s Alan Rickman, you know there will end up being a deeper story to this man than the one you’re seeing on the surface.  You can’t ignore what’s going on behind those dark eyes, and in that basso as it intones “Mis… tah Pottah.”  The stage is carefully set over the course of eight films for the revelation of Snape’s complicated yet ultimately noble soul, and one doubts whether or not an actor other than Alan Rickman could have pulled it off, with the patience and the skill to weave together a character one tiny, almost unnoticeable thread at a time.  Millions of children (and children at heart) will forevermore read those books and picture Rickman speaking the lines, a special kind of immortality after which many can long and few will ever achieve.

Like David Bowie, it is strange to contemplate the notion that there will never be another Alan Rickman movie.  That no lucky screenwriter will ever again have the privilege of hearing that utterly unique voice giving life to their lines.  But he leaves behind a rich body of work of which he could be proud and of which many of his generation of actors and those after him will be envious.  Though he often played intense characters, he was not off-puttingly intense himself.  He did not mouth off to the press or pretend that his chosen calling was somehow divine.  He was never one to embrace the culture of celebrity or push himself into the tabloids with scandalous affairs or nasty comments about his peers.  He was a good man, who did good work, always brought his best game, and possessed that endearing, ever-so-British trait of being able to take the piss out of himself every once in a while (watch his final appearance on the Tonight Show as he and Jimmy Fallon inhale helium balloons.)  And millions of people loved him for it.  Little gold statuettes are no substitute for the echo of applause that lingers long after the final curtain has come down and the stage lights have gone out.

Our ovation for Alan Rickman will go on for quite a while yet.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

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You think some people will be around forever.  Children of western civilization grow up with the perpetual presence of our idols in the background of our daily tribulations, and we come to rely on them as permanent fixtures.  Even if you weren’t the world’s biggest David Bowie fan (full disclosure:  I wasn’t) he was an undeniable pillar of the strange and constantly changing edifice we call popular culture, one that he carved himself to his own unique specifications – as though before him there had been a David Bowie-shaped hole that only he could fill.  There was a reassurance to be found in knowing that he was always there, continuing to make challenging music and appear in quirky movie roles and push the boundaries of expectations in art, and while maybe nine-tenths of those projects would pass by unnoticed, one standout here and there would pique your interest, and it would be a singular David Bowie creation.  It seems odd to think that Bowie’s life’s work is complete and there won’t be anything else from him.  (Listening to “Lazarus” from his final album Blackstar this morning is a bit of an eerie experience.)

More musically literate scribes than myself will pen paeans to his aural masterworks.  I come not to reel off deep album cuts but to offer only feebly-worded praise to the same great Bowie tunes that everyone else likes:  “Space Oddity,” “Life on Mars,” “Fame,” “Under Pressure,” “Let’s Dance” to name a mere, mere few – not to mention that wonderful annual Christmas oddity of his duet with Bing Crosby on “Little Drummer Boy.”  But I always liked David Bowie best as an actor.  The profession suited him in a way it did few other musicians-turned-thespians, likely because his talent for reinventing himself was a perfect match to the art of screen performance.  He wasn’t the glamour boy ported in for a high-wattage cameo struggling to deliver his lines; in every role you could see the thoughts going on behind the mismatched eyes, the true character emerging from beneath the natural “Hey!  It’s David Bowie!” reaction the audience would be expected to have.  He elevated anything he was in simply by choosing to take on the part, on occasion braving the essaying of historical figures such as Andy Warhol (in Basquiat) and Nikola Tesla (The Prestige), turning them into memorable, magical fusions of his own persona.  He didn’t just show up and expect adulation – he acted.  He earned it.

His appearance as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is my favorite Bowie role, brief as it is, and coming towards the latter half of what isn’t easy Saturday afternoon viewing.  Befitting a musician’s approach, Bowie’s Pilate is a melody of complex notes:  rational, reasonable, world-weary and oddly sympathetic, and one cannot watch the prototypical pop culture chameleon and author of “Changes” tell Willem Dafoe’s Jesus that “it doesn’t matter how much you want to change things; we don’t want them changed” without a wry grin.  I’m certain Bowie himself was fully aware of the many levels of irony at work in that scene.

I don’t think I’m necessarily qualified to say anything more about him; I leave that to those who were more invested in his career, who knew all the Bowie trivia, who looked up to him as a role model, who scored their lives with his music and waited breathlessly on each new iteration of David Bowie.  It’s perhaps enough to leave on the note that Bowie’s passing is a reminder that life is truly a matter of turning and facing the strange, that evolution is the modus operandi of our tragic and beautiful limited existence.  That there will always be changes, and how we adapt ourselves to the inevitability of such changes is a measure of how well we live our life.  The man born David Robert Jones seems to have managed it exceptionally well, and one can speak best of a man by being able to say at the last that he left the world a little better than he found it.

If he has to be gone now, then let us accept and embrace the change just as he would have.  To paraphrase David Bowie, we don’t know where we’re going from here.

But we can promise it won’t be boring.

10,000 Characters on Why 10,000 Characters for Twitter is a Bad Idea

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From the latest episode of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Searching for a new angle to boost declining user growth, Twitter is allegedly looking into ballooning its signature 140-character limit to a whopping 10,000 characters permitted per tweet. Cynically, one might liken this to the corporate version of soliciting extra revenue by placing a gun against one’s head. Twitter’s founders explain that 140 character tweets were born of a limitation of the old SMS service, and that jacking our favorite little bird morsels up to 10,000 seeds will allow for more content, more conversations and more general user pleasure. Apparently no one at Twitter remembers Polonius’ famous line from Hamlet, that “brevity is the soul of wit.” For almost 10 years, brevity has been the soul of Twitter. Taking that away is removing what makes Twitter special. As many have pointed out, we already have a social network for Ulysses-length diatribes from drunken uncles: it’s called Facebook.

Twitter is, paradoxically, a platform to be used quickly, yet one that requires a great investment of time to use properly. It’s nothing to fire off a witty observation on the state of the world or scroll through the exploits of your favorite celebrity as you wait for your coffee to brew in the morning. But obtaining the most value from Twitter involves a painstaking, methodical curating of the perfect tribe: finding and following the people who draw your interest, and attracting the best and most engaged followers for whatever content you’ve chosen to produce as part of your personal brand. Unless you’re an established media personality, or that mind-blowingly awesome, it can take years. But setting the biz-speak aside, Twitter is also a place where friendships that would otherwise be impossible geographically are made and nurtured. It eliminates the pedestal separating public figures from the masses and allows us to interact with them as casually as if we had run into them in a coffee shop. And it allows real-time access to breaking news and unfiltered updates from people who find themselves in the middle of history as it unfolds, not to mention cat pictures. Lots of cat pictures. Certainly there is a lot of chaff (including a great deal of gush about One Direction – seriously folks, Zayn isn’t coming back), but separating out the wheat is part of the joy of using Twitter in the first place. From the beginning, restricting everyone to 140 characters, and refusing to succumb to creating a velvet-roped, more permissive stratosphere for “platinum level subscribers” or some such twaddle, has kept us all on the same playing field, no matter how famous or unknown we are. My tweets have just as much potential to reach every Twitter user on earth as follower champion Katy Perry’s do. (They won’t, but the mathematical probability is not zero.)

Innovation thrives on restriction, just as Twitter sprang and thrived from within its traditional 140-character constraint.  As much as we like to give play to the phrase “thinking outside the box,” figuring out how to express ourselves within that box can also be a stimulating exercise as it forces us to speak with economy to get our message – or our humor – across. The content that people remember most is that which they can repeat to their friends and family in short bursts. Much as a veteran blogger might be loath to admit it, length has certainly never been a guarantee of greater quality. There’s a quote from an old West Wing episode that I’ve always chuckled at: “anyone who uses one word when they could have used ten just isn’t trying.” In social media, the reverse is true. The world is spinning faster, our time clawed at by infinite demands on it, and Twitter’s brevity has been a helpful traveling companion for the age: a readily accessible combination of news aggregator, social updater, inspiration provider and joke generator, yours for the perusal at the touch of a little blue bird on your smartphone screen.

Of additional importance is Twitter’s role as a gateway. The ability to share links to longer material, inviting a user to browse further rather than shoving the entire enterprise beneath your nose, has allowed content generators (like myself) to introduce our work to our audience without feeling like we’re shouting it at them, and preserves freedom of choice: you may have absolutely no interest in whatever I’m writing about today, but at least I can make you aware that I have something new, and you can always ignore it and move on to the next item in your feed. Surfing Twitter is a bit like browsing the spines on a bookstore shelf, plucking out a title that grabs you and scanning the blurb before committing. If you had to plod through each entire novel before deciding whether or not to buy, you’d still be there, and your blood pressure would be spiking at the imposition on your precious time. There are already plenty of platforms that allow long-form content, and Twitter integrates best with them by serving as an easily navigated, self-maintained index of those sites, rather than attempting to compete with them.

One argument in favor is the suggestion that just because you can use 10,000 characters doesn’t mean that you will. I agree. 10,000 characters is an enormous number; you’ll see by the end of this post an example of what that looks like, and who has the patience to crank that out every time we want to send a quick update on how the baristas misspelled our name today? But give humanity a wide open space in which to dump its trash and you’ll be shocked at how quickly it fills up. You know who will use all those characters? Spammers, for one. Every Nigerian prince promising that you too can buy new a million new followers or make $5236 an hour working on your computer from home is salivating at this opportunity to flood Twitter with their auto-blasted nonsense. Racists, for another. It’s bad enough when some asshat’s hateful garbage gets retweeted into your timeline when there’s only 140 characters’ worth to cringe through. Are we prepared for the onslaught of copy-pasted manifestos on white purity that are forthcoming every time President Obama does something they don’t like? Among its faults is Twitter’s ongoing inability to crack down on abuse, and one shudders at the thought of the bigots, misogynists, homophobes and celebrity stalkers of the world being handed broadened canvases they can smear with impunity.

Regardless of how zealously you unfollow, block and mute, you’ll only be able to avoid so much of the incoming debris: insidious marketers, who have been steadily encroaching on Twitter’s turf to the point that almost every third tweet is a promoted one from a company you’ve either never heard of or simply can’t stand (I am wearing out my thumb lately clicking “Tweet is not relevant”), will be able to turn your feed into a stream of constant, bloated advertising, since they can afford to pay their infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters to dream up 10,000 characters of content for them. The effect will be to clutter up what is already a crowded landscape with enormous, garish and inescapable billboards, making the search for worthwhile content that much more frustrating. Upon finding themselves bombarded with ads, traditional users will flee, perhaps in mass migration to other sites where such things are verboten. As for attracting new users, well, when was the last time you watched a new TV show because you heard the commercials were awesome?

Upon deeper reflection, this move to 10,000 characters does feel sadly more and more like an accommodation to the demands of advertisers rather than an organic evolution of the platform based on its users’ needs and wishes (witness the many unheralded cries for an edit feature for tweets that have already been posted). And it’s only advertisers who will be able to exploit the 10,000 characters to their fullest potential, squeezing them for every precious cent they’re worth. Twitter knows that the majority of its users won’t fill all that space. Even 2,000 characters would be a stretch for most. No one wants to dedicate so much time to composing something that will potentially fall out of sight a few minutes after it gets posted. I would imagine too that as part of the Faustian bargain with the advertisers, such elephant-sized tweets will not be allowed to be condensed (i.e. no “click to open full window” button) but rather be foisted upon your feed in frustrating enormity, their inducements inescapable no matter how fast you try to scroll through them.

There are perhaps less radical improvements to be pursued, such as potentially removing links and hashtags from the character count, and adding the aforementioned edit button (although thousands of grammar sticklers will promptly lose their reason for existence) that will serve to open up avenues of expression while preserving the full stop at 140 that makes Twitter what it is. If we want to expend 10,000 characters on a particular topic, we can tweet a link to our own website, just as we’ve been doing all along. Ultimately Twitter is going to do whatever it’s going to do, but removing what seems to be one of its key planks and annoying its users in the name of progress (i.e. more advertising revenue) seems a counter-intuitive business strategy. A bit like Walt Disney World razing Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom so they can replace it with a selfie stick store. Perhaps Twitter is counting on the general apathy of the people who use social media: the ones who rant and rave about changes and upgrades only to promptly forget about them after a week. But this change may represent an irreversible tipping point, where Twitter sacrifices its uniqueness on the altar of profit, alienating forever those who have helped make it what it has become.

(And if you are keeping score, the post plus the headline makes 10,000 characters exactly.)