Saturday, December 01, 2007

Literary (And Other) Review

I've been woefully deficient in reporting on my reading. Here's hoping that late and inadequate is better than never.

Watchmen by Alan Moore. This title seems to pop up on all the lists with titles like "Comic books for people who don't read comics" or "Best comic books of all time." I'm not a big comics guy myself, but ever since reading, and being blown away by, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, I've been on the lookout for similarly impressive work. Watchmen has been recommended by several people, and nearly a year ago I requested it from the San Jose library. It seems to be in high demand - two of the three issues are missing, and I joined a patient queue of people waiting for the last copy. It arrived shortly before Thanksgiving, and I tore through it before and after my trip to Chicago.

I wasn't disappointed. The quality of Watchmen is every bit as strong as Sandman, but the tone and thrust is very different. Sandman soared in its fantasy, becoming stronger the further it embraced myth, dream and legend. In contrast, Watchmen is firmly grounded in the world, and is most poignant in its depictions of the struggles and limitations of human beings. I don't say "the real world" - Watchmen is set in a slightly alternate reality, one where "costumed heroes", inspired by early comic books, became a crime-fighting force in the 1940's. The US won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon is still President in 1985, and the US holds a decided military advantage over the USSR. Nonetheless, I keep returning to the word "reality" when I think about this book. Even the "superheroes" have limitations and crushed dreams that make them feel like us.

I think of Sandman and Watchmen as being "adult" comic books. I don't mean "adult" in the sense of having sex or violence; from what I can tell, most comic books have those quantities in spades. Rather, they are adult in their worldview: they embrace complexity and messy relationships, refusing to neatly divide individuals into good or evil, heroes or villains. Watchmen is additionally adult in its characters: most of the protagonists are middle-aged, semi-retired "superheroes." Although we can admire some of them, they certainly don't fit the stylized image of comic book heroes: the man have slight paunches, the women's looks are fading, and much of their skills have fallen into disuse. The few heroes who have stayed active are the more disturbing ones.

Early on, I found myself thinking of "The Incredibles," specifically the early scenes with Mr. Incredible working in an insurance office. I'm a little curious if Brad Bird was aware of this book, as it seems to have had a big influence on comics over the last 20 years. The ultimate aims of these two works differ, though. The Incredibles, while excellent, ultimately has a very Disney-ish moral, one about believing in yourself and fulfilling your potential. Watchmen, on the other hand, ends on a very morally ambiguous note. It suggests that compromise is sometimes necessary, that one must occasionally choose between different bad choices, and that pursuing a small good may result in a large harm.

I'm far from an expert, but I thought the art in this book was really good. Unlike Sandman, which rotated through a large number of artists, Watchmen was a collaboration between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and so it has a very consistent look throughout. As I noted above, the characters are realistically portrayed, and I'm especially impressed with the grimy vision of New York City that is delivered.

This isn't meant to be a full review, but before I cut off, I need to give a particular shout-out to the wonderful literary aspects of this book. It is far from a straight-up adventure story, and I think the depths of the writing can only be fully explored on subsequent readings. One especially wonderful technique Moore uses is that of layered narratives. A young black man reads a comic book; the words of that comic book comment on the action taking place around him on the streets of New York; and those streets, in turn, are filled with people trying to come to grips with the results of the actions taken by the main protagonists. You can read through one page multiple times, interpreting the words different ways, and come up with wholly distinct, yet complementary, story lines. It's a wonderful achievement.

In other news:

I continue to tear through Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. I recently finished "Jingo". It is a Guards book, which means it is great. I think this book has some good similarities to Thud!, especially in the subtext; the treatment of nationality in Jingo is similar to that of race in Thud! I really enjoy pulling through these books; it does feel like reuniting with old friends.

On the television front:

"The War" was well-done. It's the first Ken Burns documentary I've seen, and I was pretty impressed. To be honest, I was a little leery of the "through the eyes of four American towns" angle, thinking that it would lose the larger scope of the war. I was wrong, though... in an immediate sense, because there were plenty of tools Burns used (propaganda films, stock footage, etc.) that showed both the war action and the larger political movements; and also because the device helped me better absorb the sheer enormity of the war effort. When I saw the transformation of a city like Birmingham, I was stunned. Then, I realized that Birmingham really is not that big of a city, and that events of similar scope were happening all across the nation... that's when the nation-changing aspect of the war really became real to me. Or, when you learn of a young soldier's death, and hear his family's grief, you are at first touched by that one loss. Then, you multiple that by the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans, or the sixteen million who wore the uniform, and you can get some hint of the psychological and social stress the war had.

I kind of doubt I'll watch it again, just because I can think of better things to do with ten hours of my time, but I have absolutely no regrets about seeing it.

Oh, and one final note: I really appreciate the distinction a person in the documentary makes between a "good" war and a "necessary" war. It very eloquently said much of what I've thought about World War 2.

The first half of "House" wrapped up last week. I think it may be the strongest section yet of the series. They've pulled off a great balance between an overarching narrative and an episodic mystery-of-the-week. I won't say any more lest I spoil the fun, but it's been very enjoyable.

House has an advantage over Lost and other serials in that new viewers can approach it without having previously viewed every other episode in the series. That being said, if you're thinking of starting on House, I'd recommend starting a few episodes before the end of the third season. Well, or halfway through the first, depending on how much you want to see.

For the first time since "Ratatoille," I got to see an actual movie! In a theater! It was "No Country for Old Men," and while I love the Coen brothers, I have to admit that this one stays below the level of masterworks like "Fargo". That being said, it's still heads and shoulders above most movies out there. There's a quiet bleakness in the movie that permeates everything, from the landscape to the dialog to the deaths to the sets. It's far from an "up" movie, and it continues the Coen brothers' allergic reaction to complete endings, but is well worth checking out.

If you haven't hacked your iPhone yet, do it now. The apps out there are good and getting better. For my recent cross-country trip, I left my PSP at home and spent a good chunk of my plane ride playing Dragon Warrior 2 on the NES emulator. It was a fun blast from the past; I played the first game way back in the day, but never did any of the sequels, and am enjoying the old-school gameplay. That being said, I have to take it in chunks. One nice thing about modern RPGs is that they no longer require you to battle hundreds of random monsters to level-up before doing something fun.

Man... how long HAS it been since I wrote about books? I was just checking to see if I had reviewed "What is the What," and it doesn't look like I have. Shame on me. It's an amazing, powerful book. I'm ashamed to admit that I've gotten pretty desensitized to the horrors of far-away conflicts; after you read enough stories about child warriors, mass famine, and religiously motivated slaughter, you start getting pretty numb. Dave Eggers has done a great job of slapping us across the face with this engaging book that reveals and humanizes some of the awful things happening in Africa now. It isn't a pleasant topic, but the method he uses makes this a very readable and often gripping story, one that keeps you reading for pleasure while letting grim reality sink in.

I recently bought my first-ever artbook, Lain Illustration by Yoshitoshi Abe. It includes concept and character art from Serial Experiments Lain, which the more I think about it is probably my favorite anime. The book is absolutely gorgeous, and is evocative of the surreal, slightly sinister tone that characterizes the anime.

My massive Civilization IV scenario game is currently on hiatus. One of the fan-submitted scenarios for Beyond the Sword was a World War II scenario. It comes in three versions: Europe 1936, Asia 1936, and Europe 1939. I decided to play the last version, taking on the role of Germany. In what is no doubt a very smart move, Firaxis removed all references to Hitler and Nazi paraphernalia from the game; I am playing as "Vice-Chancellor Papen" (or something like that). It's a little odd and not totally accurate, but at the same time, I actually appreciate it a little bit... I can enjoy playing as Germany a bit more if I'm not under that banner.

The map is huge and detailed, and so is the scenario itself. I loved the old Civ II WW2 scenario, which was also centered around Europe. That one had just 6 civilizations: Allies (UK+US), France, Axis (Germany+Italy), Russia, Spain, and the Neutrals. The scenario started on the eve of the invasion of France: on its very first turn, Germany would send bombers pouring into French cities, paratrooping in and capturing a lot of territory before France had its first chance to move. As with most WW2 games, Germany's strategy is to roll up as much territory as it can before resistance gets too strong. There were several things I enjoyed about this scenario. First, the scope was broad: you started the game with a ton of units to play with, and would operate in multiple theaters; U-Boats would hunt down Allied transports in the Atlantic, while Panzers roar across northern Africa and bombers pound London. Second, the scenario lent itself well to alternate history. The designers recommended you play as the Allies, Axis, or Russia, but some of the most fun I ever had was playing a game as Spain: you can't hope to win, but you can seriously mess up the historical flow of events if you play at it hard enough.

The Civ IV incarnation is quite different. The map is much larger and more detailed; I'd estimate there are at least four times as many cities as in the old one. And the civilization count blows the stack: it uses the full 16 allowed by the engine, which means that it can disentangle the alliances: Germany and Italy are separate nations, and so are American and Great Britain. Also, seemingly ever minor civilization has its own leader, all of whom seem to be minor modifications of FDR. There are three cities in the Netherlands, there is Poland, both West Balkans and East Balkans. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are each their own nation.

The realism becomes almost maddening when it comes to units. Each civilization has its own separate military tree, with historical abilities reflected: German Infantry is top-notch, while that of Poland is a joke. Science also plays a key role in the game. The far-out goal is Nuclear Fission, of course, but there are a ton of intermediate technologies that allow you to make incremental upgrades of your units. I've managed to upgrade my fighters and bombers to the second generation, and have reaped the benefits thereof.

So, why did I play as Germany? It's just a lot of fun, frankly. Leaving aside actual history, from a gameplay perspective, you start out with a relatively small geographical area, but an impressive industrial base and the most powerful units in the world. You are surrounded by weak targets. So you are constantly on the attack, always taking territory, and whenever you need to rest and heal a unit, you'll have three more rolling in behind them.

You have three options in this game: historical events, random events, and free play. In the first, you have no control over diplomacy: Germany will always declare war on France on a certain day, the UK and the US will sign a military alliance on a certain day, and so on. This style probably puts the strongest emphasis on tactics, as your job is to do the best you can with the cards you have been dealt. Random events will follow the same sequence as in history, but events occur within a window rather than on a specific data. Thus, while you know that Germany will declare war on France early, you can't know which turn it will happen on. This style demands greater flexibility from the player, and probably is a more accurate representation of how history FELT, where some actions seemed inevitable but nobody was sure when they would happen.

The final mode, which I chose, leaves diplomacy entirely up to you, which leads well to alternate historical situations. I've been having a lot of fun with this. I'll declare war on my neighbors, one at a time, usually with one active campaign and two mopping-up ones active at any time. Initial attitudes seem fairly accurate, and are achieved by replacing religion with economic philosophy: Stalin is Communist; Papen, Mussolini, and Franco are Fascist; and everyone else follows the Free Market. One interesting, probably accurate side-effect of this is that Stalin and Germany are far from friends; in fact, their antagonism is greater than that initially felt between Germany and France. Again, this is probably accurate, but it also means that a secret Polish pact was not in the offing. I'd initially thought that my alternate history would be to turn back Hitler's greatest blunder, and not invade Russia until the western front was secure. Breaking a treaty would not even be an option if I did not have a treaty to begin with, and he was clearly not interested in signing one. So, as my panzers swept through eastern Europe and into Scandinavia, I came up with another, arguably better vision: postpone the conquest of France until my empire reached Asia. There was certain risk in this - the allies' industrial output is mighty, and will only grow the longer I delay - but that still seemed a better option than fighting a two-front war - and the eastern front would be opened by Stalin eventually, whether I wanted one or not.

I bided my time, however. Russia was inferior to me, but everyone in between us was more inferior still, and Russia at least had a nominal air force and decent infantry. Plus, Russia is a vast territory, and I was nervous about getting bogged down in that conquest. One cool thing about this scenario is that it simulates the bitter winters of 1939-1941. When winter falls, tiles in eastern and northern Europe are transformed by frost. The movement cost increases dramatically, slowing your advancement to a crawl. Russian and Finnish troops start with free "winter" promotions that allow them to ignore bitter winter, but anyone else will need to plan their campaigns with an eye on the calendar.

So, I did not invade Russia in 1939; instead, I fully (albeit slowly) took Poland, Norway, Sweden, the Low Countries, the East Balkans, the West Balkans, and Finland... basically, all the minor players except for Turkey, which lay on the other side of Russia's southern expanse. However, I was getting antsy. Because this was a Beyond the Sword scenario, it includes the new Espionage system. I had dumped all my spy points against Russia, France, and the UK (that is, my most immediate threats), and had a big enough advantage that I had infiltrated the USSR's science labs. I could see that Russia was a few turns away from discovering an advanced aerospace technology that, while it would not bring their planes up to par with mine, would make bombing their cities more difficult. So, even though the bitter winter still held, in early March 1940 I struck at Russia.

It was one of the most enjoyable campaigns I've played in any version of Civ. The sheer scope of the offense was vast: the troops that had spent months fighting up Scandinavia were now pushing south through the permafrost; a landing craft dumped veteran soldiers onto the shores of St. Petersburg; and all up and down the eastern front, my highly-promoted Panzers, many of them led by Great Generals, struck. It wasn't exactly a blitzkrieg, because the front did not advance all that quickly. The front was the breadth of a continent, though, and so every mile advanced brought vast new territories into the German sphere.

Stalin did discover his new technology, but had foolishly kept the bulk of his air force stationed in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, whatever it was called then). I fought hard to take it before he could upgrade, making the first major sacrifices of my war, but secure in the decision. A few fortnights later, the winter ended, and my units raced southward to meet the firmly established German occupation. From then on it was a mopping up operation in Asia as my tanks rumbled through desert, seeking out the sparse, desperate last cities.

And that's where I am now. It's where I've been for over a month - I'm enjoying the game, but at the same time, every since turn I take now takes about twenty minutes.

I still need to decide on my short-term and long-term strategies. It seems logical to take Turkey next, but where do I go from there? Entering the Middle East will butt me up against French and British interests there, but if there is a way to go after France while somehow sidelining the UK for now, I'd prefer to go that route. A more worrying question is what to do about Italy. They're friendly with me, but have politely refused all requests of alliance, and I don't think you can "win" the scenario if there is a non-ally left standing. I don't relish attacking Italy - their holdings are spread on both sides of the Mediterranean, and all jokes to the contrary, they actually have a decent army - but if it needs to happen, it seems to make sense to hit them as I stab westward.

Over the long haul, the picture becomes clearer: finish taking Europe and northern Africa, then direct all my might against England. The game will end in a massive naval battle in the Atlantic that culminates in marine landings along the eastern seaboard of the US. It's that naval battle that currently worries me. Unlike that old Civ II scenario, Germany starts this game with a miniscule navy: I had only a single submarine at the start of the game, and my naval facilities have been slow in coming online. Right now I have nothing at all in the Mediterranean, nothing in the North Sea, and nothing in the Atlantic; just a small pack that was containing minor threats in the Baltic Sea. That will need to change, and I just hope it will grow in time.

Don't you love it when a game hijacks everything? I'd better stop typing before I get off on a tangent about the proper role of air support when conducting a far-flung campaign. I'm out of here!

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