Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: The Man in the Maze by Robert Silverberg

"Muller knew the maze quite well by this time. He understood its snares and its delusions, its pitfalls, its deadly traps. He had lived within it for nine years. That was long enough to come to terms with the maze, if not with the situation that had driven him to take refuge with it." --The Man in the Maze, by Robert Silverberg

I should be working on revising my application for Ontario scholarships, but I accidentally left my paper with the professor's notes for revisions in my office (a process which is repeated about 3 or 4 times every time I have to do this application), so now that I've finished my scholarly reading for the day, you all get a book review. So yes, you get to benefit from my general incompetence.

Originally published in 1969, Silverberg's The Man in the Maze is a fairly old school sci-fi book: minimal plot, broad character archetypes, and a cast utterly devoid of any females that aren't there purely for titillation. But for all that, there's something compelling about the book. Maybe it is the "old school" sense--this isn't a postmodern sci-fi like Snow Crash, with a constant bombardment of ideas, or even a sci-fi in the vein of Philip K. Dick's work, with its constant questioning of subject (although at points, it comes close).

The plot: after an alien first-encounter goes horribly wrong, astronaut superstar Dick Muller retires from the human race and exiles himself to Lemnos, a planet whose now extinct alien dwellers converted into a giant maze. What went wrong is that the aliens experimented on Muller so that he constantly projects his inner angst to the people around him, to such an extent that no one can stand to be near him. But now he's needed again, so a crew of spacemen come to brave the maze and bring him back, willing or not. The crew includes its captain, the aptly (or eye-rollingly) named Charles Boardman, the Machiavellian operator who manipulated Muller into the original mission,and Ned Rawlins, the fresh-faced youth Boardman intends to use as bait.

The appeal of the book may come from its mythic resonance--personally, I found compelling connections with at least two Greek myths. The first came from the Iliad. Or more specifically, some of the legends concerning the stuff that happened before the Iliad proper. When the Greek king Agamemnon went recruiting men to fight in the Trojan War, some of the big names didn't want to show up--in particular, Odysseus (I know most go with Ullyses; he's Odysseus to me, okay?) and Achilles. Both, significantly, disguised themselves by pretending to be opposite from their true nature. For Achilles, the ur-warrior, this meant dressing up as a woman and hiding among his mother's maids. For Odysseus, the battle genius, this meant pretending to have lost his mind, and Agamemnon found him tilling a field with salt. In both cases, Agamemnon broke through the deception. He gave the maids a selection of treasure, and identified Achilles when one maid pushed past the necklaces and bracelets to pick up a well-made sword. And when he threw Telemachus, Odysseus' infant child, into the path of the oxen, Odysseus brought them to a halt, proving his sanity. Muller's case is very similar: the hero of humanity is pretending--to himself as well as everyone else--to be the ultimate misanthrope, and it's up to Agamemnon, er, Boardman, to break through the pretense by any means necessary.

The other myth is the obvious one: Theseus and the Minotaur's Maze. The maze motif, honestly, is what drew me to this book in the first place. I think I've mentioned Donald Norman in previous posts; for the moment, I'd like to bring up his view of games, that, contrary to most objects humans do, games are deliberately constructed to be difficult to use. (Within obvious limits) In that sense, a maze is like a game; it's a piece of architecture, an area of space, that is designed to be difficult to navigate through.
I find the idea of the maze fascinating, and I sometimes--like this book, for instance--deliberately seek out instances of interesting mazes. The best use of a fictional maze, for example, I'd have to give to deathtrap featured in David Edding's book, the Sapphire Rose. (Also notable for being the only fantasy book I can name off hand for devoting a half of its plot to an exciting ecclesiastic election. And the only fantasy book that has an exciting ecclesiastic election.) The best movie one I can name is... um... Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? (Okay, I don't watch a lot of movies.) And the best game... well, I barely know where to start. Even now, with automaps being an almost ubiquitous game element, many games still have an element of the maze to them, deliberate or not. And I don't think I'm the only one in academia fascinated by the maze, or the labyrinth, or whatever you want to call it; in mathematics and computer science, there's a dedicated history of developing path programs. As a postmodern motif, the text as a maze is a good a way as any to describe the wanderings of a David Foster Wallace or Calvino. And it's even been carried into new media studies, as the rhizome, the computer program, the hypertext. It's amazing.

...Sorry. That won't happen again. I don't know what came over me.

Anyway, the maze motif points to another advantage of The Man in the Maze, that its simplicity means that it can be read allegorically. Straightforward allegory has fallen out of fashion somewhat, especially in a genre trying to re-brand itself as "speculative"--there's a sense, right or wrong, that if we're trying to create a complex and realistic future, allegory needs to be minimized. But if done correctly, it can be a moving piece of literature, and it's hard not to see the similarities between the emotional walls Muller's put up and the maze walls he's hidden behind (especially since his alteration means that he is literally pushing people away with his negativity).

It's a technique that I haven't seen done well in a sci-fi work since I read Iain Banks' The Bridge (mentioned in the link here, which is filled with more swearing than I remembered; posting while sleep-deprived is a dangerous game). I'd mention the allegory at work there, but it'd kind of give up the entire plot. Suffice to say, while the Bridge is far better at creating atmosphere, the Man in the Maze has two advantages over it: 1)the ending is less banal, and 2) at 212 pages, it's half as long. It's nice to be able to have a book that can be read in a sitting or two.

Finally, after I finished the book, I went back and read the new foreword for the 2006 edition, written by a plucky newcomer named Neil Gaiman. You might have heard of him. And regardless of its actual content, a foreword penned by Gaiman makes a message in itself: it tells us that someone believes the book has potential for reaching a large audience, and it tells us that this story is less a sci-fi and more of the sort of story Gaiman might pen, something fantastic and ethereal. Which, I think, it is. Of course, Gaiman addresses that in the actual text. Somewhat gratifyingly, he also addressed many of the points I did--he sees a Greek influence, though he names it as the story of Philoctetes, which comes at the the end of the Trojan War, rather than its beginning. And he also notes the lack of women in the novel except those that appear as "courtesans and sexual memories," though I would have used a less polite word than "courtesan" for the things Silverberg has his women doing. But he does catch one really interesting idea that I didn't. Gaiman argues that Muller, Rawlins, and Boardman form a male equivalent of the mother, maiden, and crone trinity, a sci-fi equivalent to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. That adds another level of mythic resonance to the story, and another reason it's so compelling.

Bottom line: both Neil Gaiman and Person of Consequence recommend this book. Between the two of us, how can you go wrong?

Later Days.

Anyone know how to attach captions to pictures? 'Cause I don't.

Yeah, so here are some cats. And just to be clear, I'm very disappointed in all of you for not suggesting I do a post on something different.

Later Days.

Friday, September 24, 2010

You'll Get Your Cats Later

"A mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it's fresh it's like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time." --John Cage

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Update: More Random Junk

I swear, I'll be posting something bigger when I get a chance. Maybe it'll be an essay on adaptations, using the first season of True Blood. Maybe it'll be the character analysis of John Constantine and a discussion of massively authored narratives. Maybe it'll be the long-promised piece on the Book of Eli and biblical transmissions. Or maybe it'll be pictures of cats. I'll let you know. Hell, I'll tell you what: if anyone actually bothers to comment on what they'd like to see, I'll do that one first.
For now, here's some quick thoughts:

My fridge magnet's a grain elevator. I just read Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake for the second time. It was definitely worth a second read, as I'm picking up a lot of things I missed the first time round, and, after my research shift towards gaming, there's a bit more to digest in terms of the future games Atwood envisions. It's still as depressing as I remembered though, advancing my psychoanalytic theory of Atwood's works that I like to call "Margaret Atwood Needs a Hug."

Don't Mess With the Scottish. I also recently read the comic Uncle Scrooge: A Little Something Special," a compilation of several Scrooge stories. Long time readers know I have an abiding interest in Scrooge stories, so I enjoyed this a great deal. The best story of the bunch, hands down, is the one where ALL of Uncle Scrooge's villains team up to disrupt the anniversary of his 50th year in Duckburg by stealing his money, taking his number one dime, and kidnapping his nephews. The story's a wonderful celebration of everything that makes up Scrooge's character and his stories in general, but my favorite moment is the one panel reaction shot of Scrooge after the villains threaten to blow up the town:

(Okay, clearly I'm still having trouble with the 'image' thing. But if you click on it, you'll still get the idea.) That is a mad duck. That is a mad duck who WILL NOT take any more. Forget your Stallones and Swartzeneggers, when the things are bad, I want that duck on my side.

I'm looking at you, Rachel. I saw the Glee premiere yesterday. My roommate saw a minute, and commented that it was just an American Idol rip-off--I think that's a good insight into why so many resent the show, that it's a lesser creative endeavor for being a show where the characters sing songs other people made popular. I don't know if I agree with that line of thought though--it's no worse than, say, the way Modern Family rips off the generic family sitcom. At any rate, the episode itself wasn't very good. The writers seem to be confusing "quirky" with "largely unlikeable and alienating."

That's it for now.
Later Days.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Quotations: No, He's Not the One Who Ages Backwards

"Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have with objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them." Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, 67.

I finally started keeping a running log of quotations. Hopefully, it'll mean less frantically leafing through books when Friday comes.

Later Days.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Deep Media Retrospective: Zielinski vs Doom

This one's way over the 500 word limit, but it gets a pass; I need to work some ideas out.

My research into video games seems to be pulling me in two directions: cultural studies and art media. Cultural studies, because, as it pulls in billions of dollars each year and encompasses millions of gamers, video games are arguably one of the most influential media currently in production. And art media because that's what academia writ large (and I'm grossly, grossly overgeneralizing here) is currently trying to do with the digital media as a whole: investigate it as a site of social praxis (great word) where art and science and society come together. To be honest, I'm more interested in the pop culture side of things, but I can see the value of the art media approach. Beyond the practical aspect that it presents something tangible to show hiring committees, it also allows your garden variety humanities academic to do something proactive instead of purely reactionary. Thus we reach today's question: can I do both?

To help me muddle through, I'm going to use two texts I've just finished: Masters of Doom by David Kushner, and Deep Time of the Media by Siegfried Zielinski, representing pop culture and media art, respectively. (BTW, I didn't originally choose these books for that contrast; I've always liked to keep an element of serendipity in my reading--which coincides nicely with some of Zielinski's methodology, as we'll see.) First: Masters of Doom. Essentially, Kushner's writing a biography of John Romero and John Carmack, the two creators of the computer game Doom. When it comes to video games, Doom is a big milestone. It popularized the first person shooter. And game modding--the process of players altering and adding to the game's code. (John Carmack, in particular, was highly influenced by hacker culture, and promotes open coding.) And shareware distribution. And Internet deathmatches. And, thanks in large part to John Romero, over the top theatrics and extreme game violence on the PC. It is, in other words, a big deal.

But the book is less about Doom than it is about the two Johns. I think one anecdote in particular sums them up nicely. For years, Carmack and Romero participated in an ongoing Dragons and Dungeons game, Carmack as Dungeon Master, and Romero as one of the players. After a few years of play, Carmack introduced a demon that offered Romero and the others a choice: they could ignore it, or attempt to enter a deal with it in exchange for the Daikatana, a sword of limitless power (Romero later, and fairly disastrously, made a video game revolving around a sword by the same name. See the picture at the post's end.). However, if the players failed the dice roll, the demon would be able to tear its way between the realms, and the world would be destroyed by demons. Over the protests of the other players, Romero made the deal. They lost the die roll, and the world was destroyed. According to Kushner, there was a moment of silence. Then, Romero asked, "What now?" "The game's over," Carmack replied. "Can't we just pretend it didn't happen?" "No," said Carmack, "it's over." And that was it: five years of play decided in one decision and a roll of the dice. I like the anecdote because it showcases both John's personalities: Romero is willing to take any risk in pursuit of the next cool idea, and Carmack is all about inventing the system, without remorse for the human consequences. Between the X-treme Gamer and the Robo-Programmer, they epitome the stereotypes of computer players.

So that, skipping over the early period when the two meet and the later period where they fall apart, is what the Masters of Doom is about. What Deep Time is about is a harder question. I'll talk about the brunt of the book first, then Zielinski's media theory, which comprises the beginning and end. Essentially, Zielinski is trying to present a different picture of media archaeology and history, one that emphasizes moments and the entirety (kairos and aeon) over strict linear progression--linear progression being the common form of discussion when you're talking about media technology. He calls the method anarcheaology, to emphasize its nonlinearity; this method calls for wild digressions, obessive pursuits, and, as he calls it, an appreciation of magic. Zielinski's magical tour consists of a presentation of historical figures: Empedocles, Giovan Porta, Athanasius Kircher, Johann Rittler, Cesare Lombroso. (Admittedly, he presents them in chronological order, which contradicts the "anti-linear progression" thing, but that's a problem a lot of media archaeologies run afoul of.) The individuals are chosen in part for their involvement in media technology--Lombroso was about surveillance, Kircher with encryption, Rittler with electricity, and so forth--but equally for their status. Each was outside of the formal academies of their day, each was interested in science and poetry, each probed into the unknown, and, most importantly, each lived their own experiments. To Zielinski, the crucial connection between each figure is that each lived out their ideas through a social praxis.

And that provides a nice segue into what Zielinski thinks media art should be: Not conservative linear culminations, but an exuberant exploration: "Artistic praxis in media worlds is a matter of extravagant expenditure. Its privileged locations are not palaces but open laboratories." He's not just expounding on what he thinks a study of media history should be, but what media artists should be doing now to create new directions. Another rallying point for Zielinski is that he is opposed to false, totalizing unities; instead, he follows Empedocles, who envisioned the world as a series of intermingling extremes, always in motion, but never becoming something singular. It's appropriate, then, that his book pursues two related, not entirely combinable concepts: a media anarchaeology that promotes the study of tangential figures, and a media practice that promotes not just study, but action. The two are related, and one can grow out of the other, but they're not entirely the same.

So: accepting all of the above, including my less-than-flattering interpretation of the Johns and my more-than-questionable interpretation of Zielinski, I present the following proposition: In Masters of Doom, Kushner is pursuing media history, and John Carmack and John Romero are practicing media art.

This argument hinges on me being able to prove that Carmack and Romero were performing the same sort of social praxis with Doom that the historical figures Zielinski pursues were performing with... various things. First, let's go over some strawman objections I can eliminate:
Video games aren't important enough to allow the comparison. Okay, if you really want to take the stance that video games aren't important, then frankly, I'm not sure there's anything left to discuss. More seriously, video games, like it or not, drive a large portion of modern culture and, to a lesser extent, modern technology; for nearly a decade, Carmack's game engines were considered the gold standard of quality. If your computer couldn't support it, you were behind the grade. Kircher used cutting edge technology to present Jesuit mystery plays; Carmack used it to present video games.

Doom is a violence simulator; real scientific study such as Zielinski is talking about isn't like that. Well, yes, real studies aren't like that, but only because they involved ACTUAL physical violence. Zielinski cites Archimedes' famous glass as an example of optics as weapon, and describes some of the scientists' electricity experiments, which included Ritter attaching electrified clamps to his eyelids to see what visions he'd have if he turned them on with his eyes closed. Romero, at least, didn't forget that the violence need only be simulated.

It doesn't really fit with the anti-progressive aspect of Zielinski's approach, does it? Karmack, Romero, and Kushner were all pretty linear in discussing Doom.
That's... a really good point. Karmack and Romero were very focused on linear progression; for Romero, it was always about the next idea, and for Karmack, it was about the new system. My only real counterargument is that Kushner's study is all about moving towards that perfect moment, that kairos, when Doom reaches its pinnacle. To cite Zielinski, "The determined pursuit of a single idea and its investigation until all possibilities are exhausted will likely stir up unrest among firmly established structures and procedures." Ask the makers of the point-and-click adventure games how if Doom stirred the PC market.

As for the similarities they share with these figures... well, like Zielinski's practioners, they're outside of the establishment; neither completed education beyond a high school level. They combined art and science, with their envelope-pushing graphics engine. They lived their research, and they lived it to excess; Romero paid millions to have a state-of-the-art set of networked computers in his offices that were for nothing but deathmatch games, and Carmack was known to go into personal hiding for weeks at a time to develop his code without any distraction. By the measures Zielinski has set up, they're performing media art, and, through his account, Kushner is performing media anarchaeology.

Thus, I will arrogantly conclude, we can define video game study and research as both pop culture and archaeology. And that's a form of media art I can get behind.

...Pretty hard to justify getting behind this, though. Thanks for making it so easy to defend video games as a scholarly pursuit, Romero. Really. Thanks.

Later Days.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Quotations: Yeah, This Explains a Lot

"Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important." --John Carmack, co-creator of Doom.

Later Days.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Movie Buff: Person of Consequence Reviews Movies of SomeSignificance

Yeah, so I've been watching a lot of movies recently; I realized that film in general is a pop culture laden area of academia that I've left relatively untapped, so I'm trying to extend in that direction a little bit. Thus, Movie Buff, a new regular feature. Sure, I've reviewed movies before, but now there's a fancy group title.

So let's do this. Movie reviews will vary in length depending on my interest, and my whim.

All of Me
: A 1984 movie directed by Carl Reiner, starring Steve Martin as the man who accidentally gets implanted with the soul of Lily Tomlin. A lot of comedies with female love interests forget that women can be funny as well; instead, what we get is a bland female stereotype who exists, at best, to occasionally act as the straight (wo)man to the funnier male lead. And and worst, they're place holders for "nonthreatening female/trophy" characters. See, for example, Bruce Almighty, Office Space, (large portions of Jennifer Aniston's career, frankly), Billy Madison, Happy Gilmour, etc. Since Tomlin is in Martin's body for most of the movie, All of Me is a little guilty of that as well, but Tomlin's character has her own personality and growth, which is more than can be said for many. There's also real chemistry between Martin and Tomlin, which culminates in a wonderful mirror-reflected dance scene. Their relationship is so sweet that you almost forget that their goal in the film is to murder another woman, annihilate her soul, and take her body.

a 2004 movie patched together via shoestring by Shane Carruth. Primer is an incredibly dense sci-fi movie revolving around time travel. It's the sort of film that's easy to pick apart once it's over; you can argue about whether the film's logic really works, where certain plot elements come from, whether the culminating emotional reactions fit with what's been shown. But it's a film that will definitely get you talking about it after it's finished, and, also to its credit, you don't ask the questions while you're watching; the pacing is so tight you just get immersed. Plus, it's fairly short, at 77 minutes. I like a film that tells its story, simply (okay, not simply at all) and concisely, without dragging past its natural ending point.

Basic Instinct: Finally, a film that justifies my fear of intelligent women and their sexuality. Thankfully, all they need is a forceful male to quell their wanton ways. (That was sarcasm. On the internet, it's sometimes important to be clear about that. For the record: admired the film's method of manipulation, but disagreed with the message wholeheartedly.)

...okay, I'm still going by my self-imposed limit of 500 words, so I don't have time to review Book of Eli, the movie I actually created the post for. Next time, children. Have faith.

Later Days.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

random junk

Here's two things, in no particular order:

1. Jogging. When suburbs were first being created, I imagine someone must have said, "hey, you know that grid system we used for the rest of the city? The one where streets and avenues run at right angles? Well, I'm sick of right angles. Damn straight lines. For these suburbs, I want nothing but big, looping doughnuts. Doughnuts with jellied centers. Doughnuts with sprinkles. Doughnuts with a bit of a honey glaze that has a hint of maple, so when you bite into the center..."
Sorry, I skipped lunch today. Anyway, the point is, I've always found it miserable to jog in a suburb for the first few weeks, because the place is a seemingly randomly laid out maze. This time included. The feeling is somewhat ameliorated, however, by the sheer friendliness of the other joggers around here. I've gotten about half a dozen "hi"s and even a few high fives. Considering that in previous areas, the best I've gotten is catcalls unfavorably comparing my running to a scene from Forrest Gump, I'm willing to forgive a few twisty turns.

2. Speak into the void. I had to leave a phone message today, and it reminded me of just how much I hate phone messages. It's a number of factors. First, when you make the call, there's the uncertainty on whether you'll go to voice mail or not. I'm simultaneously constructing a conversation and a monologue in my head. Much as I love a good multitasking session, playing Schroedinger's receiver is not my idea of a good time. Second, and this point goes for phone calls in general, I have a harder time with a conversation when I can't support my side with gestures, and can't receive them. Third, with the recorded message there's the knowledge that you're being recorded; if you're talking to someone, at least anything you say that's idiotic can be glossed over fairly quickly. In a recorded message, it just sort of... hangs there. And the more you try to recover, the worse it sounds. I'd even prefer email--it's just as lacking in gestures, and just as recorded, but at least you can edit before you send. (And actually, I've read some interesting papers on how emoticons take on gestural and tonal connotations in text messages and emails. ;) ) Even a blog post is better, because since no one ever, ever replies, I can pretend that I'm speaking to myself.

There was gonna be a third thing, but I got distracted. So... tomorrow, quick review of "Book of Eli." Feel anticipation!

Later Days.

Monday, September 6, 2010

So what happens when I don't have anything to post? I'm glad you asked...

Animals spotted in the backyard since we moved into the new place: one rabbit, two squirrels, and a groundhog. Of course, that's nothing; during the winter a few years back, my parents' patio was regularly visited by a pair of deer.

Urban encroachment on wildlife areas: bringing animals closer to you, one malnutritioned raccoon at a time.

Later days.

Friday, September 3, 2010

To Purgatory, or not To Purgatory

"Purgatory is where the imaginary orgies of martyrdom take place, souls purged step by step of their sins through suffering and penance, or--if they are not steadfast enough and fail these trials--they are sent to eternal damnation. Purgatory is an experience of the utmost limits, as purifying as numbers that are the gateway either to order or chaos. A highly dramatic place located between Earth, heaven, and hell, it is the most important and controversial locality in the Catholic faith." Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media.

As a Protestant, I don't really have a dog in the Purgatory fight. But I do find the concept interesting. If nothing else, it lends authority--not that he'd accept it--to Protestant preacher John Donne's declaration "This life is but the highway," by which he meant that our real existence continues on after death. (The saying which was later echoed by Tom Cochrane, and put to much different meaning.)

Later Days.