Ode to Oblivion

The story behind the Oblivion mod Terry Pratchett worked on

The only Pratchett books I’ve read are The Long Earth books he collaborated on, but I found this article interesting anyway. The mod in question is for a custom companion you can get for Oblivion. The part where you can get her to lead you if you’re lost, or have her pick a destination for you at random, actually sounds like it would have been neat to have in the base game. Anyway, it’s not every mod that has dialogue written by a bestselling fantasy author.

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.

The war of two worlds

I’m finally up to date on Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s about a hidden family who can travel between parallel universes – our world and one that’s still in a quasi-medieval level of technology. They use this power to smuggle drugs and shit and have become rich and powerful in two worlds.

The series was mostly written in and is set during George W. Bush’s War on Terror years, and it’s almost nostalgic to read paranoid descriptions of Dick Cheney’s secret intelligence empire. Old Dick is in the series as an unseen antagonist, by the way, though he is referred to by his Secret Service codename WARBUCKS (Dubya is BOY WONDER).

It gets pretty crazy by the end. Cheney was apparently in the pay of the worldwalkers back in the 80’s so when their existence is revealed, he moves to exterminate them to hide all evidence of his corruption. There’s blowback, the interdimensional narcoterrorists steal a backpack nuke, and the White House along with Bush II explodes in nuclear fire.

But the USA has unlocked the secret of worldwalking and retaliates by carpetbombing the other world with nukes. Some of the narcos manage to escape to a third parallel world, one where New Britain rules the Americas. The 44th President of the US is Dick Cheney, who dies of natural causes not long after taking office. The 45th President is Donald Rumsfeld. And thus ends the first series.

Anyway, the story had been on hold for a while, and I can see why. Where can things go from here? Well, in the first book of the sequel series, things have gone in a completely different direction. It’s now 2020 and the worldwalkers have ensconced themselves in the government of New Britain. They live openly as interdimensional travellers, occasionally returning to our world to steal technology. They’re frantically developing the industry of their new country as a bulwark against the coming of the Americans. The United States is now even more of a militarized panopticon society, a kind of digital age Soviet Union where smartphones occupy the role of Stasi informants.

And now the stage is set for the rest of the Empire Games series. Worlds collide! I’m actually rather interested in what comes next.

And on that note, happy Labour Day weekend, ye workers of the world.

Middle Ages: The Video Game

So the book Pillars of the Earth (though I only know the story from the TV miniseries) is coming out in video game format. Specifically it’ll be an interactive novel. It looks like there’s some level of game-like playing in there, judging from the pic below.

A medieval monk stands before another, and at the bottom of the screen two choices are presented: to Lie or to Tell the Truth

But seeing as how it’s based on a book with a definite plot and resolution then I assume you can only change the story so much. Perhaps you’ll be railroaded slightly more than in a typical game from Telltale Studios. And seeing as how it’s set in the Middle Ages, it’ll be full of rape, murder, and irrational persecution, so it’ll feel pretty close to Telltale’s Walking Dead series too.

It’s odd that this is coming out, but the art is interesting. I liked the TV show, so I hope the thing is at least decent.

Korea in space

I started reading Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit because Ann Leckie said she liked it. So far, I like it too.

This Korean sci-fi novel most resembles for me a non-moronic version of Warhammer 40,000. You see, in the novel’s far-flung future, the repressive Hexarchate controls its vast territory with weaponized astrology. Through total obedience to the social order, devotion to a strict calendar of feast days, and ritual torture of enemies, the state can manipulate the very laws of physics. (And yes, this sounds like North Korea in a space opera setting, though the calendrical sacrifices as a means of controlling the cosmos also reminds me of the Mayans).

But like all empires, this one is obsessed with maintaining its power. Observing alternate calendars directly weakens the state’s power, and thus a vast military machine is tasked with destroying heretics. One cog in this assemblage is Kel Cheris: a captain, a footsoldier, and a literal brainwashed fanatic.

Having evinced an aptitude for heretical mathematics, she is charged with capturing the Fortress of Captured Needles lest the Hexarchate itself fall. Her primary weapon is an undead military genius and traitor who she probably shouldn’t trust.

In the backmatter copy Stephen Baxter describes the book as Starship Troopers meets Apocalypse Now, which so far in my reading seems accurate. He doesn’t mention that the book is also compulsively readable. There are some wonderfully inventive ideas all over the story, and even the names of the weapons are deliciously odd: the catastrophe gun, the neglect cannon, the abrogation sieve, the calendrical sword.

I hope I won’t stay up too late tonight reading this book, but it’s a very real possibility. If you want to try out a brand new talent from an underrepresented corner of the sci-fi world, I suggest picking this up.

Attack of the giant pile of bullshit

Remember that part in Ghostbusters where they’re spewing soft-headed pseudoscientific hogswaddle as they battle the fantastical and the supernatural? Imagine that in book form and you get the novel MM9.

The book is set in a world where giant monsters – kaiju – have always existed in human history. Big Ben and London Bridge, for instance, were destroyed by a sea monster in 1952 while the US Army fought giant ants during the Cold War (and yes, his kaiju are the ones from monster movies like Them!). The author is clearly a geek of the first order and gleefully mashes together various science fiction works in service of the story, as he explains in an interview.

Being regular creatures that are part of the order of the world, kaiju are treated as natural disasters. The study of these monsters falls under the discipline of meteorology, and it is the men and women of the Monsterological Measures Department who devise counter-measures for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces in their fight against the kaiju. I rather like how the book makes clear that the anti-kaiju agency are merely public servants, who are eternally worried about getting receipts for their taxi rides and have to deal with dumb questions from the media while they’re desperately in the middle of the latest attack. It’s kind of like if Pacific Rim were about the scientists instead of the robot jocks.

MM9 is nothing but pure and excellent bullshit. It’s quite short and a breeze to read, so I most heartily recommend it.

Haruki Murakami: the video game

Behold Memoranda, a point-and-click adventure game that claims to be a magical realist experience in the vein of a Haruki Murakami novel:

Memoranda is a game about forgetting and being forgotten!

A point and click adventure game with magic realism elements that tells the story of a young lady who gradually realizes she is forgetting her own name. Is she really losing her memory or is there something else that could explain the strange circumstances? The story happens in a quiet little town where a few ordinary and strange characters live together. Including a World War II surviving soldier to an elephant taking shelter in a man’s cottage hoping to become a human. There is one thing all these characters have in common: they are losing something. It could be a name, a husband or even someone’s sanity!

I dunno, it seems rather annoyingly twee. I’d say it’s hard to translate the quiet strangeness of Murakami’s novels into the visual medium, but I rather think the Norwegian Wood movie pulled it off. I’m curious, but not enough to pay $17 and change. I’ll probably buy this if the price drops below $5 since I have an abiding lust for point-and-click adventures, but right now I think I’ll hold off.

How to end 2016

Book cover of Penguin Classics edition of Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

I am reading Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Technically I haven’t actually started reading it yet and have only finished reading the preface by Michel Foucault. Mostly I’m reading it because a lot of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas were explored thematically in the Ghost in the Shell anime and I’d wanted to read it before actually watching the movies and shows. I think the book itself has been on my Amazon wishlist for eight years now.

It seems to be about using the schizophrenic’s break with (capitalist) society as a roadmap to how to live outside of capitalism and its inherently fascist tendencies. It’s kind of hard to read a theory book once one is no longer in academia as I’m no longer in the headspace to easily parse a translation of a densely written neo-Marxist monograph. That, and there are just too many options for amusement available to me.

Speaking of which, I’m also reading another – and more accessible – translated work known as The Devil is a Part-Timer series. It’s a bunch of Japanese light novels about the Devil being kicked out of his kingdom and escaping to modern Japan, where to make ends meet he has to work part-time at McDonald’s. It’s frequently hilarious.

I keep these books at home, though, and when I’m commuting I pull out my Kobo and read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: Shadows of Self, which is set 300 years after the end of his Mistborn fantasy series. While the original trilogy was essentially a decently fresh take on a fantasy trope, being about a world where the destined hero failed and the land is ruled by the evil emperor, this series is kind of a fantasy Western about supernaturally powered lawmen and criminals playing their games in a mix of the Wild West and Victorian London.

I like it okay. Sanderson’s writing has definitely improved since his first book, Elantris, though it’s still not going to end up studied in creative writing classes. But the book is entertaining enough.

A People’s History of Middle-Earth

I finished reading The Last Ringbearer. It’s a story completely unapproved of by the Tolkien estate which tells the story of the end and aftermath of the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the viewpoint of the orcs. It’s pretty much only available through non-standard channels in English, though I understand it’s sold openly as a published book in its original Russian.

I quite liked the opening when it was a revisionist retelling from the perspective of the losing side, leavened by long digressions into the history of Mordor and the ecology of the land, but in the middle it turned into a standard fantasy quest, which I wasn’t into. It’s clearly deliberate parallelism to the One Ring mission. After that it turned into a Cold War spy novel before ending kind of ploinkingly with almost the same climax as the original trilogy.

Reading the book was an interesting experience. I’m not sure it’s something I can recommend, particularly since I don’t know who I could even recommend it to – the story keeps switching genres and I don’t know if a typical fantasy reader would appreciate this literary legerdemain. That, and a Tolkien fan would probably be really ticked off at how the story of Lord of the Rings has been cruelly hacked apart and sewn back together as a cynical propaganda piece by the victorious West.

The book ends with an essay from the author defending his fanfiction – I do not use this term pejoratively, but it really is the best term for this work – and criticizing the fantasy genre’s demand for Manichean struggles between good and evil. This leads me to believe that he may not be widely read in the modern fantasy genre. There are numerous English fantasy works that put a gritty spin on fantasy, the most famous probably being A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones in its TV incarnation). Those works may not be as widely known in Russia, but it seems such an obvious idea to put a cynical spin on fantasy that I’m sure there are Russian writers who are doing the same thing already.

Anyway, that’s that. I read The Last Ringbearer. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t like it. I just thought it was kind of okay.

The Ones Who Live in the Basement

So someone took The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas and turned it into a viable business model in The Sims:

Screencap of a 4chan post describing how to make a
Click to embiggen

Every time I play The Sims, I start my family with a “painting goblin”.

I make him/her morbidly obese with green skin. I make sure to give him the following traits:

  • likes to be alone
  • likes art
  • hates the outdoors

The first thing I do once I have enough money is build a small room in the basement, send him down there, and then remove the stairs. I set him up in a tiny little area with only an easel, a toilet, a refrigerator, a bed, a shower, and a trash bin.

All he does all day is paint. That’s it. He paints and paints and paints and paints.

Eventually his paintings become very good and worth a lot of money. Every few minutes I go downstairs and sell whatever painting he has finished, and then I return to playing the game.

My family always ends up feeling blessed because of their fortune, and they never find out about the horrible secret living beneath their home.