Monday, August 30, 2010

Moving Objects

About a year and a half ago now, (I can't believe it's been that long) I took a class on spatial theory. At the course's beginning, I remember being smugly confident that it would remain theory, for me, at least. I had a deep seated belief that I was not at all rooted in whatever location I was at, that I remained somewhat aloft from my surroundings. While the course itself belied that... um, belief... to a certain extent, it was fully blown out of the water this weekend, when my roommates and I moved from a house/apartment to a full-blown two-storey + basement townhouse.

Example: the showerhead. At the old apartment, we had a shower that was somewhat... eccentric. To turn off, you needed to twist the handle until it was exactly level. In direct defiance to North American custom, the water got cold if you turned it to the left, and warm if you turned it to the right. But the added twist was that a slight deviation from the level position (off) either towards the left or right got you the extreme version of that temperature, with moderation coming as the angle increased. In other words, if I turned it a little right, the water was scalding, but if I turned it as far as it could go, I got the closest approximation we could muster to a proper warm shower.

After the move, we were perplexed at the state of our shower. No matter what we did, the hot water wouldn't come. Repeated testing eventually led us to the answer: we had been turning the faucet clock wise, and expecting hot water. To put it in the terms of Donald Norman (author of The Design of Everyday Things), our mental perceptions of the faucet's affordance had been transformed by our previous history. To put in my terms, our old environment had programmed us.

Other examples: it's amazing how freeing it feels to actually have storage space. Being able to put your boxes in a spare closet rather than piling up in your room allows you to feel a lot better about owning things. Counterwise, you never realize just how much tupperware you have until you try to jam it into a kitchen with limited cupboard space. But for me, the biggest change is that we now have a basement. I don't know why I'm so attached to the spot. Maybe it's a Freudian yearning for the womb. (No.) Maybe it's an ancestral memory towards caves. (No.) Maybe it's because of childhood, where basement bedrooms signified a separation from my parents and a move towards personal freedom. (...Maybe?) Or maybe because the average temperature over the last two months has been in the thirties, our old place wasn't air conditioned, and this is the first time in ages I haven't lived in a human furnace.


You are where you live. Horrible basement trolls included.

Later Days.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Friday Quotations: Semioticians, Rejoice!

"Here is the essence of mankind's creative genius: not the edifices of civilization nor the bang-flash weapons which can end it, but the words which fertilize new concepts like spermatazoa attacking an ovum. It might be argued that the Siamese-twin infants of word/idea are the only contribution the human species can, will, or should make to the raveling cosmos. (Yes, our DNA is unique, but so is a salamander's. Yes, we construct artifacts, but so have species ranging from beavers to the architect ants whose crenelated towers are visible right now off the port bow. Yes, we weave real-fabric things from the dreamstuff of mathematics, but the universe is hardwired with arithmetic. Scratch a circle, and pi peeps out. Enter a new solar system and Tycho Brahe's formulae lie waiting under the black velvet cloak of space/time. But where has the universe hidden a word under its layer of biology, geometry, or insensate rock?)" --Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Later Days.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

TV review: No Ordinary Family pilot

Y'all may have already noticed this, but there's been a definite shift in my blogging tendencies of late. Posts are getting longer, but less frequent. I'm of mixed opinion of this development. I like the space to develop ideas, but it's definitely led to fewer posts; since I know a given post'll take me at least two hours to write, it's harder to work up the energy to start. So, as an experiment, I'm going to limit myself to 500 word posts for a while, and see how that works. Please feel free to post your opinion on the new format.

Okay, four hundred words left. Following the recommendation of this blog, I went and watched the pilot of ABC’s new show, No Ordinary Family. The basic plot is that a family of four, consisting of husband and police sketch artist Jim Powell (Michael Chiklis), scientist and wife Stephanie Powell (Julie Benz) and their teenage children, Daphne and JJ, develop the super powers of strength, speed, telepathy, and increased intelligence, respectively. So, essentially, it’s a live action version of the Incredibles. In the pilot, they acquire and discover their powers, and Jim goes after a bank robber who turns out to also be a teleporter. The resulting fight sequence was really good—I actually put down my DS to watch it, which, as those who know me can attest, is high praise indeed. The science aspect of the show and the police procedural parts are very, very sketchy—the wife actually says, “the scientific term for what happened next is ‘unexplained phenomenon,’” but there’s something else that’s even more important and sets the show apart from previous live action superhero shows like Smallville and Heroes: the family dynamic.

There’s a lot going on—Stephanie’s career has taken off, whereas Jim’s attempt to be an artist apparently failed a long time ago, and the resulting tension is clearly still an undercurrent in their relationship. He resents the hours she spends at work, and she resents his continual pressure to spend more time at home. It’s especially telling that when they discover their powers, they turn not to each other, but to co-workers. The daughter’s in crisis because she suddenly knows what her teenage “friends” really think about her, and the son is under pressure because of Stephanie’s refusal to admit he has a learning disability (although the recently discovered super intelligence will probably negate that particular problem).

Running out of words quickly here. The show’s got a very “family friendly” tone which will work against them in the hardcore superhero fan, but it offers something very different from the usual superhero fare. There’s a sense in comic books that only single people are interesting, a feeling perpetuated by Spider-Man’s supernatural divorce, for example. No Ordinary Family offers a different take on super heroism on that score, and, as long as they don’t wipe all these problems away in the future, I think I’ll keep watching.
Later Days.

Friday, August 20, 2010

IQ test? I can't even pass a Turing Test

In my multimedia studies, I've done my share of reading into early AI stuff. I've read about Turing's famous thought experiment, Searle's counter, Weizenbaum's ELIZA, the Julia bot on TinyMUD. So I know the theories. But I've never faced them personally... until now. I just had the following conversation on MSN, and, frankly, even now, I'm not entirely certain
on who/what I was talking to. Take a look, gentle readers, and judge for yourselves. (Names have been altered to protect the people and bots involved.)

Anoymous says: hey are you there?
PERSON OF CONSEQUENCE:Yeah. How’s it going?
A: I just took an IQ quiz.
PERSON:And the result…?
A: I was better than I am! I scored 111
PERSON:That’s… good, right? Or is it a drop? I’m having a little trouble sorting out the verb tenses there.
A: You got see if you can do better than me, go to http:---OMIT----.
PERSON:Ok… but first, prove you’re not a spambot. Compare Battlestar to Stargate.
A: im not a bot silly, its me
PERSON:I’m not hearing a comparison, here, Ms. *last name omitted*.
A: Im sure you cant haha.
PERSON:Seriously though, the link’s not working. So beyond taking rampant IQ tests, how are you doing?
A: good. You?
PERSON: good ‘nuff. Everything’s kind of on hold school wise until classes start in September, so I’ve been enjoying a protracted vacation. Are you working right now, or…?
A: Take it now while im in the shower and tell me your score later
PERSON:I’m telling you, the link isn’t working, and a google search of the address makes me about 90% sure you’re a bot, so unless you can tell me what class we met in within the next 30 seconds, we’re pretty much done here.
A: Are you kidding? Its me and not some bot, stop this
PERSON: Hmmm. Let’s try a trigger word exercise. I like spam on my toast.
A: nope
PERSON:Viruses taste like veal.
A: lol no its me.
PERSON: …I’m gonna just assume it’s NOT you. And apologize profusely later if I’m wrong. Bye.


That's PROBABLY a bot, right? It doesn't answer directly any personal questions, and it's pushing the site long beyond what's conversationally acceptable. At the same time, if it is a bot, whoever programmed it knows what they're doing--the replies to my flippant accusations are light and simple, and the replies to the more direct accusation is mildly hurt. Which would be exactly how the friend in question would react. Or... is it?

Equally interesting is my own reaction. I twig on to something being "off" right away, but I'm just as eager to shoot the electronic breeze. I remember reading a sci-fi series (Tad Williams' Otherland, I think) wherein the biggest social norm you could violate on the future Internet is to accuse someone falsely of being a bot instead of a person. I think we're already there, in a way. The line between human interaction and computer interaction is getting fuzzier, but the idea that a person can be replaced by a computer is still incredibly threatening, to the point where implying that any person's conversation could be replaced by a machine is insulting. Also note that my trigger word sentences both involve eating food, an action that definitely separates the organic from the digital other.

This issue raises a very interesting line of discussion, namely, the issues of identity and security in online interactions. How much of a person's self can be conveyed online? How much can replaced by a simple program? What is a "real" conversation? Do you know everyone you talk to online to be able to tell the difference? But really, it all boils down to one question: was I talking to a bot, or am I descending into endless pit of paranoia and suspicion? (Or is that just what you want me to think?) Weigh in with your opinion!

And remember, the best way to convince someone you're real while on the Internet is to give them as much of your personal information as possible, as quickly as possible.

Bot #43124365346-A34
Person of Consequence

*UPDATE: I've contacted the friend in question on Facebook, and she's verified that it was a bot. So it's nice to know for sure. Unless... the bot's gotten to facebook too...

Later Days.

Friday Quotations: This is the most awkward moment in race relations ever, and I think Gervais can be proud of that

I debated between posting this one, and posting the Picard scene from Extras, but I ultimately went with this one, on the basis that... well, it's funnier. Disagree? Then feel free to challenge me via psychic manifestation in the astral plane. Or in a reply post.

Also I can't seem to make it any smaller, so if you want access to the upper right half of the screen, you'll have to scroll down, and click on the length of an older post, then go about your business. How convenient!
Later Days.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Running Post

We haven't done one of these running posts in a while, but today's was kind of memorable.

Distance: 22.6 km
Time: 2 hr, 19 min.
Speed: 9.76 km/h

That's a half marathon distance, folks. I'd be more enthused, but right now it's dawning on me that I won't be able to walk for the next week or so.

Later Days.

F@#$-ing Zombies: A Dead Rising Retrospective

I was looking over my posts the other day, and while the book review section has enjoyed a flourishing, the video game section is a veritable barren wasteland. Thus, it would behoove me to devote a few posts to What I Played This Summer. Admittedly, I have less practice thinking academically about games, so there's going to be a lot of "OMG THIS IS SO COOL" style ranting rather than actual analysis. First up: Dead Rising, the best flawed zombie video game ever. (Unless you play Left 4 Dead.)

Capcom's Dead Rising came out early in the Xbox 360's lifespan, back in 2006. I purchased the game near that date, and just got around to completing it last month. Why the long wait? you ask. Simple: it's a friggin' hard game. Every mechanic in it is designed to be hard. Dozens of Capcom developers specializing in hardness made devotions to the hard god of video games and prayed for it to be imbued with celestial hardness, a hardness equal to the hardest hard games of all hard gaming history. (AKA, their Megaman series.)

Let's start with the elements that arise directly from the plot. The core concept of the game is simple enough: Fight zombies in a mall. To do so, you can use either items found inside the mall, or your own special unarmed moves. But where do you find these items? And how do you learn these moves? And why are you fighting zombies anyway? To answer any of these questions, the liturgy of hardness begins.

The plot, for example, is slightly more complex than "fight zombies." The game has you assume the role of Frank West, photojournalist. Frank has received word that the town of Willamette has been quarantined by the US military, and, in order to get the scoop, Frank's paid for a helicopter pilot to drop him off at the Willamette Mall. The pilot's been instructed to wait 72 hours, then come and pick him up--or, if Frank fails to be on the roof, leave him stranded forever. Thus, the player is introduced to the first mechanic of difficulty in the game: time.

The 72 hour limit isn't really a big deal; game time progresses at a rate of about 5:1 to real time, but if you're really concerned about being left behind, you can spend the entire game on the helipad until your ride shows up. The catch, however, is that there's more going on here than just surviving a zombie infestation. To discover the exact cause, you need to follow a series of clues--time-based clues. And if you're late in following up a single clue, that's it--you've lost your chance. You can wait out the 72 hours if you'd like, but the chance at the A ending is gone forever.

There's a few moments in the game where the time limit is especially heartless, forcing you to dash from one clue to the next in a ridiculously hurried fashion. And the problem is exacerbated by two further elements: the save system and the side quests. Let's start with the side quests. The side quests in Dead Rising are generally of two varieties: fight the psychopaths (people driven violently insane by the zombies' presence), or rescue the survivors. You learn about these quests through the walkie talkie Frank shares with Otis, the mall janitor. Every time Otis learns about some psycho or survivor, he calls you. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Every time you listen to a call from Otis, all you can do is listen. Frank drops his weapon and becomes oblivious to his surroundings. Since Otis usually calls in the middle of a case, that means you're usually surrounded by zombies at the time, and usually utterly defenseless. If you're hit while listening to the call, it's interrupted, and the connection immediately breaks. Otis will call again once, and you'll have to start the entire conversation over. To add salt to the wound, before he'll start over, Otis will first berate you interrupting the call in the first place--it's rude to hang up, you know?

Then there's the actual quests. Fighting the psychopaths is easy enough, provided you're properly equipped. And the psychopaths can be pretty interesting, in terms of design. Here's a memorable one:

The survivors, though... Rescuing survivors is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences I've ever had to go through in a game. First, upon locating the survivors, you need to go through a lengthy conversation in order to convince them you can lead them to safety--a conversation that takes place while zombies amass all around you. It's the Otis problem, all over again. Then, once you actually have them, you have to get them to follow you through zombie-infested corridors, a fact made difficult especially because, after a few playthroughs, you're at least double their speed, and have to routinely backtrack because they've gotten stuck in the middle of a zombie mob. If they are stuck, you need to get them immediately, because they're generally unarmed and quickly overwhelmed. You have the option of arming them, but beware--they're generally such lousy aims with a gun that they'll shoot you as often as zombies. It got to the point where I actually hoped that any given survivor was crippled, because while I'm utterly defenseless while carrying a survivor on my back, at least I know it's not stuck behind me in the middle of a zombie swarm. On top of all that, even after you rescue the survivors, there's no rest. Certain survivors become convinced that they can do a better job leading than Frank, and, if left alone for too long, will convince other survivors to take their chances and go BACK into the zombie-infested mall. There was more than one instance where I had to choose between finishing a case or convincing my vitality-challenged survivors that staying in the saferoom was a good idea. (Hint: I went with the choice that meant that there'd be significantly fewer chances for the survivors to bother me later.)

Just look at these survivors. Don't they just look like a bunch of whiners? Do you want to save these people?

So that's the sidequest feature. There's also the save feature. Good lord, the save feature. It's become accepted now that save points are almost antiquated. The player of today wants to be able to save his or her game whenever he or she wants, and any violation of this privilege is a slap in the face. On that level, Dead Rising is a knee to the groin. Game saves can only be done in restrooms and in the safe room. Further, there is only one save slot. Consequently, it's more than impossible to accidentally put yourself in an unwinnable scenario. For example, let's say you save immediately after concluding a lengthy psychopath battle. You proceed to travel to the next clue, but quickly determine it's impossible to reach it within the time span. Congratulations: you've learned a valuable lesson in time-management--for your next attempt at completing the game, since this one is now over. To offset this unforgiving element, the game has a unique experience dynamic: every time Frank dies, you are given the option to start the entire game over, with all the experience you've earned up to that point. While this sounds like a great feature, in practice it means that the game is all but unwinnable until you've made it half-way through about six times, and have levelled up enough to be able to face the mall. And that means you're going to see the exact same damn 4 hours or so of gameplay before you can finally advance. While killing zombies never gets old, fighting that girl on a motorcycle for the umpteenth time certainly does.

There's a myriad of other elements that bring teh hard as well. There's the re-spawning convicts with a jeep and a machine gun

that make outside travel nearly impossible. There's the game text, which is unreadable without an HD TV. There's the camera mechanic--as a photojournalist, Frank gets experience for taking pictures as well as the other heroics--which works with the same "drop everything while enemies swarm you" method as receiving calls. There's wildly uneven boss fights which jump back and forth from nearly unbeatable to "just stand here and slash." There's the item breakage system combined with the low number of items Frank can actually carry in the beginning, which means you spend large portions in the early days of play unarmed--too bad you don't learn any of the good unarmed combat moves until level 20 or so. And there's the psychopath who takes control of the gunshop for the first two days, thus preventing you from accessing the best weapons you need to defeat the psychopath at the gunshop. And then there's the game's wild redefinitions. On the third day, for example, if you've done everything right, the army steps in, and the game shifts from fighting masses of zombies to a stealth-based game where you avoid being fenced in by special ops. The end boss of the game is a two part on-the-rails-shooter and an unarmed combat fight, neither of which has been featured in the game up to that point. And so on.

And yet, I'd still say it's one of the best game experiences I've had on the Xbox 360, for one simple reason: more than virtually anything I've played, the gameplay matches the game. Take Frank West himself. As portrayed, the character is kind of a bastard. He's there for the scoop, first and foremost. Saving lives is a far and distant concern in comparison. There's more than one instance where he chooses to stay back and snap photos while survivors are attacked brutally by zombies or worse. And Frank's amorality matches the choices you need to make in the game. More than once, I've come across survivors desperately fending off hordes of zombies only to turn away, because I've already got as many following me as I can handle, or I couldn't save them without putting myself at risk, or I just couldn't be bothered to take time from the case at hand. (As another plus for Frank's character, you get to try on various outfits throughout the mall, of both sexes. How can you not like a protagonist who finds time to do a bit of drag between zombie slayings?)

In a similar fashion, the game's other features are excellent in creating a sense of desperation. While the plot tries somewhat in vain and vainly to reach the social commentary and emotional adrenalin found in the Romero zombie flicks, it's the gameplay that really enforces the dire straits of the situation. The item breakage is a fair match for disposable consumerism, and the save system carries a weight with it--saving becomes something you don't do lightly. The survivor subquests make a mockery of the notion that disaster creates heroes; choosing whether or not you rescue anyone becomes a narcissistic decision between amassing potential experience points versus potential self-risk. Just as many zombie movies are about the dehumanizing of the survivors, I felt myself regarding the survivors as less and less human to justify my focus on solving the cases over saving them. The question is, how much of this was deliberate on Capcom's part, and how much was just bad design? There's no way of telling--there's just my own experience.

Another element of Dead Rising I found interesting, if not actually enjoyable, was the way the high-level achievements demanded that the game be played in different ways. First, if you choose to attempt any of these, you've given up on reaching the true ending--there's just no time to do both. Already, then, you're in a mindset where you've accepted that you'll lose the supposed main objective. The "Kill 10 psychopaths" achievement requires a fairly manic pace, in which you've got to rush from one psychopath battle to the next in order to get them all before their individual timers expire. The "escort 8 female survivors at once" achievement requires the ultimate defensive approach. It requires you, first, to have encyclopedic knowledge of the game to know where and when each female survivor appears, and second, to be able to survive with the survivors in tow, since you can't go back to the safe room at any point without losing them. And another achievement, kill 54 000 zombies, requires an incredible amount of patience, since even the best strategies produce a killing rate of about 100 zombies per minute.

But for sheer masochistic horror, the worst challenge I've ever seen is the 7-day survivor achievement. First, you need to complete the regular game, which is a feat in itself. Then, you need to complete the bonus over time mode, including the unarmed combat and shooter sequences I've mentioned earlier. Then, and only then, do you get access to "infinity mode," the only game mode that lasts more than three days, and is thus necessary for the achievement. Infinity mode contains a couple of changes--there's no saving, first of all. Wrap your head around that one. If one second of real life constitutes five seconds of game time, that means in order to get the 7-day achievement, you need to play for about 35 hours straight. And you can't just leave the xbox on for a day and go do something else; the second change in infinity mode is that, every one hundred seconds or so, you lose one bar of health. Thus, you're in a constant search for health-increasing items. This brings us to change 3: most of the health items are now in the hands of the survivors and psychopaths from the regular game mode, and you're going to have to locate and kill them to get them, creating a series of moral and strategic choices. Are you okay with killing the people you were trying to save previously? And on a more practical level, is the amount of health items you get from killing them worth the risk of fighting them and endangering the health you have left? There's been entire strategy guides written on the best method for getting this achievement--a crucial element is extreme patience. You can't just use a healing item as soon as you find it--you need to travel some place safe and let your health go down as far as you can risk before using it, so you can get the maximum effect.

Actually going for the achievement is something I'll leave for other, more dedicated individuals. But what fascinates me about the infinity mode in general is the ultimate bleakness behind it. More than anything, i think the mode conveys the desperation of the survivor we seen in post-apocalyptic novels. There's no way to save the day any more, there's no way to achieve a happy ending. What's a video game when there's nothing left to beat any more? If everyone's an enemy, there's no future to hope for, there's no task left to achieve, there's nothing but surviving for as long as possible--what's the difference between the player and the zombies?

As a final note, the sequel game to Dead Rising, imaginatively named "Dead Rising 2," comes out at the end of September. There's some elements that seem like good steps--increased number of onscreen zombies, the ability to combine items--but it appears they're dropping Frank in favor of "Chuck Greene," a man fighting to save his daughter from zombie infection. Honestly, I think this change is a mistake--a shift towards more traditional video game heroics and motivations is a shift towards making Dead Rising more mundane.

On the other hand, as long as there's still time to play dress-up during a zombie apocalypse, I'm in.

Later Days.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Quotations: There Are So Many Reasons Why Constantine = Keeanu Reeves is the Worst Idea Ever

"Something was hanging in the air like an electric charge. Some force. Some dammed-up potential, seeking its level. It grounded itself in staccato pulses. A librarian in Spain eviscerated himself on live webcam; slowly but with terrible determination. He lived long enough to explain that he was dying for the sins of the world. One of the ambulance men, weeping, asked for his blessing. The other reflected that logically, more deaths would redeem a greater number of sins. A little girl in an Ohio grade school wrote a story and read it out in class. Eighteen of her classmates would later require counselling, and her teacher would take medical leave that would eventually segue into early retirement. Something was squirming through the long dark of the womb. Loping towards Bethlehem. Scrabbling and clawing and straining to be born." --Mike Carey, John Constantine Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall.

What attracts me about this quotation is less the quotation itself as its presentation and function in the story (a comic book arc, wherein Constantine gathers a team to combat the Shadow Dog, the one animal Adam never named). It's a tour de force of writing appropriately for the genre and the medium. The text covers a single page; 5 panels, each panel the entire width of the page, with the final panel about twice as tall as the others. The "wide-shot" nature of each panel serves to establish a voyeur/tableau sort of feeling; you get a sense that the scenes before you are just something you've been allowed to glimpse at, but won't be allowed to see any more of the story. The final panel, starting with the text "Something was squirming" has a picture relatively unrelated to its text; it depicts the DC/Vertigo character Swamp Thing, standing impassively. Thus, without actually making an overt statement, Carey establishes the page's connection to the tradition of DC horror books, and the Alan Moore-esque Swamp Thing in particular. Finally, the two vignettes (little girl and librarian) themselves remind me of those 100-word story challenges--both could be fleshed out into an entire story, but since all we see is this glimpse, we get the sense that we're just looking at the tip of the iceberg, that these events are global. The very brevity and economy of the panels establish the horror setting better than pages and pages of set-up could.

As opposed to this blog, for example, where brevity is never a problem.

Later Days.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Insert Anecdote Here

About 3 weeks ago, circumstances conspired against me to create a defacto suspension of my library card.

Allow me to explain.

I couldn't find my card, and I really wanted the book that had arrived (Robin Hobb's Dragon Keeper, matter of fact), so I instead used a piece of ID--which is fine at the library, they just put a little flag on your file that says you need to present a card next time. However, since we went the ID route, they also took the time to confirm my address. No, I said, not thinking, I've moved since then. Okay then, said the librarian, we'll just need something with your name and address on it for your next check-out.

Problem. See, my current living situation is... complicated. I pay rent to my friends, who pay rent to the person they're subletting from, who pays rent to the landlord. So I'm three steps removed from anything with my actual address. And since I move again at the end of August, that meant it would be at least that long until I could prove I had an actual address, and was not, say, a vagrant homeless person. Thus, a defacto suspension.

Until today. Today, my reimbursement check for the contact lenses I bought in July came. And my first thought on looking at the check was--hey! Something with my address on it! Now I can get my library card. Followed by: oh, hey, 100 bucks. Cool.

It's all a matter of priorities.

(See, they're not ALL 3500 words.)

Later Days.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Here There Be...: a Dual Review of Havemercy by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett and Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

Lately, my nocturnal schedule has been leaning towards the evening side. Or to put less delicately, I've been going to bed post-4 am. Last night, I decided to alter my schedule so that it more closely resembled a non-crazy person's, and went to bed at 10:30 pm. Consequence: I'm up at 4 am, and wide awake. I can already tell it's going to be a cranky day. But at least I'll be so dead tired by the end that the whole "normal schedule" thing will be a little more in reach. At any rate, my loss is your gain, as I'm taking advantage of the current insomnia to deliver another dual review. Post's going to follow the same format as the last one: the usual starting quotations, a run through of each book's premise, a quick sketch of what I thought of each, and the concluding thoughts. Key words: dragons, fantasy, and male homosexual leads.

"The thing was, I didn't know she was married.
"She wasn't so fine and so sweet-curved as I couldn't've found somebody else--and better--to tickle that night. But she was married to a diplomat, which was what made it so bad, so when I tried to pay her like a common whore, she got wild as a wet cat on me, screaming and throwing things and breaking vases. I thought she was a whore, the way she'd tarted herself up, but apparently that was just an Arlemagne's way: powder on everything and too many undergarments, the kind of teasing frippery you only see in Our Lady and which I normally don't have time for. Her breasts were incredible, though--big and round and soft and warm--and I spent a lot of time letting her know how incredible they were. Even if I didn't think it was a commercial exchange, she might've been grateful instead of screaming rape all over, like that's what you can do if you're a woman when things go sour and you feel a slight."
--Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett.

"The young dragon her father was watching could not stand upright. It wallowed and crawled on its belly. Its hindquarters were unfinished stubs. Its head wobbled on a thin neck. It gave a sudden shudder and surged upright, where it teetered. Even its color seemed wrong; it was the same pale gray as the clay, but its hide was so thin that she could glimpse the coil of white intestines pushing against the skin of its belly. Plainly it was unfinished, hatched too soon to survive. Yet still it crawled toward the beckoning meat. As she watched, it gave too strong a push with one of its malformed hind legs and crashed over on its side. Foolishly, or perhaps in a effort to catch itself, it opened its flimsy wings. It landed on one, which bent the wrong way and then snapped audibly. The cry the creature gave was not as loud as the burst of pain that splashed against Thymara's mind. She flinched wildly and nearly lost her grip. Clinging to her tree branch, eyes tightly shut, she fought a pain-induced wave of nausea.
"Understanding slowly came to her; this was what Tintaglia had feared. The dragon had sought to keep the cocoons shielded from light, hoping to give the forming dragons ta normal dormancy period. But although they had waited until summer, they had still merged too soon, or perhaps had been too worn and thin when they went in. Whatever the reason for their deformities, they were wrong, all wrong."
--Dragon Keeper, by Robin Hobb.
* * * * *

Havemercy is a debut fantasy novel by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett. The plot of the book really exists on two levels: the larger story, and the interpersonal story. The larger story is that the kingdom of Volstov has long been at war with the Kehan Empire. The Volstov mages have largely canceled out the Kehan sorcerers, so until recently, the battle has been a stalemate. That changed with the introduction of the Dragon Corps, an elite battle team consisting of the dragons--talking creatures made from gears, metal, and magic--and their riders. Now, it seems like the Volstovians have their enemy on the run--or do they? As the larger story slowly--very, very, slowly--unfolds, it's gradually revealed that the Volstovitchs are more desperate than even their own people know.

The interpersonal plot revolves around four characters. First, there is Margrave Royston, an aristocratic man of magic. Royston is exiled from the court after he is caught in bed with the Arlemagne prince. Specifically, he is sent to live with his country squire brother, and there he meets Hal, the young, naturally intelligent, but inexperienced tutor that the brother hired to teach his sons. Royston is initially depressed by his exile, but he finds respite in teaching Hal in the ways of the world--and in the ways of love. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) The other pair of characters follow a similar progression, though without the romantic element. Rook, the narrator in the quotation above, is a member of the twelve member Dragon Corps, and brings the Corps into political disrepute after his dalliance with the Arlemagne ambassador's wife. (Not the prince ambassador; a different member of the Arlemagne group. Took me fifty pages or so to work that out.) Thom is a university student writing his thesis on the social effect of the Dragon Corps; he is press-ganged into the task of reforming the Corps for proper society. Out of all the Corps members, Rook is the least inclined to think he needs reforming, so he applies some merciless hazing to the issue, with comedic effect.

While Jones and Bennett are new to the fantasy field, Robin Hobb is an old hand. She's written 10 books under her other pen name, Megan Lindholm, books that focus on contemporary fantasy, and, to date, 14 more "traditional" fantasy novels under the Hobb name. The big names in fantasy literature tend towards sprawling epics: George R. R. Martin and the Song of Ice and Fire, the late Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time, and Terry Pratchett and his Discworld books. Hobb roughly does the same, but in a more subtle manner; she tends to write trilogies and duologues set in the same fictive world, but largely unconnected. Dragon Keeper is actually the tenth book set in the loosely connected "Realm of the Elderlings" series, but it is kept far enough apart from the others that no prior reading is necessary. (An impressive feat, really; try jumping into Book 10 of the Wheel of Time.) Pratchett does it as well, but Hobb's books are far more connected.

Dragon Keeper's larger story is a little simpler than HaveMercy's, especially if you're not aware of the connection to Hobb's other novels. As described in the quotation, the dragon hatching has gone horribly wrong, with even the strongest hatchlings rising up deformed and twisted. Years later, the dragons have become a burden on the townspeople, and aren't taking kindly to being sequestered by humans. So, they depart for Kelsingra, their ancestral home. Fearing for the dragons' safety--since they agreed with their normal and very powerful mother to look after them--the townspeople send a delegation of humans with the dragons. In an interesting parallel delegation is composed largely of cast-offs, like the dragons. In Rain Wild River society, the magic-based nature of the swamp has warped the people, to the point where children too far outside the genetic norm are shunned, or abandoned at birth. Since their home prospects are poor, they are fairly eager to accompany the dragons somewhere else.

Dragon Keeper has a much larger main cast than Havemercy, even sticking strictly to those who narrate the proceedings. There is, in order of appearance, Leftrin, the grizzled captain of the Tarman, the ship sent to follow the dragons and help them procure enough food for the journey; Thymara (narrator in the quotation), a Wild Rains girl who follows the dragons as part of their teenaged band of human cast-offs/dragon servants; Sintara, the proud female dragon she bonds with; Alise Kincarron Finbok, "a wealthy Trader's wife trapped in a loveless marriage," (in fact, she's his unwitting beard) as the book slip tells us, accompanying the dragons as a self-studied dragon expert; and Sedric, her friend and the actual lover of her husband, sent along on the expedition to look after her. In addition, there are number of other subcharacters, including dragon keepers Tats and Greft, the husband Hest Finbok, and other keepers, dragons, and crewmen. Special mention goes to the pigeon keepers Detozi and Erek, whose missives between chapters really flesh out the book, and add some scope to a story that would feel much narrower without them. The main plot of the book has the group slowly coalescing, and beginning their exodus to the "promised land."

* * * * *

So what did I think? Well, let's with Havemercy, and the bad stuff. Basically, I've got a few problems. First: even in a genre often dominated by masculine fantasies (and not the talk-to-dragon kind, the sleep-with-Mother-Freudian kind), it's kind of noticeable when you don't have any main female characters, sympathetic or otherwise. I suppose you could stretch things and consider Havemercy (Rook's dragon) a female, as she herself does, but she's not really a focused character. Actually, that line of reasoning brings to light another problem with the novel: there are just too few characters in general. Yes, Jones and Bennett get full points for supplying at least an outline for all twelve of the dragon corps members, but, honestly, most of them are rather incidental to the proceedings, and could be removed without much fuss. In practice, this is a book with four fleshed-out characters, and while Rook and Royston are fairly distinct, Hal and Thom are, personality-wise and tonally, almost identical, a fact that becomes painfully obvious in the scenes they have together.

My main complaint with Havemercy is that it's a story whose whole never quite amounts to even the sum of its parts. The Hal/Royston plot is essentially a romance with 19th century undertones intermingling with homosexuality, the Rook/Thom plot is stock comedy--bumbling administrator sent to reform rag-tag team of layabouts. And the overall story has a sort of WWII fighter pilot kind of feel to it, thanks to the dragons. The problem is that they don't really fit together as smoothly as they could. The romance is fine--it just drags on long past when the outcome is obvious. The comedy is fine--there's a roleplaying scene that's particularly hilarious. But its problem is that, instead of playing it for satire, it's played for straight, and never quite fits into a fantasy setting. And the actual war-based plot is fine--the problem is, it never really picks up until about the last fifty pages or so, while the other elements are drawn out long past their peak moment of interest. Jones and Bennett handle character very well, but they never quite convince me that they are handling fantasy.

Hobb, on the other hand... well, I've got a lot of time for Hobb. (which is important, since even her shortest stuff clocks in at about 400 pages) Remember my other dual book review, where I ranted at great length on how fantasy is based on happy endings and knowing that things will work out in the end? Well, I should have added: except in Hobb's books. Hobb can do what she wants. In general, Hobb's strengths are establishing the sublime, and establishing her characters. I wrote an entire paper on Hobb's use of the eco-sublime in the Soldier Son series, but I'll spare you guys the Burkean melodrama and loosely define the sublime in writing as a moment when the character and reader at hand experience a moment of extreme awe fringing on horror at the scene before them. In Soldier Son, there are sublime moments both when the civilized men walk into the forest, and when the forest men walk into civilization; in Dragon Keeper, it comes up in various places, but the most obvious and striking for me was the hatching scene quoted in part above. Hobb really sells the trauma of the scene, how something has gone horribly wrong. It's a great start to a sometimes slow moving novel.

The characters are also well-sketched. Alise's early scenes are great; there is a 19th century Jane Austen feel to her character. Her family is unable to come up with a profitable marriage for her, so she is preparing for a life of spinsterhood and eccentric dragon study when Hest approaches her with his offer of a marriage of convenience. Her later plot fell a little flat for me, in part due to her incredible inability to see the writing on the wall and realize that her husband's playing for another team. (Okay, I'll admit that the society she's from willfully ignores gay activity, but still... it's never a good thing when a reader figures out a mystery long, long before the characters.) But at that point, she's neatly supplemented with the dragon keepers, and the various power struggles in that group reminded me distinctly of the social maneuvering of Lord of the Flies. Only with teenagers. Of both sexes. And their dragons. Okay, maybe it's not very close. Still good, though.

My complaint with the book--in addition to Alise's plot--is the ending. In one of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide, (I'm going to say it was So Long and Thanks for All the Fish)intergalatic Charlie Brown Arthur Dent spends some time in a world where they've got a different way of writing novels--books end once they reach 50 000 words, in midsentence if necessary, plot and story arc be damned. Dragon Keepers feels a bit like that. There's no climax to speak of, and the book just sort of stops in tracks and announces "the end!". Now, the advertisements for the book declare that it's one part of a two-volume novel, which excuses the abrupt stop to some extent, except for two things: first, there's no mention of this duality in the book itself, and just going by the book, I was expecting some closure. Second, the book is 474 pages long; at that length, I'm expecting some sort of rising action, and that's not here. I trust Hobb's skill in crafting a novel enough that I'm positive reading both books will provide a very satisfying read, but as it stands, that's a 900 page commitment, and I don't know how many can commit to something like that. (Although granted, if you're a regular fantasy reader, you're pretty much used to it.)

* * * * *

At this point, you're probably aware that the novels have two major elements in common: dragons, and gay male protagonists. Let's discuss each in turn. First: dragons. In sci-fi, the relationship between humans and aliens almost always comes down to a sort of short hand for metaphorically examining the way people relate to each other. Fantasy works the same way, only more so. Some of the races become such common go-to points that they become regarded as cliches: elves are noble, wise and eco-centric; dwarves like gold and drinking; goblins are stupid and mildly wicked, etc. And dragons... well, what are dragons?

To return to our list of fantasy authors from above, in Jordan's Wheel of Time, dragons are symbols of pure magical power, and the insanity associated with that power. In Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, dragons represent military and political capital, providing their keepers with dynastic legitimacy. In Pratchett's Discworld, dragons symbolize magic in general wonderment, and encourage a worldview where humans are both subservient and prey. In Havemercy--and this is one of the elements I liked most about the novel--the dragons symbolize military strength, but societal turmoil. The magic of the established wizards comes from carefully sanctioned bloodlines and supplies, keeping the power in control of the noble families. But the mechanical, magical dragons are more fickle; they chose their riders, and they chose from all levels of society. The result is that a bunch of commoners have been elevated to the most elite military force in the country, throwing everything into question. It's essentially the equivalent of putting the US military in the hands of the cast from Jersey Shore (only much less terrifying), and it's an interesting translation of celebrity culture into fantasy terms.

Hobb, on the other hand, uses dragons as symbolic means of putting humanity in general into perspective. The dragons view themselves as superior to humans, and make it clear that, in better times, they would have little scruples about turning them into prey. They also function like planarian worms, in that they gain the memories of the creatures they eat. Thus, since it will preserve your memory, it's considered an honor and a privilege to be eaten by dragon--by the dragon's point of view, anyway. Hobb's dragons are both more and less human than Jones and Bennett's; more, because they're fully voiced characters, but less because the dragons and the humans are constantly reminded of the difference between them, of the uneasy alliance that keeps them connected. The differing use of dragons in these two books reminds me of what draws me back to fantasy: endless variation on a theme.

Now, the other common element is less a staple of fantasy literature. In fact, it's pretty much the opposite. What's the opposite of a staple? A tear, I guess. So it's pretty much a tear of the fantasy literature: gay male protagonists. Besides these two books, I can only think of one other fantasy book I've read with gay male leads: Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner series. The first book in the series was excellent; I stopped after the second, which dragged out a bit long for my tastes. Interestingly, in the series' wikipedia page, the only mention of the homosexuality in the 7000 word document is a six line mention stating multiple times that their sexual orientation raises no real issues, and "is not what the story is about." On the one hand, I admit that it can get rather tiring, especially in a fantasy novel, for a writer to overtly champion a pet cause. At the same time, I can't help but paraphrase Shakespeare: "Methinks the wikipedia author doth protest too much." Why does he or she feel that the book's homosexuality needs to be defended?

For the record, I think Alec and Seregil in the Nightrunner series are the best portrayal of the bunch. The Hal/Royston plot is a little too cliched; granted, the older man/younger naive boy is played out in Nightrunner as well, but both characters are fleshed out a little more thoroughly. And Hobb's plot is less romantically idealistic, but goes a bit too far in the other direction--Hest is almost a caricature of a character. The point, however, is that the only portrayals of gay men in fantasy literature that I can think of come from women. What are we to make of that? There are a few conjectures that come to mind. It can't be denied that fantasy is a fairly conservative genre--not conservative in the Republican party/Conservative Party sense, which is a different argument entirely, but conservative in the sense that it is very suspicious of change. Arguably, all genres are like this to a certain extent--it's how they become genres, after all--but fantasy in particular seems trapped in amber. Part of being traditionally associated with the pseudo-medieval means that you will always be somewhat stuck in the past.

Mainly, I think the argument against "rampant homosexuality" in fan lit comes from the escapism claim. Essentially, the claim is that fantasy literature is about making a sharp divorce from the real world, about pursuing another world entirely that is not bound by real world distinctions. Thus, fantasy is about happy endings, morally unambiguous oppositions, and should be kept clear from real world concerns.

I can't state strongly enough how much I disagree with this point of view. First, any escapist view of fantasy keeps it firmly rooted in "kid's stuff" mentality. If you claim that fantasy shouldn't deal with real issues, you're keeping it sanitized and neutered--ie, appropriate for children. (Never mind that even sanitized, it's often not appropriate at all; again, that's a different argument.) Viewing fantasy as escapism brands its fans as people who can't handle the real world, a label I, as a fantasy fan, find particularly insulting. Addressing homosexuality specifically, if it's kept out on the grounds that it's a modern, real world issue, you're not only denying history (homosexuality was around in medieval times too), you're also denying what makes fantasy fantasy. To me, fantasy literature (and maybe all literature) isn't about dragons or elves or sword fighting or role-playing; it's about exploring the spectacular and wonderful. To create a definite escapist real world/fantasy split is to deny that this wonder can be found in the real world. And while I haven't experienced it personally, I'd wager that a first kiss from a male lover can be every bit as wondrous as all the dragons and dynasties and magic that a fantasy world can provide.

* * * * *

Was that an uplifting conclusion, or over-the-top pontificating? I can never tell. Anyway, to draw the two themes together, if dragons represent an exploration of the unknown, then kudos to Jones and Bennett and Hobb for exploring a bit of what's almost unknown in fantasy lit. To sum up, Hobb's book was good, but probably better read in immediate conjunction with the next in the series; Jones and Bennett's book was flawed, but good enough that I'll keep an eye out for the next book in the series.

Later Days.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Andy Capp" is a variation on the same theme

I just got the title pun on the "Sally Forth" comic strip.

...Still isn't funny, though.

Later Days.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Saturday Fake Quotations: These Are Actually Harder Than the Friday Ones

"For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, 'where the hell are my glasses?'"

Last night was the official birthday celebration. Drinks! Food! The at least temporary disappearance of the back-up emergency glasses! More on some future date.

Later Days.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Birthday Post

I gotta admit, I really wanted to do another review here before I did this post. I've been watching movies--Steve Martin's "The Jerk," the quintessential "funny hats" movie, according to Roger Ebert (Not a good thing). I've been playing games--Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box. It's a point-and-click based game for the DS that takes place in an alternate universe where currency appears to have given up on that silly bill system and been replaced by a puzzle-based economy. (Actually, the idea of a society where wealth and prominence is predicated directly on a subset of intellectual skills is kind of interesting, in a survival-of-the-Sudokuist kind of way.) And books--HaveMercy, which is a steampunk fantasy novel about dragons, Dragon Keeper, which is a gothic fantasy novel about dragons, and White Teeth, a slice-of-life story about Londoner families and immigrants from WWII into the turn of century. (Which of these things is not like the other?) But instead, we're doing the birthday post.

Last year's Birthday post was spent on reviewing how last year's New Year Resolutions went. Can't quite do that this year, since I spent the 2010 New Year Resolutions on a list of things I'm thankful for, as I apparently mixed up New Years with Thanksgiving. Take out the turkey, and they're the same, really. Generally, they cater to different overindulgences, but the similarities are there. Anyway, let's check in on the 2009 resolutions:
1. Find an agent for the novel. Status: no progress.
2. Stringent exercising. Status: sporadic.
3. Romantic conquests. Status: Reading more Mauve Binchy novels. Depressing.
4. Watch More TV. Status: exponential successes.

Well, to continue the tradition of mix-matching holidays, let's make some new resolutions for the birthday. Add these to the permanent list:
5. Let it go. Those that know me can attest that I have a tendency to overanalyze. Of course, they probably wouldn't say that unless prompted, which makes me question their motives. Anyway, it's fairly common for me, especially in situations that I'm not sure of, to apologize to someone afterwards. Then apologize for thinking the apology was necessary. And then apologizing for overapologizing. And so forth. And that's the best case scenario. More often, I don't get to the apologizing stage, and just stew endlessly. So I'm going to stop making a big deal about some things that don't require that much attention, and see where it gets me.

6. Chase after it. My first response when dealing with the unexpected is to wipe my hands of the matter. It's instinctual--the unplanned for is the unwelcomed, because how could I welcome it if I didn't know it was coming? Well, I think it's time to foster a spirit of... general welcomeness. Like the shaking of the hands ceremony we used to do at my church before the whole "Sars" thing.

7. Watch the Scott Pilgrim movie. OMG, I just read book six and it was soooo good and I went back and read them over again and it's amazing how O'Malley has evolved, not just in terms of the story, but in terms of art and artistry and the movie looks like it's going to be really awesome, I've got my doubts about Michael Cera, because he's usually pretty typecast and Scott kind of breaks from the norm but it's directed by Edgar Wright, who did Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead and they were cool, and I think his action/comedy sensibilities will really serve him well here and it's out August 13th, and everyone should go see it, ok?

Yeah, those seems like some good additions.

ASIDE: I'm typing this post from a university public computer. The individual who had this computer before me left her resume open, and apparently, her first name is Sunday. That is an awesome first name. It also has her email address, last name, phone number and personal address, and was probably not a wise document to leave open on a public computer. It leaves her open to all sorts of weird people. Like me, for example, since I just sent her an email suggesting a few improvements she could make. Don't look at me like that. I'm an English grad student. I HAVE RESPONSIBILITIES. These include correcting people's grammar, providing nonsequitor literary references to show how educated I am, and proofreading resumes I find on computers. It's all in the grad student handbook. At the very least, someone should tell her she needs to say "2008 to present" rather than "2008 to preset." And now I'm realizing I should have led with the Sunday story, because it's far more interesting than the main event. Ah well.

Later Days.