Unraveling Silken Threads–Series Conspectus

Motives, Ethics and Controversies in Speculative Fictions

It’s about far more than merely the swords and sorcery that make up your favorite fictional universe. Join us for our inaugural look into the motives, tropes and ethics of various controversial speculative fictions, and the historic context of their presentation.

Collecting stories and narratives has been a meta-commentary from within mythology, dating back to the Nibelung and older Norse and Greek texts.

Welcome to Unraveling Silken Threads, an introspective look behind the curtain of the media we all love and consistently consume. From the author of your favorite book to the director of that movie you won’t stop panning at the lunch table, we’re going to examine the many people making up the entertainment world. Maybe they contributed directly or maybe they’ve served as an inspiration to a solid work, but what have they done and why?

But first, a quick introduction: my name is Andrew Cardinal, and I am a fanboy. Wait, I’m in my 40s. Does that make me a fanman? Hell if I know. I game, I watch anime, I electronically game more than is probably healthy, and I… cook? Hmm, I need more unhealthy compulsions. Once I’ve managed to untangle myself from the webs that make up the walls of my gaming library, we’ll begin to examine every little detail you wanted to know about the magic behind your favorite fiction!

Now, what I’m about to say next isn’t exactly a disclaimer, but I want to emphasize a point: artists can be divisive in their views. Without getting into too many of the modern controversies, let’s look back on someone else: Wagner. Horribly anti-Semitic, the man’s existence reminds us of the phrase, “don’t meet your heroes” [ 1 ]. Further, let’s remember that aspects of a creative work can have meanings beyond the surface. While that meaning can seem crystal-clear to the writers, authors, and others, some days we, the audience, can’t see their metaphorical forest for the detail-laden trees. That’s fine. A song might have a different meaning for you than it would for another fan or even the musician who wrote it. Raymond E. Feist said it best: “I can make a character look and sound exactly like James Mason, and he’s been dead for some number of years.” Definitely something readers can appreciate, but in an interview on the Betrayal at Krondor game disc, he went on to say: “The characters in Betrayal at Krondor may not look exactly like I envisioned them, but that’s fair, because what the reader of the book sees in their head doesn’t match exactly what I envisioned. And their vision of that character, from what I’ve described, is just as valid as mine” [ 2 ].

Before we begin, it’s important to identify important or controversial matters within each work that may be polarizing. In some cases, it will merely be that fans entirely missed the fact that a creator wrote for a particular perspective or reason. That is perfectly fine; it happens more often than not when a point goes right over the head of the consumer and needs to be directly explained to them. Many authors get frustrated when their audience misses things, forcing them to reexamine how they presented something. In other articles, I will be highlighting a conflict between two or more different interpretations of a work, with all perspectives made independently of the art’s creator. These articles will note especially how the work directly affected the readers, especially if they are reading from a particular context. In the last case, I will be spotlighting specific authors or directors who stand out for their creative choices. These creators will have specific themes or attitudes that they either default to or consciously reach for when creating their art, and their decisions make them notable through their careers rather than in a single notable work.

In the second part of each article, which will most commonly play a part in more contentious subjects, I will break down these arguments and identify their significance to the audience. Whatever the story, the writer always creates for a reason, and that reason is almost always found in the audience who consumed the work. If no conflict existed in the understanding of the work, there would be no discussion. The disparate views about how the media is received matter considerably when examining how the creator of the media put together his work.

Lastly, I’ll be drawing from the perspective of the creator and letting them speak for themselves about the rationale behind their creative decisions. In most cases, authors or directors recall the genesis of this process, and have related it in interviews or statements of their own at some point. We’ll examine these examples of clear authorial intent.

Personal Approaches

After I started college, I fell in with the vampire-LARP crowd. Let’s not worry about what that actually means right now. Suffice it to say, I was now in a group of highly creative individuals. I took up a job as a clerk at the university’s bookstore not too long after that. It turns out that people who sell books tend to read books. People who read books tend to have a lot of opinions on them, too.

During the school year I wrote, even though I had no practical experience with the subjects I wrote about. It was fantasy and sci-fi without any real hint of human interest to ground it. The fiction of others gave me ideas of what I was doing right, and where I was falling into traps. As I broadened my horizons, however, I began to gain the necessary practical literacy needed to portray life, or at least college nerd-life.

In literature and rhetoric courses, I learned that an author’s environment influences his writing. Recognizing that in my own stories, I saw it in the work of my classmates as well. Sure, we all shot off our opinions about each other’s work (and the day we each did “voice work” for each other’s stories is burned into my brain for all time), but we all respected one, simple fact: we wrote what we knew.

Could I write like my classmates? Oh hell no. Could they write like me? Good luck. But that was the point: we couldn’t write from the point of view of someone who’d had a very different life.

Well, not yet anyway.


Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities; Truth isn’t. Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World.

Twain’s quote takes the reality of a situation and points out the obvious. If something impossible happens and everybody sees it then it was an amazing thing; however, if you wrote the exact same thing in a book the people would call you a bad writer. If I told you that there was once a great syrup flood that drowned 21 people and injured 150, or that there was once a beer flood that killed eight and rampaged through the city of London, I’m sure you would think I was stoned, drunk, or spitballing story ideas. That is the thing about using the truth: if you write something extraordinary in a fantasy or sci-fi setting, it has to be believable. If I write about the truth, I just have to keep the facts relatively straight.

A story so fantastic that no part of it can be taken seriously would be entertaining, but missing bite. Without the threat of death, or the pain of loss, no character can fully blossom into a fan favorite. Consider one of the greatest instances of character development in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Guardians of the Galaxy. You are an inhuman monster if your heart didn’t swell when Groot sacrificed himself for the good of the team [ 3 ]. Over the course of a two-hour movie these individuals went from random strangers who not only hated each other but wanted, literally, to kill one another to a legitimate family by the end of it.

It’s not always plausible, though. A hero falls (or jumps) from a 10-story drop, and with only a rope he snaps a hold on a protrusion and swings through a window, sustaining nothing but a few bumps and bruises—a classic in comics and pulp alike. Or a rich, attractive man invites a horribly naïve and vulnerable girl into an abusive relationship that’s a pale imitation of actual BDSM culture only for this girl to turn the tables and “change” the guy into a person who can love her back genuinely. Thus, they live happily ever after.

In the seeming illogic of the work, audiences are left scratching their heads. In a mad attempt to comprehend the work, discussions and debates on social media and through interviews may ensue. Fanatics of the setting and/or the story are left wildly unsatisfied and may ultimately boycott the product (if not the franchise as a whole), while others may instead embrace the impossibility of the story. They may infer—and sometimes even invent—context between the written lines and hold it up as an example or validation of a most esoteric perspective in which they collectively cry, weeping, in praise of their present-day prophet in defiance against the civilized world, “He understands me!”

Of course, none of these events would ever happen in what we call “real life”. These are the artifices of fiction, crafted by an author to, in turn, craft a story. That’s not to say these scenarios are literally impossible, just that the probability of any of the above actually happening (and working) is infinitesimally small. While many artists love this device, just as many hate it with a passion. Many more are caught wondering what the big deal is. It’s just a story, after all.

But why does that protagonist leap from the window or try to reform the ice-cold BDSM fan? If one looks at the motivations of any given character, the list is very short. The question then becomes, ostensibly, why does one character become an icon and another fall by the wayside? That’s when it comes down to the details; one of the most obvious details is the character’s likability. Luke Skywalker was whiny, as was his father Anakin. Harry Potter and Peter Parker, too, had the same characterization. How did any of them become so popular? They all had some basic traits in common. They had all lost their parents at a relatively early age, they all had unexplored potential, and they all made some staggeringly poor choices; why the big difference?

Bad choices the hero makes can be forgiven if they work hard enough to correct them. Peter lost Uncle Ben because he wanted to make money, easily forgivable if you understand that he did so to make money for the family. Watching his uncle die and then learning that he could have prevented that death if he had acted beforehand put Peter in a position that he can never forgive himself, even if we do forgive him. No matter how much joy Peter feels he will always have that in his heart.

Harry Potter was whiny but despite his numerous failings as a hero he did stick with it, even if his successes have much more to do with his friends and allies than him personally. Luke, however whiny, (assuming it’s a genetic predisposition here) fought for and protected his friends his family, overcoming all of the negatives in his past and pushing past to become a very powerful Jedi in his own right.

Having said all that, we have a better understanding of why we love some heroes and hate others. Luke’s father Anakin suffered many failures, the worst being his unfulfilled promise to come back and free the slaves; even with the powers of a Jedi, he failed to have the mental and emotional fortitude to do the right thing. Killing Sand People on Tattooine, murdering younglings in the Jedi temple, and then contributing to the death of his own wife in a frenzied assault all resulted in him becoming a broken man, having lost everything that ever meant anything to him.

The Specific Skills

Fiction writing does not need to be true; it merely needs to entertain. One could theoretically write about sentient robots made in the visage of dinosaurs that form social groups reminiscent of adolescent cliques while roaming a wasteland doing, well, something one might assume is cleaning it up. And yet despite such a premise making no logical sense in real-world context, kids ages 4-8 love it anyway [ 4 ].

In the film and theater industries, a key adage of direction and casting is that 90 percent of direction is casting. This is because directors understand that actors generally portray a role with greater genuine credulity if the characters they are portraying can be drawn from something within that they already have. If not for George Clooney, would Ocean’s 11 have been just as effective a movie? What if Brendan Fraser was cast as Danny Ocean instead?

Writers of fiction (and nonfiction) follow the same logic phrased a bit differently: “write what you know.” Without a basic understanding of what it is a writer is writing about, the result fails to connect with the audience. Literacy is a concept of the humanities applicable not only to the ability to read a written language; it applies to having an understanding in a field, be it sciences, art, history, politics, et cetera. To be “literate” in music is, for example, to be able to listen to a song and identify passion behind the music, in addition to the meaning of any lyrics and possibly even some of the reasons behind instrument choices. One need not be a studied expert in musical theory to be able to appreciate it; merely being literate in art is generally enough.

When writing fiction (good fiction, that is), an author will of course research the context of his subject to write his story better, but the initial story must first come from somewhere. Every story has an inspiration. Generally, once engendered, a tale takes on a life of its own, which the author rides alongside. Common questions still arise, though. Why did an author decide to write this story in the first place? Why did an author decide to make this creative decision in his work? Where did the idea of the story originate?

Regardless of a story’s quality, the author is ultimately unbound by concepts such as truth. It does not matter if the events strongly resemble a real-world occurrence; it only matters that it could. Making the audience suspend disbelief in the writing’s context is the challenge fiction authors face with every script, novel, and screenplay. It is these creative choices that drive audiences insane with controversy and nuance.


From Tolkien to Transformers, each saga forms a modern mythology inclusive of their own pantheons.

Conflicts: man versus self, man versus nature, man versus technology—for many, the only fight that ever really matters is the eternal struggle between good and evil. It doesn’t matter if you are talking Nazis versus everyone, elves versus orcs, or imaginative children versus the class bully; most tales have a conflict that can be said to follow these general lines. Armies, corporations, that jerk from gym class, they’re all types of evil, malicious forces who wish the protagonist ill, sometimes for no other reason than to derive pleasure from the suffering of others.

Compare stories that feature a sentient evil as an antagonist to those that feature a non-sentient one. Undead outbreaks, geological upheavals and other disasters all push a narrative based on the reactions of protagonists to the unfolding events. Yet there are still antagonists in the story. They may not be the most obvious threat to our heroes, but they still harry them in the fight for survival.

When you look at a movie like Philadelphia [ 5 ], it’s easy to interpret it as a struggle against a literal force of nature—the AIDS virus. But the bigger picture is the firm firing Tom Hanks’ character, leaving him destitute with no way to support himself while struggling with his illness. The implication is that they would do so to anyone in a similar situation. This ends up turning the original story of a man fighting a disease to a man fighting the system, and that of course brings us back to good versus evil. Even when it comes to zombies, these sorts of stories eventually turn away from instances of trying to survive against an unfeeling force of nature to the struggle against the true monsters—fellow human beings, even as an impersonal collective.

Throughout history there have been numerous reasons to fight, but today, we are going to look at the things that most often pull people into those struggles. The list is short but obvious: hate, love, money, revenge, survival, honor, duty, and even self-discovery. Which one the hero of a story picks (or which one picks our hero) and why is often what drags the reader along with them on their quest. No one watched Braveheart to see how much William Wallace loved his wife—the story is all about his overwhelming hatred for the English [ 6 ]. No one signed up to watch Luke whine about how much he wanted to hang with his friends at Tosche Station—they signed on to watch him take revenge on the Empire for the loss of his aunt and uncle and, ultimately, Ben [ 7 ].

Often, the route taken by the hero is a construct in the mind of the author, and that tells you about that very writer, the circumstances they grew up in, and—of course—that character. For example, both George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan both lived in Charleston, S.C. The city is marked by one of the greatest military academies in the south: The Citadel [ 8 ]. It doesn’t take a genius to make some obvious extrapolations about the world they grew up in, the belief structure they both lived under, and which sides of the various arguments they fall on when it comes to military school, war craft, conflict in general, and questions of morality stemming from the organized violence of war. The same can be said about numerous authors; Tolkien’s casual racism, engendered by both his personal beliefs towards Jews and the general Eurocentrism of the day in which he lived, formed the basis of his characterizations of the dwarves in his stories [ 9 ], [ 10 ]. Likewise, Rudyard Kipling’s status as a white colonizer born and raised in India during the height of British Imperialism informs the racism present in The Jungle Book and his other stories [ 11 ]. This is something that both Kipling and Tolkien had in common—both were born and spent at least their formative years in British-controlled colonies, essentially providing the kind of colonizer mentality that incubates racist thoughts and philosophies that, today, would be considered abhorrent.

For good or bad, every author makes a case for his or her viewpoint in the modern world as a story point in the world they write about. It’s in acknowledging the inherent aspects of an author’s psyche that are passed along through their writing, and in studying how these philosophies influenced their written works, that brings problematic elements of texts to light for more complete discussion and criticism. No one is saying you’re racist for enjoying Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, but it’s important to note the problematic aspects of an author’s psyche. From 2019-20, J.K. Rowling made her less-than-tolerant views on the LGBTQ+ community known [ 12 ]. I can tell you that many friends of mine, some members of that community themselves, felt both devastated and betrayed by this revelation. Were they themselves “allowed” to love Harry Potter? A friend of mine, who was a gay man, an actor, and a hair stylist, told me that Rowling’s books literally saved his life. What can we tell him? He desperately wants to love these works still, but his skin crawls when he realizes the mentality behind the typewriter.

It can be assumed that the average writer does things in his or her writing without thinking about them. Yet the subtle persuasion of growing up in America in the early 1900s created the world of John Steinbeck, which influenced his understanding of the harsh realities of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl. Growing up in the America of the ’40s and ’50s made Harper Lee very aware of both privilege and racism. Writers write what they know, making their work part-real and part-fantasy.

It can be assumed that the average writer does things in his or her writing without thinking about them. Yet the subtle persuasion of growing up in America in the early 1900s created the world of John Steinbeck, which influenced his understanding of the harsh realities of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl. Growing up in the America of the ’40s and ’50s made Harper Lee very aware of both privilege and racism. Writers write what they know, making their work part-real and part-fantasy.

This brings us to the next component of good characters: motivation. Being honest with ourselves, if we were personally faced with the problems that most characters dealt with in a typical story, we would either walk away from the situation or collapse in a ball of self-pity. Nobody volunteers for a shit show; you may end up neck deep in one, but that’s never been your goal, has it? Even people who deal with these scenarios for a living look for ways to cut down on them. Emergency responders, military personnel, and even parents, all of whom are trained to handle bad situations (or in the case of parents, learn on the job), want everything to go smoothly and problem free. Most of them realize that they will have to deal with these no-win situations eventually. So, the first thing a good character has to have is a reason that makes sense for why they haven’t cut-and-run. In some cases, it is obvious; in an undead apocalypse, you can’t run from the zombies if they’re everywhere.

The average character that appears in a work of fiction has to rise above in order to stand out from the extras on stage. These people often grow to become above average, extraordinary, or even truly heroic, based on the hardship they endure and the motivation they have. It’s these motivations that make them a functional, three-dimensional person and not a two-dimensional drawing from a Saturday morning cartoon.

Moving Beyond Motivation

Have you thought about what’s next? You have motivation: now you need to build a history. A real person has this going for them already; someone who loves, or hates, or even does a little of both. They have a heart, they love puppies, they murder; maybe they murder while hugging puppies? Even the most evil person on the planet might have someone they love and someone who loves them. Even Hitler had a girlfriend, after all.

“Real” is a scary word when talking about various characters you may develop. Real is relative. It literally varies based on the world the story is in. This is why “real” isn’t really a thing, because it’s your world, your rules, and your reality. Making that world starts with rules. The reason why Star Trek is more “real” to people is because behind all the technobabble and super science, they have global rules that are usually static; only huge, story-shredding events change how the reality works. Every good story should leave itself an out, and Star Trek has several, such as when Species 8472 used organic technology to prove their supremacy over their technological foes, thus providing a method to escape from nearly unwinnable in-universe situations [ 13 ].

Having a set of static rules with room to grow is a must for any story, but it also gives it production its conceit. In order for every zombie story to exist, you have to accept that zombies are a thing that exist in this world; without that, the whole premise falls apart. That is your production conceit—you do it for every fantasy or sci-fi story you will ever read. It’s both a little thing and a big thing at the same time, because without it some stories won’t work. In the modern age, we are actually bumping against the ceiling of what is possible and what is fiction. Think of genetic surgery to fix disorders; custom-made, genetically altered white blood cells to attack disease; head transplants; healed, severed spines; Gemasolar 24-hour solar power stations; trips to Mars, and so on. All of this sounds like the impossible, and yet every day in our world, we see these advances coming about. This makes it entirely possible to write an amazing sci-fi story, visualizing the technology of tomorrow, using the wants and needs of today.

Thus, we begin our trek through the worlds and composition of fiction, and their underlying meaning. Welcome!


  1. Collecting stories and narratives has been a meta-commentary from within mythology, dating back to the Nibelung and older Norse and Greek texts.
    Source: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/Siegfried_and_the_Twilight_of_the_Gods_Title.jpg Veri meis abhorreant qui ei, esse errem populo quo te, libris causae vivendo eu quo.
  2. From Tolkien to Transformers, each saga forms a modern mythology inclusive of their own pantheons.”
    Source: shutterstock.com/image-photo/hands-holding-world-on-open-bible-1594241524

As SFS’s Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Cardinal has found his editorial duties at Steam-Funk Studios often reconnect him to parts of fandom he’d have otherwise overlooked. Andrew has DJed, catered, and run travel logistics in the goth scene as DJ Rasclin. Other credentials include staffing for Anime Central and work for the US Census Bureau. As the second of our Senior Editors, he advises on strategy for both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse, remaining a steady guiding hand.


  1. Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com). “Wagner the Anti-Semite.” DW.COMdw.com/en/the-hateful-side-of-wagners-musical-genius/a-16850818. Accessed 5 Oct. 2020.
  2. Pac-Man. “Interview with Raymond E. Feist.” Windows PC version, Namco Networks, 2009. 
  3. Gunn, James, Director. Guardians of the Galaxy. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2014. 
  4. Gall, Chris, creator. Dinotrux, Dreamworks Animation, 2015. Netflixnetflix.com/watch/80049903
  5. Demme, Jonathan, director. Philadelphia. TriStar, 1993.
  6. “Braveheart.” Hollywood, CA: Paramount Pictures Corporation, 1995.
  7. “Star Wars.” Directed by George Lucas, Twentieth Century Fox, 1977. 
  8. “The Military College of South Carolina.” The Citadelcitadel.edu/root. Accessed 28 February, 2020. 
  9. Lebovic, Matt. “Are Tolkien’s dwarves an allegory for the Jews?” The Times of Israel, The Times of Israel. 11 December, 2013. timesofisrael.com/are-tolkiens-dwarves-an-allegory-for-the-jews.
  10. “Racism in Tolkien’s Works.” Tolkien Gateway, Hyarion, tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Racism_in_Tolkien’s_Works. Accessed 28, February, 2020.
  11. Kipling, Rudyard. The Jungle Book. Brockhaus, 1913.
  12. Moreau, Jordan. “J.K. Rowling Gets Backlash Over Anti-Trans Tweets.” Variety, Variety. 6 June, 2020. variety.com/2020/film/news/jk-rowling-transphobic-tweets-controversy-1234627081.
  13. “Species 8472.” Star Trek, CBS Entertainment, 29 June 2010, startrek.com/database_article/species-8472