Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Flashing Swords! #1 (1973)

Flashing Swords! #1 is an anthology of sword and sorcery edited by Lin Carter, standing astride decades. The stories mostly read like the adventure narratives of the 50's and 60's, as featured in magazines. They are sex filled, irreverent, humorous, and often joyously pointless. If anything, this work demonstrates just how fun-focused these early adventure works were before the grimmer and more angsty future kicked in. This is popcorn literature, about equivalent to movie popcorn. It's okay to munch on, but is otherwise unremarkable in most ways.

The connections to D&D is hugs as you'll see many classic D&D elements in the work, because these works by these authors are the stuff that D&D was pillaged from. Myself, I was surprised to see tanglefoot bags show up so early.

I found the Fritz Leiber story rather dull, and not at all representative of a Fafhr and Grey Mouser story. It did have its humor, and ranks up there in politically incorrect. Jack Vance's "Morreion" deals with the origin of ioun stones, and the cabal of banal and argumentative wizards who go in search of them. Paul Anderson's "The Mermaid's Children" almost doesn't fit, missing the tongue in cheek narrative of the other tales, instead opting for a sincere adventure story with 10x the emotional depth of all the other stories combined. The book closes with a tale by Lin Carter in the sort of tale that you'd make up for your kids before they go to bed, featuring a solution that'll have the kids saying, "Tell me another one," and refusing to go to bed.

All told, it's an easy read and an effective sampler.

The work is monumental in one respect: it did it's job of evangelizing sword and sorcery literature. If you look at the boom of D&D in the years to come, following in its wake, and the evolution of adventure novels thereafter, you'll see that this little bugbear grew into quite the towering juggernaut.

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall (1993)

The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall (1993) is a surprising addition to the Pern canon, mostly because the tales are coherent, the stories make sense, and they avoids the aimless plotting that so characterizes Pern novels of this era. Each story contains a bit of what's good about the Pern series, while also limiting what's infuriating or awful about those stories.

Some parts feel like they were cut from Dragonsdawn, such as the opening or Jim Tillek's shepherding of ships. Other parts stand well on their own, such as "Rescue Run", a mostly coherent story with clear cut characters. "The Second Weyr" is a clear romance, working in that area of social norms and sexual freedoms that so characterized the core elements of dragon rider books.

What this tells me is that Anne McCaffrey is a genuine talent at the short story, able to delivery engaging tales, but those skills missed as often as they hit when scaled up to novel length. At the length of a short story, her writing hits more than it misses.

What makes the stories work is that Anne has escaped her own stupid villain problem, with the circumstances being the challenge instead of some egomanica's egoing ego. Given real challenges, the characters can't turn their nose up at backward thinking people and must actually solve the problems before them from differing angles. Unlike her plotted novels, where she skims boring-to-her events, she dwells within the events of these stories, letting them play out in a more organic manner. There's still a bit too much information getting dumped at times, but because it's only a short story, you don't get inundated by the details.

This is one of the better Pern books, but you certainly need to have read Dragonsdawn for most of this to make sense. This is a book for the Pern reader.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Video Game Review 2017

Here's the short list of video game that I played in 2017

  • Fallout 4
  • Portal
  • Portal 2
  • Alphadia
  • Alphadia 2
  • Seven Sacred Beasts
  • Talisman Digital Edition [no review]
  • Final Fantasy VII
  • Ticket to Ride [no review]
  • Cataan [no review]
  • Krita [the drawing package, not a game, but it itched the same itch.]

I spent the summer playing both Talisman and Ticket to Ride because one eye was bothering me. Both were great fun while they lasted.

Book Review Summary 2017

These are the books that I reviewed in 2017. I read 37 out of 40, so I slowed down a bit this year.

Thieves' World (1979)
The Mists of Avalon (1982) [did not complete]
Interview with the Vampire (1976)
The Ship Who Sang (1969)
The Forever War (1974)
Sister Light, Sister Dark (1988)
The Prophet of Lamath (1979)
Chalice (2008)
Always Coming Home (1985) [did not complete]
The Swordbearer (1982)
Deerskin (1993)
No One Noticed the Cat (2007)
The Silver Metal Lover (1981)
Damia (1992)
Damia's Children (1993)
Lyon's Pride (1994)
The Tower and The Hive (1999)
Bored of the Rings (1969)
The Gate of Ivrel (1976)
The Phantom Tollbooth (1961)
The Well of Shiuan (1978)
The Blue Sword (1982)
Freedom's Landing (1995)
Freedom's Choice (1997)
Freedom's Challenge (1998)
Freedom's Ransom (2002)
The Dolphins of Pern (1994)
The Silmarilion (1977) [did not complete reread]
The Skies of Pern (2001)
An Evil Guest (2008)
The Sorcerer's  House (2010)
Tender is the Night (1933)
Moreta (1983)
In the Red Lord's Reach (1988)
Dragonsdawn (1988)
Pirate Freedom (2007)
To Ride Pegasus (1973)
Rocannon's World (1966)
Born to Exile (1978)
The Renegades of Pern (1989)

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Saving Jar-Jar Binks

Jar-Jar Binks is a terrible character, right? What more is there to say? Lots. Great emotional reaction from fans about a character means that the character was extremely effective, just not necessarily effective as intended.

Last year, I was telling funny Star Wars stories to my daughter, making her laugh out lout, and the character who was my best tool for ruining everything and getting the best belly laugh was Jar-Jar Binks. From a comedy perspective, this character is brilliant. No matter how well anything goes for my main characters, Jar-Jar was always there to mess things up and force the story into a haywire direction. If I'm writing a comedy story, I'd pick Jar-Jar every time.

So, if Jar-Jar is so good, why did the character fail so badly that the entirety of Star Wars fandom hates him? "Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult." 

The problem with Jar-Jar isn't himself, it's with his usage. Every aspect of him which made him an amazingly effective clown, plot derailer, and situational saboteur effectively undermined the film rather than enhanced it. George was right, kids did laugh at him, but they only laughed at his immediate antics, the slapstick of his character. However, George failed to build rapport between the character and the audience, to give him some sort of redeeming quality for us to grab onto. There's a number of ways to do this, such as giving a clown a sincere goal or a belief in himself that betrayed his vulnerabilities, but George wasn't having any of that. Jar-Jar was only there for the sight gags, with no chance at true redemption, true sincerity. When we see Jar-Jar become a general, we know that his position isn't the end of some plot arc or some goal achieved, it's just that he's the poor schlub who got volunteered to lead a suicide mission. How are we supposed to feel good about that?

C3PO might be annoying, but he's also a very calming presence, very reassuring, and is usually thinking about others. He has a genuine attachment to rules, implementing them to the best of his ability, showing his deep sincerity. While he may be silly, we don't want to see him harmed or destroyed. While overemotional, the emotions that 3PO exhibits are those appropriate to the scene, amplifying the feel that the director wants to give, giving voice to the mood.

In order to make Jar-Jar work, he needs to have some actual useful skill and add something to the tone. In the films, he has no useful skill and disrupts the tone.

First, we need a few quiet moments with Jar-Jar. We need to see his sincerity. "Misa tried so hard to be a good Gungan. Misa want Gungans and humans to be friends, and everyone laughs. Wesa stronger together. Wesa no need to fight and fight." Jar-Jar has an actual goal, one that comes to fruition at the end of the film, with him being honored for fulfilling that goal, a goal of community and harmony rather than power and conquest, the very qualities needed to save the Republic, and the qualities shown in the Rebellion.

The skill that Jar-Jar excels in positiveness, the belief that he can do something, which makes his sense of failure all that more pitiful. It's not his clever speeches that stirs other, but his sincerely delivery. He's too much of a fool to lie, and his dialog only goes to tear down fear bound with inaction.

An in-world skill that would prove useful is mopping and cleaning. He goes straight to that job because he knows that's his place. This would emphasize his lowness and his inner thought processes. When he says, "Mesa knows my place," you should get mad, knowing that cleaning up after your betters is nobody's inherent place, which is what you want. 

Obi Wan: He's such a fool.
Qui-Gon: The force is within him, and it didn't bring him here without reason.
Obi Wan: The force is with him?
Qui-Gon: It binds the galaxy together, just as it bind us together. You see a fool, but your eyes lie to you. Don't trust them. Reach out with your feelings.
Obi Wan: For him?
Qui-Gon: He is the Republic as surely as you or I. 

Don't let Jar-Jar waltz in and have no part. He is not an object lesson to ridicule, but one to learn from. Somebody has to find worthwhile qualities in him so that the audience can find these qualities. He may be a ridiculous embodiment of selfless qualities, but the qualities are still there. When he gets up on his mount and moves forward on his attack, we have to be rooting for him, not expecting his downfall. He needs to know that his mission is hopeless, but he's willing to put his life on that feint to prove his sincerity.

In editing, we tend to see Jar-Jar doing something silly, then the edit cuts away, following someone else. What the film needed to do is to show him doing something silly, but then give him some sort of sincere time, something that also shows him as real and worth sympathizing with because he is the very person that will suffer in the upcoming wars. The idea that Jar-Jar must be ruled is the tyrannical ideal of the Empire, the idea that order must be imposed from the top. Rights and freedoms apply to all characters, even the fools.

So, the too long; didn't read summary is as follows:
  • Give Jar-Jar a sincere goal relating to the story, such as uniting humans and Gungans.
  • Give Jar-Jar a skill that makes him seem minimally useful, and don't play that for comedy, using that to make him an everyman.
  • Give the audience an opportunity to like him as a person.

The Renegades of Pern (1989)

The Renegades of Pern (1989) by Anne McCaffrey is more of a slush pile of ideas than a novel, beginning a story about the downtrodden of Pern but ending, like a has-been athlete, seeking to regain lost glories. The work is remarkable for Anne's seeming abandonment of all novel writing skills in pursuit of fan service. The first half just about make a proper novel, then the whole thing wanders on for two hundred more pages into a different idea for a novel that isn't worth two hundred pages.

The novel begins before the present pass, giving us some view of life before thread falls, but not too much, and certainly not enough. We are introduced to a large pile of characters that won't mean anything by the end, and certainly too many to remember. Structuring itself like Dragonsdawn, it promised a novel as complex and far ranging, only it wasn't. Rather than generate much material, the novel fell back into stories already written, giving us more views of what already happened, rehashing other stories while building most of its own stories to no meaningful conclusions.

How could this work come to this? I believe that McCaffrey lost the sort of editors who could help her to create well structured stories, and given her own gut, proved that her gut wasn't up to the task. It comes as no surprise to me that a spate of books after this one were all written by Anne with co-authors.

Even the bits that she does well with, the romances, don't work out very interestingly. These relationships feel tacked onto the plot rather than integral to the emotional flow of the story. In fact, the idea of renegades is what Anne poses as the core of her story, but when Robinton is posed as a renegade, we know that the idea has jumped the shark.

This books makes me sad for another reason, and that's because this book had great potential for being interesting in its own right. A worker's view of Pern could have been far more engaging, exploring the very system that she had already created, but this subject only keeps her interest for a while before she wanders off to a completely different topic.

In the end, I found little to recommend this book while finding much that annoys.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Final Fantasy VII (1997)

Final Fantasy VII (1997) was originally released for the venerable Playstation. It's one of the most well known and loved all of JRPG games, coming in on a number of "best ever" game lists. I first saw my friend Brian playing this game on his Playstation, until one day when his save games got corrupt and he gave up the game, having no intention of putting all those hours back into it just to reach the end.

The short take away: it's a good game with a good story, but also carries many polarizing design decisions that can distract from the experience, or even be a deal breaker for the player.

My experience of this game was mixed. The beginning moved so slowly and dully that I played for a week, then stopped playing it for four months because I found the the story so stiff and unengaging. The whole story felt like a morass implemented on top of a battle system that felt clunky. (I don't like RPGs with anything real time, which is my prejudice.) Because I'd played so many Final Fantasy games, I had my expectations set, so I enjoyed seeing design choices that would echo on in later games, and I could use my game rules experience to make advantageous mechanical choices. The game broke into new storytelling techniques to get you closer to the characters, to make the stories more personal, some of which worked better than others, but which ultimately failed to pull me in.

I, and my daughter, like most people who played FF7 expected Aeris to get brought back to life somehow. Well, no, it didn't happen, but this is such a strong trope within these genres that nobody really expects this, and this is one of those polarizing points. Back then, this was absolutely unique within the genre, perhaps the single most famous (or infamous) part of the story. Some folks are so determined to get Aeris back that they hack the game, and I don't blame them, because the game does successfully get you to like the character and I did spend the entire back half of the game wanting her back.

The story itself is an environmental metaphor, that energy resources are no infinite, and that using them is paid for by the environment. Evil corporations are more interested in profit than in the welfare of the people who they are supposed to serve. And our villain is just like the company that he works for, more interested in his own profit, his own agenda, than the agenda of his company, which in Japan is a big no-no. (In the west, this is far more normalized.)

Powers were acquired and assigned via the materia system, which I found interesting and clunky at the same time. The self-documentation of the system was particularly poor, with some materia still leaving me confused as to what they did even after I read FAQs. Each battle produces materia XP, and this XP applies to the equipped materia, with each materia gaining levels independently on characters. My strategy, therefore, was to always be level up as much materia as possible so that I would eventually have enough leveled-up materia available to my secondary characters. (I successfully predicted that I would need to create multiple parties at some point, so I prepared from the beginning.)

Towards the end, I got hammered in the Norther Caverns, and whooped going for the final battle with Sepheroth, so I ground levels for a few days until I had enough levels to regularly handle the encounters. I also went back through areas looking for things that I missed and found more materia. I practiced for a while, improving them a bit and consulting a few FAQs about how materia worked. My setup wasn't optimal, but when I finally hit Jenova, I steamrolled her, and stalemated with Zepheroth because I just couldn't cause enough sustained damage to his torso. I'm sure that I would have eventually worked something out, but it was bedtime so I abandoned the whole venture. Maybe I'll go hunt down a few more advantages, and tweak my setup, or maybe I'll just watch the ending on YouTube because I have no status to maintain with anyone but myself. (Real gamers don't read my reviews. TL;DR) With the Christmas holidays coming up, I might have time for one more go, but that's about it, then my brain will be off to the next game.