Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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Novel * Anita Loos * I Ain’t Sayin’ She’s a Gold Digger * 1925

Synopsis

Modernism has a deserved reputation for being rather bleak. Most works of the era were either directly or indirectly about the first great apocalyptic war of the Twentieth Century, so it’s not like they were just a bunch of morose emo kids wearing flapper clothes and listening to jazz for no reason. That said, there is a tendency to overlook the streak of humor that many Modernists had. Yeah sure, most of the time it was a dry, understated humor, but even in the most dour novels there are scenes which are meant to be funny. These folks understood humor. Well, except T.S. Eliot. That joyless motherfucker never had a laugh in his life. But we’re not here to talk about my boy Eliot today. Instead, let’s talk about his total polar opposite, Ms. Anita Loos and her brilliant, gleeful novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

It seems to me that the cultural touchstone of this story has shifted from the author over to Marilyn Monroe and the 1953 musical adaptation of this book. I’m not here to diss that movie, I enjoyed it. Still, it’s a bit of a shame that it overshadows the novel, because the book is a ridiculous amount of fun. Loos deserves all the credit in the world, too. If you’re not familiar with her, that’s okay. I mean, I’m going to travel back in time a hundred years to marry her and have 100 of her babies, but here’s a brief sketch. Loos was born in California at the end of the 19th century. At the forefront of the nascent Hollywood scene, she was a force of nature when it came to script writing. Seriously, check out these film credits. Loos wrote full-tilt for decades, and moved between movies and plays and novels. This… probably wasn’t great for her overall health and happiness, but since when do artists lead happy lives? It seems she did all this at the behest of a man who didn’t appreciate her. When I go back in time I will terminate him. Anyway, she was an impressive woman, and this novel was probably her greatest achievement.

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The illustrations by Ralph Barton are a part of why the book is such whimsical fun. I love the half-deranged look of vacant concentration.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a novel that offers far more depth than it appears. The novel, which is presented as the diary of a young woman named Lorelei Lee, is a breezy, humorous story. It’s a straight up comedy, and it works. On the surface level, this is a funny story about an ambitious socialite out to get hers. Lorelei is from Little Rock, Arkansas and is not exactly from a distinguished family. However, she’s an attractive young flapper, and has a particular talent for seducing dumb rich guys. The book is written entirely from her point of view, and as the book goes along you eventually come to understand Lorelei’s ruthless intelligence. Don’t let the constant misspellings and naïve statements about culture throw you off. Lorelei is super smart, and all she wants is that cash money. She stackin’ her paper her wallet look like a Bible.

Lorelei’s diary, which she starts keeping because one gentleman or another suggested to her that “brains are really everything,” covers a relatively brief period of time, maybe three months. In this time, we follow Lorelei and her bestie Dorothy as they take a jaunt over to Europe (on another gentleman’s dime – don’t get hung up on the dudes, they’re interchangeable) for a few weeks before they return to New York. Most of the “action” consists of Lorelei scamming various men for cash and diamonds. For all appearances, Lorelei is vapid and shallow. Yet watching her effortlessly switch gears to interact with all sorts of different people, and always to her advantage, is breathtaking. Lorelei has a very clear sense of herself and her individuality, which she can leverage against others in order to project what they want to see in her. Most of the time it’s an impressionable, attractive young woman. Meanwhile her buddy, Dorothy, is there as a counterpoint. She’s crass and doesn’t have Lorelei’s killer instinct. That said, it’s nice having her around, cracking wise all the time.

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There’s a lot of horny rich dudes in the world.

Discussion

American Modernism differs from British Modernism in lots of ways, but probably the easiest way to go about it is this: the Americans were concerned with money while the Brits were concerned with society. Everyone in the States was new money. There is no ancient aristocracy here, so the apocalyptic war (which of course didn’t really touch us and was therefore not a physical apocalypse) didn’t have the same effect on American society. There was no social order to topple. Instead, after the war America rose up. This was not our ultimate rise to international superpower, but it was close. Turns out it was a bubble economy which lead to the desolation of the Great Depression, but Loos and Fitzgerald didn’t know that when they were writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Great Gatsby. All they were seeing at the time was a blizzard of money, screaming new technology, and endless opportunity.

It’s a mistake to assume that there weren’t any social changes taking place in the United States, of course. There was a universal loosening of rigid morality across the West after the war which happened for a lot of reasons. The apocalyptic nature of the war was part of this, of course, but the speed in which technology was advancing was also instrumental in the social movement which continues unabated even now. Young, attractive single women having any kind of autonomy was a new thing when this book was written. Women were only just being allowed to vote, to work, to speak without being spoken to. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an understated example of how some women navigated this new world. Lorelei is tired of being played, therefore she becomes a player. Make no mistake, Lorelei fucks. Her sexuality is her own, and she weaponizes it in order to achieve her own ends. That her ends are entirely materialistic are almost beside the point.

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Lorelei’s scam to get this diamond tiara is a straight up robbery. Lorelei is gangsta.

When Lorelei is in Europe, she’s confronted with a Europe trying to rebuild after a catastrophic war in the midst of a massive social upheaval. She could give a shit about any of that. She’s out to socialize, because that’s her business. If she’s not making money, she’s wasting time. Her conflict in Europe is that these social transactions aren’t as straightforward as in America. Here’s an example and the origins of a famous line:

“So the French veecount is going to call up in the morning but I am not going to see him again. Because French gentlemen are really quite deceeving. I mean that they take you to quite cute places and they make you feel quite good about yourself and you really seem to have a delightful time but when you get home and come to think it all over, all you have got is a fan that only cost 20 francs and a doll that they gave you away for nothing in a restaurant. I mean a girl has to look out in Paris, or she would have such a good time in Paris that she would not get anywhere. So I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.”

Lorelei’s not out here to have a good time. There’s a clear transaction when Lorelei goes out with her American gentlemen. In public, she’s there to be seen. She’s a bubbly, pleasant, lovely young woman. In private, as mentioned above, she fucks. In return, the American gentleman provides comfort and cash. If that sounds gross, it really isn’t. Lorelei spends zero time worrying about her morality, so you shouldn’t either. She’s doing what she wants, and what she wants is fuckin’ dead presidents. Having a good time is incidental, and entirely beside the point. Her friend Dorothy, who Lorelei often holds in affectionate contempt, provides the counterpoint. To Dorothy, life is a party. She doesn’t discriminate between gentlemen, and as long as they can afford a few rounds at the bar, Dorothy is down to party. To Lorelei, this is a waste of time and effort. However, the larger point is that both young women are free to pursue their desires. Lorelei Lee is up there in the pantheon of Modern Women, yet it’s clear that she’s different than the Lady Brett type. No, she’s using the loosening of social morality to further her own station. Instead of reveling in her burgeoning freedom, she’s going to work. That diamond tiara isn’t going to buy itself, after all.

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Dishonored 2

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Game * Arkane Studios SA * Magic Victorian Dystopia * 2016

Synopsis

It took me a while to get around to this game, which is surprising only because I enjoyed the first one so much. Part of the problem is, of course, writing this blog. I intended to go back to the first game in order to write about it, but it turns out my aversion to replaying games is as strong as ever. I don’t know why that is, considering I re-read books all the time. But when I booted up the first Dishonored I got a mission in and went, “eh, I remember all this” and put it down. In retrospect I should have played through it the opposite of how I went about it the first time and just murdered every motherfucker in the game. Instead I moved on. Anyway, here we are with the sequel, which is… fine. I recall the first game garnishing mixed impressions, with most people seeming to enjoy it with reservations. I liked it all the way. I loved the world especially, but I also like games which encourage me to poke along and not necessarily murder everyone I see.

Dishonored 2 doesn’t fiddle too much with the formula of the first game. It takes place about fifteen years after the events of the first game. In case you forgot (or just didn’t play it), that first game put you in the role of a shadowy assassin named Corvo. In the beginning of that game, the Empress gets shived in her own gazebo, and you spend the rest of the game sneaking through the magical, steam-punky, Victorian dystopia of Dunwall in an effort to avenge her death and protect her (and Corvo’s) daughter, and set things back to rights. Fifteen years later, Corvo’s daughter Emily succeeds her mother to the throne, and she’s basically been a child/adolescent ruler for that entire time. And she kind of sucks at it. This game begins with a royal procession welcoming a powerful Duke to the capital. This dude rolls in with a bunch of sick robots and a lady named Delilah, who promptly uses her weird dark magic to instigate a coup. She claims to be Emily’s aunt, and the rightful heir to the throne. At this point you can choose your protagonist and play as either Emily or Corvo. I chose Emily because of course I did.

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Given the option, always play as the lady.

The overall structure of Dishonored 2 is pretty much the same as the first game, which is great if you enjoyed the stealth action of the first game and is probably not for you if you didn’t. The chaos mechanic is the same as well. Essentially, the more people you kill the more chaotic the world becomes, and the darker the ending. Because I am an insufferable goody-goody, I did my best not to kill anyone. This, of course, means that the dope foldable sword I carry around everywhere is basically useless. Instead I spent the entire game lurking around and choking dudes out. Honestly, it gets a little tiresome. There’s fun to be had playing this way – many of the encounters turn into puzzles with a good deal of trial-and-error – but after a while you come up with tactics that work, and the game doesn’t do much to challenge you to mix it up. As you progress, you open up magic powers, which draws upon “The Void” and “The Outsider,” which are the supernatural element of the game’s world and story. These are fun, even if they’re not terribly imaginative. I dunno. It’s fine.

The more I think about my time with this game, the more I realized that it disappointed me. I’m forced to wonder if I’m losing interest in the “immersive sim” as a genre, since I played Prey not too long ago and came away with the same feeling of “eh, that was fine.” Compared to my experience with the first Dishonored, the world in particular felt a little more sterile than the first go-round, and I just can’t be sure why that is. I love everything about the set-up here. The entire aesthetic is gloomy, 19th century London, but with magic. It’s super weird and cool that the entire society runs on whale oil, which is a fascinating twist on how cheap, easy to exploit energy changes civilization. Dishonored 2 changes location from Dunwall to a city called Karnaca, and while it’s an extension of the world we already know, for some reason it just falls flat. Further, the new characters we meet just aren’t particularly engaging. Okay, I need to figure out why I’m lukewarm on this game. Spoilers ahoy.

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The set design of the game is great, and I still really enjoy the aesthetic. However, the interiors and moment-to-moment exploring skew a little dull.

Discussion

As Emily, once you escape your usurpers in the palace, you make your way to a boat. This boat belongs to a lady named Megan, and maybe I missed something, but there doesn’t seem to be a terribly compelling reason for her to help you out. I wonder if these limited character interactions are due to me playing as Emily, who as a young, isolated ruler wouldn’t exactly have the worldly experience of her father. As the story moves along, you meet an assortment of weirdos who you may or may not kill. I didn’t, and so some of these folks end up on your boat. At some point, you can stumble across Megan’s tragic backstory. By the end of the game she confesses to you that she helped kill your mother. After that revelation, I was just sitting there like, “okay, cool.” The narrative leading up to this moment simply never emphasized the relationship between Emily and, well, anyone at all. So when Megan makes her big confession, Emily is acting like she cares but as a player I’m left wondering why I should care.

What I usually enjoy about immersive sims is, well, the immersion. I actually like creeping around and poking around people’s houses and rifling through their shit. But that stuff is only fun if you’re finding compelling things when you do so. In the first game, I quite enjoyed myself because I was discovering this weird, fascinating world. This time, the tidbits I was finding were for whatever reason less interesting. Most of the thirty-plus hours I spent with this game was crawling around figuring out how to best avoid detection and murder. Probably the most outwardly frustrating part of the game is how little feedback you get in this instance. There were three or four missions that after spending three or more hours dinking around being stealthy, I would finish only to be told by the stat screen that whoopsies, you killed a person. I did? You think I might have noticed that! Seriously, if you’re going to encourage me to be non-lethal, it should be obvious when I fail. Gah.

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These fly-ass robots are dope as hell, though.

I have to wonder if I would have enjoyed myself more if I had gone loud. Just say fuck it, ignore the chaos system and stop worrying about getting the “good” ending, and run around murking fools in broad daylight. In my playthrough, it often felt like I was spending the majority of my time creeping around disheveled apartments looking through cabinets rather than engaging with the world. There’s also the strong possibility that the environments in this game just aren’t as good as the first set. By the end of the game, I was straying away from optional objectives in an effort to just get on with it already. That’s not a great sign. There comes a point where the practical rewards for scouring the environments – the bone charms and the runes and the ammunition – become largely irrelevant. If you’re going non-lethal, a good third of the powers are totally useless, so you end up with more skill points than you need. By the end, I was just bopping through as quickly as possible (which is still pretty slowly if you’re trying not to kill anyone) to finish the story and get my good ending.

The main theme of Dishonored 2 is that of governance. It’s clear that at the beginning of the game, Emily is a bad ruler. It’s the 19th century and the form of government is your basic monarchy, supported by an aristocratic hierarchy of various dukes and whatnot. There’s a bureaucracy in place, but I don’t recall a mention of a Parliament or anything like that, so it seems like Emily is the de facto final word about policy. She’s a rich teenager, and so the actual act of governance isn’t terribly interesting to her. She’s spent most of the previous fifteen years fucking off and letting the bureaucracy do its thing, and as a result some shady shit has been going down. Over the course of the game, Emily gets up close and personal with the consequences of her indifference. If you’re not a murder-machine, by the end of the game Emily has her revelation, which is her resolution to become a benevolent, engaged ruler. Hooray. Of course, she’s still the unquestioned, absolute ruler of all the land, so that hasn’t changed. And that’s part of the problem. Emily never questions the fundamental problems with her society, and so even in the good ending I’m left feeling like, well great, good for the status quo I guess. Like the rest of the game, my reaction is basically the same. I dunno. It’s fine.

Posted in Dystopia, Games, Government | Leave a comment

A Brief History of Seven Killings

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Novel * Marlon James * Jamaica Is Fucked Up, Yo * 2014

Synopsis

Let me preface this article by proclaiming to all and sundry that I don’t know shit about Jamaica. I know the stereotypes, obviously, but it’s not a subject I’ve ever looked into. It’s never come up in any history class I’ve ever taken, outside of the occasional aside about colonialism. Oh, there’s that old Chris Rock bit about “resort Jamaica” and “stabbin’ Jamaica.” This astounding book is definitely about stabbin’ Jamaica, holy shit. I do not think I was prepared for what I was getting into when I randomly picked it up in Powell’s. This book is another attempt at pushing myself outside of my typical bullshit, and while it paid off I’m still kind of reeling from the experience. It’s not even the subject matter, not really. I’ve read my share of hyper-violent stories with lots of swears. I guess it’s not even the way James writes his story – it’s post-modern stream-of-consciousness told from a dizzying array of viewpoints, but it’s not like that’s a unique structure. I don’t think it’s the patois used throughout, although that does slow the reading experience down a bit. Like any dialect-heavy text, you get used to it. Plus it’s fun, you bombo r’asscloth pussyhole. Yeah, if that phrase bums you out maybe skip this one. It’s a shame, because you’d be missing out on a stunning novel.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a bit of a misnomer, because way more than seven people bite it over the course of the narrative. This is a sprawling novel which takes place over the span of fifteen years. It is mostly a crime novel, thus the many killings. The centerpiece event of the book is the attempted killing of Bob Marley in his Jamaica studio by a vanload of would-be assassins in 1976. This is a true thing that happened, although it’s the first I’ve heard of it because prior to reading this book I could give the least amount of fucks possible about Bob Marley. All the more credit to Marlon James, then, for making an account of this event so totally compelling. Roughly the first half of the novel takes place during the day before and the day of the attempted murder. The viewpoints are a whirlwind of shifting perspective and narratives which get more fragmented and less coherent when things start popping off for real. There’s no true protagonist, but there are many, many characters. Quite a few of these get their own viewpoint chapters. From low-level gang members to high-level gang members to CIA agents to obnoxious hipster white guys the style and vocabulary are constantly shifting. It’s a lot to keep up with.

Jamaica in the 70’s was a fucking mess. Maybe it still is, I don’t know. After reading this there are approximately 422,000 places I’d rather go first. This is why novels like this provide a valuable service: it’s an account of a horrible place which is fascinating and horrifying at the same time. A Brief History doesn’t equivocate on this point, either. James is Jamaican, and his feelings about his home country are seemingly as conflicted as those of most of his characters. The native Jamaicans are all well aware that large swaths of their country is a festering shithole with no redeeming qualities, but there’s still a vibrant love of the place that keeps them there. Then you’ve got the outsiders, Americans in the CIA or reporter Alex Pierce who are there for one reason or another who have the same qualms, but the same confusing love of the island. Pierce in particular is super annoying. He’s one of these white douchebags who simultaneously believes he knows about “the real Jamaica” while still spouting clichés about it. He’s kind of the worst, which is saying something considering some of the sociopathic monsters running around in this story.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is impossible to encapsulate in a few paragraphs. It’s a major achievement, and it deserves the praise and awards and whatnot, but it’s not an easy read. Getting through this thing requires quite a bit form the reader, so it’s important to understand what you’re getting into. You’ve got to have a thick skin, because there are some gnarly scenes here, but you also need plenty of patience. Your reward is a thorough and visceral examination of a deeply flawed, deeply compelling country. You get to know some horribly fucked up characters, and even if you don’t necessarily sympathize with them they’re no less fascinating. I guess that’s it for disclaimers. It’s difficult to “spoil” a novel like this, because the story is so meandering and there are so many threads that pretty much every chapter is surprising in its own way. I’m going to talk about a few specific things anyway, because it’s kind of impossible to talk in generalities any longer.

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The audio version of this book would take up so many LP’s. Also the neighbors would call the cops.

Discussion

A breezy scan through the Wikipedia article about Jamaica lays out bare just how hard Spain and England fucked this island over. Spain gets there and promptly cuts all the trees down and kills off the native population. Naturally. Then the British show up and kick them out, and the Spanish were all like “whatever it sucks here anyway.” So the Brits look around and think about sugarcane and import a bunch of African slaves and make it happen. A few centuries later, Jamaica declares independence and takes control of their own affairs. Of course, they’re left with a 400 year legacy of colonial oppression and not much else, so despite some optimism in the sixties, by the time A Brief History of Seven Killings takes place, the country is well and truly fucked. I am in no way qualified to talk to you about Jamaican history. Pretty much everything I know I learned from this book, but what this book does have to teach is a deeply unsettling look at the legacy of colonialism.

That’s all buried in subtext, though. This is not a Things Fall Apart situation, and the novel does not wear its stance on colonialism on its sleeve. However, by taking such an unflinching look at the extreme poverty of areas like Copenhagen City and Eight Lanes, there is an unspoken condemnation of the historical forces at work. The casual violence of these places are jarring and visceral. Christ, one of the first scenes of the book features a little boy hiding under a bed while a gang enforcer murders his father. Uh, “murder” undersells it. The killer forces the father to his knees and forces him to beg for his life by performing oral sex on him while he holds a gun to his head. Afterward he shoots him anyway. Then the kid’s mom. And everyone else is like, whatever, just another day in Jamdown or whatever and meanwhile the reader is thinking what the actual fuck is happening here?

Like I said, this is largely a novel about the criminal underground. There’s no real protagonist, but one of the more prominent characters is an upstart gang leader, Josey Wales. He’s a cold motherfucker whose top priority in life is “chatting good” and murdering anyone who gets in his way. Including Bob Marley. Josey is behind the murder attempt, in cahoots with the CIA for reasons that even now elude me. Jamaica was an area of interest at the time because of its proximity to Cuba, so they had a presence on the island, presumably to keep it from turning socialist. Each major Kingston gang represented their neighborhood, and the two main gangs repped for opposing political parties. At the time of the Marley near-miss, Josey Wales was the number two man in Copenhagen City under Papa-Lo. Their counterpart in their rival gang was a cat named Shotta Sherriff. About the time Marley was going to put on a big old concert for peace, there was going to be an election. The attempted murder had clear political undertones, since there was an attempt at a peace treaty between the rival gangs included with all the political maneuverings.

If all that sounds confusing, well, that’s how this book rolls. It swings wildly back and forth between just utterly disturbing violence and complicated political maneuvering. The latter is almost never explained, either. There’s very little exposition, because the book is written in a semi-stream-of-consciousness perspective from many, many characters. Some, like Nina Burgess and her sister, seemingly have little to do with the rest of the novel. There’s a lot of piecing together events that happen from snippets of thought from various people. Each section is also a specific moment of time, with the last three sections jumping in time quite a bit. By the end of the novel, most of the main players have moved to New York, and Josey Wales loses his shit and it’s like a scene from The Wire all of a sudden, and Jamaica itself takes a bit of a backseat to the Jamaican characters. But make no mistake, everyone here is a product of that messed-up little island. Pretty much everyone in the story has a nagging, compulsive love for the place, even if nobody has illusions about the post-colonial violence or the endless struggle against desperate poverty. You know, reading this over it’s clear that this novel might be a hard sell. Sometimes that’s the hallmark of an important piece of art, though. It’s pretty clear that A Brief History of Seven Killings is an important work. It’s just rough to get through.

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The Great Gatsby

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Novel * F. Scott Fitzgerald * American Modernism Defined * 1925

Synopsis

Yeah all right fine. The Great Gatsby is good. I accept that most of my antipathy towards this novel is rooted in having the book poorly taught to me at several points in my life, which isn’t fair to the actual words on the page. Those are fine. What I’m not going to back down from is my assertion that the English did Modernism better. There was simply more at stake, socially, in Europe at the time when these people were writing. The United States of the 20th century morphed from scrappy underdog to single world power largely because they were able to keep themselves on the periphery of the two apocalyptic events that essentially burned the European powers to the ground. World War I wasn’t the only major blow to the ancient power structures, the French Revolution was the first, but it was enough to send the world powers of the time into a tailspin that would end up wrecking even more havoc only twenty years later. Meanwhile, the United States was an ocean away and more than content to reap the benefits of the European powers tearing themselves to shreds. In the aftermath, America was obviously in a better position to benefit economically from the new state of the world. I mean, we basically threw in with the winning side a few months before the end of the war so we could claim moral victory as well, but you know. Details.

The 1920’s (and the fact that in a couple of years we’re going to need to make it clear which “Twenties” we’re talking about makes me feel old for some reason) are generally considered to be a decade of ridiculous excess: money flying everywhere, young people doing sex on each other, bootleg booze flowing, shiny new cars zooming around brightly lit big cities. Yet this was largely an American phenomenon, because we didn’t lose millions of young men in a pointless bloodbath in the mud pits of France. I don’t want to trivialize our role in the conflict, but we lost more soldiers to the influenza epidemic of 1918 than we did to combat. You simply can’t compare our losses to those of the European combatants. That said, when it comes to art and literature, American writers served – and some of our best of the era were right in the middle of the war, including F. Scott Fitzgerald. The effect of this was twofold. The most apparent is the sheer disillusionment that transpired from witnessing the slaughter of the war. That’ll mess anyone up, and it’s no surprise that the survivors turned to drink and revelry after the war was over. For an American veteran, the other effect was to introduce them to a whole other world. There’s a reason our best writers of the era spent a good deal of time in London and Paris (and in T.S. Eliot’s case changed citizenship), and that’s in some part down to having that wider experience of the world.

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In case you were confused about the whole “green light” thing.

The Great Gatsby isn’t about Paris or the war, however. It’s about being a young man in New York City surrounded by the nouveau riche and witnessing the decline and fall of an older era. It’s the raw speed of technology and the accelerated pace of civilization and urban living. Like their European counterparts, Americans were also dealing with the unprecedented rate of technological development and the radical shift in not only social values, but in raw ambition. America has always been a place without centuries-old reified social structures, but it wasn’t until the 1920’s that there was the actual possibility of a Jay Gatsby. This is mostly due to the fact that prior to this era, Gilded Age monopolies squashed ambition. The best you could hope for was a position in a monopolistic industry because there wasn’t anything left to conquer yourself. Yet the beginning of the 20th century shifted the game. As I’ve said in pretty much every article I’ve posted about Modernism, technological development skyrocketed. This, of course, opened up new avenues of innovation and created new fields to develop and get rich off of. Meanwhile, Europe cannibalized themselves at this crucial moment so the plucky Americans slid right into the vacuum left behind. Once the war was over and a new world order was up for grabs, American money was everywhere.

More than anything, The Great Gatsby is about money. It’s a story about people flailing around in an economic bubble, and I’d be lying if I haven’t thought about where these characters ended up like six years after the events of the novel. I doubt people like Tom and Daisy Buchanan did particularly well during the Depression, you know? Nick Carraway, our intrepid narrator, seems even-keeled enough to get by, which is why he anchors this story of a bunch of terrible people interacting with one another. Yep, this being Modernism pretty much every character is an awful human being. Even Nick has his issues, even if a kind of terminal passiveness is the worst of his traits. Tom and Daisy are the actual worst. Jay Gatsby is a crazy person who can’t even deal with life. Nick’s golfing girlfriend Jordan is icy, cynical, and dull. And that’s pretty much it, because The Great Gatsby is also a novel of small scale. Not a whole helluva lot happens here, which is fine because again that’s not what this book is about. It’s a small story about small people who happen to reflect the repercussions of an apocalyptic event an ocean away.

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Beep! Beep! Out of my way! I’m a motorist!

Discussion

I hope things have changed in the classroom since I was taught The Great Gatsby in high school (three times), or even that I had an atypical experience with this novel. Obviously, English class was my favorite. I generally had good teachers. However, because I moved around a lot, when I’d get into a new school the administration was generally reluctant to place me in the honors version of their English program, regardless of previous achievements. It’s like, “yeah yeah, you did fine there but here you’re going to have to prove yourself!” And that’s how I got to essentially retake an entire year’s worth of material. Anyway, personal tangent aside, when the curriculum assumes that you don’t like literature, it goes out of its way to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have to think that Gatsby is required reading for pretty much everyone, it’s right up there with To Kill a Mockingbird in that regard. Two of the three times Gatsby was taught at me the instructor almost exclusively focused on the use of symbolism in the novel. That’s a wonderful way to poison positive experiences with literature and to skew perception about analysis.

Instead of receiving any historical context of the time when the novel was written, or being encouraged to push at the narrative in any meaningful way, or questioning the author’s intentions, or engaging with character choices in the story, we were given a symbol hunt. Everything boiled down to discovering seemingly innocuous things and decoding them. To be fair, Fitzgerald does have a habit of placing conspicuous items and moments in the prose. However, it’s unfair to the text to assume the author had a list of some kind. Like, “green light = the future via Daisy.” And then that’s the end of the discussion. It turns English into math, and with respect to my science peeps that’s the allure of the humanities. There’s no one answer, there’s no formula for literature-solving. An argument can be made that teaching symbolism in The Great Gatsby is an attempt to force students to look deeper than they otherwise would, but it’s been clear to me in the years since that those who are not disposed toward the humanities dismiss literary analysis as pointless deciphering of symbols that may or may not exist. There are much more engaging ways to talk about books.

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Clearly spoilers weren’t a big deal back in the day. I don’t remember Gatsby spending a lot of time topless though? Maybe I just read it wrong.

The best way, in my most humble of opinions, is to latch onto something in the text which is relevant to our current experience. Yes, Gatsby is a period piece. It’s hard to vibe with what was happening nearly a hundred years ago unless you’re predisposed to historical thinking. Yet the secret of good books is that human nature doesn’t change much. Social attitudes move at a glacial pace, so most of the issues Fitzgerald examines are still very much in play now. Take a look at this exchange:

“You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy,” I confessed on my second glass of corky but rather impressive claret. “Can’t you talk about crops or something?”

I meant nothing in particular by this remark but it was taken up in an unexpected way.

“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”

“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.

“Well, it’s a fine book and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we – ”

“Well, these books are all scientific,” insisted Tom, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.

There’s more but you get the idea. Tom is the great capitalist alpha male. He’s also a racist garbage can of a person (Note: I looked up the book he referenced and couldn’t find anything, but Google probably thinks I’m racist now). In terms of 2017, someone like Tom Buchanan is the nostalgic standard of the alt-right. He’s the kind of idealized white masculinity that these Internet gremlins and tiki-torch wielding motherfuckers wish they could be. And yet here he is, trying to convince his peers that his ignorant, rank racism is something elevated, something right and true. These patently untrue sentiments are in a book with big words, therefore they are true, therefore my ugly feelings are correct. Not only are they correct, but they are right and pure. He’s using the same pathetic tactics to rationalize his gross feelings of inadequacy as these worthless, whining, racist-ass beta bitches we have today. I, uh, may have some strong feelings about the resurgence of the kind of ideals that Tom Buchanan believes in, but that’s exactly what good fiction is supposed to do.

The Great Gatsby puts in a lot of work for a novel with such a small focus, and there are plenty of places to jump to from the above passage. Starting with an otherwise unassuming passage and working out towards the topic of entrenched racism to the role of money and the politics of domination in said racism to what America looks like a hundred years later is more natural and interesting than quizzing people on what Tom’s shirts mean. This is not to say that symbolic gestures are not happening in the text – they totally are – but to make them the focus of a more nuanced and complicated story misses out on a lot of dynamic discussion that could otherwise happen spontaneously. Plus, pulling out actual text is a good way to remind yourself what a brilliant craftsman Fitzgerald was. “Winking ferociously toward the fervent sun” is a good fucking phrase. Also: “expression of unthoughtful sadness.” Sometimes I think I’m an okay writer and then I see shit like that and am forced to consider my nearly transcendental mediocrity. Actually, that makes for a pretty good description of Nick, now that I think about it. It all comes around in the end!

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

The Dark Tower (film)

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Film * Nikolaj Arcel * Excuse Me, I Need to Lie Down * 2017

Synopsis

What a huge fucking bummer. Just… goddammit. Okay. Okay. Okay, I have actual words. Hold on, give me another second….

[gets up]

[walks to window]

[screams into the infinite unknown]

[apologizes to alarmed neighbors]

[sits back down]

Okay that didn’t work at all. I guess I just need to work this out here. First of all, I think it’s important that I preface the following by stating that The Dark Tower and its six sequels have been hugely important to me. I’ve gone full evangelical with this series, I’ve made converts, I’ve gone on at length on this very site. So when I (finally) sat down to watch this movie, I brought some baggage with me. It’s impossible not to do so, considering. I know the books backwards and forwards as I’ve read them entirely too many times. So this movie already had some work to do. That said, I did my very best to accept the movie on its own terms. I get it, I understand, I know how adaptations work. You can’t just literally film the books and expect it to work for a general audience. Maybe especially these books. And I was totally fine with surprising choices and drastic changes. The movie is its own thing and its existence doesn’t invalidate the books in any way. I’m just so very disappointed in what they came up with.

First of all, a couple of good things before I explain very precisely why this whole thing is so awful. The Dark Tower is a beautiful movie. It’s absolutely sold me on the natural splendor of South Africa. With a couple of quibbles, Mid-World looks amazing. The set and costume design are fantastic, Roland looks perfect. As far as that’s concerned, the casting is also great. I mean, there’s only three main characters to work with, but they absolutely nailed it. Idris Elba is Roland. The kid they found to play Jake is great too, and he works really well against Elba. Their chemistry felt right. I even like Matthew McConaughey as Walter. He brings a menace to the role that fits, although I wish there was just a touch more jocularity to the character. Walter is often amused with his own cruelty. Anyway, he still looked the part. Even the Low Men were awesome. I’m down with the entire aesthetic of this film, this is the one aspect of the books they captured.

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They absolutely nailed the look, I’ll give them that.

It’s too bad about literally everything else. I just… I don’t understand! There’s like a hundred ways to do this without stripping everything worthwhile out of the story! Gah! It’s like they skimmed the books, pulled out ten or twelve random details, and sprinkled them throughout a boilerplate revenge story. Here’s the thing about that: I want to enjoy my fanboy squealing over those details, but I couldn’t because they didn’t make any fucking sense in context of whatever narrative they were trying to tell. Christ, the movie begins with a Tet Corporation logo with a little turtle and that should be fucking awesome and I could barely appreciate it because I’m sitting here thinking “why isn’t this movie starting with a man in black fleeing across a desert and a gunslinger following?” This shit’s not complicated. When your source material serves up one of the most iconic opening sentences of all time, you start with that fucking sentence! I guess they eventually dropped it in there, half an hour after it would have had any real impact, just one of a bunch of random details they included without having any understanding of why.

What makes this so utterly frustrating is that “unfilmable” adaptations have been pulled off before. There’s a goddamn blueprint. In just fantasy alone, I can point to Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. All three of those take liberties with the source material. They change stuff around and cut things and add other stuff and whatever! That’s not what bothers me about this. No, those other movies succeed because those behind the adaptation understand the spirit of the source. They fucking get it. Those books are all perennially popular for a reason, it’s the job of the filmmakers and screenwriters to harness that essence and make it work for a movie. The worst way to do that is to just strip random details and sprinkle them over an entirely new narrative. But that’s what The Dark Tower does, and as a result it’s a boring failure. Dammit.

Oh, and a friendly reminder that I’m going to openly talk about plot points of not only the movie, but the books below.

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I think they used the term “Beamquake” but at no point did they explain just what the hell the Beams are or why they’re important.

Discussion

Probably the most obvious thing this movie gets wrong is the characterization. The Dark Tower, as a series, works well with so few characters because those characters are so well realized. Roland is one of Stephen King’s greatest characters because he’s been writing about him for forty years. You know what the best way to understand Roland’s character is without having to go through all the bother of actually understanding the novels? Read some of the introductions to the Dark Tower novels. King straight up tells you how Roland works. He’s a slow-thinking, aristocratic, diplomat with a deeply romantic nature who shoots real good. The film gets the easiest thing to get right utterly wrong, and it makes no fucking sense. Roland is all about the Tower. That’s his whole deal! As Eddie puts it, Roland’s a Tower junkie. The Man in Black is and always was a means to that end. He’s just another cobble in the road to the Dark Tower. This is explicitly stated time and time again, and I simply cannot understand how the filmmakers looked at that and went “yeah but what if revenge.”

Oh, and they say his name wrong. He’s an aristocrat. He’s the heir of Arthur, for crying out loud. You draw that name out all fancy. “Childe Rolaaand to the Dark Tower Came.” Minor issue all things considered, but still.

So they fuck Roland’s basic nature all up (“I’m not a gunslinger anymore” my rosy red ass). Jake is a little closer to the mark, but at the same time they take unnecessary liberties with his backstory. Remember how Elmer Chambers is a go-go 80’s executive and his mom is a vapid Valium addict? And how he bails on them because his life is otherwise empty and meaningless? And how maybe that’s important to his character but whatever, we need him to have a totally relatable relationship with his loving mother and the mean old stepdad? The fuck am I even looking at here. And then Jake doesn’t die. He doesn’t die? How? What!? JAKE’S DEATH IS THE WHOLE FUCKING POINT. That’s the emotional center of his entire arc, and this movie looked at that and went “yeah but what if sci-fi portals.”

 

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The set design is so fantastic and then they promptly squander it all and now I’m sad again.

To be fair, those sci-fi portals show up – kind of – in the books, towards the end of the series. And that’s a big problem. This movie has a lean 90 minute runtime, which I totally appreciate, but they’re trying to cram in seven big ass novels’ worth of story in there. Of course that’s not going to work. Of course! That’s obvious on its face! Tell a person who’s never even heard of The Dark Tower that oh, by the way, this one movie is like seven books, and they’ll look at you like you said something stupid. Because you did, because that’s stupid. I don’t even understand what the thought process was here. I assume they made this because they wanted a fresh new franchise to exploit, but this movie is pretty clearly wrapped up by the end. They introduce this weird, elaborate concept – the Dark Tower is the linchpin to all realities and all universes, Walter would like to blow it up with little kid brain magic – and then they solve it immediately. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of an objective observer, and I’m not seeing where this goes from here. And that’s super confusing.

I mean, you start with the beginning because it’s the beginning, right? Yeah, I know the books begin in media res, shut up. I also understand that the first book is a weird, esoteric thing that’s not for everyone. Which is why you truncate it for the film and probably mash it up with The Drawing of the Three. You introduce all the mystery of Roland and Mid-World and then ground that with the audience with his trips to New York to draw two extremely compelling characters. Right? Is this hard? You end with a hint at Roland’s coming madness and the notion that Jake isn’t actually dead. That’s a hook, and these books are beloved for a reason. It’s like the filmmakers were terrified they’d never get another chance so they just crammed as much as they could from the seven books without considering how they were being used, and hey look self-fulfilling prophecy. Good job, jerks. I guess maybe Tull gives this an R rating? It should probably have that anyway. Ugh. There are ways to make that first book a compelling movie! And then they looked at all that and went “yeah but what if all the books.”

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Roland does some cool gun shit, for sure.

Adaptations are hard, I get it. I listed those three extremely popular fantasy adaptations above because they’re obvious examples of getting it right. You have to appeal to people who have no interest in reading dorky books for dorks. You jazz it up with dope action scenes, right? This movie had a couple of those moments. That scene in the village (???) where Walter’s goblin raiders (????) invaded and ran off with Jake? And then everything slows down to show how totally rad Roland is, and he makes that crazy shot? That was brilliant. That was a perfect encapsulation of how spooky Roland is with a gun. The Dixie Pig shootout was also fucking cool to look at. Yet I’m still watching that going: why is Roland here? This is just set dressing. There is no narrative reason for him to be here, and with zero context this makes no sense. It’s just another reference, which is doubly confusing because the only people who are going to even get that reference are too busy being mad that you’ve misused the reference! The only reason the Dixie Pig is cool is because that’s where Jake finally goes Full Gunslinger after like five books of growth. And then they looked at all of that and went “yeah but what if Roland just shot a bunch of dudes.”

When it comes down to it, the movie fails because it doesn’t earn anything. There’s no narrative reason given for Jake showing up in Mid-World, other than he has the Shinnin’. Roland’s entire backstory is summed up in a trite flashback of his dad biting it. That’s it, that’s his motivation. None of that is terribly compelling. They show off this cool-looking world, but they try and explain every modicum of mystery immediately, which is the exact opposite of what makes the books so fascinating and what gives them such a long life. Even within the context of the novels, I know a lot of people are disappointed with the concluding three books, and that’s in large part because things get explained. Explanations are usually boring and disappointing. You gotta let that mystery and atmosphere and esoteric weirdness marinade for a while. You can still make a snappy action film and keep what makes The Dark Tower special intact. I believe that. It’s too bad that those behind this atrocity didn’t.

Posted in Dark Tower, Entropy, Film, Post-Post-Apocalypse | Leave a comment

Edge of Tomorrow

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Film * Doug Liman * Groundhog Day but with Aliens * 2014

Synopsis

I always appreciate when a story drops you into its bonkers premise without much in the way of context. Edge of Tomorrow begins with a montage of stock footage taken from various terrorist attacks used to explain that oh no, aliens showed up and invaded Western Europe and they’re real fucked up. Humanity is about to launch a counterstrike from England, the last free state in Europe. It’s clearly a big D-Day situation, except sci-fi. They land in Calais and everything. Anyway, that’s pretty much it for backstory. We learn all this in the first five minutes or so. Scary aliens, big counter-offensive, there’s a soldier-lady who seems cool, and Tom Cruise is there. Look, this is a Tom Cruise movie. Either you’re in or you’re out, you know what you’re getting. To this day, the only time I’ve been surprised and impressed by a Tom Cruise performance was Tropic Thunder, and this movie is no exception. It’s Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise doing and saying Tom Cruise things. In this case his name is Major Cage and he’s a slick advertising man who is gross and crosses the wrong general before the big counter-invasion.

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Of course watching this movie made Bill Paxton’s death resonate all the more because he’s fantastic here. Such a bummer.

Edge of Tomorrow is a film all about its premise. It’s the reason you see the movie. I mean yeah, it’s cool to watch dudes in mech-suits running around blowing up weird looking aliens, but that’s more incidental sci-fi violence. Nah, you’re here for the hook, which is essentially Groundhog Day. The only major difference between that film and Edge of Tomorrow is that Bill Murray is replaced by Tom Cruise, there are aliens instead of folksy rural Pennsylvanians, and the day is reset after a violent death as opposed to the end of the day. Other than that it’s pretty much the same movie. It’s a film about learning. When Major Cage learns he’s been busted down to Private Cage and is being sent to the front, he’s understandably bummed out. He gets one day to learn how to use the mech-suit used to kill aliens, and he’s obviously super bad at it. Eventually he gets dumped on the beach where he and his entire squad are wiped out by a surprisingly strong alien attack. He dies horribly, and promptly wakes up back at the start of his day.

It seems to me that this kind of idea would be really easy to mess up, but the premise is worked to excellent effect throughout the movie. The story itself is kind of boilerplate alien invasion stuff, but Liman is constantly keeping the audience guessing about what is happening when. Cage always remembers what happened before he dies, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of times he can come back. Later in the film there are some constraints put on his power, and there’s an explanation as to why everything is happening, but whatever. I barely care. I’m way more interested in how the story moves, and how it subverts our expectations considering time and character. The film sets expectations right up front. Oh, Tom Cruise is going to get all this free practice and get good at killing aliens. But then each scene compounds on the next, and not all scenes begin at the same time, so that you never actually know how many times Cage has lived a particular scene. All the other characters around him, most notably the aforementioned cool solider-lady, Rita, do not get to carry over memories like Cage does, so he has to put in all that work every day. You know, like Groundhog Day.

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Emily Blunt is extremely cool in this movie and she shoots Tom Cruise in the face a lot, which is fun.

Discussion

This is the section where I usually discuss the larger themes at play within the work, or try and figure out what it’s saying about itself or the state of the world. I’m not really feeling that here. Edge of Tomorrow functions almost entirely in service to its plot, which is totally fine. I had a real good time watching. However, once it’s done that’s kind of it. I know Groundhog Day is the obvious comparison, but when you pair these two movies, it’s clear that the otherwise lighthearted comedy is the better film. In that movie, the plot device is of course important to the story and is used in many fun ways, but it’s always in service the characters and the examination of small-town interactions. Edge of Tomorrow barely cares about its characters. Tom Cruise starts out as a manipulative wiener and turns into a cool action guy, sure. Yet there isn’t really that much room for his character to grow, considering there was never very much character there to begin with. This is largely because the stakes are so much higher in Edge of Tomorrow – after all, the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, which is arguably more important that Bill Murray’s love life. There’s simply no time to stretch out as a person when everything you do needs to be in service to saving the world, you know?

I guess that’s all I have to say about that. Meanwhile, let’s talk about aliens. The older I get and the more musings about aliens I read/watch in various science fiction efforts, the more I’m convinced that we’re beneath the notice of proper alien civilizations. If you look at something like Edge of Tomorrow, or Independence Day, the aliens are described as more of a virus than a civilization. That seems about right, if we’re talking apocalypse-by-space-alien. In this film, the aliens (who look an awful lot like the aliens in the 2017 game Prey, which also has a type called “mimics”) don’t even try to communicate. We’re given next to zero information about how they showed up. We pick up the battle for Earth in media res, and that the decimation of the planet is imminent. When we do get a little backstory, they’re described as an interstellar virus, a sort of reflexive parasitical spore that lands on a planet and quickly dooms it for no particular reason. Somehow, they can control the flow of time, thus the plot device. Yet there is no intelligent menace here. There is certainly no evidence of culture or higher thought. They don’t appear to use technology. They just destroy.

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I killed so many of these things in Prey. Apparently someone at Bethesda is a fan.

So if the aliens come, it makes sense to me that it’ll be something like this. Why would an actual alien intelligence be interested? If you hang out much on the Internet, you likely saw this story in the New York Times. Said article casually mentions that yeah, many high-ranking officials are pretty sure aliens have been here and oh maybe there are bits of an alien ship chilling in Las Vegas also check out this weird video taken from extremely expensive video equipment. As much as my X-Files watching ass wants to believe, I just can’t roll with it. Because why would an advanced alien civilization want anything to do with us? We’re a planet of homicidal apes whose psychology hasn’t evolved all that much since we evolved the ability to use tools. We’re a backwater, and if 2017 is any indication it’s going to be some time before we get an invite to the interstellar party. I’m convinced that there are extraterrestrial civilizations out there – the universe is far too vast to believe otherwise. I’m also pretty sure that some of those civilizations have developed all of my sci-fi fantasies, from teleportation to time travel to faster-than-light travel. Again, in an infinite universe there is infinite possibility, right? We don’t have any direct observation of any of that stuff, which suggests to me that higher forms of life simply don’t care. Or there’s some kind of Prime Directive at play. Anyway, as much as it pains me to say it, something like Edge of Tomorrow makes more sense to me than a Contact situation. If the aliens come, we’re boned.

Posted in Aliens, Film | 2 Comments

Time for End-of-Year Lists! We’re Doing Games, Because Books are for Dorks!

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Oh, settle down. While that header is accurate, it’s not the entire reason I’m talking about my ten favorite games of 2017 as opposed to other media. I simply haven’t read any books published this year. I almost never read books in the year they’re published, which I understand is not very author-friendly of me. Despite that, there’s an ocean of books out there that I haven’t read. There are major authors whose works I’ve never explored. Hell, there’s books I would like to re-read for this here blog, and even though I read a ton, there simply isn’t enough time. I’ll get to 2017 books in a few years if they stand out, I guess. I also don’t watch very many movies. Christ, I still haven’t got around to watching that Dark Tower atrocity, even though it’s the first film to come out based on arguably my favorite books of all time. I’m looking at best-of lists and only recognize a few films, some of which I suppose I’ll get around to watching some day. I liked Logan a lot, I guess. But games? Those I do play, and I even occasionally play them in the year they’re released.

This year has been bananas for video games. My personal list is going to be greatly handicapped by the fact that I do not own a Switch and that I only just recently picked up a PS4. That Switch is going to be happening in 2018, though. Both Zelda and Mario look like all-timers, so I think it’s time to pick up my first Nintendo console since the Gamecube. Outside of Nintendo, there are a few titles that I intend to get to but haven’t had the time yet. The new Assassin’s Creed looks legit, and Night in the Woods looks like my kind of story-driven indie. I’m sure there are others. Meanwhile, it’s about time to get into what I have played. In reverse order, here we go.

10. Everybody’s Golf

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It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a dang golf game. Yet there’s something therapeutic about picking your club and making your shots and running around a nice virtual golf course. The actual golfing plays exactly as you’d expect. There’s a swing meter, push the button at the right times, there you go. It’s the packaging and progression that makes the game enjoyable, though. This is like, custom anime golf. There’s a robust character maker that’s super fun, which allows me to make goofy anime versions of myself and my favorite fictional characters. The more golf you play, the more accessories you get to dress them up. So it’s dollhouse funtime like The Sims, but also golfing. Everything is light and airy, and makes for a good game to play while listening to podcasts or whatever. The only real knock I have is that progression is slow. It takes a lot of golfing to unlock new courses, apparently. I’ve been playing for over ten hours at this point and I’m still stuck on the first course. Everything else is solid, though, so if you like golfing without having to actually golf, this is a good time.

9. Wonder Boy: The Dragon Trap

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I was an NES kid. Pretty much everyone in this country was, back in the day. I’ve met plenty of people who didn’t know the Sega Master System even existed. Lucky for me, back in my dim, distant youth, I had a neighbor buddy who had one. In retrospect, he was lucky to have me and my Nintendo next door, because otherwise he would have been a playground pariah (at least insofar as video games are concerned, if I recall this kid was quite the little jock so popularity-wise he was fine). I mean think about it. I had all the hits, the major franchises that sad, Sega-only kids would have missed out on. Meanwhile, he had what? Time Warriors? Meh (This is disingenuous, we played the shit out of that mediocre game and one of the few games I actually owned on NES was Super Pitfall, arguably the worst game I’ve ever played). Yet one day he has me over to his house, and he has this new game. Wonder Boy: The Dragon Trap. It was a platformer like Mario, but dang. It was so much more than that. Truly, it was ahead of its time. Sure, you run around and jump over things and, you know, platform. But also you have a sword. And suddenly there’s this mini-RPG, like Dragon Warrior but way better looking and way more actiony. I had never seen anything like it in all my 9 years on the planet.

Did I mention that as you adventure through the world, buying new equipment and being rad, you beat cool boss monsters and gain the ability to transform into different animals? Animals who also have swords? Because you do and it’s awesome. The Dragon Trap was the first and last game my Master System owning buddy had that I was actively jealous of. Of course, he lived next door and we were bros so I totally finished it, but still. That game left an impression. Imagine my surprise when this relatively obscure game merited a total remake, with dope new art and music. The skeleton of the game absolutely holds up. Like I said, it was ahead of its time, and even now the basis of the game feels great and plays well. The new coat of paint — it’s all hand-drawn art, and it’s beautiful — polishes up this wonderful forgotten gem. Oh, and you can push a button and it seamlessly reverts to its 8-bit glory as well. This bit of nostalgia might be fairly niche, I don’t expect everyone lived next door to the Master System kid, but the game holds up and I highly recommend it.

8. Steamworld Dig 2

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What is it about digging that is so inherently fun? I know I’m an old, but I’ve put my time into Minecraft, let me tell you what. This game isn’t that, but there is an awful lot of digging happening and somehow it’s still quite engaging. If you didn’t play the first Steamworld Dig, you missed out on a small, contained little game with a lot of charm. You’re a robot with a pickax, and you roam around underground digging up various resources. When you’re full up, you can go back to town and sell your stuff. You turn that money into equipment upgrades, which in turn allows you to dig deeper. That’s the loop, and the sequel is pretty much the same thing. With such a simple gameplay loop, the progression needs to feel meaningful to be worthwhile, and since this is on my list, obviously Steamworld Dig 2 pulls it off. It’s fun to dig around. It’s fun to figure out what equipment I need to upgrade. There are improvements in mobility as well, which makes it more fun to move around. Oh, and there’s a delightful little story here as well. It’s not terribly deep, but the tiny robots all have tons of personality and it’s just a good time. This is an excellent palette-cleaning game, as it’s fairly short and to the point, but is still a satisfying time. It’s just neat.

7. Cuphead

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In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not even close to done with this game. I just finished the first island, in fact, so it looks like I’m about 25% done? Whatever, I get the gist of the game, and there are two things you need to know. The first, and most important thing is this: Cuphead looks and sounds like nothing you’ve ever played. The entire aesthetic is based on the animation of the 1930’s, and Cuphead pulls it all the way off. It’s just perfect, and is impossible to explain properly, so if you haven’t seen this game in action watch this thing.

The whole game looks like that, which is flippin’ nuts. The presentation is obviously the main draw here. The music is perfect. The animation is perfect. I’m in awe of how this game looks and sounds every time I boot it up. Many incredible looking games came out this year, but it’s hard to argue that Cuphead isn’t far and away the best (although Nier: Automata has better music, sorry it just does).

The other thing you need to know about this game is how brutally, unforgivingly, incomprehensibly difficult it is. And guess what, Cuphead? I actually don’t need to know how many times I died. I know it’s a lot! If you come into this unawares, this game will wreck your shit. I’m not great at games, but I do occasionally enjoy a challenge. I felt pretty good about finishing Ori and the Blind Forest, for example (another beautiful, difficult game). This is something else entirely. I can’t play much more than an hour at a time, because I will get mad at myself. That’s the key thing, though. Yeah, it’s ridiculously hard, but it’s mostly fair. Plus, when I eventually triumph, I feel like I did the thing and didn’t just luck out. Then I can go check out the next amazing-looking boss. Cuphead‘s real good, y’all.

6. Prey

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I think in any other year or any other time Prey would have landed higher on my list. This kind of game is all the way my jam, so I’m surprised that it didn’t resonate with me quite as much as I would have otherwise expected. I mean, it seems to take place in a corporate-dystopian future, which I’m obviously into. Prey features a deep, detailed, lived-in world where I can poke around to my heart’s content. The character work is pretty strong. You play a scientist/executive for an evil future-corporation bent on exploiting dangerous alien technology. You’ve been subject to various brain experiments which have rendered your memory incomplete, however. Most of the game takes place on a space station that has gone through rough times. The aliens you’ve based your work on are loose, and they have a bad habit of turning people into alien-zombies. Oh, and if they get back to Earth they’ll infect humanity and wipe us all out. The story is pretty strong, but I was more drawn to the environments and the chasing down of various items and upgrades. Possibly one reason Prey didn’t hit as hard as it could have is because many of the coolest upgrades were only available to those who make particular choices in the narrative. I played the story in such a way as to close that avenue of gameplay off to myself. All that said, however, Prey is still a good game and well worth your time, especially if you pick it up on sale for twenty bucks.

5. What Remains of Edith Finch

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I like all kinds of games. I like loud shooty games. I like anime-ass JRPG’s. I like spooky horror games and old games and hard games and easy games and whatever, I like games. I also like quiet, meditative walking simulator games. I quite enjoyed Gone Home, for instance. What Remains of Edith Finch is one of those. It’s very short — as in you can finish it in two or three hours — but that hardly matters. Sometimes it’s nice to get in and out in a single sitting, you know? More important is the story, and how it’s told. This is a first person game, which puts you in the shoes of young Edith Finch returning to her childhood home on Orcas Island, Washington (incidentally, I made my first visit there mere weeks before playing this game, and they nail the look and feel of the island). It’s a, uh, unique house. From the outside there is a proliferation of random rooms attached willy-nilly to one another. Once you get inside, it’s a mess. A lovely, interesting mess, but a mess nonetheless. Eventually, you start poking around the various rooms, and the story unfolds in a series of vignettes, all of which provide some context for the story of the Finch family.

What Remains of Edith Finch sets itself apart from other walking simulator experiences in a couple of ways. The first is the quality of the storytelling. Obviously this is the focus, so the narrative needs to hold up. It totally does. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but the story deals with the history of the Finch family, who are understood to be under a curse. With the exception of the matriarch great-grandmother, they all die young. The weird add-on rooms are there because when another family member dies, they seal the room up and build another for the next one to live in. It’s weird but effective. Each room contains a story, and the way the story is told is the other unique aspect of Edith Finch. Usually in these games, you literally just walk around and look at things. That happens here, but with each new vignette is a new way to play. These little mini-games tie into the sad story of a particular member of the Finch family, and they’re pretty much all effective. Some more than others, of course, but each new room provides a new experience. The overall story is lovely and contemplative, so be prepared to think about the nature of death. I can’t recommend it enough. What a beautiful experience.

4. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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If there’s one game on this list that sums up the larger trends of 2017, Wolfenstein is it. Holy shit, what a crazy thing. I’ve already written about The New Colossus at length, and it really is a remarkable game. Well, it’s a remarkable story. The actual playing can be a little rough, and not necessarily in the fun, rewarding way. There were some sections I definitely had to cheese my way through, just so I could get to the next banana-beans, wonkadoodle story moment. Seriously, go play the thing. It’s been $30 on various sales, so it shouldn’t set you back too much. It’s worth it to blast through on easy and experience the vicarious, visceral thrill of blowing up filthy Nazis real good.

3. Pyre

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I was not expecting a game about mystical basketball to be this good. I actually never expected a game to be about mystical basketball at all, if I’m being really forthright here. What a weird thing. There’s just so much world-building and characterization and personality in this game that it’s hard to figure out how to best word an explanation of what is even happening here. Okay. Okay, so there is a world unlike our own known as the Commonwealth. I surmise that once upon a time there was an apocalyptic event, and now humanity has rebuilt to some extent. Reading is illegal in this new society, and you’re a reader. Uh-oh. Criminals in the Commonwealth are punished by mystical exile, and so when the game opens you’re unconscious in the Downside, which is where the banished criminals end up for life. You, henceforth known as “The Reader,” are picked up by a motley trio in their rad wagon and are allowed to recover. After you talk with these folks for a bit (which include a large demon-lady and a talking dog with a dope mustache), you start to discover a little bit about the world.

What sets the game off is their realization that you can read. A sentence to the Downside is for life, except for one rarely-used outlet. There is a Rite which can be performed at certain times, and when one is successful, they are able to ascend back to the Commonwealth totally exonerated. That Rite is the aforementioned mystical basketball. If this all sounds super weird, well, it is. Yet the narrative unfolds so naturally that when you’re actually playing, it all makes sense. Add to this some of the most phenomenal art and music this side of Cuphead, and the entire experience is nothing short of brilliant. The characters are all great, and as you get attached to them and the stakes of the Rite continue to rise, the choices you make throughout become straight up poignant and at times heart-rending. The mystical basketball is actually pretty fun — which is good since that makes up the actual gameplay portion of the game. The story molds itself around the outcome of your games as well, which makes for dynamic, interesting storytelling. Pyre is one of the few games I’ve played where I’m seriously considering starting another run to see how different choices affect the outcome. What a delightful game.

2. Horizon: Zero Dawn

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Choosing between this and what will be number one is a tough call, especially since I think I enjoyed playing Horizon more. You can read my extended thoughts, of course, but I think what keeps Horizon from claiming my top spot is that despite the exceptionally well done story and beautiful world, it doesn’t break much new ground as a game. It’s a big open world adventure game, and I happen to like those quite a bit. I had a great time exploring the post-post-apocalyptic world of the Southwestern United States, and I enjoyed my time with Aloy as well. After a while, though, I was just whipping through the world looking for the next story event, and while I really liked the story, it lacked just a little bit of the audacity that propelled the following game to number one.

1. Nier: Automata

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Nier has unavoidable and obvious flaws. Many of the environments are dull and look, well, kind of bad. The map is terrible. There’s no real reason the main character is dressed in a leather mini-skirt. I can see how people would get bored with the immediate gameplay. It has a weird structure which makes people say things like “oh, you have to finish the game a couple of times before it gets good.” That’s not actually true, mind you, but it is shorthand that I’ve seen quite a bit. Now, I’ve written a big old article about Nier already, so I’ll keep my effusing brief. This game, right straight up, pushes narrative structure and philosophical themes further than I’ve ever seen in a video game. Now let me be clear: nothing in Nier is new ground if you’ve taken a Philosophy or English 101 class in a university. That’s not meant to be a condescending shot at video games, either. This kind of sheer Post-Modernism just isn’t something one is accustomed to seeing in a big video game, is all. And I’m so glad that I have now. Nier: Automata does not fuck around. It is not interesting in sparing your feelings, and it will exploit you emotionally. If you persevere through the five main “endings” (and really the endings thing is a misnomer, it’s just a single, fragmented narrative) the game has all manner of effective tricks to force you to consider your relationship with games. Nier is by no means perfect, but it is absolutely the best game I’ve played this year. It’s not often a game goes to this length to subvert your expectations. Nier does this without reservation, and for that I commend it.

Posted in Arbitrary Lists, Games | Leave a comment

The Dispossessed

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Novel * Ursula K. Le Guin * An Almost-Utopia * 1974

Synopsis

Reading is hard. There is just an incomprehensible number of books and authors out there and no matter how hard one tries some big names are just going to get lost in the shuffle. This is how I justify only just now reading Le Guin. I read a lot of sci-fi, and have made an effort to look back as well as reading contemporary stuff, but for whatever reason I just never got around to reading her work. It’s probably some unconscious sexism on my part which is shameful so I picked up this book – part of my many year project to read all the Hugo winners – and well surprise it’s great. Like, legit great. For one, this is hard science fiction. There are a lot of physics and things I don’t understand happening here, and I’m going to assume she knows what she’s talking about because it all sounds very smart. The other thing is that this is a novel of ideas, and those ideas get put through their paces via the narrative and are lived out by the various characters. The story is fine, and the characters are just well-rounded enough to enact the social scenarios envisioned by Le Guin, but expect your intellect to be challenged. This is not a rollicking space-opera with lasers and shit.

The Dispossessed is a story about a social experiment. The story takes place in the distant future after humanity has been dispersed from Earth for some time. There are some interesting notes about that which I’ll get to later, but for now our focus is on one of these colony planets, Urras. This planet is fairly Earth-like, with big oceans and varied continents and large human populations. Like Earth, Urras has a big moon which is slightly more habitable than our own satellite. It’s unclear how long humanity has been living on Urras, but it’s clear that many centuries have passed since the colony ships showed up and staked their claim. Contemporary Urras is also Earth-like in its social structure as there are various nations of varied governmental and social ideologies. The focus of Urras in this story is the United States Analogue, which is based in the fundamental inequality of capitalism. As on Earth, when capitalism runs rampant the have-nots get tired of it and begin to cook up new modes of government and social structure. In this instance, a woman named Odo began to speak about anarchism and created a movement. This movement eventually exiled itself to the moon, Anarres.

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Classy!

The moon is not a nice place to live, but at least it has oceans and whatnot so creating a hardscrabble human society there is at least possible. The followers of Odo then set to creating a world rooted in their beliefs. They are nearly pure anarchists, in that they created a human society with no central organizing system. Not only is there no government, but there are no corporations or any other kind of abstract organizing system to facilitate trade. The principals that those on Anarres live by are relatively simple. There is no such thing as ownership. Anyone who presumes to “own” something is condemned as an “egoist.” Life on Anarres is hard, since the land is almost entirely desert. Therefore, producing and distributing food and other necessities – such as the mining operations needed to keep Urras off their backs – have to be fairly distributed amongst the population. While there is no official governing body, there is loose organization required in ensuring things get to where they need to go. Nobody is ever forced to perform work they don’t want to do, however the vast majority of people are born and raised in a society which exacts pressure on people to willingly do what is needed. The only official governing function is social disapproval.

The story of The Dispossessed is based on the forced conflict between Anarres and Urras which arises when a scientist from Anarres named Shevek starts pushing at the boundaries of his society. There is a heavily enforced rule (in a society with no written laws) which forbids the societies to speak to one another. Urras ignores the moon people because it is convenient for the capitalist state to ignore a successful anarchist society. Anarres ignores the planet people because their ideals are toxic and repellant to their utopian vision. What makes The Dispossessed so good is that Le Guin takes great pains to depict both of these societies realistically. This is not a situation where Anarres is objectively good and Urras is objectively bad. Both societies have their issues. What’s so intriguing about the novel is that while something like Anarres seems impossible on Earth, the society described might actually be able to function and thrive. Yet their anarchism is not sugar-coated, and the fact that it’s a closed society works against it. Thus we get Shevek, who is the first person to leave the friendly confines of his home and travels to Urras. Ostensibly, he goes planetside to talk about his physics, and while there is quite a bit of science, the novel is mostly about the difficulties of being an anarchist moon man living in a capitalist society.

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I guess Shevek is… Christopher Columbus? Sick hats, regardless.

Discussion

Ideals are important. Everyone should have something that they believe in to help them order their lives and to assist in directing behavior. Hopefully, these ideals lead people to try and better not only themselves but their fellow humans as well. That said, we need flexibility in our lives. When people start strictly adhering to their ideals, when they start overlooking practicality and begin demanding others adopt their ideals, well, people end up dying. The major underlying conflict in The Dispossessed is this very human tendency to put the ideals over practical living. This conflict is not only found between the two societies of Anarres and Urras, but within the heart of each society. The people who live in on either planet have no frame of reference for each other, because their experience and their reality are based on ideals which are, on the surface at least, incompatible with each other. The citizens of Urras cannot comprehend a society in which there is no money, and women are seen as equal to men. Never mind that there are ingrained, fundamental problems baked into their social model, almost nobody can envision a future in which the values of capitalism aren’t the ideals that Urras is based on. The same can be said for Anarres. When Shevek decides to go to Urras in order to advance science, some of his fellow citizens would rather see him dead than leave their society.

Humans are short-sighted and selfish. They act in immediate self-interest and consider the needs of their neighbors as distant secondary priorities. They’re obstinate and succumb to self-delusion and usually pursue the path of least resistance. Most people don’t want to describe themselves like this, but they will happily agree that other people absolutely are. How many times have you heard your dumbass D student buddy proclaim how much he hates “stupid people?” Add projection and deflection to the long list of terrible traits that humanity has harbored since the beginning of history. Yeah, I know, we also aspire to beauty and peace and you know, our ideals. However, most high-minded idealistic social systems fail. And fail spectacularly. This is almost directly because when ideals are held above human nature, there are massive blind spots that are easily exploitable by someone who could give a shit about your ideals. That’s pretty much why every single time the have-nots become the haves, they just start the cycle of oppression once again. The Dispossessed is about a group of people who embraced anarchy as their ideal society, and it takes an extremely specific set of circumstances to make this even a little bit plausible.

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Oh man, terrible sci-fi covers are my catnip. What is this flying potato? Is this swarthy motherfucker supposed to be Shevek? Is he wearing a tuba? 

Shevek is a generational intellect, the one person in the two-planet system who can push physics forward to eventually revolutionize communication and travel technology, but the man is in a difficult position. His planet, Anarres, is a supposedly utopian society in which everyone is free to do whatever they prefer, and to pursue their talents as far as they wish. Yet these ideals are curtailed by the same human limitations that are found in any group of people. Shevek is kept from achieving his potential on his home planet because some people are assholes. So he does a radical thing: he defects from the home that he loves, which upholds the ideals that are ingrained in him, and goes to a place he looks down on because they at least will allow him the freedom to complete his work. Shevek’s experience on Urras is one of internal conflict. Much of what he sees disgusts him. However, there is plenty there which entices and intrigues him. Shevek doesn’t really care about possessions and he’s repelled by quite a lot of what he sees, yet there is a personal freedom to achieve that is lacking on his home planet, a variety of beliefs and ideals which are absent in his homogenous society.

In the end, it’s clear that Le Guin’s sympathies lie with the anarchists on Anarres. Yet she doesn’t let them off easily, and she faces the serious issues such a society would have head on. There are plenty of people on Anarres who display all of those negative human traits which have been limiting human progress for millennia. Yet the problems of Urras are manifest and are clearly worse. The U.S. analogue wants to hijack Shevek’s discoveries for sheer profit, and attempt to swindle the man out of his knowledge so that they can further oppress everyone who isn’t the 1%, basically. This is where the extra-planetary societies come in. The Terrans, who still live on ancestral Earth, end up giving Shevek safe passage back to Anarres and in so doing save the man from being imprisoned on Urras. While this is happening we learn about what happened to Earth – it was decimated by humans doing destructive human shit – until the colony ships split off and made for the stars. The Terrans finally got their shit together, and are now trying to facilitate human communication throughout known space. Shevek’s discoveries might very well help with this, but the conflict on either planet demonstrates is that this is always going to be a tall order.

Posted in Books, Government, Post-Earth, Utopia | Leave a comment

A Clockwork Orange

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Novel * Anthony Burgess * Oh No It’s Droogs! * 1962

Synopsis

I’m pretty sure A Clockwork Orange is the only book I’ve tried to read five times. I was successful in the last two attempts, so clearly the novel grew on me. The first time I read three pages and set it down, like thanks but no thanks. The second time I may have got through the first chapter before setting it down once again, but this time fuck you guy I hate your fake words. The third time I opened it up and went oh yeah I hate this, and put it away. Many years passed and somewhere I must have grown a modicum of patience, so I thought I should give that Clockwork Orange another go. And I did, and it felt pretty good to check that one off the list. It wasn’t a revelation or anything, and I’m pretty sure I was more excited to just to knock one of those books out. You know the albatross books, right? The ones you know you should like, or at least should read? Well, I have lots. Since that fourth time, I started up this here blog which deals with dystopian scenarios, so here we go for round five.

This book is strangely beloved, which I’ve never fully understood. I’ve read it all the way through twice, and all I can really say about it is that Burgess does some interesting/annoying things with language and that I can’t tell if I’m supposed to take it seriously or not. Generally dystopias are an exaggerated extension of contemporary society, and they’re almost always self-evidently blunt. 1984 is pretty clear on its views of totalitarianism. A Clockwork Orange is responding to the hysteria over teenage delinquency, I guess? I understand why people would point to 1984 and say something like: “this book is important to me because it made me question how society works.” Same with Brave New World. Neither of those books offer much in the way of hope, or even sympathetic characters. Yet they’re obvious enough that I understand why people latch onto them. In this instance, I’m at a loss. This novel just feels empty in comparison.

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I appreciate that this looks like an ’80s horror-comedy, but I’m not sure it’s selling the message exactly.

Maybe the novel has put me off because I’ve never seen the even-more-famous Stanley Kubrick film. I mean, I’ve seen the iconic bits and pieces, but I’ve never sat down and watched the thing straight through. Don’t look at me like that, I barely watch movies, I’m trying to correct it. I suspect the novel translates to film pretty well, and it’s easier to put the language into context if you can see what’s happening without having to filter out a bunch of nonsense. Some things are pretty clear, regardless of the medium. Alex, the first-person protagonist, is a violent sociopath. He’s a monster with no conscience the entire time, and he’s impossible to sympathize with unless you too are a violent sociopath. It’s hard to hang your entire narrative on such a repulsive person! Now, this choice does open up a few thoughtful questions later on, but right up front the novel seems exploitative and voyeuristic. That’s not always a bad thing, but there are some egregious scenes here and you know, I think I know the score. I get it.

If you’re not familiar with this work, the narrative is actually pretty simple. It takes place in an indeterminate time in England’s future. Horrible teen gangs roam the streets like The Warriors and smash up property and rob folks. The aforementioned Alex is the self-proclaimed leader of his own gang, and the first part of the novel is an account of him being a psycho. He robs and rapes and is otherwise awful, but then whoopsies, he goes too far and someone dies. Then he goes to jail. Once he’s in jail, he’s mostly fine but ends up in trouble once again and is then subjected to a radical new treatment which the government claims to cure the desire to do violence. It’s a pretty slim novel, and most of the time is spent grappling with learning the vocabulary required to make sense of the narrative. Once you do, it moves pretty quickly. Is it worth reading? I don’t know, probably. Let’s look at a few things Burgess is doing.

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… I mean this cover is just Trump, right?

Discussion

The first and most obvious thing to look at is Burgess’ choice in language. It’s immediately apparent as soon as you open the book that you’re in for some shit. Look at this:

“There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sit in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, as you may, O my brothers, have forgotton what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody quick to forget, newspapers not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no licensce for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they used to put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angles And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet milk with knives in it, as we used to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”

Boy, Word hates every single thing about that paragraph. The first few times I tried to read this, I did too. I don’t know, at first blush it just seems like so much try-hard postmodern bullshit that I actively disliked Burgess for doing this. I’m still not totally on board, although age has mellowed me so that I can at least try and look at this objectively. It’s a clever mish-mash of Cockney rhyming slang, which is fucking bizarre in its own right, made-up British nonsense words, and oddly Slavic constructions. Since we’re dealing with an indeterminate future, the implications of the language are many. Perhaps Western Europe has been heavily influenced by a more aggressive Soviet Union in this future. Kids like Communism, right? That’s the other key ingredient, which is to say youth. Part of what was making teenage culture scary to olds was the rapidity in which they changed language. If you can’t comprehend what they’re saying, you could have no real idea of what they’re doing. Until it’s too late, of course.

A Clockwork Orange’s world is clearly a dire hellscape, but it’s important to remember that we have a very limited viewpoint on its structure. Alex, pretty much the worst person we see in the entire novel, is our only window into this society. He might be a little biased. His entire life is based in violence – ultraviolence, even – and pretty much all we see him do is beat people up and/or sexually assault them. The only things that trouble this depiction of him as a teenage psychopath is his fondness for classical music and his occasional lapse into thee and thou because he likes to sound classy. Classical music is civilized, you see, and rape and murder are not. OR ARE THEY? Oh, I’m onto you now, Burgess. Perhaps civilization itself is to blame for Alex’s behavior. Perhaps the same forces that foster creativity and genius also breed violence? Ugh, no, that’s not it. That’s not it at all.

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All good teen psychopaths drink milk!

Once Alex is locked up, he’s eventually exposed to the Ludovico Technique, which is a kind of mental conditioning which cures him of violent action. Essentially, the State pumps Alex full of drugs and then make him watch a bunch of snuff films so that he associates violent thoughts with violent illness. After two weeks of this Alex is subjected to a public demonstration of his docility. Some dude slaps him around and while Alex’s first impulse is to pull a knife and cut him, he eventually debases himself in order to not feel sick. He’s cured! Yet there are ethical concerns about this technique, which should be self-evident. From here on out A Clockwork Orange gets borderline didactic, but in the end doesn’t really offer the reader much in the way of answers. Alex is now a shell of his former horrible self, which is a good thing right? He literally can’t murder and rape anyone now. Yet he has also been stripped of his freedom of choice, which is what eventually leads to Alex’s de-conditioning. In the end, social pressure forces the State to reverse course and basically restore Alex’s capacity for violence.

By the end, it seems as if A Clockwork Orange is still grappling with the ethical questions of technology, not unlike Brave New World. Clearly, the world isn’t so far gone in Burgess’ novel as it was in Huxley’s vision. The State would never capitulate or admit wrongdoing in any proper dystopia. The idea was to employ a technological solution to a social problem, and while it worked brilliantly it still reduced the perpetrator’s humanity. The point being, even people who act in an anti-social manner are part of society and thus are afforded basic human rights. The restoration of Alex sits uneasily, because we know for a fact that he’s going to go traumatize more of his fellow humans, probably with redoubled effort. And all Burgess gives us is the possibility that he’ll go back to prison to maybe get shanked by a cellmate. Not exactly the most comforting conclusion to draw, but here we are.

Posted in Books, Dystopia, Post Modernity | 2 Comments

Horizon: Zero Dawn

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Game * Guerrilla Games * Post-Machine Apocalypse * 2017

Synopsis

I’m glad I don’t have to worry about what constitutes a “game of the year.” I don’t have a Switch, which means that I’m not even distracted by the likes of Mario or Zelda and between Prey, Wolfenstein II, Nier: Automata, What Remains of Edith Finch (because I care about indies, dammit!) and this game, I couldn’t tell you which is best. It’s a good problem to have, I suppose. Horizon: Zero Dawn has a terrible title, but an excellent everything-else, not the least of which is the setting and the story. The easy pitch is fairly straightforward: you’re a teen girl with a bow and spear and you spend a lot of time hunting robot animals in a post-post-apocalypse situation. If that sounds ridiculous, it totally is. Yet one of the best things about this game is the narrative, because the writers have not only created a convincing world to run around in, they have also created a handful of excellent characters and have written a great story to go with it. I don’t mean “good for a video game,” I mean it’s an excellent story on its own, right straight up. Guerrilla manages to pull off a narrative that remains intriguing and engaging for as long as you play the game – and for me that was around 50 hours or so. Very few games have managed to do this.

The protagonist of Horizon is, admittedly, something of a well-worn cliché, in that Aloy is an exceptionally talented teen girl who is also the singular savior of humanity from the forces of evil. However, the secret about clichés is this: if you do it well, nobody will care. Aloy is rad. I want every protagonist in a young adult dystopia to be more like her. Unlike, say, Katniss Everdeen, Aloy spends very little time feeling sorry for herself or mooning over some boy. She ain’t got time for that nonsense, she’s got shit to do. That said, Aloy is human. The game begins with you controlling Aloy as a little girl, maybe nine years old. Aloy and her father-figure, Rost, are outcasts from the tribe which controls the land where they live. Rost teaches her how to hunt and to survive, and also the seemingly arbitrary and cruel laws of the tribe they are outcast form. Aloy, being the scrappy, plucky young hunter with a heart of gold, chafes under these rules. Especially when people are dicks to her despite doing good works for her neighbors. We get a sick training montage and then Aloy is a teenager who’s about to undergo a tribal ritual that will allow her to join the tribe and she can stop being an outcast. During this trial, something unexpected happens and from there the game opens up.

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Look, I know they’re dicks but you’ve just got to be cool. For really excellent reasons.

During this introduction, Aloy’s character is developed quickly but carefully, and brought to life by the talents of Ashly Burch, who is excellent (and not just because of my heavy Adventure Time bias). There are occasions where you’re given dialogue options to guide various events, but it seems like those mostly set the tone for particular conversations and don’t have much (if anything) to do with changing plot points. Many terrible things happen to Aloy, but despite having an honest and heartfelt reaction to those events, she doesn’t become embittered, and doesn’t succumb to ennui and moodiness like pretty much every teen protagonist ever. Maybe that’s not realistic since we all know that teenagers are awful, but the story and world are constructed in such a way that Aloy’s character seems legit. She has flaws, she has doubts, she has blind spots and vulnerabilities, but at the same time she doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about it. Also she’s blunt and sarcastic, which I appreciate. Aloy has spent her entire childhood as an outcast – the game does an excellent job introducing characters who are extremely mean to you in order to really put you in the role – and she makes it clear how she feels about that. Plus, she’s smart enough to be constantly annoyed by the religious trappings of her society and eventually that of the wider world, and will also let you know about that. Yet despite her disdain for, well, most of the people in the world of Horizon, Aloy repeatedly risks her life to help out.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an open-world action game, so most of the time you’re running around and exploring and completing quests and errands for people you come across in your travels. The structure of the game isn’t new, it’s just well done. I still like open-world games quite a bit, but even I’m starting to get fatigued by the Ubisoftification of these games. Horizon does some of the same things as a Far Cry or an Assassin’s Creed game, but they make subtle changes to the formula which helps the minute-to-minute gameplay from feeling stale. Combat is down to your spear, which is eventually capable of overriding machines, your bow, which is customizable and capable of shooting a variety of arrows, a sling which lobs a variety of bombs, and devices which set traps, such as ropes and tripwires. I used the bow probably 80% of the time, supplemented with a few explosives here and there. Maybe a whack with the spear when things got desperate. I enjoyed myself, although after I had maxed out most of my equipment I was more than happy to skip encounters. That said, despite the size of the world, those machines are densely populated. Sometimes I just want to check out this weird rock formation without being chased by an invisible robot mountain lion, you know?

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This is probably the prettiest game I’ve played all year. It helps when you’re roaming around the mountains and deserts of the Western United States.

Discussion

The nature of the post-apocalypse in Horizon: Zero Dawn is purposefully mysterious, and probably the greatest triumph of the game’s story is the ability to properly pace the narrative so that the player doesn’t get bored and never feels cheated. That’s incredibly difficult to pull off, especially when you’re crafting an experience that takes 30-50 hours to complete. Aloy initially takes the world at face value. Of course you have to learn how to avoid the mechanical murder bots that look like horses and coyotes, that’s just the way it is. But Aloy is special, of course, and is intrigued by the “Metal World,” the decayed ruins of The Old Ones. The structure of the game is rich in dramatic irony, because obviously we’re familiar with the trappings of our own world, and it’s always fun to watch people who have no idea what they’re looking at trying to figure it out. Once Aloy gets out of her homeland and begins to explore, it become a little more clear what kind of world she’s dealing with. It doesn’t take long for Aloy to find the corroded ruins of a major city, and if you’re particularly observant, you’ll notice that it’s Denver.

Horizon’s narrative is actually two closely related stories. There’s the story of Aloy finding her place in the world as well as the larger question of just what the hell happened to create the world. The game is careful to keep these stories balanced and engaging, another impressive feat, and we’ve already seen that Aloy’s characterization is strong enough to make her story engaging on its own. She’s already disillusioned with the constraints of her tribe, and as she meets and engages with other cultures, she’s in a place to look past the deeply held prejudices and biases of most everyone else. There’s way too much background information to get into here, but the ripple effects of Aloy’s actions on human society at large is a big part of the game, and is well told. One of my favorite things about the game is watching people try and fit Aloy into their worldview, especially dudes who are into her. There is no tiresome romantic subplot here, and everything Aloy does is in service to either her own growth or that of society at large. Nothing she does is in the service of a man’s story, which shouldn’t be noticeable and refreshing but for now it is.

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Sure most of the game takes place in Colorado and Utah, but the apocalypse made for whole new landscapes which are really, really cool.

Aloy may be setting the world right, and she may be saving her tribe, and she may overthrow a dark challenge to the world’s major power in Meridian, but she does all of this in service to learn just where she came from, and what happened to the world. Throughout the game, you explore the ruins of a variety of sites where the world’s doom was orchestrated. The apocalypse in questions turns out to be a variation on the “grey goo” scenario. In the mid-21st century a major tech company revolutionizes the robot industry. Soon they’re making all sorts of military-grade robots, which we all know by now is a terrible idea. Now, instead of becoming self-aware and going all Skynet, there’s just a simple glitch. These murder-bots are capable of self-replication, which allows them to carry on the fight without having to leave the battlefield for repairs. In order to do this, they harvest available biomass for the energy and resources to create more killbots. The glitch removes the killbots’ ability to stop this process of self-replication. The more the robots self-replicate, the more biomass they use, which becomes an exponential problem to the point where eventually there will be no more biomass to fuel the process, when the replication finally stops. The world ended because there was literally nothing left alive.

That’s a fascinating scenario, but it’s also kind of terminal, so obviously something else had to happen otherwise there wouldn’t be all this life all over the place. Humanity survived, and that’s due to the last-ditch effort to save life by Aloy’s ancient ancestor Elizabet Sobeck. This story, which is told in a series of journal entries and holograms and audio files, is excellent in its own right. Elizabet’s battle with the amoral Ted Faro (the CEO of the killbot company) is compelling, and there are also well-chosen details which supplement the entire experience. Anyway, the savior of life turns out to be an AI, known as GAIA. This AI is given all the resources necessary to reseed life with the help of a bunch of robot animals. It’s made clear how precarious this solution is. Such minor issues as a door not closing (or opening) have dramatic consequences. GAIA is supplemented by a variety of other systems intended to facilitate the restoration of the biosphere, but also with the reeducation of humanity. The repository of knowledge is called APOLLO, and it’s intended to be there to install the entirety of human knowledge and experience into those who come after. Needless to say, considering everyone is living in various tribes, that knowledge didn’t trickle all the way down.

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Ah, the ruins of Sports Authority Stadium couched in the wilds of the reclaimed Rocky Mountains. That’s my whole aesthetic right there.

There is one issue I have with this game, which is going to come up when you’re dealing with fictional tribes of humans, and that’s pretty clear problem of cultural appropriation. If you’re rolling your eyes and muttering “why can’t I be allowed to like things” then relax, you should still absolutely play the game. It’s still great. But also fuck you because it still sucks to see obvious tribal referents used all willy-nilly in media. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a quarter Quileute Indian, and even though I’m not officially affiliated with the tribe I can still see white people running around calling themselves “braves” and be annoyed by it. Look, it’s not a deal-breaker but it’s also lazy. In a game where so much care was taken with the details of the world and the story, it’s disappointing that the same care wasn’t taken with the tribal symbolism. It’s one of the few negatives in an otherwise outstanding experience, and frankly in a world where I can hear the phrase “and he somehow made the catch while surrounded by Redskins” on any given Sunday, it’s not that bad. Still, it’s a thing. Do better, creators.

Other than that bit of unpleasantness, Horizon is clearly one of the best games released in this horrible year full of wonderful video games. I’m weirdly disappointed that this game probably did well enough to spawn a franchise, though. I know this is sacrilege in an era of endless spin-offs and sequels and unending franchises, but not everything I like needs to be a series, you know? Horizon tells a fantastic story. Aloy and the other ancillary characters have a satisfying arc. I was feeling real good about the whole thing but of course there’s a post-credits sting because the MCU has ruined everything. Anyway, there’s a hundred other things to talk about here, because this game is dense with quality, but at some point I have to close down the rambling. If you have a PS4, play the thing. If you don’t, consider getting one. I don’t know if Horizon: Zero Dawn is the best game of 2017 but I also don’t actually care. It’s great regardless.

Posted in Artificial Intelligence, Environment, Games, Post-Post-Apocalypse | Leave a comment