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.

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.

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.

The boy who quantum leaped through time

I’ve been watching way less anime lately. Of the handful of shows I’m watching this season, I’d say Erased is the best. It’s got a pretty cool opening, as is to be expected of Asian Kung-Fu Generation:

Erased is about a 29 year old pizza delivery man who has the involuntary ability to go back in time to fix tragedies. Normally he only returns for a few minutes but when something really bad happens he ends up as a 10 year old boy again living the weeks before one of his classmates was abducted and killed.

There seems to be a lot of stories lately about pathetic single men in their twenties returning to their childhood to fix their lives. It’s obviously a wish-fulfillment fantasy – if you look at the biographies of the writers, the ones who don’t have agoraphobia or social anxiety are horrifically underemployed Millenials. This desire to return to a simpler time and set right what first went wrong is the desire of a person who feels like a grownup loser.

It’s a specifically male story, as women are pretty much raised from birth to expect to play second fiddle in their own lives. The traditional route of female adulthood is of subordination to others, after all, to future husbands and to children that must be raised. Offhand, I can only think of one female lead who time leaps back, in the manga Again!! In that case she was just inadvertently brought along when the male protagonist got a chance to fix his high school shit, and otherwise didn’t want to time travel in the first place.

Of course, the writers of stories that get adapted into anime clearly aren’t doing too badly. But the stories couldn’t have gotten so popular if their audiences weren’t finding in them something to relate to. This type of story could only have been written in an economic climate where the young can expect to be underpaid and underappreciated for not being born in better times. It’s the basic story of the 21st century so far. Kind of a depressing thought, isn’t it?

The Near-Final Frontier

I’ve been playing Star Trek Timelines, the new mobile F2P game that’s only been out for a few days. I never play these types of games, but I’ve read about them and I’m aware of all the little psychological tricks it’s using to hook me in. But on the other hand, when I click on Worf he says “Today is a good day to die.” Plus, if I keep playing I’ll get to unlock Odo and Chakotay soon. How am I supposed to resist?

The premise is what you’d expect – some time-space hooey is afoot and Q has dragooned you, nameless Starfleet captain, into flying around fixing the problems when past, present, and alternate timelines collide.

The game’s only been out for a few days, though, so some of the kinks are apparently still being ironed out. For instance, I think the beginning is a bit too complicated to just jump into – Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes is noticeably slicker (speaking of another mobile F2P game that I just got into over the holidays) – but zooming around in a Constitution-class starship scanning planets is fun enough by itself.

It’s curious that so far I’ve yet to find a characters from the Bakula Enterprise that’s been voiced, considering that characters from the other series have had voices. Not all of them (Yeoman Rand and Keiko are mute, for instance), but enough that I notice. Perhaps there’s something in the Enterprise actors’ contracts that puts a kibosh on video game adaptations? I do notice that the J.J. Abrams movie versions aren’t included, which I assume is because the game’s contract covers only the TV shows.

Anyway, I’m probably going to keep playing this grindy clickfest until I vomit. It’s Star Trek, how could I not?

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.

Future Imperfect

I love point-and-click adventure games. I love walking around their worlds and clicking “look” on each piece of background scenery, I love talking to every character I come across, and I even love obtuse inventory puzzles that leave me wondering how the hell a rubber ducky is supposed to help me get on a subway train. This is not a rational love but one born from the nostalgia of a person who played a lot of Sierra adventure games as a kid.

But art does not exist in a vacuum. Audiences always bring their prior experiences with them when encountering a text. Keeping in mind my partiality toward its genre, I must say this: I like Technobabylon.

Said the cyborg bouncer with the mohawk:

Part police procedural, part conspiracy thriller, and wholly a sci-fi cyberpunk journey through a decadent city of sorrow and sin, Technobabylon is a pleasant return to the old adventure and puzzle gaming formula. You play as three main characters: a curmudgeonly police detective hostile to the newfangled AI that governs his city (like a white Bill Cosby, minus the rape), his younger and more enthusiastic post-op (actually post-genetic-engineering) female-to-male partner who’s down with the hacking and the tweeting and the bipping and the bopping, and an unemployed shut-in on welfare addicted to the Internet who subsists on protein sludge extruded from her shitty apartment’s food machine. Also there’s a murderous plot which could lead all the way to the top. Continue reading “Future Imperfect”

Self and sensibility

Well, holy shit but Selfie is hilarious. Or rather, it was hilarious, as it was cancelled halfway through its first season. I acknowledge that the pilot was kind of rough, most notably in the misogyny carried over from its source material. What else can you expect from an adaptation of My Fair Lady? But even by the second episode the quality shot up through the roof. I like how the series consistently showed that it was not just Eliza but Henry as well who needed to learn how to be a better person. John Cho’s standoffish workaholic and Karen Gillan’s shallow social media obsessive both reveal emotional complexity that carry their characters beyond mere caricatures. This is thanks in large part to the actors. It certainly helps that they look great together. And it’s sad that so much praise for the show revolves around the unconventional decision to make an Asian man the male lead in an interracial romantic comedy (white guy with Asian woman is far more common), just because it’s 2015 and it shouldn’t be unusual to show Asian men as desirable romantic partners.

The show just had so much potential. The supporting characters were strong and I can’t think of any weak actors in the cast. The show’s slightly cartoonish universe and the way that characters often spoke in rhyme make its world just a bit more like a musical, and the complex and layered allusions are all significant in helping decode what’s going on in each episode. It reminds me a bit of The Simpsons in how references can be both from high and low culture, mixing Gwen Stefani and Philip Roth together for audiences to laugh at.

The show was going places before its untimely demise. This bums me out. So long, Selfie. You were too good for this world.

PS

I’m slightly alarmed now since Selfie is one of those great but cancelled shows that the Onion AV Club hive mind keeps mentioning. Does that mean all of those other things people yell about in the TV Club comments are also this good? Should I have already seen Bunheads and Terriers? I’m not even finished watching season 2 of Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23 yet! How could I survive watching so many great shows that were killed too soon? I don’t think I can take this much heartache.