Monday, October 20, 2014

Engaging in the Offness of the Shaking


Taylor Swift, former country-singer/songwriter turned pop star, has a song that has been playing incessantly on the radio for some weeks now. It's called "Shake It Off." As far as pop songs go, it's relatively harmless, a fluffy, upbeat little diddy. But since the radio station has decided that this song is the ONLY song they want to play around here, I've started noticing little things that are strange to me.

There's this...it's not a rule per se, but it's a common idea that there's a thing called the "Rule of Three." We as people generally seem to like a list when it's got three things in it. We won't snap and go on a puppy-kicking spree if someone uses only two things in a list, but in general, that's where things in our brain seem to work out best. The best example is joke lists. Say someone wanted to put something in their Twitter bio for a joke. More often than not, it would read:

"Bobby Gluesniffer is a father to his two children, a husband to his patient wife, and the ruler of a micro-civilization living in his belly button."

If you cut out the second item in the list, the punchline comes too abruptly.

The reason I bring all of this up is because in the song "Shake It Off," Taylor Swift constantly violates the rule of three, and it's started driving me bonkers.
"I stay out too late
Got nothing in my brain
That's what people say, mmm-mmm
That's what people say, mmm-mmm"
 Why is there not a third thing in that list? WHY IS THERE NOT A THIRD THING IN THAT LIST??? GRRRRRR!

She does that four times. Four times she lists two things, and then just repeats "that's what people say" twice. I get that it's symmetrical, but it bugs me.

What bugs me more is Taylor Swift's diversion into cool talk.
"Hey, hey, hey. Just think while you've been getting down and out about the liars and the dirty, dirty cheats of the world, you could've been getting down to this. Sick. Beat."
 First of all: AAAAAGH IT SOUNDS LIKE MY MOM TRYING TO TALK LIKE A HIGH SCHOOLER, BLAAAAAGH.

But also: the beat isn't really that sick. It's a very mediocre boring beat. And if she's referring to what follows that portion? Well...it's a cheerleading chant. A relatively common sounding cheerleader chant.
"My ex-man brought his new girlfriend
She's like "Oh, my god!" I'm just gonna shake.
And to the fella over there with the hella good hair
Won't you come on over, baby? We can shake, shake, shake"
Two things about this cheerleading breakdown:

1) She violates the rule of three again. My ex man, fella over there with the hella good hair, and I REALLY feel like there should be a third thing that to make this breakdown feel worth it.

2) My wife and I got into so many debates about this part.

My wife, whom I STRONGLY DISAGREE WITH says that the new girlfriend is the one talking about how she's going to shake. But clearly Taylor Swift is the one going to shake. IT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF THE SONG. "The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, but I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off." She's shaking off her troubles!

It usually goes like this:

Me: Taylor Swift should really use some better ammo against her ex-man's new girlfriend. I mean...she just says "Oh my god"? So what? Does that make her vapid? Because I'm pretty sure Taylor uses that in some of her other songs. Just seems like she has no reason to hate on her other than...that her ex-boyfriend started dating someone else.

Wife: She does use something else. She's like, "Oh my GOD, I'm just gonna shake." She's just an idiot on the dance floor shaking it around.

Me: No, the SONG is called "Shake It Off." Taylor is the one doing the shaking. She's shaking off her bad feelings over seeing the new boyfriend.

Wife: No, you're wrong.

Me: It's the whole point of the song.

Wife: Nope. New girlfriend is shaking it all over the dance floor.

Me: No--well, I mean, maybe, but Taylor specifically is shaking it.

Wife: Nope.

Me: Yes she is! She's shaking off her troubles! It's the whole point of the song!!!

Wife: I think you're mistaken.

And so on. I think she just likes to torture me.

I give Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" a stale cherry Pop Tart out of fliverteen stars.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Thoughts on THE MIRROR EMPIRE


As you might remember, I was reading Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire. I finished it about two weeks ago. It was incredible. How she’s able to come up with so many interesting ideas, characters, and motivations, and get them all across without heavy infodumping...I mean...holy cow, guys. I broke out in some serious green envy-hives reading it.

Initially, I started this post as simple a spoiler-free review to give out some brief thoughts about some of the book’s juicier bits, but goddamn if this book doesn’t have layers on layers on layers. So, I’ve pretty much given up. Don’t read this if spoilers bother you is all I have to say. Go, buy the book (may have to be on Kindle or Nook since people burned through its first printing like a high-schooler with his first credit card), then come back and read my thoughts if you care, okee dokee?

Okee dokee.

Let me prepare you: this book has a steep learning curve. Now, absolutely do not avoid reading this book because you think it will be tough. It will be. But oh my GOD it’s good. You just have to take it slow and use the glossary when needed. She introduces, subtly, slowly, with the skill of a master surgeon, a fuckton--a metric fuckton if we’re being scientific--of stuff in this novel.

Part of the brilliance of the book is how basically every choice Hurley made seems to have been purposefully made to fuck with your expectations. Narratively, socially, interpersonally. Some things are obvious. Some things are super subtle. It tries to avoid almost any norm that you’ve read in mainstream fantasy. It tries to push you. If this book isn’t taught in a college class of some kind or another, some professors aren’t doing their jobs.

Part of the learning curve in this book comes from being introduced to three different cultures--the Dhai, Saiduan, and Dorinah, plus a slave culture--the dajians, and an alternate universe version of a culture. That’s not a joke by the way. The plot of this book is “Invaders from an alternate universe attempt to take over the world.” Seriously, that’s fucking awesome, right?

The culture you probably spend the most time in is the Dhai culture. The biggest difference between them and us is that they are entirely consent based. That means they expect and require consent for even the most cursory physical interaction. One of the most striking moments for me was early when a disable character tripped and started to fall and another character grabbed her to stop her from getting hurt. He did it reflexively, and it was something good, but he still immediately released her and started profusely apologizing.

The implications of a “no touching” culture is fascinating. What if we had to ask permission, not just to kiss, but for any physical touching at all? There might be some things that some might miss, like when someone places a comforting hand on your shoulder when things are shitty. On the other hand, 1) not everyone is a big fan of the touching thing anyway, and 2) violence would be pretty much nonexistent. How could it? You can’t hit someone without touching them without consent, and who would consent to that? I bet they’ve got insults that would make Shakespeare jealous, though.

As I read, I started to get a sneaking feeling that there was more going on than the obvious metatextual pushback of rape culture. I mean, it’s definitely that, too. But WHY do the Dhai have this culture? I got the feeling, as I read, that the Dhai didn’t used to be the pacifists they are at the start of the novel. I think they used to be pretty violent and brutal, and they developed their consent culture as a rejection of their old ways.

I don’t have the time or the space to go into each culture in depth and their differences and nuances when compared to each other and to us. Suffice it to say, they’re all very fleshed out.

I also want to talk about the use of gender in the novel.

The Dhai’s view of gender is very complex, with FIVE genders: male passive, male aggressive, female passive, female aggressive, and genderless.

I couldn’t quite figure out what the difference was between passive and aggressive. One character, who becomes the leader early in the book, is male passive. He seems...normal? People are a little icked that he’s a dude ruler since the position has only ever been held by women, but he’s not, like, a complete airhead. At first I thought “passive” meant that he was one of those “roll with the changes,” doesn’t want to make decisions, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” kinds of fellows, but he gives out orders, makes tough decisions, and acts all leaderly.

It’s entirely possible that was the point: that even their five gendered system is inadequate because, although identifying as both male and passive, he exhibits active, aggressive tendencies anyway.

As a counterexample, another character is male aggressive, and I can see, if “passive” and “aggressive” refer to their temperaments, how he could be described as aggressive. It’s not in our traditional understanding of masculine aggression, but he definitely works to try to get things to serve his own self interest. The descriptions used for him are kind of similar to the kind used for femme fatales. He uses his looks to get what he wants. He flirts. He lies to get out of doing things he doesn't want to do, or so that he can do things he does want to do. None of this is malicious and hateful, though. He’s a likeable character.

Moving away from the Dhai culture, though still talking about gender, I want to talk about The Scene. This is potentially triggering, so I have an image at the start and end of the section so you can skip past if you want, or you can bail out here. Your choice.

****

There’s a couple in the book, Anavha and Zezili. Zezili is an officer in the Dorinah army. Anavha stays home and takes care of the house. Where the earlier depictions of gender are subtle and nuanced, this one is blunt and obvious: Zezili is a woman and Anavha is a man, an obvious role reversal.

Blunt and obvious doesn’t mean bad. It’s clearly intentional. Where the other characters’ complex representations of genders serve to pick apart the reader’s understanding of gender and how our gender binary doesn’t make sense, Zezili and Anavha are there the swing a wrecking ball through the reader’s understanding of gendered roles in relationships and the horrible ways they’re simplified and portrayed in fiction.

There is a scene in which Zezili comes home stressed out, angry, frustrated with affairs in the military. Her husband comes in wearing his skirt and with his make up on. The scene eventually leads to Zezili raping Anavha.

If this is the scene that everyone was upset about, I didn’t quite get what the big deal about the scene was. It’s not really graphic. It leaves out the gory details. I mean, it’s clear what happens, but the narrative pulls back from their perspective so that it happens off the page. I’ve witnessed some horrifying rapes in fiction: The Hills Have Eyes (1 & 2), The Last House on the Left (so bad I had to close my eyes and plug my ears and wait for it to be over because I got so upset I nearly passed out), even Susannah’s rape in The Dark Tower 3 was WAY more graphic and horrifying. King goes into explicit details in that. It’s always a struggle for me to get through.

Not to minimize rape, which is horrible. I’m saying this depiction of rape was relatively tame compared to many others. If this is the scene that upset people, my guess is that it was a WOMAN raping a MAN that upset them. Which is obviously the point of that scene, to show how disempowering and horrifying those situations, yet they're used so cavalierly in fiction.

Actually, the scene that upset me even more came later. A group of women break into Zezili’s house, drunk, and decide since she’s not there, they'll have their way with her husband. That scene was more disturbing to me than the previous, but it wasn't because it was a MAN being molested and assaulted. It was because it was more graphic and from Anavha’s terrified point of view. But even that scene, as unpleasant and disturbing as it was, was not half as graphic as the Susannah scene mentioned previously.

****

This post is already much longer than I intended, and I'm still not done. There are still so many things I could talk about: the role biraciality plays in the story, mental health disorders, physical disabilities, the magic system, the SENTIENT, MEAT-EATING TREES, or even the implications of knowing the existence of a multi-verse.

All of the neat worldbuilding would be nothing, though, if the story wasn't good. But it is.

I am jealous of how rich and real her characters feel. Each character is unique, each has different motivations and back stories.

Lilia is a disabled asthmatic with as much grit and strength as a war-hardened general.

Roh is a clever boy only too aware of how fleeting his powers and position are and horrified by the projected path his life will take, and so is desperate to find another way.

Zezili is a mixed race officer in a military tasked to commit not just a genocide of her people, but also to cripple their entire economy by eliminating the backbone of it, all to make room for foreign invaders.

Anavha is a world-wearied self-harmer who has a secret powerful gift that has just been forcibly thrust into a cruel world he’s ill-prepared for.

And there are many more.

If you were on the fence about this, I hope you'll give it a shot. But most of all: don’t give up if you feel like the book is too complex for you. It’s not. It may force you to re-examine what you believe about the world around you, but that’s what the best genre fiction should do.
_____________

Quick pro tip: Use the glossary. There are definitions for all of the place names, satellites, and slang terms they use. There’s also something else that I was too stupid to notice until I was 3/4 of the way through the book: the glossary includes most of the character’s names.

When I was reading, I struggled to keep up with the two A names, the two K names, the two G names, etc. At one point, I thought, “Man, I wish there was a name glossary as well.”

There was. I’m an idiot. Don’t be an idiot like me. This will help you SO MUCH until you get used to things.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Great Debate: GONE GIRL **SPOILERS**

Image from Wikipedia
***ALL OF THE SPOILERS, SO MANY SPOILERS! OH GOD TURN BACK NOW OR RISK ALL OF THE SPOILERS OH THE HUMANITY***

**Seriously, this book (and movie) does have some pretty awesome twists that it would be a shame if you ruined them for  yourselves. If you REALLY don't care, don't say I didn't warn you.**

A while back, my wife and I saw the movie Gone Girl, the David Fincher adaption of Gillian Flynn's fantastic novel. I love Gillian Flynn. I bought Sharp Things a little over a year ago because it had a blurb by Stephen King on the cover--and I fucking love Stephen King, but I quickly became enamored with Flynn's stories. They're usually about women, but Flynn’s women characters are kind of terrible people, and usually extremely fucked up. They're bleak as hell. Deliciously so.

As everyone in the world has mentioned, the second half of Gone Girl is where things get interesting. In the second half, it's revealed that Amy orchestrated the entire kidnapping herself. Once her journal entries run out, Amy herself takes over narrating alternate chapters from the moment of her disappearance onward. And Amy is a goddamned monster. Nick may be a shitty human being, but Amy is a selfish robot hellbent on manipulating everyone and everything to get what she wants. She is a textbook sociopath.

I’ve read a few essays by some women (and men) that think the point of the film is “Bitches be Crazy.” And I get coming to that conclusion because Amy does exhibit all of the worst things people say about women. Amy is definitely crazy. But NPR's Linda Holmes wrote a post that put into words what I’d been thinking since reading the book:
"What has always kept Amy from troubling me in this particular sense is that she does the things she does not because they are in her nature as a woman, but because they are in her nature as a psychopath. One of the problems with the relative paucity of interesting female characters is that they become responsible for representing all women, for speaking to What Women Are Like. The more scantly represented any demographic group is, the more each person seems to reflect upon everyone. But here, it has always been perfectly clear that Amy is an aberration. She is a woman, but she is not only a woman. She is also a monster, and the second half of Fincher's film is, in many ways, a horror movie about the great difficulty — and eventually the impossibility — of defeating her."
Another interesting read of the movie I've seen, however, is taking Amy as an empowering figure. My wife thought this, and at first I thought she was crazy. But I've seen it popping up a few times online, so my wife’s not alone. And looking at it a certain way, I see why. In my wife’s mind, Amy was a scorned wife taking revenge against her awful husband. She said that, obviously she went too far with her vengeance, but Nick was a shitty, unfaithful person, a cheater that had anger issues and generally made Amy feel unsafe, unloved, and that he deserved what she did to him. This idea is supported by some particularly awesome and insightful commentary on society’s treatment of women by Amy.

There was a telling moment in the movie theater where, after Amy's return, when Nick and Amy are trying to out maneuver each other and see who can screw the other one over more, Nick learns that Amy has gotten herself pregnant using some of Nick's stored sperm, and he knows he'll need to stay for the sake of the child. For just a moment, he gets pissed off, grabs her by the neck, and shoves her, hard, backward into the wall. Everyone in the theater gasped.

It was an amazing moment of movie making and storytelling. Nick had been mostly very restrained up until that point, served very well by Affleck's quiet, whisper-like voice. There were moments where he got angry--in one outburst, he shattered a glass on the floor because the police clearly thought he killed his wife and it pissed him off--but mostly he portrayed either confusion, annoyance, or quiet anger at his situation.

It was interesting to me that everyone viewed that moment for Nick as crossing a line, and doubly interesting when compared with the over-the-top rage and violence (hurling her against a stair banister) exhibited in the fake moment of violence that Amy describes in her diary.

Amy faked YEARS of diary entries, her own murder, ran away, and left the crime-scene just sloppy enough that people would believe careless, kind of dumb Nick tried to clean up the crime scene and was just too stupid to do it properly. She creates an anniversary scavenger hunt where each clue has multiple layers, both a meaningful place for him and Amy, but also a place where he cheated on Amy with his mistress--which he obviously couldn't admit to the cops without looking like the sleazeball he is. She also got credit cards in his name and intentionally bought up a bunch of Dude Stuff to make it look like Nick wanted to get rid of Amy so he could live the Ultimate Dude Dream of video games, stupid toys, sports, and chicks.

And, as they point out, Missouri has the death penalty.

Amy wanted to ruin Nick. Not just have him arrested. Not just have him murdered by the state. She wanted to destroy every aspect of his life. She wanted his relationships with everyone he knew ruined. She wanted every person in the country to hate him. She wanted his very character to be destroyed completely.

After all that, after finally getting Amy home so he could be cleared of murder, after trying desperately to figure out a way to prove she’d orchestrated the whole thing, to find that he'd been outmaneuvered, that he’d have to stay to protect that child, he snapped.

My wife and I debated about this for hours,

The key, in my opinion, to understanding this story is to remember that the Amy of the second half of the movie--the cold, calculating monster--has been the real Amy the whole time. The sweet, well-meaning, complicated woman from the first half of the book/movie--the diary entries--was a fabrication, created to garner sympathy. It was part of her plan to frame Nick. She wasn't real.

Sociopaths are master observers, master pretenders. She wanted life a certain way and put on a costume that would grant her that life. She liked the way Nick presented himself when they met because it complemented the kind of life she wanted. When she realized that was only an ideal, that people are always more complicated than they seem at first, that you can’t always be on your best behavior, she got mad. Nick was robbing her of her dream.

Nick choosing another woman over the ultimate “ideal” woman--the Cool Girl--that she crafted specifically for Nick was the push too far. It would be like how a chef feels when someone rejects her three course gourmet meal for McDonald’s. She wanted him punished.

Although Nick is clearly the more sympathetic character, in the book, Amy drags him down to her level. He becomes, by the end of the book, just as scheming, just as conniving, just as ruthless as she is--if not as smart or clever. And the absolute best part is: he likes it. Because, in the book, he admits that he likes the type of person that Amy forces him to be, even if that force is the threat of death--of himself or the baby. He gets off on the game of cat and mouse. It’s the most fucked up version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith imaginable.

The movie, however, pulls back on this a bit. It makes Nick seem too sympathetic, like he’s just a victim of circumstance. In the movie, Nick stays for the baby. Sure, his sister, Go, says that he secretly likes it, but there’s no real indication that that’s so. The deadly, fucked up tango is significantly reduced. And that is a shame because that is my favorite thing about the book. In the book, Amy is a monster, but by the end, Nick is not much better. They deserve each other even more by the end of the novel than they do at the beginning, Each forces the other into their idealized role, into the type of partner each wants the other to be. In the movie, Nick is too sympathetic at the end for my taste.

I want to do one more post about this, because while I felt obligated to cover the Amy vs. Nick thing that everyone else has been taking about, there’s another aspect of the move and the book no one has touched that I've seen.

Next time, I want to talk about Amy’s character foils.

Oh my God I wish I could write like Flynn.

So, did you see Gone Girl? Or read the book? What did you think?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Looking Back: ETERNAL DARKNESS

Image from Wikipedia
As Halloween creeps ever closer like an ax-wielding madman, the world turns their attention to the spookier side of life. My wife and I have the plan to watch a horror movie a weekend (although, technically our horror movie will be tonight because we were a bit busy this weekend with important things…*glances at TV with Gilmore Girls on Netflix up* *shoves TV into closet*).

One game genre that I’ve never had much experience with is horror, which is odd considering how much I love horror movies, stories, books, comics, and TV shows. Unfortuantely, I can only think of a handful of horror games I played growing up: Reisdent Evil 3, maaaaaybe you could call Geist a horror game, and I could totally see a strong argument made for the latter half of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune being horror--those basement things were scary as fuck.

Burying the lede in a dozen bloated corpses at this point, the reason for this particular post is this: shopping around for some good modern horror games made me think about one of my absolute favorite games in high school/college and how desperately I want a remake/sequel/updated rerelease: Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem.

If somebody told me that the game didn’t do well because of it’s somewhat unwieldy name, I would believe them.

I joke, but I also know exactly why this game failed: it was a rated M game on the GameCube, leading to it getting looked over by the kind of audience that would have been interested in it, and being passed on by people who would be more interested in more family-friendly, colorful games.

It’s a shame, because Eternal Darkness did fun, awesome things with the gaming experience at the time. Namely, the sole purpose of EDSR was the troll the gamer.

The actual plot of the game was pretty good: you play through, essentially, a series of H.P. Lovecraft short stories. You play through the lineage of one family as different people in their bloodline keep running across the same book and experiencing sanity-shattering hauntings as monsters and demons cross over from some other plane.

That part about the “sanity”? Yeah, they take that literally in this game.

Where most games have health meters: your HP, your magic energy, maybe the number of spells you can cast or bullets you have left, the real magic from this game came from the Sanity Meter. Whenever you began encountering monsters as you solved puzzles and explored old ruins, houses, and other creepy places, you sanity slowly begins to dwindle. You have to do certain things to keep you sanity meter up. The lower it goes, the more the game starts to fuck with you.

I don’t mean the monsters.

I mean the game.

Some examples: once, while saving my game, the game save window came up. But instead of the options to save or cancel, the window said, “Would you like to delete this game?” with only one option: Yes. I tried hitting the B button to back out of the game, but it simply said, “Deleting your file…” and then a little processing meter came up. Then it said, “Your game file has now been deleted,” and you could see a game screen with three open files available.

Although I knew what was happening, a small part of me worried...what if it really was deleting my game?

Image from: 50 Most Memorable Moments in Video Game History via Crave Online
A standard if you have low sanity is for cockroaches to crawl around on the inside of your screen, occasionally obscuring your vision, but the game would be even more rude:

Once, I entered a room where the controls were suddenly reversed.

Once, I entered a room with no entrance or exit, and it was revealed that I was entombed in a cellar, ala “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Once, my character’s head exploded in a fountain of blood just as I took aim at some monsters.

Once, I entered a room full of monsters. Suddenly, my screen said, “Your controller has been unplugged. Please replugin your control to keep playing.” However, the controller was plugged in. I pulled it out, blew on the controller plug in, and replugged it in. The window didn’t go away. By the way, it wasn’t an in-game window either. It was the standard GameCube “controller unplugged” window. Impressive design, I’m telling you.

None of these things were permanent. Each time the game tricked you, you would deal with the cognitive dissonance for about a minute, just long enough for you to go, “Okay...WHAT THE FUCK?” Then the screen would flash white, things would be restored to just before you had your freak out, and you’d hear a deep voice chuckling at your frustration.

Image from: User zvarri of GiantBomb's Eternal Darkness Wiki
This was a game that pulled you into it and forced you to question yourself as much as the character.

The only real downside was that there wasn't a whole bunch of incentive to not go insane. It made the game more difficult to complete, but I don't remember the game really punishing you for losing your sanity beyond the cool trolling it would do.

Given the changes in interface and gaming since that game came out (exclusively for the GameCube, SUCK IT PS2 FANS, SUCK IT!!!), if some game developer were to decide to remake the game--or make a sequel*--for the PS3, PS4, or XBox One, I would slather myself with honey whilst gyrating sexily to Prince music.

Er, I mean, I would be very grateful.

I mean, think of all the ways that you could get totally fucked with in the new gaming environment. Maybe the game tricks you into thinking you’ve accidently joined Online Play, with some young pre-recorded team people “talking” to you while you play. Maybe they haggle you a little (not in the horribly vitriolic way that gamers so often do, I just mean, maybe the “gamer” shouts “n00b” at your or makes jokes about your playing trophy collection or whatever).

Or imagine if it took you “back” to the Playstation Home Screen? Or pretended to restart your Playstation? Good lord there could be some cool mind-fuckery going, and that’s not even considering how amazing and terrifying it could be just on a player level as your character slowly goes insane and starts seeing things.

Seriously, if there’s a game developer out there that just so happens to read this blog, PURSUE THIS IT WAS AMAZING! I have never played a game so immersive. On the one hand, you’re constantly aware that you’re playing a game because of the interface gags, but on the other hand, you get to experience the same kind of trouble your character goes through.

If you do have a GameCube, I highly recommend trying to hunt this one down. The graphics are super outdated at this point, but it will be well worth your while, just to spend a little time with an early 2000’s horror game curiosity.

________________________

*UPDATE: Of COURSE they would try to make a sequel to the game. But apparently, because everything is awful and the world is a garbage heap from which nothing beautiful can ever grow, their Kickstarter failed. Twice.

Fuck everything. *grumble grumble grumble*

*paws longingly at sequel*