The Eyes of the Dragon

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Novel * Stephen King * Stephen King High Fantasy? * 1987

Synopsis

I haven’t read The Eyes of the Dragon since… I don’t even remember. High school? Earlier? Needless to say it’s been a very long time, and this is only important because I think I read it before my Dark Tower fever set in, and so I kind of forgot about it. Coming back around, after having read the vast majority of King’s output as well as the entire Tower cycle in the meantime, the novel is an anomaly. The Eyes of the Dragon is strange not only because it’s a weird, Tower-adjacent tale, but because it is a genre that Stephen King doesn’t really fuck with, and that’s high fantasy. So that’s odd, but not out of character. After all, with a writer as obscenely prolific as Mr. King, it’s perfectly natural for his interests to swing all over the place, genre-wise. The thing is, King has a very specific, well-honed voice and style that sets him apart from anyone else. When it comes to writing, you don’t have to be a fan to recognize a brilliant craftsman. Anyway, The Eyes of the Dragon is high fantasy, but it’s Stephen King high fantasy, if you can dig that.

If you’re a fan of The Dark Tower series and haven’t read this, well, it’ll mess with you. And it’ll do it right away, so while I get deeper into the connection later on in the article, we should make something clear right away. This is not a Dark Tower story. It is a story which takes place on one of the infinite levels of the Tower, but nothing in this tale really touches on any of the core series in any meaningful way. That said, the novel opens up like a fairy tale: “Once, in a kingdom called Delain, there was a King with two sons.” That king’s name is Roland the Good, and shortly after that we learn he has an uneasy advisor, the court magician, Flagg. Right?! The thing is, this book was written in 1984 (for his daughter) and not published widely until 1987. So, after the first Dark Tower novel but before even The Drawing of the Three came about. So, as strange as it may seem to read about a Roland who’s a bowlegged drunk, it probably didn’t register with all that many people when it first appeared. Also, as I mentioned, The Eyes of the Dragon is entirely its own thing. After finishing it, my only real disappointment is that King never revisited the Kingdom of Delain.

The Eyes of the Dragon sits somewhere between the epic high fantasy of Tolkien and a fairy tale. It’s not quite as simplistic as a fable or an actual fairy tale, but then it’s not nearly as detailed and daunting as, say, The Wheel of Time. The novel is briskly paced, there isn’t too much in the way of leaden world-building, and the cast of characters is every bit as well-drawn and compelling as you might expect from Stephen King. The outline of the story is pretty simple. King Roland is in poor health, and soon the kingdom will fall to his elder son, Peter. Flagg, the malicious magician advisor, would prefer the crown go to Peter’s sad, flawed brother, Thomas. As you might imagine, things don’t go terribly well for young Peter. As the story unfolds, we learn a lot about the royal family dynamics – this is primarily a story about characters and less about magical adventures. While that might disappoint some fantasy fans, I found the relationship between the various characters to be fascinating. Especially when concerning poor Thomas, who really didn’t stand much of a chance throughout. Even if the narrative can only end in one way, it’s still a fairy story after all, the journey is well worth the time, if only to get to know these characters.

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 I know it’s unfair to judge a career based on a single role that hasn’t existed in 30 years, but imagine if Bronson Pinchot read every audio book in the Balki voice.

Discussion

Roland the Good isn’t actually that good of a king, but I guess Roland the Mediocre doesn’t have the same ring to it. He clearly wants to go the right thing, but he’s a bit simple. He likes to hunt and drink and that’s about it. Women frighten him, which is a little bit off stereotype for the hedonistic king model, but that’s what makes him intriguing. All in all, he’s weak, and that weakness threatens to undo the solid work of his fathers before him. However, Roland knows quality when he sees it, and he sees it in his son Peter. Unfortunately, he also unwittingly sows discord in his sad son Thomas because that poor son of a bitch was never going to measure up to his older brother. Peter’s character is probably the least interesting of the main characters here, if only because he’s a little too awesome all the time. Most of this he gets from his mother, the kind Queen Sasha who in the end was too smart for her own good and triggered the wrath of Flagg. In due time, the quality that Sasha passed onto her son also put Peter in Flagg’s crosshairs. Of course because Peter is so wonderful and kind and good, he manages to win instant loyalty among a small core of helpers, which eventually gets him sprung from his tower-jail.

Peter, alongside Flagg, is indicative of the fairy-tale aspect of The Eyes of the Dragon. The dude just doesn’t have all that much depth, because he’s supposed to be the pure, moral center of the tale. Peter always does the right thing, and his heart is pure. There is no point where he has a dark thought, and the only point of weakness I can think of is his relationship with his younger brother, Thomas. Even there, it seems like he does all he can. He’s modest and thoughtful and puts other people first. It’s a little much, to be honest. Likewise, Flagg is pure chaotic evil. There’s no point in the story where the reader is made to empathize with him. There’s not a single shade of grey. Flagg doesn’t think he’s doing the right thing. Flagg is simply there to fuck shit up in the most grandiose way possible. These two characters are at the extremes, and are broad oversimplifications of human nature. They’re there to provide a clear moral to the reader. Be like Peter, fear Flagg. If this were an actual fairy tale, the overall plot would be the same, and these two characters would also remain. The major difference would be the rest of cast, who in a fairy tale would be simple cardboard cutouts of humanity.

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Rabbit. Why? Because rabbit, that’s why.

Lucky for us, Stephen King has almost never delivered a flat character in his life. Instead we get dull, listless Roland and the pathetic, tormented Thomas, both of whom add much needed depth to the story. Beyond them, we also have an assortment of ancillary characters who also brim with life. I particularly enjoy moody Peyna and the irrepressible Naomi. To be fair, the latter isn’t as well rounded as either Penya or even Ben, but it’s nice to have at least one woman in the story who’s not immediately murdered. Honestly, this is the main quibble I have with the book, because if King wrote the book for his daughter, why not deliver a kickass princess to save the day? Well, whatever. It should be noted that one of the reasons King excels at character building is his ability to deliver relevant anecdotes about people at appropriate times. It’s in this way that we learn a little more about Penya’s integrity and his loyalty to his servant. By the same token, we are quickly made to see Naomi’s self-assurance and her faith in her good dog, Frisky. The Eyes of the Dragon succeeds due to the depth of the cast of characters here, and you’ll note that I didn’t talk about the plot much. I mean, Flagg frames Peter for regicide and gets him imprisoned in a tower. Peter, an intellectual, escapes via napkin-rope, and saves the day with the help of his friends. The plot is almost an afterthought. What’s important are the people.

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Dragon. Who spends most of his time as a hollow, severed head on a wall.

All Things Serve The Beam

As I noted at the beginning, The Eyes of the Dragon is pretty clearly a story from another level of the Tower. The name of the kingdom is Delain, which is very close to Roland’s surname in the novels, Deschain. Obviously King Roland should raise some eyebrows among fans. What’s fascinating about King Roland is how much he has in common with the badass gunslinger we know the true Roland to be. Roland the Gunslinger isn’t dumb, but his thinking is slow. Painfully so, sometimes. He’s a man of action, after all, and he readily admits that he has trouble “thinking around corners.” Still, Roland the Gunslinger is adept at improvisation, which is key to the situations he finds himself in. Meanwhile, Roland the King was born into a stable, stagnant situation. He had none of the training or trauma that his gunslinger doppelganger went through. Despite that, his one inborn talent is hunting, which lines up nicely. That said, if Roland the Gunslinger was ever confronted with this version of himself, he would be disgusted. Meanwhile, Flagg is Flagg is Flagg. This version of King’s ur-villain is less giddy than other incantations, but is still the same chaotic evil monster as represented in The Stand and as Walter in the Dark Tower novels.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Film * Rian Johnson * And Like the Second Empire * 2017

Synopsis

If I recall correctly, this is the one the die-hard Star Wars fans hate. I went into watching this movie with the knowledge of fan backlash in the back of my head, curious as to what they were all pissed off about. Well, I watched the film hot off watching The Force Awakens and Rogue One, and it’s like… The Last Jedi is clearly in the same wheelhouse. As a lapsed fan who hasn’t had much of a relationship with the franchise in about a decade, I find myself enjoying these new movies. As I noted in the article for The Force Awakens, however, it’s a relatively superficial enjoyment. It’s the kind of mild thumbs up reserved for Marvel movies or any kind of other big-budget adventure flick. I’ll dig into some of the more specific arguments I’ve heard as to why The Last Jedi is bad after the break, but suffice to say if your expectations are in line with what Star Wars actually is, and always has been, then you’ll have a good time. The spectacle on display here is unparalleled. Some of the set pieces in this thing are, whew, impressive. I still enjoy these characters, and the new additions are fine as well.

Taking a wide view, the plot of The Last Jedi is a little loose. After the events of The Force Awakens, our primary characters are kind of all over the place. Rey is off trying to recruit Old Man Luke Skywalker to the cause, and is having trouble because Luke has turned into Yoda, basically. Meanwhile, Finn is coming to terms with his instinct to run the fuck away as quickly as possible but eventually runs into a new character, Rose, who manages to ground him. Poe, the reckless, cocky pilot, gets into some trouble and spends most of the film being insubordinate and kind of obnoxious. As for the bad guys, Kylo Ren is getting into a Vader-Emperor power struggle with the new fake Emperor, Snope. Much of the film is dedicated to playing Ren and Rey against each other, and for the most part it works. Ren is emo as hell, and Rey is extremely earnest, but I enjoy their screen time together. There is a believable tension between the two, and all the young actors inject their roles with a vigor and liveliness which is totally absent from the prequel trilogy.

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Ugh, youths are the worst.

All that said, The Last Jedi probably doesn’t need to be two and a half hours long. There’s plenty of opportunities to trim from a film that ends up being a touch bloated. Of course, you can take that with a grain of salt because I start getting impatient with any movie that’s over 90 minutes long. Still, the centerpiece of the action here is the First Order slowly, very slowly, hunting down the last remnant of the Resistance. Everything else that happens occurs with that doomsday countdown clock ticking overhead. I get that the slow encroachment of the First Order on the very last bit of resistance is supposed to add tension, but what with the story playing fast and loose with faster-than-light travel, that clock feels rather trivial. If you can up and travel to distant planetary systems and back in a few hours, well, you’re opening up all kinds of plot inconsistencies for Star Wars turbo-nerds to get needlessly bent out of shape about. None of these things really gets in the way of what Star Wars is, which is a rollicking big space-fantasy adventure. If your expectations are along those lines, they’ll be met. The Last Jedi is fun, and that’s all it needs to be.

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I like promo shots. “Look stern. Sterner. Hey, buddy, you still look confused. We’re going for menacing. Menacinger. Oh whatever, it’s fine.”

Discussion

Alas, being fun isn’t enough for the superfans. It never is. It’s what happens when you lionize something over years and years and are then confronted with the bare truth of the matter. It happens, it’s a process. The prequel trilogy laid bare for me how Star Wars works, what the movies were actually doing. I mean, the original trilogy was a big deal to me when I was a kid, but I was also not known for my astute cultural analysis when I was eight. I had a little bit more experience and education under my belt when the prequels came out, but even then they were no match for my nostalgia. Because make no mistake, I loved those prequel movies when they came out. I fully got swept up into the hype machine, because I was in my early 20’s and was experiencing my first real wave of nostalgia for my childhood. So when Yoda busts out his tiny lightsaber and starts hopping around like a meth’d out grasshopper, I was into it. For a while. But at some point I watched those movies in the cold light of day, after the rush of opening day hype and reveling in the wider universe for a while. What was left were three below-average movies that traded in spectacle and forgot how to craft broad, tropey characters so that they weren’t so obviously two dimensional. Even worse, those prequel movies exposed the fairly obvious flaws of the original trilogy.

It took a long time to come back around and enjoy Star Wars again. I’m never going to feel that wave of opening night excitement for it again, because that time has passed for me. I don’t even want it, to be honest, because I’m pushing forty and going outside always sounds like a hassle. All that said, when I read through internet threads where the fans are upset at The Last Jedi, I’m mostly seeing arguments that translate to people being sad and/or angry that they’ve finally seen beyond the curtain. In the interest of fairness, I will now bring up some of the most common online reasoning as to why The Last Jedi is the worst thing that’s ever been made in the known universe. I’m trying to do my best when it comes to building my strawman here, and so most of these issues with the film are from actual threads in the usual places, like reddit. Scorned Star Wars fans are not shy, y’all. So here we go.

  1. Jokes! There’s too many stupid/unfunny/pointless jokey-jokes in The Last Jedi. It messes up the tension of the plot and makes the overall tone of the movie uneven.

First of all, humor is subjective. You might not think Poe’s borderline postmodern quipping is funny, but I liked it. The humor of the new Star Wars movies crib a lot from the Marvel universe, of course, and I think that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. I get it. The weird thing about Marvel-movie humor is that it generally fits the tone and character of the movie, but is rarely memorable outside the movie. Nobody is running around quoting Iron Man lines as if it’s The Princess Bride, you know? That said, the humor in this movie beats the shit out of the clownshow that was Jar-Jar Binks. And don’t even get me started on that fucker C3PO. There’s always been goofy shit in Star Wars. Ewoks exist, after all. We’re marketing toys for children here, people.

  1. Luke wouldn’t be like that! In fact, most of the recognizable characters do not act in ways that the audience expect. They have established traits form the first movie and The Last Jedi throws that all away.

I mean, Luke has always been a hotheaded, whiny baby, right? Was I watching the same movies? Of course he shows growth over the original three movies, but he’s still generally impatient and a little too eager to overcompensate for his own insecurities. A successful character arc doesn’t mean that a character overcomes all of their flaws, after all. Besides, we’ve been completely out of touch with all these characters for 30 years, and a lot has happened, most of which we’ll never know. For the most part, the primary old guard characters seem true to their younger counterparts. Nothing seemed like a reach. Luke failed, spectacularly, and the ability to use that failure to run away and sulk has been in his character from the beginning. So was his ability to overcome that eventually and be the hero.

  1. The plot is a mess. What was the point of the whole casino-planet side story? There are established elements of the story which are internally inconsistent, like how light speed works. Also, they basically steal like half the plot from the first three movies.

I will readily concede that the plot is the weakest aspect of The Last Jedi. I get what they were going for, but I don’t think they exactly nailed the execution. That said, the choices were made for a reason. The casino bit, while too long and too disconnected from the main story, still served a purpose. One, it gave Finn and Rose something to do, and more importantly gave that relationship an opportunity to mean something. Two, it’s our only real opportunity to see a planet outside of the immediate conflict areas. It’s a look at normalcy under the First Order, and this underscores the movie’s theme, which is that the real rebellion hasn’t even started yet. That’s why the very ending of the film is a shot of those little rebel kids. As for the rest of the plot, I guess I just don’t get worked up about the details anymore. I mean, it’s a fantasy-adventure movie that has never bothered to learn what a parsec is. Who am I to tell them that they can’t warp into the middle of their attack cluster? Finally, while there are definitely recurring themes and plot elements in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi that were present in the original trilogy, I find that they’re used to ground the new stories in what audiences are familiar with rather than just being lazy.

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If I can’t have Poe-Finn because of your heteronormative squeamishness, then Rose-Finn will have to do. 

Those seem to be the big ones. People hate on Rose, but I liked her. I suppose that’s just a subjective thing. I’m sure there’s a million other little quibbles to be had – I’m not sitting here trying to defend these as the greatest movies of all time or anything. I’m also not trying to completely dismiss the above criticisms. I just think it’s useful to look at them in context of not only other Star Wars movies, but other movies of this type. These are big, broad, blockbuster movies and are constructed as such. When these kind of films are good, they’re not only entertaining but retain a simple core an audience can hold onto. The Fast and the Furious movies are fun and dumb as shit, but they’re also movies about the meaning of family and drinking Coronas, so we can all relate. When these kind of movies are bad, they’re just a cacophony of noise devoid of humanity, like the Transformers movies. Star Wars is, and has always been, a giant spectacle with a simple core of humanity. Sure there is the suggestion of a wider world, filled with an infinite amount of characters and stories, but at least insofar as the movies are concerned, it’s only ever suggestion. At their heart, all Star Wars needs to do is present its fantastic universe and give us some characters worth caring about, in the broadest possible sense. To that end, I think The Last Jedi succeeds in its purpose.

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Moby Dick

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Novel * Herman Melville * White Whale, Holy Grail * 1851

Synopsis

When I was in grad school I took a course in 19th century American literature, the idea being to become more familiar with what was going on in books before Modernism. Looking over my syllabus, I was alarmed to see one of the quarter’s assignments was Moby Dick. This wasn’t alarming because it’s a long, difficult book – it’s graduate school, there’s no shortage of excessive reading assignments. No, it alarmed me because I had tried to read Moby Dick on three separate occasions before that and had only ever managed maybe a hundred pages or so before quitting in a rage. Whatever, though, the cagey grad school student knows how to skirt around onerous reading assignments, so I dipped around in the text and got what I needed, but that made four attempts at this book and four failures. While that didn’t surprise me, the attitude of one of my cohort did. She fucking loved Moby Dick, to the point of reading it annually. She was excited to read it for class because, well, she was going to do it anyway. I couldn’t understand the appeal. I still don’t, despite the fact that, at long last, I finally managed to stick a harpoon in this fucker and finish it.

The reason I don’t understand the appeal should be obvious to anyone who has tried to read it. Herman Melville doesn’t make it easy. He’s not writing for your enjoyment, or your enlightenment, or for you at all. I’m not actually sure what he’s doing, or why, because the novel itself is so strangely composed it’s difficult to get a proper handle on it. It’s a novel, yes, but there are so many tangents which go in so many different directions to so many different purposes it’s hard to call it coherent story. The narrative, strictly speaking, is easy to wrap your head around. I’m willing to bet most people could sketch a quick outline for you, simply through a century and a half of cultural osmosis. There’s a whaling ship captain named Ahab. He’s real mad at this massive, aggressive white whale which ate his leg. He gets his crew together and chases it. They catch up to it, and Moby Dick wrecks his ship all up and nearly everyone dies. If you’re bummed I just spoiled a 167 year old novel for you, sorry. Still, that’s the extent of what happens in this novel. The actual story is not the point.

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No wonder that whale is so hard to bring down. It flies and also breathes fire.

If Melville had an actual editor, who meticulously went through the text and excised all the extraneous material from the book which has nothing to do with the journey of the Pequod and her crew, Moby Dick would be a hundred page long novella. The other four hundred some-odd pages are story adjacent, maybe, as most of them concern whales in some way. One thing you should definitely be prepared for is the sheer volume of whale-talk. Inaccurate whale-talk. It can be tough, sometimes, as an enlightened citizen of the 21st century reading a long, scientific passage which outlines the whale’s warm blood and lungs, only to have Melville accept all that and still come to the conclusion that the whale is still a fish. Why? Well, because the Bible says so, and also he knew an old whaling captain back in Nantucket who’d be pissed if you called a whale anything other than a fish. And then Melville keeps going. Just on and on and on about various kinds of whales and what the different aspects of the whaling ship are for and how they hunt the whale and what they do with it when they kill one, in excruciating detail, to the point where Moby Dick is more a 19th century documentary about the whaling industry than anything else.

It’s for this reason that it’s hard for a modern reader to really get a grasp on the novel. I’m probably better equipped than most to deal with this fucking thing, and I’m at something of a loss. Now when it comes to literary analysis, I’ve never focused terribly hard on overt symbolism, which probably doesn’t help considering that this is a famous symbolist novel. Yet even knowing that, it’s difficult to discern what is important and what is not. Because quite frankly, most of the novel is supercilious in tone while being superfluous to the story being told. And if you enjoyed those two words, maybe Moby Dick is for you. All that said, I think there is still value here. There were times I was transported to the deck of the Pequod and was feeling the nautical vibe of the whaling adventure. There were times I was in awe of Ahab’s monomaniacal force of will. There are scenes of humor and metaphysical transcendentalism which border on inspiring. That’s all here, but you really do have to work for it.

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I always enjoy an effective minimalist cover, although the whale looks fairly nonplussed, considering.

Discussion

Over the course of writing these articles, I generally try to take a more casual approach which hopefully serves to appeal to an audience that maybe didn’t pay that much attention in English class while still affecting some amount of depth than might still appeal to those who did. To this end, I almost never use secondary sources when discussing a work. It’s my general preference, here, to take a more direct, personal approach with the media I’m discussing. However, sometimes a text will be so far out of my area of expertise, it’s really in my best interest to look elsewhere for help. In the case of Moby Dick, I am way out of my depth. One nice thing about academic forums is that you quickly learn that there’s no shame in leaning on the established criticism of a text in order to help form your own point of view. Especially with canonical works like this. In this instance, my edition of Moby Dick has some excerpts of critical essays which will hopefully help me elucidate just what in the hell I just read. As it happens, my boy D.H. Lawrence has my back. I’m going to pull a quote or two, and that should see us through.

The following are taken from Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature:

“Moby-Dick, or the White Whale.

A hunt. The last great hunt.

For what?

For Moby-Dick, the huge white sperm whale: who is old, hoary, monstrous, and swims alone; who is unspeakably terrible in his wrath, having so often been attacked; and snow-white.

Of course he is a symbol.

Of what?

I doubt if even Melville knew exactly. That’s the best of it.”

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I dunno, maybe stop jamming sharp sticks in its eyeball and it’ll stop eating you.

Okay, well that’s how the article begins and so far, Mr. D.H. Lawrence, you’re not exactly helping out, although I appreciate the unorthodox structure of your criticism. He goes on to talk a little bit about the whale before circling back and just trashing Herman Melville. Trust me when I tell you that nothing gives the researcher more secret pleasure than going through old criticism and reading the cattiest, rudest statements leveled at canonical masters by other canonical masters. It’s a nice reminder that even geniuses are human. Anyway, here’s Lawrence being a bit of a bitch (which, to be fair, was kind of his default mode).

“At first you are put off by the style. It reads like journalism. It seems spurious. You feel Melville is trying to put something over you. It won’t do.

And Melville really is a bit sententious: aware of himself, self-conscious, putting something over even himself. But then it’s not easy to get into the swing of a piece of deep mysticism when you just set out with a story.

Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville, even in a great book like Moby-Dick. He preaches and holds forth because he’s not sure of himself. And he holds forth, often, so amateurishly.”

Lawrence is such a mean girl. Anyway, as you might expect I felt a wave of vindication reading this passage because I thought most of those same thoughts, if in slightly more vulgar parlance. The prose really is just ponderous and monotonous. And Ishmael, the ostensible narrator, never, ever feels like a proper character. He has no agency, no interior life. He’s a Melville analogue who is there to tell you everything you never wanted to know about the whaling industry in and around Nantucket in the mid-19th century. And he has some very hard opinions about that time and place. Moby Dick, in many areas, is an insecure justification of the American point of view. Not just Manifest Destiny, but total dominion over the very ocean and the Leviathans within. One of the didactic side-chapters is about the question of over-hunting, and Melville acknowledges that while humans can and have overhunted species before, whales can’t go extinct because they’re so big. I guess? The chapter ended up being a dismissal because the conservationist point of view (which didn’t really exist at that time) conflicts with the entrenched, salt-encrusted traditions of the American whaler. Lawrence has some things to say about Americans.

“It is the same old thing as in all Americans. They keep their old-fashioned ideal frock-coat on, and an old-fashioned silk hat, while they do the most impossible things. There you are: you see Melville hugged in bed by a huge tattooed South Sea Islander, and solemnly offering burnt offering to this savage’s little idol, and his ideal frock-coat just hides his shirt-tails and prevents us from seeing his bare posterior as he salaams, while his ethical silk hat sits correctly over his brow the while. That is so typically American: doing the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. Their ideals are like armour which has rusted in, and will never come off.”

That’s… pretty accurate. As a nation we’ve never been terribly put off doing the most insane things while still wrapping ourselves in a cloak of innocent righteousness. Yeah yeah, we’re genociding the bejeezus out of these dang Indians, but we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do! Sure, we’ve built an entire industrial economy on the back of involuntary labor in the South, but the slaves have Jesus now so really we did them a favor. Nor is it all negative, although the ethical armor is used to protect us from blame more often than not. Even whaling, which I expect most people to be against in this day and age, is something of a wonderment. Pre-industrial ships setting out for years at a time and harvesting the largest animals on earth like it ain’t no thing? That’s impressive. Possibly just as impressive is a Quaker captain like Ahab convincing a thoroughly diverse crowd of men to do his bidding, despite the insanity of it. Okay, one more Lawrence quote to finish out, so we can get an idea of what the hell Moby Dick is supposed to mean.

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The guy in the hat doesn’t even look bummed. He’s just like, yep, I sort of figured this was how it was gonna go.

“So ends one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. It is an epic of the sea such as no man has equaled; and it is a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of considerable tiresomeness.

But it is a great book, a very great book, the greatest book of the sea ever written. It moves awe in the soul.

The terrible fatality.

Fatality.

Doom.

Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!

Doom of what?

Doom of our white day. We are doomed, doomed. And the doom is in America. Doom of our white day.”

I’m gonna sing the doom song now! D.H. Lawrence goes on for a bit with the doom talk, but that’s rather the gist of it. Moby Dick, for Lawrence, is the reckoning of civilization, which is represented by the Pequod. The Pequod, which is the finely crafted, civilized ship of America, is doomed. It is doomed to utter destruction by the chaotic vagrancies of the natural world. This attitude is a refrain from Lawrence’s literature, of course. He was as anti-industrialism as they come. He saw the breakneck technological pace of the late 19th century and the early 20th century as a portent of civilization rushing to its own destruction. That the extermination of the natural world would be the extermination of the human race. Or, at the very least, the “white race” as depicted by the Pequod. Considering that my site has the world “apocalypse” in it, you will not be surprised that I am perfectly happy with this conclusion. More doom more better, as nobody says but should. That said, Moby Dick, as a work of unfettered symbolism, can mean pretty much anything the reader wants it to mean. The text is there to be used as evidence of your interpretation. Personally, I’m fine with Lawrence’s evaluation. And now I can finally stop thinking about Moby Dick. Thanks, D.H.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Film * J.J. Abrams * Totally not the Empire Again * 2015

Synopsis

Well good job, Rogue One, you went and made me watch the rest of the new movies. I held out for a long time, for reasons stated in other articles, but here we are and it turns out, Star Wars is still all right. As a lapsed fan, I’ve come around, and can now enjoy these movies for what they are. And what are they? They’re bright and flashy action-adventure movies set in an iconic universe which is as deep or as shallow as your imagination wants it to be. That’s what Star Wars has always been. I’m not sure it counts as an epiphany or revelation, and I’ll definitely get into it a bit more when I defend The Last Jedi, but I’ve come to understand what is appealing about Star Wars in general. When I was a kid, it was a fertile universe for my imagination. In my twenties, when the prequels were hitting, it was my first real blast of nostalgia. Now, an uncomfortable amount of years later, they’re just fun movies I don’t have to spend too much time thinking about. The set pieces are cutting edge and amazing, like they always have been. The characters are broadly drawn but compelling, just like they always have been. The tone is fairly light, just it always has been. Turns out, J.J. Abrams has a pretty good idea of what is appealing about Star Wars. He certainly has a better handle on it than why people enjoy Star Trek.

So, The Force Awakens, three years later. Personally, I liked Rogue One better, because it felt newer than this film, which deliberately draws parallels to the original trilogy in order to smooth over any residual bitterness left over from the prequel trilogy. Damn there’s a lot of these fucking movies. This franchise is endless. Anyway, I still like the movie. Better than A New Hope, even, which might sound like blasphemy, but The Force Awakens gets off to a better start. Plus we already know about the universe and the major players in it, we’re familiar with the history, so it doesn’t have to do any of the legwork that first film had to do. Of course, there’s still some groundwork which needs to be laid down. There’s exposition needed to help us understand what’s been going on since 1983, or whatever the equivalent date system is in the Star Wars universe. Even more importantly, we’ve got these new characters to deal with.

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That droid could buy you so many power converters.

It’s a good thing that the new additions are all great characters. Actually, allow me to rephrase that. The new additions are great Star Wars characters. That’s not intended as in insult, either, because Star Wars is a particular kind of story. Star Wars characters need to be broadly drawn – heroes or villains or scoundrels – while at the same time retaining a relatable humanity about them an audience can connect with. They need to have a clear background, but we can’t spend a million years dwelling on that background. They need to have a clear motivation and a clear goal, even if that goal is little other than “save the day” or “ruin everyone’s shit all up.” So here comes our new characters. Our primary hero is Rey, an otherwise unassuming young scavenger who spends her days trying to survive while patiently waiting for… something or someone to come back to her. Our primary villain is Kylo Ren, who really wants to be as rad as Darth Vader and never will be. We got our hotshot pilot, Poe, who has problems with authority and an extremely marketable droid, BB-8. There’s also Finn, a stormtrooper with a heart of gold who would like nothing more than to get away from the not-Empire, the First Order. Okay, let’s get into it.

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And here, with Finn and Poe, we have the true beating heart of the entire story. Poor BB-8, looking all forlorn, knowing Poe is lost.

Discussion

The opening of The Force Awakens gives off some heavy New Hope vibes, and I’m sure this is a deliberate choice to ease old fans back into the groove of the original trilogy. I mean, we’ve got an adorable droid who has a top secret message and a scuzzy desert backwater town featuring exactly one redeemable human being who also happens to be our hero. That said, there are additions and layers and callbacks present which successfully differentiate from the previous movies. Finn in particular is an excellent addition to the formula. For whatever reason, his stromtrooper conditioning didn’t work and he grew a conscience and an individual personality. When it comes time to slaughter innocent civilians, as a stormtrooper is wont to do, he refuses. Shortly thereafter, he takes the first opportunity to hitch a ride with Poe to get the hell up out of Dodge. When that goes bad, he hitches his wagon to Rey, who has her own issues she’s working with. This is all 400% more tolerable than whiny-baby Luke in A New Hope, by the way. Rey and Finn have no discernable relationship with previous characters, but both are still established here with these early interactions. Finn is conflicted between wanting to run the fuck away and the desire to do right. Likewise, Rey is a hopeless romantic who keeps herself going with the fantasy that her parents are going to return to her and is faced with the chance to make a difference. Honestly, we don’t need a whole lot more going forward, you know?

The Force Awakens is still a sequel, however, and so it’s not too terribly long before old characters show up and start giving us some exposition to fill in the 32 years which have passed since the Empire expired in Return of the Jedi. It apparently didn’t take too long for a new baddie to show up, even though the movies don’t really get into the origins of Sith-Gollum, or whatever the hell Snoke is supposed to be. So while the Empire may have been defeated, here comes the First Order with pretty much the exact same infrastructure and a weird planet-gun what shoots star-juice and can explode planets up just like the Death Star but like, bigger. That’s all… a little disappointing. Still, Kylo Ren manages to redeem some of the menace I personally didn’t feel much with the New Order. He’s the son of Han and Leia, and is an extremely powerful Force user. Unfortunately, he’s pretty well tipped over the Dark Side, which is a bummer for the various heroes. Probably the best thing the movie does with him is to successfully set up his massive inferiority complex. Of course nothing these new films could come up with will ever be as iconic and awesome as Darth Vader. It’s impossible. So here comes Kylo Ren, with a lame helmet and dopey outfit, and of course he’s trying as hard as he can to be as cool as his grandfather. And of course he never will be.

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Rey is awesome, and Kylo Ren’s lightsaber still looks stupid.

The point of The Force Awakens is to thwart the First Order by tracking down Luke Skywalker and getting him to unleash his sick Jedi powers to save the day. The beach ball droid has the missing bit of map, which will serve to point the way to where Luke has been holed up for years. The reasons Luke bailed are explained in greater depth in the next movie, but suffice to say he’s gone Yoda. After the climactic confrontation between Ren and Rey (Star Wars names will never cease to be the actual worst), Rey takes off to go find Luke and get her Empire Strikes Back training montage on. Meanwhile, Han Solo is dead, thanks to a reverse Vader-Luke situation in which the son dispatches the father. Like quite a lot of The Force Awakens, there are echoes and reverberations of the original trilogy in this scene, and therefore it doesn’t hit as hard. That said, I don’t know that it needs to. You’re never going to regain what Star Wars was when it was new. It’s like Kylo Ren trying to be Darth Vader, it’s never going to happen. Nor should it. These movies can succeed on their own terms as lighthearted action-adventure movies, which The Force Awakens, at least, does.

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Scarlet

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Novel * Marissa Meyer * Wolf-Based Dystopia * 2013

Synopsis

Oh, I see what we’re doing here. In Scarlet, Marisa Meyer continues the story she began with Cinder, but mixes it up with a new protagonist based on a new fairy tale. I was alarmed at first, because I thought maybe this meant that Cinder was going to be sidelined while Meyer brings this new character up to speed, but thankfully this is not the case. The new character, Scarlet, shares the stage with the protagonist of the last book. I like Scarlet and all, but Cinder as a character was such a refreshing change of pace for a lead character in a young adult novel that it’s going to be hard to displace her as my favorite. To be fair to Scarlet, though, she is facing something of an uphill battle. After all, Cinder had an entire novel to establish herself and her character while Scarlet basically gets half the time. And as I said, I like Scarlet. She’s a prickly young woman with a strong moral ethic and sense of justice. Also she has a temper and packs heat. She’s extremely loyal to her grandmother and has a thing for bad boys.

In case it’s somehow unclear, Scarlet uses the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale for its framework. Scarlet has a red hoodie that she’s fond of, a grandmother she lives with and loves, and before you know it makes friends with a street-fighter named “Wolf.” The point of these novels is not subtlety, after all. Still, like Cinder before it, there is fun to be had trying to figure out which aspects of the popular fairy tale are going to be used and how. More importantly, from a narrative point of view, it’s just as fun trying to figure out how Meyer is going to subvert these elements in her own story. Obviously, the characters in this novel have more depth and layers than you get in a fairy tale, which rely on flat character tropes in order to impart morality lessons. Early on, when Scarlet meets this scary dude named Wolf, all kinds of red flags go up. Over the course of the story, they stay up. After all, we know how Little Red Riding Hood ends. To her credit, Meyer does some entertaining, unexpected things with their characters that do right both to the fairy tale framework she’s using as well as the world she’s built for her own stories.

While Scarlet is mostly concerned with the novel’s namesake, everything that happens is in service to the overall storyline. Levana, the evil Lunar Queen, is beyond pissed off when she finds out that Cinder managed to escape the prison the first novel left her in. She gives Emperor Kai a hard deadline to recover Cinder or else the war she’s been threatening for years will be happening. Meanwhile, Cinder meets our comic relief character, Captain Thorne, and together they endeavor to get the hell up out of Dodge. Cinder is understandably a bit of a mess throughout this novel. Not only is she being actively hunted by a psychotic Queen, she’s also coming to terms with her own Lunar abilities and destiny. It’s all handled pretty well, and Thorne is a nice addition to balance out the odd occasion where Cinder gets a little intense. She’s still great, though, especially when contrasted with her YA peers.

Scarlet bounces back and forth between the two characters, with the fairly clear intention of bringing them together at some point. As I said, I’m fairly biased toward Cinder’s story because I like her character a little better, but Scarlet has the more action-oriented scenes and her story widens the world that Meyer began building last time out. While Cinder came out of the Eastern Commonwealth, with its kind prince and horrifying involuntary cyborg death draft, Scarlet is from a small French town. We don’t get quite as much world-building this time, maybe because Earth is getting close to being a homogenous population. Regardless, Scarlet’s story is a little more personal. Her beloved grandmother is missing, and Scarlet is freaking out. This sketchy Wolf guy seems to offer a lead to her grandmother’s recovery, so they take a fraught journey in order to seek her out. After that, the story goes some places.

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That’s a little more flamboyant than an old red hoodie. Makes sense for fashionable Italians.

Discussion

Yo, I ain’t here to think with my own brain. Lucky for me, the publisher has included another batch of ready-made discussion questions. Aww, yeah. Spoilers ahoy.

  1. In an early chapter, Scarlet defends Cinder from the rude customers at the tavern, and we later learn that Scarlet’s open-mindedness towards Lunars was largely influenced by her grandmother’s attitudes. When it comes to prejudices, do you think people are more influenced by their close friends and relatives, or by society at large? Can you think of any real-world prejudices that are similar to that between the Earthens and the Lunars?

Um, you mean like all of them? I mean, racism and prejudice in general is hard-coded into our species’ DNA, right? Relax, I don’t mean literally, because I’m not a genetic scientist. But it’s pretty clear that the entire world over, one group of people is busy hating another group of people, all throughout history. Maybe this mindset served a purpose at some point – I’m not an anthropologist either – but in our modern world deeply held prejudices seem to do little other than place undue strain on communities. To answer the first question there, a person’s inner circle is always going to provide the most influence, one way or the other. However, the larger society is always there as a sounding board. If the community is unified one way or the other, it’s going to be tough to go against your upbringing. Unless you’re the rebellious type, of course.

  1. Imagine if you were Scarlet and your grandmother was missing. Would you have followed Wolf when he offered to help you? If not, what would you have done instead?

Hell yeah, he’s hot.

  1. By escaping from prison, Cinder angered Queen Levana and inadvertently triggered the Lunar attacks. Was she right to escape after Kai had struck a bargain with Queen Levana, trading Cinder’s freedom for ongoing peace? What would you have done in Cinder’s situation? What would you have done in Kai’s?

Man, these discussion questions are really out to try and shame Cinder for living her best life. In the first novel, the questions were judging her for trying to save the only person who was ever nice to her. Here we’re questioning her integrity for saving her own life. Lay off, question writers! Anyway, of course she was right to peace out of jail. Is anyone really trying to tell me that the would-be tyrant is going to be true to her word? Please. It’s been firmly established that no matter what Cinder or Kai does, she intends to rule unopposed. All Cinder’s escape has done is speed up the process that’s already going to happen. Therefore, Cinder has taken the only path that makes any sense. She’s already hated by the public, so her death isn’t going to be a martyr situation. By getting herself out, Cinder gives herself the best chance to not only save her own life, but the entire Earthen way of life. Of course, she has to decide to go ahead and do that, which she eventually does. That said, even if Cinder decided to just disappear, it would be hard to blame her. It’s not like the society she’s going to try and save ever did anything for her.

  1. Do you think Cinder made the right call in bringing Captain Thorne along with her?

Obviously. He’s a doofus but he’s fun.

  1. Think about the Louvre and the Palais Garnier in Paris (as opposed to that other, imposter Louvre. You know the one). Why do you think these national sites weren’t restored after World War IV? Are there any historical buildings or landmarks in your area that have fallen into disrepair, and do you feel it’s important for society to preserve these sites?

Weren’t the ruins of the Louvre set aside as a sort of war memorial? That makes sense in a “look what we did” kind of way. As for restoration in general, it’s hard to say. Obviously if you saved every building in every city, nothing would ever change and that’s dumb. Of course, some buildings are more significant than others. It would be weird to visit London and not see the Tower of London, or the Parliament buildings, or what have you. There’s cultural and historical value there. Yet, to get back to London (because frankly I’m not as familiar with Paris), you’ve also got a complete reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. How much does it matter that the building isn’t original? Personally, I think it makes a difference. There’s something about actual, historical buildings which can fire the imagination that’s lacking in reproductions. As for my own area, I’m in the American West and therefore there aren’t that many historical landmarks. The image at the header of my blog is of an abandoned schoolhouse in Portland that has since been torn down. It was in a bad location, though, because otherwise I’m confident McMenamin’s would have turned it into a pub or something, as they are wont to do.

I think that’s going to do it. I don’t really want to get into the whole child solider discussion suggested by the reader’s guide here. Yeesh. Like, it’s bad. Don’t do that. Anyway, these books are good. I look forward to the rest of the series.

Posted in Books, Post Human, Y.A.T. | Leave a comment

Rogue One

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Film * Gareth Edwards * Oh No, More Space Nazis * 2016

Synopsis

This is the first of the new wave of Star Wars movies that I’ve seen, and it’s come two years after its release. That alone probably sums up where my feelings about Star Wars are at this point in my life. I turned on them so hard that I barely even care about the old movies at this point. Hell, I tried to start writing about them for this site, fell asleep during the climactic scenes of The Empire Strikes Back – which we can all agree is the best one – and haven’t really thought about them since. I wish I could pinpoint where it all went wrong. Perhaps when I realized that the things I loved about this universe were all the ancillary things. That the characters I grew up thinking were super rad were, in fact, flat archetypes. That the story I knew by heart was basically a fairy tale dressed up as a potboiler sci-fi adventure. The prequels, which I thoroughly enjoyed at the time, did a lot of damage because they laid bare these flaws with the franchise as a whole. And then, of course, there is the term “franchise.” The story was told, finished, and wrapped up in 1983. Yet because it made all the money in the world here we are, with new Star Wars movies each and every year, forever and ever, in perpetuity unto the universe, amen.

Yet if they’re all going to be like Rogue One, I might be okay with that. For a while. That’s because I like this movie quite a lot, more than I thought I would, and it’s now got me curious about the mainline entries that have come out. I’m still apprehensive about episodes seven and eight, though, because what I liked most about Rogue One was that it cut out most of the legacy Star Wars stuff I’m tired of while retaining that which remains cool about Star Wars. This has always been a well-realized, fantastically deep, lived-in universe where like two-thirds of the inhabitants have stupid names. Yet at least insofar as the canonical films have been concerned, there are only a few people that matter. Sure, there’s lots of background and ancillary characters running around, but they mostly exist to sell action figures and are incredibly shallow as actual people. Mostly we’re concerned with the major players, but even they’re a little flat. As for the beloved, iconic side characters, how much do we really know about them? Well, we know a lot, but not from the movies. Most of that depth comes from endless side-content, much of which I’ve never consumed but have kind of absorbed over the years.

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I’m just going to stand here and look cool while you idiots bicker.

Rogue One is the first time one of the films has tried to explore the larger universe around the main story. I was actually disappointed when familiar characters showed up because I was busy enjoying the universe that I still love, deep down, and the various cameos were just distracting. Look, I know the studio feels that they’re necessary to anchor the audience in familiar territory. That’s why the story itself is directly attached to A New Hope. The actual idea here is pretty easy to pitch. There’s a point in the first film when Leia is presenting the plans for the Death Star to the Rebellion and she offhandedly mentions that the plans were obtained at great loss. Well, Rogue One is about obtaining those plans. That’s it! And yet the movie itself introduces a whole new roster of characters, including the best droid Star Wars has ever seen, excepting maybe HK-47 from Knights of the Old Republic. It digs deeper into the actual politics of the Empire and their dominion over the galaxy than the original films. But mostly Rogue One is an engaging story about a ragtag group of rebels who go on a daring mission to save the day. Not the most screamingly original idea, but it’s well done.

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I kinda wish they had leaned into the heist trope a little bit more. Star Wars Heat, y’all.

Discussion

There’s a few reasons that I feel like this film works as well as it does, but probably the most important element to get right is the protagonist, and Rogue One nails it. A New Hope fucks this up initially because Luke is insufferable in that movie. I know, I know, he’s supposed to be insufferable, but still. Meanwhile, approximately ten thousand years later, we get Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, and she is awesome. I cannot tell you how refreshing this character is, and all credit to Star Wars for offering at least some strong female characters over the years. Yet Jyn is a notch above (keeping in mind I’ve not seen the other new films, so the woman in those might be even better, I wouldn’t know [I’ve seen them now, and while Rey is dope as hell, I still like Jyn better]), and that’s because there’s no real effort to mention her gender, one way or the other. Previously, we’ve had Princess Leia and Queen Amidala, both of which were strong woman leaders. And yet they were still, you know, ladies. Leia was, of course, embarrassingly over-sexualized in Return of the Jedi, which the prequels at least avoided. Meanwhile here’s Jyn, and yo, she’s a rouge. A scoundrel. She gets up to some shit. Yeah, she’s attractive, but I’m honestly at a loss whether to chalk that up to her appearance or the fact that I’m into women who could kick my ass.

So, Rogue One has a solid protagonist with a clear backstory and motivation to do what she does and act how she acts. I know it sounds simple when I just write it out like that, but Jesus Christ, go back and watch those prequels again and see how spectacularly they fuck up Anakin Skywalker’s entire arc. It’s honestly breathtaking how bad it is, and they had three long-ass movies to get it right! Anyway, Jyn’s entire world was destroyed by the Empire, like you do, and yet her experience with the rebels soured her on their ability to fight back. The plot of the Rogue One basically gives her the opportunity to make her life and her mistakes mean something. Again, there’s nothing terribly complicated or groundbreaking here, but goddammit it doesn’t need to be. It just needs to be competent. Meanwhile, we’ve got dope-ass TIE fighters whipping around making that cool noise they make and blasters actually hitting their targets and all that other ancillary stuff that helps cement this as Star Wars.

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I mean, Vader didn’t need to be in the movie. It’s a bit gratuitous. I don’t care, because holy shit, Vader is lit. Also, it’s a nice reminder of why Kylo Ren is so insecure.

All right, we’re getting somewhere. We’ve got Jyn, who is rad. We’ve got a solid story that doesn’t spin off into some mystical nonsense for no reason. We’ve got a sturdy foundation of Star Wars assets, you know, X-Wings and shit. Now, since this is essentially a war movie, we’ve got to have a varied and interesting ensemble cast to round out our crew. Again, Rogue One pretty much succeeds. There’s Cassian and his surly and awesome droid. He’s ostensibly the leader of the expedition, and while he’s something of a dreamboat, the film almost goes out of its way to avoid a romantic subplot. Which is a relief, honestly. As my wife put it, “I’m so glad they didn’t start making out at the end, because they’ve got like no chemistry.” I guess, but mostly I’m just happy that the woman protagonist has loftier goals than getting herself a man, you know? This is absolutely her story, and the male characters are there in service of that story. For once. Anyway, Cassian is there to provide an example of pure idealism. In addition, there are several other characters whose names I do not remember. The most memorable of these is probably the blind ninja guy with his Force-based catchphrase and his buddy. Again, they’re not there to upstage anyone and they don’t really have an arc, but they do quality support work throughout.

Of course, knowing the origin of Rogue One, we know how this has to end. We know the plans were obtained at great cost, and by the time the outstanding final space battle starts popping off, we know exactly what that means. Everyone is going to bite the big one, and it’s going to be super sad. Once again, good on the studio for allowing this kind of thing to actually happen in a Star Wars movie. There’s no last second, against-all-odds, deus-ex-machina-as-hell rescue of our heroes. In a way that’s kind of a bummer, considering that Jyn is one of the most well developed characters to appear in a Star Wars movie and all. Alas, Darth Vader shows up and wreck everybody’s shit all up, and I know I said before that I could have done without the cameos, but goddamn peak Vader is the fucking best. While I still think it would have been cool to go through an entire Star Wars movie without popping a light saber, I’m not going to lie, that noise is always going to elicit a response out of me. That said, the CP30 and R2 showing up only highlighted how lame they compared to K-2SO and CG Leia was just creepy. All that said, the quality of Rogue One has now ensured that I’m going to watch the new mainline entries, and if you had told me that beforehand, I wouldn’t have believed it.

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Cinder

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Novel * Marissa Meyer * Sci-Fi Fairy Tale * 2012

Synopsis

Having a good idea seems like a difficult task. Everything’s been done, right? Yet, if you have one, it feels great, like you’ve won the hardest battle. As someone who has struggled to make it from idea to finished product, let me tell what might seem obvious: the idea is the easy part. Not only do you have to commit to putting the work in, you also have to be good at your job. The idea of Cinder is not terribly original, and that’s not a knock against the book in the least. The idea is basically “what if fairy tales, but science fiction?” I mean yeah, without any kind of context, that’s an idea which resonates. Fairy tales have been around for centuries, constantly evolving and changing to suit both the time and the culture, so it’s a natural move to build a narrative around these old stories. The nice thing about fairy tales is that they’re extremely malleable. Seriously, just compare the horrifying old German stories with the Disney princess musicals for a stark example of how the same essential story can come across as completely different. Fairy tales are simply stripped down tropes which can be interchanged in whatever narrative you want to tell. So making sci-fi Cinderella is a natural move. Someone was going to try and make that happen eventually, you know?

Using the framework of a universally familiar story is tricky, because you’re setting yourself up to disappoint fans of the original work. What’s nice about fairy tales is that there’s no “original” to worry about. It’s not like adapting Romeo and Juliet or something, in which there’s an actual, definitive text. Of course, that puts the onus on the writer to fill in the gaps. In the instance of Cinder, Marissa Meyer goes for it. The novel is set in the far-future, in a near-united global society which has re-formed after a fourth world war. The major political superpower is no longer located on Earth, and is instead a society of people on the moon known as the Lunars. Speaking of superpowers, the Lunars have them. They have creepy mind-powers which they can use to manipulate Earthens into seeing whatever it is they want them to see or forcing them to do whatever it is they want them to do. Since they can essentially control people, they’re an obvious threat. The overarching storyline is the tension between Earth and the Moon, represented by Prince Kai of the Eastern Commonwealth and Queen Levana of the Lunars. One way or the other, Levana has designs on world domination. Her preference is to marry Prince Kai in order to unite the realms, but she’s certainly not averse to starting a war she would probably win to gain control over the Earth governments.

Our protagonist, Cinder, doesn’t really have much to do with any of that. Well, not at first. Cinder is a damn delight, which is a relief when it comes to young adult fiction. She’s a cyborg mechanic, in which she is a cyborg and also works on machinery. Since she’s cyborg Cinderella, she has an evil stepmother and a horrible stepsister. Meyer mixes it up a little bit, though, since the other sister, Peony, is a nice person. Meanwhile, over the first part of the novel, we learn a bit about the world. Turns out that cyborgs are second-class citizens. Not only are they shamelessly discriminated against, but the government is actively murdering them. This isn’t a dystopian novel, really, so allow me to explain. There is a mysterious plague rampaging throughout the world. Nobody really knows what it is, but it’s very contagious and extremely lethal. When somebody comes down with letumosis, they’re instantly quarantined and shipped off to what is essentially a death center. In an effort to facilitate a cure or vaccine, the government has instituted a cyborg draft, in which cyborgs are unwillingly brought to the capital to be experimented on. They pretty much all die. That’s fucked up!

If you’re familiar with the rough outline of the Cinderella story, you have a general sense of how the narrative goes. Before too much time goes by, Cinder meets Kai, the Prince. He’s very handsome and they have rapport. Of course. And there’s a ball. So the elements of the fairy tale are all present, but Meyers is deft enough in her world-building and her characterization that the fairy tale elements are almost an afterthought. It’s a good thing. And again, I really can’t stress this enough, Cinder herself is a great character, which is tough to do with a teenage protagonist because teenagers are the worst. I’m not saying that Cinder is without flaws. It’s just that those flaws are not obnoxious. She doesn’t pine over boys, she’s just kind of baffled by her own feelings. She doesn’t mope around and feel sorry for herself, she commits to action, even when that action is a terrible idea. I don’t know, it’s just a refreshing change of pace. Cinder’s a tough kid with a heart of gold, I guess. Anyway, let’s get into specifics.

Discussion

Oh, snap. This is a popular YA novel which means, aw yeah, publisher-approved discussion questions! These are the best. All books should have these.

  1. What parallels can you draw between Cinder and the Cinderella fairy tale? What is the symbolism behind the glass slipper, the pumpkin carriage, the ball? Is there a fairy godmother in Cinder, and if so, who is it?

Oh, come on guys, I just wrote a bunch of words which suggest that the framework isn’t actually that important or interesting and here you are trying to make the fairy tale elements all concrete and obvious. I will say that I appreciate Cinder’s actual robot foot acting as a slipper analogue. Cinder’s messed-up car was clearly functioning as a pumpkin vehicle, although it works better since it demonstrates actual facets of Cinder’s character. Instead of just taking off, as she had every right to do, she is overwhelmed by conscience and drives her busted up hooptie to the palace to try and save Prince Kai. Oh, and the fairy godmother is the sociopathic doctor, right? Fuck that guy.

  1. What does it mean to be human? Is it primarily physiological? Cultural? Emotional? What do you think could have led to cyborgs being perceived as less than human in Cinder’s world?

Jesus, that’s quite a leap! The first question is as basic as it gets, but whatever, here’s a question that’s at the root of all the world’s philosophical thought for the last 6,000 years or so. What does it mean to be human, you’ve got to be kidding me. I dunno man, sci-fi writers are split on this question. I feel like half the stories I encounter which deal with augmented humans are worried about this kind of discrimination while the other half seems to think cyborgs are destined to rule the world. In the context of Cinder, it seems like the discrimination comes from how the cyborgs come to be in the first place. In this world, the only reason you’re part machine is if you suffered a catastrophic accident. Therefore your very existence is unnatural, and that creeps people out. I don’t know, humans are kind of the worst.

  1. Cinder can do all kinds of dope shit with her cyborg powers, what kinds of rad augments do you want? (I may have paraphrased here.)

I like Cinder’s lie detector eyeball, actually. I’m bad at reading people so that would be handy. Actually, anything which would help me out in social situations would be great. Also, I don’t know, rocket feet or some shit.

  1. In Cinder’s future, Earth has been conglomerated into six countries who have formed an alliance called the Earthen Union. There’s lots of cultural osmosis. How do you foresee cultures changing (or not) as a result of the increased communication and travel we have access to today. (I abridged this as well, since boy these are wordy)

Cinder’s world is in no way a glittering utopia, but at the same time it is flirting with the unified-Earth model demonstrated by Star Trek. And yes, technology has a prominent role in bringing this unification about. However, there is a key ingredient in both instances that is overlooked by this question. It’s mentioned several times throughout the book that the current political structure of the Earthen Union came about after a cataclysmic war. Likewise, the Federation in Star Trek only came about after a nuclear war nearly wiped out the species. Basically, an apocalyptic event is needed to destroy the old structures before a new society can be constructed. You see this in world history, of course, although usually the apocalyptic event doesn’t need to be so violent or destructive. That said, it often is, and the most destructive event in the history of humanity, World War II, led to a vastly new world paradigm. As we’ve seen, though, the new world order still comes about in the guise of what came before, sometimes with disastrous results. Culturally, the change is more insidious, and there’s already plenty of local pushback against the “Americanization” of culture found around the world. Still, it’s an uphill battle. Game of Thrones and hip hop are dope as hell, after all.

  1. Was it right for Cinder to try to deliver the antidote to Peony first, even though there were others who also needed it? Was it right for Dr. Erland to offer her first access to the antidote? What would you have done in either situation?

So, in a big way, the cyborg-draft situation undermines the moral authority of the Eastern Commonwealth. I know we’re supposed to rooting for them against the almost comically evil Lunars, but this thing is still sitting here, demanding that we deal with it. Cinder has first-hand experience with the ruthlessness of the draft. She only lives because they could not kill her. Now, when it comes to pass that Cinder is in a position to help them out, she has every goddamn right in the world to get something for herself. In other words, she has a right to be selfish. That said, if you want to be completely pure about it, no, Cinder was wrong. Everything else aside, ethics demand that we sacrifice our individual needs for the needs of the social group. And yet humans aren’t well-equipped to consider much beyond our immediate circle. Peony was the only person who was ever kind to Cinder, and therefore Cinder did her best to do right by her. It may not have been the saintly thing to do, but it was the human thing to do. Dr. Erland, on the other hand, is an unethical monster, so who the fuck cares what he thinks? But giving her first crack at a cure is the least he could do, so good on him I guess, despite the fact that he only agreed to the arrangement because he had something to gain from it.

Well that was fun. There’s a bunch more but I guess I’m just not up to discussing the philosophy of the concept of beauty today. Who said YA was shallow, huh?

Posted in Books, Plague, Post Human | Leave a comment

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

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Film * Stanley Kubrick * Peace Is Our Profession * 1964

Synopsis

Well, here’s yet another edition in the infinite series entitled Movies Matt Has Never Seen for No Good Reason. And so here I am again, having just watched a classic movie that everyone loves, wondering how in the hell to talk about it. “Hey, yo, check out this movie that’s one of the best films made by one of the most iconic filmmakers of all time! It’s real good!” Like yeah, of course it is, idiot, what are you even doing with your life? I mean, good question, but one which is beside the point. Dr. Strangelove is new to me, and therefore I’m going to be enthusiastic. For some reason, when I think about any movie made before like, Blazing Saddles, I’m genuinely surprised when they’re funny. And that’s absurd. Especially considering I’m into Modernism and will cite Evelyn Waugh and Antia Loos as examples of comedic literature, both of which predate this film by thirty or more years. Yet there’s something about this movie which has a modern feel to it. Chalk it up to Kubrick being ahead of his time, I guess. There’s a subtlety to some of the writing which can get buried by some of the broader strokes, I think, and maybe that’s what I’m thinking of. Or maybe it’s because this movie becomes suddenly relevant whenever Republicans are in office.

If you’re like me and have for whatever reason avoided watching this here movie, I will attempt a brief summary. This is very much a Cold War movie, and although the themes and attitudes of the characters are universal, the setting and plot are very much a relic of the 1950’s and 60’s. As such, it helps to have a cursory understanding of what the world looked like back then. Once upon a time, there were two world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Both powers had large nuclear stockpiles ready to launch at each other. However, either side was kept at bay for fear of retaliation, which is usually known as mutually assured destruction. Dr. Strangelove is a comedy of errors which poses the question: what if a bunch of dummies actually control this process? The story follows a series of ridiculous, silly characters who attempt and fail to prevent global annihilation. Look, I’m not going to take too much care to avoid spoilers for a 54 year old movie, sorry. Besides, that’s not really the point of Dr. Strangelove. While the movie takes the rough structure of a political thriller, that’s only to bolster the absurdity of all these goofs and the constantly devolving situation the film is presenting.

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He’ll see the big board!

Here’s why you should watch Dr. Strangelove if you haven’t, and why you should watch it again if it’s been awhile. Watch it for Peter Sellers knocking it the fuck out in three different and wonderful comedic roles. His turn as the President is probably the high point of the film for me, or rather, it would be if it wasn’t for George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, which I think we can all agree is a perfect name. Having only really known Scott from the times my old man forced me to watch Patton, his performance in Dr. Strangelove came as something of a surprise, as in, this guy has a sense of humor? Who knew! And yet here he is, riding a fine line between being a ham and being understated, all the while delivering great lines. My favorite: “Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!” Also: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.” Meanwhile, Dr. Strangelove is also ahead of the curve when it comes to making fun of fluoride conspiracy theorists, so you can’t go wrong, really.

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Obligatory.

Discussion

By the time I was old enough to be politically aware, and especially by the time I was well-read enough to have an actual sense of what was happening in the world, the Cold War was over. The Berlin Wall fell when I was ten. I remember seeing it on TV and not really having a keen sense of what all the people running around being super stoked about knocking a wall over really meant. I’m sure it came up in class, but we’re all still in elementary school and honestly tetherball was more important to me at the time. Probably the most relevant thing to me about the abrupt dissolution of the Soviet Union was the fact that all the maps changed and kids were bummed about having to figure out what a “Ukraine” was. Later on, what with all the fancy-man schoolin’ and all, I went back and ended up taking an interest in the nuclear policies of the time. As noted in the film, we had bombers in the air 24 hours of the day, loaded up with nukes in case the Reds tried something. Of course we eventually developed the intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear-warhead equipped submarines in addition to the planes which combined constitute that thing our president didn’t know existed, the nuclear triad.

Oh, we still do all that, by the way. Technologically speaking, the twentieth century was the fastest moving hundred years in human history. We went from riding horses around at the turn of the century to machine-gunning millions of people to death in about fifteen years. Not too much longer than that we developed a technology that could very well exterminate the species. Even now, with our post-Cold War reduced arsenals, we’re sitting on enough ordinance to extinguish most life on the planet. Worldwide destruction aside, that’s an astounding technological achievement! Way beyond what we as a species could realistically deal with rationally, considering the ability to blow it all up came about within half a human lifetime. We had to come up with entirely new governmental infrastructures just to begin to handle what we created with nuclear weapons, and it’s no wonder we were entirely too free and easy with them early on. And if you think that maybe we were a little reckless with them, well obviously. Before we even realize what had happened, we found ourselves in a desperate race with a powerful rival just to keep up, because to be outgunned was to be at risk of being taken over. So the bombs got bigger and the technology got scarier, and the entire world was dependent on hope. Hope that the people in charge, the ones making possibly world-ending decisions, were sane and stable.

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This is all totally normal, take it from Peter Sellers.

The situation was, and is, frankly absurd. That’s all Dr. Strangelove is saying, and it was made at a time that was fresh off the Cuban Missile Crisis when it just about popped off for real. And how stupid would that be? How psychotically paranoid do you have to be to be willing to risk the entire human race over some politically ideology? The best we ever came up with to deal with the situation – which to be clear is two large groups of people with different ideas of how to organize society – is mutually assured destruction, which is exactly what it sounds like. Like the only thing keeping one side from straight up murdering hundreds of millions of people was the thought of maybe also being blown up in the process. And for some people? Well maybe it was worth it just to rid the world of the dang Commies. All Dr. Strangelove was asking, in between comedy bits, was “how far-fetched is this?” How hard is it to imagine decision-makers being motivated by sheer certainty, acute paranoia, and a self-righteous, monumental ego? In retrospect, I’m not so sure Dr. Strangelove is a comedy at all.

Posted in Film, Government, Nuclear | Leave a comment

Cathedral

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Short Stories * Raymond Carver * Caucasian Ennui * 1981

Synopsis

Have you ever taken a creative writing class? If you’re here I’d say the chances are about even that you have. If not, they’re pretty much what you’d expect. There’s a group of liberal arts students sitting in a circle sharing their writing with each other. Depending on the class, you’re typically sharing short writing exercises (generally derived from a writing prompt so everyone is exploring a similar idea) before writing a proper short story to share with the class. You then read these stories out loud to the class and everyone judges you. Sometimes you swap with other classmates and do a critique for them, and then you do a rewrite and come back and see if it’s better. Sometimes that critique is helpful, sometimes it’s not. The talent level is all over the place, as you might expect, and it’s rough to sit there with a really enthusiastic, exceptionally terrible writer. Especially when they’ve never been given criticism before. Anyway, this is all rather beside the point. I bring it up because when it comes to the kind of stories being read in class, they all tend to hew to a few groups. You’ve got your aspiring genre writers, the super-serious stories about feelings and stuff, the weirdos (that would be me), and then the austere, slice-of-life stories. This latter group are the ones (whether purposely or unconsciously) trying to write like Raymond Carver.

Cathedral is a collection of short stories about various disaffected Americans doing things. Most of the things these people do is fairly unremarkable. Most of the people are unremarkable. In fact, if you really want to get into it, Carver’s actual writing style borders on unremarkable as well, in that it’s stripped-down and Hemingway-esque. And yet, and I’m still trying to figure out what kind of black magic fuckery is afoot here, all of these stories are in one way or another fairly remarkable. I’ll hasten to add that, personally, none of the stories within this collection really blew me away. There was no moment where I put the book down because I was just so dang impressed with it. Carver is the kind of writer, however, that has a following of readers who react to him in such a way. It’s possible that you could read one of these stories and be moved. I see that potential even if I didn’t feel that way. I absolutely appreciate Carver’s craft, which while sparse is still ridiculously well-honed. It is deceptively simple writing, which is why I imagine that it appeals to aspiring writers so much. It’s easy to read one of these stories and think, “yo, I know people like this and I know all these words, easy peasy.” Well, maybe not so much.

The stories within Cathedral are not necessarily bleak, and the characters are not necessarily fundamentally broken. I can only think of one story which borders on being emotionally manipulative. In fact, a majority of the stories have some element of redemptive humanity within them. This is not a Denis Johnson situation where everyone is terminally fucked up and doomed to a sad, wet death. Yet the bright moments, the redemptive moments, the moments of small human gestures, never feel saccharine or obvious. They just kind of are. There are a few alcoholics in these stories, but their problem never dominates their humanity. There are bad husbands and fairly racist jerks as well (using the word “spade” instead of the n-word does not make it less gross), but again these issues never seem like they’re at the forefront. Carver doesn’t revel in their deficiencies. That said, there is an emptiness that pervades these pages. A sense of a greater social and cultural disconnect is at the forefront, which the sparse prose accentuates. It’s a very post-modern kind of feeling, even if the text itself is styled heavily after one of the more famous American Modernists.

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While I like the cover on my edition (above), the cover of the translated edition is cool too. Although, where are the roots? OH. THEMATIC INTENT.

Discussion

The stories of Cathedral are not connected by a single character or loose plot elements, nor is there any particular overt thematic message which resonates throughout the book. There’s an austere atmosphere which pervades the collection, however, and while the connective tissue isn’t necessarily concrete, most of the stories feel the same. The first story, “Feathers,” is about a man taking his wife, Fran, to a dinner given by a work friend, Bud, and his wife. That’s pretty much it. It’s as awkward as such situations are in real life, stiff at first but as the evening progresses the characters relax and go with it. What gives the story life is a smattering of strange details, something which Carver has mastered. In a short story, you don’t have much time to make an impression. If you want to speak to the fragility of human relationships, you’re limited in your approach. In this story, you’ve got a free-range peacock who comes it the house because Bud’s wife loves it. In addition to the bird, there’s also a plaster cast of her gnarly teeth. Finally, they have an extremely ugly baby. And yet they make it work to the point where they inspire the childless couple to change their mind regarding having a family. Almost as a footnote, the narrator states that their relationship failed. Probably they should have got a peacock.

“Feathers” reads as a mildly amusing anecdote with a sad ending. It’s never comfortable, but there is a clear understanding that these are actual Americans doing their best. Other stories here have a similar vibe. “Careful” is about an alcoholic who separates from his wife in order to attempt to get his shit together. He drinks cheap sparkling wine instead of hard liquor because he is lying to himself. Having once had a job where I sold booze to plenty of alcoholics, this poor bastard’s situation resonated with me. I had more than one regular customer who was a practicing champagne alcoholic (three bottles of pink Andre sparkling wine a day for one, a case of Cook’s Brut every three days for another), and if anything, “Careful” was a window into the mindset behind the practice. Yet the focus of the story isn’t Lloyd’s battle with his demons, at least not directly. Instead, it’s about a moment with his wife, who is in the process of becoming estranged, and some onerous earwax. Lloyd’s more serious problems take a backseat to the more pressing matter of cleaning his damn ears, but this brief moment of mundane connection rings hollow by the end. Again, sad but not unbearably so.

Most of the stories here have a similar feel. There’s “A Good, Small Thing,” which is as close as Carver gets to smarmy, and that’s because the subject matter is a dying child and it’s hard to really bring that kind of thing up without feeling a bit emotionally exploitative. My favorite might be “Fever,” which is about a man whose wife abandoned him and their kids because she’s a hippie dipshit. Again, not much happens but it seems like the guy got his life together, so that was nice. The collection ends with “Cathedral,” which is about a dude getting over his prejudice against blind people by smoking some weed and watching documentaries. Most of the stories within Cathedral are like this. There’s a positive bent to most of them, but it’s a small kind of good. This is the post-modern America of the late 70’s and early 80’s, in which the perception of an innocent America full of promise has been thoroughly dispelled. What’s left is a country populated by the kind of people you’d find in a Raymond Carver story. There’s not much to do, not much to look forward to, and the only feeling outside of the usual grey nothing is the occasional glimmer of human interaction. Honestly, the stories are less dire than that last sentence sounds. Yet there is still an emptiness to the stories which are never fully redeemed by these small moments of connection, and that’s a tricky feat to pull off for a short story writer, which is probably why that guy wearing the scarf and the tweed jacket in your creative writing class isn’t pulling it off.

Posted in Books, Ennui, Post Modernity | Leave a comment

Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom

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Game * Level-5 * An Unrepentant Utopia * 2018

Synopsis

Sometimes, in an effort to not go completely insane, we need to imagine a world which is not a chaotic horrorshow. A world in which people do the right thing because the simple pleasure of helping someone out is greater than short-term, selfish gain. A world in which even if you mess up, or do something that hurts someone else, forgiveness is still possible. A world where justice isn’t merely a means to revenge. A world in which people realize that communities are stronger when they embrace a diverse group of people. A world in which violence is only used as a last resort, and only in an effort to restore a lasting peace. Clearly, this world does not exist and never will. It’s an overly earnest, utterly naïve ambition which ignores the entirety of human history. But man, wouldn’t it be nice? There’s nothing to be lost in embracing a few moments of fantasy when everything else is hot garbage. Even here, a blog pretty much dedicated to examining the worst possible futures and the most terrible human tendencies, it’s okay to just lose the self-protective cynicism and reckless nihilism every once in a while and bask in the glow of something like Ni No Kuni II.

This game, this beautiful, wonderful, joy of a game, is pretty much the world described above. While the story begins in a dark place, it doesn’t take long to rebound and start trumpeting the values of determination, forgiveness, justice, and inclusion. Ni No Kuni II actually begins with an apocalypse, which is weird but eventually fits into the overall positive theme of the game. The first scene is of The President, presumably of the United States or its analogue, being driven across a bridge. He looks out his window and sees a missile outpacing him. Before he gets to the end of the bridge, the missile hits the city he was headed toward, ka-boom. The President then blacks out and wakes up a younger man, in the room of a castle, being accosted by a boy with cat ears and a cape. Turns out catboy is a prince, but his kingdom is in upheaval. The President, Roland, quickly accesses the situation and discerns that the prince is being overthrown. It’s a coup, and Roland and Prince Evan have to escape because the usurper is out to kill him and take his throne.

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King Evan’s Cabinet and combat strike force. There’s a sky pirate and his daughter, the uptight royal advisor, the sassy mechanical engineer, and Roland. Oh, and the little spiky dude is your kingmaker. 

For a game I’ve introduced as being a lighthearted delight, it’s a dark opening. Here are some details which mitigate that darkness. First of all, the name of the kingdom is Ding Dong Dell. Secondly, you’re a catboy and your dad was a lion man. He died, and that’s sad, but he was overthrown by a bunch of mice-people with adorable little helmets. Third, this game is a beautifully animated, watercolor delight to look at. I played this thing for over 70 hours (and counting) and I’m not tired of looking at it. Finally, towards the end of the prologue, Evan is present when his childhood nursemaid/friend dies and he starts feeling revengey. Instead, he vows to uphold her memory by creating a new kingdom where everyone, and this is a mission statement repeated throughout the story, “can live happily ever after.” The entire rest of the game is young King Evan travelling the world with his inner circle trying to unite the various nations in a pact of nonaggression. As you travel around and meet people, the young king is also building his new kingdom, Evermore, with the citizens of the various nations. Evan does his recruiting by being understanding and helpful to the point of being a doormat. But really he’s just looking out for his constituents in the most direct way possible. Catboy is pretty cool.

Ni No Kuni II is an actual game as well. For the most part, the gameplay matches the overall breezy tone of the narrative, which absolutely works so long as you know what you’re getting into before you start playing. This is absolutely not a challenging game. You control one of a party of up to three characters in any given battle. The system is quick and fun, so if you’re worried about random battles or menu-based combat you can relax. You have three weapons on hand at any given time, as well as special moves and magic at your disposal. For a game this easy, there are a surprising amount of systems and quite a lot of customization happening. There’s a loot system, and a crafting system, and all kinds of other systems. In addition to the single-character action, there are also army battles and straight up kingdom building. There’s a lot, but it’s also all pretty intuitive and none of it is that essential. It’s all there if you want to engage, but if you just want to blast through the story that’s fine too. Ni No Kuni II isn’t here to tell you how to live your life. Most of the sidequests, which exist largely to populate your new kingdom with citizens, are unabashed fetch quests. Personally, I’m fine with that. I’m just here to exist in this world and enjoy the positive vibes that emanate endlessly from this world, which I’m happy to do even if that means traipsing around the smallish world looking for six chunks of fine-grained wood so a reluctant dog-man will join my kingdom. It’s all good.

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Somehow I forgot to mention the Higgleties? These little dudes run around and squeak things like “hig pig” while assisting you in combat. They’re great.

Discussion

Prince Evan is a kind-hearted young man who always has time for even the most seemingly pointless request of any of his citizens and everyone still respects him, which seems crazy but isn’t. He gives courageous speeches and instead of wilting when people make fun of his naiveté, he shames them into capitulation simply by being a good person. He commits to his earnestness. None of this is even remotely realistic, of course, but that’s what makes Ni No Kuni II so refreshing. It keeps the air of positivity and joy throughout the various story beats, despite dealing with actual, real-world issues. It’s just that instead of taking a realistic approach, Evan convinces everyone involved that by taking responsibility and acting right, everything will be okay. I mean, he solves labor issues and income inequality and racism all by being an idealistic young man with a strong sense of morality. Imagine every problem plaguing society getting solved in the best possible way and then everyone coming together to form a united, worldwide community that makes Star Trek look like a dystopian wasteland. That’s Ni No Kuni II. Allow me to get specific.

The overall structure of the game is following Evan and Roland as they attempt to found their nascent kingdom of Evermore by forging alliances with the various major kingdoms of the world. He’s got the idea of having all four of the world leaders to sign the Declaration of Interdependance and pledge an alliance to make a world where everyone can live happily ever after. I know, right? The problem is, every time Evan shows up in a new kingdom, their leader is busy being some kind of irrational asshole. That’s… probably the most realistic aspect of the game. Anyway, Evan does what he can to learn about the nation and their problems by talking to the various citizens and clearing out dungeons and whatnot. It’s not too long before we figure out that some jerkass is sidling up to these leaders and pulling an Iago on them, corrupting their better sensibilities by appealing to their base natures. In addition to this, the mysterious baddie is also corrupting the world’s kingmakers – giant fantastical monsters which bond to the world leaders. Evan has one too, a weird little cockney imp who is adorable. Anyway, Doloran (the mysterious baddie) corrupts the leaders and jacks their kingmakers and bounces.

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Evan does the rounds in Broadleaf, making sure everyone (including the robots) are doing okay in his precious new world order.

For me, the most fascinating kingdom in the game is that of Broadleaf. The first place you visit, Goldpaw, is a very Eastern Asian influenced city based on gambling. The second is an island city-state that is having serious problems with authoritarian laws and constant surveillance (by an enormously creepy eyeball atop a massive tentacle). Broadleaf, however, is like a fantasy Silicon Valley. And it’s weird. The leader of this nation, which is depicted as a technology company that got so big it turned into a nation, is an amalgamation of every tech CEO that comes to mind. His name is Zip, and his corruption is that he overworks his workforce chasing a pipe dream while also destroying the environment. An aspect of the world of Ni No Kuni II that gets kind of buried in all the other stuff is that there is a relationship with a parallel world that looks a lot like ours. That’s where Roland comes from, after all, even though it doesn’t get mentioned much. Anyway, Broadleaf and things they’re getting up is the clearest real world analogue in the game. Of course when Evan is finished, everything is great. Zip is then good to his workers and redoubles his effort to clean up the environment. As for the workers, they’re all super gung-ho about making the world a better place and connecting people of different backgrounds while bettering themselves in the process. This game, man.

If you’re looking for a story that’s going to surprise you, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. I’m not really going to talk too much about the ending, because if you’re paying attention to what kind of game Ni No Kuni II, it’s pretty clear that everyone is going to… wait for it… live happily ever after, even after experiencing loss. The game has no interest in pulling the rug out from under the player, you know? There’s a chapter about two-thirds of the way through the game which suggests that maybe Roland is a traitor who’s been playing young, gullible Evan the whole time. I bought that for maybe thirty seconds before realizing, no, that’s not at all what kind of game this is. And of course I was right. Ni No Kuni II is a game about the best of us. It tells a story where things go wrong and people commit to misguided and bad actions. Yet through cooperation and determination what goes wrong is made right, and through forgiveness and self-reflection, people are redeemed. It’s a beautiful sentiment and a beautiful world, which is why I’m happy to spend my time there. Sometimes it’s nice to pretend that such a place could possibly exist.

Posted in Games, Utopia | Leave a comment