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Friday, July 6, 2018

Life Lessons From The TV Series Smallville

Growing up, I was a huge Superman fan — just as I’ve long been a fan of science fiction, fantasy, and superheroes in general. So, when Smallville aired for the first time in 2001, I should’ve been glued to the TV. But…I wasn’t. For whatever reason, I ignored the series for years. And then, sometime in 2004 or 2005 (I can’t remember exactly when), I started renting DVDs from Season 1. (This was before online streaming took off). And I was hooked. I binge-watched my way through the first few seasons, finally catching up to where Smallville actually was. I’ve been a fan ever since.

For those who may not know, Smallville was a TV series about Clark Kent before he became Superman. It starred Tom Welling and ran from 2001 until 2011. The series starts with Clark as a high school freshman and continues forward as he discovers, understands, and develops his abilities. It’s a great concept, though it requires some suspended disbelief to accept Tom Welling, at the time in his mid-twenties, as a 9th grader. The series follows Clark through high school, then college, and then his early career as an entry-level reporter for The Daily Planet. While the series does a halfway decent job keeping Clark and his friends oriented to high school in the first few seasons, the whole college thing is almost ignored. One wonders, in fact, if Clark ever attended any classes!

Some of my readers may not appreciate superheroes or science fiction as much as I do, but Smallville contained some great life lessons that should resonate with all of us. Like just about anything, you have to be discerning. And for the discerning viewer, there were some terrific gems of wisdom — some wonderful life lessons — in this Superman origin TV series.

As a Christian (and those of you who don’t share my faith may want to skip this paragraph), I obviously can’t endorse all the content of every episode. It starts off as a moderately kid-friendly show, but as the series progresses, it gets more “adult.” Some episodes get a little racy, with revealing outfits, lots of drinking, and some characters engaging in casual sex. Some Christians will understandably want to avoid any such content. Others will see it as merely reflective of society overall and look past the objectionable parts to enjoy the good aspects of the program.

I would simply caution you to be discerning and to (as always) make entertainment choices that would not cause anyone (including yourself) to stumble into sin. Speaking for myself, when it comes to entertainment choices, I balance things out on a proverbial scale. And, in my judgment, the good outweighs the bad with Smallville, but I respect those who may come to a different conclusion.

Either way, few can argue that TV shows (as well as movies and books) sometimes contain some inspiring moments or meaningful lessons. And that’s certainly the case with Smallville. So…without further ado, here are some powerful life lessons from Smallville:

“The suit doesn’t make the hero.” -Clark Kent, Season 10, Episode 18 “Booster”

While Clark is trying to keep his identity under wraps and his alter ego’s image (at this point, as “the Blur”) well managed, he comes face-to-face with a flashy, camera-loving superhero named Booster Gold. The episode juxtaposes Clark’s choice to shun the limelight with Booster’s hunger for it. Clark actually begins to diminish his reputation as (well) Clark by transforming himself back into a mild-mannered, socially awkward, and utterly forgettable bystander. By contrast, Metropolis’ newest arrival seeks all the glory he can achieve and presents himself as the city’s new savior (and the Blur’s replacement).

As the episode progresses, Clark learns that Booster came from the future thanks to a Legionnaire’s ring, which he probably stole.  And then Booster messes up a rescue which accidentally leads to an uncontrollable monster threatening the city. And it’s Clark who must pick up the pieces and make things right.

The episode provides a solid lesson in humility, patience, and character. And Clark gets to explain that suits, costumes, and public relations campaigns don’t make heroes. As he explains, “A hero is made in the moment, by the choices that he makes and the reasons that he makes them.”

“Pain is part of anyone’s journey…you can’t escape it.” -Raya, Season 6, Episode 6 “Fallout”

During the Smallville series, Clark (as well as his cousin and a couple friends) spend some time in the Phantom Zone, a lawless and nightmarish abode where Krypton exiled its criminals. In this episode, one of Clark’s friends, Raya, escapes to Earth and comes to visit him. Unfortunately, she isn’t the only one who came to Earth. An evil spirit escapes the Phantom Zone with her and soon inhabits the body of a street kid and comes looking for revenge.

I won’t elaborate any more or risk giving spoilers, but Raya says something in the course of the episode that rings true for all of us. Pain is indeed part of life’s journey. And, try as we might, we can’t escape it. Not in this life. How we deal with that pain fashions and reveals our character.

“Call me crazy, but I’ve always been a firm believer that beauty-it’s on the inside.” -Lois Lane, Season 4, Episode 3 “Fa├žade”

This episode explores what it means to be cool, attractive, and popular – things teenagers (and many adults) wrestle with a lot. Against his father’s wishes, Clark tries out for the high school football team, while a former acne-ridden teenage girl returns from summer break looking fabulous. Her secret? Plastic surgery with a little Kryptonite mixed in.

As one who struggled with acne as a teen and with self-esteem issues for many of my teen and young adult years, I can relate to this episode. And I agree with the lessons it tries to convey. Resorting to desperate, dangerous, or unhealthy measures may give you a temporary boost in confidence or even enhance (for a season) your appearance, but they risk damaging you and others at a level far deeper and of much greater significance.

When it comes to looks, talent, and abilities, people come in all shapes and sizes. But everyone, regardless of appearance or personality, can be something special and make a unique, positive, and meaningful difference in the lives of those around them. To do this, we must pay more attention to what’s on the inside than what’s on the outside.

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.” -Zod, Season 9, Episode 3 “Rabid”

Sometimes, the bad guys have the best lines. And sometimes, at least when it comes to specific things said, the bad guys are correct. This is one of those times. Zod reminds us that the truth will eventually come to light.

The episode features zombies. That’s right, zombies. Someone in the Smallville writing room must’ve said: “Hey, we need zombies. What could be cooler than Superman vs. zombies?” That’s probably how we got “Rabid” as a Smallville episode.

A virus is unleashed on Metropolis turning its residents, including our beloved Lois Lane, into an out-of-control, rabid zombie. It’s up to Clark to (once again) save the day. Which, of course, he does. Sorry for the spoiler, but back to the lesson…

The truth is something that people will often try to hide from, deny, avoid, or redefine. We see this in the news all the time. We see it in the entertainment world. We see it on social media. We see it in our families. We see it in ourselves. We often don’t like the truth. We often, to steal Jack Nicholson’s line from A Few Good Men, “can’t handle the truth.” But…the truth is always there. It’s objective. It’s persistent. And it must eventually be confronted.

Smallville is a great show. I wish they’d do a sequel show called Metropolis with Tom Welling playing as our hero Superman, but this is unlikely given the CW’s current-running Supergirl (which features a different actor for Superman) and the movie franchise which started with Man of Steel and continued with Batman vs. Superman and Justice League. Still, whenever I get a little nostalgic for Welling’s Clark Kent, I can always fire up an old episode of Smallville and enjoy it. And, with some episodes, I can also learn some important life lessons.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Freedom is Not a Fantasy

On this 4th of July 2018, allow me to break from our traditional fantasy-oriented blog posts and book reviews and wish everyone a Happy Independence Day. Freedom in the United States of America is not a fantasy, thanks to the brilliant and courageous Founders who laid out the foundations of our great nation and the many veterans over the years who have defended it.

Happy Birthday, America!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Stories That Go Deep and Make You Think: My Interview With GameLit Author Stan Faryna

Stan Faryna is an author, blogger, gamer, entrepreneur, technology expert, and an online strategist. As an author, Stan has become known in the emerging sub-genre of gamelit or litrpg. His debut novella Francesco Augustine Bernadone: A Brief History of Tomorrows has been reviewed on this blog.

His stories have drawn praise for their depth and thought-provoking nature. "His stories go deep," writes Yomar Lopez, founder of a community of techno-geeks called Geeky Antics. "Stan makes me think," writes a fan on Facebook. He does that in an immersive context of a dystopian world, life-like characters with vivid problems and pain, and Christian hope. A recurring theme across his writing is right out of the bible: Love never fails.

Brian Tubbs (BT): Stan, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Stan Faryna (SF): Thank you for honoring me with your kind words and attention, Brian.

BT: As Yomar Lopez says in his review, your stories go deep. Tell us about that. 

SF: Yomar (aka @yogizilla) was very kind (and I loved doing Dr. Who podcasts with him), but I do hope that I take the intrepid reader, deep. Deep as into self-knowledge, hope, and life. Of course, I want the reader to enjoy a great and compelling story, but I also want that story to encourage them to ask themselves (and live out) the big questions.
  • Who am I? 
  • What can I legitimately hope for in this life? 
  • What should I be doing to make that hope happen?
Beyond God, it doesn't get more real than that. Of course, the key to any kind of meaningful answer is love. Love strongly.

That love is the answer should be obvious to the good woman. And to the good man. But good is not where the world is and most of us fail to love. Too often, we fail.

What do you think? What is possible and likely without love?

BT: Tell us what got you started writing fiction?

SF: I suspect that my writing is staged by my experience which must include reading. C.S. Lewis, himself, believed that reading is key to writing and, more importantly, that good reading is essential to good writing. 

My father taught me how to read at a young age. Maybe, four or five. By nine, I had read most of his science fiction books - Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov among them. I don't think I understood everything I had read in those early years, but it fed my young imagination. 

I believe my father also introduced me to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Of course, I preferred comic books and TV superheroes - The Mighty Thor, Dr. Strange, The Amazing Spiderman, Adam West's Batman, and George Reeve's Superman

But the story that seems to have spoken most to me (in childhood) was Homer's Odyssey. That epic poem of Odysseus’s ten-year journey to return home after the Trojan war is an epic, romantic and difficult journey of self-awareness, discovery, and hope. 

My own life, it would turn out, is not a very different story.  

Fast forward. I'm almost 40 years old and a novel is overdue. As Milan Kundera explains in his The Art of the Novel, what defines a novel most is that it asks important, eternal, and urgent questions. He gives us the example of Don Quixote by Miquel Cervantes; it asks whether virtue is still relevant. 

My own heart tells me that it is. That virtue is necessary for the good life. So I must ask, what is virtue. 

Such questions seem better placed in fiction. Or science fiction. Because we can be more honest with ourselves in that context. That's why I'm writing fiction.

Of course, fiction is not the only kind of writing that I do. Or that I have done. Business plans, proposals and corporate communications. Op-eds and blog posts. Book reviews and marketing copy. Thank you notes, personal correspondence and consolations.

A good writer should know how to write to a variety of purposes. passions, and necessities.     
If you are a writer, do try.
BT: Tell us about GameLit or LitRPG. What's it all about?

SF: GameLit and LitRPG is science fiction, fantasy or some combination that is plotted like a computer or table top role playing game a la Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft. Its roots go back to the stories of players relating the adventures and backstories of their player characters. Though these stories initially developed a market among Russian and Eastern European readers as LitRPG, a market for this sub-genre evolved in the West over the last ten years. 

Beyond the debates and legalities, the apparent difference between LitRPG and GameLit is that LitRPG strongly emphasizes the mechanics of character progression and game play - too often at the expense of a meaningful theme, plot, story structure, depth of character, setting, and style. None of which dampens the enthusiasm of the general LitRPG reader. Some would unkindly suggest this problematic reflects the lack of maturity (and humanity) of the anti-social and loveless gamer. 

A popular example of LitRPG is Travis Bagwell's Awaken Online series. On the other hand, an example of GameLit is Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

BT: Your latest project is part of an anthology of novellas and short stories in the gamelit subgenre. In fact, the pack is titled GameLit: Expansion Pack. How did you get involved in that project?"

SF: Being a gamer myself and having a concept of a game that I would like to develop, I began an epic, romantic story about a gamer. The concept of a massively multi-player, post-apocalyptic game, Jacob's Trouble, came to me in the late 90s. I began writing the story in 2006 as a way to define the story, world and mechanics of the game. For the purpose of a business plan. That story, however, became something more. An exercise in love.

Fast forward to 2016 when I released my novella, Francesco Augustine Bernadone. It's about an aging man who enters the game, Jacob's Trouble, in hopes of making enough money to pay for experimental medical treatment needed by his dying wife. 

As I scrambled to figure out some of the marketing mechanics behind book sales, LitRPG seemed like a good sub-genre market for my story. It wasn't. Some complain that LitRPG is more sewer than anything that might be mistaken for literature. On the other hand, GameLit stories are more about the writing. The game is more of an element of the story than a substitute for a story - or so I hope!

GameLit, however, is a new market and time will tell if it will grow large enough to sustain the authors that want to write and sell to it. R.M. Mulder believes in GameLit and he's done a lot to develop the concept, sub-genre, and community. He's also the mastermind behind the GameLit Expansion Pack and an upcoming GameLit magazine. He gave me a space to do my thing and I'm grateful to him. 

BT: Tell us about your story 'Why No One Likes You.'

SF: Magda is a thirty something woman looking for a good time in a popular online game. As a new player, she's got to figure out the general mechanics of game play and her place in this new world. None of which come easy for Magda because she's narcissistic, anti-social, and impulsive. Worse, her reputation and character becomes a topic of public conversation and condemnation.

Magda's predicament reminds me of the problematic of people who pull up roots and go somewhere new to start over, but they can't leave themselves behind and, therefore, they bring their old troubles with them.

Unfortunately, online shaming, bullying and negativity is a thing. Real people are destroyed by it. Often for sake of a single, thoughtless comment or statement. As a result, some end up killing themselves. That's a horrible tragedy. Others lose their jobs. Some don't get hired. Online reputation is that serious. It's a thing I wanted to consider through her story.

I also wanted to explore rejection and how character, personality and intelligence contribute to one's existential predicaments.

How do you manage your online reputation? 

Hopefully, with love and humility.

BT: You were kind enough to invite me to join the next one, so thank you. And I look forward to being a part of that project with you.

SF: I'm excited for you. For your newly embarked odyssey in writing. For the stories you will bring. I'm confident you are going to bring an intelligent and substantial voice to the subgenre. I've enjoyed more than a few of your sermons. 

Intelligence, substance, and sincerity is increasingly lacking across genres and media. We need your finger on the dam.

Consider it an exercise in love and hope.

Check out GameLit Expansion Pack over at Amazon. Don’t forget to leave a review after picking up a copy.