Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Night in the Lonesome October-fest

I don't remember my first reading of A Night in the Lonesome October, but I remember every subsequent read-through. I read a chapter a day, every day in October. I thought I was so clever, but since it seems like everyone who reads the book more than once comes up with the exact same idea, it couldn't have been that clever.

This year, I'm going to chronicle my read-through, a chapter a day, and see if I have any fresh observations about the book. At the very least, I get to relive my favorite parts. Everyone who reads the site regularly is welcomed (and encouraged) to contribute your own experiences.

Bonus! While looking for the book cover for this post, I happened upon a really nice piece depciting the players from the book at this deviant art page. The rest of the page is in Russian, but the names of the characters are in English.

Very Nice Night in the Lonesome October piece

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cats in the Cradle

I'm not a pet person.

At all.

My family had dogs and cats when I was growing up, but I never liked dogs and grew allergic to cats as I became older.

I'm never cruel to animals, mind you, and I don't certainly don't mean to disparage the bond of affection pet owners share with their pets.  I'm just content to live my life without that companionship. It's similar to my stance on tattoos, in that it's a deeply personal choice of great meaning to the person who makes it, but frankly none of the business of anyone else. My choice was that I would live my life without pets.

We've got a couple stray cats in the neighborhood, and Jen fed one of them when she came up to the back porch. It was against our better judgement, because once you feed a stray, you're never going to get rid of it, but this little thing was so tiny. Our neighbor described the cat as "emaciated" and that was exactly the right word for her. She was sad and skinny and googly-eyed.

Lily asked if we could keep the cat, and we said no, she might have owners who miss her and daddy was allergic. We were just feeding her because she was so hungry.

But...soon Lily was calling the cat Lucy, and soon, she had a bed in our back porch where she was staying all the time. Soon, pet food was a regular part of our grocery order. Soon, Lucy, didn't look so skinny anymore.

Soon, Lucy had shiny silver collar, and some pet toys. (She never really warmed to the laser pointer, though.) I reached out to a friend at Peaceable Kingdom, a wonderful organization, and she gave me some great advice about shots and neutering, advice I was unfortunately slow to follow, which brings us to the next part of the story.

I leave for work before Lily leaves for school and she likes to give me one last kiss while I'm in my car. Lucy follows people everywhere, and she followed Lily there, too. So I kissed Lily and told her to get back to the house, because I don't like pulling out when she's around. So she ran back, still being at the age where she runs everywhere. Lucy kept perfect pace with her. I've heard the phrase "at her heels", but I've never had cause to use it literally. It's really the only one that fits. Lily went and Lucy followed and I finally really understood why pet owners love their pets so much.

When I got home that day, Lucy was hanging out in our backyard. She had been putting on a lot of weight since we started giving her regular meals, and had started to look healthy maybe two months ago and kind of fat a few weeks after that. She came up to me and I realized, somewhat belatedly, "That cat isn't fat. That cat is pregnant."

Seriously. She was the second most pregnant living being I had ever seen. Here's a picture of the first.

Jen, at 60 weeks pregnant
So, I suspected it ahead of time, but not significantly ahead of time, because when Jen went to feed Lucy in the morning, she found that Lucy was doing some feeding of her own.  Jen observed on Facebook "Shooing the neighborhood strays off the backporch is not a reliable method of feline contraception."

Lucy had five little kitten in her little cat bed. Kittens are so tiny! They don't even open their little kitten eyes for the first few days.

Rather than make the predictable Price is Right joke here, I'll just observe that had I listened to my friend right away, we would be responsible for one-sixth the number of cats we were three days ago.

So, kitties stay with their mommy for some time. (We've read from eight to twelve weeks), and we're trying to figure out the best way to find homes for them. Lily's birthday party is coming up, and I thought we could give the kitties away as the BEST PARTY FAVOR EVER! My fallback plan is to stuff them all down my pants, and then shake them out my pant leg one at a time at a public place. They're so cute, they'd find owners right away.

If neither of those work, I'm open to suggestions.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Shadows and Reflections Update

I really doubt that anyone gets their news about the Shadows and Reflections collection through my blog rather than directly through their Facebook page, but in the event you've missed their recent post, they've accepted several stories, set in the following universes:

  1. Changeling,
  2. Night Kings
  3. Doorways in the Sand
  4. Half Jack
  5. Lord of Light
  6. Isles of the Dead 
 I'm surprised by the inclusion of the Half Jack and Night Kings, which never struck me as particularly iconic Zelazny stories, but I'm really interested in seeing what the author might do with them.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fifteen True Facts about Jane Austen

Because my friend Jen couldn't be bothered to email me ALL DAY, I'm publishing fifteen true facts about her idol, Jane Austen.

  1. Jane Austen wasn't actually a human being, but rather, a sophisticated colony of spiders in a very cunning disguise. 
  2. She personally owned over 3,000 slaves and left instructions to have them buried alive with her when she died. 
  3. Like a Titan of myth, she swallowed her own offspring whole 
  4. She ripped off Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by getting rid of all the monsters, and then tried to pretend it was a completely new book. 
  5. She holds over 63 patents on different and more restrictive types of corsets, in service of her philosophy that women should be petite and submissive. 
  6. She breaks into your house and moves your stuff around when you're not there. 
  7. She is a believer in the discredited science of eugenics and conceived a baby with Pol Pot in order to give birth to the "wickedest child the world had ever seen." 
  8. Once beat a dinner guest to death for using a salad fork to eat a pastry. 
  9. Ordered the last passenger pigeon cooked and served at the same party, took one bite and decided she didn't like it. 
  10. She kept a dozen mermaids as pets and flushed them down the toilet when they weren't cute any more.
  11. Life long rivalry with Charles Darwin culminated with his assassination by way of her gom jabbar, and continues beyond his death by replacing him on the ten-pound note. 
  12. Is the secret backer behind the Men's Rights Movement. 
  13. Was the talent agent who discovered Carrot Top, Jar Jar Binks and the cast of the Jersey Shore. 
  14. Went back in time to assassinate Edward Jenner so he couldn't invent the smallpox vaccine. 
  15. Was the gunner on the Death Star and fired the shot that destroyed Alderaan. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

By request: My lunch

Rather inexplicably, Lily asked me to post a picture of my lunch. So, uh, here it is? It's a salad of onions, spinach leaves, olives, shrimp, croutons, red peppers, a little bit of chicken, a touch of cheese, and a bit of sesame ginger dressing. It was pretty tasty, but probably not all that healthy.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Call of Cthulhu Campaign Log: The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight

Welcome back to our Call of Cthulhu campaign log, where our intrepid band of alcoholic arsonists is the only thing that stands between total domination of our world by eldritch, alien gods.

Hey, how ya doin'?

As we were were adjourning for the day, Eric, our GM causally mentioned that this campaign has been going on for six years of real time (though since we meet so irregularly, it's only been twenty-odd sessions), and two years of game time.

That's pretty good run by any metric. When you look at our team, who are lucky to get out of bed (I imagine us all sleeping in the same bed with matching nightcaps, much like the Three Stooges) without at least one instance of death and/or insanity, it's out-fucking-standing.

We had a bit of downtime after our last outing, and we were weathering a long winter when Dr. Nathaniel Milheim got a telegram from a colleague, whom he suspected might be in a spot of trouble.

So he assembled the crack team of investigators. We met at our HQ, our contact, Jackson Elias, called us in a hysterical panic and told us to meet him in a few hours in room 410 of a nearby hotel. Unfortunately Milheim botched his psychoanalysis roll and when Bob asked him how Elias was, Milheim just shrugged and said, "Seems fine to me."

Eric handed out a bunch of handouts about the expedition Elias was investigating, and some of the names seemed really familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on why. Eric's really good at foreshadowing NPCs in small roles that will come to prominence in later adventures, but it never pays to pay too much attention to NPCs. You just lose more sanity when they die.

Under other circumstances, like anyone else who has ever played a role-playing game (or seen a movie or read a book), we interpreted the phone call to mean "Hi guys! Have fun showing up just in time to miss my grisly murder!", however, because of that botched rolls, we were lulled into a false sense of security and it seemed a bit too meta-gamey to suggest showing up really early and climbing up the fire escape. So, we just took our standard precautions, packing several of our mail order machine guns and then hailing a pair of cabs to the hotel after several hours of heavy drinking.

I might be getting some of the events out of sequence here, but we arrived, and knocked and heard angry voices within. So we tried to force the door. I think the former German Ace went first, with his strength of 7. I'm pretty sure he had hollow bones, like a bird. I imagined the scene a little bit like the part in the Princess Bride where Inigo is throwing himself against the door. Then Bob machine gunned the door, somehow missing a stationary object at point blank range, narrowing averting a fumble and spraying the walls, the ceiling and the newlyweds in room 510 with 50 caliber bullets.

At this point Steve tried the handle, which was locked, which was good, because we would have felt very foolish otherwise. So he grabbed a fire axe and went to work. I think we may have had another round of machine gun fire against the door at this point. Do you remember that blast door in the beginning of the Phantom Menace? I think Qui Gon cut his way through that thing faster than we did. It was the fucking Rasputin of doors. It was ridiculous.

The German suggested that I try picking the lock and I was like, "Oh, that ship has sailed."

I don't remember what did the trick, but we were finally in the room. I was the brave soul who entered. I saw Jackson's body and began backing out, having lost a couple points of sanity, and was missed outright by the cultist at the side of the door.

We'll call the guy who played German "A.", because I don't know him well enough to use his name. I've lost the occasional character from time to time, but he's had an unbroken streak of horrendously bad luck. (He played the Turkish librarian from the last session I attended, and had died once between then) In another type of game, A. would be the guy who dies to let us know that "shit just got real", but in our team, with a group of characters who compare unfavorably to a pack of Paranoia troubleshooters, he just reminds us that we're apparently not up to the simple act of opening a door.

Hans stepped up while I was backing out and sprayed the room with machine gun fire and got one of the cultists who was trying to sneak out the window, rather than the cultist with the machete who was standing right at the door.

The cultist attacks Hans, and the GM blanches. "Roll to dodge," he says. Hans' last words are, "I'm not worried. I have eleven hit points."

He fails to dodge and gets his hand chopped off.

Hans sans hand

He's hemorrhaging lifeblood on me, I'm hemorrhaging sanity points because of it and I lose enough to go catatonic.

There's more of a fight, Bob puts the barrel of the Thompson against the belly of the cultist and dares him to "dodge this". Steve pursues the surviving cultist down the fire escape. Hans bleeds out.

The lights went out when we were making our way down the service elevator. (Brian did the only smart thing out of all of us, and tied up the hotel's single elevator, thus delaying the police response and buying us the time we needed to bungle our way to safety, accompanied by the muted trombone wah wah wah sound effect.

Eric pulled Steve aside and there was some sort of encounter with an eight foot tall Asian hobo. I'm not sure what was going on. Steve made him sound like Yao Ming and Eric made him sound like Lo Pan.

Shut up, Mr. Burton! You are not brought upon this world to get it!

We regrouped and looked at what we had been able to recover. My character had retrograde amnesia dating back to the point when Nathaniel had called him. On looking at the handouts, I realized why the adventure seemed so familiar.

We did some investigating. Brian and A.'s replacement character (a "Dreamer") looked into an import company. The company was probably up to something shifty, though they certainly had ample cause to toss the pair of them off the property, too.

One failed library use roll, later Bob hooked up with a sexy co-ed, prompting somebody to crack. "I hope you wore a dust jacket for that."

Nathaniel, Steve and I went to see Jackson's publisher, who was also Nathaniel's publisher. Apparently, both men write the same kind of books. Nathaniel asked for the notes of his greatest rival, and I was like "Jesus, do you want to comfort his widow, too?"

We returned, made some plans, made some excuses for the players that couldn't be there for the next session and the group adjourned for the week.

I had fun, even though the only thing I did was open a door and then go insane. Looking forward to the next session, as always.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Tattoo Taboo

I never thought that much about tattoos. Jen has two, but I don't have any, but I'm not opposed to them. I've never been able to think of something I like enough to go ahead with it.

I always kind of lumped tattoos in the little box in my mind occupied by decisions made by other people that were of great importance to them, but none of my business, like their choice of partner or the pets they keep. I've always thought, if you have tattoos, that's great, and if not, that's fine too.

I bring this up because Radio Times had a piece on tattoos last week.

I tend to like NPR Interviews for several reasons. The first is that they seldom have an agenda beyond letting the guest speak. They book a subject matter expert and ask a question and allow the guest to answer the question in his or her own words, taking as long as needed. To me, allowing the guest to speak is the important part. Surely everyone has known the frustration of reading about their favorite hobby in the local paper, only to discover that the reporter got it exactly wrong, misinterpreting some key point that totally skews the coverage.With NPR, you're not playing whisper down the alley. By getting the information directly from the source, you're more likely to get it right.

The second reason is that I always got the impression that WHYY booked guests who were just really interested in their subject matter. I'd listen to it at work outside of Philly all the time, and even if it wasn't something that I'd think I be interested in, I found myself sucked in by the enthusiasm they brought to the table.

For this piece, they booked Tim Pangburn, a Philadelphia tattoo artist, and Laurie Ruettimann, an HR consultant with a bunch of tattoos of her own, but who had previously been in a position of rejecting potential candidates because their tattoos conflicted with the corporate culture.

It was a really interesting hour, and I urge you listen at the link above if you have any interest at all in the subject. The thing that surprised me was the amount of hostility in the corporate world towards people with tattoos. I forget which guest referred to visible tattoos as "job-killers", but the other guest immediately agreed.

That was just astounding. I mean, it's 2013. It's a personal choice. It's expression. When Lily was in the burn ward, I remember one of the nurse's aides had a collection of multi-colored superman shields visible. I remember talking with her about it, and the decisions that went into acquiring them.

And while people in corporate culture are certainly judged to a large extent by how they conform to that culture, it's ridiculous that a single tattoo be a disqualifying factor on its own. A friend related the story of someone who received a negative note on her performance review regarding her tattoos. That's bullshit! You wouldn't write up someone because you didn't like her haircut. I might think "Oh, I like/don't like that particular tattoo", but it's silly to pass immediate and irrevocable judgement on someone simply because of how they choose to look.

I have plenty of friends with visible tattoos. My friend Frederick has a bunch, and he's the nicest guy you'll ever meet. When we had Jen's birthday party, three of the people there had phoenix tattoos and somebody quipped they should be the Order of the Phoenix.

Another friend has generously allowed me to use a picture of her tattoo for this post.

I asked Lily what she thought about tattoos, and she said, "They're cool," and when I asked her if she wanted to contribute to the post, she had this advice for people,"You should never get a permanent tattoo unless you've tried it with a regular tattoo in the same exact spot to make sure it turns out right."

(I think it's adorable that she calls temporary tattoos "regular tattoos". )

If she wants a tattoo when she's old enough, that's fine. (And apparently, "old enough" in Philadelphia is 16, which blows my mind) and if not, that's fine too. By the time she's old enough to get one, she'll be old enough to make the choice.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On Role Playing: Form follows function, setting shapes system

I've been a role-player for more than 25 years now. My friend Eric has been gaming even longer than that. Our interests diverged some time ago. Eric is a big booster of Savage Worlds, and I'm not a fan of generic systems. I understand the appeal, certainly. We're adults and parents, with the responsibilities that go along with that and we really don't have time to learn the ins and outs of a new system every time we want to play a game with our friends. There is certainly some virtue to a modular system like GURPS or Savage Worlds.

For my part, I like systems that do one thing and do it well. I guess I think of it this way: I've had plenty of terrible jobs, but I've never worked in a McDonald's, but from what I understand, they try to design their processes in such a way, that it's hard to do it wrong, that they've been engineered to such an extent that your first impulse on how to cook a burger will probably be the right one.

I like the same trait in RPG systems, where there is abundant mechanical support for the theme the game wants to convey, where emulating the actions taken in the source material will yield similar results. Older RPGs, hardly distinct from their wargaming forebears, barely did this at all.

And, for the purposes of this piece, I'm excluding games that have a great setting not specifically enforced by the rules. Delta Green, in my opinion, is one of the best settings out there, but that's on the strength of its writing and its fantastically imagined NPCs, not the rules, which are Chaosium's BRP ruleset, which I never felt particularly well-suited for the game. (Though the Viscount does make the system dance. However, I think that's more of a reflection of his aptitude as a GM, rather than on the fitness of the system. You can play Hamlet with Battletech if you try hard enough, but the rules aren't going to help you out.)

I suppose I've been thinking about this because I'm undergoing a resurgence (regeneration?) in my interest in Doctor Who. More on that a little later.

Here's a picture to tide you over

Mood is tricky to nail down in an RPG. Both the Amber Diceless RPG and the d6 Star Wars have quite a distinctive mood, but it's one that's really quite different from the source material. While I love them each for what they are, Wujcik's Amber is very different from Zelazny's.

I've always been fond of In Nomine, an RPG from the 90s, where the PCs can play Angels or Demons, which are mostly similar in capabilities. As Fallen Angels, the Demons tend to be dark reflections of their angelic selves.

I also happen to like the understated cover art
The mechanical bit I liked the most was that Celestials recharge their essence by acting in accordance with their nature. A servant of the archangel of animals might recovery a little essence by feeding a stray, or a little bit more releasing an abused animal from captivity. A servant of the archangel of trade might regain essence by earning $1000 in an honest transaction, etc. Whereas their demonic counterparts can recover essence through petty cruelties. A servant of the prince of Greed might regain essence through cheating someone out of $1000.

It's not a huge deal, and I'm not a big fan of the rest of the system (though I do still love the setting), but I really did appreciate that part. If you're going to give me manichaean duality, don't pretend that good and evil are just different names for the same thing.

CJ Carella is one of the great modern game designers and, even though I'm no longer the fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I once was, I still think the early seasons were brilliant, and the game captures them wonderfully.

My favorite mechanic for the BTVS RPG was that Vampires take five times normal damage if staked through the heart, but only if that damage would be enough to kill them. If it won't bring them below 0 hit points, then it only does regular damage. Carella came out and said this is a way to emulate the way Buffy usually slaps the vampires around for a little bit before staking them, and that's a great bit of design right there.

So....Doctor Who. I love this game. I sometimes have my problems with the show, but this game is great.  It seeks to emulate the game by giving adversaries like the Daleks stats that are difficult to best in straight combat, and prioritizing talking over other actions. (Actions have the following priority) "Talkers, Runners, Doers, Fighters."

I really, really like that the game has so much support baked in support for its play style.

I've been disappointed by a lot of supplements in my time, but those for this line have been consistently outstanding. The first Doctor sourcebook was good enough to get me interested in William Hartnell, but more than that, it really looked at and tried to explain what made the First Doctor's adventures different from what would come later, and there is such a wonderful...thoughtfulness to it. I don't think fans always make better products for properties we love, but we do tend to think about them at great length, and that does lend a depth not found elsewhere.

There's also a sly sense of humor to it. One of the disadvantages you can select for a character is an allergy to a specific item. "The substance should be something one could reasonably be expected to encounter occasionally (such as ammonia or aspirin), but not something so common the Time Lord is endangered every time he steps out of the TARDIS (such as rock quarries)" Heh.

It's really great. I'm trying to pester some friends into joining a campaign, but no luck so far.

So, feel free to use the comments section to talk about games you love. (Or volunteer to join my game if you are so inclined.)

I leave you this. I liked River Song at first, and much less each time she showed up. It seems my daughter has inherited this dislike:

Lily: Who's that lady on the cover?
Me: Her name is River Song.
Lily: That's a ridiculous name. If she got shot, she'd regenerate into
a My Little Pony.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Almost Roger Zelazny Review: The Jack of Shadows album by Tim P. Scott

This is a review of Tim P. Scott's Jack of Shadows album and it was a really tricky review for me to write.

I enjoy writing my commentaries on Roger Zelazny's works, but that's mostly a function of sharing something I really enjoy with people who might appreciate it. I don't delude myself that the commentaries I write are genuinely trenchant in their observations. They tend to top out at "I liked/didn't like this aspect for these reasons" and pointing out references that might not be obvious. (Sometimes I tell a boring personal story about how I came to be acquainted with the piece, too.)

I'm writing them as a fan, and not as an academic, which I am not pretending to be.They're certainly not New York Review of Books caliber reviews, but I think I do generally manage to convey the points I try to make.

While my reviews aren't brilliant, at least I have the vocabulary to write them. I don't think that's really the case with music, which is why I've been putting this off for so long. I've loved Jack of Shadows since I first read it twenty years ago, and I've loved this album based on the book for at least ten.

I had bought the CD once before, but lost the copy in a move across the country. (I hope the people now living in our old apartment in rural New Hampshire enjoyed it)

I decided to buy another copy, which I did in March of this year.  I haven't bought a physical CD in ages. It's a collection of electronic/instrumental compositions, each of them based on a character or scene in the novel.

  1. Alive again
  2. Kolwynia
  3. Eaterrock
  4. Evene
  5. High Dudgeon
  6. Rosalie’s Dance
  7. The Borshin Boogie #1
  8. From the Dark to the Light
  9. Shadowguard
  10. Morningstar
  11. The Borshin Boogie #2
  12. Flight
  13. World Turning

The liner notes provide a summary for the story and note that the tracks were ordered as they were for musical reasons, and therefore don't correspond to their order in the books. There's a nifty poster on the opposite side, but it was a bit too large to scan and show off.

Here's a picture I took with my phone:

The liner notes also note the Tempo and the Key for each piece, which will be of interest to those of a more musical bent.

I like the album a lot. I lack the vocabulary to articulate exactly why I think the song Evene perfectly encapsulates the character Evene, but I think it does. When I reviewed the comic book adaptation of Nine Princes in Amber, I said that I thought it got the plot across well enough, but couldn't convey the mood of the book. This strikes me as almost the opposite. The various tracks spark in me the same feelings as their corresponding passages, and I think that's high praise indeed.

"I am Jack of Shadows!" he cried out. "Lord of Shadow Guard! I am Shadowjack, the thief who walks in silence and in shadows! I was beheaded in Igles and rose again from the Dung Pits of Glyve. I drank the blood of a vampire and ate a stone. I am the breaker of the Compact. I am he who forged a name in the Red Book of Ells. I am the prisoner in the jewel. I duped the Lord of High Dudgeon once, and I will return for vengeance upon him. I am the enemy of my enemies. Come take me, filth, if you love the Lord of Bats or despise me, for I have named myself Jack of Shadows!"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Falling Back in Love with Doctor Who

I've been a Doctor Who fan since I was a little kid. I enjoyed the first season (or series, if you like) of the rebooted program (or programme, if you like), but I gradually fell out of love with it. The purpose of this isn't to persuade anyone to my point of view, but rather to explain why I arrived at the conclusions I did. And I don't even hate the show. I think it's a pretty good program, just not one for me.

Falling out of Love

I think my disillusionment with the series began with the Christmas Invasion, at the end, where the Doctor ruins Harriet Jones and sets up a sequence of events that leads to enslavement and near extinction of Mankind, because she didn't respect his authoritah.

Holy Borderline Personality Disorder!

If you're not familiar and don't want to click through that link, characteristics of BPD include alternating between idealizing and demonizing others, impulsivity, and overreaction to perceived slights.

It's hard to argue that the Tenth Doctor is anything but a textbook case. I can't imagine it's how the writers wanted the audience to interpret the Doctor, but I think my theory fits the facts better than most. The Doctor is engaging and enthusiastic and nice to his friends. But often, he's casually cruel, and, as the old chestnut goes, "If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person."

Also, his love for humanity struck me as patronizing, the kind of sing-songy praise one gives to a dog or a toddler performing a new trick: Oh, might have spent a million years evolving into clouds of gas... and another million as downloads, but you always revert to the same basic shape: the fundamental human. End of the universe and here you are. Indomitable, that's the word! Indomitable! Ha!

And, of course, he has a bit of a temper:

He wrapped my father in unbreakable chains forged in the heart of a dwarf star. He tricked my mother into the event horizon of a collapsing galaxy to be imprisoned there, forever. He still visits my sister once a year, every year. I wonder if one day he might forgive her, but there she is. Can you see? He trapped her inside a mirror. Every mirror. If ever you look at your reflection and see something move behind you just for a second, that's her. That's always her. As for me, I was suspended in time and the Doctor put me to work standing over the fields of England, as their protector. We wanted to live forever. So the Doctor made sure we did.

I don't care if you served your summer internship at Hell Labs' Ironic Punishment division, infinite punishment for a finite crime is monstrous, no matter how you spin it.

My friend Eric described this arrogance as his fatal flaw. I'm not sure I agree with that. Were the roles reversed, and the acts he perpetrates committed against him instead, I think we would perceive them as unambiguously evil. I mean, I don't require my heroes to be lily white, but if you're laughing maniacally while committing genocide, it does seem that you crossed a line somewhere.

If I go crazy will you still call me Superman?

One of the questions that arise about Superman from time to time is, "If he's so great, why doesn't he fix a war/nuclear proliferation/Michael Bay/World Hunger?"

The answer usually given is that the problem is not one that can be solved without creating many more problems through that solution, but moreover Superman recognizes its not his place to chart humanity's course, even if he doesn't agree with the decisions we make. The freedom to make choices includes the freedom to make BAD choices. Or, to quote the Offspring, "I gotta go make my own mistakes."

Harriet Jones orders the departing Sycorax ship destroyed, and the Doctor gets all mad, "You don't have to worry your little head, baby. I'll always be here for you." She justifies it by removing a menace that had already acted dishonorably, they have no reason to trust it will abide by its word and several reasons to believe it won't and counters that he won't always be there for her, and humanity should take responsibility to defend itself.

I was reading a Wrinkle in Time to my daughter and I was thinking how diametrically opposed the viewpoints are, and that was almost the central point of this piece. In the climax, the three women support Meg, and give her everything she needs to rescue Charles Wallace, but she has to take these steps alone.
Listen, Meg. Listen well. The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called, but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to con- found the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are." She paused, and then she said, "May the right prevail."

It's about agency, and empowerment and helping people become the best version of themselves they can be. It's the exact opposite of brainwashing a friend to forget you, "for her own good." (Yes, it would have killed her, but that wasn't his choice to make.)

For someone who's always "so sorry," the Doctor shows surprisingly little regret for almost wiping out humanity in a fit of pique. (He tells alternate universe Pete Tyler to "Keep an eye on her" on learning that Jones is still in power. He's such a dickhead.)
Andy Dufresne - who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.

That was more of a tangent than I intended, but from the very beginning of Tennant's era, I was...suspicious, I suppose, less willing to accept that things were as they appeared, but always thinking a little deeper than the writers intended, looking for what would be the logical consequences of what was presented to us.

And I know that this an unfair metric to apply to the show, because very few heroes in any medium would pass if held to this standard. However, I don't think  unreasonable to scrutinize his actions more closely in light of what's already been established.

Is there an element of confirmation bias here? If I go hate-watching the show, looking for evidence that the Doctor is an asshole and a hypocrite, then I'm certainly going to find it. And again, I know that this wasn't what the writers intended, that the Doctor has a "slight flaw in his character", to steal a phrase from Barry Hughart, but if that slight flaw leads him to committing genocide, well, it probably rises above the level of character flaw. Hannibal Lecter kills people if they're rude. The Doctor shouldn't.

All right, enough of that. I've belabored this point long enough.


The Doctor Who wiki has its own entry for genocides the Doctor has committed.


All right, now I'm really done, for real. There was enough evidence to interpret Tennant's version of the Doctor as a jerk and that's the point of view I gradually came to hold. I was losing interest in the show already, and when Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith, with his stupid face,
"Come along, Pond."

I knew that it was going to make or break my interest in the show and it broke it.

Moffat is a talented guy who produces a great program, but his version of Doctor Who is just something I don't have any interest in watching. His interpretation of the Doctor is someone largely without peer, and therefore he'll overcome most challenges easily. I observed this in one of my posts about Superman, that when you reach that level of power, "Can he?" stops being a meaningful question, and is replaced by "Should he?" or "How will he?"

I think this kind of story can work, but the viewer has to like the characters. If your thesis is "The Doctor is awesome and saves the day", and I don't think the Doctor is awesome, I'm not going to enjoy the show. Since every episode seemed like 45 minutes of Matt Smith and/or River Song smirking about how awesome they are, I did not enjoy his tenure.

I've tried a couple episodes here and there, but even the Doctor's Wife, written by Neil Gaiman and almost universally lauded, struck me as unbearably twee. ("Look at me! I'm channeling Bellatrix Lestrange! Now I'm making TARDIS noises! Vworp! Vworp!")

And it's impossible to be a geek in 2013 and not hear about Doctor Who, but it wasn't something I cared about or followed. After 25 years, I had decided that I was no longer a fan of Doctor Who any longer.

Josh goes off on a tangent about Audio Books

I had a subscription to Audible for a while, but I cancelled it recently. One of the books I bought through them was Lalla Ward's reading of Shada.

I loved this book. It quickly became one of my all time favorite Doctor Who stories. When I went looking for something similar to it at Audible, however, I saw that it was pretty much the only one of its kind. I could get very brief audio versions of the classic Doctor Who stories, or new adventures featuring the modern Doctors, neither of which really appealed to me. (I didn't hate idea of listening to them, mind you, I just thought my credits would be spent better elsewhere.)

And some of them were just plain terrible.

To digress for a moment, I was born in 1974 and grew up in the days before the Internet. I took my geeky activities where I found them, begging a ride from my father's girlfriend to go to the first Lehighcon, walking to the hobby store when I was staying with my grandparents, getting together to play Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. (When I finished my final day of high school, I walked directly to our DM's house to resume our campaign.)

People are strange, when you're a Stranger

I assume that my name must have gotten on a mailing list because one day a catalog arrived in the mail. It was a window into a wider world, with offers for RPGs I had never heard of, like Chill and a whole ton of ICE's Middle Earth line. and zillions of lead miniatures. It also a section for videotapes, for Doctor Who, of which I was already a fan, and other cult shows, like Dark Shadows. I can't remember when the catalog arrived, but it must have been after 1991, because they offered the Stranger video series.

It starred Colin Baker, and featured Nicola Bryant as "Miss Brown", his assistant. Baker was the mysterious Stranger, who showed up in unusual situations and fixed them, like some kind of...medic, or chirurgeon. It eventually found its own mythology and stopped being some kind of wink-nudge off-label Doctor Who, but I liked the idea of the plausibly deniable Doctor.

For comparison, this is the Doctor:

And this is the Stranger:

The BBC's licensing is so patchwork and weird anyway. I recall that one publisher (Marvel? Virgin?) had the rights to use Absolom Daak, Dalek Killer, but not the Daleks. I mean, Jesus, why bother at that point?

I was talking with a friend I didn't meet until we were both adults, about Trial of a Time Lord, the 14-part episode where Colin Baker shouts a lot and occasionally commits a wee bit of genocide. She said she hadn't seen it in 20 years, and I said that I hadn't seen it in 20 years, and since we had each watched Doctor Who on the same Public television station (NJN, baby!), I realized that we had probably watched it at the exact same time.

I forget what led me to the Big Finish website. I happened to be reading about the One Doctor, and I thought I'd check it out. I like the summary at Wikipedia. Whoever did the editing seems to have accidentally substituted "homoerotic" in place of "holographic" and I'm not about to fix it. It's probably an error with the spell-checker, but it still amuses me. Certainly changes the tone of the piece. 

The story features Bonnie Langford, returning as Mel, and Colin Baker, returning as the Sixth Doctor and it's just so much fun. I was never a fan of Colin Baker, though after reading a bit more of his tenure, I've come to the conclusion that a lot of what was going wrong with the program at the time couldn't be blamed on him. He is really good and genuinely entertaining in these stories. On his 900th birthday, the Doctor's birthday wishes are for Universal Peace, Better control over the TARDIS and "more manageable hair", and I like that he's got a sense of humor.

I was asking a friend if she thought Lily was old enough to watch Doctor Who and she was like, "Well, it is a show for children." I think that's something the series has lost in its modern incarnation. It's better in a lot of ways, but it takes itself so seriously, that the sense of wonder is gone. 

I also picked up He Jests at Scars, because hey, the Valeyard AND Shakespeare. The plays are cheap, they're DRM-free, and listening to them, I really believe that anything can happen, just like when I was a kid watching the show. 

 I watched the Name of the Doctor last night, and I rather enjoyed it. Yeah, River Song was mugging for the camera, yeah, "a psychic conference call" is going to age about as well as "aliens in the wi-fi", but it was fun. Also, it had corridors and running, something NuWho is sadly lacking. 

So, I'll watch the specials. I'll watch Matt Smith regenerate and see what Peter Capaldi does with the role. If I like it, great. If not, I'll wait it out, I'll try it every so often, and I'll do my best to keep quiet about it around my friends who enjoy it.

 So, do I think of myself a fan again? I guess I am.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Josh really hated Sucker Punch

This is a slightly different version of review of Sucker Punch I wrote for Geek Speak a while back. It's been hanging out in the drafts folder forever, but I figured I might as well post it here.

I guess we can start this review with a math problem. Balance the equation for the name of this month's movie.

Scott Pilgrim - sense of humor - ironic self-awareness + icepicks + fishnets = ?

If you guessed Sucker Punch, give yourself a gold star.

(We would have also accepted the movie's working title: "Sparta, Interrupted.")

We open with a cover of Sweet Dreams by Emily Browning.  Very quickly, director Zack Snyder sets the stage. (Well, as quickly as one can do something in slow motion! Fun fact! The whole movie is actually only forty-five minutes long, but Snyder's trademark use use of slow motion stretches it out to nearly two hours.)

Baby Doll's mother dies, the evil stepfather is going to do very bad things to Baby Doll and her sister, so Baby Doll steals his handgun to defend herself and her sister, but things go wrong and Baby Doll is taken away to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane

I used to live near Brattleboro and I absolutely believe this could happen there.

So far, so good. The reference to Annie Lennox (original performer for Sweet Dreams)  couldn't have been less subtle if Snyder had tapped me on the shoulder in the theater while saying "Get it?!", but the cliches employed here are serviceable and they work to get the story underway.

Once there, an orderly continues the conversation he'd apparently been having over the phone with Baby Doll's stepfather, where he would forge the signature of the asylum's psychiatrist in order to have her lobotomized in exchange for a lump sum payment. They don't have a surgeon on staff to perform the procedure, but there is a traveling doctor who services all the local mental hospitals and he'll be getting there in five days.

We fast forward to his arrival, and just as he's hammering the spike into her frontal lobe (in slow motion, of course), we cut to a scene in a bordello, where it seems the lobotomy is just something the dancers were acting out for a show.

It seems everyone has a counterpart in this world. The mental patients are dancers, Rocket (Jena Malone) and her sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie, and Jamie Chung as Amber, the psychologist Doctor Gorski (Carla Gugino) becomes Madam Gorski, a dance instructor, and the evil orderly (Chris Issacs, who devoured the scenery every time he opened his mouth) is Blue, the owner of the burlesque. Instead of being lobotomized in five days, Baby Doll is going to be sold to the High Roller at that time.

Madam Gorski has Baby Doll dance for Blue. When Baby Doll begins the dance, it drops her into a fantasy world where she meets a wise man (Scott Glenn, looking leathery enough to make the Marlboro Man seem like a Neutrogena model) in a Japanese Temple. He gives her some weapons and tells her she'll need to collect a bunch of plot coupons: A  map, fire, a knife, a key and a super-mysterious fifth item that would require "great sacrifice".

Baby Doll resolves to escape, and she convinces the others to assist her. Then we cut to a bunch of scenes in fantasy worlds that you've no doubt seen in commercials, where Baby Doll and her fellow inmates metaphorically steal the items they will be stealing to escape in the burlesque world, and consequently, the real world.

I didn't go into Sucker Punch with any specific expectations, but the one thing I never thought it would be is dull. Whatever else, a mech with a bunny on it fighting steampunk zombie Germans in the trenches of an insanely detailed alternate WWI should be exciting . But every time we went into a dream sequence, I just wanted it to be over.

Even the zombies should have enjoyed that mech.

It's not like he's a lousy director. I happen to think  Zack Snyder is one of the best directors for his frenetic style of filmmaking, and I have enormous respect for the technical expertise with which he leverages every tool available to a modern director. He's found his niche, that of the exquisitely crafted slow-motion masterpiece, and he does it better than just about anyone, and I cry tears of joy to see at least one director eschewing shaky cam fights.

The film had a very distinctive look, and sound and feel (the soundtrack was particularly well-suited the action scenes it accompanied), but everything is less than the sum of its part. Part of the problem is that it takes itself so seriously. Kill Bill was cut from a similar cloth, but it reveled in its absurdity. Sucker Punch seems so intent on being a serious  movie that fails at being a good one. The biggest part of the problem was that there were no plot twists to be be found. Every scene and the movie itself ends exactly as I expected it to end.  Even in the ostensibly empowering scenes where the girls kick ass, they need a man spouting Sphinx-from-Mystery-Men level aphorisms to tell them what to do.

WISEMAN: Don't ever write a check with your mouth you can't cash with your ass.
BABY DOLL: Okay. Am I the only one who finds these sayings just a bit formulaic? "If you wanna put something down, you gotta pick it up". "If you wanna go left, you gotta go right". It's...
WISEMAN: Your temper is very quick, my friend,but if you don't stand for something--
BABY DOLL: "'ll fall for anything." That's what you were gonna say, right? Right?

Sucker Punch had the misfortune of coming several months after the release of another movie dealing with nested dreams. I speak of course of Inception, which, while a better movie in almost every respect, suffers from the same flaw of a lengthy preamble, which, if remembered by audience, telegrahs the conclusion of the movie almost from its beginning.

As the song goes, I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Seeing Emily Browning's performance, I'm inclined to think that she took method acting a little too far, because her performance led me to believe that she had undergone an icepick lobotomy in order to understand what her character was going through.

I can imagine her audition:

"Make your happy face."
"Make your sexy face."
"Make your sad face."

"Make your angry face..
"Great, you're hired!"

Snyder has stated that the film  is a critique on geek culture’s characterization of women, but I don't buy it. I've seen all sorts of fan theories, some of them incoherent, some of them quite clever, attempting to explain exactly what was going on, and why it was really a clever bit of film making. I don't buy that either. For one, it's not Zack Snyder's career has been one characterized by incisive social commentary. For another, as much as I do like his craftsmanship, he's unable to resist showing how clever he is, and I just don't think he's capable of producing something genuinely subtle.

 In fact, after reading that interview, I'm reminded of the phrase, "It is impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine stupidity and a parody of stupidity," meaning that if the only difference between a movie that is intended to be shallow and sexist and exploitative and one that winds up being shallow and sexist and exploitative, but is ironic about it, well, that's not as big a difference as he seems to think it is.

It's clear that he's going for deeper levels of meaning with each layer of the hallucination (and the presence of a guard with an iPod and the return of a certain someone at the end seem to imply that the asylum level was not in fact the really, real world), but it's not hard to give your movie a vaneer of arthouse ambiguity simply by scattering a couple incongruous items and a bunch of loose ends throughout your script.

tl;dr  version:

How was it? Take the first syllable of the movie's title and you have your answer.