Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: Breathing Machine, A Memoir of Computers, by Leigh Alexander

"The secret sadness that underlies the proliferation of interactive entertainment and technology isn't only that we may lose their mystery. It isn't only that we’ll lose the pioneer feel of uncharted islands wreathed in newness, the half-finished thoughts of strangers surfacing in the distance. It isn't even so much that we may be disappointed by the thin realizations of virtual worlds and repetitive, static online games, or the barrage of social media. It’s that our appetites, wishes and fantasies are cool now, sanctioned and monetizable, and we are open to being exploited."

Leigh Alexander has long been one of my favorite writers on the Internet. I originally found her on Kotaku (where she still occasionally contributes), where her pieces on story, diversity and exploration in gaming serve as stellar counterpoints to the dudebro commenters giggling over "make me a sammich" jokes and wondering why anyone cares about that whole feminism thing.

Her announcement, seemingly out of nowhere, that she'd written a memoir about her youthful relationship to technology had me salivating (even if those dastardly Apple users got the book a few days earlier than I did). Anyone who's a fan of Alexander needs no convincing -- Breathing Machine is the Leigh you know and love. What about for everyone else? Well, it depends.

I say "it depends" not to disparage Alexander or her writing, but only to point out that the book is a very personal, very time-specific piece of writing. It's not about computers as much as it is about interaction -- interaction with machines, and our interaction with each other through machines, the evolution of which occurred mainly in the early to mid-nineties, when the Internet came out of universities and basements, but wasn't quite mainstream yet. To anyone who was an adult during this time, it likely seems a lot less mystical. To anyone born afterward, being entranced by text games and seedy chatrooms probably sounds a bit silly.

But to those of us in adolescence in that oh so perfect and mysterious time period, we understand. We understand GOing NORTH to PUNCH RATs. We understand the allure of anime, traded on IRC and watched in dark rooms with shitty projectors and shittier subtitles, back before anime was a billion dollar craze in the Western world. We understand pretending to be Final Fantasy and Dragon Ball Z characters, creating a world together and taking epic actions while ::speaking in brackets::.

The reminiscing reminded me of one of my most poignant online experiences, one that still sticks with me to this day. I remember being in class (sixth grade, maybe?) and being encouraged to participate in an international pen pal program. I didn't. What would I talk about? I asked myself. What would I say to someone a world away that wouldn't sound trite and ignorant?

A few days later, I logged onto one of my favorite chatrooms to talk about whatever miscellany normally occupied us (probably video games, anime and porn). I got into a discussion with one particularly brusque fellow about some minor Final Fantasy plot point, and when he declared he needed to get ready for work in the middle of the night, I discovered he lived in Australia.

In one fell swoop, the entire concept of pen pals was obsolete. It's easy to take for granted how much the Internet has expanded the scope of our social interactions, but for 13-year-old me, it was astounding. These are the memories Alexander's book forces me to regurgitate.

It might be fair to criticize the book as overly nostalgic. After all, who would go back to AOL chatrooms, given the choice? But though Alexander recalls her electric explorations fondly, she never pretends they were perfect, and doesn't assert that we could or should go back, even if they were.

She does end on a somewhat sad note by pointing out some troubling trends in the evolution of technology. Our shared language that was once used to build a community is now used to exclude those who look like past (or even imagined) tormentors. We erect barriers, not welcome mats. And the moneyed interests prey on our fears, make us suspicious of Outsiders so that we might buy, buy, buy in order to protect our Cred.

Breathing Machines is not a long book. It is not a thematically challenging book. You will not learn any grand truths reading this book. There are no historical tidbits or shocking answers to big questions. You may, however, recognize yourself in the author. And that in itself can be a sobering experience.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The State of Star Wars

There's been quite a flurry of news on the Star Wars front, and since I've occasionally reviewed some Expanded Universe novels here on the blog, I thought I'd talk about it. Let's start with some movie news.

The Younguns or the Olds?

The big story that's been floating around the Intertubes is the explanation for the departure of Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) from screenwriting duties. According to the Hollywood Reporter, as quoted by Charlie Jane Anders in this io9 story, Arndt and director J.J. Abrams disagreed on the fundamental focus of the story. Arndt wrote a script revolving around the next generation of heroes -- the children of Luke, Han and Leia (who are presumably not Jacen and Jaina, pause for tears, more in the next section) -- which Abrams rejected because he wanted one last hurrah for the heroes we've come to know and love before passing the baton.

Most reaction I've seen has been pretty negative. Anders in the article says, "A film focusing on a new generation of Star Wars heroes sounds like a somewhat better idea than Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher taking center stage one last time." And while I concede that judging a script based on a rumored vague synopsis is silly, I have to say I disagree.

To make my point, take Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. I thought it was a decent enough movie even if it angered a lot of people. The source of a lot of the annoyance was Mutt, who ends up being Jones's son and who is pretty heavily foreshadowed to take over for his dad. Now, as bad as some of the reaction to that movie was, imagine the outrage if this guy had been the main character, and Harrison Ford had only a cameo.

So, yeah. I'm okay with wanting to the story for the first movie to follow the Big Three before transitioning to their children. Especially if we run the risk of turning Episode VII into a children's movie. To be sure, the original trilogy was kid-friendly by design, but it also wasn't patronizing (though I like the prequels more than most people, they weren't able to replicate that feat). I hope VII-IX are similar in tone.

Basically, I don't think this is a fiasco. I respect Arndt's work, but I also respect Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, writer of Empire Strikes Back, who's helping Abrams tweak things. I'm optimistic everything will turn out okay.

A New Canon

This one's making me bang my head against the wall, mainly because of how wrong the reporting on it has been. Here's another article from the Hollywood Reporter, which claims only now will Star Wars spinoffs (meaning the EU) start to matter.

For one thing, no, the Expanded Universe always mattered, in that EU was always considered a unified canon. Let's remind ourselves that, for a long, long time, there were only three Star Wars movies and no real plans to make any others. A ton of EU was created in the interim, and since George Lucas didn't feel obligated to abide by the extra material when he made the prequels (not that there was much to contradict -- almost all EU material was set after the original trilogy), it created the concept of a "hierarchy." Movie canon took priority over most EU material (modern novels) which took priority over some of the outlandish stuff like the old Marvel Star Wars Comics from the 80s.

Leeland Chee, who worked for Lucasfilm to handle issues of canon and continuity for the entire series, is working along with a Disney taskforce to streamline the canon, remove this hierarchy and make everything easy to understand for new fans.

What this means, simply, is that pretty much everything EU post-Return of the Jedi is going to be invalidated.

That makes me kind of sad. But there are some caveats, silver linings and inevitabilities here.

The EU was coming to an end

The current EU is in sort of a weird state. In the Del Ray novels, we still have Leia, Luke and Han, though they're all pretty old by now. We also have Ben, Luke's son, and Jaina, daughter of Leia and Han.

In the Dark Horse comics, set far in the future, we have a new Skywalker, a descendant (presumably) of Ben, as well as an organization that was clearly influenced by Jaina. Basically, two plotlines written by two entirely different companies (neither of which are the companies that actually own the IP now) that need to converge.

It's really not a wonder that the pace of novels has been slowing as of late. The current EU has some great stories and characters -- I hate to lose Jaina in particular -- but it's kind of at an end. There are only so many Wars we can have in the Stars before it's like, really, there's another galaxy-destroying race? The Sith are back *again?*

The old EU isn't disappearing

Leeland Chee has said the goal of the story taskforce is to remove the hierarchy. I can tell you right now they're not going to be successful. At best, they'll still have three levels of canon. "Canon," which consists of the movies, Lucasfilm produced projects like The Clone Wars, and maybe some of the material set in between Episode III and Episode IV. "Old Canon," which is all the post-ROTJ EU stuff. And "non canon," which is the aforementioned Marvel Comics, the "What If?" stories, etc. I mean, they could conceivably just through the "Old Canon" into the "Non Canon" bucket, but anyone who's actually interested in the EU will know it's a load of BS. The old EU has a well-maintained continuity. You can't just discard it, no matter how hard you try.

In the end, those books on my shelves aren't going to disappear. I would be surprised and disappointed if Del Rey's contract allowed Disney to actively remove the old EU books from sale, and furthermore, it would seem a weird move of Disney's part. At worst, you'd think they'd enforce some sort of "Alternate Universe!" sticker, because as far as I know, the novels still sell pretty well, as they're still being produced in hardcover and still regularly make the NYT Bestseller list.

Reboots can be fun

And that's really what this should be thought of, especially as fans of the old Expanded Universe. The new Star Trek movie didn't make the old Star Trek continuity disappear. You can still go watch Tim Burton's Batman movies, and they still share a universe. Superman II is still on Netflix.

But even if you love Batman Returns, you can still enjoy the Dark Knight. It's not difficult to compartmentalize, and that's my plan when the new Star Wars canon rolls around in a couple of years.