Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Books I Read: September - October 2014

I Shall Wear Midnight (Tiffany Aching #4) by Terry Pratchett

The last of the Tiffany Aching books and an excellent ending to the series. Besides the first, I think this might be my favorite book of the four. Tiffany has finished her "apprenticeship" and is now the resident witch of her hometown. This means she's taking care of the community the way true witches do -- helping the sick who have no one to take care of them, easing the elderly to the next stage of life, fixing domestic disputes so no one knows she's really doing it. She's confronting anti-witches and land-grabbers and old fundamentalist ladies who simply don't agree with what she does.

We see a grown up Tiffany here, making and dealing with being an adult. She no longer has the wisdom and guidance of her fellow witches, so her mistakes are a result of a lack of experience (and a sharp tongue). But she does have the wee free men in her corner. You see her finally deal with some of the relationships that other books have let linger.

This book also borrows more from Pratchett's existing universe, as Tiffany travels to Ankh-Morpork.  This chunk in the middle seems to be catering to Discworld die-hards. It harms a little of the overall narrative, but the rest of the story makes up for it.

Unlike the last two, this one doesn't have a big bad or a problematic witch teacher. You get to see Tiffany being Tiffany, rough and gruff, practical but still scared. All in all, it's a very satisfying conclusion, closer to the magic of the first book.

Lock-In by John Scalzi

Lock-In is Scalzi's most serious science fiction novel yet, and one you've got to pay attention to. It's got a lot of heady issues. Not to say his other books, like Old Man's War, don't bring up existential puzzles. But they usually make up for it with whiz bang sci-fi gizmos or cynical humor. This one, no. It's essentially a police procedural that involves semi-artificial beings.

At its core, this is a robot story, but without artificial intelligence. A disease has rendered a significant portion of the populace catatonic, but new technology allows their brains to venture out in walking automatons. The Hadens (Haden's Syndrome is the name of the disease, and becomes the identifier of people with it) have created their own culture, like the deaf and handicapped community.  But the government funding that kept them provided for is about to be rescinded. That means a lot of opportunities for private companies, civil rights leaders, and millions of people who had been getting a free lunch wondering what's going to happen to them. This is all narrated to the reader through Chris, a Haden who's new on the FBI force.

It does what a good novel should do, not make answers but bring up questions, much like Gaiman's novels. But unlike Gaiman's novels, this one reaches a satisfying, concrete solution. I think the murder mystery was definitely the way to go. It makes a lot of the head-wrapping around the Haden culture (like people who hitch a ride in other people's bodies) easier to understand and a plot that keeps moving forward.

It's not my favorite Scalzi of all time, but it's pretty good. The world-building is at an intermediate level, and the characters suffer from his famous "blank slates, no development, no sympathy" that his other books have. But the fast and intriguing plot will keep you wondering what happens next.

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

This book is not for me. I was on board for the first few pages, but I have a hard time getting into story where the main conflict is "do I choose this boy or that boy". I just can't sympathize with any character caught up in a dilemma of riches. Maybe this a thing girls go through, maybe it's a problem they like to read about. But it makes me want to smack them all in the face. Especially in this case, when the drama isn't even that good.

It has been three months since Lennie's sister died. Lennie always lived her life gladly in the shadow of her more exuberant sister, including vicarious romance with Toby, her sister's boyfriend. Now she's insecure about her feelings for Toby and the new hippie kid who just moved in and has "hella good hair" so he wants him to come on over and shake, shake, shake.

The sister thing reminded me a little bit of Frozen, but that's the only part that appealed to me. Like others of its genre, the plot is driven forward by misunderstandings, refusals to listen, misinterpretations, and other petty obstacles that could be solved with thirty seconds of talking.

The style is full of trite teenspeak and quotations way beyond their years (Lennie constantly reads Wuthering Heights -- isn't that about a mentally abusive man who marries his beau's daughter? -- but oh precious she is that she reads something so adult). At one point, it's revealed that the sister was pregnant at the time of her death, but no one raises a hand about how they, as teenagers, expected to raise it, earn money, get a house. Everyone was too entranced by the tragic baby romance.

This is for people who un-ironically enjoy the romances you see in Hannah Montana and The Bachelor. There are essentially no stakes, and the characters are too hippie-dippie to be realistic.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart is a book about what happens when superheroes stop being polite and start getting real. Essentially they all become supervillains, taking over cities and ruling with an iron a steel fist. In fact, the entire city's been turned into steel and plunged into darkness.

This is the story of David, a boy with a mission against the super who killed his father. He joins with La Resistance, eager to show his skills and the encyclopedia of knowledge he's been gathering all his life in preparation for revenge.

This book has a lot of action, and I've never been a fan of action scenes in novels. The mediums just don't translate. You don't see novelizations of The Fast and the Furious (and if there are, don't tell me, I don't want to know). But the strengths of the book are the straightforward style and the concrete characters. Each member of La Resistance has a personality and a look (for some reason they remind me of Team Fortress 2 characters). The POV from David's perspective helps keep the story grounded. For instance, instead of epic battles you lose track of, you see David's role in it all.

My two disappointments were that it seems overly oriented to a male audience (trope of female character that exists to be girl who doesn't like him at first but once he proves himself changes her tune). Lots of cars and guns and superheroes and action scenes. The other is that the reason people with powers become evil is intrinsically linked to their powers, not simply a result of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

But the energy and overall fun factor of the concept are going to keep me reading the rest of the series.

Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything by E. Lockhart

Doesn't the title sound like a Lifetime movie?

It's short, but doesn't have very much plot. It's supposed to be about a girl who Franz Kafka's into a fly, so she can know what boys are really like, what they talk about, what goes on when girls aren't there turning them into monkey-idiots. The thing is, it doesn't seem like her big problem is understanding boys, but getting people to understand her. She goes to an arts high school where her teacher frowns on her refusal to branch from a comic book style. Her parents spring a divorce on her, then her mom leaves her daughter behind while she goes on a week-long cruise (this makes it convenient to be a fly for a week). She's not boy-crazy, like I'd expect out of a plot like this.

It's better than Cycler insofar as learning about the gendered Other. But like Cycler, it doesn't go as far with the idea as it could, and uses too much melodrama. The titular fly on the wall literally doesn't leave the locker room, and there is a lot more to teen males than what happens there. It's like studying polar bear behavior only in the zoo. There's a significant portion of the text dedicated to discovering boys' penises, which she constantly calls gherkins. Is this a northeastern thing?  I've NEVER heard anyone use the word gherkin, least of all as much as she does.

But it's easy and short. I think you'll get something out of it, as long as you're not looking for much.

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (unfinished)

I talked some about this book already. It's just not a story for me. It's for complex people who like complex stories. Critical acclaim? Award winner? Maybe, but I just couldn't stand it. It's for people who like Dune, Ringworld, and other "essential science fiction". If you can appreciate that, fine. But every Charles Stross I've tried to read has left me bored. I guess this isn't my place.

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci

Nothing special at all. And in fact, kinda boring. It's just a series of things that happened, and the title makes it sound more interesting than it is. She's not boy proof, she's just an anti-social asshole. She's Miss Independent until some cute guy transfers schools. Of course. But this takes place in Hollywood, so Miss Independent has the added weirdness of mimicking a girl from a Matrix pastiche, so much so that she dresses like her and wants to be called by that character's name (which is "Egg"). And this character is described as looking kinda like Ilia from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.


She's a bitch for no reason, and combine this with the weirdness of living with a mother who's an old sci-fi starlet and a dad who works in special f/x makeup. I learned more about growing up in Tinseltown than anything else. That includes the character and her motivations.

And her change comes unprovoked. It feels like "The Girl Who Became a Beatle" -- a forced idea that has nothing to do with the title concept. At least "The Sky is Everywhere" had style. This just has an unlikeable character being unlikeable. I would have rather heard the story of a likable girl with those kind of parents doing a Hollywood movie thing (kinda like my opinion of Landline needing more TV writing).

The Night Sessions by Ken McLeod (unfinished)

Also mentioned in my article with Saturn's Children. I heard it had an interesting take on robots, but it never got to the robots. It was about a very thick built world around politics and religion, two topics I cannot stand to read about. I'm just not interested in material like archaic religion or the U.K. or the murder of a bishop when Christianity has become a niche religion (I assume.  I really didn't understand much of this book).

It just wasn't entertaining for me. It was more work than it was fun. It had no characters. The big ideas were the characters (which I find to be a trapping of science fiction that keeps it from being regarded as seriously as literary fiction). There are just other books I'd rather read.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What Happened to the Ghosts at the End of Ghostbusters?

Soooooo... what happens at the end of Ghostbusters?

I mean, yeah, they defeat Gozer, cross the streams, save the world, and everyone gets diabetes from the marshmallow covering the city.  Sooo... then what?  We know what happens to the characters from Ghostbusters 2 -- the city sues them into bankruptcy and they all go their own separate ways.  But that doesn't tell us what happened to the ghosts.

As far as I can tell, there is no link between Gozer and all the ghosts appearing in the city.  Slimer's not an agent sent by The Traveler.  Zeddmore makes a mention to Ray that the proliferation of ghosts might signal the "end times", but that's just lampshade hanging.  Correlation does not equal causation. I can't tell if Gozer was an effect of the ghosts appearing or the cause.

The instantiator of the third act is when the demon dog cracks itself out of the statue.  As far as I can tell, there's nothing to cause that.  No mass of ecto-energy or anything.  No catalyst, no trigger.  And after that, they create the keymaster and gatekeeper, and that lets Gozer the Gozerian into our dimension and bless us with a plentiful crop of marshmallows.

Is that the driving inciden for "The Real Ghostbusters?"  That now they have to go back and catch all the ghosts that were let loose?  Maybe there was some kind of spirit world doorway going on, but I didn't see it.  Someone, feel free to enlighten me.  

Not that I'm complaining.  I mean, I can't not acknowledge Ghostbusters for the awesomeness that it is.  For some reason, this suddenly came upon me and bothered me.  Maybe because of GB in the news, maybe because I'm learning the mechanics of storytelling.  But I'm not sure how the first act connects to the third.  The protagonist and antagonist really have nothing to do with each other.  This is a concept that translates better to a TV show (and guess what, it did!)  

Maybe instead of a reboot, we should be looking toward a TV show series, like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  The magic in Ghostbusters is not in the plot, but in the likable cast.  Like Friends, Seinfeld, Cheers, Frasier, the true magic in a show is not the obstacles they face, but whether or not you want to spend time with the people for half an hour every week.  

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Guilt Over Unfinished Books

I stopped reading two books in the past few weeks.  Both were well-liked, critical successes, science fiction award winners.  But they just didn't appeal to me.  One was Saturn's Children.  It's supposed to be about a gynoid sexbot.  It's got a sexy android on the cover.  But she never has sex -- all the humans are dead.  So she's trying to get by in a roboconomy spread across the solar system.  It's full of true science with high speed/time dilation and light side/dark side maglev mega-cities.  Very descriptive on the environment, but not so much on the people (especially with no humans).

So I end up feeling no attachment to the character.  It's like a book with Asperger's Syndrome -- no emotion.  Excitement, yes.  But I realized that I just don't care if anyone lives or dies, so I stopped reading (at about 20%).  It just wasn't fun anymore.

The Night Sessions was much the same way.  So much back story, and about topics I'm just not interested in -- religious fundamentalism, UK politics, crime investigation.

Both these books were recommended for the ways in which they used robots (future novel material).  But I never really wrapped my head around it.  They always seemed like humans with robot features. Like humans with cybernetic implants, like self-growing hair.

I hate when I decide not to finish a book.  Especially one with lots of awards and critical acclaim.  I feel like a dummy.  I'm not able to appreciate the fine literature here.  They're not bad books, they're just not for me.  I'm just not interested in what happens next.  It's like all those Katharine Porter and William Faulkner novels they make you read in Post-Modern American Literature class in college.  They aren't classic "everyone-must-read" books like Stranger in a Strange Land, so I don't feel too bad.  But I feel like I couldn't give the author even one book's worth of attention.

Am I getting anything out of them?  Yeah, sort of.  But I also feel like, at twenty percent, I've gotten everything out of it that I could.  The rest is just filler.  Meanwhile, I get more pleasure of YA books like Fly on the Wall or Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.  Those books entertain me, but I feel like they're "not-as-smart"?  Like they're the pizza of the book world.  And you can make fine pizza, like Lock-In.  But unless you partake of fine dining establishments like The Night Sessions, people call your palate into question.  And your ability to make food yourself.

So if I only read books that entertain me, does that mean I'm destined to be a bad writer?  Someone once said to me that "being a writer means you are doing homework all the time".  That scared me, but one person's advice is not the sum total of all writing.  I also don't give it much credence because I just don't want to believe it.  I've done some research for some books, like mermaid biology, but I'd hardly call that homework.  And no one's keeping score.  No one's giving me an F for not doing my homework.

I guess the real proof will be in the pudding.  My stories will demonstrate the effort that's put in.  If I make good enough stories, maybe I won't need to do so much homework.  I just feel like I have other books I'd rather read than ones that would "make me a better person".  Life is too short to read books you don't really want to.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Why Am I So Damn Fascinated By Five Nights at Freddy's?

I think it got popular because of the Let's Plays. It's always fun to watch people freak out. Bill Cosby said when a person is scared, that's the only time they're really being themself. I've been watching Let's Play's, reading the entire FN@F wiki, playing the memes.

Yet I don't own the game, and don't plan to. It's all jumpscares. I hate jumpscares for two reasons. They're cheap and meaningless ways to control the audience. And I hate the way jumpscares make me feel, like a weak little kitten, manipulated, afraid of everything. Just like elementary school. Yes, I have a double standard. Deal with it.*

So why am I so damn fascinated with it? Maybe because it's Halloween. But let's take a look at why it appeals, at least, to me.

Robots - If you've read some of my book reviews, you'll see that I complain a lot about how the robots act too human. Not here. They are nice and robotty. Full of gears, wires, crossbars. This is great because they are in that space where the uncanny valley peaks its highest and falls to its lowest. In fact, I've seen graphs that show "teddy bear" at the top and "zombie" at the valley.

Their faces move separate from their eyes, if they have eyes... or faces. Warped or missing body parts (like Foxy). Limb joints that expose the endoskeleton. They move faster than they should, but you never see them doing so. If you read the story, you see that they refer to Bonnie as a "he".  These things are just so awfully off you can't look away. Even their sounds are uncanny -- slowed down girl laughing or raptor-like screeching that cuts out. I think Chica scares me the most, because she's got that second set of teeth in her mouth.

Fear and Dread - FN@F's encompasses all ways to scare someone -- the gross-out, the startle, the sense of dread. You have basically no control, no agency in this game. You're a helpless babe with no arms or legs. All you can do is watch on cameras and maybe shut the door (a mechanic which comes with cost).

In all horror movies, it's not the jump scare that gets you, it's the part before that. The dread that something is going to happen, you don't know what, but you can't do a damn thing about it. The same held true for Resident Evil. The scary part is not that you're in a mansion with zombies. It's that there are more of them than you have bullets, and you don't know where you can get more.

Also, claustrophobia. You can't leave the room. The perspectives you are given are grainy, colorless, and fixed. It's got key elements that are always winners -- the creepy doll, the painting that follows you with its eyes, unbearable silence, fear of mental illness (with the hallucinations), and various kinds of jump scares.

A Unique Setting - As far as I know, there's never been a horror story set at a Showbiz Pizza. There've been similar scenarios, like a circus, a funhouse, that are tangential. It's the new Friday the 13th. Before we had young innocent summer camp, young innocent babysitting, young innocent slumber parties. Now we've got young innocent pizza-oriented family entertainment centers.  But Freddy Fazbear's Pizza hits on that unique niche of nostalgia that only eighties kids like me can understand and appreciate. Plus it's pretty universal to all of us who are now thirty-year-old gamers.

A Thin Backstory - Any narrative is presented though a mysterious "phone guy" to give you your tutorial. I still don't get how it works -- did he pre-record all five in a row? Does he work the 6 - midnight shift right before you enter? If so, don't you pass each other on the way in? How did the fifth night get recorded? Are these on an answering machine? A voice mail? If so, why does it ring? Is he in a different room? Where is the phone?

Besides all that, there are the purposeful "hints" of something wrong, just enough to give a sense of "offness". The "Bite of '87" that phone guy mentions never gets further explanation. There are posted articles about the the animatronics' smell of decaying flesh and pus, the serial killer who posed as Freddy Fazbear, and the five children who were never found. You are never given any more than suggestions that they exist and may be the cause of this "haunting".

And here's Phone Guy to tell you it's all fine, nothing to worry about, it's all in your head. Yeah, you might get horribly mangled, but if you play dead, that might stave off the killer robots in this Chuck E. Cheese.

That means it's great fun to interpret all the missing elements, analyse and add your own story. Trade theories and suggest alternatives. It's what smart people on the Internet do.  People have gotten so desperate they're making the cupcake on the desk into a character.

Of course, it's all tongue-in-cheek. No food establishment could exist with such things and still be in business. No contract that says "we have ninety days until we need to report you missing" could legally exist. There's no rules sign that says "no pooping on the floor". These robots have the ability to be "free-roaming" in 198X, but we still don't have a robot that can climb stairs.

So take that for what it's worth -- the campiness of a eighties horror Blockbuster Rental. It's become an instant, quick-play classic. Does that mean it's bright flame that will burn quickly. I'm afraid it might be -- there's not much to the game besides atmosphere and jumpscares. I think more of the innovating setting and aesthetic than the gameplay itself. But time will tell.

*Remember those Flash thingies that masqueraded as images, that you had to find the differences or stare for a while and something would happen, then the Exorcist would pop up and scream? Fucking hated those.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Does Superman Poop? (NSFW)

So the other day I was driving home from work and thinking about stuff.  For some reason that age old problem came to mind - could Superman have sex.

The going theory is that Superman, on Earth, could only have sex with another Kryptonian.  If he had sex with an Earth woman, say Lois Lane, he would ejaculate so hard that it would blow her brains out (see image).  This is known as the "man of steel, woman of kleenex" problem.  (And this is besides the issue of being pregnant with a super-baby that could kick its way out of your uterus).

Some people think that it's not an issue, because Superman can control his powers.  That's why he doesn't crush a doorknob every time he walks through a door.  He can stop his heart on command (this was in an early comic book, but it's still canon).  On the other hand, the human body is full of involuntary responses.  Especially in the heat of passion, can Superman control it that much?  Human men can't.

That got me thinking about his other involuntary responses, like peeing.  Surely Superman doesn't destroy every toilet he goes in.  Otherwise it would be like a high-powered pressure washer.  Pooping isn't really a pressure thing, so I don't think that would be an issue.  But does Superman even need to poop?

He does eat, so it's got to go somewhere.  He can stop his heart, so maybe he can stop his metabolism?  Or maybe he has super-metabolism, where he uses all parts of the food.  His super-power comes from the yellow sun, so he doesn't need it to live, I don't think.  I don't think you can starve Superman to death.  (I wonder if Lex Luthor's tried that yet, instead of stupid green kryptonite plan #4,053).

What if it was, like, super-poop?  Does poop retain properties of its digester?  Maybe it becomes super-dense dark matter like Nibbler's poop.  So if he dropped a deuce, it could fall through all the floors of the Daily Planet.  Could you throw the poop at someone and kill them?  If you got near the poop, would you gain super powers?  Like Superman gets weaker because of green kryptonite.  I'm going to leave it at "being near poop" because I don't like where this line of questioning is heading.

If it's like normal poop, could you use it to fertilize your garden and grow super corn (a la Spaced Invaders?)  Superman could be wasting a valuable natural resource.  Forget saving us from tornadoes and aliens.  How about a little contribution to our agricultural output?  It works for guano.  On the other hand, maybe that's how Ma and Pa Kent were able to keep their tiny little farm alive.  I guess it wasn't because they had a super-son for child labor to tow the plow.

And if it's the case for Superman, think about all the other superheroes -- the Martian Manhunter's green poop, Wonder Woman's god-given poop, Venom's symbiotic poop, Spider-man's sticky poop, and the Incredible Hulk's...

I've taken this too far, haven't I?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Don't Worry About Anita Sarkeesian or GamerGate

Anita Sarkeesian's latest video and GamerGate have caused quite a stir.  To me it sounds like a lot of sound and fury over nothing.  The Internet is more worried about "ethics in games journalism" while ISIS, ebola, and elections are going on in the real word.  More celebrities taking the time to make a comment on its presence (like Tim Schafer and Joss Whedon and John Scalzi and Stephen Baldwin) and people backlashing "how could you"s back.

Here's the thing: I don't get what people are afraid of.  Are games going to change?  Get deregulated?  Censored?  Nerfed?  The answer is no.

Don't worry, guys.  All the God of Wars, Saints Rows, Watch Dogses, they're not going anywhere.  They make money.  Money rules the world.  If there are more "female" games, fine.  That doesn't take away from the big sellers.  No one's going to stop making mega-million disasters like Destiny because someone made Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  Games like Destiny are "safe" because all their gameplay elements are things that people are used to -- squad-based shooters, Capture the Flag-type missions, upgradable implements, and skill trees.  Nothing new, nothing challenging.

Companies care about market trends, demographics, and what people buy.  As long as people keep buying Gears of War and Call of Duty, nothing anyone does is going to affect anything.  Nothing what 4Chan says, not all the death threats, not all the Twitter wars.  No one's going to take away anything from you.  Anita Sarkeesian could make a hundred videos and they could all be true.  True enough to hurt.  You'll still have a new Hitman game to play, gun-toting nuns and all.  Nothing anyone says is going to make a difference...

For now.

But some boy or girl, eight or nine, maybe twelve to fourteen, is watching these videos.  And they're recognizing the trends & tropes in what's on the market today, rejecting them ball-in-hand.  They didn't grow up with princesses in other castles, so they can see when the thing that's wrong is wrong.  They have no comforting history to reinforce it.

And that boy or girl is going to grow up and make games.  Better games, fantastic games, games that shift the paradigm.  They're going to become a video game producer -- the next Shigeru Miyamoto or Sid Meier.  And you won't even notice because it'll be thirty years from now, and you'll be more concerned with your prostate than the new Battlefield.

They're just games.  They're not worth killing for.