This time, we'll be look at:
Porn and Pong by Damon Brown
Steal Across the Sky by Nancy KressWe Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour
Reviews after the break.
Porn and Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider, and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture by Damon Brown. Allow me to describe the cover of this book: It's a picture of a naked woman, from her toes to her mouth, with the title and a joystick strategically splayed to cover her naughty bits. It's a cover that's far more ridiculous than titillating, and while I'd like to believe that's the intent, there's no real evidence to suggest that. (In fact the only evidence I did gather in regards to this book is the dirty look the librarian gave me when I signed it out. I didn't know it would look like that!) Sensationalist cover aside, Brown's book treats its topic with a modicum of respect. He divides his discussion of pornography and videogames into three broad eras: the early era, where it was the concept of pornography in games that drove things more than any sort of realism; the growing public awareness heralded by Lara Croft, and what came after; and the GTA era, with public controversies and outcries alongside general acceptance. The book isn't especially detailed, or in-depth, and most of what it discusses I've already come across elsewhere. What Brown adds is that he spends a considerable amount of time matching game history with broader contemporary pop culture history, whether it's Ellen and the rise of the same-sex protagonist relationships, or reality shows and the Sims. The connection may not always make total sense, but the effort is appreciated.
Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress. Kress' Steal Across the Sky can be thought of as a book with two separate parts. In the first part, aliens choose individual humans from earth to travel across the stars to other alien planets, and Witness (capital W) the crime that the aliens performed on humanity. This part of the novel does some culture-building, with Lucca going to a planet with simple, nomadic people, and Cam going to the nearby planet that features a more medieval society that revolves around around skillful manipulation of a game similar to chess (think Iain M. Banks' Player of Games). In the second half, we return to Earth, to see human society deal with the fallout of the aliens' revelation: millenia ago, they altered the human race so we lost the ability to see the spirits of the recent dead. The second half follows the lives of four Witnesses post-Witnessing as the people of earth react to the knowledge that life after death is a certainty. Neither of the worlds in the first half are particularly original, and that's probably a deliberate choice on Kress' part. But it's still rather jarring when things return to Earth; thematically, a chapter that started on Earth may have helped with the transition. The plot in the second half also seems to drift somewhat, and the ending fails to answer certain questions, such as: why did the aliens bother to take people to planets with other humans without the ability to see the dead, when that's all they wanted people to learn? Why did they bother to take them there at all, when they could have just told them? It's a little deus ex alien, and even the hint of a sequel (which there isn't, really) doesn't fix that. On the positive side, Kress does a great job depicting the varying perspectives of her characters, and the asides between chapters showing press clippings and ads and other media on earth go a long way to selling the larger human reaction to the news of the aliens. While the book itself isn't great, Kress wrote this well enough that I'd be interested in reading more from her.
We Have Never Been Modern by Bruno Latour. Latour thoroughly goes over the still-present problems that modernity introduced into Western society, and somewhat less thoroughly proposes a solution. It's a short book, at around 145 p of main text, but it's remarkably dense, and despite the very welcome summaries and charts, will probably require careful reading and perhaps rereading. Latour argues, for example, that modernism depends on dichotomies such as nature and society, subject and object, and the more we insist on the division between them, the more things stuck in the middle--quasi-objects, as he calls them--proliferate. We spend too much time on purifying concepts, and not enough time on mediating their hybrid forms. He spends a particularly long time on comparing social approaches and scientific approaches in the secondary chapter, through a comparison of Boyle and Hobbes, and long discussions on the concept of the air pump. There's also a very in-depth criticism of the humanities' tendency to constantly declare itself in a state of revolution, and in the process attacks some very cherished beliefs of semiotics, deconstruction, and Heideggerian Being. I came to Latour from some readings on Object Oriented Ontology, and in his demolishing of the other methods--on reasonably sound grounds--I can see why they favored him. The difference, however, is that for Latour, the solution to the failures of the previous attempts is to focus more on the networks and connections, a proposition most OOOists reject in favor of considering further the object. My personal problem with the book is that it is guilty of the same fault of many such "theory debunking" books of this type: it spends the majority of its pages on explaining just why the old methods fail, much less time on the details of the new method, and nothing at all demonstrating this new method in action. Too many theory books call for the abandoning of the old without really taking up anything new--Latour's book avoids that pitfall, in that it explicitly addresses what we can take and use from modernism, but I still would have liked to see what a "nonmodern" approach to a subject looked like.
Again, we've got a bunch of books that don't really have anything in common. For both Kress and Brown, one of their major selling points is the way they consider how their topic fits in with larger popular culture, though in Kress' case, it's fictional culture. I've started putting off writing reviews for game-related books on this blog, as I'm trying to save them for venues that may be more beneficial, career-wise. But I don't think I'll be using Porn & Pong any time soon in an academic capacity, so it might as well appear here. Again, the cover is truly ridiculous, and the foreword of the book is even worse, given its focus on masturbation in general. I can see why a publisher would want to lead a book like this with such sensational, eye-catching tactics, but it's really a mismatch in terms of the book proper's tone. Kress' book inspired me to read a two-book series by her, called Crossfire and Crucible; the latter dips a bit in quality but the former is--while still a bit mixed--an entertaining read. I guess I felt even more strongly about Latour's failure to elucidate his main theory than I originally did here, as a few days later, I let loose with a full rant on the subject on Facebook. And that was kind of unfortunate, because, let's face it, no one really wants to see a rant on the genre of philosophical theory books on their newsfeeds in between photos of babies and status updates featuring three or four letter acronyms.
I've got enough books read already for the next edition, but I'll hold off a week or so; wouldn't want you all to get oversaturated.