Gen X and the 21st Century

Thanks to a possible gas leak last weekend I watched more movies than I’d planned on. (My house is fine bee tee dubs).

So, Valerian. It reminded me of reading a French sci-fi comic book in that it looked good but the story was thinner than the toilet paper in a public bathroom. I actually fell asleep during the souk shootout, mostly because I didn’t really care if the characters made it. I don’t need to enumerate the rest of the movie’s shortcomings since they’ve been covered well by others already, but it’s no Transformers. I think this will be decent enough to watch when it ends up on Netflix.

Now, Atomic Blonde, that’s a very stylish movie. It’s like 70% style, 30% substance, and 110% Charlize Theron. Actually, maybe I should run my numbers again since it actually did make more sense than, say, Sucker Punch. But despite the Cold War setting it’s not an 80s spy thriller so much as a Gen X nostalgia fantasy movie (i.e., it’s nostalgic for the 80s but for a fantasy version of it where it’s all sexy people with meaningful jobs doing things that matter in between making out with each other).

I hadn’t realized before how tall Charlize Theron was but the movie made sure we noticed this in almost every scene she was in. I appreciated this reminder of her physical presence since this made it more believable that she could engage in hand to hand combat with large angry men. I also appreciated that the movie was conspicuous in showing her looking for weapons every time she would throw down, even if it’s as simple as a bunch of keys clutched in her fist, since weapons do a lot to make fights more equal.

One thing that did take me out of the movie was the selfie in the beginning. People didn’t take selfies with film cameras unless there was a mirror involved, dammit. Otherwise you wouldn’t know if you were in the frame until you got the pictures back a week after you dropped the film off, which might be months after you originally took the picture if you didn’t use your camera a lot and took forever to use up a roll of film. Also, I don’t want to imagine how much work it would take to edit a tape recording in a hotel room, considering it’s already a bitch with digital files under ideal conditions.

But whatever, it’s a minor point. My take away? I liked Atomic Blonde.

Tales of the City

Book cover of Imaginary Cities showing a futurist rendering of a shining white city of skyscrapers with a crowd of tourist in 1930s clothing gaping at the panorama

I am in the midst of reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. The best description of it is one that it provides – a nonfiction version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s just as hard to describe as the latter book. Basically it’s a collection of short essays loosely grouped around certain themes regarding cities of fiction and dream and myth and architecture.

Well, perhaps “essay” is the wrong word as essays traditionally argue for a point of view, whereas in this book the pieces mostly wander back and forth through Samuel Coleridge and Le Corbusier and Judge Dredd and whatnot. Reading it is like reading Calvino’s book. I think my favourite piece so far is the one about science fiction stories of cities ruled by women – both the ones written by men that are panicked screeds about feminism and the smaller number written by women that seriously try to imagine egalitarian societies.

My biggest complaint at this point is that the book is quite Eurocentric. It would have been stronger if it at least included Asian notions of city building, as historically the largest cities in the world have been in Asia. If there’s a cyberpunk section later on that doesn’t mention Akira then I’m going to be disappointed.

Other than that, I like the book so far.

Sing, O Muse

DOOM's space marine protagonist fighting off an endless wave of demons

I had no idea that the Los Angeles Review of Books was covering video games but it seems obvious in hindsight. Games are texts in a literary theory sense, after all, as Wikipedia explains:

In literary theory, a text is any object that can be “read,” whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message’s content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.

As texts, games are open to analysis like any other text. It was inevitable that their analysis would move out of the amateur space of student papers and personal blogs and into the formal world of published reviews after the generation that played video games was old enough to get PhDs in literature.

Anyway, the following article is an excellent analysis of the liberal democratic zeitgeist that’s valuable even if one has not played the video game being reviewed. It’s about the modern politics of rage as mediated through the 2016 reboot of the DOOM game franchise.

It’s all great, but here are some choice bits for the tl;dr brigade:

DOOMguy Knows How You Feel

The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself . . .

Games are machines for producing affect, and the affect the public most fears in games is rage . . . The DOOM Emotion Machine pushes you to move beyond mere expression of rage, not just inchoate, unfathomable rage, not just rage at any old thing or the nearest narratively acceptable target, but to feel free to rage at the people who brought you here, rage at their apologists, rage at the idiocy of HR, rage at the plodding stupidity of looking for one more source of “dead labor” . . . Rage at Hell but rage at who brought you to Hell and why any of this is necessary at all . . .

DOOM wants you to consider that when “they go low,” you will scrape the pits of Inferno to go ever lower. DOOM wants you to feel more. But — and perhaps this is sheer, irrational hope on my part, a shard of redemption in a game of bleak glee — DOOM wants you to remember that it is all so stupid. That all of this is instrumental, that the only way out is through, but that this is brutalizing to the world and to yourself. In my most hopeful moment, I think DOOM has old Spinoza on the mind: learn to feel joy in the world again and yes, learn to feel joy in the pain of enemies but remember that it is just — in a measure of mere magnitude — a lesser joy than in the flourishing of friends.

This is some goddamn top shelf games writing. A thousand aggregated Metacritic scores could not encompass the informativeness of this review.

Also, if you’re keen to peruse the magazine’s other video game essays, I recommend Something is Rotten in the State of Lucis: On “Final Fantasy XV”, which analyses the political philosophy of Final Fantasy XV, with especial regard to Hamlet and Americana. I probably won’t ever get FFXV, but this review is well-written enough to give a non-player much to ruminate on.

Old Man Logan

I saw Logan and was moved. A superhero movie made me feel something besides glee when the bad guys got their asses kicked! This is unprecedented. That final X almost brought me to tears. I saw the movie twice in the theatre, which is something I very rarely do.

You know, in the comics whenever the X-Men travelled to the dystopian fascist future it always looked ridiculous and cartoonish, whereas in this movie it’s almost painfully plausible. The Guardian‘s review called Logan “a feral howl of rage”, which pretty much is the prevailing mood in a lot of the US today.

Yet this movie was made while Obama was still president, and let’s not pretend Hillary would have done more than half-assed work in reining in the neo-feudal society the obscenely wealthy keep trying to bring about. It’s like Aliens vs. Predator said: Whoever wins, we lose.

The rage of the movie is not merely the rage of the decent despairing at the rise of the despicable, but also the rage of the dispossessed wailing at the cruelty of the world.

Logan is many things, but one of those is a cri de coeur. I recall what Marx said of religion:  “[It] is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. For good and ill, one can also say that of art.

Black Series

Holy shit you guys, Série noire on Netflix is hilarious. It’s a Quebec show about two halfwit screenwriters whose incredibly dumb legal thriller is somehow renewed for a second season. Their show has high ratings but is intensely hated by the critics, mostly because the writers only know of the world through Hollywood:

“You should get a legal expert. It looks like you just started writing after reading The Firm.”

“We didn’t read The Firm, we watched The Firm. The Firm is a movie!”

So they decide that they need to do research and they start committing crimes to add realism to their writing.

Anyway, I really like how well the two protagonists portray idiots. One of them even gets replaced by a failed novelist and we think, okay, she teaches literature at a college so she’s probably smarter, then it turns out her novel clearly steals ideas from Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Bottom line, the show starts gloriously stupid and stays that way.

I unfortunately can’t find a trailer with English subtitles. It’s too bad because there’s this one hilarious scene from the fictional TV show which was submitted when the writers won an award for best product placement in a TV show, about serial killers arguing about which brand of garbage bag to suffocate a victim with: “No, that’s a cheap generic brand, it’s just going to rip and tear!”

By the bye, the title is a French expression for a series of disasters.

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.

Happy 2017, have a giant robot anime

You know, Netflix needs to do a better job advertising their shows, since the image that pops up when you pause on Kuromukuro is a rather generic one of teenagers standing around in their school uniforms. I’d rather spend an afternoon drifting in and out of a nap as Cosmos plays on screen than watch something that looks so very uninspired.

But in the opening ten seconds of the show you see two giant robots fencing with laser swords while surrounded by an army of dead samurai. Much later you get a loudmouthed fighter pilot guy shooting a hole in an enemy giant robot then stabbing the hole with a massive knife while shouting crude sexual come-ons at his dead foe.

So far I’ve only seen this first episode, but I’m thinking this’ll be some relaxing giant robot military porn like Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse or Schwarzesmarken. The biggest difference is that this show is missing the large jiggly tits. In other words, it’s exactly what I like in my military porn (and I believe I’ve mentioned before how much I like giant robots when they’re done right). I think I shall be binge watching this show.

Samurai Jack and Jill

Recently I saw A Boy and His Samurai, a Japanese movie about a samurai who inadvertently time travels to the present day. Don’t ask how, you didn’t really care how the thingy worked in Big or Freaky Friday, did you? In fact, structurally it’s a lot like Big, with the magic at the start, the funny stuff early on followed by the serious adult stuff, then the magic again to wrap things up.

So it’s a comedy-drama – the samurai gets taken in by a single mother and swears fealty to her as her feudal retainer, then as time goes on he becomes an up and coming pastry chef. There are the expected fish out of water jokes, but the movie’s also a thoughtful examination of class and gender in the 21st century, particularly how modern society is still structured around the nuclear family while steadily breaking down the systems that produce nuclear families. The film’s not a didactic women’s studies manifesto, but it does illustrate exactly how tough it is to be a single parent and how gender and class expectations tie into that difficulty, all wrapped up with a sweet story about a boy finding a surrogate father.

Philadelphia, a.k.a. my sister can’t be this beloved

You know, I just realized I never got around to posting my review of Oreimo. Well, enjoy.

The titular little sister Kirino leaning forward in the foreground while the older brother Kyousuke glares at her behind her back with his arms crossed

My biggest surprise in recent (read: 2014) anime discoveries has been Oreimo, a.k.a. My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute. I had written it off as borderline wank material but my brother kept insisting I should try it out. And yes, there’s fanservice, but not the sexual kind (okay, there’s a gratuitous panty shot in the second episode).

The series is about a high school guy who discovers that his otherwise perfect overachiever of a sister is addicted to pornographic computer games, specifically the subgenre of incest porn where the male protagonists nail their younger sisters. He understandably freaks the fuck out, especially since his sister hates his guts. Then he discovers that his little sister is into the porn for its emotional content, which is to say that she’s enamoured of the idea of having a little sister of her own.

The series is one of the few anime that shows being into geek shit is actually not a mainstream thing in Japan. The fanservice, then, is in the show’s depiction of the little sister as the ideal otaku: well-adjusted, popular, and good-looking. Actually I can see that she’s more like the otaku’s ideal girlfriend, like an independent invention of that male nerd fantasy – the girl geek. And there’s even an episode where the sister defends her hobby to her judgmental father.

The fantasy of the series, the yearning that informs every episode, is the desire for acceptance. Well, there’s also the fantasy of a girl who appreciates the misunderstood target audience, which I will acknowledge as not a fantasy I care about. But once you can see what the series was going for then perhaps you might be able to appreciate the story for itself.

As always, your mileage may vary.

PS

I have since been informed that the anime takes a jarringly squicky turn near the end. Heads up for all you watchers out there. For now, I’ll stand by my recommendation, as being 80% good is still an A in most grading schemes.