Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dansu Dansu Dansu

Dance Dance Dance is the first Murakami sequel that I have read.  While most of his novels share a similar sensibility, I'm used to each existing in its own separate, peculiar world.  Dance Dance Dance (hereafter DDD) exists in a peculiar world that is shared with A Wild Sheep Chase.  It has the same narrator, picks up about five years after the previous book ended, and continues with some of the same plot lines and characters as before.  More importantly, though, it continues in the same style, filled with dreamy logic and vivid yet bizarre scenes.

I THINK that one could read and enjoy this book without having previously read AWSC.  After all, it's not as if this book makes sense even if you have read the prequel, so you needn't worry much about losing the plot.  Still, it's probably best to read them in sequence, just because you'll already be tracking with the narrator's outlook and voice.

Murakami and his fans generally point to AWSC as the book where he first really found his preferred style, establishing the rhythm and attitude that would come to define his work.  DDD therefore picks up stylistically as well as thematically, continuing along the evolutionary path towards the future masterpieces of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and Kafka on the Shore.  AWCS certainly had elements of the bizarre, but its overall structure followed the style of a thriller: the protagonist was sent on a mission, travelled to exotic locales, encountered people determined to stop him, uncovered a plot, enlisted the help of newfound friends, and won the day.  DDD has a more passive story structure that is closer to Murakami's later works.  There are nods in the direction of a mystery story - some murders, an investigation - but those are merely sidelines.  The core is about... well, a guy, who visits a hotel, has strange dreams, relaxes in Hawaii, watches a movie over a dozen times, would rather drive a Subaru than a Masarati, and gives nutritional advice to a thirteen-year-old girl.


The more I think about it, there's a pretty remarkable cast of characters in this book.  It just now occurred to me how much it is dominated by women.

KIKI: This is the woman from the previous book, an ear model and high-class prostitute.  Although physically absent from the action in this book, she is one of the most influential characters.  The narrator is obsessed with her, actively tries to find her, and views his relationship with other women through the lens of his brief time with her.

MEI: She only appears in one scene, but really charges up the book.  She is boisterous and cheerful, and makes a large impact that reverberates through the rest of the book.  Cuck-koo.

YUMIYOSHI: Possibly the most desired of the many desirable women in this tale.  A hotel clerk, she is also the most resistant to the hero's advances.  She also seems to be most compatible with his attitude, though... she'll turn down a date by calmly and simply static that she has swim practice.  Weirdly enough, even though we see much more of her than of Kiki or Mei, I felt like I knew her less than those other two.

YUKI: The most important character in the book.  Murakami does do a little bit of that creepy young-girl-as-desirable-object thing here, but thankfully it's well under control.  The narrator takes Yuki under his wing, somehow intuiting the perfect relationship that she most needs: not a stern adult, not a casual friend, but something intense, positive, and above all empathetic.  Yuki has a rough time, and I'm reminded of the high emotional stress that all teenagers encounter.  Yuki makes the narrator seem better than ever before.

AME: A fairly minor part, Yuki's mother is most interesting in the way that she illuminates Yuki.  Still, she's an intriguing character in her own light.  At the most extreme, she can be seen as the apotheosis of the narrator's personality: passive, distracted, disconnected from life, flitting from interest to interest without the ability to forge strong relationships.  And, by examining her extreme, I can pull out what I like about the narrator and Murakami's similar characters from other stories.  Our guy is passive in action, but not in mind: he's curious, receptive, unwilling to initiate but willing to follow a path as far as it goes.  Where she fails at relationships and seems oblivious about it, he seems to genuinely want them and wishes he could make them work better. 

There are some good male parts too, though fewer in number and generally less important than the women.  The most important is Gotanda, a former classmate of the hero who is now a famous actor.  Gotanda is one of the few characters who shifts during this book: with the others, you have a strong sense of constance, but our perception of Gotanda shifts from a lucky golden boy to a gracious alpha male to a tired yet genial has-been to something darker.  Some of this is his acting, but mostly it's a matter of perception, as the main character explores their relationship more deeply.


The writing is excellent throughout.  Murakami manages to be surprising without being shocking, to amaze without appearing to show off.  As before, I was quickly gripped by the story, and felt compelled to see where it went.

The title remains an enigma to me.  A character tells the hero "You gotta dance," explaining that only by dancing can he find what he's looking for.  He spends the rest of the book trying to fulfill that command.  He isn't literally dancing (though there are cute step diagrams separating occasional sections).  Rather, Murakami seems to be using dance to describe a certain way of approaching life: a state of intuitiveness, of attention, of responsiveness, of losing yourself.  Can someone dance alone?  He seems to be trying to.

At least, that's what I took away from the book... far be it from me to say that that's what Murakami had in mind.  Regardless, I enjoyed this particular dance.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dune Messiah

I'll admit it: I was thinking of Haruki Murakami when I placed a hold for "The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe.  I knew enough to not expect that they would be similar authors; quite to the contrary, in fact.  I had previously read that Murakami has often been kind of an outsider in Japan; while his books are popular there, he has been rejected by Japan's literary establishment, who frown on his borrowing from Western pop culture and the way he works outside of traditional story structures.  In contrast, Kobo Abe and Kenzaburo Oe are revered by the establishment, with little criticism permitted.

Still, Murakami is the only other Japanese novelist I have read, so it was inevitable that I would compare TWitD to his works.  Pretty early on, I was surprised to realized that instead of Murakami, I was constantly thinking of another 20th century author, this one from another continent: Albert Camus.  You can also think of Kafka, or Sartre.  While the setting of the book is solidly Japanese, and I'm certain much of the book's psychology is informed by that background, its actual situations and concerns are fully of a piece with the European Existentialists.


The Trial and The Plague are centered around man confronted with a baffling adversary.  Both feature people trying to fight against their lot, but more than that, to simply understand what's happening and why.  Likewise, the protagonist in Abe's novel finds himself trapped in a seemingly ludicrous setting: at the bottom of a sand valley, I imagine it being about 20 or 30 feet deep, sharing a house and a shovel with a widowed woman.  He eventually realized that he has been enslaved, but this realization brings more questions than it answers.  His task is to shovel all the sand that falls over from the dunes.  It's an eternal job: more sand always comes, no matter how much he shoveled the day before.  It's a pointless job: ostensibly, if he doesn't shovel, the sand will overrun the house, knock down the dune, and spill in towards the village.  But even that is bizarre: why does the village even exist?  What possible advantage could there be to planting a village in the middle of a constantly moving desert?

Abe's prose (in translation, of course) is amazing.  He writes with incredibly vividness about the narrator's experiences, and particularly about the physical omnipresence of sand.  He describes the feel of the sand, how it cakes into your eyes, how it burrows into your holes, how it gets into every food you eat no matter how much you try to protect it, how it permeates water so that, when you drink to try and clear your throat, it forms a thin paste of sand in the back of your mouth.  It's thoroughly unpleasant, which is certainly the point.

Less frequent, but equally interesting, are the tangents that Abe shows us from within the protagonist's mind.  The main character is professionally a teacher, but his main passion is entomology, and his specific passion prior to arriving in the dunes had been to locate a new species of beetle.  He isn't really a likeable person; much like the victim in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, we feel sorry for his predicament, but recognize his human failings as well.  This man is self-interested, not very empathetic, narrow-minded when it comes to human relationships (whether equating a human life with a radio or deciding how much money to pay in order to remove a sense of obligation).  However, he does have a curious, interested mind, and I enjoyed tracking his wandering thoughts.  Before he arrives in the city he carries out a long and quite moving meditation on the nature of sand: how much like water it is in many ways, and how like and unlike rock.  Most of his thoughts in the pit are given over to escape, but he stops to puzzle over the relationship of power to sex, and the relationship between evening temperatures and condensation, and the nature of city life.  He also has vivid and disturbing dreams that he experiences and then ponders, later on finding the symbolism in them.


It wasn't Murakami, but it was a good book.  I won't be rushing back to Kobo Abe, but I'll return for another shot later.  If anything, it's even more readable than the other existentialist authors I've read before, and I'm curious whether this book counts as "Typical" Kobo Abe, or if his others are significantly different.  Either way, this was a rewarding read and a great way to expand my exposure to Japanese literature.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


It's a little embarrassing to admit that it has taken me this long to read The Turn of the Screw.  I think I first tried to read it four or five years ago, got distracted, and had to return it.  Since then, I would frequently remember that I wanted to read it - the title comes up surprisingly often in discussions of other works of fiction - but only now have I actually gone ahead and read it.  There's really no excuse for my delay - the whole story is barely under 100 pages long - and I'm glad that I did.  It's Henry James, it's 19th century literature, and so it takes a bit more effort to get into the language, but the payoff is quite satisfying.


Turn of the Screw is famous enough that I was already familiar with the outlines of the story.  My understanding was that it was a book told from the perspective of a governess who thinks that spirits are tormenting her charges; later, we learn that she has been imagining the spirits, and she herself is the real harm to the children.

I found the actual book to be more ambiguous than that.  You could certainly read it as the governess being an unintentional villain, but I think it's also perfectly valid to view her as a heroic victim.

Most of the book seems to come down to the same question that every production of Macbeth must address.  In both works, the protagonist can see spiritual objects that nobody else can see.  The question is, are they better able to see what is really there than anyone else?  Or are they mad?  In Macbeth, the director will make the decision.  In Turn of the Screw, it's really up to you.

I think there are some very compelling reasons to believe (within the context of the story) that the ghosts are "real."  Most specifically, the heroine sees Peter Quint twice (I think) before she learns who he was in life, and learns how he died.  I can see her inventing her vision of Miss Jessel, since she has heard of her predecessor and her end, but Peter Quint seems to have arrived ex nihilo.  With that as a backdrop, all of her actions seem reasonable, if high-strung: if there are spirits, then they may be affecting the living; the living they are most likely to affect are the young children; the children's occasional lapses can therefore be seen as moving towards or operating under malevolent influence; thus, the governess must do what she can to watch the children, keep them close to her, and prevent activities that take them beyond her protective reach.

Even that initial appearance of Quint, though, can certainly be challenged.  What starts this all off is a person who stares at her in a public space.  We can imagine a young, inexperienced woman being frightened by this kind of ominous, silent boldness.  Suppose, then, that this original man was real, but just a random person, not a ghost.  The second visitation, then, could be seen as a "real hallucination," her active mind (big empty house, scary experience, etc.) playing tricks on her.  Her actual identification of Peter Quint seems to be suspicious... all that the governess really identifies in the apparition are the red hair, nice clothes, and the fact that he "wasn't a gentleman."  That happens to describe Quint, of course, but it really could describe a large number of men in the world.  If this is the case, then the whole story becomes a tragedy, with the heroine's initial mistake compounding upon itself, as she interprets every future event to fit within her worldview of an environment filled with hostile spirits.

This latter explanation helps explain some of the stranger conversations in the book.  All of the governess's communication with Mrs. Grose are fairly one-sided; you feel like they never really connect or understand one another.  There are a couple of times when a chapter ends with the governess observing something, and then the next chapter begins with her describing to Mrs. Grose what occurred; however, her subsequent recollections are more vivid and detailed than the original prose.  This initially confused me a little as I read; I thought that the narrator was withholding some of the original event, and then fully describing the scene later on, to maintain some suspense and keep forward momentum in the narrative.  It makes more sense, though, that the woman's active mind keeps turning over her imagined scenes, embellishing details and inventing more horrible details.

One final note - I love the way the story ends.  It's the opposite of in media res, with an abrupt ending that makes no attempt to describe what happens afterwards.  Wonderful, creepy, and perfectly in keeping with the rest of the tale.


I don't often return to the well of my English Lit canon, but I do tend to enjoy my sojourns there.  The Turn of the Screw has aged extremely well for a book over a hundred years old, remaining frightening and interesting to this day.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Door into Optimism

I don't read a ton of Robert Heinlein, but every time I do, I'm stunned anew.  I've enjoyed every book of his that I've read, but each one feels totally different from the rest.  Perhaps not so much in style - he's a good writer who enjoys using first-person narration - as in moral.  It amazes me that the same mind that penned Stranger in a Strange Land, with its Summer of Love-inspired message of peace, love, and understanding, was penned by the same hand that wrote Starship Troopers, with its cheerful promotion of fascism.  Those two books are Heinlein's most famous; I've also dipped into Job: A Comedy of Justice, and came back up gasping for breath.  A religious parody with multiple dimensions?  How exactly did that fit into the canon?

The Door into Summer is a simply wonderful book.  First of all, I think it should be read by all engineers who enjoy books.  The main character in the book is an engineer, and I just loved his perspective on his career.  The book does a better job of defining how engineers work, what motivates them, and how they differ from other professionals (such as scientists or technicians) than anything else I've read.  One of my favorite lines from the book is when the narrator defines engineering as "the art of the possible."  I think that's perfect - first of all, acknowledging that what we do IS an art, essentially creative, as opposed to a deterministic discipline such as mathematics.  And it's the "possible" that gets us excited.  Engineers are far more passionate about designing and building real things, figuring out how to make them work with the tools available to them; on the other hand, scientists are eager to define and build new tools, expanding the body of available knowledge without necessarily caring very much about if and how people will find practical application for their work.  (Side note: it would be a lot of fun to read this book in conjunction with Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle," which tackles the question from the scientist's perspective, and includes a similarly inspiring argument for the importance of pure research.)

That said, engineering isn't the main point of the book, just the primary perspective of the protagonist.  The book is pure science-fiction.  It is extremely well structured and interesting, with a cool structure that provides a lot of depth and complexity even at under 200 pages of length.


The book is set in 1970, and the main character "time-travels" forward into 2000.  However, the book was written in the 1950's, so even 1970 is really the "future" as far as Heinlein's readers were concerned.  It's a lot of fun to read Heinlein's predictions for these two years.  By 1970, Communism had collapsed (right call, but 20 years early), the US has abandoned the gold standard (which I thought we had already done by the 50's), and science has progressed.  The main technology that the book deals with is The Deep Sleep, which today we call cryogenics.  For a significant sum of money, a person can be placed into a very cold state for a long period of time; they can wake up 10, 30, 100, or more years in the future, at the same age and health as they were before.  The main motivation is for people with terminal illnesses who hope that cures will be discovered later on, but others also take The Deep Sleep for their own reasons.  The hero decides to take it himself after he is betrayed by his partner and his lover, who steal away the business that he created.

By the year 2000, Heinlein is predicting ATM cards, although he doesn't envision credit cards.  He thought that we'd have licked the common cold by then - I wish!  He imagines a fabric he calls Sticktite, which I picture as being like latex.  He invents what is essentially AutoCAD.

Besides The Big Sleep, the invention the book is most concerned with is robotic intelligence... basically an android.  In 1970, they have invented Hired Girl, who is essentially a Roomba.  Following on this success, robots are developed that can perform a wider variety of tasks, including assisting hospital patients, answering phones, washing dishes, and other fairly menial tasks.

Anyways, back to the story: I had realized early on that The Door into Summer was a time travel story, but it surprised me by REALLY becoming a time travel story.  Besides the simple, kind-of-cheating forward-only cryogenic type of time travel, he also discovers a forward-or-back, instantaneous displacement form of time travel.  As sci-fi goes, this one has a decent explanation... not quite as cool or intricate as in Primer, but vastly better than any Hollywood movie has done.  It is described as a temporal equivalent to Newton's second law.  If you have two objects of equal mass at the same location, and enough energy, you can move one forward in time by a certain amount, which will also send the other object backward in time by the same amount.  It's a cool idea, and also one that leads to neat variations on the standard sci-fi concerns of causality and paradox.

I was enjoying the book all the way through, but fell in love with it during the last 30 or so pages.  All the little hints that Heinlein had dropped throughout the book started to shift into focus, and I realized that nothing had happened by accident.  Once the possibility of time travel had been added, I could anticipate how everything would turn out, and was happy to be proven right.  The book ends on a perfectly satisfying note, both from emotionally and from a storytelling perspective.


Heinlein continues to surprise and please me.  TDIS is a surprisingly touching book, and also extremely clever.  It's also a neat little artifact from the 1950's: it's filled with the seemingly boundless optimism that we associate with that era.  The protagonist passionately describes how everything is getting better, how the future is better than the past, and how he can't wait to see what's in store next.  I feel a little sad that we've lost that kind of relentless positive attitude, but it's fun to see it captured here in its glorious moment.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Don't Buy Dragon Age

... or, if you do, at least promise me you won't buy Warden's Keep.

I don't say this because the game isn't fun.  It is!  It's one of the most entertaining and addictive games I've played in a long time.  It even manages to meet my high expectations for storytelling.

And yet, the game is broken in subtle and frustrating ways that will leave you feeling robbed if you part with your hard-earned cash for it.

First of all, the game is deliberately broken in inventory management.  You have a limited inventory within the game; initially you can carry (I think) around 60 items or so, which you can upgrade somewhat by spending in-game money to purchase eventual backpacks.  I can now carry up to 100 items, which seems to be the limit.  However, there is an unlimited amount of stuff that you can get in the game.  Most annoying, there's no way of telling what will be important later on and what will not; many items that initially seem to be good only for selling later prove to be very important.  And, worst of all, there's no place for you to store items that do not fit in your active inventory: therefore, you must destroy or sell your excess items.  And, as I complained in my previous post, selling is completely impractical for anything you might want/need to re-purchase later.

I say that the game was deliberately broken, because Bioware had a solution available on launch day, in the form of downloadable content.  By spending real-world money, you could purchase Warden's Keep, which had a quest, but more importantly fixed the main game by adding a party chest where you could store your excess equipment.  Yes, they took something that should have been in the original game, and decided to charge you for it.

I was enjoying the game, except for the constant popups about server connections and the fact that I couldn't store my equipment, so I went ahead and purchased it.  At first, all looked good.  I visited the Keep, played a fun little quest (albeit one that felt surprisingly similar to both the Circle Tower and Stone Prisoner quests), and got my reward.  Elated, I finally dropped off all the precious stones, the excess gifts, private documents - everything that seemed important but that I currently couldn't use.  I merrily continued on with my main quest, whistling as I went.  It wasn't a perfect solution - I was a tad annoyed that I would need to journey someplace to retrieve my stuff, and face the random encounters that would come with the journey - but was far better than the status quo.

That is, until it turned far worse.  Warden's Keep disappeared.  It vanished from my map.  I can no longer return.  By implication, all those valuable items that I had stored in my chest, SPECIFICALLY FOR SAFEKEEPING, are gone as well.  Not only that, but some of my party's equipment, stuff that I had won during my hours of play in Warden's Keep, disappeared as well.  I discovered this unpleasant fact when I almost lost what should have been an easy fight, only belatedly realizing that Morrigan and Sten were attacking Hurlocks with their bare hands.

So, to recap: I paid real, hard money to Bioware, and in return, they ruined my game.  I'm now much worse off than I would have been if I hadn't bought the add-on: the game would still be broken due to an insufficient inventory system, but at least it would not have stolen the results of many, many hours of gameplay from me.  I'm now in a weaker position, and I'm poorer, and apparently dumb for having bought it in the first place.  Only after the fact, when I was desperately looking for help online, did I discover that this problem is affecting many people, and Bioware has no solution.

Bioware made the game, but they refuse to support it, instead directing all customers to Electronic Arts.  I submitted my problem to EA through an online form several days before, and haven't heard a word back from them after the initial automated response.  I would love to keep playing what feels like a wonderful game, but feel betrayed, hurt, and furious.

I'm reminded of a passage by Neal Stephenson from "In the Beginning Was the Command Line" in which he talks about metaphor shear.  When we interact with computers, we are engaging in a mediated experience, defined by metaphor.  All of our interactions are ultimately reduced to a series of 0's and 1's that don't intrinsically mean anything.  To help our minds cope with this, companies come up with analogies with the real world that describe and define our interactions.  We "write" "documents", then "save" them to "folders".  As long as everything works, the metaphor stays intact, and we're happy.  We fool ourselves into thinking that what we are doing is something as physical, as real, as actually writing a document with pen and paper.  But problems occur.  One day, we discover that our file - excuse me, our "file" - has been overwritten.  Yesterday, it was several pages long, filled with our own words, something we could feel proud of.  Today, it has simply vanished, leaving no trace behind.  We are suddenly forced to deal with the fact that it wasn't real, that it was all temporal and transient, and that Microsoft or Apple had essentially lied to us; no, we had lied to ourselves, using the tools they had given us.  This metaphor shear is profoundly disquieting, and makes one feel quite disturbed by all computing activities.

Well, Bioware can now join the club.  Their DLC (Downloadable Content) has entered the metaphor lexicon.  It's a "store"!  You can "buy" things there, and then "have" them.  Only, the metaphor isn't perfect.  When we buy something, we expect to keep it.  We expect to be able to use it.  Instead, I feel as though I had driven to Fry's Electronics, purchased an LCD TV, brought it home, plugged it in, and watched several movies on it.  Then I woke up one day to find that the TV is gone.  The people from Fry's evidently broke into my house to steal it back, or rigged it to self-destruct.  I've lost the TV.  I've lost the money I paid for the TV.  And because I got rid of my old TV when I bought this one, I'm way worse off than I would have been if I hadn't bought it in the first place.

Save yourself some frustration.  Save yourself some money.  Don't patronize Bioware until they have fixed their buggy, broken, larcenous game.

UPDATE 12/17:  I finally got an email response back from Electronic Arts, more than a week after I initially submitted it.  You'd think that would be enough time for them to pull together an answer, right?  NOPE!  The email apologized for my problem, said that it wasn't a "permanent" issue, and said that they can't provide support for this product.  They encouraged me to visit the Bioware forums for support.

And, when you go to the Bioware forums for PC tech support, what's the very first post that you see, stickied at the top by a Bioware employee?  A post telling everyone that Bioware does not provide any support for Dragon Age, and directing everyone to contact the Electronic Arts page for support.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Pano-Rama Ding-Dong

Who would have thought that now - the December after the Great Recession, a time when the Internet is upending the nature of the media business - we would see the launch of a new newspaper?  And yet, yesterday you could pick up a brand spanking new copy of the SF Panorama on street corners around the city.

And ONLY yesterday.  This is a one-issue-only paper.  And you couldn't pick it up on every street corner at any time.  But I'm jumping ahead of myself here.

Panorama is a literary journal masquerading as a newspaper... except that it's a real newspaper, with real stories on local and national issues.  It's the winter issue of McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, a wonderful and extremely creative "magazine" that regularly trounces the concept of the journal.  Past issues have looked like a box, or a pile of junk mail.  This one looked like a vanishing relic from our civic life.

My siblings and I had been geeking out on this for a while.  I noted that, while the issue technically would sell for $16, it would be available on SF streets on the actual date for only $5.  Never one to turn down an opportunity for arbitrage, I collected fivers from my brother and sister over Thanksgiving, promising to return at Christmas with their own locally-sourced deep-discounted copy.

The day before, I found a nifty Google Map that listed where the Panorama would be sold.  I was pretty unclear on exactly what the deal was - it listed bookstores and Newsys, but no word on whether the $5 issues could be found everywhere or only from a Newsy.  In any case, I picked out a few Newsy spots that were reasonably close to my office.  That night, I was pleased to see that they had added a new Newsy to the Caltrain station where I get off in the morning.  "Perfect!," I thought.

The next day, when I disembarked, I eagerly looked around.  No newsy.  The station is pretty big, so I checked the plaza over by the metro, as well as the section near the bike shop and along 4th Street.  No love.  I did see a Chronicle seller lurking around, but no Panorama.  I figured that they must have sold out, and resolved to find another source.

I deviated from my normal ride into work to scoot down along 7th street, where I remembered another newsy being located.  Only I didn't remember the exact location, having wiped it from my mind with the discovery of the Caltrain plant.  I roamed that neighborhood for a little while, and when that turned up empty, headed into work.

During an early lunch break, I struck out once more, armed this time with a better-memorized map.  I headed south to the spot nearest my office, on 8th between 15th and 16th.  (That has to be one of the best-named intersections in the city.)  No newsy.  Well, there was another listed on 16th, so I turned there and walked from SOMA into the Mission.  Still nothing... I saw a news stand, but it only had the Chronicle, not Panorama.  I was at Ground Zero now, though - Valencia had many bookstores that would carry it.

I walked down Valencia, skirting some intense construction on the west sidewalk.  I decided to drop in at 826 Valencia, since it was the one place on the Google map that had expliclty said it would sell them for $5.  When I got there, I noticed that the door was open, but the sign said "Open Noon-6."  It was still just a bit after 11.  I stuck my head inside, and heard some voices from deep within, but nobody in the storefront.  I closed the door and kept walking.

A few doors down was one of the bookstores.  I dropped in and chatted briefly with the pleasant man inside.  "Do you carry Panorama?" I asked.  He said that they wouldn't be selling it until tomorrow, but that it was being sold on street corners.  The nearest one is "Right there," he said, pointing back up Valencia.  I thanked him and headed back.

As I continued up the block, I noticed a HUGE semi truck parked in the middle of Valencia.  This was probably legal - there's  a dedicated middle turn lane - but also very unusual, as Valencia tends to be a quieter street than Mission.  As I looked more closely, I saw the word "Printing" on the side of the truck... and several bundles being unloaded... and a team of suspiciously young-looking people in matching yellow shirts carrying parcels from the truck... success! 

They were staging on the opposite side of Valencia, so I continued up to the intersection, then crossed over and returned.  The first person I crossed was busily loading up a station wagon.  She wouldn't sell me any; she needed to deliver them to people who had already ordered.  I walked a few steps further down and spoke with a very pleasant young woman.  "Excuse me, do you know where I can buy Panorama?"  "Right here!" she said, and opened up one of the boxes.  I asked for three copies, but they were limiting people to 2 purchases each.  Hmmm - further subterfuge would be needed.

I got the copies, thanked her, and walked away.  While attempting to deposit the issues in my messenger bag, I noticed that they weren't kidding about the broadsheet size of the paper.  It's really huge and substantial.  I could fit it in without folding or creasing the paper (other than the standard half-fold you get on broadsheets), but just barely.

I walked back up Valencia, hoping that some of the previously marked spots would now be stationed with Newsys.  No such luck.  But I recalled that several spots had been indicated on Market.  At 16th street I hopped onto Bart, took it to the Civic Center, and headed out.  One yellow pushpin had been marked at Market and 7th.  Nothing there.  I continued along to the Powell Street stop.  Nothing... wait, what was that?  On the other side of Market, right next to the cable car turnaround, another set of those distinctive yellow shirts!  Success again!

I (safely) crossed the street, accosted one of the sellers, and picked up my prized third and final copy.  Although the paper is totally interchangeable, I decided for symmetry's sake that I would call this third paper "mine."  I noted with approval the irony that I, the person who worked in San Francisco, would be reading a paper acquired at one of the most notorious tourist hotspots in the city, while my midwestern siblings would be reading papers acquired in the heart of the "real" San Francisco.

I started reading the paper on the train ride home that night.  Physically, this was a little challenging - there's a reason why most commuters prefer tabloids (paper style, not necessarily content) to broadsheets, and the Panorama's extra width meant that I needed to be careful to keep the paper on my side of the seat without shoving it into the face of my neighbor.  After he disembarked, I could relax and open up the paper fully for the rest of the ride.  From a content perspective, though, I was hooked all along.  I spent the entire hour-long train ride reading just the first section, which I almost (but didn't quite) manage to finish.

In some senses, it's similar to a regular newspaper.  There's a big headline on the front trumpeting a lead story - here, an investigative journalism piece on cost overruns for the Bay Bridge.  Also on the cover is a large photo.  Here, though, the photo covers the entire front page below the masthead, which has an extremely dramatic effect with this paper size.

The same sense of familiarity tangled with change permeated this section.  The first several pages contained several news briefs of a few sentences.  They covered regular news topics, but were written in a surprisingly literary style - focusing on a particular detail that colored the event rather than drily recounting facts.  Page Two included a staple that you see all the time in the Examiner and often in other papers as well: a police beat section, with crimes from the previous days reported and shown on a map of the city.  Now, intellectually I've always known that these reports provide only a glimpse and not the whole story - it's absurd to think that only four police reports happen in a day, and that it's always exactly four.  But, I'm accustomed to always seeing one or more reports listed in the Tenderloin, with the balance mainly reported from Bayview-Hunter's Point, with a few token reports occasionally filed from other districts in the city.  This map, without making a big deal of it, included crime reports from ALL OVER the city: Nob Hill, the Richmond, etc.  There was a single report that seemed to be from the Tenderloin, and it was for a very minor offense.  Anyways - I'm sure that this police briefing was edited as well, but it really brought out the fact that edits matter, and that our perception of the city has to a large extent been shaped by the more or less arbitrary decisions made by others in explaining and reporting.

McSweeney's isn't a humor outfit, but it can be extremely funny.  Most of the first section was told straight (albeit at a high quality of writing), but a few whimsical notes crept in.  One of my favorites was a spot that reports on Police Morale.  Richmond: "Hanging in there."  Marina: "Irritated but getting over it."  You have to know the area to get it, but I found that hilarious.

Besides the news briefs, the front section included some great in-depth reporting.  Throughout the paper, it seems like a major goal of the publication is to EXPLAIN rather than REPORT.  That is, rather than just recite some facts, it tries to contextualize what is happening and why it matters.  Instead of just answering "Who," "Where," and "What," it spends at least as much time on "How" and "Why."  For example, there's a two-page section on the conflict in the Congo, which, as they write, is now the biggest war since World War II.  With large maps, diagrams, and timelines, it provides a primer on the roots of the war, who was and is involved, and the casualties of the conflict, focusing on the atrocities committed on the civilian population and the huge number of deaths indirectly caused by the war, due to the breakdown in support for treating basic and easily preventable diseases like malaria and diarrhea.

The first section closes out with a glorious and large two-page section on the sun.  That's right: science!  It talks about sunspots and solar flares and how our civilization may be doomed.  It's pretty cool.

I've just scratched the surface of Panorama.  This morning I started reading a long article on Mendocino County, which is one of the largest marijuana-growing areas in the world.  The article covers much of the same ground as an excellent New Yorker article a few months ago, but where the New Yorker mainly focused on the legality and economics of the drug trade, this one emphasizes the indirect costs: massive environmental harm, including poisoning the land, shockingly large diversions of water.  Once I finish with this, I'll still have a large magazine to read, and a sports section, and the Bay Bridge article, and a books section (including new fiction from George Saunders, yay!), and a comics section, and... well, there's a lot.  I can't wait!

This is probably part of the intention of Panorama, but I've found myself thinking about my relationship to the media in general and newspapers in specific while reading it.  Papers were a staple of my family when I was growing up.  We subscribed to the Star-Tribune in Minnesota and the Chicago Tribune in Illinois.  Like all kids everywhere, I started reading the paper to read the comics.  I think I started branching out to other sections when I was in junior high; once my interest in politics was kindled in 8th grade, I began regularly skimming the front section of the paper, looking for headlines that looked interesting (at the time, that would have been anything regarding censorship, the Bosnian conflict, the Middle East, or technology).  When I started getting interested in pop culture, I expanded beyond the comics in the Variety or Tempo section, reading movie reviews, learning about new CDs or television shows, and generally educating myself through print about the things my peers were learning about through television.

I stopped reading the paper when I went to college, though I still read it whenever I go home to visit. I actually did fine without the news for a few years.  On September 11th, I was glued to the Internet for news of what had happened, and over the next several years developed a steady habit of the New York Times and the BBC, all online.  At one point I decided that I was spending too much time chasing down stories about things that didn't affect me and that I had no hope of changing, at which point I drastically cut back my consumption again.

When I first moved to the Bay Area, I started reading the Mercury News online almost every day, and would buy a paper on Sunday.  You know how that turned out.  These days, I make the Chronicle part of my daily routine, almost entirely focusing on local Bay Area stories.  Since I started condo-hunting, I've also made a weekly habit of checking the San Mateo Daily Journal, and occasionally visit the San Mateo County Times.

News is important, but not everything that you read in a newspaper is news, and not everything newsworthy ends up in a newspaper.  The promise of the paper is that it is one of the last universal civic institutions left in our society.  We may all worship at different churches, or not worship at all.  We all listen to different music on different radio stations.  We live in a micro-targeted world, filled with niche audiences consuming niche information directed solely at them.  There's a reason it's that way - people have individual interests, and don't want to waste time on things that they don't care for or that don't matter to them.  But some things do matter to all of us: how our tax dollars are spent on public works projects, or what's happening to our water and our air, or what to do if an earthquake strikes. 

Also, newspapers are wonderful tools for lateral discovery.  When I look for news online, I already know what I'm looking for, and can quickly learn what I want.  But when I browse the news, either with a physical paper or in an online newspaper portal, I'm scanning headlines, learning about things I never would have otherwise.  I don't like in San Mateo County, and had no idea that a grand jury is looking into the salaries of civil servants.  But I have now learned this through the local papers, and if I do end up moving into the county, it will have a fairly significant impact on me.  Ignorance isn't always bliss.

I'd love to see the Panorama, or something like it, come out every day or week.  I don't think I, or anyone, would pay $5 an issue for it each time.  I would start reading it online, and if it wasn't online, I wouldn't read it.  Panorama is doing a great job at reminding us why newspapers are important and what they can do that other forms of media cannot.  I really hope that it has a net positive effect on the industry, not just financially by showing how to sell more papers, but in mission, helping papers focus and do a really good job.  If so, December 8th may emerge as a minor milestone in media history.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Shimbashi! Shimbashi!

And now, from the same person who recommended The Rule of Four, comes Shibumi!

It's an interesting book... not my normal genre, but I do enjoy a good spy action story as much as the next guy.  That said, one of the oddest things about Shibumi is how little action there is.  The vast majority of the novel is spent building up just how awesome this one particular agent/assassin guy is, but virtually everything violent takes place offstage.  I think this is deliberate: the name of the novel, Shibumi, is also the main character's primary purpose in life: as described in this book, shibumi is a kind of simplicity, a stripping away of life's noise and focus on the important things of life.


The novel does jump around quite a bit.  It starts off as a spy story, becomes a character study, spends some time as a World War II novel, and contains an extremely long segment on cave exploration.  I imagine that this is largely disappointing to people who are mainly looking for a James Bond-style yarn; personally, I enjoy the variety in the prose.

The characters are pretty interesting, although it's painfully obvious that this book was written in the 1970's.  I cringed at the strong racist generalizations that are made throughout the whole book, and at the in-your-face sexist attitude towards women.  You can partially apologize for the racism because the targets are so varied: he does criticize the French and Russians and British, but also the Americans and Spanish and Basque.  Still, the descriptions of Arabs and Palestinians are particularly crude and offensive... it goes beyond the more rote criticisms of "Americans are immature and materialistic, the French are snotty, the British make bad food."

The cultures that largely escape criticism are Japanese and, to a lesser extent, Chinese.  The Basque get plenty of criticism but are also among the only group that receives specific praise.  He's largely silent on Israel, though the few comments he does make seem complimentary, especially in comparison to the vitriol directed at its Arab neighbors.

The main character, Nicholai Hel, only appears a few chapters into the book, but swiftly takes over and dominates the story.  He's pretty awesome - a bit too awesome, to be honest.  Trevanian seems to spend the whole book describing all the ways in which Hel is more amazing than anyone else, and the character feels really overstuffed as a result: the ultimate assassin, and one of the only mystics in the world, who is also fluent in six languages, and has an incredibly refined palette, and is one of the most effective lovers in the world, and on and on... characters need flaws, and Trevanian seems extremely reluctant to assign any to his chosen hero.


All my complaints aside, though, this book is quite enjoyable to read.  Despite the lack of action, the book moves quickly, with a nice mix of mystery and surprise plot developments to keep your interest.  I can't get behind the author's worldview, but from a storytelling point of view, he does a fine job of writing a fun tale that expands beyond its genre borders.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dragon Youth

Well, I've been having a blast with Dragon Age.  It has utterly taken over my leisure time, and very pleasantly so.  For the last couple of weekends, nearly every minute that was not spent hiking, eating, or sleeping was devoted to Dragon Age.  It's been a long time since a game has sucked me in this much, and I'm loving the experience.

Before I get to the juicy stuff, let me get a few complaints off my chest.

* Bizarre server integration.  DA is a single-player game, but it uses DRM with the server to authenticate your right to use "premium content."  As a result, if you try to load a saved game before it has authenticated you, it will deny you permission.  What's much worse is that the game regularly phones home as you play the game, uploading your progress so your friends on the social site can keep track of what you're doing.  Except, if you have a spotty Internet connection (as I apparently do, though I hadn't noticed any real problems before now), you get annoying modal pop-ups saying "Unable to connect to Dragon Age server."  Which is incredibly aggravating.  It persists even if you disable all the available options for uploading data.  This is my number-one request for the next patch.
* The economy feels broken.  It isn't nearly as aggravating as, say, Morrowind, where my main complaint was that no merchant in the world had enough money to buy the best stuff you found.  My main complaint here is the extreme discount on selling stuff back to merchants.  There is a twenty-five-years-old tradition in fantasy RPGs of being able to buy weapons and armor (or whatever), use them until you find or buy better equipment, and then sell the originals back.  Traditionally you earn between one-half and one-quarter of the original purchase price; you don't make money on selling stuff back, but it's a reasonable investment.  In DA, you're basically getting pennies on the dollar.  As a result, there's no incentive to buy any equipment... it has a limited lifespan, and will be useless once you get the next tier, which will probably happen soon.  After discussing with Andrew, I adopted his strategy of only buying gifts, potions, and skill/talent books from merchants.  I also really like Andrew's suggested improvement, which is simply to add a new set of skills or talents for bargaining; alternately, have your Coercion affect bargaining, or your Cunning.  Someone with all four ranks and a Cunning of 100 could sell items back at full price; someone with no ranks and 10 cunning would get today's crummy rates.  This would take only a minor tweak in the game code, and lead to a far more satisfying and interesting economy.
* In general, the Journal and Codex are extremely useful and well-written.  However, at least once I've been in a quest which did not update the Journal when I got a crucial new piece of information.  That wouldn't be so horrible, except that I currently have at least 30 open sidequests, and am actively working on a dozen or so of them at any given time.  I spent about an hour wandering around Orzamar looking for Faryn before realizing that (1) he wasn't actually in Orzamar after all, and (2) I had spoken with him last week, when he told me that I needed to go to Redcliffe to continue the quest.  Gah!  I suppose it's a sign of how good the Journal usually is that I hadn't considered that it wasn't accurate here.

And... that's about it!  On to the good.  First, the system.

Overall control in combat feels almost exactly like Baldur's Gate.  This is a Very Good Thing.  You pause the whole game by pressing the spacebar, and then can study the battlefield and decide on tactics.  You can control each individual party member, but it's also easy to select everyone and issue the same order; for low-level fights, I usually just grab everyone and instruct them to attack some poor sap, then repeat with the next villain in line.  Combat is incredibly satisfying.  Everyone can learn various special moves, which are basically equivalent to feats from D&D 3rd edition.  My rogue can hit someone below the belt, which slows them down and causes them to take more damage.  An archer can shoot someone in the foot, which traps them in place for a while so they cannot move.  Someone with a two-handed weapon can activate various modes, like Indomitable or Powerful Swings, that change their overall performance in battle, like increasing their strength and making them impossible to knock down, but making them more vulnerable to damage.  For most standard fights, you won't bother with these special moves, but on tricky boss fights or ones in unusual situations, you'll need to carefully consider how you operate.  For example, I was recently ambushed on a forest road.  There were archers to the left, on a raised hill across a ravine, and some fighters and dogs on the path ahead.  I ordinarily rush enemies with my melee fighters, surrounding them with three attackers while my mage casts spells on them from the rear.  In this case, though, there was no room to maneuver on the path, Instead, I sent my strongest guy ahead to block the bath and tackle the enemies one-on-one.  Meanwhile, my other two melee fighters switched from swords or daggers to bows and arrows.  None of them are specifically trained in archery, but they're good enough at it.  So my newly minted archers and my mage concentrated their fire on the archers atop the hill while my main fighter kept them safe.  It was unconventional, and the fact that it was unconventional made it even more satisfying.  No two fights are exactly alike, even if you're always fighting with the same team.

I do have to confess one guilt: I'm not sure whether this is a shortcoming of me or of the game, but I have come to follow a standard strategy when I face a fight that seems too hard.  First, some background: I have a team that's extremely effective when facing an opponent, even a very strong one, but because I don't have area-of-effect attacks, we can get overwhelmed by a large number of weaker enemies.  When I get into this situation, then, I try to even the odds.  My main character is a rogue who has high levels of stealth.  He'll sneak ahead until he finds the next set of enemies, and get a feel for their numbers.  If it's reasonable, he'll position himself behind the strongest spellcaster or fighter in the group; then, the rest of the party will charge in, and when the enemies start attacking them, he'll backstab like mad.  On the other hand, if there are just too many enemies, then he'll head back towards the party, and then, once only a couple of enemies are still in sight, he'll reveal himself.  This will attract a couple of enemies to chase after him; he'll run back to the rest of the party, and then we'll have a good old-fashioned slaughter.  Repeat as necessary.  Again, it feels cheap, and I'm sure a lot of people would hate to play this way, but I'd rather do something sneaky like this than drop to an easier difficulty level.

And actually, now that I think about it, I learned this tactic at the hands of the game.  Relatively early on in the story, you and three other fighters are exploring a woods.  You run across an enemy spellcaster standing on a bridge who casts hostile magic at you.  One of the first lessons you'll learn in DA is to focus on enemy mages first: they are weak, so they go down fairly easily, and more importantly, they can do more damage and cause more grief than almost anyone else.  So we all rushed him, at which point he turned tail and ran.  We chased after him.  BAM!  The land beyond the bridge was filled with traps.  Party members took damage and were stuck in place.  Dozens of previously invisible enemies were lying in wait, and others had emerged from stealth on the bridge behind us, effectively blocking our retreat.  I lost that battle.  I re-loaded the game; next time, I fought the mage with ranged attacks, and then, when he fled, only advanced very cautiously.  At each stage we attacked the visible opponents with archery attacks.  Once we had clear cover, my rogue disarmed all the traps, and then we could finally advance forward and finish off the mage and the rest of the enemies.  All that to say, I learned well how devastating it could be to lead others into an ambush, and so maybe I needn't feel guilty of trying it myself.

I was initially disappointed at the party size; Baldur's Gate allowed you to have a party of six, and even then I thought that I could have enjoyed controlling one or two more.  Four is definitely smaller than six, but it's a good number.  From what I've heard, there are a lot of viable strategies to use when forming your party, depending on who you want to adventure with and what style of combat you prefer.  My stock party is led by my rogue, who has some skill with two-handed weapons but mainly specializes in the softer skills (coercion, stealing, stealth, lockpicking, trap detection, etc.).  He is backed up by two solid fighters: one is a very powerful two-handed-weapon specialist who can deal incredibly damage; the other is also a strong fighter, but favors using a shield, and as a result acts as a bit of a damage magnet.  (My rogue has only about half as much health as either fighter, but he almost never dies, because they are so good at absorbing enemy attention and attacks).  One simple but very enjoyable aspect of battle mechanics is backstabbing.  If you position your rogue behind an enemy, every attack that he lands will count as a backstab, which does much more damage than usual.  Because enemies tend to focus on the hulking, scary warriors swinging swords in their faces, it's simple to send my tiny little dwarf behind them where he can rapidly prick them full of holes with his two enchanted daggers.  My fourth party member is a mage.  She initially specialized in offensive ice-based magic, but became far more useful once she learned the Heal spell.  She's now a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, and shifts her role more often than any other party member, based on the ebb and flow of the battle.  Most of the time she is using ranged magical attacks on whichever enemy we're facing.  When someone starts falling in health, she'll pump them up.  She uses targeted ice attacks on particularly tough enemies.  When we're surrounded by a crowd of enemies, she'll use Mind Blast to try and incapacitate a large number of them.  If she's stuck facing a bunch of enemies at once, she'll break out Cone of Cold to freeze them in place.

One tricky thing about DA, as with D&D, is that many of the best magical attacks can also hurt your party members.  This goes both ways, of course: I've faced several enemy mages who've wiped out their own low-level opponents with an inopportune fireball.  As a result, I've stayed away from some of the more impressive offensive magic, because it isn't compatible with my hands-on melee style.  That said, I've heard that some people have extremely successful parties that consist of three mages and one warrior.  The warrior only exists to draw attention away from the mages, while the mages can use their powerful area-of-effect magic to wipe the field clean.  (I haven't tried this myself, but I think the best deal would be to, say, give your warrior all the fire resistant armor and charms that you can find, and then use fireballs with impunity.)  Some people have even been able to fit two rogues into the party, by making one a two-weapon melee fighter, and having the other specialize in archery.  The point is: four people actually works.

I think the biggest reason WHY it works is because of the Camp.  In Baldur's Gate, if you dismissed someone from your party, they were out.  You might be able to get them back later, if you went to their home or whatever, but until you did they wouldn't be involved in any of the action.  In DA, though, you are conceptually traveling with all of your followers all of the time.  Whenever you want, you can make camp (outside a city, in the wilderness, wherever) and see everyone.  This is a great time to talk with people, give them gifts, pursue romantic entanglements, whatever you fancy.  In a particularly brilliant stroke, Bioware set it up so early in the game you encounter some merchants who decide to travel with you; therefore, no matter where you are, you always have someone who can buy all of your loot.  (My only criticism here: the camp merchants' items, and particularly their health poultices, really should regenerate.)

Anyways!  You can still kick people out of your party if you want, but by letting you travel with more than four people, Bioware has avoided the most agonizing aspect of the old BG system.  I was always worried that, by not taking a certain follower, I'd be missing out on an especially cool quest.  Now, even if you generally don't take someone in your party while you go to battle or go shopping, you still can talk with them, learn their story, and maybe get to go on a quest or two for them.

That being said, there are definitely certain situations where having someone in your four-person party affects the plot of the game.  Some scenes will only be triggered if a certain member is in your party.  Often, when you're talking with an NPC, that NPC will interact with other party members, but if they aren't in your active party, you'll never see that interaction.  One of the most dramatic things that happens, though, is that party members will comment on your choices, and their opinion of you will grow or diminish based on your decisions.  This can make organizing a party especially tricky.  I mentioned before that I travel with two warriors and a mage.  Well, one of the warriors is basically a Lawful Good type; the other is either Lawful Neutral or Lawful Evil; and the mage is probably Chaotic Neutral or Chaotic Evil.  Needless to say, they don't always see eye-to-eye.  If one of them approves of a decision, I can expect others to disapprove.  Therefore, I've gotten into the habit of switching to an alternate party when I move into a city or other area that I expect to contain a high level of personal interaction and a low level of combat; even though these people aren't effective fighters, they're far more likely to agree with one another and myself, and so I don't need to worry about triggering unnecessary disapproval.  Which may seem cheap, but hey, maybe not.  After all, in Firefly, Mal would take Jayne and Zoe with him when he had to deal with some violent back-stabbing smugglers, but he would take Wash and Kaylee when he went shopping.  I'm basically doing the same thing here.

Conversations in general are - wow.  Just really, really well done.  I have spent an hour at a time in camp, just talking with all of my various followers, learning what makes them tick, trying to impress them with my empathy, picking the perfect tokens of my affection for them.  (In case you're curious, this is totally unnecessary - if you wanted to, you could beat the whole game just by yourself, and kick everyone else out of your party.  It wouldn't be nearly as much fun, though.  And, you don't have to make your party members like you, but if you do, (1) they're more likely to share interesting quests and such with you, and (2) they may be inspired by your leadership and become more effective at their tasks.)  I've gotten in the habit of saving before I start any significant conversation.  Most of the time it goes well, but in case disaster strikes, I can always quick-load and try it again.  The conversations are very well-written, interesting, and meaningful.  At various places in the conversation you are prompted to ask a question, add a comment, or respond to your interlocutor.  There's always a good variety of options available here, and I almost never feel like I don't want any of them.  You can be humble or proud, honest or deceitful, amorous or cold, brave or cowardly, fun-loving or boring, nostalgic or practical... I think that my initial post had mentioned that I was curious how morality would play out in this game.  Well, it's almost entirely done within the conversations, and it's an incredibly broad range, far more multidimensional than the old Law/Chaos/Good/Evil choices.  And I'm impressed to see that the game doesn't try to reduce you down to a particular moral description.  Instead of your character having some sort of absolute moral position, your morality really exists as reflected in the opinions of your companions.  Each will judge you on their own moral system, and depending on how consistently you behave, different people may have very different perceptions of you.

The end result: I don't feel like I'm confined to playing out a particular role, either a role that was assigned to me or one that I chose.  Instead, I can improvise, really finding the best expression of my character's personality through the multitude of moral choices I receive.  In doing so, I don't need to worry that, say, I'll lose my Templar abilities if I stray from the path of Lawful Good, or that I'll lose my Druid position if I abandon the cause of Neutrality.  I can make the choices I want.  That said, there are still consequences: primarily in the opinions of those you travel with, but also in how the world itself is affected by your decisions.


So: my main character, Seberin, is a rogue.  I mentioned in my previous post that I tend to play RPG rogues as a sort of mixture between Silk and Shadowspawn.  I'm finding that I have more choice and more personality in this game than I've been able to play with before.  I'm playing the character that I find most fun to play, not the character that necessarily aligns best with a power-gaming strategy.

Seberin exhibits what the movie Grosse Pointe Blank described as "a certain moral flexibility."  He lies, he connives, he schemes, he steals, he cheats.  However (and any interesting character needs to have a "however"), he does all of this in the ultimate service of good.  He likes his family, cares for the people close to him, and wants to keep the land safe from the darkspawn.  However, if he can get fabulously wealthy while he does this, well, so much the better!

Two recent scenarios gave me a ton of freedom to explore this personality, and I absolutely loved how both of them played out.  I'd be very curious to try again with another character and another set of morals, and see how they would end differently.

First, on a quest for the Urn of Sacred Ashes (mini-spoilers ahead, no biggies), I fought through a long dungeon, and finally met the Big Bad Guy.  He gave a Big Bad Guy speech, and then appeared to change his mind, and ask if I wanted to make a deal.  I ALWAYS am ready to make a deal - even if I don't think I'll take it, I always want to hear the other person out, and see if there's some other advantage I can take.  This guy (I think his name is "Kolgrim," though I may be confusing names here) wanted to enlist my help in destroying the Urn of Sacred Ashes.  This would be a Bad Thing.  I said, "Yes!"  Not because I wanted to do it, but because I wanted to see how far along I could push this thing.  Kolgrim became more chatty, and I learned more about his belief system and what he wanted me to do.  Alistair freaked; I have really high Coercion, so I talked him down and persuaded him that I knew what I was doing.  Morrigan was pleased at the idea of tweaking the Chantry.  Sten was predictably stoic.

We emerged on a mountaintop.  Kolgrim got me past a particularly difficult-looking obstacle, and then showed me the way to the Urn.  On my first play-through, here I attacked Kolgrim and his followers.  They were a smaller crew than in the dungeon, but I still got my tail whipped: Kolgrim, plus a mage, plus a large drake, plus several Reavers, all amounted to an impressive and deadly force.  After a few tries, I figured, "Well, maybe I WON'T attack Kolgrim."  I went ahead, and did some more stuff to finish the quest for the Urn.  At the end, I had the choice of whether to destroy the Urn.  I chose not to - after all, I'm basically a good guy, and not interested in promoting the aims of a demonic cult that murders innocents.  I emerged from the urn, and found Kolgrim, who predictably had a fit.  Screaming in rage, he threw himself at me.  He, and two other Reavers.  No mage.  No drake.  This was a far, far better fight.  By practicing deceit and treachery, I had managed to complete my virtuous quest.  Huzzah!

I'm reminded, incidentally, of my Masterpieces of Western Lit class in college.  We did a few chapters of the Old Testament here - it wasn't as thorough a treatment as I would later tackle in The Bible as Literature, but still quite interesting.  One of the things we talked about a lot was the meaning behind the Old Testament (er, sorry - I meant Hebrew Bible - old habits die hard) stories.  Not in the Sunday School sense of spiritual lessons, but in a sociological sense: what were the virtues that this particular tribe promoted in, say, the story of Jacob and Esau?  Well, seen from a historic and sociological perspective, this story is basically about overturning the laws of primogeniture: an underlying moral is that, rather than automatically granting all of a family's wealth and power to the son who happened to be born first, it is better if the son who is more cunning and clever to take the fortune.  This flew in the face of Mesopotamian culture, but proved to be an incredibly helpful lesson: by rewarding the brightest and cleverest of their tribe, the Hebrews managed to establish a respectable kingdom even in the midst of neighbors who were far larger and more powerful than themselves.

Anyways, I found myself thinking of that... in the Bible story, Jacob is tricky and deceitful when he takes Esau's birthright from him.   But, is he really "bad"?  It's hard to say that he is... after all, it is Jacob and not Esau who fulfills Abraham's promise and founds the great nation.  To be sure, you can make plenty of arguments that he shouldn't have done this, but just reading within the text itself, you can definitely see this kind of trickery promoted as a virtue.  That's the kind of feel that I'm getting for Seberin: he uses amoral means to achieve moral ends.

MEGA SPOILERS (but only if you intend to play The Stone Prisoner)

The second incident came during my quest for Shale.  At the end of a dungeon, I met up with a runaway girl who was talking with a cat.  The cat was talking back.  It was quickly obvious that this cat was actually the demon who had been imprisoned by the mage who used to live here.

The girl is mesmerized by the cat, and won't leave with you.  The cat smugly tells you that it intends to possess her.  But, it must escape from the wards on its prison.  You are given the standard conversation options: denounce the demon and attack it, or acquiesce to its wishes, or attempt to bargain with it.  I did the latter, and then chose an option that allowed me to lie to demon, promising it freedom.  I then got to solve a cute little puzzle.  Once the puzzle was complete, the demon was freed, the girl got scared... and THEN I attacked.  By stringing the demon along, I had gathered more information, lulled it into a false sense of security, and still managed to be a hero and save the day.

This kind of stuff is FUN!


It's probably also a testament to the verity of this game that I thought long and hard about my options for romance.  Bioware first introduced romance in BG2, and the effect was amazing - you had three potential romantic partners (if you were playing a male, that is; I think there was just one option if you were a woman), and incredibly rich and complicated plots that would carry you along the path from acquaintance to companion to friend to lover.  There's been a lot of excitement about romance within DA, and long before the game was released there was a lot of chatter about which partners different people preferred.

Like your party itself, romance is purely optional - it improves your relationship with a particular party member, of course, but it's the sort of thing that you'd do for fun rather than an in-game advantage... with Bioware's excellent writing (and, yes, some interesting game-engine cut scenes), this aspect of the game is uniquely interesting, something fun to do other than cutting up Darkspawn.

Earlier this week, I was tempted to place the following status update on Facebook: "Christopher got to first base with Leliana."  Then I thought I'd modify it by appending, "Is it weird that today's RPGs require more planning and strategy when you woo a woman than they require for assaulting the Dark Lord's fortress?"  Then I decided the whole thing was too wordy, and revealed more of my nerdiness than I really wanted to, and let it go.

As far as I can tell, you have two potential female partners, Morrigan and Leliana.  (There are also gay and/or bi options.)  This put me in an immediate quandary: I wanted, I needed Morrigan to be in my party, but I was much more interested in pursuing Leliana in a romance.  (She's cuter, and sweeter, and more interesting... sort of a Joan of Arc figure, if Joan was a minstrel assassin and spy.)  Still, I had no use for putting Leliana in my party.  She's a rogue, and Seberin was all the rogue that I needed, having already eclipsed her in the theft department.  Since I intended to specialize as a Bard as soon as I could, she was even more useless than Zevram (sp) would later be.  Still, it all worked out well.  I took Morrigan whenever I travelled between areas or while in a hostile location, and I took Leliana everywhere else.  Everything went along swimmingly: I raised bother members' opinion of Seberin considerably, started the romance plot line with Leliana, and toasted my success.

And then I messed up.  Morrigan had been romantically interested in Seberin for a while, although he never pursued anything with her, having learned the hard way that she doesn't react well to any mention of "love."  After one night of indiscretion, though (hey, keep in mind that Seberin is deceitful and greedy), she decided to lay claim to him herself.  Now, I'm afraid to talk to either of them, because both will demand that I break off with the other woman, which wouldn't be so bad, except that I'd need to break up with Morrigan, and that would result in a -30 or so opinion drop.  Hence a loss in her effectiveness as my one and only spellcaster.  Sigh.  Video games were complicated enough already without bringing in romantic entanglements.  (I'm secretly loving it.  I'm also going to wait until someone reverse-engineers the developer console so I can modify my game and reset a flag so I can pretend that Morrigan and Seberin are still just friends.  I fear that this game is teaching me lessons that should not be applied to real life...)


I realize I've just barely scratched the surface of the story.  Honestly, I think there's just too much of it to try and deal with now.  Again, there are an absurd number of side-quests and whatnot going on, all of which feeds the feeling that Faerun is a living, breathing world.  I may try and summarize the plot at a later point, but I definitely won't be able to recall every nuance.

I'm already thoroughly intrigued by the world that Bioware has created here.  Even though this entire game takes place within a single nation, just my conversations with foreigners within my party has intrigued me about settings for future games.  The buzz around DA has been very positive, and my own experiences have been entirely great, so I hope that we'll get to continue exploring this rich land.

The House of the Rising Stag

The House of the Stag is one of the most original fantasy novels that I've read in years.  It contains some pretty standard tropes, like magic and quests and curses and castles, but more so than any other modern novel I can think of, it directly explores the space between modern fantasy and its cultural predecessors: myths, fables, and religion.  HotS is a fantasy novel that manages to feel like something entirely different, and because of that is completely charming and fascinating.


One of the things I liked best about this book was how it shifts literary style throughout the novel.  It doesn't slip around in an ad-hoc manner; rather, each section picks a unique idiom, and then sticks with that voice throughout.

The prologue essentially narrates a series of hieroglyphs.  We learn the story of a peaceful tribe that lived in a valley; how they were attacked and enslaved by ferocious horsemen; how a prophet arrived to provide hope to the people; and how two brothers followed different paths to stop the horsemen, and the tragic ends reached by each one.  Everything here is very simply and very powerful, such as the utter evil of the riders or the pure determination of Gard.

The first long section is framed by a series of bureaucratic records.  These describe Gard's life as a slave, denoting the moments when he was reassigned to different duties or assigned to a master.  The bulk of the story is told in conventional third-person limited omniscient narration, allowing us access to Gard's perspective as he puzzles out the system that holds him captive.

Now, you can read this part in a straight-forward manner, and get a kick out of a great story.  This may have been my favorite section of the book, and it's fun to cheer for Gard in his quest.  However, it's fascinating to think of this story as something that has been reconstructed.  In the prologue, you can imagine someone seeing those cave drawings, and then inventing a story to explain them.  Similarly, in the first chapter, you can imagine someone stumbling across the slave record book, noticing the unusual assignments given to Slave 4372301, and then constructing a narrative that would connect those dots and tell a story.  This is a pattern that repeats throughout the book: small, rather direct data points string throughout a chapter, and a much richer and more interesting story grows up around them.

The next, much shorter chapter shifts into a first-person narration.  Here we learn first-hand the story of how the Prophet's prediction of a savior child was proven true, how that child led the people to freedom, and what happened to the people on the other side of the mountains.  Here, it's pretty impossible to not think of religious stories when reading about the events.  There are obvious parallels to Christianity - you have a prophet, a message of peace, deliverance from a land of oppression, a pure child with no father (or, in this telling, mother) who offers salvation.  Now, I don't think that this is meant to be a satire of Christianity - it's far too respectful for that.  It's kind of a sly subversion in some ways, particularly as the story progresses.  Mostly, I think what the author is enjoying most here is seeing how real events get turned into stories.  I mean, if you were to, say, travel back in time and follow around John the Baptist for his career, you would see far more of him than is captured in the Bible.  He must have said thousands of things, encountered tens of thousands of people, lived an incredibly rich and varied life.  We don't see all of that, though: all that is left to us of John the Baptist are a few chapters in the New Testament.  So: what was the point at which the physical reality of the person of John the Baptist transmuted into the prosodic snapshot of him that we see in the Bible?  What was the result of that transformation?  Did people who knew John argue about the meaning of his statements?  Did they dispute which Gospels reflected him more or less accurately?  In the course of House of the Stag, you can witness that kind of process taking place, and it's fascinating to watch.


After this, we return to Gard's story, which once again is a third-person limited omniscient narration framed with an external set of data points.  Except here, those data points aren't primary source material: instead, Gard's story here is presented as a play.  The curtain rises, actors stride upon the stage, and the audience listens raptly to learn of the Master of the Mountain.  The body of this story also focuses upon the theater in a variety of ways.  Gard now lives in a state of freedom and exile, and must disguise himself in order to survive.  He learns how to speak and act like the Children of the Sun.  Later, he learns how to actually act - he joins a theatrical company and auditions for the role of the hero.  He is a great success.  Then he falls into the role of the Dark Lord.  He is an even greater success.

This is, of course, SO meta.  Gard is a perfect antihero, and is both the hero (brave, determined, faithful to friends, liberator) and the villain (demon, tricky, deceitful, violent) throughout the book.  We can already sense much of this tension by this point in the book, and the play doesn't just reflect Gard's person, it also predicts what will happen for the rest of the book.

I think that this was the first part of the story where humor started to creep in.  I'd enjoyed the book up until now, but this is the first time I remember actually chuckling at some of it.  It isn't in-your-face funny, like Terry Pratchett.  It's just... really meta, really knowing, really wry.  Gard himself can be pretty funny, and grows more so when he starts making friends and finds love.

Speaking of which: once the curtain falls on this chapter, the next one moves us back towards the Yendri.  Now the story focuses on the Child, who has now grown into a woman and, in the absence of the Prophet, become the leader of the people.  The framing device here is a historical record: some monks, presumably many generations in the future, have collected what is essentially a Gospel.  This tells the story of the people, but is one step removed from the primary sources: we aren't hearing directly from the Child, or one of the disciples, but rather from someone who has heard the stories of what happened there, probably soon after the events occurred, and put together this narrative.  Once again, we're in pretty fascinating postmodern territory here.  The end of this chapter is particularly great, as it describes how the handwriting of this account changes towards the end, abruptly shifting tone.  That reminds me of, say, the end of the Book of Mark, which had a section added to the very end after its earliest version was written.

The religious parallels are back here and stronger than before.  If the first part of the Child's story was Old Testament in tone - prophecy, deliverance, the promised land - this section is pure New Testament, and more specifically, smack dab in the epistles.  As the people grow in number and gradually scatter, dissension arises among the disciples.  All claim to love and obey the Child, but each has their own ideas about how to organize themselves, whether to arm themselves, how to deal with other tribes, whether to trade, whether to profit.  The Child speaks with them, but after a while is compelled to begin writing letters to express her teachings to her far-flung followers.  It's impossible to avoid thinking of Paul's exhortations here.  Even the subject matter is often the same: scolding people for quarreling with one another, reminding them of what is important, urging them to stay focused on important spiritual matters and not grow distracted by the world's temptations.

That said, this is one of the parts where there might be a little satire taking place.  I'm not sure if I can really talk about the "faith" or the religion of the Yendri.  It's mainly devotion to the Child, who in turn promotes uplifting teachings: kindness to one another, love of beauty, and so on.  Of course, many people will say that there wasn't a religion of Christianity while Christ was alive; the religion only came after He left, and His followers were left to argue over His teachings amongst themselves.  In this view, we can see the Yendri "faith" as something that is being born within the book, that will later be codified and become a mystical, religious following, rather than responding to the person right before them.

Anyways: the satire.  One way in which the Child is the polar opposite of Paul is when it comes to the nature of the world's temptations.  Paul famously wrote that it would be better if all were like him (i.e., celibate), and to this day many people struggle over how to interpret his writings on the status of women within the church.  In contrast, The Prophet in this book is serially UNcelibate, joyfully sleeping with any of his female disciples who wish it.  The Child is a reluctant virgin, but she rejects the teachings of her disciples who argue that men should remain apart from women.

So.  Lots of interesting religious parallels going on.

The final section of the book finally brings together all the plot threads throughout the book: The Blessed Child, Cursed Gard, the mages of the mountain, the armies of the Children of the Sun, hordes of demons, the Trevani.  Everything comes together, and - it all works.  It all clicks.  It has the excitement and drama of a modern fantasy novel, but by this point it has earned much of the depth and weight that we tend to attach to older and more traditional literary styles.  And it's funny, too.  You can almost imagine a situational comedy focusing on the grumpy Dark Lord in a skull-adorned castle, and his clever wife who tries to make things better.

I really don't want to give anything away, even in a mega spoilers block, but I was thoroughly impressed by the sheer storytelling prowess on display.  I don't think there was a wasted scene anywhere: everything serves to heighten the drama, to entertain us, to propel the story towards its inevitable conclusion while keeping the nature of that conclusion shrouded from sight.


In case you can't tell yet, I really, really liked this book.  I hadn't even heard of Kage Baker before Scott tossed me a reference to this book (thanks, Scott!), and now I'm smitten.  From the little that I've heard, it sounds like her first fantasy book was quite a bit different from this one.  I'll still check it out at some point.  Now that Baker has written The House of the Stag, I kind of doubt that anyone else will try to cover this same ground; she's done such a great job of playing with the forms, content, and style of non-literary fantasy that it would be almost impossible to top her.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spectral Corpse

"Ghost in the Shell" was one of the first anime I ever saw.  Years later, in Kansas City, I read the manga and watched the sequel, Innocence.  It's a cool series, and I really dig the themes, atmosphere, humor, and action.  The overall thrust of the series' premise and moral challenge is embedded within the title.  "Ghost" refers to whatever it is that makes us human - our spirit, if you will, the part that gives us autonomy, intuition, desire.  "Shell" is our physical representation in the world - out body, but in the future of GitS, the shell is almost always augmented with mechanical devices.  And not only that: almost everyone in this world has "cyberized" brains: implants that allow people to see marked-up views of the world, communicate "telepathically" with others, remotely access data, and otherwise act like a giant Internet line into your mind.

Of course, that's one of the really cool things about GitS; the original story was written after the Internet but before the Web, and is really forward-looking.  Through its multiple iterations over the years, the stories from the manga have been further updated, keeping that eery sense of "oooh, that could totally happen."

I've been aware of the Stand-Alone Complex for quite a while, but just now started watching it.  Somewhere along the line I'd heard that it wasn't very good, and I have a long-standing policy of not wasting time on anime that isn't great.  I don't remember where I heard that criticism, though, and more recently have received positive recommendations, so I decided to go for it.

I'm glad that I did!  No, this isn't "Death Note," but it is one of the better anime series that I have seen for a while.  It maintains the things I liked best about the original movie, while finally reflecting the strengths of the longer-form manga.  Much like contemporary American drama shows, it demands a lot from its viewers, and rewards them with a really complex story that builds on itself, establishes long plot arcs, and really fleshes out the characters and their relationships.

The movies focused on Major Motoko Kusanagi and Batou, and with good reason; they're the two most striking members of Section Nine.  However, the entire squad is talented and enjoyable, and I loved seeing them fleshed out more.  The best improvements in the series are the Old Man and Ishikawa.  Both were in the movies, but stayed mostly in the background.  The Old Man gets about as much screen time here as the Major and Batou, and we actually get a chance to dig into his mind a little bit.  Ishikawa is still usually background, but a really entertaining and interesting background.  He reminds me of someone particular who I worked with: extremely competent, calm, intelligent, with a dry sense of humor and an impressive beard.


The first GitS movie spliced together a couple of stories from the first manga.  The second GitS movie was kind of interesting; it took stories from the first manga that had occurred before the original stories, but set them after it chronologically; it worked, but was definitely out of sequence. 

Here, I think most of the SAC stories were new.  There are still plenty of things taken from the manga.  I enjoyed seeing the tachikoma, and especially the short segments at the end of each episode, which perfectly captured the spirit of the tachikoma doodles that used to be included as the very end of manga issues.  There are some other artistic things borrowed from the manga, such as the director of a medical equipment company who has put himself into a bizarre-looking small box with legs and wheels.  In the manga, that director becomes the major focus of a story; here, he's more of an amusing plot device in connection with another story

Anyways.  This is a full series, and has a lot of nifty one-off episodes.  The overall arc, though, deals with a cyber-criminal known as The Laughing Man.  The thread is introduced a little way into the series, fades away, is hinted at, leads to a major incident at the half-season mark, burns away for a while longer, and then leads to the finale.  It's really fascinating to see everyone process through the problem, which is almost fully incomprehensible and yet irresistible.

It also does a good job of getting back to the main point of GitS, which is the tension between man and machine, and, more specifically, trying to identify just what makes us human.  If a robot can think and act on its own, does it have a soul?  Should it have rights?  What if it developed a sense of humor?  What if it gained the capacity to disobey its owner?  At the opposite extreme, if your brain is moved to another body, do "you" still exist?  Are you still the same person?  What if someone cloned you?  What if they cloned you and copied your memories?

The Laughing Man is the ultimate hacker in a world where computers reach everywhere and everything.  The coolest, creepiest moments of the show come when someone encounters The Laughing Man in real life, physically standing next to him, only to have him suddenly vanish, or an icon display over his face.  The Laughing Man exploits the connectedness of everyone, rewriting the reality within others' brains.  It's chilling, but at the same time, it's the cost people pay for having accepted the benefits of cybrid brain technology.

It isn't all tech, though.   You gradually learn that The Laughing Man's crusade is more about the political and economic structures of Japan.  He's the ultimate avatar of technology, but he draws his inspiration from J. D. Salinger.  Another benefit of the longer form of this anime series is that you really get a feel for the bureaucracy that Section Nine operates within (or, more accurately, outside of) and the politics that drive policy.  It's all nicely complex and intriguing, and feels thoroughly realistic.  I might even go so far as to say topical - I don't follow Japanese government all that closely, but I do know that collusion between government, civil service, and business is built into the system.  Some moments of SAC felt like particularly pointed satire, or the vented frustration of someone fed up with the status quo.


Oh, I almost forgot to write about the art!  It's really, really pretty.  The opening sequence is particularly gorgeous and lush; I suspect that it's the same studio that made Advent Children, because it has that same level of photorealism, down to amazing hair and lighting.  The body of the episode doesn't have that same level of production, but still looks really good.  It's all computer-generated, and has a really smooth, clean look throughout.  The cars in particular show really well.  There's plenty of good movement throughout; I think anime has finally broken out from the meme of "hold a single image in the frame for as long as we can get away with it."  The action scenes are extremely well-done, with great kinetic energy that still lets you see everything.  And the characters... I suppose we can't give too much credit for character design, since they're faithful to the precedent in the manga, but the execution is excellent.

Stand Alone Complex is a different beast from the earlier movies and manga, but it keeps the coolest aspects of the characters and themes, and provides a really interesting and complex new plot.  There's a great blend of thought-provoking speculative fiction with fun action scenes and random bits of silliness.  Stand Alone Complex wears its mantle very well.