Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Three Reasons "I, Robot" is good for modern readers

This picture is entirely unrelated.
During class introductions I said I liked Fantasy/Sci-Fi, only to be accosted by my classmates for having never read any Asimov.  I was jokingly tasked with reading I, Robot and bringing in a book report by the next class.  So I did.1  My report, which I’m putting up here, highlights three2 reasons I think I, Robot would be a good read for modern readers.

Firstly, Humor.  There is a conception in much of modern science fiction of grit.  This is demonstrated primarily in the videogame genre, which features protagonists with such broad shoulders and stubbly faces that they make Jake Gittes look soft-boiled.  The protagonists of I, Robot are no such macho-men, instead they are primarily scientists and technicians who given an impression of early baldness and pocket-protectors.  Geeks.

Donovan and Powell, in their other job arranging
spring break activities for College Kids.
But they’re fun, loveable geeks.  To me, the muscle gods of Gears of War are just as Alien as the Locust they fight.3 But the protagonists, especially Powell and Donovan, who are ALWAYS the ones that get the short end of the stick as far as Malfunctioning Robot Shenanigans go, and their world-weary attitudes towards these Shenanigans make them delightfully relatable, both to the kid whose user mod for League of Legends won’t render right to the office worker who can’t get Microsoft Excel to behave.

Secondly, right now people love a Strong Female CharacterTM, but more even than that they love arguing over whether or not someone qualifies as a Strong Female CharacterTM.  Susan Calvin, the other primary protagonist for most of the book and arguably the most prominent character, is clever, quick-witted, and doesn’t rely on men to get things done, but at the same time the only chapter which has her showcasing strong emotions has her tearful over lost love. 

I am by no means a Gender Studies expert4 , and so I won’t comment on whether Susan Calvin is or is not a good feminist role model.  Whatever else she is, she is an extremely compelling character, and watching her cleverly deduce the problems with robots, especially ahead of the men in her field, is highly satisfying.  The book reads just as much like mystery as it does Sci-Fi.5 

However, a third issue I find prescient is the issue of Religion.  In Chapter 3, “Cutie”6, a Robot who is meant to be running a power converter, goes a bit rogue, developing a Cult of the Master and teaching other Robots to join in as well.  This leads to trouble for, of course, Powell and Donovan. 
To be fair, I too would assume that Powell and Donovan couldn't be my
makers due to their inferior intelligence.

The Clerical Fiction is of course delightful, but what I find interesting is that in the text you could interpret either side as being Theist/Nontheist in the debate, which resembles many that go on between Theists and Nontheists today.  Cutie appears to be the “Religious” one, given that he is “The Prophet of the Master”, he also resembles a Militant Atheist7  in his utter refusal to accept anything on faith, such as the existence of Earth.  I think in the end, the story is more of a caution against radical religiosity than any particular side of Theist/Nontheist view.

I, Robot is a satisfying read, start to finish, and definitely worth checking out.  For those not into Science Fiction, don’t worry, most of the stories revolve around characters solving Logical and Philosophical problems than figuring out some way to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.  It’s top quality Sci-Fi.  Go grab it.
"[You could not have made me]. I mean, look at you!  Periodically
 you pass into a coma and the least variation in temperature, air pressure,
 humidity or radiation intensity impairs your efficiency.  You are makeshift."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Hook & Jill by Andrea Jones - Review

There are spoilers, highlight to view!

"For one long moment, she held hope in her hand.  Then,
like sunlight, peter slipped through her fingers."
After a lazy summer I'm back to blogging and Book Reviewing!  Today it's Hook & Jill, by Andrea Jones, first in the Hook & Jill Saga.  The story is an adult interpretation of Sir James M. Barrie's Peter Pan stories, taking liberties with the source material1 in order to explore themes of emerging sexuality and desire, with the story mostly told from Hook's perspective.  The story's convolutions and complications of  Hook and Wendy's near DeathNote level gambits are fun to watch as they unfold and unravel.  Equally fascinating are the complexities of morality presented.

Jason Isaac's Hook is closest to
Book Hook, but I think we can all
agree that Dustin Hoffman's
Hook from Hook is Best Hook.
Hook is a bad man, there's no real denying that, but so too is Peter.  Peter was terrifying.  Sure, he's happy-go-lucky and puckish, but he holds an aura of menace over the Lost Boys that gives you a feeling of constant danger whenever he's around.  His puckishness gives the impression that he could snap at any moment, and his border-line control freak personality creates an impressive threat.

Meanwhile, Wendy's sexuality is turned up a bit.  In the novel, the children are aging, and Wendy's hitting puberty like a chevy slamming into a brick wall.  We get this repeated image of "A kiss sitting on the edge of her mouth" that functions as an effective McGuffin throughout the story.2

The language is rather interesting in the novel as well.  Many characters are referred to by monikers as much as their real name.3 "The Golden Boy" or "The Italian Sailor."  It's a welcome change, it keeps the book from getting to repetitive as different characters take the stage with increasing rapidity.  There are also some fantastic bits of wordplay, for instance, Captain Hook contemplates Wendy thusly:

"Pluck. And abandon. Exactly the traits he required of her. He nodded to himself. Exactly the things he would do to her."4

That line makes me shiver5 with how good it is.  The book is a wild ride, especially towards the end, after Wendy dies, Slightly and his boyfriend6 discover Pan's darkest secret7, Spoilers, and the Crocodile gets sprinkled with Fairy Dust.  I will admit that as things get a little chaotic it can be a little hard to tell what's going on, but then again I was somewhat sleep deprived after #mww13.  Also, the last full chapter, "Seas of London" must have been written under the influence of the Mead of Poetry or something, because it simply sings.  I could almost smell the Chimney Smoke and hear the tinkle of the Kensignton Garden Fairies.  If you're a fan of fairytale or women's coming of age lit, I'd definitely grab this book.  I'll probably pick up the sequel.

"Disarming women was his forte. One only had to identify their weapon and use it first."
Oh!  And did I mention I actually got to meet Andrea Jones at the Enchanted Lakes Renaissance Faire? She signed my book!  I love signed books!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dead Man's Hand by Nancy A. Collins - Review

Now that Mono is done punching me in the throat1 I've had a chance to enjoy a book!

Dead Man's Hand by Nancy A. Collins is a series of Weird West2 stories that, by and large, deal with all the classic Western themes:  Freedom, guilt, revenge, duty, and questions of allegiance.  The book contains five stories (three medium length and two shorts) that exist mostly independently, thus I'll review them all on their own before talking about the book.

Also, as the book is published by a subsidiary of White Wolf, who make the World of Darkness games, I've sorted into different White Wolf Gamelines.3

Hell Come Sundown (Vampire: The Requiem) - A Texas Ranger turned monster-hunter named Sam Hell deals with a Vampire Conquistador who wants to start his own empire of the dead.

This is a great way to start the book, as it goes into the existence of various beasties so that you know what kind of universe this is taking place in.  Two parts really stick out to me, the opening where a boy is menaced by something from under the bed, and later, a man in the one church in Golgotha4 tells the story of how the town fell.  Both are creepy and draw you in, the way any good ghost story should.

The story as a whole is generally good, full of nice set pieces, although I found some sections a little more Hollywood than Deadwood.  Still, the Vampire Conquistador is cool and I haven't really seen that before.  A solid opening.  

I forgot to mention, there's a cannibal horse.
It's awesome.
Lynch (Promethean: The Created) - Johnny Pearl, a man with a history of violence and a pearl-handled gun5 that whispers wicked words into his ear tries to remake his life only to wind up lynched and brought back from the dead by one of Viktor Frankenstein's old accomplices.

This is my favorite of the longer stories, tied for favorite story in the book.  Pearl/Lynch is a delightful character, as is Mirablis, our Not!Frankenstein for the evening.  The explorations of how Frankenstein's experiments interact with the West is fantastic, especially Sasquatch, a flesh golem made from most of a tribe of Native Americans.6  His spotlight chapter exploring what it all means is amazing.

The whole story has this very satisfying feeling of all the ends of a very disparate book being tied together very well, and has some excellent moments that really make use of the setting and the character's strange natures.  Best of the three longer stories.  

Woof woof.
Walking Wolf (Werewolf: The Apocalypse) - Walking Wolf, a Werewolf from the Old Country raised by the Comanche has a shitty life, and then it sucks to be a Native in Post-Civil War America, and then everyone dies.  Also, Racism.  Everywhere.7

This for me was the weakest of the short stories.   It has this good premise of Werewolves being immortal, meaning the story is being written by someone in our time looking back on history.  While the history of the fall of the Indigenous Tribes is interesting the story spends a long time on it and somewhat looses its thread, and I'll admit I spent parts of this story not knowing where it was going.  However, the mythology is well thought out8 and the various strange things that the white folk do were just weird enough to be based on real history.  Like the man with a harem who cut out his wives tongues, so they invented a strange, hissing language.

An interesting story that probably deserves more examination by people who know more about race and history, though I think it would have been stronger if it had been tightened up a little bit.  

Man this needs a cooler
The Tortuga Hill Gang's Last Ride (Changeling: The Lost) - Everything goes south for a gang of outlaws when they let a simpleton with strange powers into their gang.

This is my favorite of the two shorter stories.  The characters are all unique and strong, and I really like the way we get into the different outlaw's heads despite only having about 20 pages with them.  Little Red, the Sidhe outlaw, is a very dangerous being, but you really pity him as more conniving characters take advantage of him.  I'll probably steal him9 for a story one of these days.  The shortness and the troperific nature of the story makes it a good little campfire read, and I'd love to see it done as a longer story at Sundance.

A marvelous little read.  My only complaint is that there isn't more of it.  You can get the whole thing for only two bucks right here, which I'd advise everyone to do.  

This one needs a cover at all.
Calaverada (Geist: The Sin-Eaters) - A Gang of bounty hunters chases a man into Mexico, but it's a bad idea to kill a man on The Day of The Dead...

This story is quite short, so it's hard to say much about it.  I do quite like how vivid the author makes Dia de los Muertes.  The characters here are some of the stronger characters, despite having so few pages devoted to them, and while their eventual fate was, perhaps, a tad predictable, I still think it was carried out very well.  It also feels a bit like one of Aesop's Fables, only with gunslingers and ghosts!

Not bad, and again I'd like more, maybe with a bit more mystery or surprises.  

There's my final roundup.  I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to any fans of the Weird Western.  All of the stories but Calaverada are available online, so at the very least go grab Lynch and The Tortuga Hill Gang's Last Ride.
The most Weird-Western image you could
possibly have. 

If you're interested in other Weird West stories, check out Six-Gun Tarot as well!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Game of Thrones vs. Vikings

Game of Thrones is currently the biggest Juggernaut on air.  It’s got massive backing, a rabid fanbase, and it’s the most illegally downloaded show out there.  This is all while being on HBO, which you have to pay to watch. 

Meanwhile, Vikings is on the History Channel and sorta slides in after The Bible because the History Channel doesn't want to come down solidly on one side of religion or the other.

Why am I comparing them?  Well, partially because presenting at the East Central Indiana Social Media Group took a lot of time out of reading time this week, partially because a lot of people are going to anyway.  It’s like Buffy and Charmed, you can’t NOT compare them, even if you don’t want to.

Both shows are historical dramas in the dung ages and focus on kings, battles, religion, and morally grey characters.  They’re visually similar, both having a Grey Filter for a lot of shots.  They both have actors you've probably seen somewhere else.

So, which is better?  Let’s find out.  I’ll split this into four categories: Characters, Story, Addiction, and The Prestige.
"I'm not questioning your honor, Lord Janos. I'm denying its existence."
If we go in terms of quantity, Game of Thrones has more.  Dear gods, Game of Thrones has more.  Tyrion, Arya, John Snow, Robb, Lady Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Stannis Baratheon, Theon Greyjoy, Sam, and that’s just the main characters.  I probably forgot some.  Each has their own individual plotlines. 

John Snow
Robb Stark
Lady Stark
Meanwhile, Vikings is more focused on Ragnar, the guile-hero, who’s clearly the main character, but his Nakama definitely gets their own screen time.  Athelstan, Lagertha, Rollo, Floki, Ragnar’s kids, even some of the villains get their own arcs.  The characters aren’t all as likeable, and only one is female, but since there’s LESS of them we get to know them much better.  It’s hard to judge characters, so I’ll give them stars out of five for how interested I am in their arc.

Earl Haraldson
While I care a lot about Tyrion, Arya and Daenerys, because funny, cool and dragons, respectively, the Starks don’t interest me much and I’m ready for Theon and Stannis to just go away.  Sam is only interesting because I’ve heard he does cool things in like, three books from now.
Meanwhile, I’m really interested in all of the focus characters from Vikings, because they all raise interesting questions.  I’m most excited about Athelstan, because he’s questioning his religion and it’s fascinating to watch it play out.  Point to Vikings.

"We're going to see Floki."
"Like the Mad God?"
"Not exactly."
"How's he different?"
"...he's not a god."

Second verse, same as the first.  Game of Thrones has approximately ALL of the plots.  John Snow is up north getting involved with the wildlings who are marshaling for war with the White Walkers who are chasing Sam to the Wall which is north of the ruins of Winterfell where the Starks lived until they started waging war to rescue their sisters who are captives of oh gods no.  If you really want to know, watch the show or watch this video.

Meanwhile, Vikings has a few plots, most of them subtle things (Rollo trying to become Earl, Athelstan’s conversion) but most things center around Ragnar’s progression from nobody to hero to outcast to Earl to…who knows what, and his conflict with Earl Haraldson. 

That said, Vikings has a fairly simple plot, whereas Game of Thrones has…all of the plots (no really, all of them) and still manages to tell good stories.  It takes a long time, but they CAN make the plots work, even if it’ll be about four years before they actually resolve most of them. That said, each season some of the plots do get resolved satisfyingly.  And I’ll admit, I’m more interested in seeing what happens to all the characters in Game of Thrones because, well, Dragons vs. Sorcerers vs. Zombies vs. Armies vs. Shapeshifters vs. Tyrion Lannister  So, in the end, Point to Game of Thrones.

Athelstan: "There is a time to sow, a time to reap. A time to
heal and...and a time to kill."
Ragnar: "Sometimes your God sounds like one of ours."
This comes down to which do I want to watch more as the weeks go on.  As it stands, I want to watch Vikings more, every time.  You’d think Game of Thrones, because of all the cliffhangers, but no.  That’s the trouble with having nine (or more, hell, I totally forgot Sansa and Jeoffry) characters to keep track of, half of them will be in peril at the end of the episode INEVITABLY.  (Oh and also Bran, he’s got a separate plotline too.  Christ!)  Because I know there’s going to be a cliffhanger and probably no satisfying ending, and because I’ll often forget which of four cliffhangers happened first. 

Meanwhile with Vikings, each episode ends with either a single cliffhanger or with conflicts mounting, but having a stasis, however uneasy, at the end of each episode.  Also, the character development is slow and interesting, and I want to see how things will change and if there’ll be a big payoff.  I’ve mentioned Athelstan the Monk.  Ragnar’s slave, friend, and almost lover, he has a fascinating and slow building arc towards possibly converting from Christianity to Paganism.  It’s fascinating and treated with subtlety, and they show a lot of reasons why he would apart from just loneliness and separation from others of his own faith.  Right now, that’s what I most want to see played out over the week.  So, point to Vikings.

"There is one thign we say to Death:
'Not Today.'"
The Prestige
The Prestige is which show delivers the goods.  Essentially it’s judging which exotic dancer manages to flash its gussets better.  While on the Point to Game of Thrones.

Sorry, Vikings.  I love you, but you don’t have Dragons or Zomibes.  And while I’m delighted by your frequent use of the mythology I hold most dear, there’s still only so much you’re going to do on a lesser budget with only so many characters.  That said, Vikings is quite enjoyable to watch, both in terms of visuals and story.  I’m always glad to see what Floki is up to, and I need more Lagertha like I need my shower in the morning.

But in the end, Game of Thrones is more magnificent and will probably last longer.  It’s also more memetic.  You see “House Lannister” shirts all over the place, or shirts with a squid that read “We do not Sow” and I’ve heard my neighbors shouting “THE KING IN THE NORTH!” at all hours of the night.  So, this Point goes to Game of Thrones.

As you’ve noticed, now the points are even.  In the end, they’re both great shows.  Vikings is personal and fun, whereas Game of Thrones is big and Epic and Flashy.  Both deliver different things and have different reasons to exist.  I’d say watch both of them, you’ve got nothing to lose.  But if you have to choose which to watch as it airs, watch Vikings, because it needs viewers.  Even if it does have a second season.  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Let me Clear my Throat by Elena Pasarello - Review

A marvelous read all the way through, Elena Passarello’s first book, Let Me Clear My Throat is a charming and enlightening read all the way through.  The book comprises a series of short essays on the human voice, its limits, failings, and potential to soar. Each essay is well placed and contains a variety of thoroughly well researched essays on the subject of voice and what it means

"The voice of war  can turn gossip into
nicknames, dialogue into mythology."
The book is divided into three sections, Screaming Memes, Tips on Popular Singing, and The Thrown.   Screaming Memes goes into subjects such as the Wilhelm Scream, the Rebel Yell, and the "BYAH" that ended Howard Dean’s presidential race.  I’ll admit this first section was my favorite, particularly the last chapter, Harpy, which details Passarello’s loss of voice that drove her to victory at the Stella Screaming Competition, viewable here.  The essay is the first personal essay in the book, and feels very intimate.  We really understand where Passarello is coming from, and after all this radiant description of the human voice that she cares so much about, the idea of someone losing theirs seems repugnant.

Tips on Popular Singing’s “Space Oddity” delivers possibly the best possible commentary on the launch of the Golden Record on the Voyager Probe:

"Once the Voyager Probe was loaded with telemetry modulation units and spectrometers, we then made the decision to attach human voices to the contraption's flanks. And we added not just the voices of our leaders, but singing voices, including [Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode."] This is what beats out speeches and formulae and IBM The Ring Cycle.  According to NASA and Carl Sagan (and me) this is what the universe wants to hear.
Which is another way of saying that we have more faith in popular music than anything else on the planet."

Her insights into various popular singers, from the rise and fall of the Castrati to Judy Garland to the crows outside her window paint a vibrant portrait of music over the years, and had me scrambling to update my iTunes with an impressive variety of music.

The Thrown is a bit harder to summarize.  I suppose you could say it’s simply meditations on the human voice, what it means to us and why it matters so much to Passarello. This section is more freeform, and more fascinating for it.  It’s conclusion, an account of a Ventriloquist Dummy’s search for a voice all its own, is surreal and insightful all at once. 

Passarello impresses me by pulling off that trick that made me fall in love with Up Jumps the Devil, the trick of compressing sound into words.  From a scream that “Cuts a big yellow gash in the air” to an ‘Eew’ that skips out perfectly like a smooth stone across the audience, the visual, textural feeling of sound comes through magnificently.  I definitely advise reading this book with a computer handy, so you can listen to each song Passarello mentions, so that you can have the experience of nodding, as you read her words, and say “Yes.  Yes, those words are exactly the right ones for what I’m hearing.” 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The DM's Notebook: Using D&D for Creative Writing: ~Publishing and Skill DCs~

So I've been thinking for a while about the way the Dungeons and Dragons RPG, in its trappings and mechanics, has some really useful applications for Creative Writing.  The Dungeon Master's Notebook is a series of  to organize such thoughts. 

Dungeon Master's Notebook: Publishing and Skill DCs

This week over in Literary Citizenship we’re writing Query Letters, and in Screenwriting we’re discussing genre.  Near as I can suss it, it's easier to get things published when your story has less StuffStuff, here defined as ‘things that deviate from the norm,’ includes Superpowers, Aliens, Different Time Periods, GLBT Romance, and many other things.  Getting something published with Stuff is much harder than a work without Stuff.  It’s a bit like a skill’s DC.

DC, in Dungeons and Dragons, means the Difficulty Challenge.  There's a different DC for every Skill.  (Climbing, Crafting Potions, Linguistics, etc) and a player must roll1 to surpass the challenge.  Say it’s a Perception Challenge.  A character rolls to see if they can hear a bow being drawn in the forest.  The DC is 25.  Two players roll, add skill ranks, and get a 27 and a 31.  The third only gets a 17, and fails to hear the bow. 

Conditional Modifiers
Through a closed door
Roaring Tempest
Target is invisible
Creature making the check is asleep
Now, DC 25 is under normal conditions.  Say that there’s a battle raging.  The DC goes up by +1 per 10 feet away.   It goes up by +10 for every foot of Wall in the way.  That seems to be how it works in publishing, the more Stuff, the more the DC goes up.

Say you’re submitting your story to QuirkyUnafiliatedIndependentPress (QUIP) and SeriousLiteraryUniversallyRespectedPress (SLURP).  Now, QUIP likes a lot of stuff, but they’re not well known.  The base DC is only about 14.  Any sufficiently mid-level writer can make that DC.   But SLURP is harder to get into, because they’re very prestigious.  That DC is 25, fairly high.  You’d have to roll well AND be pretty high level.   But wait!

Let’s say your story is about a man in a polyamorous triad who dies and comes back as a ghost to take care of the child his girlfriend is having while helping his girlfriend and boyfriend fix their relationship.2  The DC goes up, because your story has the following Stuff.

Heavy GLBT themes

Now the DCs are 22 for QUIP and a rather high 33 for SLURP.  However, QUIP likes weird, genre-queer stories.  The DC only goes up by half for the Ghost, and doesn’t change at all because QUIP is run by sufficiently advanced liberals.  The DC to get your story into QUIP is only 18.  A good cover letter and writing talent and boom, they publish your ghost story.3

The trick to getting published is finding somewhere with a baseline DC you think you can beat and giving them something that doesn’t raise the DC too much.  (Although, it still has to be a good story. That's probably the most important thing for writing.  You have to be able to write.)

Previous Notes: Ability Scores, Random Encounter Tables