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Book Listening

I’ve been a huge Trevor Noah fan since he showed up on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and started ragging on misconceptions of contemporary Africa by comparing it to the rural US. I found his stand-up special, African American, on Netflix and was delighted to hear him cracking jokes about growing up mixed. Though mine was in no way identical, there was enough familiarity there to really connect. Also, he’s funny. So I was one of the five people who was really keen on him taking over The Daily Show and I also got a chance to see him live last fall in New York when he taped his new special.

Point is, I’m a big fan of Trevor Noah. So when his book, Born A Crime, was available for free on Audible, I got audible and the free book. And by book I mean audio book. A book you listen to. Not read.

As was made plenty clear last week, I have Many Feelings about the Physicality of Books. I got a hold of the audio book because it was ~free~ with the intention of probably intentionally buying the physical version to actually read.

Because who has time to listen to a book?

When I read I like having my full attention on said reading. If I’m listening to music it’s gonna be instrumental (Current favorite: The Transistor soundtrack). I’m the sort who gets distracted easily and can end up reading a page and a half before realizing I was thinking about what to cook for dinner. So listening seems counterintuitive. A little too easy to get distracted.

That said, I did end up listening to a couple hours of Born A Crime while on a long car ride. It’s a great listen, and as a perk it’s narrated by Noah himself and so rife with accents and proper pronunciation of the Xhosa names. It’s a charming listen, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing out on anything I would from reading.

Except for the whole bookiness thing.

Look, I like turning pages. I like glancing back. But one thing that Audible does that I really like is that I can bookmark chunks and write notes down. Well, type notes up. So I can take the recording back to the place where he discusses how his grandmother saw him as being white growing up or how he used language as a kid to jump between social spheres at school. It’s neat, to be sure.

That said, one thing that’s nice-but-daunting is that it clearly says how long each chapter will take you. I’m gearing up to start the next one, but it’s gonna take twenty-two minutes and I don’t know that I have twenty-two minutes. Sure, I could break it up; listen to ten minutes now and twelve later, but it feels like I’m interrupting his train of thought. More so than a book ‘cuz I can’t skim the past couple of pages. I can rewind back a minute or so, but I can’t skim. But I can now consume a book while doing something else, like playing video games. Which is how I usually watch The Daily Show or stand-up anyway. So not all bad – but Born A Crime is a pretty meaty book in some parts, so, again, full attention is better. But hard. Because I’m sitting around doing nothing.

Now, Born A Crime is a bit of an oddity, in that it’s read by Trevor Noah, a person known for talking. Where most audio books are read by someone who’s not the writer, with this we get to actually hear it ‘as intended.’ So does that make it truer to its ideal than the written version? I’m not sure. I lean towards the understanding that if something is presented one way, it is intended to be seen that way. Movie scripts are great and all, but they’re supposed to be movies. A stand-up special doesn’t work as well on the page, for obvious reasons. So does a work that’s meant to be read work as spoken word? Especially if it’s spoken by the dude who wrote it?

I don’t know. I do know that I’m enjoying the book, but I wonder if I’d enjoy it more read. I do know that I will be picking up a physical copy eventually to reread and annotate. Will I listen to another book down the line? Hard to say, ‘cuz half the reason I like reading is, well, the reading part.

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Page Feel

I read a lot. This is partly a byproduct of having grown up a bookworm and partly having taken a course of studied that meant a lot of reading. Like a lot a lot. Since graduating, I’ve kept it up best I can and I’m sitting at fifteen-odd books in the past eleven months.

Like I said, reading a lot.

A side effect of this is that I have a wonderful bookshelf. You’ve got Ulysses there and the first volume of Saga there with CS Lewis’ Of Other Worlds. I like it, in part because it’s an egotistical testament to All The Books.

I mean, it’s kinda why I had a BluRay collection for a while. I love special features and stuff, but there’s also the fun of being able to tell a lot about a person based on what movies, games, books, music they own. But I’ve slowly been relying more on Netflix, etc for movies and tv with only really special things (Star Wars) getting bought. So books is the thing on my shelves.

And I’m moving in a couple months, which means packing everything up and hauling it down six(!) flights of stairs and to wherever I’m off to next. Which means packing up All The Books. And carrying All The Books elsewhere.

Which then begs the question: Why the crap don’t I have a Kindle? It’s light, I can fit All The Books inside and would make things so much easier. Also, once the thing is paid for, arguably cheaper. So there’s no real cons.

But the bookshelf.

And the books.

I like writing in my books. My copy of Ulysses is covered in my scrawls. Some books only have the occasional comment or underline. The Chinese in America has a lot of notes in the margins. Sure, you can do that on a Kindle and typed notes is easier to read than my handwriting, but there’s the process. Pen on paper. Flicking through a book looking for those notes. The feel of the pages.

There’s the bookshelf too. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing where I like having a monument to All The Books I Have Read in my apartment and to make sure people visiting can see All The Books. It’s a way for me to tell any visitor that I have a diverse array of interests (why yes, that is Mark Mazzetti’s study of the CIA, The Way of The Knife, next to Ready Player One; behold for I am cultured). It means that when some friends and I are a few drinks deep and talking about 80s movies or Ulysses I can pull a book off my monument to All The Books I Have Read and point to a passage relevant to our discussions. Like I said, it’s egotistical, but it has a purpose.

But maybe that egotism has a deeper root in a declaration of identity. Books are, to an extent, more personal than, say, movies. You don’t just go read a book at random, usually. Bookshelves represent what you’re into and what you’re enjoy, what you’ve studied and what you read for pleasure. They work as a summation of your interests and are thus reflexive back on you as a person. If you’re someone with The New Bloomsday Book you take reading important books seriously, but The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy lets everyone know you know how to have fun. By curating a bookshelf, you’re displaying a facet of yourself. You don’t get that on a Kindle.

I think that’s something that we lose when we go digital. Sure, it’s a bit of a luddite’s perspective, but I like recognizing a book a stranger’s reading on the subway or having an immediate icebreaker when you recognize a book on someone’s shelf.

So will I get a Kindle? Maybe. Probably eventually. Let’s see just how much I complain about lugging these books to a new apartment.

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This Is You In This Story

There’s this thing with good stories where you have this gut response of “I wanna do that!” Video games thrive on immersion, by letting you enact what these characters do; meanwhile movies, tv, books, comics, etc let you vicariously experience events.

But what if you do get to be that character? Metal Gears Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Star Wars: The Force Awakens both explore that, by making the protagonist of each story very much a surrogate for the audience, but beyond just being a lens through which the audience can view the world, Raiden and Rey both exist in narratives where they very much are the embodiment of an audience member.

Raiden in MGS2 was very much deliberately envisioned as a pastiche of the player. Where the player played the first Metal Gear Solid, Raiden trained in VR simulations of the first game’s Shadow Moses Incident. This isn’t just backstory, it’s pointed out several times by Raiden’s support team – and outright criticized by Snake (MGS1’s protagonist) as being insufficient training. Raiden has no combat experience, he just assumes he’s gonna be awesome because he’s so good at his VR training. Over the course of the game, MGS2 proceeds to remind the player that they – and Raiden – are not Solid Snake, but rather someone playacting as him.

It’s a fascinating exploration of the relationship between player and game, one that criticizes the power fantasy many games employ by showing how futile it is to try and be a character you’ve played as in a video game. MGS2 deconstructs the relationship between player and game; you get to be the protagonist (or more the protagonist has many similarities to you as a gamer) but as it turns out, it kinda sucks. It’s only when Raiden stops trying to be Solid Snake that he’s able to strike out on his own path. That’s also right about where the game ends.

Similarly but not, The Force Awakens gives Rey a mindset like that of a viewer. Well, maybe a viewer closer to my age. Like me, Rey has grown up with the stories about the Rebel Alliance and the exploits of Luke Skywalker. She knows the same stories we do. Rey, however, exists on the fringe of all that; she puts on an X-Wing pilot’s helmet and dreams of flying, but doesn’t leave Jakku until her adventure begins. Again, that’s like a kid who grew up with Star Wars. Rey is, essentially, a fangirl. Like the viewer, like me.

But Rey meets BB-8 and Finn, borrows the Millennium Falcon, and gets swept up in a grand adventure. Basically, Rey gets to live out the Star Wars fantasy: she gets to meet the heroes of the Rebellion and become a Jedi. Now, this is all heightened through Rey’s similar point of view to that of the viewer makes it that much more visceral. Rey is, essentially, us.

In MGS2, the narrative uses Raiden and the player’s commonality to savage the escapist fantasy of video games, steadily dressing down Raiden (and the player) until Raiden stops trying to be Snake and does his own thing. The game is able to talk directly to the player because Raiden is effectively a placeholder for the player. Meanwhile, The Force Awakens uses Rey to drive the series romanticism to new heights. Luke was the farmboy on Tatooine who dreamed of more; Rey’s that, but she’s also someone who idolizes Luke Skywalker and his adventures and now gets to take part in them.

Immersion is a part of good stories and it’s something that can be accomplished by a variety of means – just look at the effect of good prose. Stories can also leverage a protagonist who embodies the same point of view as the audience to add new facets to a narrative. It’s not just to immerse the audience more, though, sometimes they’re actually there to do stuff.

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Emerging Exploration

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a magnificently glitchy game. I have seen a crewmate go through osmosis while talking to him, I’ve fought an alien dinosaur that suddenly stopped moving its body (but still glided along the jungle floor and attacked me), and, through cunning manipulation of my space-car’s six wheel drive and boost functions, have successfully driven up a vertical cliff face (though arguably that’s a feature, not a bug). Of course, there are weirder visual flaws, like most of a character’s face not moving while they speak or the world being so big that the game forgets to load the people I have to talk to to complete my quest. It’s frustrating sometimes – and downright baffling other times that a AAA game would ship like this.


But, my god, it’s fun. I’ve sunk way too many hours into exploring the Heleus cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy since the game came out and have no intention of slowing down; far as I can tell I’m 30 hours and maybe 25% in. I’m having a blast. And yes, a lot of the fun is through scripted missions, where I’m told to go to x planet and do y thing; but the world of Andromeda is so big that there are so many random adventures to get to.

Like the time on Eos where I woke the Architect, a colossal robot hellbent on killing me that I alternately shot at or hopped in the Nomad (the space-car of before) and chased so I could shoot it some more. Or going spelunking in ancient ruins looking for loot and coming face to face with my first Destroyer, a war machine that put up a heckuva fight. Or – so many ors – deciding to storm a Kett base on Eos with an offensive that started with me ramming the Nomad into a few bad guys and wedging on top of an automated turret. Bugginess be damned, there’s fun to be had! With some well-crafted quests and a vast and interesting world, Andromeda’s side quests make even fetch quests feel somewhat purposeful.

What really helps it out, though, is the emergent fun that comes from the game. Emergent gameplay, as opposed to structure, is an aspect of the game that is not hard-wired into the system, but emerges from it being played. To cite an example from Jesper Juul, there is no explicit rule in Monopoly that a player will go bankrupt, but it happens because of the rules. Emergences. Hence the name.

So Mass Effect: Andromeda and emergent gameplay. Let’s take driving the Nomad through a bunch of Kett and sending them flying. At no point in the game does it say you can use your space-car as a weapon, and yet, it works. Even the self-imposed challenge of climbing up rock faces isn’t hardcoded into the game, but it’s ridiculously fun. Andromeda gives you a playground where the missions are cool, but the fun you make for yourself is fantastic.

Which makes me think back to Destiny, a game with a barebones story and an amazingly fun gameplay. My fondest memory of the game is easily the Vault of Glass raid where me and five other players navigated a treacherous maze and took on – and defeated – Atheon. Sure, the level design and all is fantastic, but what makes it so great were the folks I teamed up with: our banter and teamwork. That’s something wonderfully special that was not intended by the game’s framework, but rather encouraged and permitted. 

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a single player game, so there’s less chances of impromptu dance parties (seriously: every multiplayer game needs dancing emotes). But it is still host to one of the best things about games: the freedom to explore a virtual space and, ignoring intended intentions, finding new ways to interact with the world.

Which in my case has been a fine-tuned assault strategy involving charging right in with my space-car and hoping for the best.

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On Visibility and Character Creators

I spent well over an hour creating my character in Mass Effect: Andromeda. Not stats and stuff, no, just the aesthetics of his/my face.

I love character creators. Maybe it’s an early exposure to The Sims, maybe it’s the simple joy of getting to play god and make people who look like whatever you want. In a game like Mass Effect where half the fun is making choices and carving your own narrative through the galaxy, I find that character customization adds another level of immersion. That Shepard or Ryder isn’t just someone off the box, it’s someone you made. And also, if you want, the character’s you. You get to see yourself as the protagonist.

As for making me?

I’m mixed. I don’t fit into ‘presets,’ and if I have to, I have to check one box. Pick the head that looks the most like me. Maybe in Knights of The Old Republic I’ll be white, but I’ll be Asian in Shadowrun: Dragonfall. Now, character creators as in Mass Effect, with sliders for adjusting eye height and nose size, allow you a lot more latitude for how your person looks (and games like The Sims is notorious for being able to create eerie doppelgängers).

But Mass Effect: Andromeda bases its customization on presets. So you can’t change eye shape, eyebrows, ears, and the general shape of the face, but can adjust skin tone, hair, and cheekbone placement. Naturally, a lot of those presets are based on races, here’s white guy a, white guy b, Asian dude a, Asian dude b, and so on. Which makes sense. But for me, it means playing around with either one trying to make them look more like the other. Y’know, trying to find that sweet spot on the sliding scale between Asian and white where I exist.

See, for most of my life I’ve been pegged for one or the other, in part because the idea of someone existing in the middle is, in some places, somewhat unheard of. Being a mixed-race, biracial kid isn’t something that comes up much at all if you’re not one, so you kinda ignore it and I’m left figuring out which box to check on a survey.

Which is why representation is so important. People like me don’t show up a lot in fiction. Well, white dudes do a lot, Asian guys much less often, and mixed actors playing mixed characters are basically non-existent. I wanna see myself in the media I consume, I wanna see a movie where someone who looks like me gets to be a hero.

Because it’d be nice to be told I exist by the stuff I watch and games I play. ‘cuz maybe then I wouldn’t be lumped in with one side or the other and now be allowed to exist in that middle space. This, I suppose, is the feeling of every under-represented group. We want to see ourselves in the stories we consume, and we want to see ourselves doing a buncha different things. This means not being pigeonholed into one accepted narrative or stereotype, this means letting different people be normal.

And yes, letting different people explore the Andromeda galaxy.

Whether or not my long-labored Ryder bears a resemblance to me is a matter up for debate, one that probably depends on what race you think I look more like. The preset I chose, however, was the one whose eyebrows looked most like mine.

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On Deconstruction, Reconstruction, and Also Batman

A deconstruction takes something apart. Shrek shows how weird fairy tales are by pitting the story from the point of view of an ogre. Suddenly the princess promising herself to whoever rescues her is especially bizarre, as is the idea of there always being a noble prince. The point of a deconstruction is usually to display how tropes and conventions in some narratives don’t work so well when held up to some more stringent logic.

In the same vein, the Batman we meet in at the start of The LEGO Batman Movie (and arguably The LEGO Movie) is a deconstruction of the Batman we got used to in Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. He’s all about darkness and not having parents, singular focused on his mission, and, as we discover, quite a pain in the ass. In essence, we see this singularly focused Batman played out to an amusing end: he’s stuck in a perpetual adolescence and cares for no one but himself (and his desire to fight crime). Of course he’s not well-adjusted, he doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t see daylight. It’s this deconstruction that gives rise to the plot of The LEGO Batman Movie, which lets the movie rebuild Batman into a hero – and leader of the Bat-family.

Thing is, The Dark Knight – and Batman Begins before it – aren’t quite deconstructions; at least not in the way it’s easy to assume they are. Yes, the movies do play out some of the complications of Bruce Wayne’s Batmanning: he has to go on the run, people try to copy him, Bruce Wayne ceases to be much of a person in favor of his alter-ego. And there is the whole darkness-no-parents vibe. Nonetheless, Batman is successful at what he does, and the films make the case that yes, a superhero does work. A dude dressing up as a bat to fight criminals is a patently ridiculous concept, but Christopher Nolan and his team reconstruct Batman into a character and vigilante that makes sense in a realistic center.

Take the scene in Batman Begins where Bruce and Alfred are putting together the Batsuit. They buy the components in bulk from different manufacturers, minimizing a paper trail. Even getting the Batmobile from Wayne Enterprises’ R&D department explains away where he gets those wonderful toys. As a reconstruction it acknowledges the flaws of the Batman narrative but works past them for a fuller, more shaded narrative. A true deconstruction would have played out the final climax with Two Face differently, perhaps having Batman refuse to take the fall or even having both of them be completely vilified. As it is, The Dark Knight lets Batman take his moniker and remain an idealized hero.

There are shades of deconstruction to The Dark Knight — take the Batman-inspired vigilante who gets himself killed — but it’s all in the service of ultimately reconstructing the idea – there needs to be a ‘superhero,’ so Batman will appear the villain so that Harvey Dent can be that person. So it’s easy to mistake the whole movie as an out-and-out Shrekian deconstruction.

Which is arguably what Zack Snyder and team did in Batman v Superman. While Man of Steel wavers, BvS tries its hardest to take apart both Batman and Superman – and superheroes in general. But it doesn’t do so for comedic effect (as in Kick-Ass) or to explore what we take for granted in the genre (see: Watchmen). Instead, it does… Well, nothing. It reads The Dark Knight as a deconstruction and attempts to imitate it, but since the former wasn’t really a deconstruction, the BvS is building with the blocks; it doesn’t take apart The Dark Knight (as LEGO’s Batman does), but tries to use Nolan’s film as a deconstruct-o-lens. The result is a lot of dimly lit scenes and people grunting and growling at each other about big ideas that don’t make much sense. We learn nothing new about Superman and Batman or the conventions that surround them that would warrant it being a deconstruction, nor does it recreate the mythos in a new way that would be a reconstruction. Rather it tells the story straight, just lathered in a murky layer of grit that can’t hide its (many) narrative flaws.

There is room for a solid deconstruction of Batman, Superman ,and superheroes in general – I mean Alan Moore did it in Watchmen thirty-odd years ago. Sometimes it seems there’s a race to take apart beloved genres, and sometimes it works like in Game of Thrones, but there’s room for both, again, Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The trick is to do it for a reason, and not just because you want your story to be about darkness and not having parents.

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Okay, Seriously, What Is A Superhero Movie?

A couple weeks ago I was at The Strand looking for a copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Because it’s on my personal reading list and I figured it’s as good a book as any to pick up at The Strand. Anyway, after scouring the A’s in the science fiction section, I was directed to check in general fiction. And there it was.

Which, alright, fine. I mean, it’s vaguely science fiction – though Atwood prefers describing it as speculative fiction which I’ve seen argued as being the same and/or different from general science fiction – in that it’s set in an indistinct future that’s the vague result of the progress of technology and climate issues circa the mid-80’s. But it’s no more science fiction than, say, The Dark Knight where the biggest diversions from reality are burn wounds, a futurist’s view of cellphone tech, and a loose interpretation of grappling hook physics. Though since one’s a superhero movie, one gets to be in Serious Fiction and the other, not (granted, one’s a book and the other’s a movie, but I digress).

So what is science fiction? And what’s a superhero movie? Which brings me to Logan, a movie that’s been called a great superhero movie in part because it’s so unlike every other superhero movie.

And in all honesty, Logan’s great. Really. It’s an interesting movie that meditates on its down time as much as on its brutal action sequences. It also just might be a better adaption of The Last Of Us than the Old Man Logan comics. And people are calling it a really good superhero story.

But is it a superhero story?

This is something I think about every now and then, and as superhero movies – usually meaning adaptions of DC or Marvel comics – become bigger and bigger tentpoles, the definition of it starts to be blurry.

Because Logan features very little superheroing tropes. There aren’t any fancy outfits and there’s very little romantic derring-do. It’s more drama than anything, one with a dosage of science fiction. So really, it’s more of a science fiction drama than a, quote-unquote, “superhero movie.”

It’s times like this where genre really starts to break down. Because, technically, Logan, Guardians of The Galaxy, and Iron Man are all in the same ‘genre.’ Even though Guardians is more like a Star Wars movie and Iron Man is as action adventure. But Logan is on top of those because it’s a ‘serious’ movie and un-superheroey

The thing about genre is that it creates a stratification of stories. Look at any given bookstore and all the ‘important’ books go in the fiction section, while much of the rest is classified as science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and young adult. The movies that win big awards are most always not-genre movies; saying ‘comedy’ or ‘action’ almost instantly disqualify you.

As someone who creates a lot ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me. As someone who likes a lot of ‘genre’ stories, this bugs me a lot. ‘cuz in the past decade we’ve seen superhero movies take on a host of forms, be they a thriller like The Dark Knight or a hijinky fantasy adventure like Thor. In the century-or-so since its inception, science fiction has been Star Wars and District 9; The Handmaid’s Tale and Ready Player One. We’ve seen good superhero movies, and we’ve seen Batman vs Superman. These run the gamut in their type of story, setting, and quality. Y’know, it’s starting to sound like they’re just stories.

Now, I’m complicit in this, I use the terms ‘science fiction’ and ‘superhero film’ with abandon. But when I say I like the former, I say I like the fun adventure that’s been a hallmark of Marvel Studio’s output. I love science fiction’s imagination and willingness to go to places unseen (as opposed to the onslaught of White People Problems that ‘drama’ tends to be code for [coughLaLaLandcough]). As fiction evolves and lines get blurred (is Gravity science fiction?), our old definitions of genre don’t work so well. So I will enjoy the most fictitious of science fictions and the most heroic of superhero movies, even if those movies don’t really fit the Platonic ideal as a superhero film.

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