Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Mundane Middle Stretch

All right: we're in post 2 of a three post series. Yesterday covered some of the differences between the Disneyfied Little Mermaid and its original; today, we'll take the final point, the marginalization of women, and run it into the ground. Be warned: this post is definitely the "Empire Strikes Back" of the bunch, as it comes to a fairly negative conclusion. Negative in the way it reflects me, I mean. My only defense is that I hope to be somewhat redeemed with tomorrow's blog equivalent of Return of the Jedi. (I can promise no Ewoks, so that's already an improvement.)

Anyway, while The Little Mermaid rekindled my decision to do a feminism-issue series of posts, the seed was originally planted when I attended a lecture Elaine Showalter gave at my university a few weeks ago. The lecture essentially presented a case for her upcoming book, a history of female writers of North America. This history, especially in the United States' early years, really hadn't been told. She gave a particularly striking contrast. When Walt Whitman first tried to publish his seminal "Leaves of Grass," he absolutely couldn't get anyone to buy it. The single book store that accepted a few copies couldn't move one of them, and no one else was biting. So he actually sent a few fake, raving reviews to literary magazines and suddenly the work no one would read became one of the pillars of American poetry. At the same time, a woman published a book of poems to huge acclaim, but was forced to write under a pen name so her husband wouldn't find out. When he did, he gave her an ultimatum: either she give up public writing forever, or he would divorce her and take the children. So she literally had to choose between her family and her writing. She acquiesces, and becomes virtually forgotten. Showalter's point is that men were allowed to go to extreme measures for self-promotion; women who did the same were vilified.

That I can't even remember the name of the woman she used lends further credence to her argument.

Anyway, the talk got me thinking about influential women creators in my own field. In video games--well, the pickings are rather slim. That isn't to say there's no one. It was a husband and wife team that were behind Sierra, who made some of the best computer games of the 20th century. Another woman was behind Sierra's popular Hero's Quest series. And I know it was actually a female who coded the arcade classic Centipede. But while I'd recognize the names if I saw them, I can't actually name any of them off the top of my head. In contrast, the big historical male names in video game history--Shigeru Moyamoto, Warren Spector, American McGee, John Romero--immediately roll off my tongue. In this case, at least, it can be partly contextualized. Video games are--excuse the gross overgenralization--heavily masculinized. There are exceptions, and I believe there will continue to be more exceptions, that the field will change with the greater expansion of the form, and with the increasingly popularity of, um, pop games and sim games, but for now... well, how many women would WANT to be associated with a character like Duke Nukem?

Maybe some prominent female role-models can be found in the actual games.

...or maybe that's not a productive area of discussion. (Sorry, Samus.)

One area of video games that does have a prominent female presence is its scholarship. There's a lot of women who bring some of the more useful anthropological approaches into game studies: see Suzzane de Castell, Mia Consalvo, and Lisa Nakamura (all right, she's more digital media at large, but there's crossover.). Brenda Laurel and Janet Murray are often cited as the founders of the narratology-side of the video game debate. There's also Karen Collins on game sound design, Katie Salen on game design, and Sheila C. Murphy on the game artifacts, such as cell phones and the Intellivision. So yes, pretty good representation there.

But just as I satisfied my white liberal conscience with the above list, I came upon a new question: what female creators have had a personal influence on me? This one was... harder. I recently did this Facebook thing, where you name 15 authors who influenced you, as quick as you can. And once I was pretty advanced in the list, I realized I didn't have any women on there. I threw Virginia Woolf on near the end, but I couldn't say definitely that she wasn't a token addition. To be honest, my list of high literature doesn't include a lot of female writers. A large part of this is my educational background. My undergrad university split the humanities in such a way that many of the modern female writers were under the purview of the Women and Genders Studies department. Split between a double English and Math major, I didn't have many electives to spend on outside classes, so I just never experienced the modern female writers. And before the 20th century, you start running into the lack of support female writers have faced for centuries. Gaskell and Austen are fine, but really not my bag. I think Elizabeth Heywood is amazing, but I came across her after my scholarly interests turned elsewhere, so her impact too was less on me than it might of been. And so on.

Well, fine. If I'm being honest, I've been influenced at least as much by my pop fiction reads as by my high literature forays. Admittedly, this area skews heavily towards fantasy for me, but I can't be faulted for good taste. And if you turn towards this area, favorite female writers crop up pretty quickly. Fay Weldon's combinations of postmodernism and chick lit are awesome. Diane Duane's Wizardry series always formed a must-read for me, and her Star Trek stuff is good too. Robin Hobbs plays with the fantasy genre itself in ways that need to be read by any fan of the form. Anne McCaffrey's Pern series have been a staple for decades. Marion Zimmer Bradley, likewise, is a cornerstone for her work on Arthurian legend. When you're talking urban fantasy, Charlaine Harris' Vampire books deserve some grudging respect, though for my money, Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series is infinitely better written. Hell, I did my MA thesis on Tamora Peirce's young adult series. This is just a representative sampling, but yes, my list of influential female fantasy writers is fairly well stocked.

But... can I say that any one of these writers has been personally influential on me? The problem there is that for every writer above, there's one writer, one male writer who fills the same sort of niche for me, but one better. I'll take Italo Calvino over Fay Weldon (which, sadly, probably elevates Weldon in many people's eyes, even to lose by comparison), Peter David over Diane Duane, Stephen Donaldson over Robin Hobbs, David Eddings over McCaffrey, Guy Gavriel Kay over Bradley, Jim Butcher over Briggs and Harris, and Lloyd Alexander over Peirce. I know these comparisons don't map exactly, but my basic point is that, for my personal oeuvre, the top of the list is an overwhelmingly male presence.

So what's the explanation for this imbalance? Is it a reflection of the chauvinism in the various narrative industries that I'm invested in (Good lord, I didn't even get to the machismo-fest that is the comic book industry)? Or a reflection of what I've been exposed to, and narrowly limited myself to? Am I a mysognist? A chauvinistic literary snob? Do I have any female influences in my background at all?

Full story tomorrow, but for the short answers: Wait for it, yes, partly, no, a bit of one, and yes; yes of course.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Mermaid Meanderings

All right. Once again, I, your eminent blogger, have fallen somewhat behind in regular postings. To make amends, I’m going to embark on a daily blog, until… well, until I get distracted by a pretty ribbon or an interesting smell and lapse once again. But we should have enough fodder to keep things going for a while. I’ve got games I want to write about, some TV shows I want to review, various theoretical meanderings, and a new segment-type to try out. For now, though, I’d like to start “the return” with a three-parter on a gender near and dear to my own heart, the female.

Specifically, I’d like to open with a comparison between two different stories featuring a female protagonist: the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, and Hans Christian Andersen’s original. We’re comparing the two in a graduate course on aesthetics that I’m auditing, but before we discuss them there, I wanted to jot some ideas down here. (And if you to brush up on the original Anderson, it can be found here.) One of the more obvious differences between the original and the movie is that the movie adds a lot of musical numbers. However, the addition works really well with the themes of the original, in which the mermaid’s voice was treated as a commodity—just as in the movie version, she traded “her most valuable possession” to be human. And, at the end of the original story, she is left completely formless, so that all she has left is a disembodied voice. (I’d say “spoiler,” but I already included the link. You had your chance.) The same commodification is in the movie: one of the film’s first scenes is a symphony held in Triton’s honor, where Ariel’s voice is literally presented as a gift for her father. (Her absence from the symphony is symbolically an early break from her patriarchal repression.)

But there are big, big differences, and there are three I’d like to flag:
1) Soul Ownership. In the Andersen original, the nameless little mermaid is actually told she has no soul. In fact, no merperson does. They live three hundred years, and then dissolve into sea foam. The only way a merwoman can get a soul is to marry a human male, and then her husband’s soul sloshes around to fit her as well—in other words, a human male has a big enough soul for two people. And all of this information is very disturbing to a modern audience. What gets washed over, however, is that the movie version has its own disturbing equivalent. Where in the short story, the nameless mermaid discusses eternal salvation with her mother, Ariel is discussing the meaning of a fork with a seagull. The little mermaid’s desire for a soul has been replaced with Ariel’s obsession with collecting human artifacts. Disney has, in effect, replaced spirituality with accumulating a bunch of crappy junk with no real purpose.

A little too on the nose, yes?
2) And They All Lived Happily… Oh Wait, They Didn’t. The other obvious big difference is that the nameless mermaid DOES NOT get Prince Eric. Or any other named Prince. Rather, her time on earth ends, and she dissolves into sea foam. There’s a deus ex machina ending where she’s rescued from oblivion by being turned into a “Sister of the Air,” but the last-second salvation doesn’t alter the fact that “true love’s kiss” might swap some saliva, but it doesn’t turn a mute girl from nowhere into a suitable spouse for a prince. And she doesn’t even lose to the sea witch; she loses to a complete stranger that the prince assumes is the person who saved him from drowning. It’s a reminder how things have changed in our Euro-descended society; in Andersen’s time, you could still make the argument that spiritual salvation was more valuable than physical love, but now, Hollywood’s created a situation where the happy ending means the romantic ending.
The real salt in the wound for the nameless mermaid, I imagine, is when the prince declares “I want you to meet my fiancée! And I know you will love her, because I love her, and you love me!”. That’s cold, man. Even for a prince, that’s cold.

3) Female Shift. Disney’s made a lot of female leads over the years. I bet that, if pressed, you could name a few yourselves: Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Pocahontas, Mulan… etcetra, so on, ad infinum. Now: name one female friend of any of them. …They don’t exactly roll off the tongue, do they? And Disney’s The Little Mermaid is hardly an exception. As much as it’s a story about a young woman finding her true love, it’s also a father’s story about accepting that his little girl is a young woman—and apparently, in order to tell that story, Disney decided not to tell a large part of the original. In Andersen’s version, the Little Mermaid still had her mother die a long time ago, and still has a father figure, but the father’s role is greatly, greatly reduced. Instead, what we get is a heavy supporting role from her sisters and lots of good advice from her grandmother (who is written out of the movie entirely). Even the seawitch gets a better rap. In the original, she isn’t scheming to cheat the mermaid out of her fair chance, or steal back a kingdom; she takes Ariel’s voice because that’s the way magic works—it always costs the thing most precious to you. Ariel’s sisters comfort her with their presence and song while she’s human, and sacrifice their own dearest possession—their hair—to give her a chance to return to them. And it’s not like their replacements are wonderful role-models for little boys, either: Flounder is a coward, Scuttles is scatterbrained, and Sebastian is fastidious to a fault. Admittedly, each will pitch in when the chips are down, but the message that’s left seems to be is that you can’t count on sisterhood, you can’t count on the boys, it’s up to you to make your dreams come true. I’ll admit, it’s still a better message than “the only options open to a young woman are self-sacrifice and marriage” and “you need a husband to get a soul,” but… it’s still an awfully bleak message to give little girls. (Not to mention it still comes down to “you need a husband.”) In separating itself from the original female bonds, it feels as if Disney really altered a part of the original story for the worse.

And that’s where we’re at. The whole issue got me thinking about another topic that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: female role models.

Later Days

Friday Quotations: Less Than a Month Till Epic Mickey!

"I don’t think anyone can say for sure what videogames will be like next week, let alone the future. It’s tempting to say something quotable like ‘the holodeck will be a reality’ or ‘the future is online games.’ But, while those are all nice soundbites—and I think all of them are possible, if not likely—each tells only a bit of the story. The fact is, there is no one Gaming Future, any more than there’s a single literary future or cinematic future. The future of gaming is limited only by the creativity of the men and women making games—which is to say there are no limits." --Warren Spector, creator of the video game Deus Ex, when asked to comment on the future of video games.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Urban Landscape of the Blind Men

All right, I know I've been lax again. My excuse is that I've been building up the will to do a big post, and putting it off until I'm ready. So expect that... at some point. For now, I've got... this.

I'm severely nearsighted. And when I say "severely," I'm understating it. In the course of my life, I've met less than five people who are a) under the age of 65, b) not legally blind, and c) more nearsighted than I am. I'm one fit of premature baldness away from being Mr Magoo's understudy. Consequently, I am well versed in the essential three alternatives: laser surgery, glasses, and contacts. I'm largely against people shooting beams of anything into my eyes, so laser is out, which leaves the last two. Both have their pros and cons. What are they? Glad you asked...

Contact Lenses. There's a wide variety of contact lenses available, but I'm familiar with the disposable so we'll talk about that. The Pros: you get to keep that rugged, natural look. You don't have to worry about losing them, because they're in your head. Since they're molded to your eye, you get a lot more "panoramic" vision than with glasses. And you can keep them when you go swimming (although you probably shouldn't). This last point is important, especially if you're as lousy a swimmer as I am, and need every sense working at optimum capacity.

Cons: You have to touch your eye a lot, which some people find Totally Gross. And while they're hard to lose when in your eyes, there is also the dreaded problem of "lenses falling out." Plus, you know those dreams where your teeth start falling out? Well, after wearing contact lenses for an extended time, I started getting dreams where my lenses became these massive, hand-sized objects that I had to cram into my optics. Don't worry, though; there's a good chance that last one is just my own deep seated, worrying psychosis.

Biggest Con: I'm one of those people who get up a few times a night for a glass of water. When I'm sharing a place with roommates, I tend to keep a water bottle by the bed so that my nightly habit doesn't disturb them. One time, I woke up around 3:00 am, groped around for the bottle, and took a big, long swig before I realized I had a mouthful of contact lenses cleaning solution. It's a hell of a way to wake up, I'll tell you that. Again, it's the sort of thing that doesn't come up very often, but when it does, you will never, ever forget it.

And glasses.
Pro: You get that Professorial look. And they make a lovely fashion accessory. And it's one single investment rather than the constant cost represented by contact lenses.

Cons: Glare. The dreaded fog that comes when one moves from a cold outdoors to a warm indoors. (A real problem for Canadian winters, and a large portion of Canadian falls as well.) Peripheral vision is replaced with peripheral blurring, which may sound cool, but is not.

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is that, last week, I simultaneously destroyed my current set of contact lenses by tearing one, and having the other fall out of my eye. (That's another issue for both forms: they're items that, if lost, are much harder to find than other items because without them you have severely impeded your ability to spot them.) That meant a complete replacement within two weeks of my last replacement; I'm burning through this set of lenses at an alarming rate. Thus, I decided to invest in a new pair of glasses, to save myself some future costs. One phone call later/appointment later, I've arranged for a new pair of glasses. They look pretty good on me (At least, I think they do; they didn't have their lenses in yet, and I'm so nearsighted that looking into a mirror five feet away is a bit of a stretch). So... next time you see me, don't be surprised if I'm bespectacled.

Later Days.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movie Buff: Classic Cinema

I thought I'd do a short little post on some golden (or at least silver age) movies I've seen of late. First, if you want an in-depth review of something more recent, check out Undiscover This for a fairly good review of The Social Network, followed by some truly excellent, excellent commentary. And now my reviews:

Ice Station Zebra. John Sturges' 1968 Cold War flick, in which an American submarine races to retrieve a spy satellite's film from the titular station where it crashes. Starring Patrick McGoohan as the British special ops leader, Ernest Borgnine as his right hand man Russian defector, and Rock Hudson as the submarine commander and Guy With a Really Cool Name. The second half is pretty good, especially the tense confrontation between Borgnine and the leader of the marine team, but the first half, in which the submarine slowly, slowly reaches the station, isn't nearly as exciting as the music score tries to tell you it is.

A Boy and His Dog. The 1975 post-apocalypse film directed by L. Q. Jones and starring a young Don Johnson of Nash Bridges and Miami Vice fame. Also starring Tim McIntire as the voice of the adorable dog. Without giving anything too much away, the general plot is that in the wake of a world ravaged by World War IV, the boy encourages his telepathic dog to find him a woman to, well, rape, but ends up with more than he bargains for when he winds up in an underground colony best described as a parody of a parody of Americana. Yeah, it's pretty weird. The dog is one of the great things about the film, reaching just the right level of sardonic humor.
I like the inversions of social order at work in the film. For example, the dog is elevated to the importance of human, while in the colony, "gone to the farm" is no longer a euphemism for pets that are no longer with us, but for people sentenced to death for breaking the society's fascist laws. Not that they carry the euphemism very far--they basically announce the sentence, and then a robotic hillbilly walks up and crushes the offender's neck with its bare hands. No, really. The movie is based on the short story of the same name by Harlan Ellison, and while the movie is definitely the best out of this set, I prefer the story. While I appreciate the truly insane expansions the film indulges in, the story had a much more powerful ending, while containing pretty much the same actual events.

Okay, the next two require a bit of explanation. I'm currently in a disagreement with one of my roommates. He says that Leslie Nielson's best movies were the Naked Gun films, whereas I prefer Wrongfully Accused. (Blasphemy, I know. But I'm sticking to it.) In my mind, the only way to determine which of us is right is to watch every movie Nielson has been in that's available. Problem: according to imdb, he's had 238 roles. Even removing the TV roles, that's a lot of film. I can't even find some of the more obscure ones, but I'm trying to view what I can.

I'm also doing it in chronological order, which means that I start with his early work as a handsome leading man. As someone who was introduced to Nielsen through the Due South TV show wherein he played an flatulent over the hill Mountie, the idea of him as the chisel-jawed hero is somewhat jarring. That's probably why I've only made it through two such films so far. And here they are:

Forbidden Planet. The 1956 sci-fi "classic" directed by Fred J. Wilcox. Commander J. J Adams (played by Nielsen) brings his crew to visit the colony of Altair IV, but upon landing, find the only inhabitants are Dr. Morbius and his daughter, Altaira. And a robot named Robbie. Morbius continually warns the commander to leave the planet, but the commander would rather get to know Morbius' daughter--and of course, terrible things start to happen to the crew. There's a clear Shakespearean Tempest theme going on, with Morbius and Altaira playing the roles of Prospero and Miranda, and even a subplot where Robbie gets the ship's cook extremely drunk on synthetically created alcohol. And the special effects reach that pinnacle of hilariously bad in retrospect that only old sci-fi films can reach. Also: Robbie is awesome. But despite these elements, the film really drags in places. And when your 98 minute film drags, there's a problem. Nielsen's fine in it, though he really doesn't stretch himself beyond the "stalwart star captain" prototype.

The Reluctant Astronaut. The 1967 comedy starring Don Knotts as Roy Flemming. Roy, a man who makes a living manning a space simulator for children at the county fair, is entered into the space program by his father. The only problem is--he's afraid of heights! Actually, the problem is that his father accidentally entered him into NASA's janitorial staff, and much of the film consists of him trying to keep up the astronaut charade for his friends and family back home. Leslie Nielsen plays the square-jawed astronaut that befriends him. The plot thickens when NASA receives word that the Russians are sending an ordinary man into space in order to demonstrate the efficiency of their automated system, and suddenly Flemming is flying high. While the movie definitely aged better than Forbidden Planet (and Ice Station Zebra, for that matter), most of the comedy comes from Don Knotts being Don Knotts rather than any really jokes. I suppose the space-related stuff would have been more interesting to the audience at the time, but if you want space-related comedy, The Simpsons did the "average man in space" better (though admittedly this movie is a clear influence), and more recently, Community did the space sim better.

That's it for now. The next Nielsen movies on the docket: Poseidon Adventure, and Day of the Animals.

Later Days.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Friday Quotations: And All of A Sudden, John was all , like, "And now I will Tear This Man a New Orifice." True story, yo.

“I don’t ridicule freedom. I ridicule the idea that it’s a slogan and a platitude and not a reality and that government is the only impingement on freedom." John Stewart on the Daily Show, Oct 12th.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Marathon Man, Day 4: the Crunch

12:48 pm. Okay, I'm slightly behind for Day 4. But we'll get there.

12:53 pm. p 138. Apparently, "heeled" was an early 20th century phrase for "carrying a gun."

12:56 pm. p148. In order to keep someone properly gagged, one must remember not to just tie a bit of cloth around their mouth, but to first wad up some cotton or something and get them to put it in their mouth, then add the cloth. I'm not sure my life has been improved with this knowledge.

1:02 pm. p153. They've pulled one of those "twists" where the detective has figured out who the murder is, but isn't telling the reader. I suppose we have to wait to the traditional parlor scene, but it's really annoying.

1:19 pm. p 183. ...And that's a wrap. The book played fairly straight with the murderer; it makes sense, from the clues provided, and it did rely on a clue that wasn't there the first time Grofield interrogated the suspects. I had expected a cheat where a new character was introduced to have committed the murder, so it's nice that it stuck to the "rules" so to speak. There's some really disturbing sexual morality going on behind the scenes here. "The Dame" is killed essentially for her overactive libido, and the main other female is judged for being in a sexless rut, kept in place by her brother and a past experience where she got pregnant from a married man and had an abortion at seventeen--until the manly Grofield gets her over it. And he does so in the most callous way imaginable: "You're twenty-two now, aren't you? Isn't it time you got over it? You and your brother--emotional cripples. Your mind is girdled up tighter than Eva Milford's ass." Apparently, the message here is broads need tough love, and a real man to provide it. Anyway, one more to go. Back to Parker, with Breakout.

1:31 pm. It starts very in medias res. Due to someone else's error, Parker is finally caught by the police during a heist gone wrong.

1:33 pm. p 10. The cop is couching Parker's options for pleading in terms of game theory. Somehow, I don't think that happens very often.

1:36 pm. p14. There seems to be some social commentary going on regarding the state of the detention center. It actually reminds of Henry Fielding's Amelia , in that regard. You know, for the page-long reference.

1:46 pm. p31. Parker has started to plan for his next heist while on trial for his current one. He's tenacious, I'll give him that.

1:50 pm. p41. Stark's really playing up the "unnatural" aspect of prison. "It isn't a natural environment, this." "It isn't an environment. It's a body cast."

1:51 pm. p 44. There's an emphasis on racial difference as well; blacks and whites who aren't cellmates don't converse without drawing attention.

1:55 pm. p 53. This is a nice one: "Walter Jelinek was a man, but he looked like a car, the kind of old junker car that had been in some bad accidents so that now the frame is bent, the wheels don't line up any more, the whole vehicle sags to one side and pulls to that side, and the brakes are oatmeal. Half the original body is gone, the paint job is some amateur brushwork, and there's duct tape over the taillights. That was Walter Jelinek."

2:33 pm. p 97. Stark's changing up the perspective again, just as he did in The Score. We've had Williams' perspective--nervous, for being the only non-Caucausian in the escape group--and now Marcantoni, the other accomplice. And just like the other book, it serves to illustrate how mechanical, how in control Parker is.

2:41 p 105. One of the characters comments that he should be careful what he says on a cellphone; that and the motion sensors mentioned earlier are the only real evidence that this is set in the contemporary world. (Well, 2002, but close enough.) And The Score was definitely set in the 60s. Apparently, Parker ages in comic book time.

2:56 pm. p 116. Character sketch II: "Not for a second did Brenda doubt this was Mrs. Johnson-Ross. Tall, too blonde, she carried her just-a-little excess weight as though it was a fashion accessory she was pleased to own. She dressed in verticals, a long dark jacket open over a darker pantsuit with deep lapels, in turn over a blouse in two shades of vertical light blue stripes. The effect was to make the body fade away and emphasize the blonde-framed face, still puffy but still very good looking."

3:02 pm. p128. Until I started reading crime thrillers, I sometimes went days, even weeks at a time without anyone referring to anyone else as "that bird."

3:05 pm. p 135. A drug supplier commenting on his street dealer's abode: "You can take the boy out of the pisshole, but you can't take the pisshole out of the boy." And the command: "Leon, go hit that fool, like he was a TV wouldn't come into focus." I don't know how I feel about it the present day setting to be honest; scenes like this with drug dealers and references to DVDs really seem to contrast with the tone Stark is using. Although, like the Jelinek description, I do like all of the people seeing other people as objects, or machines.

3:10 pm. p 142. One of the criminals compares putting together a team of people who haven't worked together before to two parties getting to know each other during an engagement period. There's something interesting in the social contract nature of that simile.

3:17 pm. p 168. Stark mentions how Parker felt "something" was going to go wrong, and it did. I've of two minds about that; on the one hand, Parker doesn't seem the type to indulge in intuition and second guessing. On the other hand, it suggests a sort supernatural connection between Parker and the plot, which feels like it's been there all along.

3:22 pm. p 172. I do like where the plot's going right now, though. After a tunnel collapses during a heist, Parker and co are trapped in the place they broke into; the building designed to let no one in now won't let them out. It makes a nice juxtaposition with the earlier prison escape.

3:32 pm. p 202. One of the errant drug dealers looking to make good on the bounty on Parker and co's heads meets a bad end. Parker's comment: "He should have stuck to drugs." I think we can take that as a metacommentary on the "honor" associated with Parker's sort of crime in comparison to drug dealing and other "modern" forms of criminal recreation.

3:40 pm. P219. Interesting moral snafu: Parker's cohort's girlfriend has been snatched in connection to the crime, and the cohort expects Parker to help get her free--since he helped Parker escape prison, he feels Parker owes him. Now, Parker's just amoral enough not to feel any obligation, but he knows that if he doesn't help the guy, he may be trouble some time down the line. "Parker didn't collect the IOUs, neither the good ones nor the bad ones, but he knew he had to live among people with those tote boards in their minds." It's never Parker that's the problem, it's other people that are the problem.

4:03 pm. P 267. Nearing the end game now. And we're reading "a variant on the Stockholm Syndrome." It's a good thing their male captive can make a good sandwich. That's exactly the sort of can-do attitude I look for in my captives.

4:05 pm. p272. But when the going gets rough, neither of them consider taking long-term hostages. Practicality, or an "honor among thieves" kind of thing?

4:12 pm. P288. There's a nice, tense scene with the cop from earlier in the story. It feels a little coincidental for him to show up now, and he wasn't involved in enough of the story for the association to work fully, but it's doing a better job than I thought to connect everything together.

...And done. Huh. I dunno. It misses the high stakes of "The Hunter" and even the high concept of "The Score." And it's a little long to be an afternoon read. (Unless you're a masochist like yours truly.) I would have preferred something with a little more meat to it to end the marathon, but for what it was, there were some interesting bits, and interesting reflections on what it means to be imprisoned.

So anyway, that's six books, three authors, 1088 pages, and one long weekend. Till next time, folks.
Later Days.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Marathon Man, Day 3

11:38 am. ...And that's the end of Invitation to the Game. I realize that if I read the entire book in between posts, I'm sort of making a lie out of the whole "live blogging" thing, but... eh. Anyway, the Game's big plot is that a group of 10 newly graduated/unemployed teenagers have been invited to the Game, an idyllic VR world that quickly becomes more important to them than their actual reality. One day, though, it stops being idyllic, and the Game stops turning off. That's when they realize that the government has decided to overcome its unemployment problem by shipping their extras off to start new colonies on new planets.
Popular wisdom has it that the measure of a sci-fi book is how plausible it is that we'll get to that future from our current trajectory. In the Game's case, I have three quibbles. 1) The new colonists are shipped to the planet with literally nothing but the clothes on their back. No tools, no equipment, just the knowledge in their heads. Commendably, they still manage to progress from the Stone Age to their first application of written language, but it does seem a bit much to expect them to re-invent the wheel. On the other hand, I do like the idea that a government has decided to shanghai new colonists out and then sets out to do it in the manner that involves the absolute minimal amount of resources on the part of said government.
2) This is more of a human nature observation than a sci-fi quibble: The narrator tells us the ten 10 people--5 women, 5 men, all around 19 years old--had to find another stranded band of colonists to mate with, because they were all too close to family. And, um, no. I recognize that there's certain sexual things you can't traditionally get into in a 90s YA book, but you're not going to tell me that ten teenagers can be put into an enclosed, stressful environment for weeks without anyone, to put it colloquially, hooking up.
3) Much as I like the idea of the government acting with minimal amounts of altruism--sending the unemployed off to their own planet, training or no training is still technically better than mass sterilization and euthanasia-- I don't see it likely that this is how the event would play out. Mostly, I don't think those in control--government, corporation, or what have you--would give a brand new, resource filled planet to their own powerless castes. Some sort of effort would made to ensure that those in power in Earth would retain the upper hand. ...all right, that's a very pessimistic view, but there it is. Anyway, I liked the book--it was a definite step up from the Sleator stuff.

Next up: my remaining three books are all genre thrillers by Richard Stark. That should switch thing up a little. But first: daily exercise routine.

1:09 pm. Haven't done the run yet; waiting for the inhaler to kick in and the ipod to charge. In the meantime, I'm on p 26 of Stark's The Score. The plot so far is a stock heist story: Parker and a crew are planning to invade a small mining town to steal the payroll. For a genre-based story, atmosphere is everything, and Stark's hitting all the right points for a gritty noir story--by ten pages in Parker has already killed the first of his teammates. Ain't he a stinker?

2:54 pm. And we're back! Good run.

4:01 pm. "You're a young man, you can still learn. Pay attention to this. You can steal in this country, you can rape and murder, you can bribe public officials, you can pollute the morals of the young, you can burn your place of business down for the insurance money, you can do almost anything you want, and if you act with just a little caution and common sense you'll never be indicted. But if you don't pay your income tax, Grofield, you'll go to jail." (56)
"Every time they stopped, Edgars had to go buy her another bottle. 'Gold-star mother,' she said to Parker once, and started to cry. But she cried silently and didn't bother him. She was only about thirty, so the gold-star mother stuff was crap. Probably meant a boy friend killed in the army. Every tramp has an excuse." (71)
I love noir. It's so over-the-top flamboyant about being mean and gritty.

4:57 pm. P 157, and that's it for this book. Of particular note was the switch in perspective in Part 4. Up to that point, the book was a 3rd person limited perspective from Parker, but in Part 4, during the actual heist, it switches between other robbers and their hostages. Each one has their own foible that makes them likely to snap; Paulus is obsessed with watching it unfold himself, Kerwin feels more affinity for machines than people, and the best case is Grofield, an actor turned thief who constantly cites Shakespeare and mentally composes a soundtrack to accompany his life. The shifting perspective really emphasizes through his absence how much Parker is separate from everyone else. He's completely at one with the machine that is the plot/heist, and everyone else is a deviation from his ideal.

That said, I wasn't too overly thrilled with the book. It was good, and for its length, it did what it needed to do, but it was a little too mechanical. Heist stories generally follow a basic pattern: there's an ideal plan, and then there's the deviations, the things that go wrong after. If things go too wrong, the story derails because the perpetrators have been caught too flatfooted to be sympathetic. In this, things went a little too according to plan, and the necessary alterations needed to respond to the minor problems were mostly taken care of by happenstance and the dedication to the original plan rather than any special ability or effort made on the part of the crooks.

Anyway, let's start on the next Stark book. It's The Dame, which is a great noir title, and also, according to the jacket, Stark's "first Cock Robin thriller featuring Alan Grofield," the actor from the Parker book. Seriously, Cock Robin. Oh, British folk culture. What crimes you must answer for.

6:04 pm. p35. Still in the set-up stages; the woman who was attempting to hire Grofield as body guard has been killed in her bedroom--with Grofield serving as number one suspect. I'm not sure about Grofield as a main character; he has more personality than Parker, yes, but so does the squirrel that just passed by the window outside. It's the actor shtick I'm uneasy with; as second in command, it makes him an interesting wink at the genre, but as lead man, it's a little too much metacommentary for my tastes. Plus, my evaluation of his competence is entirely jaded from the middling to low opinion Parker had of him in "The Score"--which means that Stark was certainly doing his job there.

11:07 pm. Just got back from a Thanksgiving feast. That was good stuff, man. I could eat mashed potatoes all day. They're so good, with the runny bit, and the soft bit, and a bit of pepper, and... right, the book thing. ...let's go back to that.

12:00 am. Oh my stars, I just completed Dead Rising 2. It was a big, super-annoying fight, but I finally, finally did it! In your face, horribly stereotyped African American evil end boss! Oh, right, the book. Well, the plot has turned into a typical detective story, with a twist: Grofield is the number one suspect, so it's less about finding who killed "The Dame" and more about blaming someone else for it. And it's very obviously a fish out of water type story, as Grofield himself makes clear: "here he was in the middle of somebody else's story. To take a simile from his second profession, he had been miscast. Not only that, he'd been thrust onstage without knowing his lines." Some how, it's better now that he actually came out and said it. (Yeah, I know that contradicts what I said earlier. To paraphrase Whitman, Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, for I am fan, and thus have prerogative to be fickle. It's also clear what Grofield affords the story that Parker couldn't; Parker would never be in this situation, Parker wouldn't be using either pop culture or high literature to talk his way out the situation, and he wouldn't be analysing people either, because he really doesn't care.

1:04 am. P101 I gotta admit, the video game is taking more attention than the book at this particular moment. All right, what struck me the most at this point is how all the characters are inscribing their own values onto the dead woman's body--and how each inscription, save the African businessman--is about her as sex object. Even the other two women are accused of murdering her purely out of jealousy for stealing their own significant others. What happens to the standard noir mystery when the femme fatale dies in the first chapter? (And yes, that's overstating, as it is neither first chapter nor the only female fatale, but work with me.)

2:02 am. P121. Not much changing, plot-wise. Grofield's getting close to one of the female suspects, so it probably means she did it. Bonus: I just watched the most recent Venture Bros episode, and they've got Nathan Fillion playing a Spider-Man knock-off, the Brown Widow. Great stuff.

Oh, and done for the night. And 350 pages left for the final day.

Later Days.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Marathon Man, Day 2

5:00 pm. Well, that... that took care of the rut, I guess. Now let's never speak of last night again.

But back to the books. Even last night, to be honest, I was finding it kind of difficult--it's a lot easier to write up a cogent summary after the fact than find something interesting to say on the fly. But I'll keep plugging--let's try an update every hour or so.

5:58 pm. My first dedicated hour of reading. The book's a lot shorter than I gauged it, with pretty large font--I'm on page 104 now, and I can't imagine not finishing it tonight. Anyway, we've got some answers to those earlier questions. A boltzmon is this weird physics thing. Essentially, it's a theoretical particle, what's left over after a black hole collapses, and contains all the information of the objects the hole sucked into itself. Sort of like the ultimate black box. You can see how the concept would have sci-fi potential.

In the book, Sleator's twist is that the boltzmon is sentient, and kind of an amoral jerk. It serves as a combination of Virgil and a genie for the narrator; it leads him through the computer-world Aeortia that he created, allegedly to take him to the Time Temples, where he has been told he must go or die. It will also, presumably, deal with the real issue of the book, the narrator's sibling rivalry with his sister, Lulu. Like other Sleator stuff I've read, the tone is slightly off; Sleator's good with big ideas and character sketches, but the execution--particularly the narrator's dialogue--falls a little short.

6:49 pm. Just about finished. There's a scene in the Temples of Time where the characters are confronted with images from their past and future selves. The narrator doesn't have any future selves, because of the aforementioned death, but as he and the other characters vow to live differently, the images change. It's a nice effect--very dramatic. I think the scene would play well visually, on a movie or TV show, provided there's no trouble in aging/deaging the actors. It would be interesting to see it go the other direction: someone makes a choice, and all of his or her future disappears.

8:53 pm. Took a break to watch Prince of Persia. The argument that video games can't be studied in the same way as movies is bolstered somewhat by the fact that all video game-based movies are so terribly, terribly bad.

9:35 pm. All right, I'll admit it: I misjudged my selection of Sleator books. I know him as a YA sci-fi writer, but these two are clearly geared towards a younger audience, boltzmon or no boltzmon. The stories are rather simplistic and there are a few glaring holes in logic; he's not quite dumbing it down for his demographic, but they're both a little less intellectually interesting than I'd hoped for. I've started, read, and finished not just the first book, but the second as well: Rewind. It's a Groundhog Day-esque plot: it starts with the main character getting hit by a car, and killed--which is a pretty attention-grabbing way to start a book, I'll admit. And like Groundhog Day, there's no real explanation behind the force that sends him back--he's just told he can go back to an earlier point in his life and try to prevent the crash. In all, it takes him three gos, and the story has the usual turn where the main character needs to change himself to bring about the new future. In general, stories of these types can be difficult to pull off--the repeating cycle is what draws the reader's attention, but it also means that there's only one character in the story who can do any sustained development.
Sidenote: I wonder if these types of stories were around before the VCR? I heard a paper on the history of the VCR and its effects on culture at the Congress of the Humanities earlier this year; the ability to transcribe, erase, and rewind programs changed the way we look at television shows, and I wouldn't be surprised if it opened possibilities for narratives as well. It certainly opened doors for the video game--if you think about it, the concept of "saving your life" is one of those bizzarities we've become complacent about.

11:30 pm. Last post for today. I just started Monica Hughes' Invitation to the Game. It's set in 2154, and the big idea so far is that so much of the labor force has been replaced by machines that there is now a massive surplus of the unemployed masses. The book was written in 1990, when automation seemed like more of a threat. The politics of the situation seem interesting; on the one hand, automation seems to be the much cheaper option than human labor, and after a manual labor task has been assumed by machines, I don't expect people will be clamoring to take it up again twenty years down the road. (In fact, when the main character finds out she hasn't placed a career at the end of high school and will face a lifetime of unemployment and subsistence living, she still tells her friend with the family farm that she couldn't imagine doing that kind of work all her life.) But there are also some pretty large political forces--particularly in the States--that would be deadset against the "welfare state" mentality of a 90% unemployment rate. Still, we're only at page 10--and yeah, this is a pretty long ramble for page 10--so there's time to explore some of the ramifications.
Later Days.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Marathon Man

All right, let's face it: we're in a rut. I'm been posting about twice a week, with a book review and a quote of the week. Same old, same old. And frankly, you guys haven't been any better. The only discussion we've had in the last while has been that I should add more animal pictures. And I'm not going to do that, because I'm above that sort of pandering.

(But if you are looking for that sort of pandering, allow me to recommend Did you SEE that baby sloth? So cute! OMG!)

So here's a shake-up--MORE book reviews! No, really, hear me out. It's Thanksgiving Long Weekend, and I just picked out six books--three YA (okay, let's be honest, juvenile/YA) sci-fi books by William Sleator and Monica Hughes, and three Parker books by Richard Stark. Any one could be done in an afternoon, but six--therein lies a challenge. And for further challenge, I'm going to live-blog my thoughts on them as the weekend progresses. And for further further challenge, I'm going to do it starting tonight, the night my roommmates and I are throwing a house party. And for further, further---okay, that's getting old. The other hitch is that my mouse's batteries are at critical, so I'll be doing it keyboard only while those batteries recharge.

Starting off:
2:44 pm, Friday. William Sleator's Boltzmon!. First sentence: "The boltzmon arrived on the night Lulu threw her horrific slumber party."
And so it begins. Already, the questions are spiralling out of control. What's a bolzmon? Who's Lulu? What makes her slumber parties horrific? Are we talking Carrie horrific, or "why did I throw a sleepover on the night of Connie DeLaroca's party?" horrific? Return here throughout the day to find out.

8:12 pm. Drink 4: root beer and citrus-flavored vodka. And P4: sibling rivalry and a computer-based imaginary world called Arteria. Land = virtual = body.

9:02 pm. Drink 5 & 6: the same. And P8: More sibling rivalry, child bullying, Mom/Dad opposition. Sleator, as I recall, is big on the sibling rivalry issue—that your own family can be your worst enemies. It’s a usual enough themes with unruly parents, but it’s less tapped when it comes to siblings. (Counter point: see Stephen King’s Dark Tower series (the junkie’s brother, book 2 or 3) and Ender/Peter in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.)

9:15 pm. Still on Drink 6. But someone at the party pointed out that, since I was typing everything into a Word document (on account of the mouse being inaccessible), I wasn't really live blogging. So I'm alternating my batteries between the keyboard and the mouse to type this. Which is really, really difficult by Drink 6. Please appreciate my hand-eye coordination.

10:00 pm. Delivered house tour to the basement.

10:21 pm. Party goer complains that I'm blogging about the books and not the party. Spend 5 minutes downloading Sookie Stackhouse books onto another computer. THUS PROVING THE COUNTERPOINT.

11:00 pm. Drinks 7-9. You know what; we're going to stop keeping track of those.

11:21 pm. P 9: Narrator describes earliest memory of his sister. Interesting that his earliest memory is of the sister; it suggests a rivalry far larger than the point at hand. Party is discussing failed pick-up attempts. And they try to steal my book. Multitask fail.

12:14 am. Dear person of sufficient consequence to address.... please note that blogging during parties can often lead to drunk postings. Also I type remarkalby well for being a wino xo

also remarkably is spelled as it is listed in this sentence not the former, the former should not be attributed to the listed blogger. Also, the listed blogger does not approve of signing with hugs and kisses. Just FYI cyberland.
PoC is Awesome. With a capitol 'A'.

Later Days.

12:29 am. The previous post was entered at 12:23.

12:29 am. Hello world. I have nothing to blog. Why am I writing this? Where am I? Who ARE YOU?

12:31 am. P.S. According to Shrek lady, drinking is OK. As long as it leads to fun.

12:35 am. P.P.S. Correction: she actually said "HIYA!"

12:40 am. D and S, epic fight, and then epic fight led to giggles about bach. And then hilarity, oh the hilarity and the AMAZING who can stand it?

12:51 am. Original Blogger takes over. What, exactly, do you do to a blog that takes over every window, and minimizes the time stamp? And why would you move said blogger's statuette of The Watcher? So many questions we may never answer. Ahem: P12-13. It makes a nice counter argument to the movie "The Social Network": this is, essentially, the defensive case by Zuckerberg. What does it mean for a gifted sibling to be thoroughly trounced by the elder sister? Where is the line between intellectual and elder? And where the hell did those girls put my drink? (The last may not be rhetorical.)

12:55 am. There's cake on the floor.

time: unkown:
me am important. me am. alive. think. me person. of consciousness...

2:53 am. Original blogger. Ch 2. There's not a lot of difference at this at this point; just sandwich in some more of the sibling rivalry.

Also, poop balls magee. Listen, I understand that this blog is the place to go for intellectual stimulation. But look, if you're out for entertainment (of the poop joke and largely misogynistic type, you should check out



Well done, everyone. Later Days.

Friday Quotations: A Lot of Hot Air

“Secondly, Having explain’d the Nature and Essence of a Fart, I shall next enquire into the ill Consequences of suppressing it, which are almost obvious to ever one’s Experience, for in its Retrogradation it causes Cholick, Hystericks, Rumblings, Belching, Spleen, &c. but in Women of a more firm, strong Consitution, it vents itself intirely in a Talkativeness, hence we have a Reason why Women are more Talkative than Men; for as a certain Poet observes,

Words, own Wind, to be their Mother,
Whichstopt at one End, bursts out at t’other.

Hence comes the usual Saying, tell a Tale, or let a Fart; implying the necessity of vent one way or other.”
--The Benefit of Farting Explain’d: Or, the Fundament-All Cause of the Distempers incident to the FAIR-SEX, Enquired Into, Proving á Posteriori most of the Dis-ordures In-tail’d upon them, are owing to Flatulencies not reasonably vented. Written in Spanish by Don Fartinado Puff-indorst, Professor of Bumbast in the University of Crackow, and Translated into English at the Request and for the Use of the Lady Damp-fart of Her-fart-shire. By Obadiah Fizzle, Groom of the Stool to the Princess of Arsimini in Sardinia.

Thanks to the blogger at diapsalmata for bringing this lost treasure to my attention. It's actually a satirical piece by Jonathan Swift in 1722. The Eighteenth Centurists: Explain to Me Again Why Studying Video Games is Juvenile?

Later Days.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mentally Loop the Theme to the Odd Couple While You Read this One

So I went to see a doctor the other day. I'm sitting in the waiting room, and a woman with the prerequisite lab coat and clipboard comes up to me. "Person of Consequence?" she asks. I answer, and the doctor quickly does a double take. I, in response, immediately blush. You see, this is not my first trip to the doctor in recent times; I had recently become something of a hypochondriac, checking in on every hint of a flush or sniffle. "What seems to be the problem?" she asks, clearly articulating carefully to remove the tone of skepticism from her voice.

Right then and there, I nearly bolt. It seems so stupid. "I... um... I think have a really bad cold." Even to my ears, it sounds pathetic. "But I'm not feeling it right now, so I think I'll just... go..."

The doctor puts a hand to her temple and removes it, with a weary flick of the wrist. "Nonsense." For a moment, I'm not sure if she's addressing my claim of illness or my intent to depart. "You're here now, so let's be safe and run a few tests."

"A few" quickly multiplies into a myriad. The doctor escorts me from room to room, and I immerse myself in the hospital gossip. The big story seems to be that a doctor is avoiding a nurse after an awkward one night stand. I think I even catch a glimpse of the troubled couple--doctor fleeing while trying to look like he wasn't fleeing, nurse coldly aloof--during my parade of the stations. Scintillating. My primary health provider appears to be a subsidiary of Grey's Anatomy.

Meanwhile, my own case seems to be worsening. The doctor acting as shepherd gets more somber as she studies the result of each test. There are many conversations with other labcoat-frocked individuals, conducted in low tones beyond my hearing, with concerned, darting glances in my direction. It seems to take hours, most of them spent in anxious contemplation of my mortality. Finally, the doctor tells me that the tests are finished, and asks me to sit down. "It's bad," she says, bluntly, and embarks on a longstanding voyage of obscure scientific jargon. "You'll have to stay here at least a week for observation," she includes. "In fact, I'm about to go away for a few days, so it'll probably be two weeks..."

"Two weeks?" I say, incredulous. "Because YOU can't be here? I came in with a friggin' (Note: I did not say "friggin'") cold! This is ridiculous! It's..." I trail off, suspicion dawning. "I'm perfectly fine, aren't I? You're just messing with me for wasting your time."

And that moment, the doctor, the doctors standing nearby, the nurses, and the patients all burst into laughter. Then a fellow grad student walks in, and tells me he can't find his class. And my mother follows close behind, telling us we're both going to be late.

And then I wake up.

Yeah, so there was no doctor, no repeated trips to the hospital. I'm in perfect health, relatively speaking. A story whose moral was apparently that I shouldn't waste people's time has culminated in a rather large wasting of yours. But here's what I found interesting: I've accumulated so many hours of television watching over my lifespan that I now appear to be dreaming in stock sitcom plots. It even had a sexy B plot.

Actually, I might be on to something here. I'm pretty sure this was how Larry David came up with the last season of Seinfeld.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Friday Quotations: Loudmouths

"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."
— George Eliot