Browsing the archives for the Literature category

Mass Effect 3 Ending

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Games, Literature

It’s pretty obvious that Mass Effect 3’s ending couldn’t have lived up to the expectations of some of the series’ fans. However, what Mass Effect fans got was an ending that did far less than fail to live up to their expectations: It failed to be logical, provide emotional closure, or even be consistent with itself.
One really has to wonder what happened at Bioware that led to this mess being released. I don’t think I have seen a single person who expressed more than a hesitant acceptance of the ending. When the best even the most rabid fanboys has to say is, “Well, I can kind of see how it might work,” you have probably erred horrendously.

Tolkien

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Culture, Literature, RPGs

Last night I listened to the new episode of Fear the Boot, and I felt compelled to have a little rant. The episode itself was conducted by guest hosts, and one of the guest hosts mentioned that she had trouble reading Tolkien. Some of the other hosts were sympathetic. “The descriptions are so long!” and the usual other litanies were repeated.

It always irks me when I hear this. Tolkienis bad? I guess if Tolkien is hard to read then Dickens must be impossible to read. Heck, all Victorians are right out. And before that? Well, anything earlier than that may as well be hieroglyphics. Even though I don’t consider myself a part of the “geek” subculture, or whatever you’d like to call it, it’s always irksome to encounter these attitudes in people identifying as belonging to a subculture which ostensibly has higher intellectual standards than pop culture. I guess the bar has sunk so low where something that requires even the modest intellectual effort of reading is too much to ask.

It’s not like this is purely a matter of time either. Looking to George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series will show a series of fantasy books with a tremendous amount of attention to description of things like heraldry, armor, and lineages. These are pretty common elements in fantasy literature that’s any good. It strikes me that objecting to the very methods by which authors craft their fantasy worlds for their reader is about as sensible as objecting to science fiction for having too much science in it.

I once knew a woman who loved Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but thought Tolkien was dull. Wheel of Time is cool! It’s got a hip, tormented hero (who has like 5 women fawning over him)! Tolkien is dull, it’s got a hobbit. Wheel of Time has exciting battles where its main hero uses Goku’s Kamehameha technique to wipe out entire armies! Tolkien just has some helpless hobbits, guys with swords, and so-called wizards with some knowledge of chemistry.

At some point, I think, it might be worth it to just step back and say, “You know what? I like all these derivative knock-offs more than the original model. Maybe I don’t like what the original was trying to do at all.” And, hey, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with popcorn entertainment like DragonBall Z or Wheel of Time. It’d be better for everyone if we were clear about our tastes instead of paying lip service to things we don’t like.

Politics and Awful Art

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Culture, Literature

A bit of a follow up to an earlier post where I linked to Mencius‘ thoughts on “An Almost Pure Empty Poetry,” and the circlejerk that is the Poetry Establishment; I came across this article at Overcoming Bias with a similar theme on the badness of poetry, and how ideologues are often blinded to the obvious faults in their own verse for the sake of “sticking it to the man,” or whatever ironic epithet you may choose to poke fun at the reflexive 1960’s anti-establishment mentality.

The trouble, as the author of the article points out, is endorsing bad poetry for what is perceived as good policy. Which makes it particularly hard to endorse this article, given that it’s largely told as a working through of craft in which the author gradually refines a small section of verse from,

I was not your destination
Only a step on your path

To the far inferior,

I was never your city,
Just a stretch of your road.

Although the process itself the author uses to reach the latter seems very sound, it’s obvious to me from the comparison of the two products that both are bad. But at least one has a directness and verve and clarity of purpose that’s conducive to the message that’s trying to be versified.

I suppose in the spirit of not justifying bad verse with policy, we shouldn’t discount the policy because of the bad verse? Oh well. At least the comments provided a link to these clever little anecdotes.

Tryfle Follies

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Culture, Literature

I ran across this post by Mencius of Unqualified Reservations. The article, despite it’s rather impressive length, is a definite must-read. Mencius looks at a few poems by a man named Tryfon Tolides, in his book called “An Almost Pure Empty Walking,” and savages them:

I hasten to note that no one could possibly consider An Almost Pure Empty Walking a major work. In fact, it is unusually bad. But it is not atypically bad. And its badness has a kind of Platonic simplicity to it – an almost pure empty badness – that will help us, I feel, in the ugly work of diagnosis that lies ahead.

The real meat here is looking at everything that surrounds the poetry — Looking at the incestuous ponzi schemes that have poisoned “the Arts” in general or Poetry specifically and led to the creation of an artistically-stagnant, in-bred crowd of self-proclaimed elites.

I am reminded of something I overheard someone saying many years ago while discussing Greek playwrights. I forget the exact words, but the gist of it was this: “Isn’t it reassuring that even thousands of years ago all of these great creative geniuses thought like I do?”

On Fantasy

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Culture, Literature

A couple days ago when I was jotting down my thoughts on The Hobbit I came across this interesting post by Andrea on Fantasy as a genre. I really wanted to incorporate it somehow into my Hobbit post, but I couldn’t think of a direct way to link it in and still discuss my reading experiences and impressions.

I’m refraining from endorsing Andrea’s perspective — I honestly don’t think I’ve read enough fantasy lately to have an opinion one way or the other — but I do find her demolition of a lot of modern fantasy books interesting and entertaining. She tears into David Eddings, a writer who I haven’t read but who I’ve heard about secondhand and seems pretty mediocre from everything I’ve heard:

Edding’s is the kind of writer who would have Frodo say to Gandalf when he was safe in Minas Tirath, “You used me, you bastard. You knew I’d claim the ring, and so you told Sam to kill me and toss me in the Pit of Doom when I did. You didn’t have the balls you needed to do what you and your masters needed to do ages ago, so you arranged for a poor dumb schlub like me to take the fall for you. If it weren’t for Gollum I’d be a dead hero and nobody would be the wiser.”

If this is the impression Eddings gives his fans, he’s even worse at writing fantasy than I remember.

I find this little bit pretty interesting on a couple of levels. I’ve never really looked at what happened to Frodo in the context of Gandalf “using” him, but that’s actually a pretty valid possible interpretation. Now, we know Gandalf is a good guy, so that doesn’t work in any sensible reading of the books as a whole, but kind of curious nonetheless.

I do see Andrea’s point in rejecting that interpretation as being valid for “Fantasy” — Gandalf isn’t a character who inhabits a grey moral area. He’s white. He’s good. That’s all quite clear without needing any explanation. If we had a Frodo that came back to us after the events on Mt. Doom embittered with Gandalf for being “used” then we’d feel very confused indeed, because the majority of three books would have been cast in doubt with such a turn.

On the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced that Fantasy must inhabit a world of stark moral choice between good and evil. The one fantasy series I have been reading recently, A Song of Fire and Ice by George R. R. Martin, is pretty much the opposite of this. One could argue that the lines of moral choice haven’t been drawn yet — There seems to be a gathering storm in Martin’s universe, but it’s not quite clear what the sides will look like or who will be on what side. I’m not even convinced that the series will have a fulfilling ending, as the series does give the impression it could go on in a soap-operatic neverending series.

Now, even though I’m sort of vacillating between agreement and disagreement, I do think Andrea’s observation on the end result of all this is spot on:

I could go on and on. (In fact, I have.) But I’ll end with the effect all of this downgrading, flattening out, and fluffing has on the fantasy story: it breaks the wall. It jolts the reader awake from the dream. It reveals the gold and scarlet gems to be tinsel and plastic.

A lot of modern fantasy does really give me a cheap feeling. I read about a page or two of Eragon before I had to put it down. Any modern game or videogame in a fantasy setting is pretty much just an excuse to collect hundreds of magical items and get caught up in gee-whiz spell effects. I like spectacle, but I need substance as well. The last fantasy series I tried to read, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, gave me the same feeling. I enjoyed Dragonball Z in a sort of guilty pleasure sort of way, but I find it depressing that Rand, Jordan’s main character, kept giving me flashbacks to Goku as I was reading. It seems ridiculous to look at the Mary Sue/ power trip nature of a lot of this sort of writing with any sort of objectivity.

(I suppose one might argue for a distinction between Fantasy as a thematic genre, and Fantasy / pseudo-Medievalism as a setting. But that’d probably be pointless, as people in general aren’t going to bother making that distinction.)

The Hobbit

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Culture, Literature, Personal

TheHobbit1

I mentioned awhile ago that I’d been meaning to go back to Tolkein and give him a re-read. Shamus‘ web-comic has been a constant dose of exposure, and it’s made me really want to revisit that world.

So the past week or so I’ve been spending my downtime going through The Hobbit. I’m about halfway through right now and enjoying it, though I’m struck by a couple of things.

1. How self-conscious the writing is. Well, perhaps self-conscious isn’t the right term for it, as it strikes me at once as self-conscious, but also naturalistic. The style seems to be that you’d encounter from an oral storyteller, interjecting himself, observations, and references to the world outside of the story into the tale.
2. How episodic a structure the story has. It kind of makes me want to start drafting up my own plot outlines, given the easiness which Tolkein seems to display in filling out a segment of the plot, then moving on to the next event. This is kind of expected, as reading something good always makes me want to write. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to pick up more writing these days.
3. Style. These days I can’t help but notice style, though I suppose this dovetails with #1. It’s odd to me to see sentence fragments, internal dialogue, and all sorts of things. In my own writing I’m constantly analyzing whether I want to use these techniques (and usually saying no, for the prototypical writer’s advice being “Show, don’t tell”). A lot of people have criticised Tolkein’s writing for being stodgy, but I really don’t see any of that here.
4. Prevalence of magic. Trolls turning to stone at sunlight, Gandalf’s voices, magical swords, … It’s a lot more prevalent than I remember. Of course, half of what we see is only apparent magic. Gandalf fries some goblins and wolves with, presumably, magic… But one could make a convincing argument that he was using chemical fires as well. The character of the Elves in Rivendell in particular, was very much “faerie” elf and not what I expect from Tolkein Elves. I’m not a Tolkein-ologist, so I can’t say how developed Middle Earth was at the time he wrote The Hobbit, but it seems like he altered much by the time he sat down to write the Lord of the Rings.
5. Characters. The only real characters in the book so far seem to be Bilbo, and maybe Gandalf. Since the thought of a Peter Jackson Hobbit movie is lingering in the back of my mind, I wonder how a film would handle a travelling party as big as Thorin & Company, most of whom are Dwarves and probably indistinguishable except for clothing. Tolkein hasn’t really given any of the Dwarves a big part yet, they’re pretty much along for the ride acting as foils to show Bilbo’s growth in courage and confidence.

More later, probably. I’m just barely getting into the meat of it.

Mercedes Lackey

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Literature

I was listening to Fear the Boot (Episode 13 if you care) and the show’s hosts were talking about novels written in a game universe. Dawn, a guest co-host, mentioned she had some Mercedes Lackey books…

I’d forgotten entirely about Mercedes Lackey, but once I heard that name I immediately, no exaggeration, paused the podcast and opened up a new browser window just to write this rant in.

I picked up three Mercedes Lackey books about five or so years ago. Two of my good friends had gotten into Mercedes Lackey and had been raving about some of her novels — I don’t know if I’m remembering correctly, but I believe the novels that were getting ravers were Brightly Burning and the Magic’s Pawn/Promise/Price series. I went to a local bookstore with the intention of picking up some of these books, but they didn’t have any of the specific ones I was looking for. I bought the bullet and picked up another series of her books that was there, the Vows and Honor series.

This has got to be one of the worst series of books I’ve ever read. My strongest memory of the books has been thinking that this is the kind of book someone might take to the beach because you wouldn’t care if you ruined the pages with lotion. Considering how much of a perfectionist I am about all of my books, trying to keep them all in pristine condition, I consider that extremely damning. Probably the highest praise I’d be willing to give to Mercedes Lackey is to say that she can put enough words down on a page to fill up a book.

The series I read, Vows and Honor, is about two female characters Tarma and Kethry. [I’m refreshing my memory from the back of the books right now, as the only thing that wasn’t forgettable about them was how horrible they were.] One of them is some Native American style swordswoman, the other is an ex-noblewoman turned Mage. Both are servants of “the Goddess,” which should be a pretty big indicator of where this series begins and ends. Another indicator comes in browsing the preface of one of these books, Mercedes Lackey begins talking about the state of the genre of fantasy fiction and talks about Conan by saying “C*n*n.” Who does that?

The big question in my mind is how someone like Mercedes Lackey, who’s, from all the signs I’ve seen, a no-talent hack, able to become a name of sorts in the fantasy genre. It really boggles my mind, I didn’t think the genre was that barren. Guess I was wrong

Poetry?

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Culture, Literature

The other day I was browsing on YouTube and came across this video. I’ve been sort of simmering on the idea of using video with poetry to try and make interesting readings/experiences for the past couple of months — And though this isn’t exactly along those lines, it’s in the general spirit of using the popular medium of YouTube to try and reinvigorate poetry as a medium.

Watching this video I’m rather torn between whether I think this sort of thing is helpful or not. Watch the video, I think it’s pretty compelling. The performer, in this case Taylor Mali, seems adept at playing the audience. It’s an entertaining performance, I’ll grant that, and it’s got a good social message too (assuming that matters).

The question, I think, is whether it’s appropriate to endorse this sort of venue, a “Poetry Slam” — Whatever that means — and this sort of craftsmanship — Which is, very little. I’ll admit I have absolutely no knowledge of what a “Poetry Slam” is, but by the format of this video, and ones like it, I can gather that it’s some sort of competitive poetry reading. And who needs that? Is getting the biggest rise out of your audience by pandering to their lowest common denominator tastes something that should be encouraged, or is the benefit in popularization worth the theoretical downsides?

And on craftsmanship: What we see in the video is a good oratory — But is it a good poem? Being rather more of a traditionalist I’d say no. What is here to say, “This is poetry”?

Reading down the transcription
Of what he says, it’s more like a sentence broken
Up with line breaks than meticulously thought out
Stanzas, accorded meter and rhyme and rhythm

Try as I might, I can’t find myself accepting that this is in any way representative of “good” poetry, or even worthy of that title at all. Good oratory? Sure. But writing down one’s thoughts in prose and adding in line breaks has never struck me as valid craftsmanship.

I’d like to know what you might think on the matter. Are poetry slams good? Is popularization of poetry good? Should we insist on standards of craftsmanship, or play it loose with terminology, since it’s all constructed categories anyway? If not, where’s the line? And am I just being a snob?

Emet

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Culture, Literature, Politics

This is probably going to be a very long and rambling post with only sketchily drawn connections between various ideas.

More below…

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