Tag Archives: Books

A Celebration

I’m a nerd. That kinda really goes without saying. Spend five minutes on my blog and you’ll see me talking about Firefly, giant robots, The Lord of The Rings, comic books, Jacques the Fatalist, and looking at video games through a surprisingly feminist lens. I really enjoy this stuff.

And over the years nerd culture has gotten more mainstream. Superhero shirts are in these days and Star Wars is cool again. It’s pretty neat to these things that used be kinda niche getting brought into the limelight, with the praise and big budgets that follow.

So nerdy stuff is in, and the cherry on the sundae is Steven Spielberg making a movie based on a very nerdy book: Ready Player One.

(Yep, this is it, the post on Ready Player One)

Preface: I first read the book a couple years ago and I really enjoyed it. There’s a chapter about getting a perfect score in Ms. Pac-Man which, as someone who makes a beeline for the Ms. Pac-Man cabinet in an arcade, was a lotta fun to see in a book; it spoke my language. Now, sure, author Ernest Cline has a tendency to cross the line from enthusing to over-explaining. And his handing of his female characters does leave a lot to be desired given that it’s 2018. And, yes, it borders on a self-insert fic with its nerdy fantasy fulfillment.

But with all its flaws, there are some great things in it. This is a book that sees value in the digital. Much of the book takes place in the OASIS, a virtual world everyone can log in to and play games and live life. Experiences in the OASIS were treated as being real and worthwhile, which as anyone who’s gone deep into a video game can go, is how it feels (I don’t remember mashing buttons when I look back on games, rather I beat that Thunderjaw in Horizon Zero Dawn, I assembled a crew to stop the Collectors in Mass Effect 2). It’s unusual to see a book take what’s essentially a video game so ‘seriously,’ in that the virtual stakes matter. Adding to that, here was a story that treated online friendships as being as important as real life ones. Unlike other depictions of nerdom (and really, a lotta stories) which tend to demean them, this one valorized these relationships. And as someone who’s made some of his closest friends online, it’s something I really liked about it.

So the movie adaptation gets announced and people start paying a lot more attention to the book and its flaws came under scrutiny. As well they should, because there’s no excuse for poorly written women and bad prose can always be better. But then there’s the criticism where Ready Player One is compared to The Big Bang Theory. And that’s, well, wrong.

The Big Bang Theory came about before nerd culture was hip and the central joke of the show was that those nerds were dorky. I watched — and liked — the show at first for its references but over time grew tired of it and, after a while, insulted. This was a show that was laughing at me and folks like me, not with me. Yes, they make deep cuts and go the distance to get some things in,  but ultimately it’s not a show that makes nerds good joke fodder, but not someone you’d like to be. Halo nights were seen as a dumb alternative to going out, not a really fun thing to do. Ready Player One does the opposite: It makes being the biggest nerd a hero-worthy quality. We don’t enjoy reading about Wade because his situation makes him the butt of a joke, we wanna be him.

Enter the movie. The adaptation improves on the book’s flaws; pacing is better, less expo-speak, the love interest Art3mis is both better and a little worse. And dear god it’s nerdy. A bunch of Master Chiefs from Halo rush into a battle where overhead flies in flipping Serenity and then a FRICKING GUNDAM jumps out of her hold to fight a certain giant Kaiju. But what’s so wonderful about Ready Player One — and Spielberg’s direction — is how much the movies loves its subject matter. The Spartans’ guns have the exact right sound effect when they fire (and when the needler gun shows up, same!); and the pose and movements of the Gundam feel lifted from the anime. The movie doesn’t just throw the images around, it wants to get them right. And it’s so freaking satisfying. It’s much more than just lip-service.

The nerds in Ready Player One — and that’s all the main characters except the villain (which is a statement in itself) — are cool. They’re the ones who can do stuff and, more importantly, they have fun. Art3mis teases Parzival with a chestbuster puppet, which, dorky as it is, feels real. It’s not funny because lol, Alien reference; it’s funny because it’s a gag for the characters too. The movie celebrates being a nerd.

The movie’s not all nerdy jokes, though. Yes, it’s got more nerdy references than you can shake a stick at (Hadouken! Adventure!), but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s really cute. The movie dispenses with a lot of the technicality from the book and zeroes in on a really fun, dare I say it: ’80s-esque adventure story. Sure, it’s got its problems, but at the end of the day I was so enchanted by it that I stopped caring. Without the references, it’d be fun enough, but with them all, and how they’re treated, it really feels like a celebration.

Plus, Aech’s homemade Iron Giant is referred to as a MOC, which is a term you usually only hear in the LEGO fandom. But now it’s there in a movie. And that’s really freaking cool.

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Simple Pleasures

I saw Game Night last night and it’s a delight of a movie. It takes a clever conceit (an immersive game night goes a step too far) and builds on it to great affect. There are some really clever turns that mix with a movie full of a surprising amount of heart and some great laughs. It’s a lot of fun and I really liked it.

I mean, it’s not, y’know, an important movie by any stretch. Like it’s not one that’s gonna go down in the annals of comedy, probably. But it’s a lotta fun.

Kinda like the recent remake of The Magnificent Seven. I can acknowledge that it is not a super great movie, it doesn’t go as deep as it could with the assembled talent, has a climax that borders on perfunctory, and is by all accounts a shadow of the, well, magnificence, of the original.

And yet.

I really like it. Enough so to put it on a year end list. And yes, I’m totally willing to admit that it’s because of the Asian Cowboy. And also because multinational teams scratches a very specific itch for me. I don’t really care about the movie’s flaws; I can acknowledge them, but it hardly diminishes my affection for the film. I doubt anyone’s gonna remember it in five-odd years. But.

There’s the book Ready Player One. It’s a nerdy nirvana of a book, rife with references to 80s pop culture in all its forms. I know it smacks of wish fulfillment, which given author Ernest Cline’s own childhood in the 80s, definitely casts the novel, where an encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture is needed to win the race and basically become the richest person ever, into a somewhat juvenile author’s fantasy.

And yet.

It’s such fun. The references, from the most obvious to the deepest cuts are fun, and getting them makes you feel like you’re part of the club; it’s like a nerdy Ulysses. Ready Player One is the first (and only!) time I’ve seen Ultraman referenced outside of Asia; and he’s a mild plot point! There’s a chapter dedicated to Wade trying to get a perfect score in Pac-Man, which, as someone who can do a perfect run on the first five levels of Pac-Man, I very much appreciate the detail. It’s also a book that treats online friendships as legitimate, which, hey! That’s really cool!

I know Ready Player One is definitely not high literature, but it makes no claims as such. It’s a fun read, and I love it for that. It’s entertaining.

And isn’t that what entertainment is supposed to be? Yes, there is the empirical good and bad (The Only Living Boy in New York is two hours of my life I’m never getting back, somewhat assuaged by running a commentary in an empty theater with a good friend), but past a certain point is it enough for something to be fun? I feel like there’s often such a rush for a piece of fiction to be Important that we forget about the fun of it all. Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel is not a super deep or particularly outstanding game; but it is a ridiculous amount of fun to play. And that’s why I like the game. It’s why I really like The Magnificent Seven and Ready Player One, they’re fun.

Game Night’s a lotta fun, and I did really like it. And at the day, I think that’s enough. I don’t think I need to justify that to you (or myself), Sometimes it’s enough to just be entertained. ‘cuz, y’know, it’s entertainment.

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Diversity in Middle-earth

The Lord of The Rings is at once both one of my favorite books and one of my favorite film trilogies. And I don’t really feel the need to write another sentence justifying that.

In any case, I reacted with some consternation upon finding out the Amazon was, having attained the rights to Tolkien’s world, developing a new series set in Middle-earth. On the one hand, we get to return to that world. On the other, it’s hard to top Peter Jackson’s interpretation of that world – how else could Minas Tirith look if not like that?

But then, revisiting Middle-earth means a chance to do some things differently. Like maybe making the world look a little more inclusive.

The Lord of The Rings is very white. That’s not so much a judgement as it is a fact. It doesn’t make it any worse as a work, it’s just how it is. So if we’re telling new stories, let’s ask why not and mix things up and cast some people of color as these characters.

Now, my own knee jerk response is “hey, let’s make all the elves Asian!” because that way you’ll be forced to have an Asian actor on screen anytime an elvish character is in play (and also we’ll get Elrond, half-Asian). But equating fictional races with real life ones becomes real hairy real quick. It runs the risk of feeling like stereotyping and, in the case of my own “make all elves Asian” orientalism and exoticism. Because if they don’t look like the normal, clearly they must be other, so let’s make them not-human. That line of thinking falls back on to the white-as-default mindset, where if you need a normal Everyman you make him a white guy. And let’s not do that.

Because if we’re diversifying Middle-earth, let’s let everyone be everyone. Let’s have black elves and surly Asian dwarves, let’s have Latino hobbits and an Indian shieldmaiden of Rohan.

Because why not.

The Lord of The Rings, and a lot of high fantasy with it, falls into the trap of looking a lot like Western Europe in the Middle Ages. Which, I suppose, is fair, given that Rings is the forerunner  of modern fantasy and that in writing it Tolkien wanted to give England its own myths to rival those of Greece. So of course it’s gonna portray a very (white) England-inspired place.  But that’s done, and it doesn’t excuse modern fantasy works (and the upcoming Amazon show would indeed count as a modern fantasy work) from being very white and European.

Cuz there’s nothing in The Lord of The Rings’ mythology that precludes a more diverse cast. Sure, you’d have to ignore Tolkien’s descriptions of characters as fair and golden-haired, but that’s not a loss. Heck, even adding more women makes sense; we’ve already got characters like Lúthien and Galadriel who’ve kicked ass in their time. Eowyn’s given the title shieldmaiden so she’s probably not the first. There’s no reason not to.

This is a fantasy world with magic rings and enchanted swords (and, y’know, elves and dwarves and stuff), there is literally no good reason why everyone has to be white. The only reason a black elf or Asian dwarf sounds so odd is because it’s outside what we’ve internalized as normal for the genre. We’re simply used to seeing these archetypes as white. And that’s s gotta change.

And where better for that change to happen than in the world of The Lord of The Rings? This is the book that elevated fantasy from children’s books to something taken seriously. It’s what inspired the world of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s the basis for just about every modern work of high fantasy. This is a chance to shift the framework, to redefine how fantasy usually looks.

I love The Lord of The Rings (and The Hobbit and The Silmarillion). Why can’t I, someone who’s reread the books countless times, quoted the movies in the opening to his thesis, and dominated Lord of The Rings bar trivia, get to see people in those stories who look more like me?

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Characters Like Poetry

I talk about characters a lot on this blog. Okay, this blog’s been around long enough that you could say I talk about anything a lot.

But that’s not the point. The point is characters.

Like how in Crazy Rich Asians there aren’t really characters so much as vague ciphers used to progress a not-really-there plot, or how The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and Mass Effect created such realized characters that you could easily imagine spending time with them.

But let’s unpack this for a second. Angry Planet and Mass Effect rely on characters, the former even more so. The characters are super developed such that being able to spend more time with them serves as a valid reason to keep reading/playing. You like these people, you like hanging out with them.

Crazy Rich Asians takes more of a plot-centered approach (if it had much of a proper plot to speak of). The book seems to want to explore Singapore and the spheres of the super-rich and so creates characters to populate it and push along the exploration of those themes (except the characters are kinda just there and don’t really go much further).

In some ways, it’s a bit like science-fiction: here’s this weird, different culture and place (the super-rich of Singapore), now let’s drop some people into it so we can explore it. Unlike a deft science-fiction writer, though, Kevin Kwan doesn’t give his characters any traits that inherently tie them into the nuances of the strange world. They’re just rich, or an outsider, and things don’t get more complex than that.

Now, characters don’t need to be fully fleshed and rounded to be real – especially in written fiction. A character can be real just from you being able to get a, well, a sense of them. You don’t have to be able to put them into words, like you could with Angry Planet, but you can still know them.

I currently have a small personal initiative to read more fiction by people who aren’t white guys, particularly science-fiction. One book recommended to me was Stories Of Your Life, a short story collection by Ted Chiang. The titular-ish story (“Story Of Your Life”) was adapted into Arrival, so naturally my interest was piqued – in no small part because Ted Chiang is an Asian-American science fiction writer.

So, I’m halfway through Stories Of Your Life and, ugh, it is so frustratingly well written. One thing I’m surprised to really like is how Chiang handles characters. They aren’t these fully alive people you could write a profile on like in Becky Chambers’ Angry Planet or many of Timothy Zahn’s characters in Pawn’s Gambit. But they aren’t these shapeless ciphers either. Rather, we get such a strong sense of them by how they interact with each other and the world around them that they feel real, fleshed.

Consider “Division By Zero,” a short story that frames a relationship against a mathematical proof. The plot itself is about Renee discovering an impossible theorem, one ignites an obsession that in turn pushes her husband away. Again, the characters are somewhat vague and we only know them in their relation to the plot, but Chiang positions us, the reader, so firmly within their headspace that we know how they feel, how they think — which then becomes doubly important in the subsequent piece, “Story Of Your Life.” This creates an intensely intimate space, the sort that, like a good poem, sweeps you away such that you don’t need to spend too much time understanding them. And given Chiang’s tendency for rooting his stories brilliantly complex concepts, the evocative characters let your brain focus on following the plot. Thus rather than reading like character sheets from an RPG, Chiang’s characters read like poetry.

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Trusting The Story

I was initially hesitant to watch Dunkirk, given that it seemed like Christopher Nolan being as Nolan-y as possible. Which, after The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar, wasn’t terribly enticing. The Dark Knight Rises was long on ideas and short on smooth implementation. Interstellar too had big ideas but lacked the characterization they needed to land. Dunkirk seemed like it could be more of the same: Nolan being self-indulgent to the point of breaking. All concepts, no substance.

To my delightful surprise, Dunkirk was actually quite excellent. It grounds Nolan’s concepts in a straightforward narrative that allows his strengths as a director to really shine. Even if you don’t really know what’s going on in the beginning, so long as you’re willing to trust him and his movie, things make sense.

But that’s the big If. If you spend the first half-hour of Dunkirk trying to figure out what’s going on, you’re going to have a rough go at it. What’s important is what Nolan tells you: that guy running through the street is English, wants some water, and wants to get across the channel. There’s also a fighter pilot in a dogfight and a civilian volunteering to sail the channel on a rescue mission. You don’t really need to know much more than that, and none of the characters get developed much further. But it’s not important. Over the course of Dunkirk, Nolan crafts a narrative around a particular moment that borders on impressionistic. Dunkirk asks that you watch it on its level, to trust that Nolan knows what he’s doing. Doing so lets you get swept away in the story of the Dunkirk Evacuation, with the movie’s interlocking time periods making themselves clear over time. Don’t overthink it.

There’s an amount of trust that the audience has to put in when watching a movie (or really, consuming any story), namely that if we get invested in this story, it will have been worth it. Something like Dunkirk may seem obtuse at the onset, but you’re trusting Nolan to make sense of it.

Which brings me to Star Wars. The start of A New Hope has you following a couple of droids walking around a desert for a solid chunk of time. You know the droids’ names, sure, and you know there are good guys and bad guys in space from the very first few minutes, but that’s really about it. For all intents and purposes, this seems like it’s going to be a terribly dull movie about actors in metal suits walking in a desert.

But.

If you trust that George Lucas knows what he’s doing, you end up meeting Luke Skywalker and get sucked into an epic battle between good and bad. Y’know, Star Wars. But to get there you have to trust that these droids in the desert have a purpose and aren’t just there for their own sake.

Of course, sometimes that trust can be broken. Let’s talk about Crazy Rich Asians, which has become my go-to now for bad narrative. Throughout the first couple hundred pages we’re led along to a lot of places without a lot of plot, but there’s the trust that it’ll be worthwhile. Maybe we’ll meet some interesting characters, maybe we’re in for some exciting drama. We’re waiting for it, whatever it may be. Thus it kinda sucks when Kevin Kwan’s novel suddenly culminates in an awkward fizzle reliant on characters we don’t really know and a relationship we’re not really sold on. All that trust has been wasted. And I’m left gaping in disappointment at this book.

One of the best things about stories is getting sucked into them, and letting them work their magic. That takes an amount of trust that ought to be rewarded. Just gotta let go. In stories like Dunkirk, it pays off.

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Hanging Out

Upon having it recommended to me independently by two friends, I’ve finally started reading The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And the book’s delightful; it’s a space opera about people on a ship written by a writer who’s clearly seen the same movies, read the same books, and played the same video games as me. It’s one of those books I can’t stop reading but don’t want to end.

It’s a very episodic book; while there is a definite narrative throughline, thus far (I’m about halfway through) it’s been secondary to the misadventures the crew have been having along the way. And I’m totally fine with that.

Which is strange, because last week I harangued Crazy Rich Asians for spending too much time lollygagging and not enough time plotting. Asians is characterized by episodic misadventures until a whole lot of plot shows up in the final hundred-odd pages, but I found it frustrating.

And I think there’s a clear reason why.

And it’s not the spaceship thing.

It’s characters.

Like I said last week, the folks in Crazy Rich Asians are more cipher than characters, bodies with a trait or two slapped on them to say what’s needed for the scene. They’ve no inner life. The characters in Long Way, conversely, are sharply defined with a rich sense of history to them. They feel distinct, different; like you could hold a real conversation with them. And so, when placed in an episodic narrative, it’s fun to see them interact with each other, to watch them hang out.

It’s a benefit of long-form storytelling. The deft writing in The Avengers characterizes the heroes well enough that you wish there was more time to see them hanging out together. A book has plenty of space for that to happen.

As do video games. Arguably one of the strongest aspects of the original Mass Effect trilogy is how well Shepard and (most of) his/her crew is sketched out. You have someone like Mordin, a former black-ops scientist/commando turned doctor who also sings showtunes. Which is interesting enough, but it’s when he’s mixed in with Shepard that things get really good. Interacting with Mordin on his loyalty mission in 2 has you grappling with the morality of the Genophage (a virus that affects the reproduction rate of a martial species). Was it a necessary measure? Do the krogan deserve a second chance? Good characters enhance each other; iron sharpens iron and all that. Captain America and Iron Man each push each other on and force the other to be more stubborn. It’s around Inara that Malcolm Reynolds will let the holes in his armor show. Barney and Robin drink scotch and smoke cigars.

The final DLC for Mass Effect 3, Citadel, is essentially all hanging out with your crew. You get small side quests with each one and then throw a big party with these characters you’ve spent tens of hours over multiple games getting to know. It’s great fun and a fond farewell. It wouldn’t work near as well had these characters not been so well done. If the games didn’t give you the time to get to know them or made these characters worth knowing, it’d just be a drag of cutscenes while you waited to get back to shooting stuff.

I think that’s a hallmark of good characters; you feel like you know them. The characters of a tv show start to feel like your friends. When I talk about my crew in Mass Effect, they’re my crew, who I fought the Collectors and Reapers with. And with characters like that, I don’t mind watching them going on misadventures.

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Why Am I Reading This?

There aren’t a lot of books that take place in Singapore. Wikipedia’s category page for Novels Set in Singapore lists only twenty-six. Now, there are books missing from that list (I added one to the list while writing this), but let’s take this as a sample group. A cursory glance shows that many of these books are not set in contemporary Singapore, but rather around the second World War or before the country was established as it is now. None of them are books you’re probably gonna happen upon, and a few are long out of print.

Point is, not a lot of books about modern Singapore.

Which is why, upon finding it on display in a bookstore in the Village, I added Crazy Rich Asians to my reading list. The blurb sounded interesting enough; a Singaporean-living-in-New-York (Nick) brings his ABC girlfriend (Rachel) to Singapore for a friend’s wedding and to meet his parents (who are crazy rich). Should be fun.

Of course, the main reason I picked up the book and read it was because it was a book by a Singaporean about Singapore. I haven’t read a book that would fall into either category since… well, I can’t remember.

And for most of the book, it’s why I kept reading. The prose of Crazy Rich Asians, is passable at its best, perfectly perfunctory and rife with massive chunks of exposition. Most frustrating of all, it is bereft of a voice. It could almost be excused as just lackluster writing, except that we catch glimmers of one in the footnotes used to translate bits of Singlish or explain a reference to a Singaporean institution (but, for some reason, not to excise the paragraphs of stilted exposition that exist in the text). Writer Kevin Kwan does shine through in parts, particular when capturing the idiosyncratic speech pattern of Singaporeans, or small details about the food (and importance thereof) in Singapore. But it is, for the most part, a bit of a dull read.

But I can forgive lackluster prose. Michael A. Stackpole is not the most deft writer, but his X-Wing books are well-plotted and offer a fun, pulpy read with distinct, memorable characters. Crazy Rich Asians, however, has only the barest bones of a plot. Rachel gets a chunk of culture shock when she realizes how rich Nick’s family is, meanwhile Nick’s mother tries to break them up, seeing as Rachel doesn’t come from an established family. There’s also Nick’s cousin who suspects her husband of infidelity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these plots, except that they’re all stretched out over the book’s five hundred-odd pages, with little development for whole swaths of the book and interspersed with small subplots that offer little insight into characters or the bigger, overacting plots. It’s like an open-world video game with too many sidequests in book form. The big issue, besides the whole pacing thing, is that so much of the conflict is contrived. Which, again, wouldn’t be an issue were the characters interesting; but Nick, Rachel, et al. feel more like ciphers than characters, hollow shells who act and react however best to move the plot along or, more often add to The Drama. When the book finally resolves with the most overdone trope ever, it’s more an eventuality than a culmination. Characters don’t make choices, character’s don’t have inner conflict, characters don’t have character.

So why the hell did I keep reading? Besides, y’know, my aversion to complaining and criticizing material I don’t watch/read/play. Simple answer: Singapore. I’ve spent around half my life in that country at various points and have a complex relationship with the place. There’s a thrill to seeing it in fiction and recognizing places and foods. I suppose for people without a connection to the country would find the book intriguing for the, well, exoticness of Singapore and it’s super-rich elite. It leaves a weird feeling in my gut. To me, Singapore isn’t exotic; it’s pretty normal, so exoticizing someplace like Singapore is odd in and of itself, and downright bizarre when the book’s appeal seems to hang on that hook. We get it, Singapore is a unique place, but you’ve gotta do something with it. Tolkien didn’t just create an encyclopedia of Middle-Earth, he sets epic stories in it to flesh it out. Kwan’s characters never become more interesting than Singapore, and a location, no matter how exotic, shouldn’t be what drives a story.

There are two more books in this series, and I’m mildly curious about whether they improve. But as it stands, Crazy Rich Asians is an immensely frustrating book. I want to see Singapore and all its idiosyncrasies in fiction, I just want to see it done well. I guess I kept reading with the hopes that hey, it’d finish well, but so much for that.

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