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What I’ve Been Reading

I like reading. Always have.

University was both a boon and a hindrance for that love, though. Courtesy of my course of study, I read a lot. There were classes where I was going through a different book every two weeks. I read books that I might not have checked out of my own volition, like Jacques the Fatalist and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook, along with books I’d wanted to read but never got around to, like Romance of Three Kingdoms and Ulysses. And that’s not even getting into the untold number of articles, excerpts, and the like that offered background and different points of view on, well, stuff.

Come graduation I didn’t have a  syllabus anymore and so didn’t really have much of a direction of what to read. So I read stuff I’d had lying around (Interpreter of Maladies) and books I’d wanted to read but hadn’t had time for (Ready Player One). But of course, there’s still that itch to read more, and, y’know, learn too. So I kept my eyes peeled for books on topics I found interesting. Interviews on The Daily Show led me to Ashley’s War and White Rage and a trip to the Museum of Chinese in America put me on course for my informal postgraduate study of the Chinese diaspora within the United States. For a while there I enforced a policy of one ‘serious’ book for every ‘fun’ book, so following up a Star Wars: Rogue Squadron book with a sociology book about tabletop RPGs, then Trevor Noah’s autobiography and then Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between The World and Me. Sure, I was a little generous with my definitions, but hey, it forced me to read more ‘educational’ stuff.

After a while though, I longed to get back to reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy, genres that I love for so many reasons. But there was still the part of me that wouldn’t let me get away with just diving back into old comforts. So I gave myself a simple edict: read more science fiction and fantasy by authors who aren’t white guys. And let me tell you, that has been a wonderful decision.

I remember watching the credits for Arrival and noticing that it was based on a short story by someone with a Chinese last name. Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang was added to my reading list. His stories are fantastic. In addition to the titular one which plays with language and time in magnificent ways afforded only by written fiction, there’s also Division By Zero that posits a relationship falling apart alongside the basic laws of mathematics breaking down. Excellent, excellent genre work, but I wanted more.

I found out about Ken Liu with his short story “The Paper Menagerie” and shortly thereafter picked up his short story collection by the same name. Loving how he wives unique East-Asian themes into his stories, I sought out his epic fantasy book The Grace of Kings. The doorstopper sized book scratches the itch of the kid who read The Lord of The Rings over and over again and is always delighted when he opens a book to find a fantastical map. But what the book offered that others didn’t was its clear influence by historical Chinese epics like Romance of Three Kingdoms. Not only that but the books have a dramatic aesthetic that harkens more to the Chinese historical dramas that would play on my grandmother’s tv back in Singapore than whatever period drama is currently fashionable. Because why not base a fantasy series on ancient Chinese history?

One other way I’ve gone about finding new books to read has been by looking at websites’ lists of upcoming genre books, taking note of what interests me. It’s how I came upon S.A. Chakraborty and her book The City of Brass. It’s a fantastical book of magic and djinn — and one that draws on Muslim tradition at that. It’s a neat world and a refreshing approach to fantasy. I dug it, got the second book, and am eagerly awaiting the third once she finishes it.

I’m reading and reading a lot. At the risk of sounding hokey, I’m really enjoying reading new stories by people who aren’t usually the ones in the spotlight. And hey, learning new things is cool.

As I said, I like reading.

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Guns.

Let’s talk about guns. Particularly the way we relate to them in fiction, particularly how I relate to them through the fiction I consume.

First, however, real life. I’ve handled guns before, fired shotguns and rifles with friends in the American South, and trained with an assault rifle on a range. I mention this to say that I’m very aware of what these weapons can do, I’ve felt the recoil and smelt the gunpowder, I’ve watched a machine gun obliterate a tree trunk. There’s little doubt in my mind of what these awesome and terrible machines can do.

I’ve been thinking about violence in video games for a long time. In light of certain recent events, I’ve been thinking about guns too, and the relationship I have with them — particularly the way I interact them with most: video games.

Guns are also a big part of many video games, especially the First-Person Shooter genre and its cousin, the Third-Person Shooter. By being, well, a shooter, they feature guns. Sometimes it can be simple, as in Halo where there’s a single assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, etc; or more complex like in Borderlands where there’s a whole cornucopia of different shotguns, rifles, and what have you. Different games treat their guns differently.

In the Uncharted series, guns play the same role they do in a pulpy action movie like Indiana Jones or Mission: Impossible. They add tension, what with offering Nathan Drake a good deal of peril as he and his allies galavant around the world. To get from A to B, Nate’s gotta fight his way past these mercenaries with a combination of stealth, fisticuffs, and gunplay. Of course, guns aren’t the only way for the player to interact with the world in these games, there’s also finding treasure, solving puzzles, and a lot of death-defying climbing. The tension here comes from a lot of places, and the gun-based violence is only one, admittedly big, facet of it.

Come Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, though, guns take something of an optional back seat. Yes, you can still shoot your way through things, but there’s a bigger emphasis on exploration and avoiding conflict altogether. The wonderful chapter “At Sea” is all about Nate and his brother treasure hunting in a small archipelago, with nary a gunfight in view.  The game has a more mature approach to violence, one that shows just how far the series has come in the nine years since its inception.

In between the third Uncharted and A Thief’s End was The Last Of Us, an entirely new game by developer Naughty Dog. In a strong departure from the pulpiness of Uncharted, The Last of Us is absolutely brutal in its violence. Enemies beg for their lives, the infected weep as they shuffle around. Killing is not fun, and when you do get a hold of guns — and their all too little ammo — the brutality of it all borders on horror. I suspect that A Thief’s End’s less cavalier attitude towards gunplay was influenced by Naughty Dog making The Last of Us, but that’s another thing altogether.

The Uncharted games feature a mix of real-world guns (like the FAL and AK-47) alongside fictional ones. They add a measure of ‘realism’ to the game, not terribly like how an action movie would use specific guns for specific situations — an American soldier would probably favor an American assault rifle, while that gun-for-hire might have one made by a foreign manufacturer. Metal Gear Solid realized this and peppered its world with real weapons, like the French FAMAS, German PSG1, and American FIM-92 Stinger. MGS is a far more serious military game than my prior examples, so it makes sense they’d wanna get super real with it and talk about the nitty-gritty of the guns. The later games expand on the assortment of weaponry, getting up into having dozens of different guns. But as they do, so too do they discourage you from wanton violence: using non-lethal methods of taking out enemies can net you a better score or provide you with more personnel for your base. Just because there are a whole bunch of guns there for you to use, doesn’t mean you have to actually run around shooting people. The Metal Gear Solid series is profoundly anti-war, in the sort of way only someone who grew up in post-WW2 Japan could create.

Which brings me to the Call of Duty games. A series of military FPS, the fourth game Modern Warfare brought them into contemporary warfare and, with it, the associated guns too. Though the original Modern Warfare did a lot of really cool things with its setting (hey, ever experienced a nuke going off while playing in first-person? It’s terrifying), the series got steadily more pulpy as it went on. That said, however, the game’s attitude towards its violence remained very rah-rah kill-the-bad-guys-yay! in ways that Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid never were. There’s a point where the games, and the marketing around them, started to become unsettling with how gung-ho they were about the variety of weaponry the games offered to be a soldier from a Western nation shooting up the third-world. I stopped following the series some time ago, its celebration of militarism and what went along with it becoming something I really didn’t like engaging in.

On the totally opposite side are the Borderlands games, wonderful shooters set in the distant future on the distant planet of Pandora. I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands 2 with my brother lately, and the game’s such an utter delight. Part of the game’s appeal comes from its core loop: shoot enemies, get better guns, level up, repeat. Guns are procedurally generated, and in addition to the more traditional sort of weaponry, you can get an assault rifle that shoots rockets, shotguns that hurl balls of electricity, and a cursed submachine gun that screams when you fire it. It’s bonkers, and the guns are a big part of the game; it’s always exciting to find a new, unique gun and take it for a spin. But I think that unlike Call of Duty, Borderlands doesn’t fetishize guns. Sure, they’re cool, and a big focus of the game and marketing, but narratively they end up ancillary to the crazy characters and quests that populate the world. Maybe the fact that the guns are procedurally generated plays a part in it, but honestly, I’m willing to bet that it’s just the way the developers think. The guns are, ultimately, tools, and not the focus of the game — all this despite it being a First-Person Shooter.

Honestly, I wish I had a tidy and pretty answer to all this, especially after eleven hundred words. Yet I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. I love how Destiny’s exotic weapons are treated like Excalibur and Andúril, only guns instead of swords. Portal has a gun but it shoots portals instead of bullets, really screwing with assumptions of the FPS genre. The guns in Horizon Zero Dawn are terrifying weapons in a world of bows, spears, and robot dinosaurs. It seems like just about every single video game has a different relationship with guns, just as every player probably has a different relationship with pulling the controller’s trigger. 

But I don’t believe that video games and their violence have much in relation to real-world violence — and neither does the science. Granted, something like Call of Duty is far more popular in the US than elsewhere, but that’s arguably more a reflection of the militarism that is part of American culture. I know that for me, a lot of these games are a great way to relieve stress; the catharsis of mowing down Psychos and Nomads in Borderlands 2 with my brother offers an odd sort of zen following a week of depressing news. Perhaps I’m good at compartmentalizing, in that I can easily differentiate between fantasy and reality, and am happy to dive into one to escape the other. My brother and I have killed each other hundreds of thousands of times in virtual deathmatches, but I’m sickened to my stomach by the idea of holding a real rifle against him. 

There’s a lot at play here, and the culture around guns certainly does involve video games (there’s a fascinating article on the Barret M82 rifle and how it’s placement in games has affected the real world), but it’s one that applies to other media too. At the end of it all, though, these games have given me experiences unrivaled. Uncharted took me on adventures, The Last of Us left me a sobbing wreck, Metal Gear Solid has given me eerie chills with its storytelling (even as I go on joyrides). I’ll always love playing Halo, Borderlands, or Army of Two with my brother, cracking jokes and drinking beers as we shoot bad guy after bad guy. They’re fun, a lot of fun, but I owe it to myself to interrogate why they’re fun and be aware of the relationship between fiction and reality.

Ultimately, though, when it comes to real life, video games don’t kill people. Guns do.

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Top Ten Movie Challenge Thing

There’s been this thing circulating around online challenging people to post a collection of top ten movies. I’m not a huge fan of ranking things, because it’s arbitrary, limited, and tends to change on a dime. Heck, I do a Top Nine every year and more often than not I’ll see something later that I’ll wish I’d added or something else will emerge as being a bit of a dark horse.

In any case, a friend of mine challenged me to do this and, after much consternation, I decided to just take the plunge. I’m loath to call these a Top Ten, as opposed to just ten movies that I really like for a variety of reasons. There are certainly omissions, but screw it. Here are ten movies I really like, with a gorgeous still from each with a little bit of a blurb.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

It’s hard for me to overstate how much I absolutely adore this movie. Yes, there are my beloved giant robots, but it’s a hopeful movie, where the apocalypse can be canceled. The end isn’t the end.

Up

Up

Tied with Wall-E for being the best Pixar film. Magnificent all around.

Police Story

Police Story

Jackie Chan is tragically underrated as a filmmaker. Police Story balances a variety of tones and is a fantastic kung-fu romp.

Empire Strikes Back

ESB

If I had to choose on Star Wars, it might be this one.

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale

This movie wrecked me.

Captain America: Civil War

Civil War

Pending Captain Marvel, probably my favorite MCU movie (subject to change). Anything that lets us get into Tony’s head.

Lost in Translation

lost in translation

Beautiful meditation on loneliness.

Scott Pilgrim

Scott Pilgrim

It’s about self-respect.

The Return of The King

Return of The King

It was hard to pick a shot for this one. But I like this, the hobbits are finally home after an adventure that no one around them could care for.

The Princess Bride

Princess Bride

Everything I love about 80s movies; an unabashed earnestness that knows it could be cynical but chooses not to be.

 

 

 

BONUS: The Last Jedi

Last Jedi

Behold, my favorite shot from one of my favorite movies that absolutely had to be included.

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On Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is an odd beast for me. It’s a movie based on a book I didn’t really like, but oddly it’s one where I do like the movie over the book. More than that, though, it’s a book set in Singapore, a country I’m not used to seeing on screen. Also where, of all the places I’ve lived, I’ve racked up the most years of residence. And now I’m seeing streets I’ve driven on and places I’ve eaten on a movie screen in New York City.

It’s surreal, because a lotta folks don’t really know much about Singapore. When I moved to the States (South Carolina) at fourteen I got asked where in China it was. To this day folks tell me my English is really good for someone from Singapore, never mind that said language is the main language spoken there. The island I sorta come from is an unknown, save for a depiction in the third Pirates of The Caribbean movie so fantastical it makes the New York of How I Met Your Mother look like a documentary.

Now the place it seemed that no one this side of the Pacific had heard about is featured in what’s been the top movie in the US for three weeks in a row. Singapore has summarily gone from “where?” to that place in Crazy Rich Asians. That island is Known.

Herein lies the conflict at the root of the surreality. It’s absolutely thrilling to see Singapore in a movie — and a good movie at that. If this cultural osmosis takes hold, maybe the response to hearing I’m half-Singaporean won’t be thinking I hail from a backwards, destitute island. Maybe it’ll be the metropolis of Crazy Rich Asians. At last there’s an image in the cultural consciousness. And it’s that.

Most of the people I know here in the US will never go to Singapore. For many, this is the first — and maybe only — impression of Singapore they’ll have. As good as the movie is, I guess I wish it was more comprehensive; it held within it a fuller take on Singapore. I wish it showed more of the Singapore I know.

By virtue of its story, Crazy Rich Asians focuses on a very specific Singaporean experience: that of the ultra wealthy, the crazy rich, if you will. The cast, though entirely comprised of Asian actors, are primarily from the West, and so absent from the film is the Singaporean accent and its idiosyncratic turns of phrase — something the novel captured so well. It’s awesome to see Awkwafina and Gemma Chan have hefty roles in a major film, but there’s a part of me that wishes that accent was there — especially because your style of speaking in Singapore very much denotes which social class you’re part of. It feels like a missed opportunity.

Characters/actors’ accents are something so tiny for me to take issue with, but they’re indicative of more. Singapore is a complex place for me; it’s a place that’s taken me away from whatever I’ve had going on in the US a number of times. It’s got the best food on the planet. It’s a place I’ve hated and loved. I want the people in my life to see that country, the one with a pros and cons list each a kilometer long. I want people to see more of this place and get where I’m coming from.

I want to be understood.

Crazy Rich Asians — the film — deserves every accolade its gotten. I hope there are many, many more movies with all-Asian casts. It means so much to me, this mixed race guy who passed as Chinese in the US, to see Singapore and people who look like me in the spotlight. The movie isn’t gonna be the solution to my myriad questions of identity; I shouldn’t expect a delightful romcom to provide a sociological survey. It’s still a closer depiction of a part of my life than I’ve seen elsewhere. I’ve gotta take the advice I hold for so many stories: to let it tell the story it wants and to judge it based on that and not what I might want.

Anyway. Crazy Rich Asians is great. Go watch it. Michelle Yeoh needs to be in everything.

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Yellow (流星)

I have A Lot of thoughts about the movie adaption of Crazy Rich Asians. Far more thoughts that I’ve had time to write down. Much of that is wrapped up in the fact that it’s set in Singapore and I have a very complicated relationship with that country, owing to it, well, being where I was born and the odd circumstances with which I’ve found myself returning there for the past decade or so.

So this blog post is not about that.


Rather, it’s about a song that shows up towards the end of the movie, Coldplay’s “Yellow.” Except it’s not; it’s a cover the song, in Chinese; “流星” [liú xīng]. Now, I do really like “Yellow,” as I do a lot of Coldplay’s music; and I really like it when covers put a spin on things (Run River North’s cover of The Killer’s “Mr. Brightside” is nothing short of incredible). But “流星” is an interesting thing, it’s not just a cover, it’s also been rewritten in another language. A language I happen to kinda sorta speak.

Chinese, well, Mandarin Chinese if you wanna get specific, is an odd thing for me. I didn’t speak it at home growing up, owing mostly to having a mother who doesn’t speak it. It’s a language I learnt in school, and mostly used only in class. Chinese was my worst class, at that, one where I thought a C was a good grade and routinely pulled very low grades — grades low enough that I still remember them twenty years later. Elsewise, I’d only use it when ordering food (“Uncle, 一碗鱼丸面加辣椒”) or in smattering when talking to my grandmother.

It’s one that I’ve gotten better at in bursts; I can follow along with a conversation to a certain extent and can interject comments into dinner conversations with the extended family, often to their amusement since I’m very much the Caucasian nephew on that side. Working in retail in New York has meant that I’m the go-to Mandarin speaker who gets to answer all the questions Chinese tourists have, which often sees me finding very basic ways to say more complex things (“每年他们做好的房子,这是十年最好的房子.”)

Point is, I’m not really good at Chinese, and haven’t really done too much to get better at it. Chinese pop songs fall far outside the usual scope of music I listen to, and most of the Chinese cinema I watch is of the Hong Kong variety and so in Cantonese. Not much impetus to learn.

And then along comes this song, one I’ve added to my iTunes and listened to way more times than I care to admit. I understand parts of it, and reading the lyrics replete with pinyin and a translation helps. I really like it, far more than I thought I would/could. It’s surreal to hear a familiar tune with lyrics in a language I don’t speak near as well as I really should. It’s surreal to want to listen to a song in a language that’s meant so much grief for me, be it through bad grades or the othering that my lack of understanding sometimes creates. It’s surreal to like this.

I’m still processing a response to that movie and the inevitable blog post that’s gonna come along with it. Part of the reason it’s taking a while is because so much of the movie ties in to, well, me as myself. The older I get, the more I feel like much of life is processing stuff, processing what’s happening and what’s happened, processing who you are. I’m mixed, I’m biracial, I’m half Singaporean-Chinese, half Norwegian-American, but my Spanish is better than my Chinese. Identity is a weird thing for me, partially out of my own reckoning with myself, and partially out of my reckoning with others’ interpretations of that self. It’s not something I expect to be resolved anytime soon. But “流星” is a gorgeous song, and I like that I like it.

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Space Car

There is a car in space right now.

Like an actual road-safe, driven on earth on an actual road, not-originally-intended-for-space car in space. And it was playing David Bowie until it ran out of juice.

So, a while ago, Tesla/SpaceX/Boring Company founder/potential supervillain Elon Musk tweeted that the Falcon Heavy’s test payload would be his own Tesla Roadster. The Falcon Heavy is the latest rocket to come out of Musk’s SpaceX. Which sounds pretty cool but it’s important to know what the Falcons are: reusable rockets.

See, when you launch a rocket in space, it’s kinda a one-off thing. The Saturn V that launched the Apollo missions were just junk afterwards. The Space Shuttle was revolutionary because the booster rockets could be recovered and refurbished (along with the orbiter as well). The Falcon Heavy, like the Falcon 9 it’s built on, can also be reused. Not just that, but the rocket literally lands itself. As in, after launching its payload, the first stage detaches, turns around, comes home, and lands.

It’s really cool, both as a technological marvel in itself and also for what it portends to making spaceflight more affordable. Which is really cool because if we’re going to start mining asteroids and send people to Mars, we’re gonna need to make it cheaper to get out there.

And there’s also a car in space.

Tuesday was the Falcon Heavy’s first launch and its payload was, as promised, Elon Musk’s red Tesla. Given that it was the rocket’s first flight, and first flights tend to result in things exploding, it made some sense that it wasn’t anything too valuable (although there’s an argument that given the prohibitive nature of space travel, any risk is one worth taking). But a convertible instead of a mock satellite?

It’s a pretty remarkable image. Leaving Earth’s orbit is a red car, top down, with a mannequin dressed in a spacesuit in the driver’s seat, “DON’T PANIC” written on the dash, a towel and a copy of The Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy in the glovebox, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Life On Mars” playing on the radio. It was sent beyond Earth’s orbit into an elliptical around the sun, its aphelion nearly reaching the Asteroid Belt.

There’s a car in space.

And its picture’s been all over the internet, all over newspapers. This picture of a spaceman in a car, Earth in the distance behind. There’s been a lot of press, a lot of people are talking about it, and you’re probably wondering why I’ve been ranting on about spaceships and space cars on a blog that’s usually about stories.

Because, by launching a sports car into space, Elon Musk created a pretty neat narrative for the Falcon Heavy’s launch. It’s not unusual for a dummy payload to be a bunch of concrete bricks, something heavy and unimportant. But because the payload here’s a car (and the company CEO’s personal car at that), it becomes that much more interesting. There’s an endlessly shareable image that captures the imagination in ways the picture of rockets touching down can’t quite.

People are talking about the Falcon Heavy’s launch far more than the Falcon 9’s maiden launch or when the Falcon 9’s booster landed for the first time. It’s even gotten way more buzz than when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded on the launch pad (All this is based on a cursory Google Trend comparison for the Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9, with SpaceX used for reference). There’s buzz, people are talking about space travel. And all the little touches and the Hitchhiker’s reference gives it all a sense of romance and whimsey we don’t usually get in the usually very rigorous and economic space travel. It’s cool, and it’s a little silly.

Call it an attention grab, but I figure that’s just what’s needed. Musk and SpaceX have the world’s attention as they forge on ahead in an attempt to revolutionize space travel. An aware an excited public puts space exploration back into vogue, which could lead to NASA having a bigger budget and, in turn, more contracts for SpaceX, and so bigger rockets and crewed missions to Mars.

And in the meantime, Elon Musk launched his car into space. And I think that’s wonderful.

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The First Seventeen

I was recently on a plane back to New York from Montréal (if you wondering: poutine’s really good, the Canadians are onto something). It’s a short flight in a relatively small plane, but apparently, still one that lets you have those screens in the seatbacks. Which is nice because, y’know, you can watch a movie or something. Good time to catch up on movies you’ve missed or watch different because you wanna.

Thing is, the flight from Montréal to New York is a little over an hour and a half, which, you’ll notice, is a hair short of the typical two hour runtime of a movie. Which means when you watch something, you won’t finish it and that leaves you in a lurch that I don’t like. Means you get a lotta set up, but the payoff doesn’t complete. Take my girlfriend, who decided to watch Alien. She got to the chest busted scene, a little further, and we were in New York. No showdown between Ripley and the Alien, just, y’know, the build.

Seeking to avoid that, I looked for a movie around ninety minutes. The plane had Office Space, one of those movies I know I should watch and just haven’t gotten around to. I decided to get around to it.

Seventeen minutes in, however, it stopped. Like, ended and returned me to the main menu. I was confused and kinda annoyed. The movie was getting into gear and I was getting into it. Also I knew I’d be cutting it close and the couple minutes it’d take to load it back and find my place could make the difference between seeing the ending and, well, not. So I cued it back up and started fast-forwarding to my spot, whereupon I noticed that the timecode for the ending was at, coincidentally, seventeen minutes. Sure enough, when I reached where I was before, it stopped and I was returned to the main menu and Air Canada’s friendly hello.

Office Space has returned to the list of movies that I will watch eventually. But the first seventeen minutes are a lotta fun. Equally importantly, they serve to set up (what I presume) is the plot of the movie. We’re introduced to our protagonist and his two work buddies and we learn that they all really don’t like their job. There are hints of a scheme to screw over their company, the motivation of being free to do whatever they want with a load of money. We’re also given an antagonist in their smarmy boss a ticking clock with their company’s downsizing to speed along the plot. And, of course, it takes a minute to introduce us to our protagonist’s love interest. In short, everything is set up for the movie to come.

Beginnings are important. Duh. You’re still reading this either because you like me or you found my lengthy preamble about inflight entertainment sufficiently charming. A strong start is what keeps the reader, viewer, listened, or player engaged.

But beginnings might matter even more from a narrative point of view. One of the things Aristotle believed to be key about stories was the ultimate catharsis at the end, that great release of emotion (i.e.: blowing up the Death Star). To get that catharsis, you’ve gotta fill your reader (etc) with those emotions (i.e.: take Luke from Alderaan, destroy Alderaan, and lose Ben Kenobi to Darth Vader). You don’t get that release without doing the work (blowing up the Death Star just isn’t the same without all the build up).

From what I saw of it, Office Space certainly lays some strong groundwork. We know the problem — office life sucks — and now it’s a matter of remedying that. I know it somehow involves beating up a printer, but past that I’d have to actually watch the movie.

I’ll get around to it eventually.

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