New York 2016 (Part 1)

Disclaimer: The cityscape pictures are primarily of Manhattan, but are cataloged here as the primary focus is on New York as a whole.  

Until today, I’ve never really talked about my travels. A few drafts were scratched together over the years but stopped each time, due to some notion of it being too much about me. My blogging ethos has tended towards impartiality or “my professional writing life.” But there was an author, whom I will not name, that once said that confessing to being a professional writer scarcely impresses people.

And he was, and is, right. So today, I digress.

new-york

Last Friday we took the train to New York. In terms of raw value, it’s hard to beat a plane because the price is similar and it’s often a couple of hours faster. Still whatever time saved flying is lost going through security, baggage claims and then traveling to the city itself (airports tend to be arm’s distance from any metropolis), while the train deposits you near where you need to be. If the difference is an hour in comfort, then so be it.

The essence of luxury is waste.

Not to mention a plane’s turbulence can be quite jarring; my trip to Miami last year left me one shaken martini. But we smoothly glided into Penn Station shortly after I finished my book (Steel Victory by J.L. Gribble). From there we took the subway heading east, to Franklin Avenue.

One should never judge a city’s public transit, good or ill, based on a weekend experience with its subway. But the service then was good, especially compared to the faded glory of Washington D.C.’s metro system. Tickets were a flat fee of either $2.75 if you purchased a reusable one, or $3 for a single use. The trains’ range was expansive, a web connecting Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx with Manhattan as the primary center point. Despite what Google Maps suggests, it is quite possible to change trains while remaining inside the system (saving you the cost of another ticket).

Fulton Street, the strip nearest our Airbnb, was an eclectic mix of fast food joints, stores and pharmacy chains mingled with local businesses who satisfied any other needs corporations generally do not. We passed street-side vendors trying to sell scarves and pass out literature regarding Islamic faith.

From there we walked west, and I tried to make rhyme or reason of the various city blocks. While the streets took advantage of the grid system, there was little obvious central planning when it came to the various restaurants and businesses. Sometimes we’d pass roads packed with townhouses, sometimes we’d come across a few restaurants and bars at the foot of apartment buildings. As I grew hungrier, it became difficult to try and decide on a place with some meaningful New York appeal.

img_7805It was then we came across Ogliastro Pizza Bar on Washington Avenue. The insides were ritzy and attractive. The Brussels sprout salad was flavorful although I would have appreciated the sprouts slightly charred to impart some bitterness. But we were quite impressed with Coppa pizza: tomato sauce with fior di latte (a type of mozzarella), artichokes that were more mild, red onion slices that were lightly cooked to maintain their pungent aroma. The crowning discovery of capocollo, an improved twist on prosciutto that did not dry out in the oven.

From there, we briefly toured the northern part of Prospect Park before venturing north to handle a little shopping. We toured various shops where I found myself amused by the displays of Hannukah cards, an uncommon novelty in D.C. We sought gifts for a newborn niece in Australia. We sampled delectable chocolates at Cocoa Bar before heading in the direction of our dinner reservation.

With an hour to kill, we stopped by Soda Bar in Brooklyn, and I felt more of the spirit of D.C.’s night life there. There was a whiff of claustrophobia, chalk board signs, holiday decorations… the familiarity was palpable. If I ever found myself a resident of Brooklyn, it would be my watering hole.

As we walked to dinner, I found myself appreciating some Neoyorquinos’ philosophies on life, starting with their preparations for the winter. Being seated near the door was seldom an inconvenience thanks to glass patios installed before most entrances, thus sheltering those by the exit from windows and chill. And, aside from Soda Bar, the city’s peculiar spaciousness, certainly wider than D.C. at times. It was as though the city had tried living in a sardine can decades ago and finally had enough to do something about it.

park-horizontal

Dinner was at Olmsted, a few doors down from the bar. The inside was elegant and we found ourselves seated at the bar. ordered the lamb porchetta and scallops. From our dishes, I gathered that the restaurant’s culinary philosophy revolved around trying to bring out the flavors of individual ingredients to concoct a fulfilling meal. There are those who would love it; the lamb was certainly fresh and the scallops flavorful with umami. I have personally always preferred a more heterogeneous approach to foods, a desire for ingredient combinations to provide a balance.

But that is a topic of conversation to for the second part, during our time in Manhattan on Saturday… when we toured the city’s Christmas decorations.

C’est la Divertissement Vie. (That’s the Entertainment Life.)

Games:

I may seriously never purchase another game from Konami again.

mgsvYes, I’m late to the party. But their last great game, Metal Gear Solid V, was never given the chance to be completed. The game was delivered in an episodic fashion that spanned 50 missions. 51 was supposed to effectively be the game’s final boss battle. Cut material from the collector’s edition showed a half complete last episode, which would have been an excellent note to satisfy one last dangling plot thread and go out with a bang.

It was never released. And according to Konami’s spokesmen, never will be.

This information was never quite clear to me given the layouts of story-focused wikis, or the strategy guides and commentary boards that avoided discussing the plot for fear of spoilers: I only just learned of the mission conclusion after completing 89% of the game. But imagine, if you will, the Harry Potter series sans the final battle with Voldemort and the epilogue. Or Star Wars: Return of the Jedi without the Battle of Endor.

Others have covered the likely cause of this sad state of affairs better than I have, but the likely culprit was the Konami/Kojima split. I’ve played several Kojima games in my life and I know that he would never willingly leave a story incomplete. Of those titles were Zone of the Enders and its sequel, as well as Metal Gear Solid, Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater. While he always had more stories to tell, leaving the current arc incomplete was simply never his style.

Of the game itself, I could see how it was almost a masterpiece. Almost. The game play constantly brings me back again and again for its completeness, it’s total immersive elements. The depth of strategies is profound in and of itself, where no item or weapon ever seems to have just one purpose. Every game play session, I learn something new about how to combat my foes; some trick, a tactic or vantage point I never considered before. Even without the cut ending the story was somewhat weak, but this was countered with dozens of great moments that constantly made me forget vulnerabilities in the overall tale. Mission 51 would probably make me condone this, but I will never know for certain.

That being said, I refuse to give up after coming this far. I’ll see this through to the end but that is all, despite my disappointments and reservations.

Movies:

The Professional: Golgo 13golgo13 feels like something that could and should have been better.

Golgo 13, sometimes known as Duke Togo, is Japan’s answer to James Bond: an ageless, ongoing assassin whose stories often have to entertain without ever developing the man himself. Instead, the creators rely heavily on crafting sensational plot twists, over-the-top sex scenes, backstories for his victims, visually insane villains or researching mind-boggling but physically possible acts of sniping such as ricocheting a bullet off an ocean wave. Anything to avoid piercing the titular character’s stoic demeanor and mysterious allure.

In this film, Mr. Togo is contracted to end the life of Robert Dawson. However, it happens at a sensitive time during a company coronation, when Robert is dubbed the new CEO of a massive, massive enterprise. Although Togo succeeds, the contract’s legacy turns sour as the would-be CEO’s father (the current CEO Dawson) seeks revenge for the death of his son.

The beginning feels almost distracted by another contract that Golgo accepts, which concludes with him being chased by the FBI, CIA and Pentagon. All these agencies under the employ of Dawson himself, who wields his company’s power in a way that the Sherman Antitrust Act was exactly designed to prevent. Despite the threat, Togo seems oblivious to the danger and completes another contract. Only then does he realize how unrelenting the government’s hitmen are, as Golgo’s informants are either killed or turn on him.

The visual style of The Professional was somewhat distracting. While the action scenes were straight forward, coherent and well handled, Director Osamu Dezaki seemed determined to punch up even basic dialogue with flair unnecessarily. The movie also used some CGI animations to handle some helicopter assault scenes, but the technology was simply too immature at the time to effectively tell a story. Likewise, the story concocted several Bond-level villains for Golgo to fight as well, the story actually suffers from the introduction of too many antagonists to effectively develop in its 90 minute running time. However, the final plot twist at the end was somewhat satisfying (highlight to see spoiler): It turns out that Robert Dawson ordered the hit on himself, an act of suicide because of his fear of being unable to live up to his father’s expectations.

Television:

I gave up on Orphan BlackAmazon’s sci-fi series about clones.

“Where’s this madness going?” I asked myself after the ninth episode of season two. The plot consisted of most of the characters milling about in circles. Once again, the protagonist’s daughter had been kidnapped, after a long season of hiding about the countryside to no real effect. Meanwhile, antagonist Helena was stolen by some strange religion-meets-genetics commune who took her eggs. After she escaped and then willfully came back, she threatened a harsh nanny for mistreating the children under her care, not long before Helena sets the compound on flame regardless of the lives of the kids inside.

Characters portrayed by anyone besides Tatiana Maslany became less interesting, and except for concerns regarding a genetic disease amongst the show’s many clones, the entire season felt like little more than “filler.” ggrThe show felt like it willfully resisted growth despite a strong first season. Only Maslany’s skillful acting kept me going this far, as she slips in and out of versions of herself in a believable manner.

On the plus side however was Good Girls Revolt, an amusing and unexpected show actually made me realize how bloody boring Mad Men sometimes was.

I can see how Good Girls Revolt was probably stiff-armed by Amazon for years until the latter show came to an end. Mad Men was/is the Oscar of television, but sometimes didn’t feel like it wore enough of the sixties (at least the pieces we wanted to remember) on its sleeve. GGR certainly does, but the other huge difference is that the series focuses around one major climax that the main characters built towards through behind-the-scenes politicking and subterfuge.

The girls seemed to truly wrestle with their guilt; a sharp contrast to the occasional acts of Mad Men’s cruel, tragic and unapologetic attitude.

The bad news however is that the show isn’t going to get a second season, at least not on Amazon. One aspect downplayed is that GGR is built on real events, namely Newsweek’s EEOC lawsuit in 1969. Although the name was changed to the fictional “News of the Week,” the historic aspects are still very highlighted. It’s safe to doubt that Newsweek enjoyed someone dredging up a nearly 50 year-old legal filing that put them in a bad light. And I could see why Amazon might not want to start a mudslinging contest with the news outlet in all in the name of entertainment.

Pardon the Life Interruptions

“Signal to noise is $%#^ed right now,” Alec said today, absolutely nailing the latest temporary problem.

Advertising our newest release has been put on pause until after Tuesday. The presidential election in the US and the rulings regarding the UK’s Brexit have been occupied the headlines, Twitter and Facebook in some nightmarish, endless loop.

coahtrMajor news outlets and comedy shows aren’t the only ones who have been benefiting. My Facebook feed is plagued with dozens of tiny political outlets and blogs on both sides, spewing quintessential mendacity and propaganda. Trenders fall into two categories: those who acknowledge the lie but fear the mentioned candidate winning, and intense, narrow-pupil zealots who are best avoided. Pondering and vexations as to the weaknesses of democracy often follow in their wake, to no meaningful conclusions.

In such times, relaxation is in order to relieve the body of stress.

Titanfall 2 with my brother offers some relief, as was the very impressive Doctor Strange. Although I enjoyed the movie as well as Netflix’s Luke Cage, my friend Adam nailed it when he said he was “Marveled out” for the rest of the year. While Marvel’s properties never fail to entertain, there does seem to be a saturation point where people need a break from even extraordinary characters, though interest often resurrects after a few months.

The entertainment industry is fickle as such. Entire genres can be tired out and placed in the cooler until such a time that they are dusted off to try again. Westerns for example, particularly those by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, gave us some of the best films throughout the 60s and early 70s until finally dying down. Perhaps twice a decade, the genre tried again, resulting in flicks like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. But we are possibly on the cusp of a renaissance in other media, such as with HBO’s Westworld and the upcoming Red Dead Redemption title by Rockstar Games.

doctor-strangeStill, the Marvel property is far from dead, despite the doom-and-gloom entertainment articles which are increasing in frequency and almost always disproved. While I doubt that superhero films will become inert as a genre for quite a while, there’s definitely a limit to how much people can and do enjoy at one time. Still, Doctor Strange helps by opening the door to the mystical elements of Marvel’s properties, likely giving Marvel’s properties more longevity.

But perhaps most telling… if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does well, the market will learn of audience’s appetite for urban fantasy. If not, then Doctor Strange may have found people’s limits for magic on the big screen. And if the former is not a sign that people want to escape from reality for a while, I don’t know what is. So pay attention: you may learn a spell to conjure a fortune.

Musings & Outliers: 2016 Available Now!

outliers-volume-1

We’re losing control.

Director Zimmerman won’t admit it of course, but the projections are bad news in all directions. Outliers, men and women of extraordinary talents, are exploding in numbers across the globe thanks to the new drug “Illumination.”

We think the clandestine group “Legion” is responsible for spreading the substance, but not for producing it. And they’re not the only ones on the move, as others are playing in the shadows. AURA has begun operating in other countries, and our network is growing to match that of the CIA. But I can’t shake my gut feeling that we’re making a mistake, that we’re spread too thin to see what’s really coming.

The future is a jigsaw puzzle that we try to rearrange into something pleasing, but the image it’s taking is horrible…

–Dr C. Reynolds, PhD

Outliers: 2016 is now available in eBook format for the United States and the United Kingdom. The print version will be available next week, but until then be sure to follow us on Facebook or Twitter for more news!

I finally have this thing called “spare time” again. Not much, but some. So much of last week was spent formatting and preparing Outliers for release. The eBook version maybe complete, but the print version isn’t just yet.

What little spare time I’ve had has gone into preparing the Halloween costume, playing Bloodborne (tis the season of beast-hunting) or catching up on television. We finished Luke Cage and Downton Abbey very recently, so we’re are currently catching up on Orphan Black which we left off after the first season.

I really have to give Tatiana Maslany credit for going above and beyond with the demands of her many, many roles in Orphan Black. Toni Collette had a similar position with the United States of Tara, which was set against the backdrop of being a dramedy, but whatever comic elements are found in OB are strictly an occasional byproduct of its genre as a sci-fi drama. Maslany does a fine job of truly wearing the many, many masks of her characters, from accent to history, body language to quirks to truly create unum de multis (the opposite of e pluribus unum).

Well, back to work…

Franchises and Stuff

There’s a degree of palpable anxiety in the air.

The release date of the new Outliers volume is fast approaching and we’re perhaps 85% the way to complete. Much of what’s left is primarily grunt work: formatting, administrative, distributive. Being an editor for the project has me weighing in on techniques and methods to improve my writers’ skills. A great deal of the process boils down to something like this:

Step 1: The writer is tired and not as stoked because their creative energy was invested in writing the synopsis. They start writing.

Step 2: In the rush to finish it (and get to mentally rest), the writer blindly cranks out the first draft. The draft is never great, because in their haste, they:

  • overlook redundant sentences or even whole paragraphs
  • misuse form/from, pubic/public and other spell checker-immune horrors
  • forget to add a somewhere (hint: reread that)
  • use the same words, phrases and grammatical approaches too often
  • leave scenes too flat, or include an additional scene that doesn’t add much (I’m raising my hand on that latter point)
  • use too many words to superfluously describe something technically
  • or describe a technical matter badly
  • have POV errors galore
  • write plot holes

Step 3: Editor receives draft. Pretends he’s a proofreader and issues minor edits. Smiles and pats everyone on the back. Yay! Good job!

Step 4: …Editor suddenly remembers he’s an editor and the publisher. Transforms into Mr. Asshyde and starts tearing into the drafts. Process involves:

  • staring with total disbelief at a scene involving software security or medical operations that even a Hollywood writer would laugh at
  • researching appropriate details about said technical matters and rewriting section
  • wondering why the last two hours were blown making one single page look correct
  • cussing such profanity that would make a sailor blush
  • pondering what happened to that massive wound the main character received just one minute ago
  • privately wishing your own stories received this degree of abusive love
  • stopping pronoun juggling
  • consoling yourself with alcohol because you aren’t getting paid extra for this
  • finishing the last page and firing it to the writer, while finally understanding every story rejection you’ve personally ever received

Step 5: Editor wonders why people hate him.

I feel it takes frank honesty to transform a story one notch better than what it was. And I admit that fear is powering many of my decisions: if the series isn’t addictive, people will put it down. Great writing should be smooth, balanced between the eye opening and the jaw dropping, and leave readers hungry for more.

If your audience stops reading, they won’t talk about it. And that kind of silence is death.

And this is a factor that’s going to get tougher for me, because I have rapport with the five guys I’m working alongside. Outliers is a shared-universe, not another book series. Generally authors rarely allow others to develop in their literary universes, but the franchise nature changes the dynamic considerably.

Fellow authors whom I show our releases to swiftly pop the question, “Can I submit to this? When’s the open submission window?” And the reason I cannot give direct answers is because there’s a vision, a direction that the series is going.

Outliers is a road, and I hesitate because any writers joining us for the journey have to be prepared. Some are being readied even now, others are coming in time.

Info on Amazon Reviews

primerToday, I want to talk about Amazon reviews. And this is of importance for both readers and authors.

First, I want to give a huge thanks to everyone who has been supporting, reading and helping us promote Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come. We truly hope you’re enjoying our work. It’s also available for free on Amazon until the end of today (September 16th), a magazine-style release complete with stories and artwork so why not pluck a copy to read later?  Last time I mention Outliers until next month, promise!

Now although we’re loving the promotions and marketing side of this, there’s a point that we could really use outside help.

Amazon uses a number of algorithms and business flows to help decide on what to market, what to suggest and promote in front of other buyers. There are millions of titles in the United States, and even within genres you can easily be talking some tens of thousands of titles.

Who knows what they like better than the readers themselves?

Or at least, those who are vocal about it by submitting reviews to the vendor. Right now, there’s a rumor that 20 reviews, good or ill, “bump” the appearance of a title on suggested reading lists. Another piece of gossip states that 50 reviews puts it among the spotlighted positions of mailing lists.

Now, it’s a safe assumption that these statements are just scuttlebutt. Maybe someone noticed a loose pattern in the advertising and drew these assumptions. Or maybe they were or even are true, although the latter is subject to change. Even the Amazon business guys probably couldn’t comment with certainty because code and formulas are always being tweaked and modified. In tech, what’s true today might not be true tomorrow.

But it’s also a safe assumption that there is some validity to it. Reviews undoubtedly have an effect on advertising suggestions. Feelings of any kind are a more valuable metric than numb silence. Whether you love it like the first season of True Detective or hate it like the second, saying so with reviews matters. So please, if you enjoyed or hated our work, say so. Artists cannot grow in the absence of valid criticisms, nor know what to keep producing without compliments to encourage that which is enjoyed.

Now… there’s one final point to cover, and I must admit that this is a saddening factor for authors: Amazon divides its reviews by region as well.

Some argue that it’s cultural preferences. I disagree, as few seem to care geographically where their entertainment comes from. The United States imports some of the finest actors from England, almost all variations of Sherlock tend to do well and Warhammer 40,000 of Nottingham is very acknowledged here. Likewise, I pal with my English friends knowing that we can quote The Simpsons with abandon or even recruit them into my growing Stranger Things cult.

But the stars from the Amazon.com site aren’t appearing on Amazon.co.uk. If nothing else, people browsing work would see far less in the ratings. Amazon is doing a beta of “the most helpful reviews” on the pages themselves which crosses the ocean (for example, with Far Worlds in the UK), but the results thereof are not being added topically into that region’s ratings.

So.

If you read our work, we love you. If you enjoy it, please say so back. And if you’re really feeling generous, try to log onto both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk to leave reviews on both sites. I believe the login credentials are shared which should make it much easier. And thanks again for reading!

LitOps: Authorial Cross-Discipline

Outliers Primer Cover

Announcement: Join our Facebook event for the launch of our free chapbook set in the Outliers universe, available September 6th!

This post is about writing. Just bear with me a moment…

In 1776, a Scotsman by the name of Adam Smith published a book entitled The Wealth of Nations. As his work defined early capitalism, one of his largest concerns was how labor (particularly manufacturing-based) risked learning skills and tasks that were too specialized to acknowledge the greater whole of the process.

Fast forward to 2016 and in some fields we have the exact opposite problem: we’re asked to do almost too much.

If you ask me about my day job, my usual response is that I’m a developer. In truth, the term for my field is DevOps (Development Operations), a cross-discipline that consists of various kinds of programming, networking, and database administrations. I create interactive webpages, set up the end points that they pass on their way to the databases, plural. Sometimes I triage network or server performance issues, sometimes I connect to remote servers for deployments. Name just about any technical difficulty and I’ve either dealt with it or were somehow involved in the resolution thereof. Being a developer these days involves a great deal of skills and knowledge.

Being a litterateur (writer) is rather similar.

I suppose you can call it LitOps, literary operations. But whether it’s a truly self-published author or an independent press trying to get booted, there are many hats to wear. Aside from writing and editing manuscripts, there’s formatting (more complex these days due to print versus e-reader files such as mobi, pdf and epub). There’s cover art, which not only includes the illustrated or graphic front but measurements for the spine and the back cover. And all of this grows more complex with any experimental introductions, such as adding illustrations or e-book linking.

I’ve never tried a “choose your own adventure” book with hyperlinks but I suspect that would be technically interesting…

Outside of production there’s marketing; setting up promotions, contacting critics for reviews, author signings, online advertising and anything else that can influence readers. Sales can be automated online, but at conventions there is a need to ship or transport the goods, prepare the table, handle direct sales, and then break all that down after. And then there’s managing public relations. Aside from face-to-face, people often ask questions on Facebook or Twitter and they’re probably going to want to be answered in a professional manner.

And there’s even a legal side. At its simplest, a publisher has to deal with the terms of service with his/her distributors. If publishing third parties, there has to be written agreements regarding how rights and royalties are handled. If you work with other creators, there are franchise agreements too. I’ve signed and worked on franchised works include Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga game series (The Gift of Hadrborg‘s print version is coming soon) and now my company’s forthcoming Outliers universe.

I suspect that if you’re an up-and-coming writer, you’re probably reading all this and saying “No, no I don’t want to deal with any of this!” Well, the old ways aren’t dead. There are still the successful and established publishing companies out there that can afford to have its employees and contractors specialize. A friend of mine mentioned how great it is to work for one of these: all he does is write and answer questions regarding editing, and occasionally attend a few signings.

But the hard truth is that many of those established, profitable publishers truly want established, profitable authors. Sometimes an author will “make it,” and get paid a professional’s salary. But unless they keep at it and find their audience, there’s little staying power. How often does a short story ever take a person to the top?  How often is an author’s debut novel the pinnacle of their bibliography? Examples exist, but it’s like that one school kid who becomes a professional athlete; exceedingly rare compared to the size of the field.

Learn. Grow. Expand. We all want to write, but never be afraid of kaizen. Sometimes that means doing things you don’t want to do, but someone has to. And no one is going to care more about your work than you. Learn the business, because knowing is powerful in its own right.

This is what it means to be an author these days.  And it is better to embrace the change until it affords one a better opportunity than to assume that the opportunity is ever coming.

Entertainment in July

Stranger ThingsRejoice. This entry is spoiler free.

On Sunday I screamed at my friends, “You have to watch Stranger ThingsRight now!”

And they did. Alec added it to the to-watch list. Andrew binged it to completion on Friday while Manuel and his wife became so absorbed, he put down working a new cover for us to stream the entire first season.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, shame on yo— I mean, the show takes place in sleepy Hawkins, Indiana in November, 1983. A stormy night preludes the disappearance of young Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), setting the entire town on edge. Mike, Lucas and Dustin (Finn Wolfhand, Caleb McLaughlin and Gaten Matarazzo respectively) break the town’s emergency curfew to search for their abducted friend, and happen across a strange girl (Millie Bobby Brown).

Meanwhile the missing boy’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) struggles to accept her boy’s loss while Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) slowly becomes a part of the mystery herself. Toss in a police sheriff (David Harbour) with a tragic past and a mix-match of elements from The X Files and you have a phenomenal homage to all the great things from the 80’s; E.T., The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third KindStarman and a whole slew of Stephen King’s best.

Speaking of the 80’s, I’ve finally figured out what is bugging me about Halt and Catch Fire. While the second season was generally good, the problem was that it spent too much time trying to wow us with “predictions of the future.” The first season focused on a single, great idea with the invention of the laptop, with hints of query-based operating systems. But the second season just went crazy with the fortunetelling; T1 cable lines, how chat rooms were the secret to America On-Line’s success, computer security, online gaming, time-sharing data processing, made-to-order custom built PCs and first-person shooters (aka Doom).

By the end of it, the audience is left with the impression that basically all the major growth in the computer industry was foreseen by just four people who all just happened to be in Texas. Halt and Catch Fire was green lit for a third season, but I’m not certain my inability to believe what I’m seeing is going to keep me glued to the screen. 

Admittedly, my reading has somewhat slowed because of a newfound love of podcasts. Or rather, that of Jason Weiser’s Myths and Legends. Podcasts solve my problem of not getting enough fresh, non or semi-fictional material, allowing me to work out or just walk to my job while absorb new tales. Unfortunately, sometimes the episodes run over the time it takes me to get to the metro. Since I’d rather wrap up the episode, this then cuts into my reading.

Watership DownBut I am closing in on the final chapters of Watership Down by Richard Adams. It’s strange how folks gape in awe when tell them I haven’t partaken in reading it before. Like there’s no respect for there being hundreds of classic books to read, and to expect even a prolific reader to have covered them all is ridiculous.

A brief synopsis goes that two rabbits, Hazel and his brother Fiver, tire of life in their warren where they are not exactly high ranking. Upon a prophetic vision from Fiver, Hazel gathers a crew to try and split off from their home without the approval of their elders. Escaping with a dozen bucks, they travel into a hostile world, facing unusual dangers and troubles until settling at a place christened Watership Down. Acknowledging that they have no does to perpetuate their warren, Hazel and company attempt to rectify the situation. This runs afoul another, more militant warren whose glory-seeking leader brokers no dissension.

Watership Down isn’t exactly something you can spoil; if you try not to explain the plot, you’re not left with much to describe it with. But it’s not about the suspense of “what happens next” but rather the journey itself, complete with cunning and tricks and the lore of El-ahrairah, a mythological trickster hero and the closest thing to lapine-religion.

Finally in games this week, I downloaded Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Firmly understanding that it’s basically the tech-demo/prequel to The Phantom Pain, I’ve nevertheless invested time and effort mastering it, trying to earn the 100% completion rate before purchasing the main game. So far, I’m over 40%, so definitely doing alright.

Ground ZeroesMy record of playing the Metal Gear series is spotty. Peacewalker and MGS4 remain to be played. But I own Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty, the latter of which feels underrated as many fans did not like the main character being someone other than Snake himself.

And then my favorite, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

The game was strange as the third of any series is rarely the best and, as if not bizarre enough, it was also a prequel. And I’m not alone in this, as many polls suggest that the third installment was other gamers’ favorite as well. It was just… so unexpected. Initially I almost snubbed the game, but instead found my expectations totally reversed. I became less interested in getting MGS4, believing the emotional power of the third game simply couldn’t… and perhaps shouldn’t, be topped.

I’ve made few secrets before how Metal Gear has been quite the inspiration for some of my writing in the past. While the gameplay remains action and stealth based, the plots have frequently proven to have very few genre limits. The term “super hero” is never used, but several characters have abilities and skills that seem nigh-super powered. The rules of politics, military and science fiction are often bent and occasionally broken.

And while the thought of nuclear deterrence is a unsettling subject matter, some of the antagonists’ schemes have proven even more nefarious, such as the Patriot’s attempts to control culture itself by “info-cleansing” the internet. Given that all modern politics revolves around controlling the narrative, this actually scares me more than nuclear weaponry.

 

A Trope to Twist, AKA the Rise of “Meta-Movies”

GoosebumpsThe weekend before last I enjoyed watching Goosebumps on Netflix. A blend of comedy with thriller-horror, the film was weirdly delighting and a fun surprise for someone whose only entry into the series was Say Cheese and Die.

The premise was unusual as well; high school student Zach (Dylan Minnette) is forced to move to Madison, Delaware so his mother can take a new job. Initially with no friends of his own, he bonds with his neighbor Hannah (Odeya Rush). But concern for his new friend leads Zach to investigate her father, whom is the reclusive (to say the least) writer R.L. Stine, portrayed by Jack Black. His reason for hiding from society? Stine’s original manuscripts are gateways to unleashing the monsters he wrote. And when Zach accidentally unleashes them, Madison pays the price for his mistake.

Goosebumps is another addition to the growing genre of “meta-movies,” mildly self-aware films that make use of unusual source material in a way that acknowledges cultivated clichés and tropes, yet integrates them with care. These films are not parodies like Meet the Spartans or the Scary Movie series, but rather they walk a fine line between taking themselves seriously and having fun. The Lego Movie is another such meta-movie, telling the majority of its story before acknowledging its characters are, in fact, toys. Also Wreck-It Ralph, which portrays its eclectic cast of video games characters more as “actors” on a stage of digital lights. These films accept that telling a dramatic tale with the toys and games would difficult, and their approach vastly differs from other product-franchise adaptions like Battleship and Transformers which take themselves seriously (although the latter had considerable source material to draw from).

But products aren’t the only source of meta-movies. Entire genres too can fall in this category, such as with The Cabin in the Woods. Rather than avoiding them, Drew Goddard’s movie dives into the clichés, embracing and wrapping them around a “second tier” plot twist that changes the dynamic from traditional horror to a pre-apocalyptic tale. And it works very well.

An important distinction however is that they do not totally breach the fourth wall, but may create avatars for the audience and make them somehow integral to the story. For The Lego Movie, it was the child played by Jadon Sand and The-Man-Upstairs, Will Ferrell’s live counterpart. Goosebumps had Zach and Champ (Ryan Lee), while The Cabin in the Woods relied on Bradley Whitford and his team of voyeurs.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph differs however. It has no audience-avatar character, but still acknowledges that it takes place within a world hidden in the hardware, using props rather than a person to construct the stage and uses many gaming references to “speak” to and for the audience.

So where did the ideas for all these movies come from? A good question.

Goosebumps likely borrowed from The Cabin in the Woods, which was likely written based on critical reaction to patterns in horror films as a whole. The Lego Movie likely took a cue from Toy Story (which used a few brand toys but was mostly archetypal). Wreck-It Ralph could trace its origins to the Canadian animated show Reboot which in turn may have taken a hint from 1982’s Tron— all of whom take place within the hardware world.

These earlier films are not “meta-movies” but rather the forerunners, phenomenon that either immediately or in time altered pop culture as we know it. The ideological tree whose fruit gives us the very tropes to twist.

Still, the cats out of the bag and the pattern has emerged. Meta-movies are ultimately a kind of gimmick, a clever idea that will likely become more and more telegraphed until meriting retirement. But I’m not one to declare that any good idea should ever entirely be discarded. After audiences tire of them, the concept will probably be set aside until audiences forget they exist, before they make a resurgence. Just as Star Wars is the modern space opera and Indiana Jones is the archetype adventurer mixed from King Solomon’s Mines and similar but pulpier tales, no good idea goes unremembered for long.

Cultural Sabbatical for June

It’s been a while. Writing projects have kept me and the team remarkably busy. I’m happy to announce that we’ve finished the first round of edits for our novella series. More on this later, perhaps even as soon as next week. But for now, a little of what I’ve found time to enjoy.

TMitHKBooks

As the fictional adventures continue, I have a tendency to rarely return to the same author within a year. This happens for many reasons; to prevent burnout, to keep my head filled with new ideas, and to rotate the geek-with-the-chic. Sometimes you get books that can blend those two things together, but this doesn’t usually happen until the novel transitions to the the screen, big or small.

But on that point, the “no author more than once a year” guideline was violated twice this year by Philip K. Dick, with The Man in the High Castle and my current read, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which is rapidly disappearing in my hand. The story is a blitz that is hard to put down, interesting in its own right though vastly different from its film adaption, Blade Runner.

PKD was, and pretty much still is, the “idea man” that made science fiction what it is today. While many such authors tend to focus on the more academic sciences, the beauty in Dick’s concepts are their psychological inspirations. His themes ooze and seep, capable of invading any genre no matter how timeless. It wasn’t so much about androids, but what androids tell us about us. It wasn’t the facts and dates of Nazi occupation of America, but rather how we live in such times, how we felt and why we do. PKD used his head to tell it from the heart.

On the subject of fast reads, I’m also rather impressed with the vanishing act performed with The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which I finished over last weekend. The book was the perfect mix of fantasy and fairy tale, tying its carefully woven mix of behind-the-scenes theological suggestions with the philosophies of its characters. It spoke with such depth that one’s life felt changed after reading.

American GodsThe final achievement on the literature front was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which I purchased before even knowing about the upcoming television series. The novel was my first book by Gaiman (outside of the movie Coraline and the graphic novel The Dream Hunters with Yoshitaka Amano), and I truly appreciated the effort he put into researching and cultivating the world’s mythologies and not just the most common, such as Greek and Norse. The overall story is fairly satisfying on its own, although there is a sense that there should have been more to the story at times.

Perhaps that’s something that Starz will soon rectify.

While a part of me is looking forward to the book’s television rendition (considering it stars Ian McShane and Ricky Whittle), there’s reason to be cautious. Especially since HBO attempted the script with three writers and just couldn’t get it down, eventually giving up. Still, although HBO generally employs good writers, the somewhat prematurely finished show The Leftovers would suggest that the channels struggles to engage its audiences in matters of theological consideration. Well, since we’re on that topic…

Television

On the live action front… I have a horrible confession to make ladies and gentlemen. I have never seen Orange is The New Black

“What?!” Some readers might be screaming. “The show is amazing! How could you not see it?”

For me, Orange is The New Black is kind of suffering from a form of TV debt. Simply put, right now there is actually too much great television these days. HBO and Showtime used to have the corner to themselves, then AMC came along and proved that ordinary cable can deliver, followed swiftly by the lineups at Netflix. Now, it seems every channel has at least one hit show of some kind. USA has Mr. Robot (of which I’ve seen season one). PBS has Downton Abbey (currently I’m on the third season). The History Channel has Vikings (unseen but on the to-watch list).

With so much television out right now, it’s difficult to really catch up on golden oldies and prior seasons of current hits. OITNB is just one of those shows I put on the back burner to spend time on other projects. I may pick it up.

PrintHowever, disappointment abounds that the third season of Penny Dreadful is the final of the series. I didn’t see this coming at all, but my understanding is that this was premeditated long ago.  I’ve yet to begin watching it, although anyone who is familiar with my blog knows how much I’ve gushed over seasons one and two.

I intend to start Penny Dreadful shortly, but have been catching Game of Thrones first whenever possible. It’s not that I value the latter series any higher but simply because thoughtless fools on social media continue to ruin it, spoiling events if I don’t rush to see it. This has happened twice this year alone due primarily to memes. I am truly looking forward to the finale however, considering how awesome the last (ninth) episode turned out.

A couple of years ago, the last thing I expected was to be pulled back into anime ever again. But here I am, working my way through both the new and old; the third season of the classic Armored Trooper Votoms and Netflix’s latest, Voltron: Legendary Defender, of which I’ve seen the 69-minute initial episode (I will be watching the remaining, 23-minute episodes later). The short lengths of both series’ episodes, and the fact that they’re all immediately available, is a factor in my watching them.

I can’t really explain what it is that keeps me hooked on Votoms. At first glance, one would think it’s a show about mecha– large, combative robots often in a war-drama that justifies their usage. Mecha shows are often characterized by the “tech creep” of an arms race through improvements or new models, and a “boxing title bout” mentality between pilots. But Votoms bucks these trends hard.

After the signing of a cease-fire, war veteran Chirico Cuvie is tricked into a mission against his own side. Unable to trust anyone and now a fugitive, Chirico makes reluctant friends with a group of smugglers and lovable low-lives while trying to stay under the radar of a corrupt police force. But Chirico’s quest for survival transformers into a hunt for the truth, which threatens to reignite the fighting all over again.

AT VotomsGritty is the best way to describe the series. Jaded Chirico Cuvie barely forms attachments to anyone or anything, as he burns through ATs (Armored Troopers) like popcorn. They’re merely tools, to be used and discarded when no longer useful. They don’t upgrade as much as they adapt; swapping out weapons and parts to adjust for battles in space or underwater. Repairs and replacements are fairly grunt work and commonplace.

Voltron is the exact opposite in every way. While Votoms is gritty, cynical and hard science fiction, Netflix’s new series is more mythical, hopeful and exponentially more humorous. The disposable nature of the ATs gives way for the unique and important lions. The always-on-the-run survival exchanged for a defensive campaign. And yes, Votoms is for adults while Voltron makes itself appropriate for the whole family.

Cheekiness is Voltron’s best element, with plucky characters who can’t stop poking each other in the ribs. But peppered between the jibes comes a moderate amount of personal drama to punch up the plot lines; Pidge seeks his missing family while Shiro (a rechristened Sven from the original series) can’t remember his life while he was a prisoner of the Galran Empire. Elements like these are ideal for preventing the gladiator match episodes that the first series became known for.

But two weaknesses dog the new series. First, the humor can sometimes be ill-placed and over the top. And second, the pacing was fairly rapid in the rush to establish the universe, such as how everyone shares the same language or why the main characters could be trusted with a considerable amount of power.

Here’s hoping the Game of Thrones finale is one to remember this Sunday.