Recently a friend of mine recommended a book called Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: and Other Geeky Truths by Ryan Britt. The book is a collection of entertaining and erudite essays about geeky subjects and nerd culture. The title essay takes a look at literacy (or lack thereof) in a galaxy far, far away, “Wearing Dracula’s Pants” purposes that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is really the best; “Regeneration No. 9” is a personal glimpse into how Doctor Who brought him back from a major bout of depression. All 14 essays are fun and engaging, and speak volumes about the geek life experience.
Ryan Britt is an essayist, novelist, and critic, primarily in the science fiction/fantasy/nerd arena (truthfully the best place to be). His first book, the aforementioned Luke Skywalker Can’t Read: and Other Geeky Truths, was published by Penguin Random House in 2015. Currently, he is the entertainment editor at Inverse where he writes about science fiction, pop culture and more. Ryan’s other work has been published by VICE, the New York Times, CNN Style, Den of Geek!, Tor.com, and elsewhere. He is currently writing his second book, a novel called Starship Dalloway. Ryan is represented by the Fischer-Harbage Agency. He lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.
After geeking out over the book, and Ryan himself, he graciously granted me the following most excellent interview:
You posit in Luke Skywalker Can’t Read that in the fictional future – or past – reading for the sake of reading seems not to have a very optimistic fate. Do you still feel this way? Are there elements in our current sociopolitical climate that may indicate the future of pleasure reading is bleak?
I still feel pretty pessimistic about the future of reading, at least in the short term. As someone who writes for the internet for a living, I see the attention spans of most people shriveling. Books require patience and space to breathe. I think the vast majority of internet discourse is ephemeral. The whole point of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read was to demonstrate that metaphorically, the entire culture of the Star Wars galaxy can’t seem to remember anything. People like Luke have their entire biographies turned into “myths” in less than three decades. That’s got to be a result of media in one way or another. I also can’t tell you the number of times people have attacked my essays (in the book and elsewhere) and then admitted that they really didn’t read them, but were mostly responding to the titles or headlines. I’m exploring some of this in a new book I’m working on at the moment.
But on the bright side, I’m a father now, and I’ll tell you, even though my daughter is only 5 months old, she flips out for her books. My wife and I have kept screens away from her for now. There’s magic in books, and even a child who can’t read feels that magic. So, I’m hopeful for the next generation. Hopefully, when my daughter is an adult, she’ll live in a world where it’s hip to unplug a little more. Maybe that’s when books come back. And, I will say, the ebook didn’t take over the way people thought. So, at least in a small margin, physical books aren’t dead. Amazon even had to open up brick-and-mortar stores!
Then let’s talk about The Magicians on SyFy. We see powerful young people with books all of the time, and like Lev Grossman’s novel, the fictional world of Fillory and the Fillory books are a prominent element. How do you view this as moving to a better possible future for readers?
Yes. Lev and his books are a huge inspiration to me. I wouldn’t have thought about reading and books in fantasy and sci-fi narratives if Lev didn’t’ exist. He has been a kind of Obi-Wan Kenobi to me. (Am I Anakin? Maybe?) In short, I think more fantasy and sci-fi books like Lev’s are coming and I admire the hell out of him.
How is a twisted up anti-Narnia relevant to current affairs?
I’m not sure a twisted-Narnia isn’t always relevant to current affairs. You’d have to talk to the showrunners of The Magicians; John McNamara and Sarah Gamble. I interviewed them about the season 2 finale, and they made a lot of parallels between their show and the state of the world. Personally, I think good fantasy/sci-fi social commentary is a bit timeless. So, I guess I’m less concerned about what The Magicians is saying about Trump, and more concerned with what it says about deeper, more timeless stuff. I mean, Lewis suggested it first: “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.” I think cool sci-fi and fantasy like The Magicians is always finding that deeper magic.
How has the Star Wars franchise changed in the last two years? Do you still think the fans have the influence on the story that you mention in your book?
Wow! Yeah, Star Wars has changed a lot since I wrote that stuff. I mean, yes, I still think the fans are in charge. Rian Johnson is clearly a Star Wars fan, as is Gareth Edwards. But, to be honest, maybe that’s not a good thing? I thought Rogue One had a lovely cast and some great performances, but it felt like it was really pandering to a certain kind of Star Wars fan. I really disliked that last scene where Darth Vader murdered all those people. It felt needless. This is the kind of thing certain kinds of fans love, and they got it. I found that trite. Is Star Wars just a thing where we check the boxes of Darth Vader doing “cool” things? I’ll put it another way: Nicholas Meyer wasn’t a fan of Star Trek when he directed The Wrath of Khan in 1982. Like, not at all. And that film saved the franchise and redefined it. Meyer was a guy who loved Sherlock Holmes and H.G. Wells and C.S Forester books. I think Star Wars needs someone like that at this point. Most of the people making these movies are big Star Wars fans and that’s kind of it. I think Miranda July or Lena Dunham should direct a Star Wars movie. (I say that and can already hear fans screaming!) Or maybe after A Wrinkle in Time, Ava DuVernay can do Star Wars. Just someone who feels really different from the kinds of directors we’ve had so far. But, that’s a short, weird answer. There’s a lot to unpack there. Plus, I haven’t seen The Last Jedi yet. Who knows, maybe it’s the best, most subversive Star Wars yet.
Predictions for The Last Jedi (but no spoilers)! You’ve already mentioned in one of your essays that you think Poe might die, but what do you think is up with Rei and Kylo Ren (whom I hope is less emo this outing)? Why do you think, or do you think, that we need to see the original heroes from 40 years ago die (putting my money on it now that Han is dead and that Carrie Fisher has passed)?
I’ll be honest: I just don’t know! My only major prediction for The Last Jedi is that Luke Skywalker will reveal something about the history of the Jedi that really changes the way we look at them. You know, more of that “deeper magic” stuff I mentioned before. I mean, I hope that Luke reading the first books we’ve ever seen in Star Wars is a game-changer. But, that’s connected to my personal interests in this stuff.
Going back to the idea of fan input changing and challenging the great canonical idea of various movies and TV shows, do you think with the new King of Social Media, Twitter, that fan meddling is just going to increase? How are writers’ rooms changing because of this?
I don’t think writers’ rooms will change much. I do think the way shows and films are distributed will change. I think studios are more concerned about spoilers than ever before. I bet the binge model will go away in like two years. Stranger Things is like ruined the day it comes out. That can’t keep happening.
Star Trek Discovery vs. The Orville. You are obviously in the first camp while I am definitely in The Orville camp. Both have writers/producers from other Trek TV shows and movies. Why does one work for you, but not the other?
In being pro-Discovery, I am not anti-Orville. I just don’t write about The Orville all that much, because I couldn’t find much to say. Maybe it’s my failing as a critic or something, but I literally couldn’t figure out an angle that wasn’t made by countless other smart bloggers: that The Orville is a non-Star Trek show doing a “funny” version of Star Trek and doing it decently well. People have written this, and I didn’t want to do my version of it because I didn’t have strong feelings, nor anything original to say on the subject. I respect that people do have strong feelings, one way or another, but I guess I still see The Orville as a sitcom, albeit, an occasionally serious one. I like to say new things, and for me, I couldn’t say anything new about The Orville, so I opted to say very little.
I also don’t see it in competition with Star Trek: Discovery. I think that’s one of those narratives that people are talking about right now, but I’m not sure it makes sense to pit them against each other. I think it comes down to this: when there are two shows set in outer space, and there’s a bunch of press for both, people tend to talk about it a lot like there’s a war between the two. It happened in the ’90s when Babylon 5 was on at the same time as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If the second season of The Expanse had come out at the same time as Discovery would we say those were in competition? I mean, the executive producer of The Expanse is Naren Shankar, who used to write for Star Trek in the ’90s. That’s similar to Brannon Braga working on The Orville. You see what I mean? Star Trek: Discovery probably has more in common with The Expanse than it does with The Orville. But, we wouldn’t say those are in competition with each other, would we? To use another ‘90s analogy, Discovery vs. Orville is not the Blur vs. Oasis battle of the bands. And that’s because, in my opinion, you can’t use the same critical lens to talk about The Orville because it doesn’t really present itself as a “real” sci-fi show. The world-building feels like it’s only there to create allegories. It feels like an intentional parody. That doesn’t mean it can’t be profound, it can. It’s just that it doesn’t seem like it’s even close to being the same thing as Discovery. If anything, Discovery is Oasis, and The Orville is Weird Al. And I say that as someone who is a fan of both Oasis and Weird Al.
How do you think streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and now CBS All Access are reshaping the future of television? Has The Handmaid’s Tale’s big win at this year’s Emmys potentially altered this future?
I really don’t know! All of that is in flux. I’d say it’s too early to tell. I will say that Hulu and CBS All Access releasing streaming episodes one at a time, versus the Netflix all-at-once model, seems more sustainable. But maybe that’s just my preference. I really don’t like getting an entire series at the same time. I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, but I really wished I could have watched it over the course of a few months.
What is your must-see TV?
Ha! I don’t know. I guess Star Trek: Discovery right now. But, I mean, I love watching old stuff. I got a BritBox account and my wife and I love watching old Miss Marple murder-mysteries. I mean, that makes me sound old, but it’s the truth.
Thoughts on live tweeting?
I don’t do it! I’m overwhelmed by Twitter. I try to watch things privately and then generate my thoughts about those things in private. Twitter, for me, is a nice place to connect with other people in my line of work, or to hear from people who have read my stuff. But, beyond that, it sort of terrifies me. But, I mean, it’s really fun for a lot of people. Game of Thrones fans seems to LOVE IT. I have a friend who says she loves Game of Thrones Twitter more than Game of Thrones. That’s hilarious to me.
Favorite superhero movie this year? Do you think the “bubble” will ever burst on comic book movies, and if it does, how will that come about? What will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, assuming there is one? (I’ve watched bubbles break quite a bit, from the independent comic shops springing up like weeds in the 90’s, movie trading cards, to most recently the manga bubble of the early 2000’s.)
My favorite superhero movie this year was Thor: Ragnarok. I thought it was really accessible and really nerdy at the same time. But I also loved Logan. Talk about different! Will the bubble ever burst on these movies? Maybe not. I think it’s all about messing with the formula. I think the thing with the new Thor is it proved you could bring in these really artistic people like Taika Waititi and see what they do with superhero movies. Plus, as you mentioned, Wonder Woman was great, and felt different from a lot of superhero movies. If superhero movies can have a lot of variety, then I think the genre can survive. Ragnarok, Wonder Woman and Logan couldn’t be more different from each other, but they’re all great. So, that diversity of tone really helps I think in terms of longevity.
Let’s talk Doctor Who! Thoughts on Capaldi’s last season, Bill Potts, Jodie Whittaker and 3 new companions…something that hasn’t been seen since Hartnell/Tom Baker/Peter Davison? Do you think that the first female doctor needs 3 companions? Do you think Bill Potts got a fair shake?
I loved Peter Capaldi’s version of the Doctor. I think he’s my favorite actor to play the character so far. But, I’m not sure Capaldi got the best Doctor Who stories to work with. Had Capaldi been the Doctor during some of those great Matt Smith episodes, I think we would feel differently about his era. I mean, imagine Capaldi in “The Impossible Astronaut.” Imagine him being the Doctor after David Tennant? It sort of works, you know? All those River Song episodes, etc. Don’t get me wrong, Matt Smith is terrific, and was an excellent Doctor. But I would have loved to have seen Capaldi in some of those stories. He is the character.
I loved Pearl Mackie as Bill and would have loved to have seen more of her. I’m glad she got a happy ending, but I don’t think she got a fair shake. Maybe she’ll come back when Jodie Whittaker is the 13th Doctor? That would be awesome, right? And it’s possible, she’s out there, flying around the universe.
As far as the next season, I’m very excited. Having a new Doctor is always really cool and restorative, and I think Jodie Whittaker is a great choice. Does she need three companions? I don’t know about that. Did Peter Davison? Team Tardis has been a thing before and it could work again. But, I’m not sure. I like the Doctor as the primary character of the show. So, I hope Jodie Whittaker gets a few solo adventures. You know, like Capaldi’s “Heaven Sent” or something like that. The Doctor is so great, sometimes the character is best on their own.
What films are you looking forward to in 2018?
Wow, 2018 movies seem like an eternity from now. I know it might not be cool to say this, but I’m really fascinated to see what the Ready Player One adaptation ends up being like. The book is so odd and layered, and seemingly unfilmable. I’m utterly fascinated by the fact that it’s going to be a movie. It feels like trying to adapt Tron fan fiction. I know that makes it sound like I don’t like it. I do. I just think that whether or not Ready Player One is good or bad, it will be interesting. To me anyway. I love adaptations, and I love writing about them. But this movie is like an adaptation of a book, and like a hundred movies and TV shows and video games, too. It seems to contain multitudes, and yet, could be superficial popcorn blockbuster stuff, too. That’s really fascinating to me.
I’m also really interested in the Holmes and Watson comedy with Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. I mean, John C. Reilly was the only thing that made Kong: Skull Island bearable. Plus, Ethan Coen is writing it? I mean, what’s not to like! Plus, it’s a Sherlock Holmes movie, so it’s basically like going to nerd church for me.
Thank you so much, Ryan, for your time and thoughtful (and thought provoking) response! Be sure to catch up with Ryan at https://www.inverse.com/ and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Check out a copy of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read, and look for his next book, coming soon!