Archive for the Reviews Category

The Self-Destruction of John Campbell

Posted in Comics, Politics and Society, Reviews, Things You Should Read, Weirdness with tags , , on March, 2014 by melendwyr

You may recall my earlier post detailing my sadness upon learning that one of my favorite webcomics, Pictures for Sad Children, had been deleted by its artist and creator John Campbell.

Upon learning that he had a Kickstarter project involving the release of his comics in bound and printed form, I concluded that perhaps he didn’t want the free online version of his work competing with his professional work.  Sadly, I have recently learned that the reality is much, much stranger than that.

As the bottom of that Wikipedia article indicates, in fact.

Campbell had gained a degree of notority for apologizing for purportedly “pretending to be depressed for money”.  Which is quite peculiar, but not nearly as weird as it would become…

John Campbell recently announced that all of the Kickstarter rewards which were going to be sent out had been, and that nothing else would be forthcoming – regardless of what had been promised or what people had paid for.  In fact, he released a video showing him burning printed copies of the book, one for each email he had received from people asking where their books were.  Along with the video was… well, a rant.

This might lead you to think that Campbell is staging some kind of avant-garde  performance art, which wouldn’t be incompatible with the style of his comic.  Possibly the whole thing is being faked… except for the vast number of people who haven’t received the work that they paid for and are beginning to become angry.

The rant itself sounds very much as though Campbell were sliding into depression, or schizophrenia.  Not quite at the word salad stage, but approaching it.  Faked?  Perhaps… not.  It’s really quite disturbing.  Campbell claims to have realized that he’s a transwoman, says that he has about $750 total, and has a lot of reasonably incoherent things to say about capitalism, society, and ‘privilege’.

Some people now claim they are working to scan the copies of the book and put them online.

I don’t know what the full truth behind any of this is,  but one way or another, it seems to be the end of John Campbell’s career.  Possibly the beginning of a number of angry lawsuits, although if the statement about the checking is correct I doubt there will be much of anything to win.

 

Who really killed Star Wars?

Posted in Blogging, Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, Things You Should Read with tags , on January, 2014 by melendwyr

Stumbling blindly through the alleys and darkened streets of the Internet, I came across The Caffeinated Symposium, a site full of analysis and opinion on certain aspects of nerd culture, written by David Cesarano.

The tone is a bit more strident than I would prefer, but I found several of the articles quite thought-provoking and well worth the reading – not least among which is “On the Devolution of the STAR WARS Franchise“.  I also found his analysis of why he didn’t like D&D 4th Edition to be useful, if not nearly as polished or sophisticated as the above.

Take a look.

Regarding Star Wars:   I’ve heard many, many people complain about how the prequels (and elements of the original movies, such as the Ewoks) reduced the quality of the series and fell away from what they expected.  The point that they represent Lucas attempting to re-establish his original vision – one that the series moved away from starting with The Empire Strikes Back – is one I’ve come across before. Many people have noted that TESB is dramatically more sophisticated than the first film, and that this was in large degree due to Lucas getting other people to work on the screenplay.  But the link with the “secret history” establishes just what massive fame – and the resulting creative control – caused to go so terribly wrong, rather as happened with Steven Spielburg and his attempts to extend past franchises and even alter the existing versions of past successes.

Liar, Liar

Posted in Reviews with tags on April, 2013 by melendwyr

Further reflection has brought up something that I was previously uncomfortable with but wasn’t part of my initial reaction.

I offer warnings:  this will have some major spoilers for the third episode.  Granted, we’re well past that now, BUT:  you have been informed, and should stop reading now if for some reason you want to be surprised.

*spoilers*

*spoilers*

*spoilers*

Okay: in the third episode, Dr. Lecter commits a murder with the express intent of framing someone, using a bit of blood and a chance meeting to his advantage.  And he lies about the nature of the phone call he made to the Shrike immediate before the visit to his home.

Dr. Lecter does not lie; he doesn’t deign to do so.  To conceal his crimes, certainly.  To mislead and misdirect, sure.  But he doesn’t think the people around him are equals; it wouldn’t be sporting to lie to them.  And to those people he thinks are interesting and worthy of some respect, it would be neither just nor polite.  As he reminds Mason Verger, we all know he never lies.  Consider this conversation with Margot Verger:

Listen to me,” the doctor hissed.  “Mason will deny you.  You know you’ll have to kill him, you’ve known it for twenty years.  You’ve known it since he told you to bite the pillow and not make so much noise.”

“Are you saying you’d do it for me?  I could never trust you.”

“No, of course not.  But you could trust me never to deny that I did it.

And he does more than that, in exchange for certain favors from Margot.  He calls her answering machine and gloats over Mason’s death, assuring her that it was agonizing and prolonged.  Which gives everyone the idea that he killed Mason – as it is intended to.  But he never actually claims responsibility for the crime.  He suggests that Margot rip out some of his hair and scalp, he reminds her of her need to kill Mason and her need for someone to take the blame for that death.  He helps create the situation in which Margot kills Mason.  But he didn’t come into Mason’s room and stuff the Moray eel down his throat, and he never claims to have done so.

We know he never lies.

But what does he do?  He murders the girl who threw the rock at a distraught and enraged man, the brother of the girl found impaled on a stolen stag’s head with her lungs cut out.  He places blood from that thrown rock on her teeth, where the police will find it.  This is more than permitting people to draw the wrong conclusion from perfectly true statements – it’s a lie.  Not a verbal one, not an omission of the truth, but a lie.  Then, when he’s challenged about the phone call by the girl who first answered it, he gives a clear and direct lie about its nature.

Dr. Lecter would never do that.  Ergo, that is not Dr. Lecter.

Lazy Writing: Show, don’t Tell

Posted in Reviews with tags , on April, 2013 by melendwyr

The new Hannibal show has now been on for three weeks, three episodes.  Three’s enough, I think.  What conclusions can we draw?

Lawrence Fishburne’s Jack Crawford is not the sardonic and skilled investigator of the novels.  He stands around wearing nice suits and making obstructing demands.  He’s something of a boor.

The sound effects (I hesitate to call them ‘music’) intrusively establish mood by being unsettling and jarring.  Unfortunately the scenes in which they are featured can’t carry the emotions themselves.

Freddy Lounds is a woman.  Which is not in itself remarkable, but given that the novel’s character is a man one has to wonder why.  Perhaps there was a perceived dearth of females on the prospective cast.

So what is the show like?  Let’s take a look at the first episode.

It starts at the scene of a bloody crime.  One investigator slowly eliminates the distractions from his mind’s eye and runs events backwards, ending standing across the street looking at the home.  Then he commits the crime, breaking down the front door, while his voices narrates over events.

He shoots a man twice in the neck, telling us that he’s severed both carotid and juglar with “almost surgical precision,” that the victim will watch as everything is taken from him and that this is the killer’s design.

(What?  What?!)

Next, he comes up behind a woman sobbing as she desperately scrabbles at a home security control box and shoots her in the neck.  We’re told that the major blood vessels were intentionally missed and the spinal cord hit, supposedly leaving the woman paralyzed but “still able to feel pain.”

(What?!  What?!!)

Y’know, maybe these statements make some degree of sense.  I don’t know enough about anatomy or gunshot wounds to speak with great confidence.  I suspect hydrostatic shock would have some pretty unpleasant effects on someone shot through the neck, and blowing out major blood vessels leading to the brain will lead to very rapid unconsciousness.  Same, I think, with the spinal cord that high.  Yeah, you can sever the spine without killing, but you have to do it low enough that the nerves which control breathing aren’t affected; pain could be felt above the break, but shock would set in pretty rapidly, so I doubt someone with a shot-out spine would be feeling much of anything.  And certainly nothing below the neck.

Is this delusional thinking, or is the narrator talking nonsense?  I can’t tell, the vast majority of the audience can’t tell, and it draws both them and me right out of any immersion that might have been set up.

We then find that this entire episode has been a recap or flashback taking place during a lecture given by Will Graham, tormented possessor of extraordinary empathy which somehow gives him insight into the criminal mind.  He later claims that “the evidence speaks”, but he rarely looks very hard at evidence.  He goes to crime scenes, glances around, closes his eyes and enters a trance where he perceives disjointed visions.  The original Will Graham was a careful and intelligent investigator with an excellent memory and occasional moments of insight; the show’s version is a psychic in all but name.  He has frequent nightmares and is the Dog Whisperer, with something like seven or eight canines sharing  his home; original Graham was fairly normal and married, with a son from the woman’s previous marriage.  I don’t recall any dogs.

Graham’s knack at psychological profiling is demonstrated in a scene in which he, viewing the personal data of the seven missing girls of similar appearance and build who have mysteriously vanished, declares that they’re like Willy Wonka chocolate bars, and the killer is looking for the one with the Golden Ticket.  Only one of the girls is so blessed, we’re told, probably hidden amongst the others.  “It’s what I’d do… wouldn’t you?” asks Graham.  Except that the canny viewer has probably realized that the common factor isn’t among the listed victims at all.  This “Golden Ticket” theory is never mentioned again; just as well, as events quickly show it to be wrong.  Oddly, even Graham discounts it – he claims the killer has a daughter or loved one who looks like the victims (plausible but not necessarily the case) and is the same age (possible but not necessary) and is going to be leaving home (ummm….).  Ahh, hmmm… well, those things are certainly possible, and of varying probability, but none of them are really justifiable claims at this point.  But Graham’s magic brain has produced them, so, they must be correct.

The rest of the show is like that, but worse.

Major points of my criticism follow:  first, the original novels that served as the inspiration for this show were well aware that psychological profiling is of extremely limited utility.  As is the case in reality, profiling gets none of the protagonists closer in any meaningful way to finding out who’s committing crimes.  The Silence of the Lambs verges on outright parody – Lecter’s almost gnostically-cryptic clues about the Buffalo Bill killer don’t derive from his extraordinary understanding, he saw the killer professionally as a psychiatrist and knows his identity.  He merely wants to draw out as much as he can from Clarice Starling and possibly develop her mentality by giving her clues.  But in this show, assertions come out of seemingly nowhere, and turn into facts with remarkable rapidity.

An principle of writing, whether for visual media or simple text, is that as far as possible the audience should be shown things, not told them.  Conclusions should procede from the information provided to the audience, not presented in them.  But that’s not what’s happening here.  The audience is not being shown suggestive evidence which presents both it and the fictional investigators with a puzzle.  It’s not being shown careful collection of data, the intelligent interpolation and extrapolation from what’s known, the occasional intuitive leap which is plausible yet not available to self-analysis.  It’s not even being shown frequent intuitive leaps.  The answers come out of nowhere; they are not earned, neither by the audience nor by the characters.  It’s… magic.

Remember Hannibal?  The person the show is named after?  He doesn’t show up for quite a while; when he does, the context would make someone unfamiliar with the Lecter mythos think that he’s implied to be the serial killer in question.  Who is he, why is he important, what’s his angle?  Aside from the constant stream of double-meaning quips and situations which can be meaningful only to someone familiar with the surrounding characters, we’re given very little.  Until he begins to do extraordinary things without obvious motivation within the show as we’ve seen it.   A naive viewer would be quite confused by this point in the show, and I couldn’t blame them.

If you’re looking for graphic violence and gore, this is the show you’re looking for.  Quality writing, in homage to familiar characters and the unquestionably well-written sources they come from?  Intelligent exploration of crime and detection?  Thoughtful entertainment?  Don’t bother.  You don’t even get good drama out of this one – it’s all forcibly provided through the nearly-subsonic soundtrack.

I’m told that NBC has already made two seasons’ worth of episodes, and I presume will be airing them regardless of viewer response merely to get it’s money’s worth.  So we’ll have to avoid this show for a while.  Online critics have been quite complimentary, even going so far as to call the show ‘brilliant’; I can only wonder if we watched the same program.

Omnitopia Dawn

Posted in Reviews, Science Fiction, Things You Should Read with tags , , , , , on January, 2013 by melendwyr

Fans of the beautiful and mysterious Myst computer games series will probably know that an online multiplayer version called Myst Online: Uru Live was attempted and, tragically, closed after some time.  What fewer people realize is that MOUL continues to exist and is actually the first open-source multiplayer online adventure game.  The games’ creators made it possible for players with enough knowledge of the scripting language used in the game to write their own rooms and worlds, adding them to the exploratory space available to everyone.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past decade, you’ve probably also heard of World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment’s quite successful MMORPG.  I hardly need to write anything about it, it’s so well known – but if you’re not familiar, although many parts of gameplay have arisen from interactions within the player base, and more based on feedback, the world is very much a creation of its developers.

What if things had gone differently, and Myst Online had not only survived in its original incarnation, but also allowed its players to design it?  What if it created its own culture a la WoW, and been as far-reaching into our own general culture?

That’s more or less what’s happened in the near-future Omnitopia Dawn by Diane Duane.  Fifty million people connecting to a sensory-immersion world that’s expanded not merely by the game’s nominal developers but by players selected for ethical probity and love of the game.  A world of worlds created to fit niches and fill needs that the original creator didn’t anticipate… as long as it’s legal and safe.  People from all over the world interact in real-time in ways and in forms of their choosing.  Actual history reenacted, possible histories explored, implausible and impractical fantasy worlds generated and a thousand different sorts of games delighted in.  It’s a dream given form.

And there are forces gathering who would like nothing more than to destroy it all.

Duane takes her trademark theological speculation – in which the Powers responsible for creating and maintaining the world delegate some of their own power and authority to created beings – and makes the metaphor literal.  Omnitopia is a self-modifying system made ever richer by those who participate in it.  Yes, there are links all the way back to Tolkien’s ideas about subcreation.  The game is one person’s subcreation that invites others to continue to elaborate and develop it, within a reality that Duane has suggested is just such a system.  MMORPGs used to explore the nature of the concept of the divine and how we should approach our own responsibility in participation within reality itself, touching upon ethics, morality, and the nature of evil.

If nothing else, it’s a fascinating exercise in how to present an old-fashioned idea in modern terms.  I can’t help but think that Tolkien would approve.

Brave

Posted in Fantasy, Reviews with tags , on July, 2012 by melendwyr

I’ve just returned from viewing the latest Pixar film, Brave.  And I must say, it’s excellent.  Not quite as wonderful as I found The Incredibles – I am always somewhat annoyed when actual folk tales/beliefs are distorted for the convenience of unfamiliar and ignorant audiences, and a magical tale of old Caledonia has a context from which the movie can depart, as opposed to a story set in a quasi-realistic alternate present/near future – but quite enjoyable.

The story and music are great.  What I couldn’t help but have my attention drawn to is the hair.  Hair is incredibly difficult to simulate and render electronically – the way it interacts with light, each strand carries its own problems.  I was especially put in mind of the ‘gag reel’ from Incredibles and the various problems they had getting Violet’s hair to fall properly.  They did quite well rendering Merida’s curls, although I suspect they used certain shortcuts in doing so, clumping strands into curly patterns and then rendering those patterns rather than calculating each individual hair.

I read several reviews of the film before seeing it, and I can’t understand the complaints about Merida’s unviability as a role model.  The story clearly portrays the short-sighted and careless things she does as disastrous – too much so, to my point of view, stressing that “individual selfishness” is necessarily a bad thing, and ignoring the reality that ‘selfish’ has a positive meaning, too.  I can’t help but think that these moralizing statements in Pixar’s films are meant to pacify and subdue the corporate watchdogs whose approval is required.

There’s a lovely but peculiarly non-comedic short before the main film titled “La luna”, and those who wait through the end credits will be rewarded with the long-awaited dropping of the other shoe.  (You’ll know what I mean.)

For Your Post-Apocalyptic Library Science Needs

Posted in Fantasy, Reviews, Science Fiction with tags , , on March, 2012 by melendwyr

Hillbilly space vandals.  Human-looking aliens with headbands that functioned as PDAs.   Dialog almost worthy of the Eye of Argon.  Hooded Space Wizards who speak in rhyme and place unwise librarians in stasis for a hundred years.  Earth abandoned to a decay that remarkably resembles Mississippi in 1985.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, you may have been forced to watch Tomes and Talismans as a child.  As probably the most well-known product of Mississippi Educational Television, Tomes instructed the young in details of library use, effective reading strategies, and how proper use of the Dewey Decimal System can save the planet.  For these noble goals, countless children trapped in the holding pens referred to as ‘schools’ were induced to watch this program in the hopes that they would suddenly perceive libraries as AWESOME!  Alas, it probably had no effect except to deepen their contempt of reading and further ostracize those kids who publicly enjoyed it.

One irony of the program was that despite being set in a distant future, the technologies it taught were mostly obsolete and largely replaced by computer archive systems less than a decade later.  Another is that, despite the ridiculousness of its plot, most people never got to find out how it ended – seemingly the adults forced to supervise the indoctrination of the young were unable to put up with having to watch the series themselves.   Fortunately, various individuals uploaded the series to YouTube!

For your edification and viewing pleasure, I link you to:  Tomes and Talismans:  Episode One:  Tomes Entombed

(cue eerie music)