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.

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Journal, December 10th

Working on a few drafts for posting later this year, non-fiction research pieces of interest.

The first is an article clarifying who Marvel’s Moon Knight is, after I finish reading the first three Essential volumes on the protagonist (I’m roughly halfway.) This is coming in reaction to rumors that MK is getting his own television series courtesy of Netflix. Speaking of, I also started etching out a review of Jessica Jones first season. I have to admit that the further away Marvel gets from the original “core four,” the better their work generally becomes.

BaphometAnother article in the pipe is a research piece on real world magic and its history, including its secular and religious branches. I honestly cannot guess how large this piece may grow and it may be delayed all the way until March of next year, as I’ve been trying to do reading outside of Wikipedia to prepare.

Magic can quickly become a fringe subject because certain topics aren’t really magic per say, or even necessarily religious. After reading Robert Lake-Thom’s Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories and Ceremonies, valid questions can be raised as to whether certain views are more philosophical over theological– if not even protoscientific, as he encouraged observation of nature for clues, hints and warnings.

On the fictional writing front, the second novella for Outliers has been dusted off and is back on track at more than 50% complete. And new, original novel is in the planning stages and will be shopped around to literary agents. The words won’t hit the paper until later next year as I’d rather front-load my research to prevent extensive refactoring against later facts. Magic being one needed subject, as well as the histories of certain European countries.

With regard to input, I’ve finished watching the aforementioned Jessica Jones as well as the latest season of The Leftovers. I won’t be doing a review of the latter, but I will say that I sincerely hope HBO agrees to produce more to enjoy the third and final season that was just (and I mean just) announced. I’ve heard the number of viewers is down, but those who do watch have become cultists for the show and the critics who are applauding this season.

the Leftovers

On the reading front, I took a break from my non-fiction to totally absorb Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow. Despite the power of the first four stories, the themes drifted away from their horror origins to become pure Parisian romance pieces. The cultural importance of the work cannot be denied; aside from the first season of True Detective, there are many other references to the city of Carcosa in The King in Yellow, such as in A Song of Ice and Fire and many, many other forms. It’s quite possible that reading the opening story, “The Repairer of Reputations” maybe some kind of unspoken litmus test for genre authors.

I’m honestly not sure why I decided to keep going after the fourth or fifth tale, but I felt it necessary to finish it just to ensure there wasn’t something I was missing. Other than Chambers’ love for all things French, it seems I did not. With this classic piece under my belt, I’ve decided to read Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger.

I may also take advantage of the holiday season to go ahead and wrap up several Oscar winning movies from years back. Recently I sat down to watch the rather long Once Upon a Time in the West and still need to sit down and watch 2001: A Space Odysseus. Older movies can be a little tiring because of Hollywood’s tendency to remake them. Thus the ideas are often already familiar and, sometimes, are even better than the original such as Al Pacino’s Scarface over its 1930s forefather.

Pop General

“Showtime’s series tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them…”

Been catching Homeland and The Leftovers on television, finished reading The Black Company: The Book of the North and completed watching the last episodes of The Wire as well as the sixth season of The League.

CarrieThis season of Homeland has been pretty good. It’s too early to say if I’m enjoying it more than the fourth season, but the writers took a bold risk in trying to divorce Carrie of the CIA, after the unexpected high of having the “good guys” effectively lose. I used to cheer for the CIA in the earlier seasons when its mission was more defensive. But as of late the agency feels too Machiavellian. There has been some shocking contrasts in how certain characters have remained true to form while others have become increasingly…

Villainous.

I don’t know whether this is just the plot du jour, or if Showtime is preparing for a final story arc and the series climax in the following season (maybe two.) Admittedly I hope for the latter, as Showtime has a tendency to drag on after the ecstasy of a great tale has worn off.

Like Breaking Bad, shows of this caliber should end with an exclamation point, kill their darlings and never look back.

But HBO’s The Leftovers has managed to enthrall me, and even overtake my excitement for Homeland in just two episodes (I intend to see the third tonight.) After some comparisons of how HBO and Showtime manage their television, I’ve come to realize that Showtimes tends to be very protagonist centered, while HBO breaks up their story among various characters. The LeftoversGame of Thrones, The Wire… HBO does a great job of never being too dependent on anyone cast member. But with Showtime, series like DexterUnited States of Tara, and Nurse Jackie tend to hinge around their central player and frequently risk fizzling when that character runs out of yarn or when the audience fatigues of them.

Meanwhile, The League has definitely ground down. In many ways, the show can be compared to Seinfeld; the plot tends to pick up themes early and circles around to connect them (often ironically) at the end, while the characters are deserving snobs for whom we get a schadenfreude kick from seeing punished. Unlike the show about nothing however, The League has begun to recycle its humor and isn’t really adding anything new to the formula. Sure, there were a few moments of gold in the sixth season, such as when Andre was psychologically tricked into “punishing himself” for cheating. But the completionist in me is glad the series is ending.

As if this all wasn’t enough of a mistake in the consumption of my spare time, I decided to begin another game of Shadowrun: Hong Kong.

It’s not like I don’t have enough to do as of late. Three drafts await completion as it is; a military sci-fi piece, a post-apocalyptic story and a unique historical fantasy piece that I’d been researching for a few months. There’s also a novella that will be due before the year’s end and several technical projects that need my attention.

But I’ve been pretty stressed. An hour set aside to finish anything is never enough. Sometimes people need to be reminded of what’s fun to remember why the labor is worth the effort.

Shadowrun4AI actually finished my first campaign about a month ago, with an Italian elf shaman by the name of Bianca “Luna” Panzavecchia. With an emphasis of conjuring over spirit summoning and a focus on pistols, Luna was a great work-horse character. Her conjuring aspects surprised me greatly, particularly the barrier spells which I used to powerful effect… even going so far as to cheese the final boss. However, I put my first replay aside while I waited for a few patches to reduce the sheer of bugs.

Manuel and I had been swapping some build ideas for new characters for a while. About a month ago I had a vision of a troll adept (think monk) because of a natural synergy for Strength, Body and Willpower, and an emphasis in barehanded fighting. I jokingly shook my fist at Manuel for running ahead to try my idea first, but I finally got around to trying the theory myself.

A little karma distribution later and Charlie Shen, better known as Mó Chuí (magic hammer) was born. Shen hits like a semi-truck and can soak a fair amount of damage too. Downside to most melee characters remains consistent though; he’s frequently out of cover and tends to soak up a lot of damage. 50 then 60 HP and good armor will go far towards keeping him alive, but it would be best to keep a few emergency health kits on hand.

One thing I have to respect about this title was the removal of… what we’ll call “paragon” dialogue. Basically, Mass Effect set a standard for characters where as you can be the ultimately goodie-two shoe or evil incarnate. Dragonfall offered dialogue choices which were much more “cool grey” in nature, but did give the player the option of being a total @#$hole whenever they felt like it. Hong Kong tends to be a little more mellow about that, though you can push buttons if you try hard enough. And that’s the road I’m taking Mó Chuí down.