Feature: Learning from the Empire (Ferett Steinmetz)

TheFlux-144dpi Ferret-Steinmetz-200x267Ferrett Steinmetz is a graduate of both the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and Viable Paradise, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award, for which he remains stoked. He has a moderately popular blog, The Watchtower of Destruction, wherein he talks about bad puns, relationships, politics, videogames, and more bad puns. He’s written four computer books, including the still-popular-after-two-years Wicked Cool PHP. His new book for Angry Robot, The Flux, is a sequel to Flex, published earlier this year, and here he explains the role model he followed…





No better follow-up story than The Empire Strikes Back has been produced in the history of mankind; take your Godfather IIs and keep ’em in your pocket. Empire was what transformed Star Wars from a box-office hit into a full-fledged mythology. Don’t believe me? If Empire had been bad, it would have done to Star Wars what Matrix Reloaded did to The Matrix – you’d have one perfectly enjoyable movie, laced with the sour aftertaste of having to ignore the wretched Xanax heat-dream of a tale that came after it.

So when people started demanding a sequel to my book Flex, I asked: What did Empire do right?

the-empire-strikes-back-dream-posterFortunately, I didn’t have to do much research – I met my wife in a Star Wars chat room fifteen years ago, and we had Luke and Leia sitting on top of our wedding cake. It had never occurred to me that I’d have to write a sequel – but now that I did, it turns out that “watching a movie at least fifty times” counted as research! As did “Having a wife who loved Star Wars,” because over the last twenty years we’d each lavished such Empire-love upon each other with each watching that we had literal lists of How Empire Got It Right.

I mean, I honestly wasn’t expecting people to like Flex – a weirdly personal novel about donut prophecies, about bureaucratic magic performed by filling out forms, of videogame obsession transforming the world into live-action games of Portal. But once people did like it, having Empire in my oeuvre was like a big glass box marked BREAK IN CASE OF SUCCESS.

So what did Empire do right?

1) Things Have Clearly Changed Between Now And Then. A lot of sequels lock the characters in stasis between the ending of Story #1 and the beginning of Story #2: action sequels, in particular, love having the hero back in his ordinary life before Something Pulls Him Back Into Action. What were they doing between now and then? Killing time, I guess.

But Empire has the characters struggling right from the get-go. You’d think that victory at the Death Star would have given the Rebels some momentum – but no, they’re hiding in an icy safehouse, the Empire has clearly been pissed thanks to this unexpected victory, and now they’re taking the rebels quite seriously. When that first frame drops on-screen, you sense that we’re already in trouble, and that’s all based on the ramifications of events from the last movie.

(And The Flux, sure enough, deals with Our Heroes desperately adapting. Paul’s attempts to be New York’s biggest magical drug dealer – something he was strongarmed into at the end of Flex – have been thwarted by a new power player, and also the horrible thing that happened to Paul’s daughter at the end of Book One.)

2Empire Han) Everyone Gets A Solid Reintroduction. Too many sequels assume you know who the heck these people are, counting on a warmed-over affection to carry you through the movie – which has all the yawning excitement of your partner of fifteen years peeling off his socks, grudgingly brushing his teeth, and gesturing towards the bed with a “y’wanna”?

But watch how Empire lovingly creates scenes right away that assume you’re starting from scratch. Luke is established as a clever kid who’s in over his head. Han is established as a reckless hip-shooter who’s maybe a little too concerned for his friends. Leia is established as spunky, a leader, someone who’s not afraid to get up in people’s faces. These aren’t rehashes of scenes from Star Wars, either – these are new scenes, in new situations, letting people know who they are.

And within minutes, they’re all interacting in ways that emphasize why they like each other. There’s no telling here; they all act like old friends, riffing off of each other, caring so deeply they’ll take great risks. A lot of people give Pixar’s Up credit for that incredible eight-minute story of a man and his wife – but Empire summarizes “why you loved the people in Star Wars” with loving attention. That little seducer.

(I won’t say I did nearly as well as Empire, but the beginning does feature a large setpiece where Paul and Valentine, facing down a squad of wizard-seeking government goons, are forced to show why they love each other.)

Empire walkers3) The Technology Changes. As a Star Wars junkie, you know what bothers me the most about all the sequels? Not just the botched abomination of the prequels, but the Clone Wars spinoffs and Rebels and most of the comics?

It’s the same damned five ships, over and over again.

Hey, another X-Wing variant! Another TIE fighter variant! AT-STs stork-walking around again! And the same Star Destroyer!

And after a while, you start to wonder: does the Empire have any other battles? Honestly, the AT-STs don’t look like they work all that well outside of a big flat surface. TIE fighters are good if you’re swarming a large ship, I guess. With all the manufacturing power the Empire has to offer, can’t they design customized ships to handle edge cases? Why do these schmucks keep churning out the same weaponry?

But Empire used technology to deepen the sense of backstory. Because Empire did roll out new technology – the AT-STs, the stomping AT-ATs, the dual-cockpitted TIE bombers, the winter Stormtrooper outfits, the Super Star Destroyer. Which made the world feel deeper and lived in – we weren’t just seeing cut-and-copy versions of the same five or six things we saw in the first film, but an evolution that showed that the universe was larger than we knew….

An evolution that stopped dead in the prequels. In the first film, we had lightsabers and minor mind control. In the second film, we got telekinesis. And in the third film, force lightning. And for the prequels, where we had the Jedi at the height of their power, we saw them all… using nothing but powers we’d already seen in the first film. We had a double-saber, but it felt uninteresting, because the fight scenes were only larger, not more interesting.

(In the ’Mancer-verse, magic is created by obsession: if you legitimately believe that filling out paperwork is what creates justice in this universe, the laws of physics will soften to agree with you. And we had Paul, your friendly neighborhood bureaucromancer, teaming up with Valentine the Videogamemancer. And I knew that The Flux needed all sorts of crazy magic, so we have pyromancers and origamimancers and masqueromancers and a ’mancer obsessed with a movie that you would swear would not create good magic, but by God I promise you it does.)

Empire Luke4) Everything That Is Presented As A Strength In The First Story Becomes A Liability In The Second. Luke is a dreamer, looking to the stars. Han is a rebel, dodging the odds to do what he thinks is right. Princess Leia is strong-willed and bold.

And in Empire, all those things become drawbacks.

It’s so clever. Luke’s a dreamer, and that means he can’t concentrate on the here and now. Han’s rebellious, shoot-from-the-hip nature is finally catching up with him as the odds start turning against him. And Leia’s strong-willed loyalty is now conflicting with the two men in her life she loves….

That’s the genius of it. You don’t have to roll back the character development to have them learn a new lesson: you simply have to present them with new challenges. And Empire is absolutely meticulous in asking “Yes, these are the reasons we love them – now how can we turn those traits into liabilities?” And everything that we are rooting for them to be becomes a trap, and we don’t know how they’re going to get out of it.

And that’s how you do a sequel. Advance the story. Reintroduce the people you love. Bring in new stuff, not just retreads, and find the hook that’s going to pull your newly-evolved characters along a stronger and more terrifying plot.

The Flux does all that. It may have other flaws. In fact, I’m sure it does; as someone who literally owes the woman he loves to the power of the Force, I’m not gonna tell you that I wrote something better than Empire.

But what The Flux has is all the tricks that Empire unearthed: a desperate father, trying to save his daughter from a set of powers she does not know how to control. A war between ’mancers that threatens to split New York City open. And proud obsessions that grant great and wondrous powers, but at psychological costs that are going to break a family apart.

Let the fireworks begin.


Find Ferrett online at theferrett.livejournal.com or follow him @ferretthimself on Twitter.

The Flux is out now from Angry Robot books

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