The Rise of Endymion

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Novel * Dan Simmons * All You Need Is Love, Apparently * 1997

Synopsis

This is it, this book right here, this is the end of the Hyperion Cantos. Presumably you’ve read the first three novels in this series, or at the very least the previous novel Endymion. I know there are people out there who just pick up random novels in a series, but those people are monsters and I can’t comprehend how they think. Anyway, welcome to the weird final book of this series, in which Dan Simmons blows up his entire universe for the second time. This time, at least, there seems to be more hope for humanity going forward. It can be difficult to parse sometimes, because there are some places in this novel where it feels like the wheels are coming off. There are too may tangents, too much pseudo-Buddhist rambling, too many random characters introduced way too late in the game, and these characters have terrible names with too many consonants. There’s too much retconning of previous plot points, there’s too much padding in what should be a leaner story. Seriously, my version of the novel is 700 pages long and that’s probably 400 too many pages. All that said, there’s reasons to finish the series. No, Simmons doesn’t totally stick the landing – almost nobody ever does. Yes, this last book feels a little self-indulgent, and definitely needed better editing. The novel still struck a chord with me – mostly because of the uneven, occasionally upsetting relationship between Raul and grown-up Aenea – but also because Simmons is still an excellent world-builder. Nothing here is a serious enough transgression to “undo” the previous entries in the series. It’s just not quite as good.

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Ooh, lookit that evil Space Cardinal. France putting in the work once again.

Discussion

Raul Endymion is a bit of a dope. I know this, because he brings it up again and again and again. It’s still hard for me to hate on him as a narrator too much, though. He’s clearly meant to be a mediocre Everyman, a cipher for the reader to witness all the coocoo-banana-beans nonsense going on pretty much all the time. Sometimes, though, I find his narration tiresome. He repeats phrases – I get it, you love Aenea, you don’t need to refer to her as “my darling, Aenea” five thousand times. Ugh, pet peeve. Anyway, I’m not really here to dump on Raul all day. Raul is more than capable of doing that to himself. Despite the obnoxious phrasing, I actually thought his relationship with Aenea is one of the redeeming qualities of the novel. It’s not that she’s a terribly realistic character, because she isn’t. She’s a literal messiah, she can see the future, she’s always acted about twenty years older than she is, and while she has some personality quirks, she’s still a larger-than-life persona. Aenea has always been in charge, while Raul brings up the rear like an obedient Golden Retriever. It makes sense that Raul falls for her, and since Raul has been a constant, loyal presence, it makes sense that she loves him too.

The whole star-cross’d lover thing can fuck me up sometimes. I ain’t too manly to admit it! Rise takes a while to get there, though. The book begins after a moderate time-skip. However, Aenea is still only sixteen, so another time-skip is needed so we don’t feel creepy about these two fucking constantly. As I mentioned above, this book needed some major pruning down, and I feel like the majority of Raul’s solo kayak adventure could have been chucked in the bin. It’s literally a plot device to saddle Raul with enough time-debt to make hooking up with Aenea seem less gross. It may set up the ending, but the whole thing is no less a device. Also, there is a massive disparity of knowledge between Raul and Aenea, and this is the greatest source of tension between the two. This is to say that Aenea always knows everything, and Raul is always in full-on Jon Snow mode. The thing is, Aenea is often kind of shitty about it. She tries to use her age and supposed immaturity to deflect Raul’s anger about constantly being left in the dark, but it’s not convincing, she just sucks when it comes to sharing information and doesn’t seem to recognize the pain it causes. This is actually good character work. I feel it, and when Raul comes back to find Aenea is legal and in love with him, it’s a truly electric moment. It feels earned at that point. The problems in the relationship never go away, either, which is nice. Raul is still barely relevant to the great goings-on, and Aenea still keeps him in the dark about very important things. I think that’s why it works so well, and why the constant emotional roller-coaster hits me right in the feel-basket.

So that’s what I like about The Rise of Endymion, or rather what I like most. Again, I’m mostly positive on this novel, and I still have no reservations recommending the series as a whole. The relationship between these two people is the emotional core of these two books, and the fact that it’s executed well goes a long way. Once you begin to step away from that core, things get a little wiggy around the edges. Other than Raul and Aenea fulfilling their destiny, there’s greater unrest in the world of the Space Catholics. The Pax has made itself even nastier in the four years since the last novel, and have ratcheted up their efforts to control the entirety of humanity even more. Like the medieval Church, they are comfortable with hypocrisy and perpetrating unspeakable horrors upon the general population. Their major sin in this instance is secretly consorting with the A.I.’s of the first two novels – the TechnoCore – and relying upon their help to subjugate the entire human race to the whims of the Church.

Wait a minute, I thought the whole point of the Fall of the Farcasters was to eliminate the Core from human space? The Fall of Hyperion ended with the understanding that the Core was cut off from human space, and thus humans were free from the AI threat since they destroyed the farcaster web which was said to house the AI’s. Sure, but all that was bullshit. At least that’s what we’re told, because Simmons wanted to bring back the TechnoCore as the true threat to human existence. And that’s fine, and the retconning is based on the inaccuracy of Martin Silnus’ poetry and as such is handled fairly elegantly, but it still feels a little weak. Mostly because it introduces a whole bunch of weird philosophical mysticism that doesn’t translate super great into my big space opera, you know? Suddenly the Void That Binds is a major deal, even though I still can’t precisely explain the concept to you, our understanding of the TechnoCore is very different from before. Essentially, the AI’s of the Core are fatally flawed because they are true parasites and cannot fathom the concept of empathy.

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Sorry, France, this competition is over. Behold this masterpiece. Holy shit, it’s amazing. That action kayak!

Now, empathy was a big deal from the first two books. The TechnoCore was said to be developing their own artificial intelligence, only this was to be the Ultimate Intelligence. It’s a computer god. This digital deity has master over space and time and is responsible for trying to wipe humanity out of existence. Humanity, however, has an Ultimate Intelligence of their own, one with a sense of empathy. These two are supposed to fight it out for the future of humanity, but that whole thing has taken something of a backseat. Now we’re concerned with the parasite AI’s, each AI a faction unto itself, and what is referred to as the “Lions, Tigers, and Bears” which sound an awful lot like a race of UI’s apart from the TechnoCore. They give Aenea her magic messiah powers, allowing her to see into the future and to teleport and cool shit like that. The explanation of all this takes many words and many pages and I’m still not sure I’m picking up what Simmons is putting down.

There is a lot of pseudo-religious, philosophical free-wheeling happening in the middle of this book, and what this mostly accomplishes is to slow the narrative down and muddy the waters of the plot enough to make you just accept what’s happening so we can just get on with it already. Maybe there’s people who are really into these lengthy tangents, who use Aenea’s sermons as a launching point to really dig into critical theory and think about the nature of the universe. If so, great. However, the practical consequence of stalling the story to meander in the philosophy weeds is to obfuscate character motivations and inhibit natural storytelling. Plus, we get all of this vague exposition mixed with watered-down Buddhism and in the end we’re basically told that the true catalyst of all action in the universe is love. Fucking love. Just harness the power of love and you can teleport to distant star systems and talk to dead people. Christ. Why don’t we just cue the Huey Lewis and get out of here?

Except I don’t want to end on a down note. Remember, I like these books quite a lot, even if this uneven last novel is the weakest of the four. Space Catholics sound dumb, but they’re quite sinister and their Crusade against the Ousters is brutal. Also, you’re not allowed to hate a novel with an actual Space Pope in it. I do have a bit of a quibble about that, actually. Lenar Hoyt, the evil Space Pope in question, is never given any depth. To be fair, he was never really the focus of his own story way back in Hyperion either, but he’s even flatter as a character here. I have questions about Hoyt’s motives, the most important being why a Hyperion pilgrim would ever embrace the cruciform parasite. Oh well. Meanwhile, Father-Captain de Soya is still cool, and Cardinal Lourdusamy is gross and creepy and great. The AI-android creatures are sadly kind of lame, although I did enjoy Raul winning his fight. There are many cool scenes in this thing, and it’s a shame they sometimes get lost in the midst of all the meandering nonsense.

Okay, time to talk about the ending, and then that’s it for the Hyperion Cantos. Honestly, it’s the very definition of bittersweet, to the point where it’s hard to fathom how poor Raul feels about it. Actually, it’s also weird to see from Aenea’s point of view. Basically, during Raul’s kayak trip and the five years of time-debt he incurred, Aenea was out doing messiah shit. Except for a large chunk of time where she went and got married and did a baby. Now, she tells Raul this earlier in the novel and leaves out the part where the dude she marries is him. As readers, we all know this right away. We may not know the mechanics of the time travel, but we know that the mystery husband is and always has been Raul, even if Raul himself doesn’t. Dramatic irony, people! Anyway, the end of the novel is Raul finding this out last – because, as Raul points out, he’s always the last to know. Anyway, he gets to Old Earth and finds his dead hunny bunny totally not dead and also a year younger and everything clicks for him. That’s all very sweet and I’m glad they get some time together where they’re not being chased by evil Space Catholics, but also there’s a hard time limit on that togetherness. That second-to-last day is gonna be rough, and that makes me sad. Because, after all, Aenea is a messiah, which means she gets martyred, and for that to matter in the universe it needs to stick. Once their year is up, Raul has to go be an apostle. Aenea died and her, I don’t even know, her fuckin mystical love-virus spread throughout the galaxy and Raul has to protect her legacy or something. Yeah, once again the strength of the novel is not actually the nature of humanity’s redemption. I barely understand that. I do understand the nature of Raul and Aenea’s love, though. And that’s enough.

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Posted in Books, Post-Earth | Leave a comment

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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Game * MachineGames * Fuck Nazis * 2017

Synopsis

Uh, hmm. This one’s gonna be tough to get a proper handle on. The new Wolfenstein, the direct follow up to 2014’s The New Order, is a whole situation that deserves to be considered from a good many different angles. Oddly enough, probably the least interesting aspect of the game is how it functions as a game. That’s not really a knock against it, I generally enjoyed my time playing, but at the same time the minute-to-minute running around bits seem rather beside the point of what The New Colossus is doing. What is it doing? Blowing your fucking mind, early and often, that’s what. Look, I understand that it’s 2017 and it’s hard to be surprised, shocked, or pushed by stories anymore. Especially by a goddamned Wolfenstein game. Yet here we are, with a singular video game experience that pulls so many kinds of bananas narrative tricks on you that in should feel cheap and exploitative, and yet somehow someway Wolfenstein pulls it off. Every screaming bonkers moment in the game, and there are many, feels absolutely earned. What is even more nuts is the fact that the protagonist, as well-written and solid as any video game protagonist in recent memory, is BJ fucking Blazkowicz, otherwise known as the pixel-face at the bottom of the screen in Wolfenstein 3D.

The story of Wolfenstein II is by far the most important thing happening here, and as such I’ll hold off on getting into the details of said story for past the break. It’s impossible to talk about this game without spoiling the entire bonkers story, and while I usually don’t get too cranky about spoilers, holy shit this game. All I can do is encourage anyone who enjoys video games to play this fucking thing. Now, before I get into some of the more, ah, striking plot points, there is still a game here. It’s still a shooter, and if you’ve played the previous game (which is also pretty good!) you know what to expect here. The template hasn’t changed. You proceed through a variety of detailed, striking levels and you shoot every Nazi you see. You shoot em with big honking German guns in their stupid Nazi faces until nothing is left but enormous piles of filthy Nazi corpses. I suppose there’s a little more to it than that.

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Yes, the game is hard, but sometimes you’re rewarded by exploding Nazis so hard they hang themselves from the ceiling. It’s that kind of game.

First of all, this game is hard. It’ll mess you up but good if you’re not prepared for the difficulty, which mostly stems from unlearning typical first person shooter tropes. If you play this like Call of Duty, you’re gonna get wrecked, early and often. I played at the default setting, and I died a lot. Like, a lot. I should disclose that while I love games I’m generally pretty bad at them. Most of the time I can bang my head against a thing until I eventually fluke my way through, which I did a few times over the course of the campaign. Wolfenstein expects you to move. Do not stop for any reason. Sprint, jump, serpentine, and never stop shooting. That’s all well and good, but there are a few frustrating aspects to this gameplay. First and foremost, if you start getting shot you best get out the way because you will get chewed up instantly. I went from full health and armor to fucking dead in about three seconds all the time, because the game does a terrible job of letting you know when and from where you’re getting hit. There’ll be a little red flicker, but by the time you see that you’re done. This would be less annoying if it were easier to pick up health and armor, but for whatever reason that mechanic is very touchy. So yes, there are a few unfriendly design choices which make the game pretty difficult. Here’s what you do, though. Play it on easy.

Turn the difficulty all the way down and enjoy this bonkers story. Shooting Nazis with duel shotguns is still fun, arguably more so if you’re not dying every six seconds. If you come at Wolfenstein as a cathartic experience, I think you’ll have more fun with it. The last couple of years have been real motherfuckers, and sometimes killing virtual baddies just feels like the right thing to do. Besides, turning down the difficulty will allow you to take your time in the environments without fear of instant death. There’s a lot to see and do, and many of the random details hidden throughout compliment the main narrative. Obviously there are a lot of massive set-pieces that are going to dominate conversation, but part of the reason those work so well is because Wolfenstein allows the player to fill in the corners of the world, to create a sense of place. Between most missions you get a while to catch your breath. All you’re doing is wandering around your base and interacting with people, which also allows for some more in-depth characterization for ancillary characters, which in turn provides for the big moments to have more impact. Wolfenstein II is a statement game, and I encourage anyone who enjoys the medium to play it. If you’ve already done so, please continue past the break, because holy shit.

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There’s so much to talk about here that I didn’t even talk about my favorite character, Sigrun Engel on the right there. She’s great.

Discussion

Wolfenstein II starts subverting your expectations immediately. The game begins right after the conclusion of The New Order, in which you nearly got blowed up real good. As it is, BJ Blazkowicz is hurting bad. Severely wounded, having flirted with death, BJ appears down for the count. And then the Nazis show up. BJ might be a world-class Nazi killer, but here he is, confined to a wheelchair and wearing a hospital gown. His health is capped at 50 – a neat game mechanic trick that underscores the player’s inherent physical weakness – but hey, there are Nazis on the boat and fuck that noise. So the first level of the game tasks you with rolling your ass around the mega-U-boat from the first game and killing Nazis from your wheelchair. Eventually, you purge the Nazis from your floating headquarters, but oh no General Engel (the psychotic antagonist from the first game) is here in her giant flying fortress and now you’ve got to wheel your ass over there and handle some shit. It goes poorly. The leader of your little resistance cell, Caroline, is basically butchered by Frau Engel and hoo boy here we go.

A good video game story embraces its gameness to tell its story, and this is something that Wolfenstein does even while telling its linear, kind-of-but-not-really movie story. The evil Nazi lady beheading the friend of the protagonist right in front of him is horrible. The same action has a little more impact when the scene is in first person, and Engel holds the head up to your face, mocking you with it before chucking it aside. Likewise, there are some significant flashback scenes where the forced first person perspective is designed to fuck with you as viscerally as possible. BJ Blazkowicz had a rough childhood. This kind of characterization probably isn’t necessary in a game like this, in which crazy, over-the-top moments are par for the course, but Wolfenstein insists on humanizing its characters. All of them, and that includes the player character. BJ’s father was an abusive asshole. Just a real piece of shit. We know this because the game puts us in the position of Blazkowicz as a child attempting to weather the storm of regular abuse by this angry racist motherfucker. There’s a point early on where, after slapping your (Jewish) mom around and telling you how worthless you are, the old man takes you down into the torture basement and straps you to a sawhorse with a rifle in your hand. You are then told in no uncertain terms to shoot your beloved dog as punishment for being weak.

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Wolfenstein is not entirely bleak and upsetting. There’s quite few scenes of levity and other tonal shifts that keep the story from bogging down in grim nihilism.

I did not shoot my dog. After calling me a few names, the old man does it (offscreen). This is one of many fucked up things that happens over the course of the game, and the most impressive thing about it is how the game avoids feeling cheap and exploitative. The scenes with BJ’s father could have easily felt like a pointless attempt at shock value, but the game – again, fucking Wolfenstein – deftly avoids this by providing context and characterization. This isn’t the only flashback featuring the father, and it’s not the only information we get. You pick up bits of context here and there, and over the course of the game it becomes clear what kind of man BJ’s father is. He’s a piece of shit, obviously, but a well-rounded piece of shit. Luckily for me, I can’t speak from experience about abuse, however BJ’s father isn’t a stereotype. He’s not a literal monster. He’s just a weak, cowardly man with fucked up moral values. He’s bad at running his business, and he is incapable of self-reflection. It’s always someone else’s fault – usually his wife or his son – it’s always someone else keeping him down. The Jews, the blacks, someone else is responsible for his own failures. There’s even a memory in which the father comes into the room when young BJ is having a nightmare and is cool about it – he picks up a BB gun and he and the kid go down into the basement to hunt monsters. Taken alone that scene would be adorable, in context it just demonstrates how confusing and horrible abuse situations are. Abusers aren’t always absolutely evil; they’re weak, conflicted, and prone to blaming others for their own shortcomings before taking their own frustration and self-hatred out on those weaker than themselves.

None of this stops Blazkowicz from killing that sonofabitch when he gets the chance, however, and it feels fucking great. At its heart, this is what Wolfenstein is best at. The game provides context for the evils of its world, which in this case is Nazis taking over the United States. Obviously, that’s bad. That’s why killing scores of them in a video game is fun. They’re trying to oppress me with guns, therefore using their own guns to prevent them from doing so feels right. But this is 2017, and goddammit if nothing is as black and white as saying “Nazis are bad” anymore. Still: Nazis are bad, America, Jesus Christ. To its credit, Wolfenstein leans all the way into its anti-Nazi messaging. Even more to its credit, the game does so in a way which provides the same kind of complex context as the situation regarding BJ’s abusive father. In some ways, the entire Nazi invasion of the United States feels like the end result of a nation-wide abusive relationship.

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The game excels at these grand moments. Yes, the scene itself is shocking, but there is a deeper sense of unease seeing the National Mall used as a Nazi spectacle.

Wolfenstein knows that America is a complicated, difficult place to understand. In its treatment of Nazi rule, the game does not choose to be culpable to American exceptionalism and simply espouse easy clichés in lieu of actual commentary. There is a good deal of subtlety at play here, which again is crazy because this is a game where you get your head chopped off on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on live television only to have it collected and grafted onto a new body. Yet here we are, dealing with all kinds of issues surrounding race and inclusion and complicity in dictatorial rule. And somehow, Wolfenstein pulls it all off. The environments play a large role in this, especially in areas lie the Roswell episode, when the player is encouraged to listen to conversations and read correspondence and what eventually emerges is oh hey, many Americans are in fact complicit in the Nazi takeover. Not necessarily because they like it when Germans take over, but because many of the values held by the Nazis are not exactly opposed by an upsettingly large number of Americas. Even when such support is clearly not in their best interest.

This is a game where the idle NPC conversations are well-written and occasionally important. One of the more memorable exchanges happens in that Roswell level. You’re there to infiltrate the Nazi command center and blow shit up, okay, video game stuff. Yet as you’re walking along incognito, you overhear a conversation between a Nazi official and a couple of KKK dipshits. Now, in the fiction of the game, the KKK have been recruited by the Nazis to help facilitate an easier integration between America and the Nazis. They’re a good fit, you know? But the crux of this conversation isn’t how well the two parties fit, it’s the vast difference between a ruling Nazi party and a subservient Ku Klux Klan. It’s clear that the KKK have had a resurgence under the Nazi rule, and they’re ostensibly enjoying the new power and the ability to walk around openly in their idiot-sheets. But when they’re confronted by the Nazi official, they’re put on the spot. The official humiliates these two bumpkins, chastising them about their inability to learn German. The Nazis are happy to exploit these rubes, but they absolutely do not respect them. Any power the KKK has in the new world order is fleeting at best. They’re expendable, but despite knowing this the KKK dummies continue to embrace the Nazis because it’s easier than the alternative. It’s more important to be openly racist than to improve their own station in life, I guess.

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Americana means a lot more than small town diners and folksy parades.

By the end of the game, Wolfenstein makes it clear that nothing about BJ’s life is simple or easy. It would have been so, so easy to just keep Blazkowicz a non-stop murder machine, not thinking about anything but killing the next Nazi. And sure, he has some of those moments. He’s Terror-Billy after all. Yet forcing him into contact with a contingent of Black Power activists, and a deeply weird and awesome group from New Orleans, and jamming them all together with the rag-tag Europeans from the first game, creates an opportunity for BJ to understand that “America, home of the free” may just have some caveats to it. At the same time, those ideals are still worth fighting for, even if not every American necessarily lives up to those standards. I cannot wait to see how this all turns out, so I can only hope MachineGames is allowed to finish up its opus here. They’ve absolutely earned it. Wolfenstein II ends on another scene of brutal violence, which again is nice and cathartic, and you get a stirring speech (if you play the Wyatt timeline, that is). Yet the game is clearly not finished, there is a lot to consider moving forward. If the next game is about liberating America, are we going to have to fight other Americans who find Nazi rule comfortable? Probably, and that’s a razor’s edge to try and walk. So far, the Wolfenstein team has earned their shot. Hopefully they pull it off.

Posted in Dystopia, Games, Nuclear | Leave a comment

In Which I Ramble About Going Outside

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Paulina Lake in September. Everyone leaves in September. Please don’t come in September, you would hate it.

Remember summertime? I don’t know about where you live, but here in Central Oregon it was pretty much terrible. This was even more upsetting than usual because last winter was a long, grey, cold, snowy nightmare – a grim twilight of icy gloom that seemed to last well into May. Hell, the first couple of weeks of June were colder than usual. Imagine my unmitigated joy of starting my new job and watching snow fall two weeks after flippin’ Memorial Day. At some point, the Weather Overlords flipped a switch and it went from obnoxiously cold and damp to crazy hot pretty much overnight. July was hot. Just unusually, uncomfortably hot. It was gross, and couple that with the fact that the high country was still covered in a ridiculous amount of snow very little high country hiking was available. Of course the crazy heat melted even the above average snow pack pretty quickly, but it also facilitated above average vegetation growth, and coupled with an unending heat wave (temps were above 90 most days during July, which is not normal for the area) these things combined to set most of the Northwest on fire for the duration of August. That’s not an exaggeration. Here in Bend, there were solid weeks where visibility was negligible due to smoke and oh hey it’s still 98 degrees outside.

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I took this on June 9th. THE NINTH DAY OF JUNE. We, uh, didn’t have many visitors that day.

So summer was bad. This was all mitigated by the fact that I got to work a pretty cool job the entire time, though. Now, I will say right up top that my job had some very real, very serious drawbacks. However, so do all jobs, and there’s no real point in dwelling on the negatives, especially considering the downside of a job which works with the general publish should be self-evident. Besides, where I work is more compelling than the hour-by-hour of what I do. My workplace is one of the largest, most potentially active volcanos in the country: Newberry Volcano. Sometimes I’m on the flanks of said volcano, sometimes I’m right up in there, literally inside of the thing. Of course, the city of Bend is right on its feet, built on top of lava flows from massive eruptions that happened not all that long ago. I suspect most people passing through don’t pay all that much attention to it. For all its size and ferocity over the last half-million years or so, it’s a low profile volcano. The Three Sisters and the rest of the Cascades are much showier, after all.

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Actually we had one visitor that day. Look at this little guy! He made it up into the branches and then just hung out for a while. No idea where Momma was, so I stayed in the truck.

I’m not really here to write a bunch of interpretive material. If you want that, I would encourage you to come to our National Monument next summer – we open in May. I may or may not be there, government jobs are fickle and fleeting, and a summer answering the same questions thousands of times a day can wear on anybody, but you should come anyway. This invitation is contingent on you acting right, though, and this leads to my complicated, paradoxical thoughts on the nature of public land. I spent my summer talking with both locals and visitors from around the world. If you recall, we had a total solar eclipse not that far away and as such we had a massive influx of visitors over the two weeks of surrounding said eclipse. Now, considering I’m a dang ranger, I obviously want people to come and enjoy what we’ve got going on here. I want the opportunity to show people the magnificence of the landscape. There’s so much weird stuff! I want the opportunity to help newcomers to the outdoors how to respect the land. The problem is, the more people who show up, the more stress is put on the whole ecosystem, and that’s a difficult balance.

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East Lake from an undisclosed (i.e. off-trail) location on the East Lake obsidian flow. 

We’ve started raising prices to utilize public lands, which is something that doesn’t affect me as much since I work for the Forest Service, an entirely different agency than the National Park Service, and as far as I know it’s still $5 a day to come check out Newberry National Monument. It probably won’t surprise you that people still grouse about that five bucks. From what I hear, there is plenty of public backlash against the significant price hikes in the most popular National Parks. That’s fair. Here’s the thing though: we don’t get funded like you think we might get funded. We just don’t. Yes, yes, I know you pay your taxes and using public land should be covered. And you know, the vast majority of public land is still totally free for you to enjoy. It’s just most of that land is a touch more rustic than you might like. The really cool stuff, the National Parks, the Monuments like Newberry, well, those attract more people. More people means more jerks. More jerks means more maintenance and enforcement is necessary. And even further, the more accessible and developed we make these places, the more people will come. I want everyone to enjoy their natural heritage, but at a point the sheer numbers will do more harm than good.

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Enjoy a poor photo of a total solar eclipse taken on my phone. Look, I spent those two minutes being utterly awestruck and amazed. Sorry.

It’s a tough situation and I definitely don’t have answers. One of the things I do, since I don’t care for crowds but still would like to see cool things, is try and find places that are off the beaten path. Not everything is published in the brochure, and that’s on purpose. Most National Parks that I’ve been to have the crazy, super crowded thoroughfares surrounded mostly empty backcountry. Of course, as outdoor recreation becomes more popular even these places are started to get crowded. This is going to lead to unpopular-but-necessary decisions like requiring lottery-style permits to use popular backcountry areas. Here in Central Oregon, places like Jefferson Park and Green Lakes are likely to move to tightly enforced systems like this. I implore the public to realize that these policies aren’t in place because we’re a bunch of draconian fascists who are just trying to harsh your good time. It’s because sheer numbers can ruin wilderness. Seriously, who wants to hike ten miles into alpine lake country to camp among a hundred party kids trashing the place? Hell, the people could be super well behaved and the sheer amount of boots and tents is going to do serious damage.

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This was taken from Paulina Peak on one of maybe three clear days in August. In the distance one of two major fires is burning all the way out of control in the Three Sisters Wilderness. That’s Paulina Lake there, because nobody in Oregon has any imagination when it comes to naming things.

So when you come out to Newberry to marvel at this ridiculous volcano, spread out and be mindful. Come to the visitor center and listen to our goofy volunteer rangers explain lava and trees and our idiot squirrel population. But also maybe drive out on a gravel road and seek out some weird things. On my ranger hikes, I give people (if they’re cool) hot tips on off-brochure travel, and they almost always appreciate the opportunity to get out there and see something new. On the one hand, more boots means more potential for damage. On the other, it’s still baffling to me that I get people coming up who have lived in the area their whole life and have never made the half-hour drive before. You literally live in the shadow of a massive volcano that absolutely will erupt again, there is a paved road that leads inside of it, and that’s never made you curious? Better late than never, I guess. Just be cool about your newfound love of the outdoors. If you are, I know some places.

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The little seen backside of Newberry volcano. I’m standing on a twenty foot drift of pumice from the Big Obsidian Flow eruption and looking out over a few dozen of Newberry’s cinder cones. Nobody comes out here. 

Posted in Public Lands | Leave a comment

Blackass

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Novel * A. Igoni Barrett * What if Kafka was Nigerian? * 2015

Synopsis

Sometimes you have to get yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’ve flipped through the archives of this blog, you’ll note that I have a clear preference when it comes to fiction. To be fair, that’s kind of the whole point of this endeavor – to catalogue my thoughts on a particular kind of book – but the longer I do this the more I realize what a wide umbrella the concept of “apocalypse” actually is. Also, sometimes I don’t feel like reading about White Guys in Space, you know? So I widen my scope, embrace the term “apocalypse” to be a historical understanding more than anything else, which is how I shoehorn my unrepentant love of Modernism in here. The historical concept of an apocalypse is fairly simple on the surface: a thing happens which has repercussions. In the case of Modernism the main event is World War I. Obviously there’s a lot that happened before which set up that conflict, but it’s a pretty easy thing to point to and go: here’s where things changed. Other major historical changes can’t really be pinned on a particular event, but nonetheless have long-lasting, apocalyptic implications. Colonialism is pretty high up on the list of things which irrevocably changed the world.

I’ve talked about this before, with the seminal Chinua Achebe work Things Fall Apart. That was a novel about the slow and irreversible influence of Europeans on Africa, and the nebulous, difficult question of whether or not colonialism is/was a bad thing. The book I’m talking about here, Blackass, is a contemporary look at the same question, albeit a century or so later (compared to when Things Fall Apart took place). This novel takes place in Lagos, Nigeria, a modern African megalopolis, which is a long way from the tribal village of Okonkwo. And look, I have to imagine that Barrett, as a Nigerian author tackling these issues, is aware of the long shadow of Achebe. I mean, it comes up in the text itself. That said, Blackass reads more like Kafka or Salman Rushdie than anything else. It’s a deceptively breezy read, fun and quick, but also brings up all kinds of difficult thoughts and questions for the reader.

I don’t know why you read books. Maybe you don’t want to deal with difficult thoughts and questions. If that’s the case, you are clearly in the wrong place. Here’s what I want out of a good book, it’s easy, anyone could do it. Good story, compelling characters, depth and subtext. Easy! You’re being facetious. Anyway, novels like Blackass are important for dudes like me, which is to say white Americans, to read once in a while. I love where I live but I’ll be honest with y’all, it’s a straight up cracker barrel around here. In order to have any hope of broadening my perspective, I have to turn elsewhere – also, who wants to talk to people? With novels (or nonfiction, or whatever you want) like this, you’re forced to look at the perspective of someone else. Someone with a vastly different experience than yours, an entirely different outlook and understanding of the world. That can be difficult, but it’s necessary, at least if you want to be a decent human being. Otherwise just double down on your own, very limited perspective, and be President. Ugh.

The premise of Blackass is pretty straightforward. It begins with a thirty-something Nigerian man named Furo Wariboko waking up in his bedroom, which is in his parent’s house. He has a job interview that morning, which is a pretty big deal since employment in Lagos is difficult to come by. Once Furo wakes up, however, he has discovered that he is now a white guy. A ginger even. Red hair, green eyes, the works. Later we discover the reason for the book’s title: his ass is still extremely black. Furo panics and slips out of the house without being seen by his family, who he assumes would flip out and call the cops I guess. Despite his alarming transformation, Furo still recognizes the need to get to his interview and compete for the job which he hopes will finally launch his life. The first scenes of the book cover his journey to the place where his interview takes place, and deep in the warrens of Lagos, a white dude stands out. It’s like one record scratch moment after the other. As the story moves on, however, Furo starts to figure things out. He moves from being baffled by his whiteness to learning to exploit it. It gets uncomfortable.

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I enjoy how both covers employ a design which suggests butts without actually being a butt. #butts 

Discussion

It doesn’t take very long to figure out that Furo kind of sucks. Still, he’s the kind of guy who lulls you into thinking he might be okay, he’s got a charisma about him that makes some of the shitty things he does go down easier. Also, to be fair to the guy, his entire identity has been upended so I guess we can cut him some slack there. Still, it’s telling that his first impulse is to ditch his family. No note, nothing, he just up and bails. And here’s the first Very Important Lesson for some of the heart-in-the-right-place white liberals I’ve known in my life: black people are people and sometimes they’re assholes. Blackass would be an entirely different statement if Furo was unmoved by his experience and went out of his way to uphold his own blackness and did saintly deeds on behalf of his community with his new honky powers. This book ain’t about that. This book is about a normal dude, a guy who lives in Lagos which, and you may or may not know this, is not a great place to live. This book is about identity politics, but only from the viewpoint of a single, unremarkable individual in a massive city of 16 million individuals.

Furo quickly learns that his newfound whiteness comes with newfound power. His first moments are awkward and upsetting, since he’s in an entirely black neighborhood he’s extremely conspicuous. It gets worse when he talks because, oh hey he’s still the same guy and knows all the beats and rhythms of speech and life where he lives. The patois of his people sounds super weird coming from a redhead’s mouth, though – almost but not quite patronizing. Still, before even a few hours have passed, Furo has learned that he can exploit his whiteness. He borrows money from a random lady with promises to pay her back. He never does. When he shows up to his job interview, he gets in an argument with one of the fifty or so people in line for the single available job. Furo just walks right in, and ends up with a VP of marketing job. It is explicitly stated by the owner of the company that the reason for his hiring is because of his color. Keep in mind, this is Nigeria. The owner is black, but he also knows that the whites in Nigeria tend to have money and influence – remnants of colonial power. To succeed, the owner feels he needs to make clients and possible investors comfortable, and white people make other white people comfortable.

The only drawback of getting his job is that it doesn’t start for two weeks. Furo has convinced himself that he can’t go back home, that his family wouldn’t accept his new self. So he slums it, spending the night in an abandoned construction project with the corpse of a dead dog and is promptly eaten alive by mosquitos. Lagos sounds like a nightmare, and Barrett does nothing to sugarcoat the considerable downsides of the city. Anyway, I’ll skip ahead a little bit. Furo is a user. That’s why he sucks, and that’s in his heart as a person. His transformative whiteness only allows him to use people more. It amplifies what is already shitty about him as a person. While homeless, Furo runs into two people. The first is a writer, who we later discover is trans (and whose character is honestly a little thin, mostly there to give context to Furo’s story), who takes an interest in Furo because he suspects Furo’s transformation secret. Furo shamelessly asks this dude he just met if he can crash at his place. Which is something a crazy person does. He is denied this, but lucky for him there’s this foxy lady there named Syreeta there to offer him a place to stay.

Furo ends up treating this lady – who does the most for him of anyone in this story – horribly. The end of the story is the worst thing he does, with the possible exception of allowing his family to believe he’s missing. Syreeta is leading a complicated life, by which I mean she’s a professional mistress. She has a powerful boyfriend who gives her a place to stay, nice things, and cash money. For reasons known only to her, she adopts Furo as a sort of live-in mistress of her own. They bang, she gives him a place to live while he pursues his career, and after a while they actually form a functioning relationship. However, Furo – who has tellingly changed his name to Frank – is on an upward trajectory with his career. By the end, he’s dumped his first employer for one with more potential and who is willing to pay much more. Also, he wouldn’t have to live in Lagos any longer. However, Syreeta is pregnant, and she wants the kid. Was this the scam all along? Possibly – after all, she is basically a professional mistress, a live-in escort. The ending give the lie to that assumption though. Here’s Frank’s response to the situation:

“Furo resolved to stop Syreeta. He wouldn’t allow her to bring a baby into the world he was building for himself. It was a risk he couldn’t take. His black behind was trouble enough to live with, impossible to be rid of, but a black baby would destroy any chance of a new life. Of that he was certain, the baby would be black. Furo’s baby. Not Frank’s. Not his.

Because he was, frankly, white.”

So he does a terrible thing. Frank convinces Syreeta that oh hey baby, I totally love you and stuff. I want to marry you and whisk you away from here and we can live as a proper couple and have a family. But I need to save some money first, get my career going, so just head down to the clinic and take care of this situation and later on we’ll do it for real. She agrees to this, because I bet being a professional mistress is a bad time. As soon as he knows the baby is gone, Frank too is gone. He takes off with empty promises of paying her back, but as we know from that first random lady who lent him money, Furo doesn’t pay back shit. Because he’s an asshole, and by embracing his new whiteness, he is able to amplify that.

Blackass is an examination of race identity in a post-colonial Nigeria, sure, but mostly it’s the story of a weird thing happening to a guy, who then goes on to exploit that change to better his financial situation. The book doesn’t assign blame to social structures or history, the realities of colonialism are simply accepted as the way things are. Furo’s whiteness opens more doors for him than would otherwise be available because of that reality. By turning white – not just in color, but in how he thinks of himself – Frank is simply embracing that truth. It’s hard to blame the dude (I mean, other than the shitty trick he pulled on Syreeta) for choosing an easier life for himself. Nobody seems to blame him for accepting the good things that come his way once be becomes Frank, either. Life for the average person in Lagos is hard. Furo is a college-educated man in his thirties living with his parents and chronically unemployed despite the hundreds of applications he has sent out. Frank is a college-educated man in his thirties with a hot girlfriend, and excellent job, and the promise of more money and a better life. That doesn’t excuse his horrible behavior, which is somewhat redeemed by the very end in which he allows his family back in his life, but it does explain an awful lot.

Posted in Books, Colonialism, Urbanization | Leave a comment

Endymion

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Novel * Dan Simmons * Catholics in Space! * 1995

Synopsis

Endymion almost lost me right away. Here’s the first sentence, which I think sounded cool to Simmons when he wrote it but had pretty much the opposite effect on me when I read it: “You are reading this for the wrong reason.” Oh, shut the fuck up guy, you don’t know me. The narrator then goes on to list a bunch of reasons that are not actually the reason I’m reading this, but damned if he’s not convincing. By the end of the first page I was like, okay dude, maybe you’re right. Bold choice by the author to begin a novel with a lengthy argument about why you shouldn’t be reading said novel. That said, when you as an author write one of my favorite sci-fi novels of all time and an exceptional follow-up, I guess you earn the benefit of the doubt.

The novels I’m referring to are, of course, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion. Those books are brilliant and if you’re at all interested in science fiction and haven’t read them then you’re wasting valuable time right now. Now, if you’ve done the sensible thing and have already read those two brilliant books, it’s time to decide if you want to read the rest of the series. Actually, these four novels (which we can go ahead and call the Hyperion Cantos) are less a linear series and more a couple of matching pairs. You could probably read Endymion and its sequel, The Rise of Endymion, without having read the first two. I don’t know why you would, but I guess you could. Hyperion is directly followed by Fall, and Endymion is directly followed by Rise. However, about three hundred years separates the two pairs. The events detailed in Endymion are directly informed by what went down in the first two books, but with a few ancillary exceptions, we’re dealing with a whole new cast of characters and a whole new antagonist.

I’ll level with you, Endymion and its sequel aren’t as good as the Hyperion books. They’re not as focused, the character work isn’t quite as strong, and Simmons goes off on some serious tangents (although those are mostly found in Rise of Endymion) that distract from what is happening. That said, very few books are as good as the Hyperion novels. In and of themselves, the Endymion books are very good, bordering on great. I prefer this first one, it’s more rollicking space adventure and less free-wheeling navel-gazing. The narrator, after that antagonistic beginning, is actually a decent enough dude and while his self-deprecating descriptions wear thin after a while, it’s better than being an endless egotistical blowhard. As in the first two books, the world-hopping action is top notch and entertaining more often than not. Now that the social structures of the first books are gone – the Hegemony of Man is about three hundred years dead at this point – something else has risen to take its place.

And it’s space Catholics. Which is super dumb, but also kind of amazing. After the Fall of the Farcasters, the apocalyptic event which totally reset human society in the galaxy, there was widespread chaos. Eventually that settled down and humanity had to decide how to proceed. Along comes the Catholic Church with what appears to be a miracle: a cross-shaped organism with the power to resurrect the dead. If you’ve read the first two books, like you should have, you would be immediately suspicious of this thing. The cruciform parasite from the first books was a terrible thing that brought people back to life as sexless, mindless idiots. Also you couldn’t leave the immediate vicinity of the cruciform home or you would convulse with horrific pain. Well, no worries, the Church fixed all that. If you accept the Lord Jesus Christ in your heart and devote your undying soul to the Church of Peter, you get a new and improved resurrection cruciform which brings you back without making you a dummy. Once this was perfected, the Church was able to create its spacefaring/military wing, the Pax. If that sounds vaguely menacing to you, well, of course it is.

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Leave it to France to the have the classy cover.

Discussion

The initial story of Endymion is actually pretty straightforward. The narrator, Raul Endymion, is just some jamoke who’s lived his whole life on the enigmatic backwater planet Hyperion. For almost the entirety of these two books, he is clearly in over his head, deeply involved in happenings far above his pay grade. The structure of the novel is a little strange, in that it’s a flashback narrative told from Raul’s present situation, which has him floating around in a death-capsule in space. He’s basically writing the story for himself, told to himself. This kind of storytelling isn’t unique, of course, but it does have a few effects on the reader. First and most obvious is that literally everything Raul is talking about in this first book has already happened. This removes tension form the life-and-death stakes, because we know all the important characters live. I mean, Raul spoils most of the major story beats within the first few pages of the novel. We know the two major characters are going to fall in love and we know that they’re going to end up in a possibly fatal situation many years later. Now, the story eventually catches up with Raul, but that doesn’t happen until the final pages of Rise of Endymion. Simmons is making a gamble here that his story is worth reading even though we pretty much know the outcome.

He mostly succeeds. Raul is eventually summoned by none other than Martin Silenus, the foul-mouthed old poet from the first two novels. He is then given a quest: protect the girl known as The One Who Teaches. This kid, who turns out to be a spunky twelve-year-old, is the love child of Brawne Lamia and the weird A.I./human “cybrid” John Keats. Her name is Aenea, and she’s gonna change the world, y’all! I’m still on the fence about whether or not Aenea is a good character. It’s a tough sell when before we even meet her in the narrative she’s straight up called a “messiah,” and when she does finally bust onto the scene, it’s alongside the Shrike from the first books. We already know her destiny at this point, we know that she’s going to be The One Who Teaches, whatever that means, we know she’s going to live to fulfil her destiny, we know her and Raul are going to end up together. That last part is a little jarring, considering this entire novel is about Raul and Aenea’s first adventure and she’s twelve the whole time. Like, by the end of the two books it works out and doesn’t feel that gross, but I totally understand if people find it creepy. Raul is in his thirties in this story. Nothing untoward happens – the kissy bits happen in the next book – but we all know it’s coming and yeah, there’s still parts where a twelve year old girl tells a thirty year old dude “yo, we’re gonna bang one of these days,” and that’s off-putting.

I suppose the real issue I have with the characters is that they’re more archetypes than actual rounded characters. I mean, they have personalities and the way they act mostly make sense, but by the very nature of the narrative they’re a bit limited in how ‘real’ they can feel. Aenea is a literal messiah. Simmons does his best to humanize her, but she’s clearly an extraordinary twelve-year-old. She possess a level of maturity that more often than not makes her feel less like a child than a confident thirty year old. Sure, she’s got to save the world from the Space Catholics, I get it. It’s hard to write for The Chosen One. As for Raul, he’s the Loyal Knight, a little dim and a little dull, and even as a kid Aenea doesn’t treat him great. Probably the best character of the bunch is Father Captain de Soya. He’s the conflicted enemy, sent to chase down Aenea by his Church despite evidence that he’s doing something terrible. He is loyal to the Church, and is a true man of faith. The fact that he’s been sent to capture and possibly kill a child weighs heavily on him.

Like Hyperion, Endymion is difficult to talk about in depth without referring to the second novel. This book is here to establish the post-apocalypse left from The Fall of Hyperion, the former Web worlds either fallen into ruin or subjugated to the Pax. The structure of the story – basically an extended chase as Raul and Aenea make their way through a bunch of farcasters to various worlds – describes the setting of the real conflict to come in Rise of Endymion. Nothing is concluded here, and by the end of the novel we’re not even close to the ‘present’ that Raul is writing from. That said, Endymion is still the more enjoyable novel. It’s a fun adventure story, and there’s little to distract from the world-hopping action. There’s plenty of depth here for all that, but mostly Simmons is world-building again. I’m fine with that, since he’s proven that he’s excellent at it. This entire saga is wrapped up with the next book, which I will tell you right now has some issues. It’s difficult to end, we all know this by now. Personally, I still like Rise of Endymion quite a lot – it made me feel serious ways about stuff – but it has problems. In other words, enjoy the good times and fun action of Endymion while you can, because shit gets weird in the fourth and final book.

Posted in Books, Post-Earth, Religion | Leave a comment

A Political Disclaimer: Words Mean Things

Time is awful and we should get rid of it. This is a petulant way of saying I resent getting older, for which I blame the passage of time. This is also a paradoxical notion, because I’m here to tell you that I’d much rather be 38 than 18 again. Maybe 28… nah, I’m in a better place now, both literally and figuratively. For instance, I have this blog, which I have maintained pretty much weekly for nearly two years now. Teenage me never would have had the stamina to keep that up, and I’m pretty happy with my output so far. For those keeping score, which is to say me, that’s several hundred thousand words written about works of media vaguely related to the notion of apocalypse. I intend to keep doing that, I still find it fun and challenging to write about the media I consume. Also it helps me remember what I read and play and watch better, with the extra added bonus of (hopefully) improving my writing.

Time’s a bitch, y’all.

All that said, it’s time to start mixing it up a bit, and that’s what I’m doing here. I’m still planning on publishing a couple of normal articles a week, but here in the middle of the week will be a piece of writing that may or may not have anything to do with other people’s fiction. Sometimes I do other kinds of writing, who says I don’t!? Anyway, I don’t have any solid plans or anything, but I do have a few ideas that might be fun. I might try some travel writing, or food writing, or ruminations on doing outdoorsy shit. I will probably post some original fiction at some point, if I can ever force my brain into following through. If there’s any disappointment I have about this hobby of mine is that despite being in the habit of writing, I still have trouble writing fiction. I think I’ve been trying to write the same short story for the last two years. I produce like a sentence a month and it’s just awful, so we’ll see if this helps. I hope it does. So those are some of the things I might do for funsies, and hopefully they’ll appeal to the 15 to 20 people a day who show up either deliberately or accidentally. I know my mom at least will enjoy having something to read other than reviews for books she’s never gonna read.

There is, of course, one other thing I probably won’t be able to keep myself from writing about, because it’s 2017, and we are going through some things as a country. Politics, y’all. I have them. Occasionally they seep into my articles, although it’s just as likely I’m referencing the politics of 1920’s England as opposed to whatever the fuck is happening now. We can’t hide from political discussion, however, because, and listen very closely: everything in life is political. Nothing is more frustrating than people trying to deflect discourse because they’re just “trying to escape,” or say things like “I’m not really political.” And, okay, I feel you. I get it. I’m not a political junkie, I’m not constantly watching C-SPAN, I don’t have a favorite pundit, I generally don’t read op-eds, and I definitely don’t hit up Twitter or Facebook to pick fights with people. However, it’s important to understand that just because you’re not specifically engaging in a discussion about the American political situation in 2017, you’re still a political person.

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I might talk about politics in this space, but I have no desire to ever look at politicians. Thankfully, I’ve found an image surrogate for the president.

I’m going to get a little semantic, and fuck you if you think that’s an inherently bad thing. Sorry, that was aggressive, but dammit I’m a Master of English and words mean things for a reason. “Semantics” are important, and boy is it frustrating to see that word trotted out anytime someone wants to dismiss an argument. Anyway, let’s dial it back, I want to talk about what politics are, and what that word means. So I guess I’ll define the word the way I’m using it when I say that everything in life is political. I’m obviously not talking about quibbling over how the government functions. Politics, in this wide, general sense, is the way in which we engage with other individuals within a society. That’s a broad definition! But it’s an important distinction. Everyone, as an individual with their own unique life experience, has a set of values and ethics and ideas which are important to them. Those things guide almost every single interaction we have with people, and are inherent to relationships we build throughout the society in which we live. We engage with politics every time we talk about, well, anything because those values, ethics, and ideas guide our interests and inform how we act in the world.

That’s why the attitude of “I read books/play games/watch TV or movies to escape” is utterly confusing to me. Every work of art – and yes, semantics again but in this instance let’s define “art” as a creative product of humans – has a point of view. Even the most vapid Hollywood dreck (and you know I’m excited for Geostorm) is a product of a team of humans. Those humans have values, ethics, and ideas, all of which inform how they create. Obviously, some of these viewpoints are more pointed than others. I play a lot of video games, and there’s a world of difference politically between something like Super Mario Odyssey (which goddammit, I need a Switch) and Wolfenstein 2. However, both of those games has a point of view and is actively saying something about the world. I guess I’m arguing for more precision in language, which at this stage in my life I should recognize as a lost cause. Rather, I wish more people would embrace art – all of it, even bad sitcoms – as inherently political and at least try to understand why they’re attracted to a particular work.

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Comrade Mario looks disdainfully at the filthy bourgeois capitalist as he runs to a meeting with the New Donk City Socialist Party.

I bring this up because I see it a lot when people are discussing media in general, and those discussions provide a reason I don’t generally actively engage directly with more specific political discourse. It’s rough out there, y’all, and I definitely understand how people can get exhausted. Not to “both sides” you, but regardless of your political beliefs – those values, ethics, and ideas that inform your entire life – trying to talk to other people who don’t share those beliefs is taxing. Especially when it seems like the person you’re talking to appears to share your basic values, ethics, and ideas but somehow draw an entirely different conclusion than you. Normally, that would be a basis for a discussion that might prove enlightening to both parties, but you know as well as I do that shit don’t work like that no more.

I’m liberal as fuck, which should surprise no one. When I get introspective and try and figure out what that is, I think at heart it’s because I’m a cynic. I know progressives get the stereotype of being wide-eyed, innocent optimists, and sometimes that’s earned, but really the tenants of 2017 liberalism are rooted in dismay over how humans treat each other. My perspective is fairly simple: due to my life experience coupled with my understanding of human history, I accept that people will treat each other terribly if given the opportunity. In order to prevent this, we need to leverage social power to protect those who are more likely to be vulnerable. Because everyone deserves a chance to live their life without someone else trying to wreck their shit up. Obviously I’m not alone in that sentiment, even among conservatives. Where it all tends to break down is during the discourse.

It’s all about the win, and while I’m not convinced that political discourse hasn’t always been awful, it’s clear the Internet has exacerbated the situation. Kind of like how climate change doesn’t create hurricanes, but definitely makes them worse. I tend not to engage online because it feels like 99% of the time I find myself not having a discussion, but playing a sport. And hey, I like sports just fine, go Hawks or whatever, but when trying to understand other people’s values, ethics, and ideas it’s counterproductive to try and win. What do I get if I win? What happens if I lose? So either the discussion immediately devolves into trying to score the most points, be it by sick burns or gotcha arguments, or the discussion becomes abstracted to the point of irrelevance. Neither situation is particularly revelatory, so why bother? It’s like debating smoke.

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In this visual metaphor, I use imagery from a popular television show to depict my frustration with current political discourse. Also I’m way hotter in this metaphor.

Here’s the deal: I am more than happy to discuss world events with people who do not agree with me, but I am not interested bad-faith arguments. And straight up, conservatives do this all the time. Yeah yeah, liberals have their own bubbles and biases, but over the last twenty-five years conservatives have perfected the art of the bad faith debate. I’m running out of space here, so maybe I’ll circle back to how the “Conservative Revolution” of the early 90’s did more damage to political discourse than anything else in recent history someday. Suffice to say, the tactics have been streamlined and codified, and are used almost unilaterally among American conservatives. Deflect, obfuscate, blame-shift, and evade. These tactics are designed to “win” at all costs. The subject of the debate doesn’t matter, what matter are the rhetorical tricks. Labels “win” arguments. Finding a single error or inconsistency “wins.” Pointing out that your opponent is not able to account for very single variable “wins.” It’s tiresome and pointless. Words mean things. They matter. The way you phrase a thought is important. Until I start hearing arguments that are more than just bullet points from Fox News, I guess I just don’t see the point. And that’s a bummer.

Hey, that was kind of fun! Next week I probably won’t talk about politics, but I might! Who knows? We’ll see if these kind of articles matter to anyone other than myself, I guess.

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Rosemary’s Baby

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Novel * Ira Levin * It’s Just a Totally Normal Baby * 1967

Synopsis

I saw the movie first. Usually I find this annoying when reading the book, especially when the film hews close to the source material, because then my brain is stuck with ready-made images instead of flights of my own dang fancy. Rosemary’s Baby gets a pass, largely because 1968 Mia Farrow is so flippin’ hot my brain couldn’t do better so I may as well roll with it. Also, the story is set in a New York City that’s long gone, a late-sixties metropolis that’s alien to my experience but is captured perfectly by the film. New York now is a cacophonous, trash-strewn, urine-soaked hellhole (pee-pee soaked heckhole, sorry), and maybe it was then too, but the film grain makes it romantic I guess. Anyway, the director might be human garbage, but the film itself is iconic for good reason, and there’s no way to extricate the movie from my head while reading. That’s okay, the book is still good. Sure I know how it ends, the element of surprise is gone, there’s no mystery here. It’s still a well-crafted novel, the writing is clear, and the creeping paranoia is still intact.

Rosemary’s Baby is a story about the supernatural, sure, but mostly it’s about slow-burning dread and paranoia. If you’re not familiar, the setup to the story is pretty straightforward. Our protagonist is Rosemary Woodhouse, a vivacious young go-go modern sixties woman. She’s a newlywed, and her husband is an aspiring actor named Guy. Two red flags right away: I’m pretty sure that with the exception of Tom Hanks all actors are terrible people and guys named “Guy” shouldn’t exist (especially considering he changed his actual name, which was Sherman). Anyway, Guy is kind of a prick. He’s not outwardly abusive or anything, but it’s immediately apparent that he’s a selfish, controlling douche who doesn’t deserve Rosemary. Probably a lot of this is my liberal 2017 sensibilities crashing headlong into casual 60’s misogyny, but even before the paranoia sets in Guy sucks. So delightful Rosemary and horrible Guy move into these old, probably haunted, apartments to begin their new life together. Everything goes great forever.

Ha, no, not even for a little while. This is one of those stories where we all know something bad is going to happen to our main character, and that it’s only a matter of time before all the foreshadowing bills come due in the end. Maybe it’s because I knew the story already, but the entire first third of the novel makes it pretty clear that shit’s going to go off the rails for our young couple, it’s simply a matter of what kind of nastiness is in store for them. Between Rosemary’s cool old man friend Hutch telling her various horror stories about her dope new hipster apartment and awful things that happens in the book’s first fifty pages, there is no ambiguity about whether or not Rosemary is in serious trouble. When we’re introduced to Minnie and Roman Castevet we pretty much already know that they’re a threat. Not because they’re immediately sinister, but because of the alarming events which seem to occur around them. I actually really appreciate that to all appearances, Minnie is just a sassy n’ brassy Midwestern lady. Later we learn a lot more, but the underlying personality never changes. As for the rest of the story, well, it’s simply a story about our Rosemary finally getting what she wants: a baby.

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It’s not always the case, but the first edition cover is miles away better than anything published later on.

Discussion

Before we get into the spooky paranoia properly, we do get some helpful background about Rosemary’s life, which leads directly to her desire for a family of her own. Rosemary, who is young, liberal, and while not a hippie is still Bohemian-adjacent, is from Oklahoma, which then as now is pretty much the opposite of those things. Most of her family, save one alcoholic brother, have basically expelled Rosemary from their lives since she married Guy. Not because Guy is an asshole, but because he comes from a Protestant family. Never mind that neither of the young people are particularly religious, but family religious heritage is still important to Rosemary’s family. So she’s in New York, which is of course far more progressive – there gay dudes and everything! – and Rosemary is able to focus on starting her own, less judgmental family. The only problem with this plan of hers is that Guy isn’t into it. At all.

Guy’s progression over the course of the story is to go from a mildly obnoxious dickweed to a cowardly, selfish brand of actual evil. Guy doesn’t want a child in his life, from his perspective such a thing could only distract from his grand destiny as a famous actor. His life, and by extension Rosemary’s, should be all about him and what makes Guy happy. What would make Guy happiest would be to finally be recognized as a great actor – from his point of view, this is all Rosemary should want as well. It’s gross and he’s gross, and the entire story revolves around a particularly nasty bit of business. The Castevets are, of course, in league with Satan. Quite literally. They promise Guy answers to all his problems and pretty much promise that he’ll be the bigshot success that is all he’s ever wanted. All Guy needs to do is sacrifice his wife and unborn child to the Dark Lord. So far as Guy is concerned, there’s no decision to be made here. He roofies his own wife and offers her up to Satan, who plants his unholy seed in her fertile womb. When Rosemary wakes up, Guy’s excuse for why she feels like shit is because after she passed out he climbed on top of her and went to town. Somehow, Rosemary doesn’t consider this disgusting act to be rape, I assume because it’s 1967 and husbands own wives. Gross.

As the novel progresses and Rosemary’s world gets smaller and more paranoid, it becomes obvious that the scariest thing of all in this story is Rosemary’s utter lack of power in her own life. Like that awful episode above, Rosemary has no control over anything happening to her. She gets a perfectly nice doctor, but is forced to switch to a Satanist doctor because husband said so. Then, when she tells Satanist doctor that everything hurts all the time, he simply tells her it’s no big deal, probably stop whining about it, also don’t talk to your friends any more. Then Rosemary talks to her friends, and Guy flips out. Of course he’s afraid that Rosemary is going to find out about his betrayal, but also kind of because she had the audacity to disobey him. In the end, when Rosemary finally decides to peace out and fuck the consequences, she returns to the first doctor who seems sympathetic. Of course he’s just humoring her, because come on now, she’s just a hysterical pregnant broad who simply needs a stern hand from her husband. Rosemary’s Baby is as much about the everyday, insular horror of being a woman in the sixties as it is a story about the devil.

I don’t like the ending. In the movie it just comes across as silly, what with all the old people capering about chanting “Hail Satan” and whatnot, and it was like, no, I am not frightened of this. The novel is a little worse, a little more ominous, as Rosemary slowly realizes that all of her terrible suspicions were true the entire time. Then she discovers her little demon baby and the book loses me. I’m sitting here hoping she chucks the little demonseed out the damn window and just kicks the shit out of the elderly Satanists even though I know she won’t. Rosemary accepting the literal devil baby as her own feels like a failure, and a submission to the status quo. Because in choosing to mother the actual, real Antichrist, she has justified all of Guy’s betrayal. The ends justify the means for her, because in the end she gets her baby. Rosemary’s choice simply reinforces the cultural paranoia inflicted on her by society. She’s a woman, all she needs to be happy is to crank some kids out. If she gets that, she can deal with everything else – systemic misogyny, Satan-babies, whatever. And that sucks.

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Okay, hear me out. What if this is the scene where she’s leaving New York after the paragraph below happens? The 70’s would have been a better place, that’s what.

Here’s how it should have gone down: Vanquish the demon, wreck up shop in the coven, and run away to California to live a proper life. That also opens up a dope franchise opportunity. It’s called Rosemary the Witch Hunter in which she starts up a Private Investigator business in 70’s San Francisco and hunts down supernatural threats on the side. Oh! And then you can have a crossover with Dirty Harry in which Rosemary shows up and horns in on Callahan’s case because of course he doesn’t believe in this supernatural shit, but Rosemary is such a badass he can’t help but fall for her, and after they crack the case by working together and kill a vampire or something Harry makes his move and Rosemary leans in as if to kiss him and then she’s all “you’ve got to ask yourself, do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” And Harry hesitates because that’s his line and Rosemary walks off before he can say anything; “yeah, I didn’t think so” she says, walking out of his life forever. Or until the sequel.

I’m mad that doesn’t exist now.

Posted in Books, Demons!, Religion | Leave a comment

Hellraiser

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Film * Clive Barker * Pinhead Needs a Safe Word * 1987

Synopsis

The first time I watched Hellraiser I fell asleep. This might seem weird considering the theme of the movie is being gross and showing the viewer just all kinds of horrific shit, but maybe I was just tired. Then, some years ago, I watched it again with my wife. We stayed awake, but the consensus was the film was dull. Again, kind of odd for a film that luxuriates in bloody giblets and gnarly bugs, but at least it indicated that I’m not crazy. Hellraiser has some pacing issues, and I’m not really sure what could have been done to prevent it. I will admit some of this is on me: I like a particular kind of horror. The whole body-horror thing does very little for me, and this one is full of it, in glorious 80’s practical effects, no less. I prefer the creeping dread story. The original Blair Witch or The Ring are what I’m talking about when it comes to the slow-burn, atmospheric brand of spooky I’m into. What’s odd is that Hellraiser is paced like one of these kind of films, it just shows everything right away so that there’s not real payoff at the end.

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“What’s in the booooox?!” To Hellraiser‘s credit, Kirsty is never some mewling, helpless damsel-in-distress. She keeps it together pretty well for someone being stalked by demons.

The movie is about weird occult shit that only kind of makes sense. There’s a mysterious little box that this dude named Frank obtained from the Mystical Orient. If you pet this box just so, it opens up. When it opens up, these horrible monsters appear and tear your body apart with chains and hooks on the set from Nine Inch Nails’ “Wish” video. That’s the introduction to the film. There’s these weird twirling posts that you see in gift shops, except instead of magnets and keychains there’s little bloody bits of meat and like, an ear nailed to it. And, I don’t know, there comes a point where the gore and grimdark just become a little silly. Hellraiser pushes up against this right away but then it backs off just as quickly. After our introduction to Pinhead’s hell-dimension, the story shifts into a kind of mashup of a haunted house and that Simpsons Treehouse of Horror bit where Bart has an evil twin living in the attic.

From what I can gather, the hell dimension is parallel to our own, and the little box is a conduit between our reality and that of the cenobites (which is what the demons call themselves). So Frank, who has clearly been torn asunder in a different plane of reality, is still in the attic of this house, living in the eternal pain of one who exists as a variety of chunks. The story comes in when we discover that Frank has a brother, Larry, who is a dweeb. Larry has a wife, Julia, who is something of an ice queen, and a delightful grown daughter who is not a fan of the stepmother. The daughter, Kirsty, is the protagonist, because this is still a 1980’s horror movie. So there’s this whole dysfunctional family dynamic, but we quickly learn that Julia and Frank are having a big old affair and that Frank is a creep. I mean, he specifically sought out the magic box to enjoy the pain dimension because basic-ass rough sex wasn’t enough for him.

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Oh my god that guy on the right is my very favorite thing. It’s like Morpheus really let himself go, you know? 

Discussion

Early on, while Larry and Julia are moving into the creep house, Larry injures his hand. He’s just gushing blood everywhere, and because he’s kind of a weenie he runs up to the creepy, dilapidated room where Julia is reminiscing about boning Frank. His blood soaks into the floor and uh-oh, that’s just what the collection of giblets that is Frank needs to regain his body. Except he needs more, and more, and more and that turns into the actual plot of the movie. Julia become Frank’s blood-gopher, and Hellraiser turns into a slow examination of the power dynamic between these two characters and I guess sadomasochism in general. But then there’s gross-out moments with bugs and a rat (seriously, fuck that rat scene, also that screaming nightmare when the weird hobo eats handfuls of crickets for no goddamn reason) and some other awful stuff and then the demons show up again.

I guess I’ve never been a huge Clive Barker fan, and after watching this I think I know why. Between the three or four novels of his I read in my late teens/early twenties and Hellraiser, it seems like Barker feels compelled to show it. Usually that’s a good thing, something aspiring fiction writers learn right away; show don’t tell you amateur hour hack (I may have attended some aggressive writer workshops). Of Barker’s novels, I read Imajica and The Great and Secret Show, and while I remember enjoying them at the time, in retrospect there is just too much there. Too many words, my bro, too many words. The details are fuzzy, but I remember some scenes in Imajica that even as a gross nineteen year old boy I thought were gratuitous. Like the creature the main character bangs with the magic genitalia and it’s suddenly two pages of weird urban fantasy porn. I’m not here to kink-shame anyone, but maybe dial it back a bit. Hellraiser has a similar issue – I don’t need to see five minutes of your gross goo-monster slithering around in stop-motion. These things are scarier specifically when I don’t see them constantly, especially when it’s thirty years later and the demons just look like they’re from a S&M Dark Crystal spin-off. That said, the Blues Brothers cenobite is the very best thing, I’m not gonna lie.

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Daytime soaps were on another level in the eighties.

The thing I like about Hellraiser is also something shared by those Clive Barker novels I’m probably never going to re-read, and that’s the idea of sub-realities mirroring our own. Obviously Barker doesn’t have the patent to dark urban fantasy, he just happens to be pretty good at it. The cenobites might be a little one-note – yeah, I get it, you like pain – but the idea that they exist in a world just beneath ours is cool. There’s a slight amount of comfort to be had in the notion of a place worse than ours, I guess. The world of 1987 wasn’t great, despite what the nostalgic fuzzies might tell you, and the media of the time was one way to gauge this sentiment. On the one hand, you had the pure treacle of the eighties sitcom. Full House certainly isn’t going to let you remember that global-scale thermonuclear war between two superpowers is constantly hanging over your head. On the other hand you have something like Hellraiser, which is the fantasy that there are much, much worse things than American life in the eighties. That might not be terribly comforting, but, I mean, it can’t be worse than living in the alternate Full House universe. No one deserves that, not even Pinhead.

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The Waste Land Project: Crome Yellow

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Novel * Aldous Huxley * Everyone Continues to be the Worst * 1921

The Waste Land Project is a real dumb thing I’m attempting, and this is the fourth part! You can read all about the dumb thing in the first part.

Synopsis

Before we get going on my boy Aldous’ first novel, I will hereby admit that I skipped ahead in the project a little bit. Here’s my problem, and it is a serious one: I need to read The Bible. Like, all of it. Probably the King James edition, since that’s generally accepted to be the literary standard. The original plan was to address each and every reference in The Waste Land as they appear in the text. I knew Biblical references were going to happen, early and often, but I figured I’d just read the book each reference belonged to. Then a couple of things happened. After I began the project, I started thinking about the actual reason I’m doing this, which is to bolster my literary education by reading obvious things I was able to skip in pursuit of a modern education. Like, you can get a doctorate in English without reading the Bible or Homer or Virgil, y’all. Anyway, I eventually decided that only reading a book or two of the Bible was not really in line with the spirit of the project. Then, I read and enjoyed The Source, which fully underscored the fact that I am woefully inadequate when it comes to religious education. Therefore, I need to read the whole damn thing. Guess what sounds like a dreadful experience? Reading the whole damn thing. So what I’m going to do is carry on with the Waste Land Project while I take my time and read the Bible. I don’t have it in me to do it all at once, but eventually I’ll get there. Oh, and while I was at it I skipped two Wagner references in a row, but I’ll circle back next time. I just didn’t feel like listening to a four hour opera, ya know?

Right, so let’s talk about this book, Crome Yellow, and its place in The Waste Land real quick. First of all, it’s only probable that Eliot was actually referencing this novel in his poem. He didn’t include Huxley’s novel in his own notes, it was only brought to my attention in the annotated version I’m using. This is probable for a couple of reasons. The first is that they were contemporaries and moved in the same circles. Crome Yellow was published a year before Eliot published his landmark poem, and is quite frankly a slight work in comparison to what Eliot achieved with The Waste Land. The other reason is that the reference is a minor thing, in which Eliot needs a name for his Tarot-slinging fortune teller and uses the same name as Huxley’s character, Madame Sesostris. This is an unlikely coincidence, and considering the role of the Tarot in Eliot’s poem, it makes sense that he would use the name of a fictional fake invented by his contemporary. That said, a cursory search showed that Eliot regarded Huxley less than seriously. By which I mean he said that Huxley is “the sort of writer who must produce thirty bad novels before he arrives at the good one.” That’s a pretty sick burn by a guy who lifted a name and/or concept from what he presumably considered a bad novel. Not to leave Huxley hanging, he once referred to Eliot as “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks,” so the man could hold his own in the burn unit.

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What’s this book about? I dunno here’s a lady.

Leaving literary bitch-fights aside, let’s take a look at the actual novel under consideration here. As I mentioned above Crome Yellow is Aldous Huxley’s first novel. You can tell. Not to side too much with Eliot here, but it’s clear that this book is no Point Counter Point. That kind of thing takes some working up to. Not everyone can come out swinging with the likes of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” you know? The novel is a short one, and it has no real plot to speak of. This is not a book where things happen, rather it’s a book where characters mill around and argue with each other. Actually, “argue” is a strong term for the mild conversations happening here. Also, “character” might be too strong a term for the people populating Crome Yellow – which is the name of both the book and the manor where these folks are hanging out.

That’s all they do, by the way. They hang out. They bullshit each other and ponder the meaning of being an artist. The novel begins with a young man named Denis, who sucks. Look, this is Aldous Huxley, the man has never written a likeable character in his life. Anyway, the flavor of Denis’ suckage is that of the overly-serious-know-it-all. He’s myopic and obnoxious and everything he says sounds like it belongs in r/iamverysmart. Denis has a massive crush on Anne, who while airy and pretty is not exactly a Modern Woman. Anne doesn’t say or do much, seems mostly disconnected from the happenings within the house, enjoys dancing and the occasional lark, but is nowhere near Lady Brett or Lucy Tantamount levels of drinking and fucking. In addition to these two, there is a painter and a journalist, a couple of older gentlemen, and the lady patron of the house. They all talk at each other for a couple hundred pages and are at varying levels of insufferable.

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This is an illustration of the first scene where we meet Denis and all I want to do is tip his wiener ass over.

Discussion

Crome Yellow is an obvious first novel, and reads pretty much like Point Counter Point-lite. The characters here aren’t based on any notable people in the Modernist scene, the ideas presented are not fleshed out nearly as much, and the overall atmosphere is less oppressive and skews toward light satire. The whole bit with Madame Sesostris is just that, a bit. It’s a goof in which an older gentleman dresses up like an old gypsy lady and invents terrible fortunes for people. That’s it! I suppose this could be construed as commentary about the resurgence of interest in the supernatural at the time – there was a lot of instances of rich people gathering around and doing séances or whatever – but mostly it’s just a guy dressed in drag telling people about the death and horror about to descend on them. It’s kind of funny, I get why Eliot would use the name as a literary shout out to Huxley (who he clearly didn’t respect), but there’s not really much else to talk about in context of The Waste Land.

Honestly, there’s not much to talk about in terms of the novel either. It’s an interesting document in that Huxley goes on and uses ideas first sketched out here. There’s a brief section where one of the characters (and they’re so bland and undifferentiated that I cannot remember who it is) gives a quick speech about his vision for the future. This vision is essentially an outline for the concepts behind Brave New World. He’s talking about eugenics and talking about a glorious future where the best people are specifically bred to lead society and where the lower classes are bred to be happy about their industrious lot in life and yeah, Huxley put that conversation on the shelf for ten years, fleshed it out, and wrote one of his two best novels about it. In Crome Yellow, the concept is an aside, and like the aforementioned Madame Sesostris, is probably a bit. Again, it’s hard to tell, although I took the time to look it up and oh hey it’s the same guy who dresses up at Madame Sesostris, so I guess that answers that.

 

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It’s probably not a great sign that the best the cover quote can do is: “it’s amusing, eventually.”

I think my main problem with this novel is that it’s simply too slight. I don’t mean that it’s very short (although it is), I meat that nothing presented here is given much room for consideration. Characters drop heavy concepts, like the proto-Brave New World idea of a Rational State, and then the story flits away without much in the way of discussion or thought. For a ‘novel of ideas,’ there simply aren’t that many ideas. This would be fine if there was an actual story or characters here, but there are not. You’ve got Denis, an absolute little wiener, who spends the entire novel moping around after Anne and simultaneously lamenting how dumb everyone is while actively not creating anything worthwhile himself. He’s such a limp noodle that you can’t help but be annoyed by him, and again, if anything he’s a prototype character for Walter Bidlake in Point Counter Point, who also sucks but at least has some depth of character. Actually, I think that’s going to stand for my entire opinion of Crome Yellow. It’s a prototype for Point Counter Point. If you remove all the depth of thought and character from that novel, you end up with a borderline insufferable slight bit of literature that’s not sure if it wants to take itself seriously or not. At least with the benefit of hindsight, we know that it wouldn’t take Huxley thirty tries to write his good novel.

Posted in Books, Ennui, Modernity, Waste Land Project | Leave a comment

Oxenfree

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Game * Night School Studio * Oh No, Teens * 2016

Synopsis

Teenagers. Ugh. They’re the worst, am I right? Yeah, I’m right. Nobody likes teenagers, especially not other teenagers. I try not to dwell on my own past as a teen boy in the 90’s. It’s all a vague, hormonal, greasy blur, but I do have some solid recollections of being an awkward, angsty, try-hard and simultaneously recognizing myself for being those things. Self-awareness was no match for teen angst is what I’m saying. This is why I tend to avoid teen fiction, by which I mean the kind of story that really delves into the dramatic interplay between teenage protagonists, not fiction geared to appeal to teens. Honest appraisals of adolescent relationships are inherently awkward, and I do not do well with depictions of awkwardness. That’s like my entire life, I have no interest in watching fictional characters act the same stupid way I do in reality, you know? This is the primary reason I avoid games like Life is Strange and Oxenfree. It’s hard to write about teenagers in a compelling manner than isn’t just a nonstop cringe machine.

Well, I made a mistake in my assumptions, because Oxenfree isn’t about that. Oh sure, there’s teen drama there if you want it. The protagonist is a teenage girl named Alexandra (excellent name) who is on her way to a basic-ass bonfire – the exact same kind you went to as a teen, complete with cheap beer, super-important conversations in the dark, and that one drunk jackass who starts jumping over the fire – with a handful of friends. The only difference between the situation in Oxenfree and every single teen bonfire you’ve ever been to is that Alex and her friends are going to an island, and there’s only five of them. For an overnight party five people is a bust, and the characters are there to grumble about it. In addition to Alex, the other people at this bonfire are Jonas, Alex’s new step-brother, Ren, Alex’s best friend, Nona, a quiet oddball Ren is into, and Clarissa, the bitchy one. This is not a close-knit band of besties here, which of course adds spice to the old drama stew, but before moving on I would like to heap praise on Oxenfree for a very important reason. It’s a rare instance of a story having a teenage girl for a protagonist that doesn’t have anything to do with a romantic interest. She’s not at this party for a hookup, she’s here to get to know her new stepbrother and hang out with some friends.

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Ah, bonfires. You know what I don’t miss? Bonfires.

The game itself is pretty much a dialogue simulator. It’s a slow paced game with a focus on story, so if that doesn’t appeal to you, look elsewhere. Lucky for Oxenfree, the dialogue is fairly well done and succeeds in avoiding a “fellow kids” vibe. I played Alex as close to my own personality as possible, which is to say despite a good deal of sarcasm and cynicism I generally try and get along with others (I will note that I’m not accounting for teenage me here). The opening scene of the game is used for getting to know your friends, but Oxenfree doesn’t take too long to get things moving. The island is deserted except for you five – it’s the off-season and nobody lives there any more – and really, you’re not supposed to be there. Whatever, though, you’re just doing some harmless teenage drinking. Your friends aren’t the idiot vandal type, and if there’s one knock against the game it’s that the characters are a touch too mature for their age. That’s fine with me. I don’t need unexplained mood swings, awkward cursing, and meandering improv bits that go nowhere to get the real teen experience. I remember.

Once Oxenfree establishes its characters, and more specifically grounds Alex as a real person in a real place, the game shifts into its true purpose, which is to creep you the fuck out. The way the game goes about this is by introducing the other major mechanic besides walking and talking. Alex has brought along a radio. Like an actual, over-the-air, portable radio. For the purpose of listening to the radio. Teenagers in 2016 using a portable radio is probably the least-believable thing of the entire story, but go with it. The idea is that on this island there’s a cave, and if you go to this cave and fiddle with the radio dial, you can get weird, phantom broadcasts. Well, Alex brings her radio and sure enough, she picks up said creepy broadcasts. And then, well, shit goes sideways.

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This game is gorgeous, just by the way.

Discussion

I will tell you right now, old-timey broadcasts and voices in radio static are my horror kryptonite. The idea of a haunted radio and ghosts communicating through the medium of long lost snippets of old radio commercials, music, and dramas freak me all the way out. There’s just something particularly awful about the idea of radio waves never decaying, never dying, simply making their way into the far reaches of a dark, empty universe. Even worse, what if something out there is listening, and then talks back? Like, you remember that scene in Contact where they’re decoding the alien message and they figure out that it’s a television broadcast, so they put it up on the monitor and holy shit it’s a swastika and oh god are the aliens Nazis? That moment was chilling for me, even after it was evident that all the aliens did was repackage our first TV transmission and sent it back. All of that information is out there, it never goes away, who or what is listening to it right now? Who or what is able to talk back?

Oxenfree is all about this kind of creeping dread, communicated through outwardly benign audio clips and other radio transmissions. When Alex tunes into a particular frequency within the mysterious cave, she unleashes all manner of spooky weirdness. Her friends end up scattered, strange holes open up onto some kind of void, and that radio makes some appalling sounds. The rest of the game has you trying to round up your friends and get off the island safely. Dialogue choices continue to be a nice break from the good/bad dichotomy, while still allowing the player to respond to a stressful situation in reasonably natural ways. Meanwhile, the situation on the island gets more and more out of hand as Alex and Jonas wander around finding their friends. In addition to the radio being a total creepshow, it soon becomes apparent that the beings communicating with Alex and her friends aren’t exactly benevolent.

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And here we see Alex summoning the dread spirit of Asteroids with her demon-radio. It’s spookier when you’re actually playing, okay?

We learn that the island was once a military base with a focus on radio research, and now the creepy radio stuff makes more sense. I appreciate that you eventually upgrade your radio with an expanded frequency band and door-unlocking capabilities. I also appreciate the introduction of time-loops and alternate timelines – these moments are also creep inducing, especially when it involves the radio-ghosts possessing your friends and making them do unsettling things, you know, like killing themselves. Whether or not these entities are or aren’t actual ghosts (as opposed to impressions of people trapped in some kind of dimensional rift… or something) doesn’t matter all that much, they mean Alex and her friends ill will. And they play dirty. The ghosts attack the kids psychologically by attacking the weak points of a character’s personality or past. Alex is still fucked up about the death of her brother, because why wouldn’t she be? The malevolent entities use this trauma as a pressure point to try and force Alex into doing their bidding.

Oxenfree is also about personal choices, and because of this there are various ways for the game to end. I only played through once, doing my best to keep Alex on an even keel and I tried to do what I felt was right. My version of Alex wasn’t about persuading her friends and loved ones to do any particular thing. Follow your heart, guys. If I have a complaint about the game, it’s that the conclusion the game draws based on your choices doesn’t necessarily make sense. Oxenfree decided that while I kept Jonas as my brother, I kept him at a distance. Why, exactly? I thought we were cool! I was cool with everyone else and they turned out all right – I definitely didn’t sacrifice Clarissa because that would be fucked, and I even played Ren’s wingman and hooked him up with Nona. I don’t know. What I do know is that the quality characters and sharp writing make for an excellent spooky time. I also might have to replay this thing someday, because yeesh, that ending. Stupid inter-dimensional radio ghosts.

Posted in Games, Ghosts | Leave a comment