The angel of combat

I liked Alita: Battle Angel. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the original manga, and I was rather concerned that a sprawling story would end up condensed into an abbreviated mishmash of various plot points set up to justify gratuitous and boring CGI action scenes.

But Robert Rodriguez pulled it off. I’m please with the narrative choices he made in taking a comic book story that unfolded over years and turning it into a regular length movie. Apparently James Cameron’s original script was 180 pages.

From viewing the trailer I thought it might be odd to see a big-eyed manga character interacting with actual people, but I quickly got used to it in the actual movie. I can see why the character of Alita was entirely CGI because of the numerous action scenes of cyborg kung fu – any live-action actor (Rosa Salazar, specifically) would need to be replaced by a computer-generated model when the fighting started, but there would have been a noticeable transition between the real person and the computer one. Having the character be completely CGI prevented this uncanny valley-tude.

It’s disappointing but I expect the movie won’t see a sequel. It appears not to have been a gigantic hit with the US market, though it’s been doing gangbusters overseas, especially in China. It made money but not Avengers money. I’m not even really put out, since even though the ending of the movie calls out for a continuation, what’s there is still satisfying on its own.

And my take-away from the whole thing? Alita is a quite decent action sci-fi film that I thoroughly enjoyed. If enough of you watch it, we might see Ed Norton in the sequel.

Je suis un espion

Nest of Spies: The Startling Truth About Foreign Agents At Work Within Canada’s Borders is, as one might expect from the subtitle, a non-fiction book about the spy scene in Canada. Its authors are a journalist and a former operative of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, so the book ends up being more descriptive than deeply analytical.

I rather wish a sociologist had been the one to write this book, as I think one could have teased out some interesting insights from the inside knowledge that the authors clearly possess. As it is, the book mostly recounts spy stories that took place in Canada and organized by the country of the perpetrators. At the very least I wish the authors had organized the book around the traditional divisions of spy work – e.g., human intelligence, signals intelligence, etc. And some deeper comparisons with other countries would have helped put things into context.

But the book is still pretty eye-opening. I’m a big spy buff, so a lot of the generalities of intelligence work are familiar to me, but I hadn’t been aware of the specifics of how the whole thing works in Canada. There are a couple of anecdotes from the Cold War (did you know that when the Soviet consulate in Montreal burned down in 1987, CSIS painstakingly sifted the ashes and exposed at least one Soviet mole in France?) and the newer free-for-all today (did you also know that French spies steal anything not nailed down from not only their enemies, but also their allies such as the UK and Canada?).

The authors clearly wish to avoid libel lawsuits by carefully avoiding naming some individuals, companies, and even entire countries in their anecdotes. This is rather to the book’s detriment, since details are scarce enough in a world as secretive as the spy’s. Quit dangling juicy tidbits if you can’t deliver. I mean, tell me you don’t want to know more about Big Pharma hitmen after reading this passage:

Then there is the tactic of eliminating the [rival company’s] researchers [as a part of industrial competition]. We wish this were a tongue-in-cheek way of suggesting they be bribed, but we are in fact talking about murdering them. The pharmaceutical research industry has a remarkable reputation for brutality. The development and marketing of a single new medication costs on average $800 million, which means that a professional killer’s $50,000-$60,000 tab is just so much small change once the competing company’s two or three lead project researchers have been identified. (p. 306)

I suppose this reticence might be attributed to the inherently guarded nature of a spy (though spies aren’t immune to the lure of Hollywood – witness how this nameless intelligence worker gushes over their organization being featured in an episode of The Good Wife).

Entwined throughout the book’s  anecdotes are the authors’ calls for Canada to up its counterintelligence game at the corporate and governmental level. It’s true that no one in Canada really gives a shit about spying. Even after finding out just how much proprietary information is stolen in Canada by friends and rivals alike, I still can’t find it in me to care too much. If it ever comes to a choice between spending money on infrastructure or increasing funding for spy work, I say build that damn Toronto to Montreal hyperloop already. Or just that high frequency rail for the Quebec City to Windsor corridor.

Anyway, this book got me started in reading more about Canada’s spying history. Did you know it’s rumoured that Ian Fleming was the sniper who killed a Japanese spy in New York when the US was still neutral in World War 2, as part of a secretive UK-Canada “corporation” operating with the tacit approval of Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover? Or that throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Canadian government hired the Pinkerton detective agency to keep tabs on Irish malcontents in the US? I didn’t, until I started down this fascinating rabbit hole. These stories were from Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peacable Kingdom.

I’ll be doing some further reading on the subject, but for the uninitiated, I’d say Nest of Spies is a fascinating introduction.

Monsters and mazes and dungeons and dragons

Two kids’ cartoons I’ve seen and recommend on Netflix: The Dragon Prince and The Hollow:

The first feels very Avatar: The Last Airbender because it was created by two veterans of that show (writers or producers or some shit, I don’t really care about behind the scenes stuff for animated shows). The relationships between the three protagonists, the way the characters talk, and how they relate to their circumstances is just like Avatar – i.e., the characters banter zippily in teen American slang in counterpoint to the seriousness of their quest and in contravention of the accepted cod medieval language of fantasy epics.

Unlike Avatar, the story takes place in a more traditional Western fantasy setting of elves and knights and dragons. Humans and elves are at war, three kids go on a journey to bring peace, they overcome various dangers in each episode, there are exciting an action scenes, etc.

I found it a rather pleasant show to binge, especially since each episode is less than half an hour.

The Hollow is also structured around a journey, but “Lost for kids” would be the better reference point. Three teenagers with amnesia wake up imprisoned in an underground bunker, they make their way through a strange land of monsters and mysteries, weird shit flies at the viewer so fast you forget that a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and there’s a plot twist in the end that may or may not land well for you. There are bunches of jokes but most of them are dumb so I think this is being aimed at a younger audience than the first show.

For some reason it’s made to look like it was made in Flash, but the action scenes are too complex for Flash so I guess the creators just like that style. Maybe they were working within certain budget limits, or maybe they think modern kids have been trained to expect simplistic animation. The episodes are also less than half an hour so I got through the whole thing fast.

The second season for The Dragon Prince has just been announced, but hopefully there will also be one for The Hollow since I could do with more uncomplicated series with short episodes to binge on.

Anyway, this has been a review of Netflix kids’ cartoons shows as evaluated by a thirtysomething Canadian man.

What the hell is a xenonaut?

Damn Xenonauts. I was going to spend the weekend playing Skyrim but ended up playing this game instead. It’s just as compulsively addictive as the original X-COM from the 90’s, except with a little bit nicer graphics. According to the manual, the biggest difference I can see is that your soldiers will not get psychic powers. I wish they’d played up the Cold War 70’s aesthetic more, since it’s kind of neat that your alien-fighting organization is a joint Soviet/NATO operation.

Just like with X-COM, I’m mentally revising the dollar figures to add three extra zeroes at the end. A budget of $1.5 million makes no sense for running military bases on 3 different continents with fighter jets and helicopters and dozens of soldiers and scientists and engineers, but $1.5 billion is real money. Body armour at $28,000 apiece is peanuts to a bloated military budget, but $28 million per soldier for armour that can stand up to plasma rifles sounds plausible.

One criticism I have is for something that also happened to me with the original X-COM – occasionally there’s some weird glitch that lets enemies shoot through walls. It only happened the one time, and normally I just play on with troop losses since I like the feel of a desperate fight against an alien invasion, but that was just unfair so I reloaded the autosave.

I was originally going to recommend this game, but I’ve now reached the grindy part of Xenonauts where I’m scrambling jets and troopers every couple of days to repel alien incursions. All the missions are starting to look alike and I can’t tell if the latest city being terrorized by aliens is one I’ve been to before. Was 90s X-COM this grindy? My budget is perched on a razor’s edge and one KIA will put me in a downward spiral of fiscal and planetary doom. These spreadsheets will be my death.

A fantasy anime that doesn’t suck

Coronation of the emperor in Record of Grancrest War, which clearly takes after Jacques-Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon
Yes, they styled this scene after David’s Coronation of Napoleon

Say, Record of Grancrest War is actually a pretty solid fantasy show. The promotional material made it look like yet another crappy harem show where the main character shits himself every time an under-aged girl tries to give him a handjob but it’s not that at all. I can’t remember the last time an anime had two people who liked each other get together without any idiotic drama.

My biggest criticism is that it moves through the material a bit too quickly. Okay, there’s a world at war, aristocrats who drain magical powers from the rivals they defeat, vampires and werewolves and plucky allies and exotic locations and massive battles where actual characters die. Can we maybe have some time to dwell on each thing before we move on?

I assume this is because the anime is based on a light novel series. The studio probably was trying to squeeze as much as possible in.

But the animation is nice, the main characters are interesting, and it moves along decently. It’s a competently entertaining anime and it just recently ended so you get a complete story with no cliffhangers whose endings depend on the studio securing funding for a second season. I recommend it for your fantasy action fix.

Age of Wonders

Screenshot from Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic showing the game options available for a player controlling an elven army attacking undead foes

Remember when computer games had crappy voice actors? I do, because I’ve been playing Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. I got it for like $2 on GOG a while ago and it really does deserve to be listed there, as it actually is a good old game.

The whole thing is kind of like Civilization in a fantasy setting, or maybe a turn-based version of Warcraft. Like Civilization you pick a certain people to play as, you go out into the world, build outposts and cities, gain allies and make enemies, conquer villages, and massacre entire races.

Unlike Civilization, heroes play a big part in the game thanks to its fantasy roots (specifically Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). The player is not some disembodied will directing the manifest destiny of a nation, but instead you are a mighty wizard leading your chosen race to victory over the untermenschen of the world.

I assume you can play as evil races like trolls and stuff but I’ve only done one of the starter campaigns and the story was entirely told from the perspective of the do-gooder elves and halflings. Anyway, your wizard is a unit on the map that you move around, they cast epic spells that can change the face of the world, and they can get their asses killed if you screw up in battle. The best thing to do is probably to stick your wizard in a tower and have them cast their spells from afar.

The race you pick also determines your technology and units, but again with a fantasy spin. The technology tree also deals entirely with getting magic spells that are unique to each race. Elves can get spells to summon unicorns and fairies, for example. Elves also have archers and their higher units are nymphs and druids, while humans have crossbowmen and knights.

The fantasy RPG setting also puts a pretty fun spin on maps because you can send your armies into the tunnels of the Underdark to assault your enemy from the rear, or travel into the Shadow Plane and flank their armies that way. It’s also fun to find random fantasy stuff on a map, like a hidden elf city in a forest you thought you’d already explored or a dungeon you can clear out or an inn where you can recruit a hero or a city that will switch to your side if you rescue them from the demons that besiege them.

Voice acting aside, the game is actually a lot less clunky than you would expect for something from the 90’s. I don’t really notice the interface most of the time, which is pretty much how it’s supposed to work. It’s easy to get sucked in while you’re playing – for instance, I almost missed a social engagement over the weekend because I told myself I’d just finish a map before getting ready to leave. The game is just fun to play and being like 20 years old it’ll run on anything. I say check it out if you like this sort of thing.

An Introduction to Manga

Front cover of Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics showing a collage of various manga covers

Thanks to the Japan Foundation, I’m reading Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik Schodt (and if you want to know what the Japan Foundation was like I tweeted about it here). It was published in 1986, well before the manga boom of the mid-90s. Or was it the late 90s? I can barely remember a time when manga wasn’t the default comic book format for the majority of readers, at least in terms of sales.

So the book was written in a time when only specialists in Japan and the most dedicated of comic book hipsters knew anything about Japanese comics. It therefore explains manga from the ground up, going through its history and providing examples of manga of each era and type (mangas from the 50s, boys’ manga, girls’ manga, etc). It does the same thing that many comic book histories do in locating the origin of this mass market disposable entertainment in antecedent forms with greater cultural cachet but weak connections to the medium (i.e., I’ve seen people arguing that the Bayeux tapestry is also comics in that it combines pictures and words to tell a story). I understand why the comics historians do it, they’re trying to impart greater respectability to their medium by connecting it to older and more respected media, but I dunno, I think it’s more productive to define the medium by its relations of production and it stops you from going down ridiculous formalist arguments about whether magazine cigarette ads count as comics.

Moving on, I hadn’t realized I knew so much about manga as I’d already heard of quite a lot of apparently obscure works, or at least they were obscure back in the 80s. Time marches on and Rose of Versailles, for example, has an anime that I watched on streaming a few months ago. And of course there’s the scanlation community, which has probably done as much to spread knowledge of manga as any official initiatives from various industry groups.

The last chapter deals with manga’s future and in hindsight it completely failed to anticipate the explosion of overseas interest in the medium just ten short years later. In fact, it basically says that manga will probably remain a mostly Japanese thing, instead of something French schoolkids save their allowances for and whatnot.

Anyway, it’s an interesting snapshot of a specific moment in time in manga’s history.

How not to write fantasy

Still from the opening of Record of Lodoss War where the party of balanced RPG cliches are surrounded by several dragons looming overhead

I’ve been watching Record of Lodoss War today and am halfway through. It’s obviously based on a tabletop RPG campaign since the main characters, despite having differing agendas, keep sticking together for no damned reason. I mean, why did the elf even join them in the first place? The protagonists also keep getting into dangerous situations at convenient intervals and their antagonist seemingly does nothing else besides obsess over the heroes and send low level minions to attack them, despite obviously having the power to crush them in one blow.

I guess it’s neat to see all the fantasy stuff that you have to imagine when you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, but this show kind of just goes from encounter to encounter without a main plot that holds it together well enough. It’s okay if you’re doing afternoon drinking on a long weekend (Happy Victoria Day!) but it’s not really something to watch for a compelling story or anything serious at all.

Goodbye world

Male Dragonborn glowering in an intimidating pose and decked in a fanciful horned helmet

God help me but I’ve started playing Skyrim.

I got 100% achievements after 400 hours played on Oblivion, though, so I think I’ve got the completist experience already covered as far as the Elder Scrolls series goes. I don’t really need to be the top baker, hooker, and air conditioner repairman in all the land (along with my day job of adventurer).

Things I will avoid: alchemy, blacksmithing, fugly people. This should cut down on the number of quests I’ll need to do. Here’s hoping.