Peeve of the Day

I blame Star Trek.  (The Original Series, of course.  ST-TOS was the s-f show of my adolescence, and I imprinted on it hard.  Next Gen was weak tea – Earl Grey, hot — by comparison.) The weapon of choice for Kirk and Spock and everybody else who was boldly going on the starship Enterprise was the phaser, that handy gadget that looked like a bar of soap and either stunned the target or caused him/her/it to vanish completely, dealer’s choice.  (I shudder to think about the complexities of investigating murders and disappearances in the Star Trek universe, given the availability of that kind of murder weapon and body-disposal tool in one easily-concealed package.   Private ownership of phasers and related weapons would have to be as illegal as hell, which would of course lead to a thriving black market in same.  But those are not the stories that Star Trek was about.)

Television viewers watching Kirk and Spock subdue (and occasionally disintegrate) their adversaries needed a verb to describe the action, and since the weapon was a phaser, obviously what it did to people (and occasional things) was to phase them.

(Later on, we had Kitty Pryde of the X-Men, who phased – passed through – objects.  But Star Trek was there first.)

Which was all very well, but then people started using phased as a word for all occasions, including as a misspelling of the already existing word, fazed, as in, Jane wasn’t fazed – that is, “disturbed, bothered, or embarrassed” – by the sudden reappearance of the ex-boyfriend she thought she’d left behind in Patagonia.

Both phase (as a verb) and faze came into written English in the nineteenth century, but both have older roots.  Phase-the-verb traces its ancestry back through the earlier noun phase (as in phase of the moon) to the Greek verb phainein, meaning “to show, to make appear.”  (That initial ph- would be a dead giveaway even if we knew nothing else.)  Faze, on the other hand, has a sturdy English pedigree, going back to the mid-fifteenth-century Kentish dialect verb feeze,“to frighten, alarm, or discomfit”, and back from there to the Old English verb fesian or fysian*, “to drive away, send forth, or put to flight.”

Which brings us, by circuitous means, to my peeve of the day, which is writers saying phased when what they mean is fazed.

Don’t do that, okay?  It makes the baby philologists cry.

*Consistency in spelling wasn’t a big thing in Old English.  Or in Middle English.  Or in Modern English, for that matter, until the printers and the lexicographers between them started standardizing things.

Tech Notes

I’ve written before about the issue of buried or implied technology in language.

But there’s another technology-related question that writers–especially writers of created-world fantasy– need to be aware of:  What is the general tech level of your story?

A lot of created-world fantasy takes place in a pre-industrial setting.  (Steampunk is perhaps the most obvious exception, but only if you consider steampunk to be a species of fantasy rather than a species of science fiction — a question upon which opinion is divided.)  “Pre-industrial”, though, covers a lot of ground.  Do you mean pre-gunpowder?  Pre-clockwork?  Pre-mass production and interchangeable parts?  Does your society have steam engines or water wheels?  Spinning wheels or drop spindles?  Is your hero’s sword steel or bronze?  Is his armor plate or chain or boiled leather?  Does he pay the swordsmith in barter or with coin?  Does his banker know about letters of credit and double-entry book-keeping?  Has banking even been invented yet?

You need to think about all of these things if you’re not going to have your story taking place in an ersatz-medieval RennFaire fantasyland — and you need to make certain that your tech levels match across the board.

(Yes.  This means that you have to do research if you’re going to write fantasy.  Books like The Timelines of History and television programs like the old BBC Connections series are a good place to start.)

All Good Things Must Come to an End

(In which I natter on about television, because I’m working on an editing gig and don’t want to distract myself by talking about writing.)

I think it’s fair to say that some TV series end better than others. Old-fashioned push-the-reset-button drama series and sitcoms didn’t have to do much work to tie off the story — M*A*S*H had the end of the war, The Mary Tyler Moore Show had the tv station close down, other shows just moved without a ripple into the eternal reruns of syndication — but the development of arc-based storytelling put a new burden on television writers, the need for giving the faithful viewers a satisfactory denouement, and I think we’re still seeing them figure out how to do it.

The X-Files wasn’t necessarily the first of the arc-based shows, but it was definitely the one that showed everybody else How Not to Do It. Its sins were many — lack of a clear backstory, failure to end at any one of several perfectly good stopping places, failure to redeem plot coupons the audience had been holding onto for several years in some cases — but it could, I think, have mitigated at least some small portion of its general Fail if it had only done one thing.

That thing? Establish some kind of victory condition early on, and see to it that at least some of the show’s sympathetic characters survived and met that condition. The X-Files disappointed us on almost every count: Mulder never found Samantha or got justice for her abduction/death/whatever; the big conspiracy was never revealed or thwarted or destroyed; Mulder and Scully never achieved vindication and professional recognition (in fact, their FBI careers basically go down the toilet); Scully never got to have and keep a kid; hell, not even the damned aliens got a satisfactory resolution, since they never got to do their Big Colonization Thing while we were watching, either.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, on the other hand, while it didn’t please all its viewers on all counts, succeeded in that one big thing. The show gave us, from the beginning, a main character with a big problem — to wit, her mystical destiny as “the one girl in all the world” — and at the end of the series not only have she and her friends defeated the final season’s Big Bad, she and they have succeeded in rewriting the terms of her destiny so that she is no longer forced to carry that burden alone.

Other People’s Endings

When it comes to works in a series — novels, films, television, it doesn’t matter which — I like playing the how-would-I-end-this game.  It’s the fiction-writing equivalent of that improvisational drama exercise where you have to construct a skit around four or five random objects drawn from a grab bag (an argyle sock, a popsicle stick, an outdated guidebook to Tblisi on Five Dollars a Day, and a fishing lure with the hook snipped off…you have ten minutes to brainstorm with your group and then we’ll begin) –the idea is to get from where you are to an acceptable victory condition in five moves or less.

It’s an amusing game; but while I’m playing it I have to keep a firm grasp on the fact that the story I’m ending in my head is, despite any surface resemblances, a different story than the one the author is ending.