Tag Archives: Books

Classically Petty

Don Quixote is a pretty important book, to put it mildly. Often counted one of – if not the – greatest book ever written, it’s definitely something you can categorize under Serious Literature. It’s also home to some outstanding pettiness and a magnificent middle finger to fan-fiction.

The book was hugely popular right from when it was first published. It didn’t take too long for another writer to think there was something to this delusional adventurer and faithful pseudo-squire and write his own sequel under the name Avellaneda. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote’s author,  clearly didn’t take kindly to his characters being used like this, and took several shots at the unofficial sequel when his Part Two came out a decade later.

Notably, Part Two sees many of the characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza encounter both aware of and fans of Part One. The book was published in this fictional world too, and when he sallies forth on his new adventure, Don Quixote must reckon with the reputation of his fictionalized self. Not only that, but Don Quixote discovers that there is another book out there (by Avellaneda!) about him and his adventures, and this one is patently false. Quixote is very unhappy with this version of himself as it gets details about him wrong. He’s so mad about it that he ups and cancels his plans to go take part in the jousts in Zaragoza. You have to realize, that at this point in Part Two one of Don Quixote’s big goals has been to go and compete in these jousts (as a noble knight like [he envisions himself] himself would). All that is tossed aside because the fake-fictional version of Don Quixote jousted in Zaragoza and the real-fictional Don Quixote wants absolutely nothing to do with his fake-fictional self. Don Quixote (and by proxy, Cervantes himself) doesn’t want to give any credence to Avellaneda’s sequel and so the book makes it abundantly clear that Don Quixote did no such thing.

That, in and of itself, would be a nice meta attack on Avellaneda’s fan-fiction, but Cervantes goes further. On his way home, Don Quixote meets a Don Alvero Tarfe — a character from Avellaneda’s Part Two. They get talking, and Don Alvero claims to be a good friend of Don Quixote, which Don Quixote says is impossible because he is the real Don Quixote. Over the course of their conversation, Don Alvero — a character originally from Avellaneda’s unofficial sequel, remember — takes back any statement about having met Don Quixote prior to this encounter. And then a notary is summoned and Don Alvero makes a sworn affidavit, because as far as Cervantes is concerned, there’s no such things as overkill when it comes to discrediting Avellaneda.

Seriously, there isn’t. Don Quixote returns home, and vows to become a shepherd. That’s it, Don Quixote’s done, no more adventures with our errant knight-errant. Oh, and then, lest some wannabe-Avellaneda wants him to take up the mantle again, Don Quixote promptly falls sick, recants all his knightly desires, and dies.

Yep, Don Quixote dies at the end. Spoiler. And the narrator firmly states that Don Quixote went on no other adventures than those in Part One and Part Two and any piece of fiction that suggests otherwise is full of crap.

That’s right, Cervantes straight up kills off his famous main character just so no one else can play with him.

Look, I’m sure there’s something to be said here about Cervantes’ overly tight protection of his creation and some valid fuel for an in-depth discussion of Death of The Author as it pertains to fan-fiction and adaptations. Maybe even something about metafiction as it pertains to Don Quixote. But honestly, the whole point of this rant essay was to tell you about what a petty rascal Cervantes was. Would’ve thought Serious Literature could be so catty?

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Hogwarts Housing

I’ve been on a bit of a Harry Potter kick lately. One reason is that LEGO revived the sets based on the movies so I’ve been seeing a lot of it at work. Another is that my girlfriend’s parents got us tickets to see Cursed Child (which is amazing) so there’s that too.

Having recalled that J.K. Rowling detailed a magic school based in the US — Ilvermorny — some time ago, and that she described the houses in that school into which students were sorted, I decided to look up what those houses were and what they represented. Frustratingly, they’re pretty simplistic; one is emblematic of the scholar, one the warrior, another the adventurer, the last the healer. They’re archetypes, but almost too much so.

The original four houses of Hogwarts are Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Slytherin. Each house is less archetypical and more a set of traits, each with their pros and cons. Gryffindors are courageous and brave, but can be foolish and brash. Those in Slytherin are known to be willy and cunning, even to the point of being manipulative. Belonging to a Hogwarts house is less about subscribing to an archetype (scholar vs healer, or even chaotic-good vs lawful-evil), but more a question about what traits do you see in yourself and value in others. To Rowling’s credit, no house is inherently bad (even if Gryffindor gets all the good press), they’re all different facets of human nature.

Sorting yourself into a house, whether it be by some handy online quiz or through your own self assessment, offers for a fun form of engagement with the Harry Potter books. No matter which house you’re in, the implication is that you’re still a student (or alumnus) of Hogwarts and thus someone with magical inclinations (and probably heroic). Within that, there is also a healthy sense of tribalism that comes from being part of a group. I’m a Gryffindor, I’m one of them, for better or worse. I’ve something of an identity there; I fit in.

It’s interesting that something as ‘basic’ as a which of these four houses you’re in could inspire such a spirited and personal sense of belonging (just take a look at all the house swag on Etsy). It’s not nearly as in-depth as, say, an MBTI which kinda puts a pin on your personality. If anything, it’s closer to a horoscope, but not nearly as vague and as all-inclusive as to apply to anyone born within a certain timeframe. It’s still specific, but not alienating.

I said before that I’m a Gryffindor (or, in the words of my girlfriend: “No, no; Gryffindor, definitely.” Which isn’t to say I’m not smart, or have the capacity for cunning, or a good friend; rather that some of my more obvious traits include my tendency to rush headlong into things without thinking them through, or an innate brashness that borders on cocksureness. Some people, upon hearing this, are content to nod and tell me that, yep, that makes perfect sense. Which is fun, because, like I said, I belong somewhere.

As people, we want to belong. We want to have some tribe, some home, some foundation for our identity. The fun thing about Hogwarts houses is that they offer one for you, one that’s as arbitrary as it is fictional — after all, Hogwarts doesn’t really exist and there is no real Sorting Hat to determine your friend group for your next seven books years of education. But having that House, that place of people Kinda Like You, adds to that sense of magic of the Harry Potter books. You know that if, if, that place was real, there’d be a spot for you. One which doesn’t limit you; Cedric was a loyal Hufflepuff, but also incredibly brave; Hermione a Gryffindor and still the smartest in the room. There’s still room to be yourself.

I checked recently what Pottermore told me my Ilvermorny house was. Apparently I’m a Thunderbird, that is, the house of Adventurers. Which, I’m okay with. Doesn’t sound quite as fun (or as rife with potential) as a Gryffindor, but hey, I can live with it.

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Some Stuff From 2017 I Wanna Talk About

I did this last year, mostly as an excuse to enthuse about things I really like. I’m gonna do it again, listing some things from last year that I really liked. They mayn’t be the best thing in their category, but they’re really cool and I wanna pay attention to it! The three things here are all terrific.

Book: From A Certain Point of View, a collection

Star Wars will forever be my first love. A short story collection by a host of different authors running the gamut from Kelly Sue Deconnick (Captain Marvel!) and Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals!) to Ken Lieu (“The Paper Menagerie,” The Grace of Kings!) to Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death!). It’s a delight to see so many people take a crack at writing Star Wars, fleshing out scenes from the original movie and adding nuance and shades that weren’t there before. Plus, there’s a large number of women and people of color writing, and it’s awesome to see Lucasfilm encouraging those voices.

Album: Skin and Earth, by Lights

I really like Lights, have since I got her first album back in 2009. Skin and Earth is a wild ride, kinda a concept album (see the accompanying tie-in comic she wrote and drew), but mostly just a great collection of music. Like every album she’s put out, Skin and Earth feels at once wholly different from what’s come before and yet still recognizably her. It’s great.

Video Game: Horizon Zero Dawn, by Guerrilla Games

Right off the bat this game has one of my favorite settings; a post-apocalyptic world where the apocalypse was so long ago it’s just legends and a new civilization has already risen up. Throw in some robot dinosaurs and I’m sold. Plus, you play as Aloy, an upbeat, relentless outcast who’s handy with a bow is the icing on the cake. Actually, more than that, she’s a winning and charming character (who’s also badass) and is a wonderful protagonist for exploring this beautiful, decayed-but-renewed world.

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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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