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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Missed It: A Knight's Tale Review

I am a special kind of person. The kind who managed to miss such film classics as Top Gun, Casablanca, and Clueless in my childhood. So, from time to time I will post a quick review of movies and books I either a) miraculously missed or b) just discovered, and c) definitely think you should not miss. Or, sometimes, d) think you need to miss as hard as possible, because it is e) embarassingly mediocre or f) soul-scarringly, chew-your-own-nuts-off-to-escape awful.

Mediaeval Bestiary

Allegedly beavers would bite off their own nuts to evade hunters. That explains a lot about Canadians.

Tonight's feature is A Knight's Tale (2001), featuring Heath Ledger.
Summary: Poor dude impersonates rich master. A montage and some wacky happenings later, he jousts as a knight to win the heart of a girl he wants to bang. His fuckery is discovered, he is barred from competing in Ze Big Joust. He gets taunted, but the prince he conveniently saved from boredom knights him, making him eligible again. Dude defeats antagonist, wins the girl, and wins the tourney.

Pros: cute protagonist and seeing Alan Tudyk (you know, Wash from Firefly) and the dude from Dark City co-starring. Also lots of funny moments, a very sweet emotional one, silly rock soundtrack, and mediaeval fuckery.

Cons: Atrocious acting by Dark City guy, who decided that if less is more, then even more lessness is clearly more. Princess Peach, the love interest, somehow pulls off being bitchy, listless, AND bland. The American Dream message and irrelevant settings are ham-fisted in handling and annoying after a while. Also, severe historical fuckery, especially related to costumes.

Final Verdict: 8 out of 10 for unapologetic enjoyability. Goofy, feel-good fun with a few cute guys and girls. Great for movie marathons. Bad choice for days when you want some depth, but perfect for a light comedy with some over-the-top epic moments. Go watch it on Netflix. Seriously. As an added bonus, it is definitely not going to make you chew your own nuts off, unless you happen to be a scholar with a focus on History of the Middle Ages.

Stay tuned for more treats, because you know I'll be back with more brain wormholes and salt for your soul. And don't forget to share, find me on Twitter at SciFiMagpie, and check back regularly for more reviews, writing, and general fuckery!

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Counting Grave-Stones: Reflections on Why Heroes Die

Sometimes, it takes a controversy about something barely related to inspire you. Originally, I had intended to do an entire post on the Mass Effect ending debate issue. I'm not even going to say the word 'spoilers', because at this point, given all the press, it's effectively moot. However, instead of a focus on the ending alone, let's get talking about the meaning of it.

Cue Fan Outrage: Unless You Kick Puppies (or Geth), Your Hero Dies.

In any case, the questions Bioware's writers stuck us with were inevitable but agonising. Should Shepard sacrifice himself for not only humanity, but all other species? Should you sacrifice an entire nation to save your own legendary hide? Is the Indoctrination Theory a legitimate idea or an attempt by fans to console themselves over bizarrely restricted writing? And, above all else, should we be enjoying the uncompromising finale or demanding they fix the strangely rushed and spiritually conflicted McGuffin-powered end?

There were some tears and long debates into the night while I considered the endings and their impact. More so, I marvelled at the emotional impact of the series. When people are so attached to a collection of pixels that they launch an all-out-offensive to save those pixels from untimely doom, one knows that there is no higher praise for one's writing. Bioware has been strong-armed into saying a few choice words about the whole fiasco, and those words, shock and awe, are formed in ways that suggest they will be tweaking things to make people happier. I'm undecided on my feelings about this--my inner child is happy that the hero may get a chance to ride off into the sunset, but the rest of me is debating about the ethics of the issue. There have already been some excellent writings on whether this is a precedent or just par for the course with a big company. There's no point in re-hashing more discussions about whether it violates the artistic integrity of the writers to change or add to the ending. This said, some interesting discussions about how much artistic control/integrity changes as a concept when you are involved in a large company have yet to be written...but that's a post for another time.

Now, where was I? Ah: the crux of the problem I have with the ending comes down to this. The unanswered questions are an issue, but above all, killing the hero is cheap. The 'Jesus' trope, also known as the 'sacrificial goat' archetype, stinks.


Problem, audience?

However, you can only sulk and cry for so long before you start thinking about why you're upset.

...And there I was, trying to piece together why it is that the death of a main character could upset me so much led to some hard thoughts. Back in my childhood, when the Matrix Trilogy was still being released, I recall a sense of agony surrounding the deaths of Trinity and Neo. Now I know that the reason this, and ultimately, Shepard's death and the death of all other heroes upsets us is that we relate to them and it's a 'facing your own mortality' issue. Of course, it's also not fun to realise that people you care about, fictional or real, will inevitably be dead and gone at some point. To kill off a hero not only subconsciously acts as a remind of this fact, it also forces you to go through the grieving process once you realise it has happened. Again, though it's an integral part of the life cycle, it's not cheerful and not fun--though it makes for some great art.

In addition to that, when you have a character with a legendary status or large amounts of power, the stakes are even higher than with the emotional connection. Abstract ideals and sometimes lives are at stake, often both. At this point, we go from experiencing an upsetting event, the loss of a person we care about, into loss of an ideal territory. A 'sacrificial goat', as my 10th grade English teacher referred to them, is someone or something that must be be given up, destroyed, or killed to satisfy a need or redeem a wrong. In Christian mythology, Jesus dies to compensate for humanity's sins, somehow delivering us from them by taking the burden onto himself. Prometheus, in Greek myth, is not killed, but having his liver pecked out by an eagle every day probably counts as some kind of sacrifice. You can also find more info about this and other tropes at the TV tropes site.

Heroic Sacrifice Trope

So...what's so wrong with the heroic sacrifice? Let's start with how it traps us into restrictions of Christian morality; apart from limiting plot options, it also sways the plot towards certain rules. Limiting human power and implying that power is an automatic sin is not a good idea. At best, it keeps most of us from seeking power in any way. I'll save the 'nature of society' rant for later, but in essence, the sacrifice issue keeps people from seeking elevation and information to better themselves. It also tends to suggest that only through sacrifice can errors and tragedies be amended. While giving up opportunities and losing lives in a war tend to be inevitable, it's not necessarily smart to imply that something is valueless or unattainable unless someone dies for it.

Source: Fark

He died for your sins, but he's cool with that, bro.

Then, too, heroic sacrifices lead to lesser evils such as cheap writing tricks. In the old days, if you had a hero, they would generally either be struck down in battle or join the pantheon--you know, a happy ending. Now, a hero with lots of power is generally either struck down in their prime by accident, kills themselves for the Greater Good, turns into a villain, or loses that power through a horrible accident, making them just like the rest of us. (When I say power, I should mention--this can be a magical power, superb intellect or physique, political power, economic or social power, or some combination of these.) In the comics, you have a lot of rise-and-fall plotlines, where a hero dies, is resurrected, gains more power, dies again, ad infinitum.

In games, endings tend to be dark for these heroes. And unless you sacrifice yourself, the moral compass of the story (whether a Greek chorus of villagers or the story writing) will call you on being a selfish asshole for not offing yourself on demand. Please note, too, that power will be granted only for as long as the story lets you have it, or as it is necessary to the plot. Once the conflict is solved, there is no chance to enjoy the power, use it to clean up the aftermath of the disaster, or even just learn to live with it. Oh, sure, the occasional happy ending will involve not killing the hero, but generally there is a ride into the sunset or this ending will cut off right after the climax, sparing the audience from having to watch the character die or deal with reality. If neither of these happens, the protagonist probably didn't have a significant enough level of power to count as a real saviour. And that, of course, is a problem in and of itself.

At the end of the day, much as life often requires us to give things up--time, energy, loved ones, careers--the Saviour idea makes this okay, and makes it easier to do these things as a matter of course. I'll leave all of you to chew over the other implications of that, but I will say that a lot of fans are rejecting the attempt to force at least one legendary character down this pathway. And that, at least, is a good beginning to lessening the domination of an idea that makes people think dying for a cause is necessary when a lot is at stake.

That's all the thinking I have time for today--don't forget to follow me here, on Twitter, at SciFiMagpie, and to comment and share! Soon, we'll be talking about dystopian fiction, then and now, about WordThieves, and there will even be some exclusive content teasers...and much, much more.

Mass Effect 3...Or How I learned to stop worrying and love Bioware

Hi Everyone! Sorry for the post lag. As you've all figured out,Mass Effect 3 ate me alive for a while. Andrey is a thorough gamer, much to my fortune, this is one piece of work that punishes the shit out of you for anything less than thoroughness. It really is a masterpiece, and today I will explain a little bit about why this game lives up to almost all expectations.

So, without further ado, here is my review so far of the writing in ME3. The ending and some of the philosophical questions brought up by the game will get their own airtime in posts to come; this is just a discussion of content until the finale. Since a) we are not finished and b) rumours of DLC abound, that has to be put off.

Bioware rarely disappoints and this game surpasses the usual standard. The atmosphere is great and dialogue is tight. Some of the dialogues about time spans are inordinate, as it has only been six months or so since the last game, and the power of the Reapers is touched on but not adequately explored. However, a lot of interaction between squad members was added, and between personal reflections and lots of humour, there is no lack of entertainment. Joker is revealed to have an insightful side and Ashley has a meltdown, and it is all compelling stuff. Background dialogues with NPCs are also far above par.

While the timed events for important character development and War Resources can sometimes be tricky and irritating, the elegant tie-ins starting from minor characters in the first game and continuing into thousands of subplots in the second game reward players who patiently ground through the first two. If you were kind to puppies and rescued kittens (or Asari) from trees, you will have endless rewarding details to enjoy. Every plot thread, from endlessly annoying Conrad Verner to Khalil Al Jihani, our favorite punching bag, gets a moment in the spotlight. The details are mindblowingly well-followed.

So, setting is fine. Great. What about character writing?, I hear you say. Well....I am not much of a marshmallow, but so far I have been in tears twice at least and we not done the game. Although our Paragon MaleShep has saved the krogans, Mordin's death as the price was awfully high. I liked the little guy a lot. He does get an epic death scene at least and that is comforting. Legion's death (or dissolution) also drove me to tears. Udina, not so much, but it was satisfying. This game does have a high body count though.

As for plot, the small details are great, but the ending so far feels as though it is coming unsteadily. My one complaint is that some things have been predictable, and that Cerberus is used as a forced McGuffin/Deus Ex Machina a bit too often. Shouting 'Cerberus did it!' after minor mishaps has become a meme in my household. Still, MaleShep has good voiceacting and I am dying to see how it all plays out. Well done Bioware!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Wordthieves: An Intro

I promised a few teasers about a work I'm currently editing (read: putting the boots to) that will be related to And The Stars Will Sing. Well, this much more grown-up work is called 'The Wordthieves'...and that's all you know about it so far. So, I'm going to tantalize you by telling you about the idea behind the idea. 
There are as many different visions of the not-so-far future as there are authors in science fiction. However, quite a few of these visions tend to overlap in a science fiction world type known as the dystopia. I absolutely love dystopic, post-apocalyptic fiction. The Giver and Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry formed my first introductions to this sort of world. After these baby steps, 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World, Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood continued the slow journey into the end of the world and what happens after that. 
Then, I found myself wondering about a different kind of dark world, beyond the governments ruled by an iron fist and overt violence, such as V for Vendetta's setting. I hungered for diversity--surely not every government would be soul-crushing in the same way? 

Happiness (tm) by Will Ferguson powered the curiosity, really, and gave me a good lead. Being surrounded by a very interesting dominant culture in my second-year university classes gave me the rest of the direction for my setting. You can only be surrounded by New Age-y Neo-Buddhists in a department ruled by an iron fist for so long before you have to go eat a steak and make fun of Jung. Meditating, talking about chakras, and discussing self-actualization as you investigate life trauma will drive even the most patient people up the wall eventually. I'm patient, but I wasn't patient enough...

Anyway, I started to wonder...what if...the 'nice' people, like vegans and hardcore hippies, became the ruling heads in a totalitarian regime? 

More seriously, the current political situation in America, with the religious right's frantic suppression of contrasting ideas, provided further food for thought. Atheism and freethinking are on the rise, along with other dirty hippie liberal egalitarian pinko socialist ideas like gay marriage, but the old systems are putting up a good fight. However, much as I tend to spend a lot of time on the left side of the spectrum, it's impossible to avoid noticing that rhetoric-spewing nutbars exist in every part of the political spectrum. So, say that certain elements of the liberal continuum finally won out in the ideological wars...how much would they end up mirroring their former opposition?
These are some of the questions I've explored in Wordthieves. It started as an homage to dystopias and dark science fiction, and became something more. I hear you screaming, 'what's the plot? It's nice to know what inspired it, but tell us what we're in for!" 

Well, friends, let's say that it involves some of my signature wit, hamsters, coffee, foreign languages, hipsters, and tofu. Lots and lots of tofu. Are you scared yet? 

Tune in next time for more hints, sneak peaks, and more thinky talky things. And don't forget to follow me on Twitter, https://twitter.com/#!/SciFiMagpie and to share this blog on Facebook and with friends!