Tag Archives: Books

Thinking Elsewise

Central to the Battle School in Ender’s Game are the Games; mock-battles fought between armies in a zero-gravity arena where combatants try to win by eliminating their opponents. When Ender is given his own army, he messes with conventional tactics by deciding that the enemy’s gate is down, and not across. Cardinal directions are completely arbitrary in zero gravity, so it makes little sense to be beholden to them. This reframes the battlefield; Ender’s army gets an advantage since they’re able to approach their opponents from unexpected angles. It’s Ender’s grasp of three-dimensional space, among other things, that makes him a formidable commander. Up and down are relative.

The central gimmick of Gravity Rush is your ability to mess with gravity. With the press of a button, Kat is able to float off the ground, and another tap sends her hurtling in that direction until she hits something, at which point that something is now the ground she’s standing on. It’s a dizzying affair, flying around this steampunk town and walking upside down on bridges and the like. It became slightly less dizzying, however, when I realized I wasn’t flying around; rather, I was falling.

I know this might seem obvious, but it is a decidedly different approach to the game. We’re used to flying in games; that’s a motion that’s easily translatable. Maybe not flying like Superman, but flying with a jetpack or flying a plane or spaceship. Thus when using Kat’s powers, the translation in my mind is that I’m flying, and I try to adjust as such (and I can’t). Once I think about it as if I’m falling wherever I’m going, though, the movement becomes more familiar and I’m better able to guide Kat through the air.

In essence, to play Gravity Rush well, I’ve gotta stop thinking ‘normally’ and get myself to see Kat as falling, not flying. Basically, I gotta reframe my point of view — the enemy’s gate is down. It’s a really fun part of Gravity Rush, because there are times when my brain goes back to ‘default’ and I’ve gotta remind myself that I’m falling. The game wants you to speak its gravity-based language, which often means having to ignore other telltale signs of which way is up.

Thinking differently is a really fun exercise, and it’s really neat when games force you to do so. Portal is a first-person game that gives you a portal gun. You go in one portal and out the other — simple. You go fast in one portal you go fast out the other; vertical velocity is transferred to horizontal, depending on where the portals are. To solve the puzzles in the game, you’ve gotta use these portals to your advantage, often in some really wild ways. It’s no small detail that GLaDOS, the AI who’s setting up these tests for you, compliments you by saying that “now you’re thinking with portals.” You gotta think with portals to get through.

I like games, and I like having to learn to think the way a game wants you to think. When playing Kerbal Space Program I had to think like a rocket scientist, Catherine had me dreaming in block puzzles. Naturally, I think there’s so much more room in games to really cut wild. I want a strategy game that takes place in proper three-dimensional zero-gravity space, complete with being able to reorientate ships and the like. I want puzzle games that really cut wild with ideas of physics and force you to think way outside the box. It’s a hurdle to overcome, sure, when getting the hang of a game, but it’s such a fun feeling. Games, particularly video games, are access to a virtual world and the sky’s the limit with what you could do there. And sometimes, that sky is where gravity happens to be pulling you.

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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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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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