Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Category: Uncategorized (page 1 of 3)

Review: Fallout 4

It has been a long time since I enjoyed a video game as much as I am enjoying Fallout 4. To give some perspective, after my first playthrough I immediately started over, and am enjoying it even more the second time, playing on the hardest difficulty level, using a very different type of character. I have been playing the game since shortly after the New Year and am not getting tired of it.

Now, I hesitate to do this because I know that a person describing what happened to them in a video game can be about as interesting as a person telling you about a weird dream they had, but early on in my second playthrough, I had an experience that may help to explain the game and why I enjoy it so much.

The premise of the game is that you are the survivor of a nuclear war, woken up after a couple hundred years of suspended animation in a protective bunker in Lexington, just outside of Boston. One of the first things you do after emerging into the post-apocalyptic wasteland is travel to Concord (passing the famous minuteman statue along the way), where you rescue a small group of survivors from Raiders: drug-addled scavengers who prey on the weak. The survivors have holed up in the Museum of Freedom in Concord. After helping them fend off the raiders, you discover a suit of power armor and a minigun in a military helicopter that crashed into the roof of the Museum. It’s a good thing too, because just as you clear out the raiders, a Deathclaw emerges from a caved-in sewer main. A Deathclaw’s name is pretty self explanatory. It’s one of the most dangerous enemies in the game, and Fallout 4 makes you face one right at the beginning.

So far this is all according to the script. This happens in every game. But this is where things went off the rails for me. You see, on this second playthrough, I decided to try the hardest difficulty level, Survival Mode, which among other things makes enemies more dangerous and makes your player character susceptible to illness, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion. It also only allows you to save the game by sleeping in a bed. There’s no bed in the Museum of Freedom. My character was hungry, thirsty, and wounded, and I was not about to lose all my hard work by facing the Deathclaw without saving.

I needed to go back to my home base to rest up and save my game, but power armor runs on nuclear batteries, and running all the way back to my base would wear out the batteries before I even faced the Deathclaw. I needed functional armor to fight the monster and I had to leave my armor in Concord. Without the armor, I was not strong enough to carry the heavy minigun with me along with all my other gear, so I had to leave that behind too. I snuck out of town and back to my base where I rested (and saved), ate some food, rehydrated, and prepared for the fight. Then I snuck back into Concord, avoiding the Deathclaw until I got back to my power armor. The armor was where I left it, but the minigun was nowhere to be seen. Did someone steal it while I was gone? Did the game glitch and delete the item when I got too far away? I don’t know, but I had no way of defeating the Deathclaw without it. (I tried. It didn’t go well. Remember, this is the very beginning of the game. My guns might as well have been pea shooters for all the good they did. I needed the firepower.)

So I had to run away, leaving my new friends still stranded in the museum with an angry Deathclaw at the door. I set out randomly, hoping to return later in the game when I was stronger so I could kill the thing. Then I came across an abandoned Air Force base. The compound attached to it had been taken over by Raiders, but luckily there was a mattress in a shack nearby, so I was able to rest there for a few hours and save my game.

I infiltrated the base and was promptly mowed down by a raider with a minigun. Suddenly it became my sole purpose to take out the raiders in this base, get the minigun, and drag it back to my power armor so I could finish the job in Concord. Long story short, after many, many (many) attempts, I succeeded. I got the big gun, killed the deathclaw, and was able to rescue my friends and get back on track.

Here’s a screenshot of someone in power armor, wielding the minigun in front of the Museum of Freedom. In a nice touch, the barrels of the minigun glow red after you’ve been firing for a while.

Ok, cool. That was probably more fun for me to relate than it was for you to read, but here’s the point I was trying to make: the strength of Fallout 4 is not its main story (which is so-so), but the smaller stories that emerge organically from exploring the huge world of the game.

Normally, I say that I want my video games to have a strong main story line. And that’s still true: I think video games are an amazing storytelling medium that almost always fail to live up to their potential because they treat writing as an afterthought. But I have to admit, Fallout 4 has me reconsidering slightly. I diligently followed the main story line on my first playthrough, and it was ok. A so-so sci-fi story that forces you to choose sides among several different factions, with some good moral ambiguity thrown in. But for this second playthrough I am ignoring the main plot for as long as I can, and it is making me appreciate the smaller scale stories that the game tells.

These small scale stories come in three flavors. The first kind of stories are the emergent stories like the one I told above. It is the hallmark of a great video game when, on top of all the more formal objectives the game sets for the player, it provides fertile ground and sufficient freedom for the player can create their own objectives, and then strive to achieve them. This is a large part of why the Civilization games are so addictive, and for me at least, Fallout 4 has achieved this as well.

I once heard a presentation about story telling in science communication, and it used a definition of story that has stuck with me. It defined a story as:

  • A sympathetic or interesting character
  • Experiences setbacks
  • As they try to achieve a goal

The emergent stories in Fallout 4 are extremely engaging because that character is you. And the goal is one that you set for yourself. Some of my most memorable experiences have been simple things like when I determined to reach a certain location on the map through unexplored territory, or when I tried to move all of my suits of power armor from different locations on the map to my main base, or when I was heading to a settlement that needed my help and I suddenly came the remains of an an airplane crash.

The second kind of small scale story in Fallout 4 is the location-specific story. There are hundreds of “discoverable” named locations in the game, and almost all of them have their own story. These stories are often told through voice recordings or computer logs left behind by the characters, though sometimes they have their own full-blown quests to go with them.

Like much of the Fallout depiction of the apocalypse, they are often darkly humorous, like the high school that, in a bid for more funding, agreed to serve experimental pink goo in the cafeteria, turning the students and staff into pink zombies. Or the robot manufacturing plant that has robots that have survived since the pre-apocalyptic era, still marching around the premises shouting at trespassers about the communist menace. But sometimes they are genuinely poignant, or add an unexpected depth to otherwise disposable bad guys. There’s one location where you find the remains of a family who got trapped in their fallout shelter. You can see where they tried, and failed, to tunnel out. In another location, you find the journal entries of an idealistic settler who founded a new settlement. The entries reveal how, little by little, they were forced to become a ruthless raider to survive.

Takahashi, the Japanese robot chef in Diamond City (the site of the former Fenway park), cooks a mean cup of noodles.

The third kind of small-scale story is the story told by the setting itself. I have come to realize that this is a type of storytelling that videogames excel in, and that even movies and TV can’t fully achieve because it requires control of what you’re viewing and the ability to explore the environment. The ambiance of a game: the music, the scenery, the bit characters, the little details, can come together to make it an immersive experience that seems to tell the player a story just by being in the setting. This was why I thought Red Dead Redemption was such a good western despite its many flaws. It makes just being in the game world feel like reading one of those thick novels that fully draws you in that you don’t want to end. On par with Shogun, or Lord of the Rings, or Dune.

The wasteland of Fallout 4 is rich with details that make it feel authentic and lived-in. The game designers understand that the physical objects in our lives, in our homes, are a window into who we are. They have mastered the art of telling a story just by the things people have left behind, or the attempts that people have made to live in the remains of civilization.

Stumbling through the forest, you come across a clearing. There’s a fire pit, a couple of sleeping bags, and a crate with some beers in it. Maybe even some meat on a spit over the fire.

In an alley between two crumbling buildings, you find a surprisingly cozy little living space that has clearly been used recently. There’s a teddy bear on one of the beds and rocket ship drapes stretched over a gap in the shack wall. A family lives here, in the midst of the destruction.

Skeletons in particular are an art form all their own in Fallout 4. So much so that there are multiple listicles about the various bizarre stories they tell. For example, here’s a skeleton who appears to have died with his favorite teddy bear while eating milk and cereal.

All of these three types of small-scale stories add up to give the world of Fallout 4 far more “texture” and a feeling of being a real place than previous Fallouts. This is also thanks to the considerably better graphics. Countless times while exploring the wasteland, I’ve paused to just take in the beauty. It’s a special kind of achievement to be able to design an apocalyptic wasteland that is visually stunning under any weather conditions or time of day.

Sunset over the wasteland.

The setting of Fallout 4 also holds a special place in my heart. I spent the summer of 2004 in the Boston area. It was a magical summer: I was working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, my fellow interns were interesting and wonderful people, and it was a thrill just to walk the halls of Harvard and MIT, to play ultimate frisbee in the evening in the Harvard law quad, to walk along the banks of the Charles where my grandfather “lollygagged” when he was not much older than I was. It was a a real turning point in my life to discover a place where the entire culture is built around being a nerd. Where the ice cream flavors and sandwich names are bad puns based on science or geek culture.

Boston itself was wonderful too. Historic and modern, bustling and busy but small enough to explore on foot. I have been back several times for weddings, meetings, etc. It is where I would choose to live if I had to live in a major city.

It’s a very strange experience to be playing a video game and stumble across a place you’ve been to in real life, but with a post-apocalyptic veneer over it, and it’s one of the things that makes the Fallout games special. The other day while playing, I hadn’t been paying attention to exactly where I was, and I emerged from an alley to find Trinity Church on my left and the Boston Public Library on my right. I was immediately transported back to the evening when several of the other interns and I went to folk dancing lessons in front of the church and danced to misrlou. I then remembered a different visit to Boston, walking through farmers market stalls and eating ripe peaches and posing in front of the statues in the library with my friends before going to a wedding later that evening.

Trinity church in Fallout 4.
Real life Trinity church.

At one point I actually tried to find the in-game version of the dorm I stayed in for my internship. Alas, the game map is much smaller than the real world Boston-Cambridge area, and it didn’t have that kind of fidelity. But I found where the dorm should have been. And nearby was a decent replica of Harvard square, complete with the news stand and subway station that I grew to know and love that summer.

Fallout 4’s take on Harvard square.
Fallout 4’s take on MIT.

(As an aside, I find it a little disconcerting how all the modern Fallout games appear to all be set in places that are meaningful to me in some way. It’s not just Fallout 4. Fallout 3 was in the DC area, where I spent a summer in 2006, and visited multiple times before and since. Fallout: New Vegas is set in the desert southwest, not far from where I currently live. I wonder if Fallout 5 will be set in southeast Michigan, where I grew up. Or maybe in Pasadena, CA. JPL would make a great place to have overrun with robots.)

Even apart from the memories, the graphics, the ambiance, and the small-scale stories, Fallout 4 is a great game from a pure gameplay perspective. It improves upon a lot of the mechanics introduced by Fallout 3 and New Vegas, including streamlining the leveling and perk system so that you can still customize your character but it’s much simpler. Bethesda games are notorious for the ability to pick up all sorts of random junk that you find in the game world, but Fallout 4 gives that junk a purpose: you can use it to MacGuyver improvements to your weapons and armor, to create food and medicine, and as raw materials to construct settlements.

The settlements in particular are a new direction for Fallout. My first time through, I didn’t do much with them, but on my second playthrough I have really embraced the settlement building and it’s a lot of fun. One of my complaints about the Fallout universe, and post-apocalyptic fiction in general, is can seem like there’s little organized effort to rebuild society in a meaningful way. The settlements (and the “Minutemen” faction in the game, which is trying to unite them) are Fallout 4’s answer to that, giving you the chance to make little oases of safety in the wasteland, and even link them up with trade routes. They function almost as a mini SimCity type of game: you have to ensure that each settlement has enough food, water, defense, and beds for it to grow and attract more settlers. And the game designers did a great job of giving each settlement its own different design and challenges. One is centered on a structure built using the framework of a high voltage power pylon. Another is crammed into a narrow alleyway. Another is in the remains of Fort Independence.

An example settlement. Almost everything you see was built by the user.

Settlement building also provides additional goals that form the seeds for those player-defined stories I talked about above. I need to build more beds, but I’m short on metal and cloth, so I set out to explore a nearby abandoned hospital overrun by ghouls. Or I need circuitry and copper wire to construct some defensive machine gun turrets, so I’m determined to reach the robot junkyard to the east, but that means I’ll need to make it through territory controlled by super mutants.

Settlements also finally succeed in something that previous Fallouts made only token gestures toward: giving the player a sense of having a home base to return to. By allowing players to construct their base, it gives a real sense of ownership and even personality to the settlements if you want it. (You can be strictly utilitarian, or go all-out with the interior decorating.) Especially on Survival difficulty, where you need to sleep in a bed to save, and you need food and water and rest to stay healthy, it is a genuine relief to return from the wasteland to the safety of your settlement and sleep in your own bed.

Survival difficulty really makes the game significantly more fun and immersive. Suddenly all of that food and drink you pick up is useful. The various drugs you can take (and get addicted to) are sometimes the only thing that will let you survive a particularly dangerous encounter. And the constant tension of needing to find a bed so you can save makes the game constantly exciting.

Another innovation that I love in Fallout 4 is the introduction of “legendary” enemies and items. Legendary enemies are like mini “bosses”. Every discoverable location has one that has claimed the location as its own, and you also sometimes encounter them randomly in the wilderness. They are much tougher than regular enemies, but in return, they always drop a legendary item: a weapon or piece of armor that has randomly assigned attributes. Some of them are really powerful. For example on my first playthrough I got a legendary gauss rifle (already the strongest gun in the game) that also set enemies on fire. And sometimes the legendary perks make absolutely no sense, like a nuclear bomb launcher that heals anyone it hits.

Now look, I fully understand that these random bosses are a blatant example of the use of operant conditioning to hack my brain and make the game more addictive, but I don’t care. I love them. Combined with the need to collect junk to help build settlements or craft improvements to my gear, the lure of a mini boss fight with possible powerful loot gives Fallout 4 a really fun core gameplay loop.

All of which is to say: I really like Fallout 4 a lot. It has its flaws (clunky dialog, a main plot that doesn’t always make sense, occasional bugs) but they are more than made up for by a thoroughly immersive setting, a really fun gameplay loop, and a variety of different styles of play. My first time through the game I was a lone sniper dead-set on following the main plot. The second time through, on survival mode, I’m a charismatic sword-wielding close-quarters fighter, I’m ignoring the main plot, I always try to travel with a companion, and I am building a network of ever more elaborate settlements across the Boston area. If I play again, I’ll probably be a mad scientist, wielding laser guns, building robot minions, and constructing an evil island lair.

Fallout 4 is so much fun because it provides fertile ground to discover all of the little stories that have been built into the game, and to experience your own stories as you play. I have only limited time to spend on video games these days, but as long as Fallout 4 manages to persist in being captivating and fun, I’m happy to spend my time with it.

Rapid Fire Book Reviews: New Baby Edition

It’s been a while since I posted a book review: I’ve been slightly distracted. But, I’ve still been reading, so here are some quick thoughts on what I’ve been reading.

 

The Warded Man

This is a pretty decent fantasy novel about a world where demons come out when the sun comes down. The demons can only be stopped by painting wards which create a sort of magical force field, so most people in this traditional European feudal-style fantasy world just cower in their homes at night and hope nothing messes up their wards. The story follows Arlen, a boy in a small village with a knack for warding who is sick of hiding from the demons; Rojer, a boy orphaned when demons killed his parents and adopted by a jongleur; and Leesha, a beautiful girl who is learning to be an “herb-gatherer” (doctor) from the old crone in her village. Through the course of the book they grow up and develop skills that will be needed to fight the demons, and Arlen in particular gets obsessed with it, tattooing himself all over with wards.

I mostly enjoyed this story and would have given it 4 stars if it weren’t for how it handled Leesha. I think the author tried to be feminist when he was writing this: In the big city, women have a lot of the positions of power in the government (though there’s still a Duke), and in the backwater villages it’s clear that we are supposed to be appalled by how women are treated poorly and valued mainly for their ability to make babies. But here’s the thing: it’s not that feminist to show us how bad it is for Leesha without also making her story have to do with more than her status as a sex object. And yet, just about every part of her story is driven by men’s lust for her and/or women’s warnings that she better start making babies soon. The last straw for me was (spoiler alert) when she and Rojer get ambushed on the road and, you guessed it, she gets raped. Then, not two days later, she has met Arlen, fallen in love with him, and they have passionate sex. Rape as a plot device is overused and lazy, and I have trouble believing that Leesha would want to be intimate with a strange man only a day or two after being gang raped. Call me crazy, but I think maybe she would need more time.

Anyway, other than that the book was mostly enjoyable, though clearly the beginning of a series. I’ll read the later books, but I hope the author gets better at handling women characters.

Brain Rules for Baby

With a newborn, I find I spend a lot of time laying on the couch with a baby napping on me. Perfect for reading a book about baby development! I liked this book a lot better than Happiest Baby on the Block. Although still sometimes simplified and cutesy, it also referred to actual studies and used technical terms when necessary. It’s an interesting book, but like other parenting books I found that most of its advice was pretty basic common sense. Some of the key points were:

  1. Empathy and understanding and managing emotions are key. It helps kids to have the words to name the emotions they’re feeling.
  2. Having friends is the key to happiness.
  3. Kids do best when rules are clear, fully explained, and consistently enforced. No “because I said so”. No spanking. Praise good behavior as well as punishing the bad.
  4. Praise effort, not intelligence.

Here’s a nice summary of the book. As you can see, even though there’s more to this book than “Happiest Baby on the Block”, it still boils down to a pretty concise list of advice.

The Darwin Elevator

This was a fun sci-fi action novel. The premise is that aliens have come to earth and built a space elevator that touches down in Darwin, Australia. At the same time, the planet has been infected with a disease that makes everyone go crazy, consumed by a single emotion until they’re essentially zombies. The only area where the disease can’t reach is the immediate vicinity of the elevator. So, the human race now is basically confined to Darwin and a series of huge space stations attached to the elevator. The space stations provide food to the people on the ground, and the ground provides air and water to the stations. The main characters are a rare group who are immune to the disease, so they make a living scavenging supplies from outside the protective aura of the elevator. When the elevator starts to malfunction, they get embroiled in the conflict between those on the ground and those in space.

This book has a little bit of everything: post-apocalyptic zombie fighting? Check. Political maneuvering? Check. Ragtag crew of misfits? Check. Decent science side to the sci-fi? Check (though this is by no means “hard” sci-fi). All in all, this one isn’t great literature but it was a fun read and I’ll probably pick up the sequel.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things

I loved this, even though it’s barely even a story. This is a novella about Auri, a minor character from The Name of the Wind. She is an odd girl who lives in the subterranean ruins beneath the college of magic. It’s basically a long vignette rather than a true story. Auri believes that all of the various knick-nacks that she owns have personalities and spends a lot of time placing them just so, so that object A isn’t jealous of object B, or so that object C has plenty of space. There’s a whole surprisingly engaging passage about making soap.

If it sounds weird, it is, but that’s what makes it so charming. It’s a great example of how good writing that puts you inside the character’s head can make you care about anything, even if you don’t fully understand it. You don’t have to understand, you just have to understand that it’s important to Auri.  Also, in typical Rothfuss fashion, the prose is gorgeous. Plus, there is a lot of fun wordplay as well, including chemistry puns.

I would have enjoyed this in any case, but it will always hold a special place in my heart because it’s what we were reading on Christmas eve during a snowstorm while we sat by our 5-day-old baby’s bed in the NICU. Our lives had just been turned upside down but somehow everything felt just as it should be, and this book was part of that.

Snow Crash

I posted this quick review on Goodreads right after I finished this, but I’ll paste it here too:

This book has some really interesting glimpses of the future as it looked from the 90s, and at times some really nice turns of phrase, but ultimately fails because of its nonsensical plot and massive, boring, incoherent info dumps. It’s like the book was so concerned with showing off gee-whiz technology and bizarre ideas about how society will develop that it forgot that stories need to make sense. Also, the underlying premise is such a warped misunderstanding of how memes and computer programming and language work that I just couldn’t take it seriously.

I had a similar problem with Neuromancer: nice writing, cool vision of the future, but incomprehensible plot. Maybe cyberpunk just isn’t the genre for me.

Flash Fiction: Challenge #475 – Like a Dog

So, it turns out last weekend there weren’t enough entries in the flash challenge, so it continued to this week That means that one of the triggers was the one I submitted, but I decided to go ahead with the challenge and hope the other trigger worked for me. It wasn’t super-inspiring, but I still managed 1200 words, so not bad! Here’s my entry:


 

“Malcom! Get out here, man, we are ready to be off!” prince Vincent yelled. Behind him, the courtiers chuckled and joked with one another.

Malcom the kennelmaster took his time. It would do the young prince good to learn some patience, even if it Malcom would pay the price for the delay. He limped down the kennel, looking at each dog with an appraising eye, choosing those who would be best for today’s hunt. His leg hurt. It would be raining later today, then.

Derek, the page boy was as eager to go on the hunt as the dogs were. Malcom sent the boy out with several of the hounds, and followed clutching the leashes of several more.

The prince waited atop his white horse, bedecked in bright satin and a ludicrous hat.

“You ought to get a new kennel master, your grace,” one of the courtiers said to the prince. “This one can barely walk, let alone ride with us on the hunt!”

“Derek will ride for me, m’lord,” Malcom said. “He’s a strong boy and knows his way with the hounds.”

The prince, aware of his audience of lordlings, sneered. “Not much to know though, is there? They are stupid creatures, just point them in the right direction and let them loose! Much like footsoldiers!” Laughter all around.

Malcom bit his tongue. The old wound in his leg throbbed, a souvenir from his fighting days. He spoke to Derek, with a message meant for the prince. “Now Derek, be sure not to release the hounds until the deer is in sight or they will tire themselves out too quickly. And once you do release them, give them their space.”

“Yes sir, as you say,” Derek said.

The prince and his lords wheeled and rode off laughing, followed by Derek and the pack of eager hounds.

* * *

They returned that afternoon, soaking wet in the rain. One of the dogs was missing.

“Your grace, I recall that ten dogs left with you this morning, but I see only nine here now.”

The prince snarled. “Train the beasts better and next time they will all come back!” He rode off in the direction of the castle.

“I’m sorry sir,” Derek said, once the prince was out of earshot. “I tried, but he didn’t listen. He rode too close once the hounds were loosed and when one darted left, he trampled the poor thing. We had to put it down.”

Malcom nodded. “Not your fault, Derek. Get the rest of the dogs in out of this rain. Did they eat?”

“No, sir.”

The hunt had been a failure to boot, then.

“Feed them before you feed yourself.”

* * *

Weeks later, on a crisp clear morning, Malcom found himself face to face with prince Vincent, just outside the kennel. The brash, blustering boy was gone, replaced by a hesitant young man.

“A word please, goodman Malcom.”

“Of course, your grace.”

“As you may have heard, the princess Elizabeth of Artea is come to visit us. She has… expressed a desire to hunt today.”

Malcom knew that this princess was intended as a potential wife for Vincent, and was rumored to be beautiful too. Did the prince realize how lucky he was that his political marriage also happened to be a desirable one?

“Of course your grace, I will make ready.” Malcom almost turned to attend to the dogs, but realized that the prince seemed to have more to say.

“Malcom, may I… confide in you?”

“You may,” Malcom said, cautiously.

The prince seemed greatly relieved. “I worry that the princess does not like me. I mean, we are meant to be married, and she obviously desires the title that would go along with such a match, but I want the match to be more than that.”

Ah. So the boy did realize his luck, and hoped not to spoil it.

“Well, your grace, I am no expert in wooing women, but it seems to me that maybe she is feeling much the same. If you want her to see you as more than a title, then you need to make it clear that you see her as something more as well. Show an interest in her. Not her family, not her kingdom, her. The person.”

The prince seemed to consider that.

“Thank you Malcom,” the prince said.

Malcom saw them off later that morning. He kept Derek at the kennels this time, to give the lovebirds some privacy. They returned that evening, emptyhanded but with cheeks flushed and smiling.

* * *

Winter, and with the snows had come an illness that reached all the way to the royal family. The king was ill, and rumor had it he would not see the spring. Malcom stomped snow from his boots and opened the door to his humble cabin to find the fire inside already lit. In front of it sat the prince, staring into the flames.

“Your grace,” Malcom said, taking a seat next to the young man.

“My father is dying.” Prince Vincent spoke without turning his eyes from the fire. Malcom said nothing, waiting.

“He can’t die!” the prince said after a moment, as if arguing with himself.

“He can, sad to say it,” Malcom said. “He’s a good man, but old.”

“And when he is gone, I am expected to take his place. I can’t do it. I can never be as wise and just as him. How am I supposed to do it? You have given me good counsel before, Malcom, though I did nothing to deserve it. How do I take my father’s place?”

Malcom sighed. Outside the winter wind sighed back.

“You know, when your father took this castle, it was a night like this one. Midwinter. We were cold and hungry. Out of supplies. The attack had to succeed or we were finished. I sat with him in his tent before the attack, and he said almost the same thing to me: ‘What right do I have to take the throne from King Uther? How can I take his place?’

He was only a little older than you are now.”

The prince stared at Malcom, wide-eyed. “You served with my father?”

“Aye, I did. From the very beginning, loyal fool that I am.” Malcom stretched his bad leg out toward the fire. “Earned myself this leg in that night’s attack. Took a spear meant for him.”

“And he punished you by making you the master of kennels?” the prince said, incredulous. “He should have knighted you!”

“Punished?” Malcom chuckled. “No, rewarded. I had nothing, and with a mangled leg I would’ve remained nothing. Your father gave me this position, this cabin. I had no desire for a knighthood, just a comfortable life.

Dogs have that bit right. A good life is not about power and glory. It’s about loyalty to your pack and working hard to earn a good meal and a comfortable place to lay your head.”

The prince was silent for a moment.

“Your father had the same worries that you do, Vincent,” Malcom said. “And he was a fine king, as you will be. Just keep in mind that bit of wisdom from the dogs. It’s not power and glory that make a good life or a good king. Be loyal to your men, make your loyal men comfortable, and you’ll do well.

Choosing Between Hillary and Bernie: My Thoughts on the Election (so far)

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It’s election season in the United States, and as always, I am getting sucked in to what has become the best reality television show out there (can you believe the latest plot twist?). Things have gotten especially heated in the last couple of weeks as primary elections have started happening and we are starting to see votes to go along with all the polling and debates. Given everything that is going on, I thought it would be worthwhile to write down some of my thoughts in an effort to clarify them for myself.

We are told every election cycle that “this election may be the most important one of our time” but this year that really is the case for one reason: the Supreme Court. Even assuming that congress continues to be worthless at getting anything done, yesterday’s death of Justice Scalia has reminded everyone of how significant the next president is going to be in terms of nominating Justices. It’s looking quite likely that, come hell or high water, Republicans in Congress will fall on their swords rather than allow Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia to be confirmed before the election. Already they are making statements about how the voters should have a say in who will replace Scalia (apparently forgetting that Supreme Court justices are not supposed to be elected officials, and that their nomination already reflects the will of the people because the people chose the president who is making the nomination). And it’s not just Scalia who may need to be replaced. Anthony Kennedy is almost 80, the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg is 82, and Stephen Breyer is 77. What I’m saying is that, even if you stop reading right here, you should at least be clear that the next president is likely to have an influence on the Supreme Court that will be felt in the Court’s decisions for decades. For that reason alone, this election is a Big Deal and you should vote and encourage everyone you know to do the same.

That said, let’s talk about the primaries. You will not be surprised to learn that, as someone whose politics were shaped during the Iraq War, the beginning of the recession, and the Republican party’s headlong lurch away from reality (which has a “well-known liberal bias“), and who has spent nearly half my life in college towns surrounded by highly educated, mostly liberal people, my views are quite liberal as well. So I will primarily be talking about the Democratic primaries in what follows.

I think everyone can agree that the Republican candidates are a mess, so I’m not going to say much about them. Along with much of the rest of the country I find it morbidly fascinating that Trump is the frontrunner candidate, with Cruz not far behind, and the “establishment” candidates are in the back of the pack, sniping at each other instead of taking on the frontrunner(s). Here’s what I will say about the fight for the Republican nominee: I am torn between hoping that Trump wins because he is so clearly an awful choice for President that the Democrats would basically be guaranteed a win in November, and being terrified that Trump will win the nomination and then, when the Party closes ranks behind him, he will actually have a shot.

In any case, what has really been on my mind especially since the primaries started is the choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nominee. As I said, my peers tend to be young, highly educated, upper-middle class, and predominantly white. Which is to say that my facebook feed is basically a non-stop Bernie Sanders love fest (often verging into blatant propaganda). And I have to say I sympathize. I agree with a lot of what Bernie stands for and he is my clear favorite at the gut, emotional level. I don’t really like the idea of a President Clinton #2 for the simple reason that the idea of political dynasties doesn’t feel right to me. I really like that most of Sanders’ funding comes from small donors rather than wealthy people. I have been known on more than one occasion to speak wistfully about how I wish my country would adopt some of the demonstrably effective policies of certain “socialist” countries, where, yes taxes are quite high but there is universal health care, reasonable paid leave, minimal gun violence, minimal police violence, etc. I think Sanders’ message that income inequality is the biggest issue facing the country is basically correct, and I respect that he has been so consistent over his long career in fighting against it. Sanders also comes across as a genuinely good and honest person, something rare in politics.

But here’s the thing: while the types of changes that Sanders is fighting for would be wonderful and I think they would have significant benefits in the long run, I am (a) not convinced that he could win the general election, and (b) am not convinced that those changes would happen if he were elected. On the electability front, right now Sanders is enjoying a surge of interest after doing well in the first two primaries. If that momentum continues, and his viscerally appealing progressive message continues to connect with voters and drive them to the polls, then yes he might have a chance. But I think it is important to remember that so far he has only been facing other Democrats and despite his long career he is not well known by many voters. His prospects look rosy right now because he did better than expected in Iowa and won a blowout victory in the very friendly territory of New Hampshire, so he’s getting a lot of good press. And Republicans are happy to let him keep doing what he’s doing: they have their own issues to deal with right now, and the turmoil and divisiveness he is causing within the Democratic party suits them just fine. But if we end up with Sanders as the Democratic nominee, you can expect some brutal and highly effective attacks from the right. The guy is a self-described socialist who wants to raise taxes and thinks Obamacare doesn’t go nearly far enough. A Sanders nomination would do for Republican voter turnout in the general election what a Trump nomination would do for Democratic voter turnout.

Let me say that again because I don’t think a lot of liberals appreciate this. You know how you feel about Trump? How you hate everything he stands for? How you almost hope he is the nominee because he would be so easy for your party to run against? That’s how Republicans feel about Bernie. If he becomes the nominee, things are not going to be pretty. Now, I’m not saying Clinton would have a cake-walk in this regard. She has been hated by Republicans forever and will also likely inspire many of them to turn out and cast their “Not Clinton” vote. But I think the difference here is that Republican hatred for Hillary is a known quantity. They’ve already basically thrown everything they can at her. I highly doubt there is anything new that will come out if she becomes the nominee. Sanders on the other hand, is fresh meat.

The downside for Hillary’s electability is that she lacks the emotional appeal. I don’t think she will inspire Democrats to come out to vote in droves the way Obama did and the way Bernie might if he can ride the enthusiasm that has been building. She lacks the simple emotional narrative that Bernie has because she’s the pragmatic choice, and if you’re not going to blow up the status quo, then you have to work with it and it’s messy. Hillary is the choice for incremental progress, for working within the current system. Put another way, Bernie is the Hail Mary, Clinton is the slow, painful ground game. Bernie is the heroic cavalry charge with gleaming sabers, Clinton is trench warfare.

But that gets me to the second point: Suppose Sanders not only wins the nomination, but is elected president on his wave of populist support. How exactly will all the changes he is proposing make it through Congress? His response to this so far has basically been to say that we need a political revolution. People who don’t normally vote need to get swept up in this revolution and drive Republicans out of office across the land such that Democrats can pass the legislation that they really want. I don’t know how else to put this: that’s not going to happen. Yeah, maybe a wave of Sanders support would increase turnout enough to flip a few seats. It might even win back the Senate. But the odds of gaining enough ground to be filibuster proof? Or of taking over the House as well? I’m not holding my breath, and I find it hard to vote for a guy whose plan for getting things done is to count on a political revolution. Not that such a disruption of a broken system wouldn’t be thrilling. I’m just saying I don’t think we can count on it happening. When the other side is dug in for trench warfare, your cavalry charge is not likely to go well.

So okay, what’s a voter to do if they find themselves in the same boat as me, where they like Sanders’ policies but are skeptical of his chances of success? Well, I found it interesting that, when I took the very detailed I Side With quiz (If you take it, be sure to check each question for additional, more nuanced options), my results indicate that I agree with Bernie Sanders on 95% of issues, and that I agree with Hillary Clinton on 93% of issues. 2% is not a meaningful difference in this context. And apparently Clinton and Sanders voted the same 93% of the time in the Senate. That’s not to say that within the 7% of votes where they disagreed there aren’t some meaningful issues. There are. But it does indicate that in terms of policy, they have more in common than it might seem during a contentious primary where they are trying their hardest to seem different. Their bigger differences are more in terms of philosophy and how they plan to accomplish their goals, than in the goals themselves.

All that said, who am I going to vote for? For the primary, I think it will depend on how things look when it’s Arizona’s turn to vote. If the race is close or if Bernie is winning, I will vote for Clinton because I mostly agree with her on policy and I think she’s the most qualified and electable candidate out there for the office of President. If Clinton is already winning, I will vote for Bernie because I think the Democratic party needs to learn from his candidacy that what he stands for resonates with a large number of voters. (If nothing else, I hope his candidacy paves the way for a presidential run by Elizabeth Warren in 4 or 8 years.)

For the general election, I will vote for whoever is the Democratic nominee. John Scalzi summed up my feelings eloquently a few weeks ago with this statement:

But at the end of the day, what matters is that each of them, any of them, is so drastically preferable to any member of the howling sampler box of Dunning-Kruger that is the current GOP field that, to me, and for the purposes of my presidential vote in November, the policy and personality differences between Clinton and Sanders and O’Malley are immaterial. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, they will get my vote.

To all of my friends out there who are on the Bernie train: I get it. I even mostly agree with you! But remember that as contentious as the primary gets, we’re all on the same side in the long run. You need to vote in the general election no matter who the Democratic nominee is.

(Obligatory disclaimer: What I post here on my website represents my own personal views and not those of my employer or anyone else.)

 

 

My November Writing Plan (not NaNoWriMo)

I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. I had been working on a novel over the last few months but it kind of fizzled and I finally declared it dead last week. So now I’m in brainstorming mode for a new novel. I have what I think could be a cool idea, but part of why the previous novel fizzled was my lack of a full outline. I have done enough writing by now to know that I need to lay a lot of groundwork ahead of time or else I end up getting stuck and hopeless and don’t get anywhere.

It would be a frustrating waste for me to try to write 50,000 words without a good plan, so instead I’m going to try to spend some time every day this month on planning the next novel. I want to get everything figured out, down to the chapter level and possible even the scene-by-scene level. I want to have all my places and characters named so the book doesn’t end up so full of placeholders that I can’t keep track of what’s going on anymore. The idea is to remove all obstacles to the actual writing.

If all of that goes well and I have something I’m happy with before the end of the month, then I might actually start writing. But I want to really plan this one out carefully. I know first drafts always suck, but I think by doing this, I can (a) minimize the suckage, and (b) maximize the likelihood that I’ll actually be able to follow through once I do start writing.

Good luck to everyone tackling NaNoWriMo this year!

 

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Movie Review: Mad Max:Fury Road

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The science fiction and fantasy fandom on the internet has been gushing over the latest Mad Max movie since it came out last weekend. The movie has a 98% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and more importantly, has managed to annoy a bunch of “Men’s Rights Activists” because of it’s feminist messages. With all this hype, I decided I had to go and see what all the fuss was about. The verdict?

Let me explain by way of an analogy: Say you like pepperoni pizza. If you search the world over and find the highest quality pepperoni out there and then make a pizza using several pounds of this premium pepperoni in a layer several inches thick, but only apply a thin layer of sauce and cheese, do you have a good pizza? No, you have a greasy mess.

Mad Max is without a doubt visually and stylistically impressive. It includes some of the best chase scenes, stunts, and effects of any movie I’ve seen. But it is not a good movie. It is oh so very dumb, and it is not nearly as progressive and feminist as the internet seems to think it is.

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I wanted to like it, I really did. I tried hard to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride, which I am pretty sure is the only way to enjoy the movie. But it has such glaring weaknesses that I couldn’t keep it up. Calling the characters one dimensional is an insult to cardboard cutouts everywhere. The plot is almost non-existent and completely predictable. I knew going in that there was going to be very little dialog, but what there was was poorly written. And the world doesn’t make any sense at all. Like I said, I get that you need to suspend disbelief, that the movie is supposed to be stylized and over-the-top, but I need my fiction to throw me at least a few bones that show that at least a little thought went into it.

If it’s supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are wars over fuel, then does it make sense for the entire movie to be based on fleets of tricked-out tractor trailers and hot rods racing around the desert? Does it make sense for their primary weapons to be flame throwers and Molotov cocktail-tipped spears? If there’s a shortage of water, then why does the chase lead through a muddy swamp? At one point the characters say that they are going to take all the supplies they can carry on motorcycles and ride for 160 days across a salt flat. 160 days. That’s more than 5 months! Did anyone stop to think about how much food, water, and fuel it takes for 8 people to ride motorcycles across the desert for 160 days?

But ok, let’s not worry about all of that. Difficult though it can be, we should judge pop culture by whether it accomplished what it set out to do, not whether we personally liked it. Mad Max certainly achieved its goal of being a crazy over-the-top action movie. But a lot of the hype around Mad Max has focused on the fact that it’s not just a macho action movie: it has a hidden feminist message. Is it effective in conveying that message?

Well, it’s certainly not a hidden message, despite what misogynists on the internet would have you believe. The movie beats you over the head with it. The plot of the movie is that the bad guy keeps women for two purposes: milk and breeding. But his sexy wives escape and flee with the help of Furiosa (Charlize Theron). A long chase scene follows (aka the entire movie). Much is made over the statement that the women leave painted on the walls of their chambers when they escape: “We are not things”.

Now, I will grant that it is great to see a big loud action movie with a message like this, and Mad Max does some things right on the feminism front. The women in the movie are not completely helpless, and some of them (in particular, Charlize Theron’s character and the old-lady biker gang) are competent survivors capable of fighting back against the bad guys. But just because Mad Max is slightly better than completely awful on the feminism front doesn’t make it some sort of magnificent feminist manifesto. Better than terrible is not necessarily great. It’s just “less terrible”.

The movie’s supposed feminist message would be a lot stronger if it wasn’t constantly undermined by the movie itself. Women “are not things”, but isn’t it interesting that the sexy wives are the women that are rescued, and the less attractive women who are kept attached to milking machines are not worth being saved? Funny how the “breeder” wives are all stick-thin supermodels (i.e. not the ideal body type for giving birth without complications in a world with primitive medicine). And it’s a bit hard to take the “We are not things” motto very seriously when the escaped wives spend the entire movie in thin linen bikini-like outfits. At one point there’s even a break in the chase scenes to give the girls time to have what amounts to a wet t-shirt contest. Now, it has been pointed out that they are pretty matter-of-factly washing themselves off and not actively posing, and that the camera doesn’t linger on them like a creepy old lecher, which is a temptation that other directors might give in to. But at the same time, the decision to dress them all in thin linen and then hose them down was a conscious choice. A scene like that, even if it’s not shot with the “pervy camera”, does not suggest to me that “We are not things” is something that the movie really takes that seriously. Those costumes, and that scene, are the sort of thing that you put in a movie as fan service to your presumably male, presumably straight viewers.

Check out all that feminism.

Check out all that feminism.

Likewise, later on, our heroes come across a naked woman high up on an old power line tower, and we learn that she is being used as “bait” by the old-lady biker gang to lure in bad guys and kill them. Is it consistent with “we are not things” for the good guys to be using a naked woman as bait? Was that scene necessary for the plot, or was it there to titillate the (presumably straight, male) viewer? That same blog post that I linked to praised this scene for resisting the temptation to go full-frontal, saying that the nudity was not necessary to the story, but that’s exactly my point. There was no narrative need to have a naked lady up on a tower at all. I don’t think the movie deserves praise for including some questionable scenes, but then making them slightly less misogynistic than they could have been. If this were a feminist movie, those scenes wouldn’t be there at all.

Don’t get me wrong, Mad Max takes a step in the right direction. There are female characters with agency. The sexy wives, although still mostly passive, do stand up for themselves a little bit. Furiosa and the old lady biker gang are pretty awesome. But I worry that people see Mad Max getting all of this positive press about being feminist, and then go watch it and praise if for taking these tiny baby steps while not acknowledging that (a) it’s not a good movie, and (b) it is not really all that feminist. It would not be difficult at all for the movie to fix the problems that I’ve brought up. Give the girls sensible clothing and maybe skip the wet t-shirt party and the naked lady on the tower. Make the sexy wives a little less passive, and rescue the less attractive women too. The fact that these problems were not fixed, and are generally not even being acknowledged, is troubling.

It’s an awfully sad statement about the state of feminism in popular culture that people think that Mad Max is what feminism looks like.

 

 

Rapid Fire Reviews: Interstellar, Catching Fire, The Postman, Dangerous Women,The Book Thief

I’ve been super busy so I have fallen behind on reviewing things here, but I have still been consuming lots of media, so here are some rapid fire reviews.

The Book Thief

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This is a well-written story about a girl living in World War 2 era Germany. The plot builds a little too slowly for my taste, but the characters are great, and the writing is excellent, with lots of vivid, often surreal imagery. I listened to the audiobook and the reader was very good. Note: this is a book set during WWII, narrated by Death. So yeah, it’s gonna be sad.

Dangerous Women

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This is a collection of short stories and novellas edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardener Dozois, with contributions from tons of big names in the fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and noir/mystery genres. I actually haven’t finished it, but I’m about 3/4 of the way through and I can comment on what I’ve listened to so far. As with all anthologies, the stories are a bit hit or miss. In theory, the uniting theme is the title of the anthology “Dangerous Women”, but the various stories interpret this differently. Be warned, these are not all feminist stories about strong female characters, though there are plenty of those. A few standouts so far are: Megan Lindholm (aka Robin Hobb)’s story “Neighbors”, about an older woman grappling with alzheimers was powerful and sad. The genre elements of the story gave it a satisfying ending, but in a way it felt like cheating because in real life someone in the protagonist’s situation doesn’t have that option. Brandon Sanderson’s “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” was a very nice story, and in this shorter form, his signature worldbuilding skills are even more impressive than in his novels, in my opinion. The story is set in a pretty traditional medieval fantasy setting, but the way Sanderson builds that setting so deftly, while weaving in the uniqueness that drives the story, is just really impressive. “Bombshells” was my first taste of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, which I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. Despite having a massive spoiler in it, this story was a good, fun introduction to some characters in the series, and very strongly reminded me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As for the bad, I didn’t much like “My Heart is Either Broken” by  Megan Abbott, and I found “I know how to pick ’em” by Lawrence Block to be downright awful. Not the writing, mind you: it was well-written, but the story itself is just disturbing and gross and I wish I had not read it.

The Postman

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This is a classic post-apocalyptic book, and I am glad I finally got around to reading it. I’m in the midst of playing Wastelend 2, a post-apocalyptic computer game, and the long-awaited sequel to Wasteland, which came out in 1988. Wasteland inspired the Fallout series of games, and it is pretty clear that The Postman was one of the inspirations for Wasteland. Anyway, The Postman was a rare example of a post-apocalyptic novel that is somewhat optimistic. The premise is that the main character finds an old mail-carrier’s uniform, and survives by telling people he has come from the Restored United States. Except his lie starts to have a life of its own. Much like The Stand, another classic post-apocalyptic novel, this one is at its best in the beginning and then starts to lose its magic toward the end. In particular (spoilers coming up) I found it annoying that, after spending the book showing that people working together and helping each other is far better than the “survival of the fittest” mentality of the bad guys, the climax of the novel involved the good guys recruiting someone who was big and strong enough to fight the evil general. It would have been more fitting with the theme of the novel if, say, they had outsmarted the survivalists, or incited a revolt, or something. Also, this book seems to think that it is feminist, but it never quite gets there. There are women who do courageous things at the end, but even as the main character praises them, he can’t help but call them crazy. Also, the man character is constantly sleeping with naive young women 10 years or more younger than him. But criticisms aside, this was still an enjoyable post-apocalyptic novel with a rare positive spin on things.

Mockingjay Part 1: Catching Fire

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I am annoyed at the trend in Hollywood of splitting up movies into multiple parts to make more money. But unlike in some cases (like the travesty that are the Hobbit movies) the Hunger Games movies are consistently really good and Catching Fire was no exception. It doesn’t feel bloated at all (unlike the Hobbit movies), the acting is good, and as far as I can tell it is pretty faithful to the book (though it’s been a while since I read the series). I suspect that Part 2 may actually be better than the book, since my main memory of the book is a series of increasingly crazy action scenes that I suspect will be better on screen than on the page. Anyway, This series of movies continues to be surprisingly good, even despite the obvious money grab of splitting the third book into two movies. Also? Actual competent and strong female characters! Plural! Not even dressed in implausible “sexy” costumes!

Interstellar

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This movie was great, and emotionally draining. Without giving too much away, I would describe Interstellar as basically a combination of 2001, Contact, and Moon, which if you know me, you know is high praise. For a movie about interstellar travel, the science is surprisingly good, though not so fanatically obsessed with staying realistic as to hurt the story. Great demonstrations of the effects of general relativity and simulating gravity in a rotating spacecraft. Not so great understanding of tidal forces or planetary remote sensing. There are a few times when the characters give somewhat ham-handed speeches but mostly the writing and acting are very good. I can definitely see this being excellent at an IMAX theater.

 

 

Ten Book Challenge

Ok, I can’t help myself. When I see a book meme, I have to do it. I saw this on Facebook, courtesy of Karen, and I thought it would be fun to do, mostly because I really enjoy recommending books!

Rules for the Ten Book Challenge: In your status blog, list ten books that have stayed with you in some way. They don’t have to be the “right” books or great works of literature. Then tag ten friends and me so I can see your list.

Choosing just ten was really difficult, and I cheated by doing some lumping and listing multiple books by one author for a few of the items. I also should note that I’m trying to stick with the way the challenge was worded and choosing books that “stayed with me”. There are plenty of others that I enjoyed as much or more than some of these, but all of these got their hooks in my brain and really stayed there:

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – I knew I liked fantasy before this, but the vast majority of fantasy is either imitating or responding to Lord of the Rings, so when I first read this in middle school it knocked my socks off. Middle Earth sucked me in and no other book series has managed such complete and perfect immersion: the result of Tolkien’s unparalleled worldbuilding, plus reading it at an age when I was still pretty uncritical and so I could get drawn in deep.
  2. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – This book is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam war, written by an author who lived through the war. It was assigned in my AP English class and is an extremely powerful book. I can still remember some of the vivid images in this book very clearly. It somehow manages to be incredibly sad but beautiful at the same time. Great writing. I need to read this again.
  3. Cosmos, Contact, Pale Blue Dot, Demon Haunted World other books by Carl Sagan – These books came along just at the right time. Late in high school when I was interested in science, but before I was old enough to be cynical about Sagan’s purple prose, and before I had heard everything in these books. Sagan’s writing, his passion for knowledge, and importantly his ability to tie science in with history and philosophy and everything else about the human experience, made me want to become an astronomer. Nowadays I don’t read books like this because I don’t learn much from them, but at the time they were exactly what I needed. I learned a lot of science from these books but they also put into words what I had always felt about religion. Having someone so eloquently express why it’s possible to be a good person without a higher power had a huge influence on me. Sagan’s books inspired a whole generation of scientists and humanists, and much of what I see these days in non-fiction writing just paraphrases him.
  4. Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – I read these books at around the same time as the Sagan books. The whole summer after my senior year of high school was basically spent reading, and what I read that summer really set the course for my life. This trilogy is still the best sci-fi story about the colonization of Mars that I am aware of. It is amazingly well-researched, and stands up pretty well even decades later. The wonderful descriptions of what it would be like to be on the surface of Mars are a great part of this series, but even more interesting was the way that Robinson also examines the politics and social issues among the colonists and between the colonists and Earth. This is a truly epic series with fascinating (if sometimes melodramatic) characters, set on a Mars that felt very very real.
  5. The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury -Where the Red Mars trilogy tries very hard to be realistic, Bradbury has no interest at all in being realistic and somehow that makes his stories even better. His writing style is unique and wonderful, and there’s a lot of wisdom mixed in among the beautiful prose. I read the Martian Chronicles once when I was way too young to understand it, but when I came back to it when I was old enough it was great. The bittersweet sadness that Bradbury evokes as humans come to live on a Mars among the crumbling crystalline cities of the long-gone Martians is really powerful.
  6. The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Birthday of the World, etc. by Ursula K. LeGuin – I came across LeGuin’s books toward the end of high school and in early college, and they were a great contrast with the other stuff I was reading. Whereas a lot of golden-age sci-fi is about white men doing amazing things with physics and engineering, LeGuin did something new (to me, at least) with science fiction, speculating in the realm of social science and anthropology and using characters of color and women instead of Generic White Physicist. I guess some Generic White Physics types don’t like the idea of reading from the point of view of someone like them, but to me it made her books more interesting, and the focus on social sciences really opened my eyes to what was missing from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Given the choice nowadays, I’d much rather read something from LeGuin than anything from the “hard” sci-fi genre. When the gee-whiz factor wears off, you realize that a lot of hard sci-fi doesn’t have much else going for it, while LeGuin’s writing recognizes that there is much more to life than physics and engineering, an important lesson for someone like me!
  7. Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin – If Lord of the Rings was just right for me when I read them in middle school, Game of Thrones was the right series at the right time in grad school. Reading these books was an eye-opening experience because they are a direct response to Lord of the Rings. The Dark Lord and flawless heroes in white are gone and replaced by a bunch of flawed characters trying to survive in a brutal world. Protagonists die, villains win, and magic is a distant memory when the series begins. Like Lord of the Rings, the worldbuilding for Game of Thrones is great and it sucked me in, but unlike Lord of the Rings, it’s the characters that keep me fascinated by Game of Thrones. This series has basically spawned a new genre of fantasy fiction, and rightly so.
  8. Shogun by James Clavell – This book was the first time I really deliberately set out to read historical fiction, and then realized how much it has in common with the fantasy fiction that I already loved. It’s a thick tome that’s easy to get sucked into, with vivid worldbuilding and lots and lots of courtly intrigue: not all that different from Game of Thrones! But the great thing about historical fiction is that it is also based on real history! Shogun made me realize first that I was interested in historical fiction, and second, that I was interested in history. Not the boring kind taught in school, but the kind that is just the fascinating stories of people who lived long ago.
  9. The Scar by China Mieville – A lot of the books on this list are here because they showed me something new, but none so much as The Scar. This book is also a response to classic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, but where Game of Thrones responded by focusing on morally gray characters but within an England-analog fantasy setting, Mieville’s response was basically “Fantasy can be so much more than medieval Europe. Here, let me show you what happens when you actually use your imagination.” And so he wrote Perdido Street Station, followed by The Scar. I much prefer The Scar, and it is delightfully weird. It’s set on a floating pirate city built from the lashed-together hulks of old ships. There are cactus people and criminals whose bodies have been mangled and merged with mechanical limbs powered by coal-burning engines. There is an island where the sand is made of corroded gears and mechanisms and the inhabitants are mosquito-people. There are people whose blood clots into stone, so before battle they cut themselves and bleed to form an armored carapace. And on top of all of that, Mieville’s writing is thick with obscure words that most people have never heard of or only learn so they can pass the SAT. His writing style does get to be a bit much in large doses, but I really enjoyed it.
  10. Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon – I listened to this one on audiobook while I was in Pasadena for MSL operations. This is a collection of essays by the author about his life, and many of them really hit home for me. He uses his impressive writing talent to put into words a lot of feelings that were very familiar to me. Now, as the list above shows, I love reading books that take me to new places and make me think or experience new things, but sometimes the best writing shows you something very familiar and just describes it perfectly, or shines a new light on it, making connections that you didn’t know were there. That’s what this book did for me. Some of the essays were better than others, but overall this one definitely stuck with me and I want to read it again.

Write to done. Ok, so what’s “done”?

I’ve read a lot of writing advice in my time. After all, it’s way easier to read advice about writing than to actually sit down and put words on the page. The advice ranges from vague generalities that help nobody, to pieces of advice that are so specific that again, they help nobody. But in between there is actually a lot of good advice out there. If I had to boil it down to a few short sentences, the good advice says:

Read a lot.

Write a lot.

Finish what you start.

I’ve got a good handle on the first one. I read every night before bed, and listen to audiobooks while doing brainless chores and working out. Plenty of people read more than me but I’m happy with the number of books I get through in a year.

I’m working on the second point. I have trouble letting the words just flow onto the page, which is why I do things like NaNoWriMo or bribe myself with rewards to get myself to spend the time writing. So, I’m making progress on this point.

The really tricky part is the last one: finish what you start. Also known as “Write to done.” a.k.a. “Finish your shit.” I’m struggling right now with this one. Specifically, I’m struggling with when to call a project “done” and move on to the next one. I’ve finished NaNoWriMo twice. But surely 50,000 words of verbal vomit don’t count as “done,” right? I’ve been slowly working my way through my last NaNoNovel, editing, patching up missing chapters, missing character and place names, and the like. The problem is, I’m only a third of the way through the dang novel, and I know once I finish this pass, I’ll need to go back and do another pass to flesh out descriptions and character development (my first drafts tend to be very dialog and plot heavy and weak on description and character’s thoughts). Meanwhile, the idea for another novel has come along and is nagging at the back of my mind to be written.

So the question I’m struggling with is: at what point do I decide that I’ve learned what I am going to learn from working on my current work in progress, and it’s time to take those lessons and apply them to a new project? Am I failing to “finish my shit” if I stop working on my current work in progress? Or is it “finished” if I’m starting to lose interest and doubt that it’s worth spending months continuing to edit it?

I don’t know. I think I need to step back and actually read the darn thing as it is, not stopping here and there to fix it, but sit and read it as if it were a book. I suspect that might rekindle some of my interest in it. Editing is so slow that it’s hard to keep the whole thing in mind and stay interested. I am also thinking it might be time to let a few people read at least some of it, so I can get outside opinions on whether it’s worth pursuing or not. I just finished editing Part 1 (approximately the first third), which was the part I wrote before NaNoWriMo. It also was the part that needed the most work. Oddly, now that I am in the NaNoWriMo chapters, the writing is actually better and there is less to fix. I think a lot of this is because (a) the beginning had to do a lot of setting up so that the rest of the story could progress, and (b) I planned out quite a bit of the NaNoWriting ahead of time, so I could write knowing what I was aiming at, and (c) writing so much for NaNo actually helped to counteract my tendency to skip over descriptions and monologue because, hey, those are easy ways to up the daily word count!

So here’s my plan: pause my editing for a while and just read the whole manuscript and see how I like it as a whole. Then, if I’m still unsure about continuing, let a few people read it and give me honest opinions about whether it’s time to start something new or if I have something worth polishing.

 

 

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