Wednesday, July 28, 2010

PC Homicide (PvP in RPGs)

Enough acronyms for you? I was reading the latest two posts over at Temple of the Demogorgon about intra-party homicide. Getting killed by another player is a pretty humiliating experience, and I've been in such a situation during game before. It isn't pleasant, generally, and it usually happens with players that have a very problematic level of insecurity in their daily lives.

To quote Brunomac, "I think ___ is one of these spaztastics who live out their dreams of power and violence in games, because they are nothing in real life. Powerless, you know? So games give them an outlet, and as I have seen so many times in my decades, they often take their jollies out on other people."

He hit the nail right on the head.

It didn't happen so much in college or high school. We were all nerds and we got along really well. Even if we didn't get along, it was usually pretty cordial. Having grown up in the Time Before Nerds Were Cool (or at least before we were accorded a degree of mainstream legitimacy), we all basically had a "stick together" mentality, that meant that in The Society for Creative Endeavors at my college (the name of our club), we were less of an organization and more of a large, extended family full of people from all sexes, orientations, races, religions, and creeds with one big thing in common--we were nerds. We got good grades, had somewhat eccentric personalities, could recite every line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Return of the Jedi, Army of Darkness, and Transformers: The Movie.

Intra-party conflicts only really occurred when our characters' personalities literally clashed. It was usually resolved through role-playing the characters out well, and a great example is how two friends in my Dark Sun campaign managed to overcome their diametrically opposed character concepts. Their characters became friends in game. And often, when our characters became friends in game, we became friends out-of-game and in real life.

Which brings me to a little place called Newark, DE, where I went to graduate school.


Newark, DE, has an enormous gaming community, but it is deeply infused with politics. It is the exact opposite of my college experience. Basically, the Newark gaming community is based around a store called The Days of Knights, which is actually a really cool place. However, the community really seemed to take shape in the early aughts when they ran a huge Vampire: The Masquerade LARP using Mind's Eye Theater rules. This seemed to have a catastrophic effect in shaping gamer society in Newark.

In effect, the gamers became incredibly insular, and the politics very much took the shape of the Vampire: The Masquerade world in real life. Status and influence were brokered. If you were low-man on the totem-pole, you literally got screwed by GMs and players until you managed to work your way up and acquire more status. Ingratiating yourself, licking boots, doing favors, all of these were more important than playing well.

Needless to say, I didn't game with these people for very long. Indeed, I stopped gaming except sporadically, and have never again been very comfortable playing with strangers (much like Brunomac seems to feel). Since the most fun I've ever had was playing with (and running for) parties in which we were all close friends (both in-game and in real life), I've never felt entirely comfortable playing in groups with people I don't know intimately well. I can't take competitive gaming because I guess my experience in Newark, DE was so bad.

To me, the hobby is meant to bring people together and cement bonds of friendship, but when it becomes an issue of superiority or seniority, or one player seems to dominate all of the others, I rapidly lose interest. I come to not only immerse myself in a world, but also a character. And I not only want to immerse myself, but to share that immersion with a select group of people to whom I feel close and whom I trust.

This makes finding new groups tough for me. If I don't fully trust a group of players, I have difficulty really letting myself go in game. So when a player starts behaving aggressively, or intra-party conflict begins to dominate PC interaction, I start to get unsettled. When a character I've spent months playing (and perhaps hours rolling up) ends up dead because he was killed in cold-blood by another player, I feel betrayed, both in game and in real life. That person showed a disregard for the time, effort, and emotional investment I put into my character. It might just be a game, but you don't put that much investment into Monopoly. If I lose at Monopoly or Risk, so what? We're supposed to compete. But in a role-playing game, unless it is a particularly byzantine Vampire chronicle, really has no business being that treacherous. The offending player has, to me, broken an unspoken social contract and has trivialized his fellow player. That's disrespectful, even out-of-game.

Now, there can be exceptions, and if the players agree that their characters can never co-exist in the same party and basically shake hands and say, "The best man win," it's fine. But that's rare. Usually, one character strikes out on his own, and the player rolls up a new character. The feelings of all players are preserved, and the old character is still around so he can be taken up again in another campaign, or perhaps return later.

In college, if a player turned out to be homicidal, he usually needed "re-education." That usually resulted in his character getting ditched. Such disciplinary measures were even taken for exceptionally annoying party members (we're talking exceptionally annoying). Once, we cast darkness, 30' radius on a character's room at an inn, and left him there to think it was still night. By the time he awoke and the spell had worn off, we'd been gone for hours, leaving him stranded with enough money and gear to survive. The player was annoyed, but we were clear--this is how we roll, you're welcome to play, but we want cohesive parties.

Graduate school and Newark, DE, were unlike that. Exceptionally annoying characters that could survive were lauded. PKing was lauded (if you got away with it). GMs could be purchased. Influence could be peddled. The GMs "friends" would get all sorts of in-game perks while "newbies" (regardless of how much experience they'd had outside of Newark) got the short end of the stick constantly. If a well-known, "cool" player killed your character, there was nothing to do about it but take it. Even if you were to have a more powerful character, the GM would find ways to screw you over in favor of the "higher status" player.

In competitive tournament play, though, my college groups, being comprised of like-minded individuals who worked well together as a team would most certainly perform better (before an impartial referee) than the Newark crowd. They, or a large part of them (not all), were always too busy competing with one another, living out twisted fantasies in which they were important instead of mediocrities with menial jobs, people who had given up on trying to be successful at anything beyond the world of "make-believe with dice." Some of them were really cool people, but the overwhelming social pressure and cliquishness just really turned many gamers off.

Me, I had a Masters' Degree to get and a thesis to write, so I hung up my dice-bag for a long time.

Monday, July 26, 2010


About a year ago, I finished R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness that Comes Before, the first book of his monumental Prince of Nothing trilogy, which itself is the first installment of his Second Apocalypse cycle.


I came across this book at a Barnes & Noble near Christiana, DE, a few years back. I remember lifting the hefty trade paperback, which weighed in at several hundred pages, and was intrigued by the cover blurbs. Stephen Erikson had written, "Something remarkable has begun." Though I hadn't read Erikson, I'd heard about him, and this statement intrigued me somewhat. So, after reading a review of the book, I went to the Gloucester County Library and picked up a copy.
During grad school, I stopped reading fantasy, by-and-large, altogether for a long time. I was too busy working and reading classwork books and such to be able to devote time to anything else. With the exception of Robert E. Howard and some Raymond E. Feist, I had basically shelved fantasy, so it's no surprise that I fell out of touch, somewhat. New names emerged and I found myself becoming more and more intrigued to see where the sudden revolution in fantasy away from the typical "high fantasy" of good guys vs. dark lords Lord of the Rings clones was going. Enter R. Scott Bakker's novel, which I first read some years ago, alongside The Cryptonomicon, but then I have just recently returned to it with the desire to finish the series off.

A sorcerer bound by oaths and nightmares must search for an ancient evil that no one believes in any longer. A nomad warrior-chieftain watches his people disintegrate and strikes out on his own for vengeance. And a lone monk from a reclusive fraternity of philosophers, who can perceive the causes of all circumstances and therefore can be immune to them, is charged with the task of murdering his prodigal father. A religious crusade is brewing between the syncretists and the monotheists.

This book only details the very opening chapters of what will come to be called the Holy War, but it covers them in such a monumental and believable fashion that the reader is swept along. Three disparate threads are inexplicably drawn to the Inrithi crusade against the monotheistic Fanim.

Bakker is a genius at putting old wine into new bottles. There is a deep and abiding evil that threatens to destroy the world, much like in standard epic high fantasy. But what is new is that they've already destroyed the world. The great kingdoms of the Age of Bronze were brought crashing down, and humanity was driven to a corner of the habitable world before the tide was stemmed.

Much like Tad Williams', Bakker's world is full of real-world analogues, but unlike Williams, they are simply inspirations for Bakker's geography, not direct parallels. As such, the Nansur Empire is inspired by the Byzantine Empire, but not wholly analogous. Bakker's knowledge of history, however, gives his world breath and life. It is deeper and more storied, not simply because Bakker devised a history, but rather because Bakker understands history, and how history creates impressions on people. The peoples that populate the nations of the Three Seas are governed by their histories, driven by age-old prejudices, and bound by customs and traditions the causes of which they themselves have forgotten.

What is also quite different from many other fantasy writers is the prevalence of philosophy and psychology in his books. Concepts such as cause-and-effect run throughout the core of the book. One of the main characters, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, is a member of a hidden monastic sect that has repudiated history and the world of men in order to seek perfect control of all circumstance, based on an understanding of what comes before. Essentially, Kellhus' very life is a thought experiment on causality, and through this character, Bakker experiments with the idea of mixing psychology with philosophy. Kellhus can rule others simply by understanding what moves their souls, and because of his training, is quite nearly the Nietzschean superman--impervious to all causality. Whereas others souls are moved, Kellhus moves his own.

Much like the best fantasy series' I've read, Bakker's has a distinct tone and flavor that sets it apart. This is a dark, gritty reality that is much less like how fantasy is often written.
Bakker's work is sexual and psychological. He pulls no punches, and his narrative is frank, honest, and to some may actually be seen as somewhat offensive. Although literary works are not rated or censored, this book graphically illustrates sex and sexuality. However, Bakker does not deliver the descriptions with a cold, clinical explanation, an adolescent excitability, or an erotic narrative. He conveys the sex and sexuality from a perfectly neutral standpoint of a detached narrator. It pushes the boundaries of the tasteful. For plenty, he might very well cross over.

However, this frankness gives his narrative a sense of reality. When slain, bodies release their waste. Indeed, bowels loosen during torture or terror alike. Bakker doesn't mince words. Nor does he waste time. He devotes just enough to this sliver of graphic reality to get the message across, and then he moves on.
The narrative is well-paced and interesting. The events are primarily character-driven, which is quite fitting, since character and characterization are the lynchpins of Bakker's tale. As primary characters have a powerful emperor, his nephew-general, a whore, a nomad barbarian, a sorcerer, a concubine-slave, and a monk to cycle through. Each has a deep psychology and complex personality. Bakker's Dunyain monk, Anasûrimbor Kellhus, is the lens through which the reader can peer into the hidden recesses of each character's psyche. Their strengths, frailties, and ambitions are rendered through action much more than through description, causing them to fairly leap off of the page and into the reader's mind.

Bakker has a great many ideas that he weaves together throughout the book. One can feel the influence of Aristotle, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and a host of other thinkers and philosophers upon the world that he creates. The deep richness of its history is present and revealed, piece-by-piece, through the development of the story and the experiences of the characters. There are no scenes in which Gandalf, Belgarath, or Allanon describe the long histories of the world to young Hobbits, in order to explain the rise of the evil darkness. Indeed, these things are revealed only slowly. Who and what the Consult are remain a mystery to the reader, and the threat of a Second Apocalypse is still laughed by most characters as an unlikely bad dream.

Bakker, however, breathes life into more than simply philosophical and religious musings. His concept of sorcery is intrinsically linked to philosophical questions of the fabric of reality. Sorcerers are organized into schools, and they are often at war with one another over power and membership. They are also outlawed by the Tusk, the religious scripture that predates the advent of Men on the continent. They are Marked, as proof of their damnation. And they are divided into Anagogic and Gnostic philosophies (the latter being the most powerful by far). Other ideas that are extremely compelling are the Nonmen, a pre-human race, and the sranc, Bakker's answer to orcs and goblins, which are the horrific abominations of genetic manipulation by the Inchoroi, who remain a mystery.

This is not a book for the average teenager, I hate to say. I look back upon myself and feel as if I would have been unprepared for this work, both intellectually and philosophically. This is most certainly not your average fantasy. Bakker is giving voice to much more than a bunch of jumbled ideas about goblins, dragons, magic, and religion. He's tackling the deepest expressions of both philosophy and psychology. This work is an expression of his research and learning. Good science-fiction/fantasy, no, good speculative fiction, is about developing and executing great ideas. Just as Frank Herbert's Dune Chronicles are about far more than interplanetary warfare, but also ecology, sociology, and religion, R. Scott Bakker's The Darkness that Comes Before is about psychology, philosophy, eschatology, and ethics.

The Darkness that Comes Before, by R. Scott Bakker
Style A
Substance A
Overall A

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Movie Review -- INCEPTION

I like MovieBob over at Escape to the Movies, although I did not agree with his review of Avatar (I prefer Red Letter Media's take on that film). I liked what he had to say about Inception, and I do not think it is way too twisty and cerebral for most Americans.

Inception is about dreams and reality. But, when you get right down to it, what it is really about is just reality. What is reality? Its a sort of existential thriller that excites the viewer while prompting him or her to think, much like The Matrix did.

It's also a deep exploration of psychological trauma, and what sort of things can surface in our psyche because we have difficulty dealing with them. Christopher Nolan (director) not only puts on a show in which the viewer must question what is real and what is illusion/dream, but also explore the subconscious. This is a movie that is full of incredible action scenes, great character development, and an exciting and absorbing plot.

I don't want to give much of this movie away, but I'll say it's certainly worth your $8 for the ticket. I'd even like to go see it again. It was that good, and I rarely want to fork over the cash for the same movie ticket twice. This film, written, produced, and directed by Nolan, is an excellent example of character arcing and storytelling. For example, I was quite surprised by how excellently the script develops Cobb's (DiCaprio) motivation, trauma, and resolution. There is very little info-dumping--instead the movie takes you on a brief, tantalizing tour through Cobb's psyche at one point, before revealing all of the secrets, and even then, it does not reveal everything. This constant sense of development makes Cobb an incredibly real and sympathetic character throughout the film.

The timing of the film's opening is tricky. At first, I thought Nolan was jumping back-and-forth through different time-periods (past, present, and future), but I caught on within a few minutes as the film progressed. It's not above the audience's head--you should be able to figure out what's going on rather quickly, and any remaining information that the viewer requires is delivered through natural dialogue as Cobb instructs one of his future partners. What might be above the audience's head is the very last seconds, where the screen goes black right before we find out if it's a dream or if it's real (watch very, very carefully and you'll understand what I mean--it's not cut-and-dry at all).

This is an excellent film that is well-worth seeing in the theaters. It's a great example of what I think of as fine cinema. I was extremely impressed by Nolan, especially after the great job he did with the latest two Batman films. Nolan is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors.

Style A
Substance A+
Overall A

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review -- REVELATION SPACE by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds likes two things: Chekov's gun and the Big Dumb Object, and he uses them prolifically throughout Revelation Space, his 560-page debut novel, published in 2000. Reynolds holds a PhD in Astronomy and Physics from St. Andrews, and worked for the European Space Agency until retiring in 2004 to pursue writing full-time. His depth of knowledge in astrophysics plays an enormous and defining role in his work.

One of the biggest issues with early science-fiction as a genre is the lack of hard science in conjunction with the fiction. There's always been a great deal of hand-waving and the futuristic equivalent of "wizards doing it" in regards to many of the realities of interstellar travel and communication. The best writers tackle concepts, but rarely ever incorporate actual science into their works.

In contrast, numerous science-fiction authors can, and often do, incorporate accurate science and technical know-how in their books, giving them a very authentic feel. However, these writers often fail to create dynamic, believable characters or meaningful stories.
This is where Reynolds sets himself apart. Reynolds never resorts to inventing hyperdrives or warp engines. He brings actual physics to bear on the realities of space-travel, colonization, and futuristic technology. And he not only creates an interesting story that sucks the reader in, but he creates deep, dynamic characters that feel alive. A decade after publishing the first novel set in his Revelation Space universe, he's developed a solid following and been signed to a 10-book contract in return for £1 million.

Revelation Space begins by jumping back and forth in time and space to the viewpoints of three different and seemingly unrelated characters--Dan Sylveste in 2551 on planet Resurgam (Sigma Draconis system), Ilia Volyova in 2540 on the lighthugger Nostalgia for Infinity bound for Yellowstone (in the Epsilon Eridani system), and Ana Khouri in 2524 in Chasm City on Yellowstone. One is a xeno-archeologist, scholar, and ultra-wealthy socialite (Sylveste); one is an Ultra--a heavily modified human who lives on vast merchant-ships sailing between stars (Volyova); one is a former soldier turned assassin (Khouri). All of the characters seem to have nothing in common, and indeed, they are drastically separated by time and space. Khouri's story starts 26 years before Sylveste's and 16 before Volyova's.

Gradually, the timelines start to resolve, due to the vast distances of space and the passage of time in cryogenic sleep and at near-relativistic speeds. By midway through the book, all three timelines have merged into one. This is one of the factors that marks Revelation Space as good science fiction. The author should contemplate issues of technological advancement and the limitations of physical reality and their effect on the human experience. Reynolds meets the challenges of space-travel and time dilation head-on in this novel, and conquers.
That is just the beginning. Revelation Space is not a simple, straightforward novel. Reynolds, like Simmons, creates a universe in which he considers the problems of vast distances in space on travel and communication, meaning that planets are, for all intents and purposes, are heavily isolated from one another for years (sometimes even decades), leading to distinctive cultures, governments, and political issues arising on each world. Through groups like the ultras, he explores transhumanism through genetic modification and cybernetic implants. Nanotechnology is explored, as is the over-dependence on it (when nano-machine epidemics such as the Melding Plague are released, posing an enormous threat to anyone or anything possessing cybernetic or nanotechnology).

When it comes to extra-terrestrial life, Reynolds confronts the Fermi Paradox directly (indeed, the Paradox is actually the entire point of Revelation Space). He also explores the morality of cloning, artificial intelligence (he even invokes the Turing test), and the concept of immortality-via-uploading your psyche into a computer simulation.

What Reynolds also does incredibly well is the set-up and execution of plot-points. Like I mentioned at the beginning, Reynolds loves Chekov's gun, and sprinkles the item throughout his novel. What seemed to originally be interesting details can become very important later. As I progressed through the book, I started to get a feeling of completeness--as if Reynolds was using every single piece of his world constructively to further the plot.
The plot itself is well-written and executed, for the most part. Reynolds lays out characters and setting, then incorporates them into the rising action, and the action most certainly rises. Every development generates a suction-effect on the reader, as characters' pasts return to haunt them, puzzle-pieces are snapped-together, and more details about the setting and the overall mystery are revealed. The Big Dumb Object doesn't really come into play until later in the story, but when it does, it's pretty-much the focal point of all the mysteries that have been explored up until this point in the novel.

The characters, at first, are not really very likable. In fact, Sylveste and Volyova both come off as callous and willing to sacrifice others' lives or well-being in order to see their goals met. Only Khouri really seemed likable to me, at first. However, as the story progresses, I found myself starting to like the characters. Sylveste's callousness is driven by a need to prevent a possible future catastrophe. His keen intellect, his adaptability, and his determination actually turn him into an admirable character, although many of his traits develop into near-fatal flaws as the climax of the novel approaches (although he does, interestingly enough, have the last laugh). Volyova becomes something of a major screw-up, and it becomes apparent that she's outclassed by some of the more antagonistic characters on board her ship (such as Sajaki). However, she's quick-witted enough to overcome her mistakes and adapt, and when she and Khouri finally work together as equals, they make a very potent duo.

The weaknesses of the book are minor, but noticeable. First, the ending is far too tidy. It is admirable that Reynolds does his best to make sure all holes are tied shut, but some of the threads he uses come off as extremely weak. Too many questions are answered by the end of the novel, and I would have preferred many of them to have remained unresolved in order to keep a degree of mystery in the setting (such as the nature of the Shrouders). Not all questions are answered, mind you, leaving plenty of room for sequels, but some of the answered questions just disappointed me. I would have found different solutions to have been stronger and more satisfying than the ones that Reynolds offered.

Secondly, Reynolds' has a terrible tendency to remind the reader of certain plot points repeatedly. Granted, he usually does this from different characters' perspectives, but overall, it seems unnecessary. It's not as if he were really writing three separate novels (despite what I said earlier). The reader does not need to be reminded three times from three different perspectives.

Thirdly, Reynolds tries to weave character description into the story. While this is admirable, it comes off strange. We don't get a description of Volyova until we are two-thirds of the way through the novel. By this point, I've already pictured her (based on her name) as a Slavic Russian, but Reynolds seems to conceive her as a Russian of Asiatic origin. It's not debilitating, but just annoying, and a nice, simple description of her when she's first introduced would have been better.

Finally, there are parts where the story takes an incredible turn, and where your jaw drops right open and you can't helped but be stunned, but then Reynolds turns around and basically invalidates everything that just happened. This doesn't happen often, but when it does, it is really disappointing. For example, there was one part of the book where Sylveste is met with one of his antagonists, and he destroys the object that this antagonist needs. The destruction is something that costs Sylveste a great deal--he essentially wastes an incredibly valuable and irreplaceable asset, and says, "F--k you" while he does it. I had to re-read that section three times. The character displayed such assertiveness and, frankly, such balls that I was thrilled to see what would happen next. But it turns out that a copy is found and Sylveste's amazing action is completely robbed of its significance. Reynolds just took a moment of incredible character growth and invalidated it. This was highly disappointing to me.

As for prose, Reynolds' writing is not incredibly evocative or flowery. There are parts of the book when he does describe things wonderfully, creating impressions drawn from modern, cold, sterile imagery--fitting for a science-fiction novel. It's not as iconic as the first line of William Gibson's Neuromancer ("The sky was the color of a television set tuned to a dead channel").

Through the three characters, Reynolds starts off telling three separate novels. Sylveste's is an obsession with a long-extinct alien race that nearly costs him everything, Volyova fights to survive being stalked by a madman on her ship while the rest of the crew sleeps in cryogenic fugue, and Khouri finds herself forcibly recruited by a mysterious benefactor and ends up involved in a plot that is far, far above her understanding. That Reynolds can write in three different moods, then fuse the three threads into one thread is a pretty ringing endorsement for his ability as a writer. That he can do it while writing a mystery story about the Fermi paradox, artificial intelligence, and first contact (of a sort) full of exciting plot-twists and exploring/incorporating a dozen different science-fiction themes is a testament to his skill as a writer and the amazing breadth and depth of knowledge with which he infuses his story.

There's a lot more to say about the story, but I'm trying to keep the spoilers to a minimum. Any deeper analysis of style or plotting will require me to give much of it away, although I hope this gives you a pretty clear picture of the sort of novel Reynolds has woven for the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and am kind of surprised by the slamming Reynolds' Pushing Ice got over at the Alexandrian. As a literary work, Reynolds' Revelation Space is far more space opera than deep exploration of the human experience in a science-fiction context. He does incorporate those themes into his novel, but not with the literary finesse of Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Fall of Hyperion. Nevertheless, Revelation Space is very much the sort of novel that I want to read when I browse through the SF section at Borders.

Check out this post over at the Wertzone for more information on Reynolds' other novels in his Revelation Space series. Indeed, Adam Whitehead has written a nice little profile on Reynolds in case you are interested.

In summary, this book was a really enjoyable read. As hard science-fiction goes, it's all about big ideas and it develops them pretty well. The resolution is a bit weak, but everything fits together well. It's not the best science-fiction novel I read. Reynolds is no Frank Herbert. But he's still a darn good writer, and I found this book to be worthwhile.

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds
Style B
Substance B+
Overall B+

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Book Review -- NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Roger Zelazny

A man wakes in a hospital bed with no memory, except the knowledge that he's been kept drugged up for quite some time. He doesn't know why, but he's determined to escape and find out. Thus begins a fast-paced, imaginative adventure that is, in many ways, emblematic of the new wave in science fiction and fantasy. It starts off almost like a hardboiled detective novel, and indeed, there are certain character elements (including first-person narration) that seem lifted directly from a Raymond Chandler story. But it is dynamic and imaginative fantasy nevertheless.

If you haven't heard of Amber, nor read any of Zelazny's Chronicles, then I'm loath to give away any of the story. So I'll try to cut out as many of the spoilers as humanly possible while still discussing the strengths of the book.

First, the tone shifts back and forth between dense, chivalric language and modern slang, almost to the point where it can be quite jarring:
"I did not know this," I said. "My memory is so screwed up. Please bear with me. I shall miss Benedict, an' he is dead. He was my Master of Arms and taught me of all weapons. But he was gentle."
"Screwed up" right beside "an' he is dead," this mixture of wording and idiom can be somewhat shocking, but it actually makes sense, given who the protagonist is, and shows that Zelazny is actually a much more versatile writer than we think.
I walked among Shadows, and found a race of furry creatures, dark and clawed and fanged, reasonably manlike, and about as intelligent as a freshman in high school of your choice--sorry, kids, but what I mean is they were loyal, devoted, honest, and too easily screwed by bastards like me and my brother. I felt like the dee-jay of your choice.
It makes perfect sense that the protagonist's long sojourn on our Earth (and in the United States, for a time) has had a profound effect on his thinking. As the novel develops, we can see that the main character's fondness for our world has changed him on a number of quite fundamental levels. Yes, given his ultimate background, he has every reason to be haughty, superior, and to see the average person as little more than servants and/or cannon-fodder. However, his experience has given him compassion and empathy, and as he regains his memories, we learn what horrible tragedies he has seen, the wars he fought in, and the agonies he has suffered. These experiences set him apart from the others like him, and give him a deeper understanding of the "little guy."

This mixture of language styles and idioms supports the idea that the hero is caught between two lives--the one he ultimately lived in, and the one he recently experienced on our Earth (right before he awakes in the hospital bed). His character could be simply flat and static, and in many ways, he might seem so. But Zelazny's use of idiom and his subtle reminders of the protagonist's past experiences (through brief flashes of memory), as well as his compassion for underlings, creates a stark contrast between him and his peers.

Due to the brevity of the work, the other characters don't get much time to develop, but Zelazny does a good job with the barest of spaces that he uses. For example, Random lives up to his name--he's impulsive and unpredictable; Moira comes off as cool, in control, confident, and serene; Eric as hard, determined, and ruthless. Other characters, however, don't come off so well. Deirdre could be played by Random Blonde #5, and Caine and Gérard are poorly defined and very interchangeable, but they could all be much better depicted in later books. The characters are all pretty archetypal at this point in the tale, but the book is only 175 pages long so I guess it can be excused.

Zelazny is also quite light on the description, so your mental pictures are a bit smoky and ill-defined. The magnificent city of Amber only gets a brief sentence of description when seen from a distance, which will be quite surprising and perhaps disappointing to readers weaned on Tolkien or Robert Jordan.
The mountain that faces the dawn, Kolvir, which has held Amber like a mother her child for all time, stood perhaps twenty miles to our left, the north, and the sun covered her with gold and made rainbow the veil above the city.
You really don't get much more than that. Zelazny doesn't want to slow down his story for the sake of description, but that means that your mental picture is little more than a pencil-sketch without a lot of color. You have to fill in most of the image.

What Zelazny does describe are events--especially fights. The reader would be advised to brush up on some of his fencing terminology, because Zelazny uses it, frequently during sword-fights. His action is fast, bloody, and brief, but you can easily visualize the swashbuckling style that made guys like Errol Flynn famous. There is one sword-fight that takes place in a library that is only a few pages long, but is far, far more exciting than reading a Robert Jordan duel, which ends up being a list of inscrutable blade techniques with names like Lakota chieftains.

The use of amnesia and the regaining of memories serves as a great vehicle for introducing the world and the setting to the readers, rendering info-dumps as an integral part of the storyline and making them far more interesting to the reader and more emotionally meaningful to the protagonist.

Many refer to The Chronicles of Amber as Zelazny's magnum opus, and I can certainly see this being a solid foundation for such a work. The book is populated with allusions to history and literature, which make the story both familiar and new at the same time. For example, the Forest of Arden is lifted from Shakespeare's As You Like It, and there are elements of the War of the Roses infused in the rivalry for the throne of Amber. The Trumps themselves make for a great setting/story element. Each turn of the pages reveals more and more of Zelazny's mysterious universe.

Good fantasy, like good science-fiction, is often about the imagination, and the creation of believable systems that enable the writer to do whatever he/she wants. Zelazny's book is a pretty good flight of fantasy. Unfortunately, character depth isn't all that impressive for the most part, and Zelazny's lack of description is somewhat disappointing, because when he does decide to describe something, he seems to do so effectively enough:
The archway loomed ahead, perhaps two hundred feet distant. Big, shining like alabaster, and carved with Tritons, sea nymphs, mermaids, and dolphins, it was. And there seemed to be people on the other side of it.
How much does Zelazny really need to say about an archway? He sums it up with two sentences. But something like the city of Amber itself deserves a bit more. The strength of this pulpy language is to keep the story moving and keep the reader interested. But I feel as if there were areas where more description was warranted, even if it did slow down the narrative a bit. Zelazny wisely chooses to explain why Amber is so magnificent and wonderful through the actions, words, and thoughts of the character and keep the story flowing. However, we could certainly benefit from a more extensive physical description of its magnificence. I honestly must say that I have no idea what Amber is supposed to look like, except that it's on a mountain and beautiful. Maybe gold. I could tell you all about what it represents, but I really can't say a single thing about what it looks like. For something so central to the story, I feel that it deserves a bit more.

All together, this is a fairly solid, pulpy book and a decent contribution to the swashbuckling angle of the sword & sorcery genre. It's certainly a fine example of "big concept" writing (with Amber itself being the concept), and it's full of action, suspense, and atmosphere galore. Zelazny writes events and situations remarkably well, and he certainly is a master at creating atmosphere and tone, but he makes an Iphigenia of physical set descriptions in order to propel the plot forward on winds of action and suspense. Nevertheless, it is definitely recommended.

Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny
Style B+
Substance B
Overall B

Blogging de Tocqueville, Part One

There's been a dearth of posts these past few days, considering I've finished two books in rapid succession, and started two more. One is Anthony Beevor's acclaimed Stalingrad, which is a beautiful narrative (thus far) account of the eponymous battle during World War II. The other is Alexis de Tocqueville's De la démocratie en Amérique, more commonly known in Anglophonic parts as Democracy in America.

De Tocqueville's writing is clear and prophetic, and he attacks his subject with a great deal of perception and research. He is very interested in the massive differences between the origins of European (particularly his own French) society and American society.

I'm, of course, reading an edited and abridged version (it has been difficult enough to find the book in the first place, although I would have preferred an unedited, unabridged version, possibly in the original French). Korea is not the easiest place in which a foreigner can find books in his own native tongue (although there are places to do so, if you know where to look). Similarly, it is even more difficult to find those works in a format other than one designed for mass-market consumption. And finding works in French or German have proven quite difficult.

De Tocqueville opens his book with a survey of the origins of American society, immediately noting the vast difference between the northern and southern States in their very origins. The northern states were populated by religious separatists who brought along their entire families. Their settlements were political experiments, fusing their religious philosophy with a democratic ideal that they believed God had ordained for them. Their moral laws were incredibly strict, but they possessed near-universal education and literacy (necessary for reading and interpreting the Bible), social welfare of a high and voluntary standard, and most importantly, the people were sovereign in their individual townships.

Southern states were first populated by unscrupulous adventurers seeking fortune. It was only later that agriculturalists and artisans arrived to support the southern colonies, and those who had first settled had immediately seized upon slavery as a means of labor. This, for de Tocqueville, set the tone for the dichotomy between the two areas, North and South.

He pinpoints land-tenure and property inheritance laws as an important source of democracy in America. Aristocracies arise from privilege. Privilege often comes from primogeniture, where land is inherently identified with the family that occupies it. But in America, de Tocqueville sees inheritance laws dividing property equally between all of the inheritors, breaking up great estates and making land a much more fluid commodity. Privilege cannot arise from multi-generational land-ownership. Thus, to de Tocqueville, the only aristocracies that can arise are those of the mind.

What disturbs me about de Tocqueville is how much American society has changed in the last 180 years. The absence of an aristocracy has been reversed of late. The march of industrialism, the emergence of a new, incredibly wealthy class of Americans, started a new trend. Christopher Hitchens wrote a chapter or two in Blood, Class, and Empire on how this new rich class sought to marry into British nobility as a kind of "legitimization" for their new position. They were so affluent that they were vastly removed from the rest of American society, and could afford to spend their time completely idle--thus giving birth to the socialite. Often, they had a very small number of children, making inheritance dispersal versus primogeniture a very moot issue. This marked a shift in American attitudes, reaching so far as to gradually reshape our mentalities, culture, and society away from the form that de Tocqueville described as so strong and so unlike his native France.

When describing his own chaotic home of France, it seems he is describing the political climate of modern America.
The religionists are the enemies of liberty, and the friends of liberty attack religion; the high-minded and the noble advocate bondage, and the meanest and most servile preach independence; honest and enlightened citizens are opposed to all progress, whilst men without patriotism and without principle put themselves forward as the apostles of civilization and intelligence. Has such been the fate of the centuries which have preceded our own? and has man always inhabited a world like the present, where all things are out of their natural connections, where virtue is without genius, and genius without honor; where the love of order is confounded with a taste for oppression, and the holy rites of freedom with a contempt of law; where the light thrown by conscience on human actions is dim, and where nothing seems to be any longer forbidden or allowed, honorable or shameful, false or true?
De Tocqueville saw in France the opposition between the religious institutions and liberty as paradoxic. "Christianity, which has declared that all men are equal in the sight of God, will not refuse to acknowledge that all citizens are equal in the eye of the law," he writes, and found satisfaction in the Puritans' firm belief in liberty and determinism rested upon and was demanded by their faith.

But that is not the only thing that has disappeared from many facets of American society. De Tocqueville described American industriousness and practicality:
In America, there are but few wealthy persons; nearly all Americans have to take a profession. Now, every profession requires an apprenticeship. The Americans can devote to general education only the early years of life. At fifteen, they enter upon their calling, and thus their education generally ends at the age when ours begins. Whatever is done afterwards is with a view to some special and lucrative object; a science is taken up as a matter of business, and the only branch of it which is attended to is such as admits of an immediate practical application.
The early Americans were ultra-capitalist adherents to the "Protestant work ethic." And in this we can, perhaps, see the origins of the conservative hatred of the welfare system and the idea that wealth is a "reward" for "hard work." Almost two centuries ago, it was a reward for hard work. But things have changed. We're now a consumerist, not capitalist, society. Practicality never enters into it. Where once we "required beautiful things be useful," many Americans crave ostentatious displays of wealth in the form of frivolous accouterments. Wealth equals status for many of us. We want to be envied. This was not always the case, and we are not stronger for it being so. Wealth is no longer defined as land-tenure. The goal is not to be productive, but rather to consume, and conspicuous consumption, something the Jacksonian Americans would have known on a small scale and perhaps sneered at, is to us the end-all be-all of labor. We desire to be aristocrats and to live decadently and wastefully like Paris Hilton. And many Americans are angry and frustrated that they cannot live that dream.

Since wealth and envy have become so important to American society, everyone also, paradoxically demands equality. Hence, there is worship of celebrity and envy of the rich, but also a demand for wealth redistribution, top-down social leveling, welfare systems, and legally enforced equality.
Now I know of only two methods of establishing equality in the political world; every citizen must be put in possession of his rights, or rights must be granted to no one. ... There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality which incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.
It is absolutely key that de Tocqueville identifies equality and liberty/freedom separately, and I suspect this is something I shall touch upon repeatedly as I continue to blog my reactions and thoughts to Democracy in America.

And herein is my enormous gripe with the ideas of liberty and equality, as well as rights and privileges. In the Old World, class carried with it the concept of privilege. The nobility had the capacity to do things that the commoner simply could not. But since the United States never possessed an aristocracy (outside that of the mind), equality was simply a matter of course. By the time of Jackson, all male citizens had suffrage (although other, marginalized groups would achieve it later).

The basis for freedom is the extension of universal rights. Although racism did exist, in the era between Reconstruction and Jim Crow, blacks made it into Congress. Thirteen of the twenty-three first black officeholders in the U.S. legislature were former slaves who were self-taught. Racism did not stop them from getting elected and holding office, it did not impede them from becoming Congressmen and Senators.

Then came Jim Crow. Democracy failed because the law did not provide rights to African Americans during the dark surge of racism that boiled up throughout the United States during the turn of the 20th century. However, it was repealed. Nevertheless, it left deep, gaping wounds in American society. Some of these wounds are so deep that there are many political and philosophical thinkers in American academia that posit that all white males are universally racist, and that it is impossible to be racist if you are not white. (As someone who lives in Korea and experienced racism, I can assure you, this idea that only whites are racist is wholly mythical.) However, the results have been strange. Equality is being enforced, but not of law. It is some sort of other equality. Some claim it is economic, some social. But whatever it is, it is being enforced by removing/adding privileges and, most importantly/dangerously, rights to different sections of American society. Factions have been created based on race, and those factions now have different rights and privileges guaranteed by law.

And it was when I was reading de Tocqueville that it dawned on me--the law can only give or take away rights. The sort of equality these marginalized elements of society are demanding cannot be achieved through law beyond a sort of universal extension of the same rights and liberties. Once there is an imbalance of rights and liberties, all equality is shot. Social and economic inequalities cannot be redressed by law. They must be redressed by the culture and value system of the society as a whole.

But as I sit and read de Tocqueville and hear the marchers screaming for equality in my head, I cannot help but think that, with Civil Rights, women's liberation, and other movements, when does the marching stop? Shouldn't the aspiration of an American to be middle-class, comfortably employed, with a decent standard of living? Then I turn on the television and I realize... no, it isn't. The grass is always greener. Basic human greed is coupled with human laziness. It isn't about race, or gender, in reality. No, those things are just window-dressing, they're distractions.

No, as I read de Tocqueville, I realize that we aren't the Americans that he is describing in his book. Not at all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Retrospectives on Second Edition AD&D--FACES OF EVIL

I recently read this review of Faces of Evil: The Fiends, an accessory to the Planescape campaign setting for Second Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, published in 1997. The review is from around 2005, even though the game book it is reviewing is sadly out-of-print, and has been for nearly a decade. You probably won't even find copies of it used at The Dragon's Trove or The Gamers' Realm (although Between Books in Claymont, DE might have a chance at stocking a pricey used copy). It was published only a year or so before Wizards of the Coast took over TSR and imposed a very new design policy upon their products.

I have a copy of Faces of Evil back home in the United States. I had managed to get a copy of it when I bought a used Planescape Boxed Set off of a friend in college. He threw in this book, which I soon read from cover-to-cover about a dozen times in the next few years, just for fun. And although there are lots of bloggers who really dislike a great many developments during the so-called Silver and Bronze Ages of gaming, one of the developments I do not is the growth of highly-detailed established settings. While some might lament this as the decline of DM creativity, I found it to be a source of inspiration.

Faces of Evil is an example of that sort of inspiration. It is a book that I could read just for fun, and not only as a game supplement. I always enjoyed reading the sourcebooks for the established settings much more than the novels. The sourcebooks gave me the opportunity to revisit old memories and just be a kid again traveling through worlds of pure imagination. When I was first introduced to role-playing in middle school, I used to spend summers laying down next to the air-conditioning vent beneath my bedroom window, wedged between my bed and the wall, reading setting material while listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam CDs and dreaming.

Books like Faces of Evil were never produced by Wizards of the Coast. There were no stats, no feats, no magical spells or items. It was completely bereft of "crunchy bits." It is entirely devoted to running and designing fiends with deep motivations and drives. It is all about the various races of fiends, their goals, characteristics, and psychologies. And I found it to be interesting, insightful, and just plain fun setting material that adds to the depth and dynamism of Planescape (and indeed, any campaign that might feature a fiend or two).

This is quite saddening, because the mighty and vaunted Wizards of the Coast had ten years to put out good setting material for 3.0/.5, and they simply failed. Not since Palladium Books put out a thousand-and-one sourcebooks full of toys for RIFTS, and Pete Overton started his Quality in RIFTS page has there been such a need for a good, hard, and critical look at both an roleplaying system and company.

By looking backward at the past, and comparing it to the present, it is swiftly became apparent that the quality of role-playing material has been drastically diminishing. Yeah, we have beautiful books with great (if unrealistic or inaccurate) artwork, and tons of cool ways to customize your characters, there are simply too many spells, prestige classes, alternative classes (that overpower the core ones), feats, and magic items, making 3.5 D&D the twinked-out munchkin-player's wet dream, but everyone else who is interested in character development and acting in-character is left in the dust chewing sand. Then along came Fourth Edition, with drastic changes to setting material and a system that is rife with disassociated mechanics that make for an unrealistic and non-immersive gaming experience.

These days, without any of the "crunch," a lot of younger gamers might look at a book like Faces of Evil and say, "What a rip-off! There's no weapons, stats, or feats! There's no new items or spells! It's all boring stuff!" I believe its easier to come up with a dozen new feats and spells than it is to detail the psychological motivations for just one unique race of supernatural monsters, let alone many. After reading magnificent books like this, which enriched the settings and inspired me as a DM, the plethora of toy-centric splatbooks issued by Wizards of the Coast were extremely disappointing.

Many OD&D gamers dislike much of the stuff issued by TSR during this era, because they seem to believe it was all about pushing their gaming worlds and selling more books. They might argue that books like Faces of Evil were unnecessary, and that they didn't really enhance the hobby in any way. Why do we need an entire boxed set for Waterdeep when I can just design my own city?

While the OD&D gamers may have a point, I'd like to remind them that they began playing before Waterdeep was anything more than a brief mention in Ed Greenwood's articles in Dungeon and Dragon magazines. When I started playing, Waterdeep was far more fleshed out and realized than anything I could have cobbled together at age 12. It was very much the same for other D&D settings. We could design our own settings, but often, we fell in love with the established ones, and wanted to explore them vicariously through our characters. Thus, for us, books like Faces of Evil helped our games by making the world more real--they inspired the Dungeon Master to broaden and deepen the setting and characters. For me, as a kid, D&D wasn't about a ten-foot pole or pit traps, but about visiting impossible places, exploring strange new lands, and interacting with characters unlike anything we could meet in our average, day-to-day lives.

Friday, July 16, 2010

History Book -- WARFARE, STATE AND SOCIETY IN THE BYZANTINE WORLD 525-1204, by John Haldon

As someone who specializes in the late Roman Republic and Early Roman Empire, it would only be natural for me to be interested in the Roman Empire's "rump state," the so-called Byzantine Empire. They never called themselves "Byzantine," of course, but "Romanoi." The term "Byzantine" was created by historians to describe the state that occupied the Aegean Basin, Balkans, and Black Sea Basin from its capital at Constantinople roughly from the eighth century onwards (before that it is often referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, even after the West had fallen).

Pursuant to that interest, I came across Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World 525-1204 several years ago while writing a paper on Basil II Bulgaroctonus. Haldon's research is an in-depth examination on the way Byzantine society and culture shaped their methods and capabilities for warfare. I'd be tempted to say that Haldon took off from Lynn's model of cultural (quasi-anthropological?) research on how cultures wage war, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, but Haldon's Warfare, State and Society came out long before Lynn's research was published. Haldon's book is deeply concerned with all aspects of how the Byzantines waged war against their enemies, how their culture, society, and economy shaped their warmaking, and how that warmaking in turn shaped their culture, society, and economy.

The opening chapters attack the very paradoxical nature of Byzantine militarism--the idea that the Christian religion repudiates war and cherishes peace has a profound effect on the Byzantine outlook on war as a necessary evil. They are, essentially, "making war for peace." While the skeptic may scoff at such a concept, Haldon is careful to examine the Byzantine situation and state of mind in regard to warfare. He's very clear that the Byzantines preferred to avoid armed conflict, but were willing to fight using brutal methods (raiding, preemptive strikes, harassment, etc.) to deter and defeat opponents. The ultimate aim of the Byzantine Empire's concept of war was simply survival at any cost.

This is very much a result of the reverses the Byzantines suffered at the hands of the Arabs during the eighth century. Haldon traces the organization of the Byzantine frontier system, the creation of military districts (themata), and the arrangement of military units. Haldon compares Byzantine war manuals to Late Roman texts and methods to extract a continuous line of development throughout their history.

As Haldon builds a very complex image of Byzantine society, the reader cannot help but become aware that, overall, the Byzantines were actually very successful in war. They had developed a very centralized system of resource collection and allocation designed for maximum efficiency in a setting where such resources were extremely limited. Haldon focuses a great deal on the less glamorous aspects of warfare, such as logistics and travel times. His emphasis on supply cannot be understated, and Haldon is very clear that feeding and equipping the army on the march was a feat of great administrative skill and sophistication that placed a heavy burden on both state and local populace.

The ideal Byzantine war was rarely one of direct confrontation, which contradicts Victor Davis Hanson's theory of shock combat being preferred in western civilization. I support Hanson's theory of a Western Way of War, but, like John Lynn, I find problems, and the Byzantine penchant for raiding, harassment, entrapment, ambush, and guerrilla warfare seem to contradict Hanson's theory. I would instead suggest that the Western Way of War is simply "whatever works," and the Byzantine methods are absolutely tailored to make best use of what limited resources they had. Their war manuals are insistent that direct, open battle should be avoided whenever possible because the imperial armies didn't always fare well against their Arab and Turkish enemies during such engagements. There were times when good discipline, unit coordination, high morale, and a charismatic and intelligent leader (often the Emperor himself) would result in smashing victories for the Byzantine army in a pitched battle.

However, there were just as many times when disaster would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (to invert an old adage). Sometimes, it would be a simple misunderstanding or an erroneous perception of a situation. An emperor leaving the battlefield momentarily to relieve himself once convinced the soldiers in his army he was fleeing (his banners withdrew with him to his toilet), and the result was his near-victorious army promptly retreated. At other times, a unit would withdraw in disciplined order, and neighboring units would mistake this for a general retreat and flee. The unexpected and unforeseeable were the primary reasons that Byzantine military textbook writers advised against direct engagement, but preferred to use stealth, subterfuge, and surprise to defeat their enemies--strategies that seem to fly directly in the face of Hanson's theory.

However, the reasons that the Byzantines preferred these methods were wholly cultural and economic. Their resources were stretched extremely tightly, and the loss of a single army could result in massive losses, as occurred in the eleventh century when the Turks won much of central Anatolia and pushed back the Byzantine frontier almost to the Aegean Sea. While the Byzantines won some of that territory back, they never did manage to recover fully. The killing blow fell in 1204, with the Fourth Crusade, when Western Christendom effectively broke and partitioned the empire. Although it reformed itself later, it never managed to recover--too much had been lost and destroyed by the Crusade. A completely different cultural, economic, and social milieu existed, thus Haldon's survey ends with 1204.

The Byzantines were concerned with whatever methods were the most efficient and effective given the resources they had at their disposal. Their entire strategy was predicated on protecting their interests and survival.

If there can be any criticism of Haldon's work, I'd have to say that he relies very little on material evidence, focusing almost entirely on textual evidence. However, material evidence is not in great abundance and doesn't give us a lot of direct information on Byzantine mentalities towards war and peace. It can only give us an approximate idea of how sophisticated their equipment was. Haldon's sources are not only Byzantine but also Western European and (especially) Muslim historians and writers. Hagiography is used prudently to illustrate mentalities and cultural concepts but not to provide direct evidence for actual events.

Haldon includes three appendices that provide information on weights and measures, rationing, and other details that could prove vital to a researcher seeking more information on Byzantine military practice. Although dry, his tables and calculations are a fantastic resource that does not exist for narrative purpose but for detail and to illustrate the complexity of the Byzantine administrative supply system. Maps and diagrams of marching and battle formations also assist in illustrating developments in the Byzantine military and frontier system.

As a whole, Haldon's book is an interesting and complete look at the complex relationship between Byzantine culture and society with war.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

History Book -- THE CAUSES OF WAR, by Geoffrey Blainey

Essentially, Geoffrey Blainey's The Causes of War is a remarkably unbiased work on the various factors that have generated conflict for the past three centuries. He breaks down a number of factors which not only create wars, but also create peace as well.

Personally, I think that the measures he identifies as causes are more accurately described as enablers or perhaps deterrents for both war and peace. Blainey correctly states that wars and peace are causally linked. His view is couched in realpolitik. Might doesn't make right to him, it just is. He doesn't want to decide who is right or wrong, but rather, why war and peace occur in human affairs. To this end, he sees morality, especially on the international stage, as a nonentity. Nations in conflict actively choose to go to war.

This is beautifully illustrated by his brief description of the start of the Pacific War (1941-5). Everybody is taught to believe that the Japanese started the war and bear the brunt of the war-guilt. In reality, the United States and Britain felt secure enough in their military situations to economically bully the Japanese. Without US and UK backing, Australia wouldn't have been willing to take a hardline with the Japanese. Had the Soviets not been hard-pressed by Nazi forces, the Japanese wouldn't have felt their northwestern flank was secure enough to invade the soft colonial possessions of the US, UK, and Netherlands for resources they so desperately needed (thanks to economic sanctions). According to Blainey, the Japanese weren't the only country who preferred war to peace in this situation--the US, England and Australia did as well. They just didn't expect the Japanese to be quite as a) tough and b) determined to fight. They figured if they backed Japan into an economic corner she'd crack at some point. Instead, she chose to fight what she had hoped would be a fast war for resources and, with those resources, hold her enemies at bay long enough to sue for peace.

In light of the current war in Iraq, and the 1960s war in Vietnam, Blainey's methodology is quite revealing. Indeed, in the modern era of globalization, Blainey's contention that war and peace have not changed an iota is a reflection of the rapid integration and growth of communications one hundred years ago--advances that were interrupted by the First World War. Understanding, communication, and economic investment do not facilitate peace.

Peace is fostered when one or both sides feel they have more to lose by fighting than by offering up concessions. That's it. PERIOD. Blainey's right. Because wars are begun by the same causes, only in reverse--both sides feel that they have more to lose by peace than by war.

What Blainey overlooks are Thucydides' three factors that cause war--fear, honor, and interest. Although he is clear that the actions of nations are driven by these factors, he never actually enunciates them. He is too focused on the conditions that facilitate or deter the decision to go to war, but these are the fundamental underlying drives which generate the conflicts between nations in the first place.

The book is well worth the read, and raises a great many important questions for the pacifist, liberal and conservative alike. Perhaps more than The Guns of August (by Barbara Tuchman) would it have been smart for Kennedy to make his staff read this during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, I don't think this book was out at the time. Surely, this book should be required reading at any military academy or in any officer training program.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版, aka Rebuild of Evangelion

So I decided to revisit an old flame, the epic, mind-twisting, agonizing experience of 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン (Shin Seiki Evangelion), in English, Neon Genesis Evangelion. I got my hands on a fansubbed copy of film 1 of the new Rebuild of Evangelion (ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版) flicks, entitled ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版: 序 (Evangelion Shin Gekijōban: Jo, titled in English as Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone).

First, I've gotta say, they redid a lot of the animation, and brought a level of detail to the images that can only be described as Akira-esque. The animation is nothing short of gorgeous.

Second, when the Angels die, their cores spray copious amounts of blood everywhere. This was not present in the original episodes, and in fact is quite annoying. Not disturbing, not upsetting, but annoying. It is, simply put, overkill, unnecessary.

Third, in order to cram the first six or seven 25-minute episodes into a 100-minute running-time, they had leave a great deal on the cutting-room floor. The result is a rapidly advancing story which doesn't give the characters much time to develop. This isn't a problem if you are already familiar with the TV-show. However, if this is your first experience, you're going to feel dragged through the plot at a pace that is just far too rapid for you to really get involved.

Fourth, they added a few new scenes and pushed a few things forward in the story. For example, Misato takes Shinji down to Central Dogma where Lilith is hanging. She doesn't mistakenly identify her as Adam, as was done in the TV series. She does, however, explain that the objective of the Angels is to reach Lilith and cause the Third Impact. Also, at the very end, we see Seele awaken Kaworu, proving something fan-speculated for about a decade--that Seele sent Kaworu to NERV on purpose, knowing he was an Angel. Why, exactly, will hopefully be addressed, because theoretically if Kaworu causes the Third Impact, it will basically wreck all of Seele's plans.


I'm not as impressed or amazed by Evangelion as I was when I was 18. I guess the past ten years have sobered me. I've grown up. The show still has a lot of the magic it possessed when I was a college freshman. The new footage and improved animation (especially the Fifth Angel) are very impressive. But the show, after ten years of viewing, has long since lost its edge.

It's influence on anime hasn't been entirely positive either. Almost every giant-robot manga or anime to have come out since have attempted to emulate the complexity and depth of Evangelion, but inevitably ended up disappointing the discerning viewer. I quickly grew tired of seeing religious symbols and characters jammed into a giant anime blender, pureed, and then served on my television in an almost haphazard fashion.

Nevertheless, Evangelion made a big splash both in Japan and America, and that's because it's complex plot, plethora of symbols, metaphors, and allegories, seemed to be saying something. It was a show where you were constantly guessing, trying to figure out what was going to happen next. It was a thinking person's show. You couldn't just idly sit back and watch it. You had to examine it, look for clues, foreshadowing, and symbolism, and try to unravel the truth.

Evangelion has a special place in my memory because of the times I spent discussing it with my friends. I recall drinking coffee for hours at the diner discussing our various theories, bouncing them off one-another, trying to figure out if Rei was a clone of Shinji's mother, for example. We pieced together clues, analyzed phrases, and grasped for any clues we could get our hands on to try to piece together the different puzzles. It was great fun.

I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Evangelion. It was a fantastic bonding experience for me and my friends sitting around trying to unravel what everything in the show meant. It pushed the boundaries of what not just anime, but television as a whole could do. Yes episodes 25 and 26 were incredibly disappointing, but the studio was over budget and out of time on the production for the finale. Hideaki Anno produced End of Evangelion to give disgruntled fans everything they had wanted in a gut-wrenching, destructive manner. I imagine that we are going to get a "real" ending once the fourth and final Rebuild of Evangelion film is released, but who knows? The first one came out in 2007, the newest one, film #2 was released just this June, and the third isn't due probably for another two years at least.

I'm still quite torn in regards to Evangelion. Much of the show was driven by Hideaki Anno's own personal drama and psychoses. It was, quite literally, his method of coping with severe depression, and in the later, darker, humorless episodes reflect much of his own personal angst. In retrospect, much of the symbolism and imagery was simply chosen for the purpose of being evocative, but conveys very little message.

But this strays too far from this post's primary objective--to evaluate Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone. So, a few closing remarks regarding the film.

Nostalgia no doubt played a huge role in my enjoyment of it, but I certainly would not recommend a cold viewing. Instead, watch the series first, in its entirety. And watch it with friends. The best part of Evangelion is the dialogue it will inspire. Watching this movie will fill some gaps, explain some unanswered questions, and create a few more.

At a later date, I'll give a thorough evaluation of the Evangelion franchise.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Sergio Leone's Final Masterpiece?

Sergio Leone's final 1984 film, Once Upon a Time in America, was a 227-minute epic almost four-hours in length. The original script cut was over five hours long, but the producers refused to release it. When it came to the United States, it was cut down to 144 minutes--a cut that broke Leone's heart, and he never made another film again.

Many assert that the European 3¾-hour cut was a masterpiece, superior by far to the reorganized and heavily trimmed American cut that so upset Leone. I've seen parts of the American cut, and I must admit that the R-rated U.S. release (two rape scenes had to be edited, for example, to secure the rating) is far, far inferior to the final cut that was released in Europe.

When filming Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone read a novel called The Hoods, about the rise of American organized crime. This inspired him to create a trilogy of films exploring this topic, and actually turned down an offer to direct The Godfather in favor of his own project. After watching his final, European theatrical release version of Once Upon a Time in America, I felt like sharing some of my thoughts on the film.

The epic story itself is, indeed, a masterpiece. The story is presented in a rather non-linear fashion, with two major timelines being played out simultaneously. Initially, we see David "Noodles" Aaronson pursued by a group of vengeful mobsters, intent on killing him. Gradually, the story reveals their motivation for the chase through flashbacks. Eventually, the two timelines solidify, one tracing the origins of Noodles' relationships with three other youths and their gradual development into a powerful cabal of rum-runners and speakeasy operators during the height of Prohibition, the other following Noodles' eventual return from hiding during the late 1960s, following the mystery of how he was found.

As the film develops, a number of surprising weaknesses begin to emerge.

Problem #1: The Cinematography
To put it bluntly, I found Leone's use of the camera to be inconsistent and horribly dated. At times the framing of events was excellent, such as the scene where Noodles as a young boy is walking with his friends and in the background is the massive edifice of the Brooklyn Bridge. However, at other times, I found he had an over-reliance on zoom-ins that gave the film a very dated 1960s New Wave feel. Granted, Leone was a European filmmaker who gained notoriety during the 1960s, but the effect was, for me at least, quite jarring.

I'm no critic, by far. But for the most part, I thought that the camera techniques were okay, but not good or great by 1980s standards. This issue, though, doesn't ruin the movie for me (actually, none of them do), and is, by itself, easy to ignore. The other two issues, not so much.

Problem #2: Pacing
Leone wanted to make an epic. This is not a problem, especially if that epic has a grand, sweeping feel. However, Leone didn't make the most efficient use of the time he took (this is a big problem I have with Jackson's The Lord of the Rings as well). Instead of taking 1½ minutes to establish a scene and situation, Leone took 5½. Let me give you an example.

One of the extended flashback scenes begins with a young Noodles secretly observing his childhood crush, Deborah, practicing her dance routine through a peephole. By the end of the first half-minute of watching her flex, bend, and pirouette, notice Noodles' eyes at the peephole, watch Noodles lamely try to hide, and then watch again we are well-aware that a) Noodles is infatuated with her, b) Deborah knows this and is teasing him, and c) that she is keenly interested in developing her talents as a dancer/entertainer. However, the scene drags out for two or more minutes, all the while torturing us with slow, lethargic, utterly boring music in the background. If this is Hollywood, why can we not watch her dance to Tchaikovsky? (This is related to my third issue with the film.)

This is just one example of how Leone does not make effective use of his time. Scenes drag out long after we've gotten the idea. The viewer doesn't need to watch the same scene for three minutes to get the message that Noodles is crazy about Deborah, but she thinks he's a dirty wastrel.

Some might shoot back that these techniques are similar to those used by Kubric in 2001, or perhaps Ridley Scott's Alien. This, however, is a false analogy. Kubric's long, drawn-out scenes were an exploration of possible future technologies and an immersion into a completely different world from his own (and ours)--and indeed, some have even said that Kubric does so at the expense of story. Likewise, Scott has been criticized by my friends for his long, drawn-out scenes. However, I always found that these scenes were well-done because they were at times symbolic (such as the opening, where the ship awakes, then the characters--notice that the first one awake is the first to die), or they heighten tension and generate a sense of the unknown (the exploration of the alien spaceship). There's definite purpose to lengthening these scenes.

No, I find Leone's inefficient use of time to be similar to Peter Jackson's filming of The Lord of the Rings and King Kong. Although Jackson's long scenes had the effect of heightening the emotional impact of the drama (to the point where it was almost cheesy melodrama, in my opinion), I would find myself waiting for the slow-motion lethargy to end and the next sequence of on-screen events to begin (such as when the dying King Kong stares longingly at Ann Darrow for what feels like ten agonizing minutes before slowly, slowly slipping off of the Empire State Building and plummeting out of sight, or when Sam falls into the River Anduin and sinks for what seems to be an eternity before Frodo's hand plunges in and rescues him in The Fellowship of the Ring). This is an inefficient use of time, in my opinion. Though Leone doesn't descend to using slow-motion gimmicks for cheap emotional ploys, he does, nevertheless, needlessly drag scenes out that do not heighten tension or otherwise enhance dramatic effect. Watching a 12-year-old girl dance to an utterly boring song is not my idea of a good time, and I'm likely to just fast-forward through that scene if I watch the film again.

To underscore my point, just watch the scene where Noodles spies on Deborah play out below.

Watching this lethargic scene just drag out for five minutes isn't my idea of great entertainment or fine cinema. And it is underscored by the absolutely dismal, boring, uninspiring music. We don't get an impression of grace or passion from this scene. Which leads me to my next point.

Problem #3: The Score
This is unforgivable. In a post-Star Wars era, a number of excellent Hollywood composers have emerged to create a brilliant array of film scores, from James Horner with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Basil Pouledouris with Conan the Barbarian, and of course John Williams' Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Even Nino Rota's score of Copolla's 1972 mobster flick The Godfather was superior. Music composed for Hitchcock films managed to be memorable and effective in creating atmosphere.

The score in Once Upon a Time in America is not only forgettable--it is boring. The same two or three themes repeat throughout the entire movie. Sometimes characters "whistle" them (although the viewer can tell it is a poor dub). During the 1968 timeline, a bloodcurdling Muzak version of the Beatles' "Yesterday" assails the viewers' ears. The best song in the entire movie is a cheezy 1930s/1940s recording of "God Bless America" played at the beginning and ending of the film.

When I compare this to other mobster flicks of the late 20th century, I can't help but be disappointed by the lack of period music throughout the film. No 1920s big-band jazz is played during the Prohibition storyline. Nothing iconic of the 1960s greets the listener (with the exception of that horrible Muzak "Yesterday"). The droning score threatened to put me to sleep.

Problem #4: Plot/Character Holes
There aren't a great many, but the biggest issue is the motivation of character Max Bercovicz. I don't want to give anything about the plot away. However, the tensions between Noodles and Max after Noodles returns during the Prohibition storyline isn't quite square with me. What happened while Noodles was away that made him so extremely cautious and unambitious at times, while at other times arrogantly independent. His character is actually the least well-defined of the entire story, and he's the protagonist. As a young boy, his motivation seems reasonable enough--become important enough to impress Deborah and throw off Bugsy's shackles. But upon his return, he doesn't seem to be much of a risk-taker, yet he chafes under authority. He's actually the weakest link in the team. And it is difficult to understand where he gets his disturbing predilection for rape.

As for Max Bercovicz, his motivation seems clear enough--until the final forty-five minutes of the film when Prohibition is about to be repealed. Perhaps it is Noodles' resistance to getting involved in racketeering and unions, but that doesn't explain Max's plans for the Federal Reserve Bank, nor does it explain the entire Secretary Bailey thread. Indeed, Max seemed to be the one thing gluing the group together.

There's a possibility that the loss of Dominic and Noodles' capture at the end of the childhood storyline made it so that Noodles was not keen on taking risks again. But the damage to his psyche and the pain of the loss are never explored by the script. If Leone had delved into that aspect of Noodles' character, it would make things much more understandable. However, as it stands, there seems to be very little rationale for Noodles' or Max's behaviors during the Prohibition storyline.

I want to end on a positive note, so I decided to get the bad out of the way first. Although I can't consider it a strength, at least Leone was wise enough to use the music very little throughout the film--most of the time there is no music playing at all, or perhaps only in the background. This is, however, more of a testament to how bad the music is.

On the other hand, I must say that the script, while it has a number of plot holes, is still pretty emotionally compelling. It is a pretty good exploration of the themes of friendship and the costs of betrayal. The action scenes are rare and well-done. Robert DiNero's Noodles' and James Woods' Max play quite well off one-another.

However, I have to say that, for me, the flaws of this film really do take a lot from the whole. All-in-all, I'm disappointed. Leone may have been a great director at one time, but perhaps he was beginning to slip. If Once Upon a Time in America had been made in the 1960s, I wouldn't be quite so critical. Nevertheless, 1972's The Godfather had a tighter script, better pacing, a decent score, and was an overall better package than 1986's Once Upon a Time in America. Leone eschewed more modern cinematographic techniques in favor of hackneyed and dated ones, picked a lousy score, failed to pace the film well, and didn't tighten the script up when it came to the weaknesses of Max's and Noodles' characters.