Craymer vs. Craymer: A Podcast about Politics, Pop Culture and Philosophy

Hey everyone, hold on to your butts! If you just can’t get enough of my musings, you can head over to craymershow.xyz and check out my new-ish podcast, Craymer vs. Craymer! It’s a discussion show I run with my cohost, White Locke, It’s generally half-comedy (we make fun of stupid startups and listicles) and serious topics–things like moral colonialism and the drug war.

You can check it out at the website above, or via iTunes! If you do use the latter, please leave us a review, and if you enjoy it, tell your friends! If you have a topic suggestion or comment, you can also contact us at craymershow@gmail.com.

That’s it for me this week. Have a good Monday!

Retro Review: Legend of Dragoon

I’m something of a retro game connoisseur, especially when it comes to role-playing games. But even I have blind spots. For the past month or so, I’ve been working though Legend of Dragoon, a game with the reputation of being a me-too copycat of other, better RPGs of the era, but which nonetheless has a huge cult following. To this day, you can find people on message boards asking for a sequel that will likely never come.

I played this game nearly to completion back when it was released. But given that it’s been so long, and that I never finished it, I thought it’d be fun to go back through and see how it had aged. The answer was evident pretty quickly.

The game is a mess.

Visuals

Let’s start with the best first. The graphics in Dragoon are top notch and easily stand toe-to-toe with their contemporaries (your Final Fantasies and such). The field sprites are surprisingly detailed, though it’s still a PS1 game, so don’t expect to be blown away. The battle animations are likewise decent, and technically more impressive than Final Fantasy VII, though they lack the flair to be infinitely rewatchable. Most of the backgrounds are pre-rendered, and while this technique is decidedly passé in the modern era, I still enjoy it quite a bit. 
Where the game stumbles is in its Full-Motion Video. These were basically a requirement for PSX RPGs, but the Sony studio had nowhere near the CGI aptitude of golden age Squaresoft. The cutscenes are choppy, busy and ugly, and the addition of horrible voice acting is incredibly distracting. 
At the end of the day, the visuals are Legend of Dragoon’s best feature. But even for all its technical achievement, the graphics lack the soul that made other games of this era shine.

Gameplay

Legend of Dragoon sports a fairly bog-standard PS1-era combat system. Three characters on your side, one to three on the other. Characters take turns attacking, using items, defending or running. That’s about it. In fact, as far as available options go, Legend of Dragoon actually pales in comparison to many of its peers. Any magic available to characters is locked behind limited Dragoon transformations, and the vast majority of these skills are simply elemental damage, with a few exceptions that heal or provide protection to your party.
Now, let’s be fair. Even in Final Fantasies where your spell list is stuffed full of options, a good 50-75% of them are rarely or never used. But even so, there’s a distinct shallowness to the battles in LoD.
The most talked-about feature is still the most fun, and that’s the presence of “additions,” damage-boosting rhythm mini-games that pop up every time a character attacks. While it does incentivize (some might say force) the player to pay attention to even the most straightforward battles, even these became fairly rote when you perform the exact same maneuver for the hundredth time.
There are a few other interesting twists, such as the ability for the Defend action to heal characters. Even this provides little tactical depth, though. In the early game, it’s absurdly overpowered, as it allows you to simply Defend each turn to fully heal your characters even in the toughest of boss battles. Later on, enemy attacks become far too fast and powerful for Defend to be effective, which makes it essentially useless.
Annoyances abound. The UI is lackluster, the absurdly small item limit constantly gets in the way, especially as you begin to collect non-consumable “repeatable” items which are useful enough in some battles not to discard, but generally just take up space. The game loves to force you to return to lower level areas, seemingly for no reason other than to pad the run time. Several long, unskippable story sections consist of running back and forth in wide areas, seeking out NPCs.
There are some silver linings. The level design is strong and the developers have included some interesting Quality of Life enhancements such as a random battle indicator. But even at its best moment, the game is never really a joy–it’s mostly just tolerable.

Audio

Abysmal. The music was composed primarily by a western composer I’ve never heard of, with no prior experience in video game composition, and it shows. Here’s the menu music, an example of a song you’ll be hearing a LOT of:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdzYsNLoeGY
It’s lazy, boring and tonally mismatched with the rest of the game, which describes most of the other songs as well. At best, I’ll say that a couple of the town themes are catchy. But aside from that, the music is so unmemorable that I fail to have anything meaningful to say about it. Put on literally any other PSX RPG soundtrack while playing this and you’ll have a better experience.

Writing

Bad, bad, bad. It’s trite from the get-go: the big, bad empire is burning villages, imprisoning people, yadda yadda yadda. Though it’s even worse than standard RPG fare, because there’s no political cohesiveness. No one in the world seems to care the the Empire exists, so there’s no rebellion; it’s literally just a handful of people roaming around getting into fights with the government.
And those people–the game’s cast–are no saving grace. The game is incredibly earnest about them, convinced that you’ll absolutely fall in love with them. You won’t. Part of it is just the horrific dialogue, but the design itself is nothing you haven’t seen before. Old (kinda perverted) Martial Arts Master. Slow-Witted Big Strong Guy. Boring, No-Personality Protagonist. Annoying Anime Girl.
And it’s worth talking about Shanna, the main female protagonist. The game’s treatment of Shanna is sexist as fuck, even for Y2K. Even beyond sexism, the game has no idea what to do with her characterization. Half of her lines imply some sort of weird will-they-won’t-they thing with Dart, the main character. The other half assume that the two are basically already married. It means that Shanna comes off as an insufferable nag with extreme memory loss. She has no other traits.
Dart, for his part, has no chemistry with Shanna. His only relationship with her is to scream “I WILL PROTECT YOU!!!” at random intervals. To say Shanna is objectified is an understatement; she might as well be Dart’s priceless family heirloom for all the interaction they have.
None of the rest of the script is any better. The dialogue is written like poorly translated anime from the 80s, complete with multiple exclamation points!!! After every single sentence!!! I haven’t created a full concordance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more lines of dialogue ending in a bang than a period. Menu entries and item descriptions are often written in arcane Engrish better suited to Zero Wing than a big-budget, AAA role-playing game.

Shana: Ahh… ahhh… Ah…?
Diaz (Zieg): It’s been a while. Rose? Dart?
Dart: Father?
Rose (Dragon Campaign): Ahh! Zieg! Zieg!!
Rose: Oh, it cannot be!!

The story itself is completely incomprehensible. It is full of incredible twists, though, such as the main villain secretely being the protagonist’s father. Real innovative stuff. Oh, at one point you team up with the guy you’ve thought of as the villain up until that point. Pretty standard trope, until you remember that he outright murdered one of your party members earlier in the game. None of the other characters seems to mind that, though.

Conclusion

I never finished Legend of Dragoon as a kid, and as an adult I had fairly mixed memories of it. I remember laughing at the music, while thinking the battle system was novel. I had no idea, starting it up again, that it would have aged so poorly. There’s very little redeemable about the game. The idea that it warranted a sequel is silly, even with its small but vocal fanbase, given how slapdash and nonsensical the story is. If you, like me, are on a mystical quest to revisit the games of your youth, buckle yourself in for a slog. If not, skip Legend of Dragoon entirely.

Rebooting the Prequels – Bad Idea, or Worst Idea?

Miles Teller IS Anakin Skywalker 2.0!

My prequel post from last week got me thinking about a topic that’s popped up here and there since The Force Awakened was announced. Even more than an era of prequels, we live in an era of reboots and remakes. Red Dawn, Fantastic Four, Man of Steel, hell, we’re on like our fifth Spider-Man.

So if remakes are all the rage, the logic goes, why not remake the most controversial of films: Star Wars Episodes I-III? At first blush, it makes a certain sort of sense. Actually, wait, no it goddamn doesn’t. It makes as much sense as a boycott from the ten people who followed the Star Wars EU being relevant to Episode VII’s success. But because I hate myself, I want to quantify the reasons a prequel reboot makes no sense.

Let me say off the bat that I don’t want to discuss the quality, or lack thereof, of the prequel trilogy. There were some great things in those films; there were also some awful things. Fans and critics alike should be able to agree on that.

There would be absolutely no point

The Great Disney Canonization caused a major upheaval in Star Wars fandom, but at the end of the day it cemented a few things as immutable (at least for the foreseeable future). Those included the prequels, yes … but it also included several major works based directly on the prequels, including The Clone Wars, which ties into Star Wars: Rebels, which is still in development.
So, yes, theoretically Disney could reboot Episodes I-III and overwrite the old prequels, canon-wise. But how much freedom would they actually have? The original trilogy boxed Lucas in, at least to a small degree, as far as what he could do in the prequels. But now, with a significant number of canon pieces that link directly to that story, their ability to make any substantial changes to the prequel films is close to nothing.
That can’t be overstated: any prequel reboot would be forced to tell the exact same story, nearly beat-for-beat. Shot by shot remakes, do exist, but they’re generally reserved for lesser-known cult films, or highly beloved ones. Neither of which describe the prequels. At best, new films would be the same stories told with better dialogue, better acting and modern CGI. That’s it. Is that worth a decade of development, when we could be getting new stories in this universe?

You’d lose a lot of good along with the bad

As I mentioned above, I’m going to go with the assumption that there are worthwhile bits of the prequel films. None of them would be present in the new films. Now, I’m not making the Bring Back Legends!!! argument that a reboot would somehow erase the original prequels from existence. Rather, I’m saying that portions of a reboot would actually pale in comparison to the original.
Do you really want to see Obi-Wan without Ewan McGregor, especially considering how stoked everyone is for a McGregor-helmed Kenobi film? What exactly would you do with an actor like Ian McDiarmid, who played Emperor Palpatine in both the prequels and the original trilogy? Would you really try to bring him back to play the exact same role in the exact same story again? Would you try to recast him, even though the role has never been played by any other live-action actor?
Sure, you could jettison Jar Jar (though again, you have the pesky problem of the guy showing up in The Clone Wars). But would it be worth it?

Rebooted prequels would bomb, irreparably harming the brand

Star Wars films are fundamentally commercial projects. As much as they mean to the people who create them and the people who simply enjoy them, they are (and always have been!) designed to make money. Every single prediction of future behavior from Disney and Lucasfilm should be viewed through that lens.
The Force Awakens did gangbusters in theaters, and there were a few reasons why. First, it was a new live-action Star Wars movie, which we never thought we’d see again and which we hadn’t seen for decade. Second, it made a concerted effort to broaden its appeal to more than the standard white male nerd that previous films had targeted. To be sure, women and non-white fans enjoyed Star Wars in droves before Episode VII, but TFA was the first Star Wars film to focus on representing them. And boy howdy, did it pay off!
A prequel reboot would be a severe underdog in all of these respects. A rehash of a story many people disliked in the first place, at a time when Star Wars fatigue is a very real worry, and with the same boring white boy Chosen One at the forefront. Sure, you could try to build up Padme and Mace Windu, or introduce a new person of color, but it’d be difficult. Anakin is the center of that story.
Even beyond simple demographics, there’s no audience for a series of reboots. Prequel fans? They’re going to be angry about an update to films that they love because of a perceived lack of quality. Prequel haters? It’s unlikely they’re going to line up to see films they already dislike, especially ones that follow the same basic story. “You remember that movie you hate? It has better dialogue now!” is not a recipe for box office success. Mainstream audiences? Hard to see them flocking to films with as bad a reputation as the PT have.

The prequels are what they are. Accept them and move on.

One of the hardest parts to swallow about the prequels was that they were, essentially, the capstone on Star Wars. Sure, things like The Clone Wars and Expanded Universe existed, but this was our last chance for a big budget, theatrical Star Wars experience. And it was disappointing. So that disappointment bred resentment, which led to anger, which led to fan edits and ultimately, well. This.
But guys, that’s not the case anymore! Star Wars is not done! Episode VII was fabulous! Rogue One looks great! We can accept that the PT had some flaws and still enjoy the series, knowing that there’s more to come!
The fantasy of fixing all the problems and molding something perfect out of the clay that George Lucas gave us has plagued the Star Wars fandom for a while–since the prequels, or possibly even the first film’s re-release. With maturity comes the realization that stuff–even stuff you love–need not be perfect. Warts will appear. In the not-so-distant future, we’ll likely see another Star Wars movie that’s pretty bad. It’ll happen. Accept it–or not. There are always other universes. I hear those Marvel flicks are pretty good.

Attack of the Prequels

This is a cross-post of an article which appeared on a different site, a long, long time ago. But with the release of X-Men Apocalypse, I still think it’s relevant. Enjoy!
Let’s be honest. Most of the time, “prequel” is a dirty word. Or if not a dirty word, at least a signal that the reader should be wary about what comes next. For me, no phrase other than “upcoming prequel” evokes as much dread laced with illogical optimism. No phrase other than, perhaps, “directed by M. Night Shyamalan.” Nearly every summer since the release of The Phantom Menace has given us our fair share of prequels. X-Men: First Class. Revenge of the Return of the Planet of the Apes. Even the original Captain America, while not really a prequel in the general sense, relies on a few of the same storytelling tropes through its use of the character Howard Stark, Tony Stark’s (Iron Man) father. And it’s not limited to movies — plenty of video game prequels have hit the shelves in recent years, expanding on the stories of popular franchises such as Halo and Kingdom Hearts.

What makes these types of stories attractive? That’s not a very difficult question to answer. For the audience, we get more of the world and characters we love. For the creators, you’ve got a built-in audience, and much of the time, a pre-written story. But as we know from looking at the Star Wars fiasco, these things don’t always work out so peachy.
The main problem is that creating a prequel — a story before the story we already know — forces the author to fight the audience’s imagination. Sequels do this too, but in a much less violent way. Sequels can fail to satisfy our hopes — look at the Matrix sequels for examples of this — but they rarely crush our dreams. Prequels are another matter. Ever since the first time I saw A New Hope, I dreamed about the Clone Wars. Was it some sort of Dark Side plan that cloned Jedi and turned them evil? Was it an uprising from the clones in the galaxy, used as slave labor, that eventually led to cloning technology being banned? I had notebooks full of this stuff, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And then came Attack of the Clones. The less said about the disappointing reality of the Clone Wars, the better.
So are all prequels doomed to this sort of failure? No, of course not. The aforementioned X-Men: First Class received mostly positive reviews. The Godfather: Part II, while not 100% prequel, is told through heavy use of flashbacks, and is generally considered one of the greatest movies ever made. Metal Gear Solid 3 was an unexpected prequel, and many count it as the best of the series. So there’s a way to do this right. In fact, I think there are a couple of guidelines that the most successful prequels follow:
If you’re making a prequel to “answer questions,” you’re doing it wrong
One of the major problems with the Star Wars prequel trilogy is that it was created to answer questions that never needed answering. No one really needed to know precisely how Anakin became Darth Vader — if that was a fundamentally important bit of information, it would have been answered in the original trilogy.
Now, to be sure, there will likely be questions answered. For instance, First Class, in the process of telling its story, shows us how Charles Xavier lost the use of his legs. This is fine, and it ends up adding an interesting twist on the character. But the reason why it works is because the story isn’t based around telling us this information. The writers didn’t start by saying “Okay, let’s make a prequel that tells the story of how Professor X lost his ability to walk.” They said “Let’s make a story that explores the history of the X-Men,” and the mysteries solved were incidental.
Don’t subvert the inevitability — embrace it
The common wisdom about why most prequels suck is that we already know what’s going to happen; why would we be interested? Why would we want to watch a movie about Anakin if we know he’s going to become Darth Vader?
Some prequels try to get around this by slyly changing what you thought you knew was going to happen. This rarely works, and often just creates a lack of cohesion between the two stories. A good example is Padme’s death at the end of Revenge of the Sith. In Return of the Jedi, Leia specifically says she remembers her mother, but this actually proves not to be the case. Instead of creating an interesting moment where our expectations are subverted, it instead just leads to confusion. And even those who accept the logic that Leia’s feelings were metaphorical, or that she was speaking about her adopted mother, are in the position of having to wrangle up convoluted explanations instead of enjoying natural story tie-ins.
Problem is, the whole “we can’t know what’s going to happen” excuse doesn’t cut it. Plenty of stories tell you exactly what’s going to happen, and still manage to be entertaining. We know Ahab’s sense of vengeance is going to lead to his downfall. In Oedipus Rex, like almost all of Greek tragedy, the audience is specifically told the ending of the play in the form of prophecy — and yet, this doesn’t rob the story of its power.
Generally, the stories that do it best are the ones that consciously play with the idea of destiny through the eyes of the reader/player. The best example of this concept that I can think of is Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core. For those not familiar with the series, Crisis Core is a prequel starring a young soldier named Zack. Zack factors strongly into the story of Final Fantasy VII, but he’s actually dead by the time the main story starts. For most of the game, Crisis Core is not really a masterpiece. It’s very anime-ish, and the new characters the game introduces fail to inspire much interest. However, as the game moves toward its end, we, as players, start to feel a tad of dread. Zack is going to die; we know this, and we’ve known this from the start. But as we move closer to it, that inevitability starts to become more and more real, until we get to the final battle of the game, with enemies closing in all around. We know this is where Zack dies — the original game shows us as much. But we can’t help but try to fight against the inevitable. We can’t help but try to down each soldier, one by one, even as they lay into Zack beyond any hope of success. This desire of the audience to strive against what they know must happen (what has already happened, in some sense) is something that prequels excel at. It’s a feeling, actually, that I don’t think good old traditionally temporal stories can evoke. The best prequels make use of it.
A prequel needs to be a good story in its own right
This is a “rule” that obviously needs to be true of any story: standalone, sequel, prequel, whatever. And it shouldn’t need to be said. A story needs to be good and complete regardless of what comes before or after, right? Sadly, a lot of producers don’t seem to understand this.
I don’t mean to pick on the Star Wars prequels, but I think I’m going to have to call out Attack of the Clones again. It’s just such a monumental failure when it comes to the idea that each part of a saga needs to be an interesting story by itself. What, if anything, happens? Really, there seems to be some sort of mystery involving who commissioned the clone army, but really, it’s not a mystery at all. Shocker: it was the Jedi that turned evil and is now fighting against the Republic! I know, you never saw it coming! Aside from that, there’s nothing. There’s no story arc. There’s really no character arc; Anakin and Padme’s love story comes apropos of absolutely nothing and is given no time to develop. The one exception I’ll make is for the scene where Anakin returns to his childhood home, finds his mother and slays the Tuskens. It’s a good plot point, but even that is only good because of what it foreshadows for future installments. It does not make a complete story.
It’s easy to say “Well, that’s a middle entry, so of course it’s going to feel less complete.” And that’s a cop out. Look at The Empire Strikes Back. While it’s not a prequel, it is a middle entry, and it absolutely plays its role well. It expands on the world of the first film while giving us a open ending to make way for the third. However, The Empire Strikes Back is a complete story with a satisfying arc (multiple arcs, actually). The easiest one to focus on is Luke’s: he starts out as an accomplished pilot, gets instructed to seek out Jedi training, ultimately quits his training before he’s finished to go rescue his friends, despite the warnings of his teachers … and his overconfidence leads to his failure. It’s not a happy arc, and without Return of the Jedi as a bookend, it would be pretty depressing. But it’s still a story.
Creating a satisfying, standalone tale is what many prequels fail to accomplish. You can’t necessarily write a prequel story to cater to the tastes of people who have never experienced the original, but that’s not the point. The point is to maintain the interest of people who do know what’s coming next.
Or say screw it, and jettison continuity
The Indiana Jones series (well, before the fourth one) cares very little for continuity. Some characters appear from previous movies, but for the most part, each film is a self-contained vignette. What happens in Temple of Doom matters very little to the overall franchise. Nintendo games, especially Zelda and Metroid, take a similar view. Hardcore fans may obsess over discovering an exact timeline, but it’s not the main point of the experience.
I’d almost argue that these works fall out of the scope of “prequel.” Sure, sometimes they may technically take place earlier than the original work, but if they aren’t making use of that backward shift in time, then it hardly matters.
Now you know what to look for

Other films aren’t quite so adept, though. Next time you see an ad for that hot upcoming prequel — and I assure you, you’ll see that ad sooner than later — remind yourself of what the artists are trying to create. Yes, promotional material lies, but it’s still easier to categorize a movie or a game than you may think. Does the movie seem to downplay a perceived lack of control while answering silly questions like “Want to find out how Bob got his giant sword?!” Does a tagline for a book proclaim “The story behind the story … is not what you thought!” If that’s the case, shy away … or at least check your brain at the door and enjoy the explosions and gratuitous sex. That’s usually the best you can hope for.

What I’ve Been Reading – 5/4/16

Happy Hump Day! Negativity’s got me kind of down. God knows I’ve been participating in plenty of it. With a certain orange-hued demon grabbing the GOP nomination for president, and the Rabid Puppies pooping all over the Hugo Awards floor, it’s hard not want to lash out.

So instead of that, I figured I’d highlight some of the great books I’ve read recently!

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s debut novel took the fantasy world by storm. It’s up for Best Novel in this year’s Nebula Awards and it’s got a boatload of critical praise to boot. Because of the language several reviewers used in regards to the book, I expected something paradigm-shattering. In that sense, Liu’s novel starts slowly. There’s an emperor, there’s a smattering of conflicting nations (though the world is Asian-inspired as opposed to European), there’s a roguish hero. I almost put it down a couple of times, actually, as the first quarter or so felt too bog-standard for me to enjoy.
I’m so glad I stuck with it! Once the book found its feet, I discovered a novel focused not on a single character arc, but a series of vignettes exploring several viewpoints in a continental war. Contrasted with something like Game of Thrones, these points of view are more limited in scope, but I didn’t mind that at all. Nearly all of them brought something interesting to the table, and whenever I found myself growing a bit weary of the central plot, Liu snuck in a new, exciting character or setting to perk me up.
Now, I have some mild criticisms. The novel felt very “male” to me–likely by design, as the primary conflict between the two main characters is arguably a conflict over the definition of masculinity. But even the female characters who were present felt flat. A princess who discovers her sexuality is a source of power! A wife who … is a wife! In the last quarter of the book, we’re introduced to a woman general, but even so I felt a little disappointed on the gender equality front. Still, not everyone will have issues with this.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders, the founder and former editor-in-chief of io9, just left the site to pursue noveling full-time. And while I’m morose as hell about her departure–she was absolutely the soul of that site–I can’t say it was a bad decision. If her debut is any indication, she’s got a long career ahead of her.
Birds is a wildly different fantasy novel than Grace of Kings. While the former is sprawling and epic, Birds is focused, insular and, dare I say, positively literary. Her prose shines, as do her characters who we see grow from confused, struggling adolescents looking for their place in the world, to confused, struggling adults looking for their place in the world (I joke because life doesn’t get particularly easier for the two of them, but there is character development, I promise). The novel hinges on the tension between magic and science, which feels like a particularly apt theme for a former io9 editor, as Science Fiction vs. Fantasy is an evergreen discussion topic around those parts.
The book won’t necessarily be for everyone. I wasn’t lying when I called it literary, so if you’re looking for something faster, bloodier and littered with twists and turns, this probably isn’t your cup of tea. And there’s a fair amount of absurdism–which is absolutely not a criticism, but it’s not quite my favorite style, and I could imagine others being turned off even more by it.

STAR WARS!!

Hey! It’s May the Fourth, Star Wars Day, and I’d have to shut down my blog if I didn’t talk about some Star Wars books. First, one I’ve read: Battlefront: Twilight Company, by Alexander Freed, a loose, loose (I can’t overstate how loose) tie-in to the video game of the same name. This one starts out super slow, especially for fans of military sci-fi. I’d say the book doesn’t even get interesting until the halfway point (the choice to include a Stormtrooper POV and a series of main character flashbacks that never amount to anything pad the book’s length, but not its depth), so it’s hard for me to give an unqualified recommendation. 
However, those who stick with it will find some fascinating character development after the midpoint, especially in the character of Challis, an imperial defector who nevertheless isn’t really on board with the rebel cause. The existence of Twilight Company, a group of rebels with far more allegiance to their platoon then the Alliance, is similarly engaging. It’s readable for Star Wars fans, and likely enjoyable for Star Wars military sci-fi fans, but I wouldn’t hold it up as a master of the form.
Also new this week is Bloodline: New Republic by Claudia Grey, the author of Lost Stars, which is considered by many people, myself included, to be the best novel of the new Star Wars canon. I haven’t yet had time to start in on it, but a novel about Princess Leia? That ties in directly to The Force Awakens? That has her politicking and fighting the powers-that-be? Uh, yes please. I will have one of those, please.

Paladins of the Storm Lord by Barbara Wright

Friend of the blog Barbara Wright has a new book out this week: Paladins of the Storm Lord. This faraway science fiction tale is bit of a departure from her previous fantasy/romance novels such as The Pyramid Waltz and Thrall, but is certainly no less engaging. In fact, I think it’s her best work to date! It’s got spaceships, magic powers, mouthy military captains, arrogant gods and plenty of crazy critters as well. It’s also got lots of people trying to get in each others’ pants–and hearts! What more could you ask for?
I devoured this one as a beta reader, and while I haven’t yet read through the published version (it just arrived on my door this morning!), I’m looking forward to experiencing the story again.
And, uh, rumor has it that a sequel might be in the works 🙂
That’s it! I’m currently reading N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but it’s still too early to give an impressions there. Any of you reading anything good lately? Any different opinions on the books above? Feel free to let me know!

The Hugo Nominations Are Again Filled With Garbage

Well, boys and girls, the Hugo nods are out again. And they’re slightly less fucked than last year! I don’t want to recap the situation too much, but here’s a short primer. The Hugos are the most prestigious speculative fiction awards. Last year, some gross, conservative bigots found out they could manipulate the system to get their garbage nominated. These are the Sad Puppies. Some even grosser, fascist bigots latched on to this, and got their barely-literate screeds nominated. These are the Rabid Puppies. All the nominees (most of which are terrible, some of which are innocent bystanders placed on the list without their consent) placed below “No Award Given,” which is basically the equivalent of the Leonardo DiCaprio presenting at the Oscars and saying, “You know what? All the acting this year sucked. I’m not going to give this to anybody.”

Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash … It’s called Poisoning the Well.

I was really hoping the Puppies would have gotten bored of ruining someone else’s party to make some sort of point, but they’re back again and show no signs of quitting. As Mike Glyer outlines, 64 of the 81 recommendations on the Rabid Puppy slate made it to the ballot. As Donald Trump would say–sad!

The biggest problem with this mess is I’m genuinely unsure which nominees are deserving, and which are simply there because they were on a slate (or a “recommended reading list” which is just a broader fucking slate), or because they were sticking it to the ess jay double-yous. Vox Day’s submissions are obvious, but the rest are up in the air to anyone who isn’t following this catastrophe on a daily basis.

For instance, let’s look at the Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Four out of the five nominees appeared on the Sad Puppy list, which makes me immediately skeptical of their talent and really hesitant to read, let alone actually purchase, anything they’ve written. But! Let’s just take one example: Alyssa Wong. By all accounts, she seems to be a talented writer who has been published in multiple prestigious magazines and who seems to be generally supportive of diversity in fiction (which is something the puppies vehemently oppose). So, a false positive! I’m looking forward to reading her stuff.

But are we expected to do this for every single nominee? Will the casual Hugo voter? Probably not. Which is entirely the point of this year’s insidious campaign. Select a bunch of high-profile writers who would have been nominated anyway along with a bunch of puerile trash like “Safe Space as Rape Room,” an offensively inaccurate piece of work that appeared on both Puppy slates. It’s called Poisoning the Well. The thought is that, since the nominees aren’t all hateful, self-published nonsense this year, people either won’t notice or care about the trash that did make the list. The truth is, of course, that these nominations will utterly fail to place in the actual awards. My only hope is that writers like Ms. Wong aren’t unduly punished in the wake of it.

The silver lining, I suppose, is that a rules change set to take effect next year may mitigate some of this in the future. The bigger problem, though, is that several of the Puppies themselves make the circuit within the speculative fiction convention fandom, despite being actively toxic. Saying ‘Hugo nominated’ puts you quite far ahead of most panelists, so there’s plenty of damage done that will be hard to repair. We will continue to fight against this, but it’s clear this is a hissy fit that’s not going away any time soon.

Star Wars and Fanservice

IT’S THIS WEEK, YOU GUYS! Yes, this Friday (even earlier for some of you lucky ducklings!) we’re finally going to be watching a new installment of the Star Wars saga. I couldn’t be more excited, even while trying to temper that with the knowledge that, even if it’s good, it likely won’t be as monumental or life-changing as the original films.

But God, let’s hope it is at least good. There’s no need to rehash the drama about the prequels, though I will say that they are in some respects both underrated and overrated, aside from Episode II which is borderline unwatchable. We’ve gotten some hints as to whether The Force Awakens is going to join them as critical anathema, or whether it’ll be seen as a resurgence for the series. Several acclaimed filmmakers, from Kevin Smith to Steven Spielberg, have claimed that Episode VII is powerful, emotional and easily worthy of standing among the original trilogy.

But of course, The Phantom Menace got similar praise. Smith is known for heaping accolades on just about everything (which is a fine attitude, but not useful for gauging quality), and Spielberg is close friends with George Lucas — he’s not about to criticize something of this magnitude.

So let’s talk a little bit about Lucas. He recently saw the movie, and from most news reports, enjoyed it. However, one line sounded particularly worrisome to fans:

“I think the fans are going to love it,” he said. “It’s very much the kind of movie they’ve been looking for.”

To an outsider, it sounds like a boring, polite compliment from a mostly-uninterested old man. To those in the know, though, it brings up old memories of a director with a complicated relationship to the fans he created. The subtext is, “I’m an artist. I make films for the artistry, for the story, not to please fans. This film is a hackjob.”

On Fanservice 

I’m going to use the term fanservice throughout the article, so it’s helpful to define what I’m talking about. In general, fanservice is a piece of an artistic work that isn’t there to serve the story or characters, but instead to make fans already familiar with the artist or series squeal with glee. It’s often invoked in terms of anime, where it’s defined as something like a panty shot or jiggling boobies. Fanservice doesn’t have to be strictly sexual, but it is always gratuitous.
Are there moments like this in The Force Awakens? Surely. Here’s an easy one: the second trailer ends with a shot of Han and Chewie on the Falcon.
To longtime fans, this was a moment to cheer. I got the shivers. To those who have never seen the film, though? This shot added absolutely nothing to the trailer. It was a half-second shot of an old man and a weird dog creature on a nondescript background.
You can find a worse example in Star Trek: Into Darkness, when “John Harrison,” the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch, reveals himself to be Khan. Star Trek fans immediately recognize the significance of this. The characters, however, have absolutely no idea why this would matter. He might as well have said “You thought my name was FooBoo. But actually, it’s BooFoo!”
This is the definition of fanservice. Something that fails to add, or actively detracts, from the plot, and is meant to make followers of the universe grin.

The Problem

Fanservice is not necessarily a bad thing if used in moderation. Having Bones mutter “Dammit, Jim,” in the new Star Trek movie is hardly a sin. But we start to recognize a problem when a film gets so burdened by the past that it’s incapable of telling a new story. This was the defining failure of Star Trek: Into Darkness. The director of that film? J.J. Abrams. Who, incidentally, is also directing The Force Awakens.
Hmm.
So perhaps there is reason to be worried. Maybe Lucas correctly identified a film in need of a voice, too afraid to strike out on its own. However! It’s hard to fully buy into this narrative for a few reasons (beyond simply hoping that Lucas is wrong). The first is that Abrams and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy have gone out of their way to say that Episode VII strives very hard to tread new ground and tell new stories. The original trilogy characters, it seems, are cameos, handing off the universe to new characters. The fact that the trailers and merchandising have featured Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as opposed to Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford supports this.
But a bigger issue is that George Lucas is hardly blameless when it comes to valuing fanservice over story, regardless of his words. To put it another way — he’s one to talk.

Nostalgia, Moichendising and Winking

Let’s be honest, here. Star Wars, especially the original film, is hardly a bastion of original storytelling. It’s well-made, imaginative in many ways and a breathtaking accomplishment of visual effects, but it’s basically just the hero’s journey, and it’s not even particularly camouflaged. Lucas conceived of the film in reverence to the old Flash Gordon serials of his youth. It was designed specifically for the fans of that genre.
And it didn’t change as Star Wars grew up. Lucas made the wise decision to trade much of his film profits for the merchandising rights, and as the series progressed, the need to sell toys drove much of the writing (too many, Ewok-haters might say). I don’t necessarily want to throw Lucas under the bus for this; he was responsible for a massive corporation at this point, and those gears require a fair amount of grease to keep turning. But all of the Ewoks and Gungans do make me raise an eyebrow at his insistence that Episode VII is some sort of banal fan tribute, whereas his films — especially the prequels — were high art with nary a thought about the fanatics. Do you really think the reaction to Boba Fett, who was originally just a henchman, didn’t drive Lucas’s decision to make him a crucial character in the prequels? Do you think fan squealing had nothing to do with the absurd Yoda lightsaber battle in Attack of the Clones?

We’ll Know Soon!

Can we draw any real conclusions from Lucas’s reaction? Probably not. He’s not an idiot–he knows his words are being parsed by fans and media alike. But he’s also not unbiased. He’s struggled to deal with the monster franchise he created, and he’s surely a little bitter about how he exited. His refrain has always been that the prequels were unappreciated because they lacked fanservice, though as noted above, it’s hard to buy that. 
My prediction? His “the fans will like it” line refers more to the continuation of the central Skywalker storyline. Several sources, including the fantastic Secret History of Star Wars, imply that Lucas had several ideas for characters and plots that had nothing to do with Luke or Anakin. In addition, the scuttlebutt about the newest movies suggests that Lucas’s treatments dealt with much younger characters, which would indeed have provoked a negative reaction from fandom. Perhaps dealing with young adults like Finn and Rey, just like the original trilogy did, is the form of ‘fanservice’ Lucas disagreed with.

Oyster, the Netflix of books, is done. I’m not shocked.

Insert your own pun about Oyster being fried, or failing to produce a pearl.

Most of you probably haven’t even heard of it, but Oyster, the self-proclaimed ‘Netflix for Books,’ has been operating for a little over a year. It debuted to some pretty bad reviews and worries about the business model, but so did Netflix originally.

Of course, Netflix was adaptable, and proved that their ultimate vision was one consumers shared. Oyster? Not so much. It’s shutting down.

The aforelinked IBT article feels prescient, but being a consumer and producer of written stories, I think there are a few simple reasons why Oyster failed, and why future startups with the same model likely will as well.

Books Aren’t As Consumable

This was the big killer, and it was obvious to pretty much anyone in the business. As the IBT article says, none but the most voracious readers can finish more than a few books a month.  Add to that the fact that books are already sport a fantastically high time-to-cost ratio — you can purchase anywhere from 3-9 Kindle Daily Deal books for Oyster’s $9.99 subscription price — and it’s hard to see where Oyster’s value proposition is.

Publishers Are Conservative and Fearful

Book publishers hate change. Of course, so do network and film executives. But the publishing industry has been particularly slow to embrace the digital age — see all their petty fights with Amazon and Google about eBook pricing, archiving, etc. Oyster, from all the hearsay, had a a rough time getting some publishers on board, and though all the Big Six minus Amazon did eventually put titles on the service, even at the end the list felt anemic. The store is bulked up by entries that are actually just purchase links (imagine how infuriating it would be to click on a Netflix title only to hear that it’ll cost you an extra $12.99). New releases are nonexistent, and even many older, popular books are unavailable (Want to read the original Game of Thrones, released in 1996? That’ll be $6.99!)

There is Already a Netflix of Books — And It’s Successful

Thing is, we have a company that provides a service similar to what Oyster was trying to be. It’s Audible, the largest audiobook provider (some would say monopoly). An Audible subscription isn’t quite a buffet, but that’s okay — we rarely binge on books in the same way that we blaze through an entire season of a television show in a day. A single audio book often has a running time longer than thirteen hours, and the ‘power user’ audible subscription gives two books a month, which I’d equate to anywhere from one to three seasons, depending on how big of a doorstop you choose. That’s plenty for all but the most dedicated Netflix viewers.

Some might claim that Audible is far less relevant to the publishing industry than Netflix is to the television industry. I kind of doubt it. As proof, I submit to you John Scalzi’s post from a few months back showing that audio sales were fully half of his total sales. Not revenue — sales. Audible has become a major player in this space, and while Scalzi’s previous books might have grown him a bigger audio audience than normal (and his famous narrators don’t hurt!), I suspect this is not wildly out of line with what other authors are seeing.

So what now? Well, as the article says, many from the Oyster team have jumped ship to Google (Alphabet?) Play Books, leading to some speculation that Google is going to start a book subscription service. I kinda doubt it. Google would have to overcome the same problems Oyster faced, and while they certainly be able to throw a ton of money at the problem, money doesn’t change consumer habits by itself. And convincing publishers to participate might actually be harder given that industry’s distrust stemming from the book scanning fight.

I think what’s next is the status quo. eBooks, eBooks, eBooks, with a growing dominance of audio as well. Given Kindle’s success, consumers seem pretty happy with the way books are purchased right now (unlike in the days before Netflix, where your only choice for rewatching a show was buying $40+ physical DVD sets). Until that changes, there’s probably not much room for disruption.

Star Wars: Aftermath Discussion and Review

Aftermath is a controversial book. The reviews on Amazon make it clear: lots of five star reviews, and lots of one-star reviews. Let’s be honest, though — this is a Star Wars book. I love Star Wars (to the point where I think it’s actually the defining American myth), but in the end this is still a licensed novel, and really not worth of the hemming and hawing that accompanied, say, .

I feel bad for Chuck Wendig, which is weird thing to say about an author who is at the height of his popularity and has no doubt brought in a nice chunk of change from this novel. He’s waded into a fight that’s not really about him, and he’s born the brunt of the attacks in recent weeks. Detractors say it’s because he’s a bad writer, or because the book just doesn’t feel like Star Wars, but that’s not really the issue. The issue is that a subset of Star Wars are staunchly conservative.

Now, I don’t mean politically conservative. Some of them are that as well, but the overall problem is that these fans simply can’t accept change. In any form. And change is here, oh yes. The biggest and most infuriating, from the perspective of these “fans” (I don’t like to put quotes around that word, but can we even call people who hate the property “fans?”), is the EU Apocalypse which relegated all the Star Wars stories told prior to the Disney-Lucasfilm merger to the dustbin of history. There’s been plenty of dicussion of the necessity of this move (and yes, it was necessary), but none of that will convince the EU fanatics. To them, saying the EU is finished (or worse, not “real”) is equivalent to retconning the original films. If you claim that Han and Leia don’t actually have a daughter named Jaina, you might as well claim that Luke wasn’t actually Vader’s son.

All that’s bad enough, but there are real-world changes to Star Wars as well. Wendig is a new author to the universe; if Disney had chosen to hire Timothy Zahn, the originator of the original Star Wars EU, some of the old school fans might have swallowed the change easier. Aftermath is also written in a very modern style — very urban fantasy, which is something that hasn’t often been seen in the tentpole Star Wars novels (though the degree to which this is new and mindblowing has been vastly overstated). It also contains not one, not two, but — *gasp!* — FIVE gay characters! If you think I’m exaggerating how big of an issue this is, I welcome you to browse some of those one-star reviews. CTRL-F ‘gay’ if you like, and see how many hits you get. The accusation is that the mere existence of LGBT characters (there is no sex, not even any kissing or same-sex hand-holding) is ‘shoving it down our throats.’

Some people have accused me of conflating all of these complaints, but I think they generally stem from the same discomfort.

The organized effort to sink Aftermath has been operating under the assumption that if the book fails to sell, Disney will reverse course, bring back the old no-gay, Jaina-and-Jacen EU to canon status (or, more realistically, continue to release new stories in the Legends universe). This, of course, is not even an option. But assuming it was, the diehards have failed. Aftermath hit the NYT Bestseller list two weeks in a row. Force Friday was an amazing financial success. The change in the Star Wars universe cannot be halted anymore than the change in our universe (LGBT characters aren’t going anywhere anytime soon).

And you know what? You’re free to be mad about it. The appropriate response to those feelings might be, “You know what? I liked the EU, I’m not a fan of how they’ve changed it. I think I’ll back my bags and move on to a different thing to get my nerd on about.” Boycotting is always an acceptable course of action. The inappropriate, juvenile response is to throw a temper-tantrum and dedicate a non-trivial portion of your day to trying to sink the book and its author.

So is it any good? Yep, it is. The stream-of-consciousness does take some getting used to, but it only took me a chapter or so before I was immersed. Random-ass excerpts posted on Reddit do not do *any* written work justice, and this one suffers more than most from being digested out of context. Many of the new characters are some of the best I’ve seen in Star Wars in a long time — I particularly loved the continuing development of Imperial Admiral Rae Sloane, as well as the introduction of the Imperial “loyalty officer” (read: torturer) named Sinjir. The vingettes interspered between the main narrative chapters give us a great glimpse into the post-ROTJ galaxy, and also provide neat little hooks for future stories.

Aftermath probably won’t blow your mind, but it’s easily the best Star Wars book to come out since the Disney purchase, and it’s well worth the time of any Star Wars fan. If you refuse to try it, it might be time to accept that you’re no longer a Star Wars fan. And that’s totally fine.

Kerrigan and Consent

The following will contain plot details from Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm.

Sarah Kerrigan has long been one of my favorite video game characters. I love her design, artistically. Her voice acting has always been spot-on (who doesn’t love Tricia Helfer, Galactica’s own Number Six?), and I’ve always been a fan of the Zerg, Starcraft’s ruthless race of quasi-insectoid creatures whom Kerrigan commands. Worth mentioning is her role as an unapologetic female villain. All too often, while lauding representations of strong female heroes, we forget that antagonists are equally important, especially ones that can manage to break the standard mold of “insanely jealous” or “a woman scorned.”

Of course, Kerrigan tiptoes awfully closely to the latter. She certainly has the standard ‘tragic anti-heroine backstory’ box checked and double-checked. For those unfamiliar, Sarah Kerrigan was a soldier in Arcturus Mengsk’s rebel army until he left her to the Zerg after a failed mission. Infested, Kerrigan becomes the Queen of Blades and devotes herself to spreading the Zerg’s dominance across the galaxy, and getting her revenge on Mengsk in the process.

Not the most innovative motivation, but it is refreshing to see a female character who isn’t afraid of her own strength. The anti-Elsa, so to speak. But even fierce, audacious Kerrigan has a major problem: consent.

The issue of consent crops up in two places. The first is obvious; her entire character arc depends on it. Kerrigan does not choose to become infested, and even though she takes advantage of her abilities as a paragon of the Zerg, it’s never completely clear how much is Sarah, and how much is the result of the Zerg Overmind’s meddling in her psyche.

But given a lack of evidence one way or the other in the narrative itself, it’s easy to give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that Kerrigan’s identity is perfectly consistent from her Terran self to her Zerg. While her transformation remains non-consensual, she owns her resulting identity.

There’s a second issue of consent that pops up at the end of Wings of Liberty, however. Assuming that Kerrigan is fully aware and in-control of her Queen of Blades identity, it means that Jim Raynor completely subverts Kerrigan’s consent when he uses the Xel-Naga artifact to turn her, once again, into a human.

Now, this course of action isn’t solely personal. The Queen of Blades is still responsible for millions of human deaths, and any way of neutralizing her is acceptable through that lens (after all, just outright killing her is also a betrayal of her consent). But there’s something deeply troubling about how the game frames this as a Big Damn Hero moment for Jim. At best, this is a sad but necessary action. Kerrigan was not a damsel-in-distress, and Raynor didn’t rescue her from a big nasty dragon.

Suffice to say, I was worried about how Heart of the Swarm would portray Kerrigan. The first few missions did not make me any more optimistic. Kerrigan is lovesick for Mr. Raynor and mostly thankful (though a little conflicted) for his actions.

But, a few missions in, Kerrigan inevitably becomes the Queen of Blades once again. Her motivation in this is pretty iffy — she thinks Raynor has been killed, and wants to use her Zerg powers for revenge. But even though the development is trope-heavy, there’s something important here. Kerrigan chooses to become Zerg once again. There are now no assumptions to be made about how accepting she is of her transformation; Sarah Kerrigan is fully, consensually, the Queen of Blades.

This is not trivial. It’s arguably the most important concept to Kerrigan’s arc, and the one thing that Heart of the Swarm needed to do to successfully advance her story. Starcraft 2 certainly had storytelling missteps. But affirming Kerrigan’s consent makes up for the hiccups. I’m assuming that her character growth is finished, for now. The game’s finale, Legacy of the Void, focuses more on the Protoss, and Kerrigan’s desire to exterminate the big baddy in the sky is a lot less interesting to me than what she’s done before. Still, if this is the last we see of her, I’ll be happy enough.