Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Breaking Bad was *the* Show of Our Time

There will be books written and august journalistic institutions like The Atlantic will talk about what it all meant, so I know these themes will all be expounded on with greater detail and clarity as time unfolds before us, but I can still play in their sandbox for a few minutes.

First, spoilers will probably follow. I'm not that worried about it. If you haven't watched the Breaking Bad finale, maybe stop here.

Breaking Bad was, simply put, the show of our time. People mention The Wire and The Sopranos along with Breaking Bad in current discussions of "The Best Show Ever," but that's not exactly what I'm talking about. Through a happy convergence of both internal and external factors, Vince Gilligan's AMC drama became a mirror held up to society and to ourselves, and a vehicle for real-world change in the television industry. To wit:

Internal (Thematic) Resonance

Here is a brief look at some of the themes that ran from the pilot episode to the finale of Breaking Bad, and that contributed to both the relatability and the inevitable heartbreak viewers felt for the characters. These themes were never didactically paraded before the audience, but they formed the first assumptions of the show. Without these elements, the show fundamentally could not exist.

The Death of the Middle Class. The Whites were a stereotypical, middle class family with what are becoming stereotypical middle class problems. They were immediately relatable. We got to see in flashbacks their pride at buying their first house together as a young couple starting a family, and we saw the sad end of that dream in a gutted house behind a chain-link fence. Just like so many millions of Americans did as they watched their houses lapse into foreclosure. Many of those families took out their rage at the system on the houses themselves. I saw that firsthand, and it was heartbreaking. In the real world, nine months after Breaking Bad premiered on AMC, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy. As we know, that event triggered a wave of mutilation that washed across all of America, where only the unbelievably wealthy were allowed to continue as they were. For the rest of the country, the idea of a comfortable middle class existence – so long the picture of "The American Dream" – suddenly seemed like a taunt or a fairy tale. The same thing happened to Walter and his family when he got his lung cancer diagnosis.

The Abhorrent U.S. Healthcare System. Maybe you've heard that one party currently wants to undermine all Congressional credibility in an effort to send U.S. healthcare back to an intolerable status quo. The Huffington Post ran this great comic panel the other day:
Forget everything else. Everything that came after. Possibly the most horrifying consequence of Walter White's meth empire was the midair collision of two airliners in Season 2. Those that died didn't get their turn on the show to become three-dimensional characters, but that was wholesale destruction of lives and families that never would've happened if Walt had been able to stay in his teaching job after his diagnosis. Which brings us to...

The Crumbling U.S. Educational System. We see two products of Walt's classroom in each episode: Walt and Jesse. Despite his years of service, Walt's cancer diagnosis is a death sentence – either for him, if he forgoes treatment, or for his family if he tries to pay for it – which speaks to the way teachers are treated today in terms of financial and social rewards. And Jesse was one of those kids that slipped through the cracks. Jesse may say "bitch" a lot, but he's a smart guy, man. Emotionally troubled, for sure, but only Walt and Jesse can make the blue. Lots of other folks try, but they're the only ones that can do it. Jesse had one of the most severe curses of our time: unrecognized potential.

The Failed War on Drugs. I wrote at length a few months ago about the transition from "The American Dream" being something based on hard work to something based on magical transformation. Walter White's personal transformation isn't particularly magical, but in his desperation at watching the hard work version of success evaporate, he turned to the other one, looking for a scenario where somebody could make $600,000 in about six months. And that opportunity was literally waiting for him on the street corner, under the watchful eye of his DEA agent brother-in-law.

But Don't Worry. None of this Applies if You're Rich. Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz have basically all the money in the world. They can easily pay for Walt's cancer treatment, and offer to do so. Walt's pride prevents him from accepting their offer – as Walt's pride prevents him from taking every road that doesn't lead to damnation. Walter and his family's struggles are a remote abstraction for the Schwartzes. They feel bad for him, sure, but they can never know the lived-in quality of Walt's desperation...or his resentment toward them. But in the end, Walt hands his money over to these two in order to get it into the hands of his family. They help Walt win, to get what he's always said he wanted, because as Walt says, no one would think twice about them handing over $10 million dollars to anyone they want. They are above the system.

External (Industry) Resonance

Any debate about Breaking Bad's place in the television pantheon is necessarily subjective. But it lies at the crossroads of many objective, substantial changes to what's going on in television now.

The Golden Age of Television. That's what folks are calling it these days. But I haven't seen The Wire, and I only saw the first season of The Sopranos because that's all my college roommate had on DVD. Didn't see Weeds or Nip/Tuck or Dexter, either. That's because those shows all aired on premium, subscription-based channels I can't afford. AMC broke that mold with Mad Men, and that show's success paved the way for Breaking Bad ever getting it's shot. But the knock on Mad Men was always that it was a critical and awards-season darling that never brought in the numbers. Each season's finale scored fewer viewers then its premiere, topping out at about 3.4 million viewers. Breaking Bad brought the numbers, though. It brought the darkness, too, which not only made similarly dark AMC shows possible, but also darkened up other networks' fare, like USA, who used to live by the adage of a "fruit bowl" in every shot. Anybody watch the final season of Burn Notice? That was some bleak shit, right there. Before the ratings and cultural success of Walter White's downward spiral, I wouldn't have thought such an ending was even possibly for that show, and new USA additions like Graceland were darker and edgier from Day 1. AMC's position on the basic cable tier made larger and more diverse audiences possible. The big-four networks will follow suit, if they aren't already.

The Role of Technology (Netflix, etc.) in Viewership. Different people say different things about how significant the impact of Netflix was in terms of growing Breaking Bad's audience, but from my personal experience, I can attest that I would not have been glued to my TV tonight had it not been for the hours I spent with episodes of the show on Netflix. The fact is, before the Season 5 premiere, the show's biggest audience had been around 3 million viewers. Season 5.2 premiere = 6 million. Series finale? North of 6.6 million (Correction: 6.6 million was for "Granite State." Series finale pulled north of 10 million.). Those are revolutionary numbers both in terms of growth and in terms of non-sports basic cable. Other shows have been in the same neighborhood (Burn Notice beat the networks on Thursday night for a while with around 7 million viewers) but none have followed this trajectory. Only Netflix has their internal numbers, but they have said that their analysis of how people watch popular television shows using the service (*cough* Breaking Bad) gave them the confidence to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in shows like House of Cards, Orange is the New Black, and the fourth season of Arrested Development. If you read the Vulture article I linked to above, you'll see they don't want to give Netflix too much credit, and spend a lot of time talking up DVR ratings. In the same way that The Office was able to stay on the air because NBC started taking iTunes downloads into account, other shows are seeing their chances at staying on the air improve as delayed-viewing numbers for shows like Breaking Bad swell the total audience far beyond what the Nielsen overnights are able to quantify.

So that's it. Now, let the books be written.

Poor Andrea.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

I must admit that I am ready for villains month from DC to come to an end so I can resume reading Batman and others.  I enjoyed the Court of Owls, but have not been moved to pick up any of the other titles.  I may be missing out on some gems, but I feel there are too many cooks in the kitchen.  Fortunately, this week gives us a new Saga that has cemented Lying Cat as my favorite character ever.

Pick of the Week:
Saga #14 - This series has so much good going for it that it is impossible to cover in my simple blurb.  Fiona Staples delivers some of the most beautiful pages ever fit to print.  From the fishing shark out of the sky scene, to the seal and walrus buddy on Quietus, I have never seen such a diverse range of characters, colors, and landscapes in a single book.  This has been a series that I would enjoy even if I didn't read the text.  Fortunately, the story that Brian K. Vaughan is utterly compelling.  While a lot has happened in this series from the strange, to the violent, and to the profane.  The compassion that I feel for these characters is real.  The Will is struggling with how to deal with the slave girl, Sophia, he rescued.  He wants a simple life, but so much of her innocence has been robbed from her.  She has some social issues to say the least.  She is sent to Lying Cat and one of the most moving pages I have ever read occurred.  Enjoy.  Now go buy this series.

The Rest:
Mind MGMT #15 - Matt Kindt's brilliant work on this series continues.  This issue was very revealing to the past of Henry Lyme and Meru.  It was poetic, simple, and wonderful.  We learn that Lyme is the master of all of the Mind MGMT techniques and could easily kill the immortals.  Haunted by his past, he doesn't see the point.  Can't say enough about this series and the love that Kindt pours into it.

The Powerpuff Girls #1 - This fun title from IDW was a pure joy to read.  It harkens back to the hey day of the Powerpuff Girls with witty one-liners and over-the-top action.  This issue pokes fun at the recycled schemes that Mojo Jojo attempts without success and the psychological toll it must take on the monkey.  Good fun and a nice twist to distinguish it from reading like an episode of the show.  I will be on board for issue 2.

Sex Criminals #1 - Matt Fraction is one of the most unique authors in the business who can't be criticized for his creativity.  Suzie is a girl with no one to turn to when it comes to questions about sex.  Her orgasms appear to freeze time in a glorious display of lights and glowing colors.  Unable to figure out if this is normal or not, she seeks answers in the wrong places.  She ultimately meets her match in Jon.  Jon also has this ability and it appears that the two of them are going to use their time stopping "powers" to aid in burglaries, etc.  Nice mix of humor, sex, and intrigue.  

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

The Meat

I don't know quite what to make of this book, or of my reaction to it. In most ways it's an excellent sequel—it delivers the same superb writing and engaging characters while, in fact, improving on one questionable aspect of the first book, The Passage, whose two giant halves fall to either side of a 100 year gap. In The Twelve, by contrast, that radical chronological break has been replaced with three distinct time frames, and occasional shuttling back and forth between them, which reduces the jarring sense of rupture book one delivered.
    All the key characters from book one return (except for Babcock!), and Cronin spices up the mix by adding a handful of no-longer-fully-human, not-quite-vampire creatures which one person, in a burst of insight, calls Renfield-esque. In other words, the mystical bond between vampire overlord and not fully turned Creepy Guy is explored at some length, in a very clever and engaging way.
   It all sounds good so far, right?  And it is—it's good. But not great, like The Passage (despite its flaws) was great. I wasn't moved (as much), nor was I gripped with the same neck-crunching force as emanated from the pages of book one. This was something of a puzzle to me, since most of this book's readily identifiable features seemed to equal, or in some cases outperform, the first book, so one could say book two is somehow slightly less than the sum of its parts.
   Vowing to solve the enigma of this book's slight disappointment, I considered all the usual suspects: a) how the very nature of sequels almost always precludes them surpassing the original (partly because the logic of the world established in book one constricts the parameters of where the story in potential sequels might go, and partly because authors, for obvious reasons, tend to put all their best ideas in their first book and consequently have to dig deep to produce anything like the raw brilliance of their initial effort), b) how an excellent first book creates impossible expectations for the sequel(s) in the minds of the readers, and c) how strong attachments to characters from book one mean that if any major life-changing (or –ending!) events befall these characters it might well alienate some readers who find their own lives in the toilet because of damage to their beloved (insert character name here). And sure enough, The Twelve does take moderate hits from all three of these areas, so that might explain part of why it seems not quite to have lived up to The Passage.
   It explains part, but not all, for as I thought more deeply about why I personally found it just slightly disappointing, a fourth reason popped into my head: the climax of book two, despite being a lot more exciting in visual description (it plays out a lot like a good action movie, in fact), is somehow less rewarding than that of book one. I can't say much more than that without "Dumbledore dies at the end"-ing it for you, but suffice it to say that the stakes in the final act, and even the scale of the challenge, seemed slightly ill conceived.  In the end, our heroes arguably accomplish more, and face a much more drawn out struggle to do so, but the world itself feels less menacing than that of book one (five years earlier), the possibility of human survival/victory much greater, which led to a problem of atmosphere.
   Remember Alien(s)? People argue back and forth about which was best, Alien or Aliens, but they're quite distinct; Alien has spine-tingling suspense, while Aliens brings edge-of-your-seat action and thrills. In some ways, the same thing is happening here with Cronin's work. (I just hope book three doesn't end up like Alien 3! We'll know we're in for an Alien 3 experience if all our favorite characters show up dead at the very beginning, I suppose.) 

The road that shouldn't ever be taken in sequels...
Anyway, the experience of reading book one was rather like watching Alien—one can imagine being in that place, being hunted, and knowing that no place exists beyond the monster's reach. This book, by contrast, brings an Aliens vibe, with excitement aplenty, yet without that pervasive sense of dread from the finely crafted mini-world of book one.
   Despite personally enjoying Aliens more than Alien, with Cronin's work the Aliens direction feels less successful, and The Passage (book one, that is) remains distinctly superior.  But if you're reading this, Mr. Cronin (and yes, I know the chances of that are slim), pleeease don't try an Alien 3 vibe for the threequel!

The Math

Objective assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for Cronin's fantastic prose (example: 'He still had the young person's predisposition to regard the world as a series of vaguely irritating problems created by people less cool and smart than he was'), +1 for scrapping the 100-year gap—or rather, yawning chasm—that bifurcated book one

Penalties: -1 for treating Amy and Alicia so callously (you'll see what I mean), -1 for the ending and for losing that sense of dread so painstakingly crafted with the Colony in The Passage

Nerd coefficient: 7/10 A mostly enjoyable experience

And read on for why statistically a 7/10 is actually waaay better than a C-!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Microreview [comics]: Killing Pickman

Killing Pickman
Jason Becker and Jon Rea
Archaia Entertainment

The Meat

Killing Pickman by Jason Becker and Jon Rea is a mean comic with little redeeming value. So I read it twice.

The story opens homicide with detective William Zhu arresting child murderer Richard Pickman, at whose home scores of children have been murdered in satanic rites. The problem is that these worked, giving Pickman the power to fuck with people’s heads, driving them to enthusiastically murder one another and create general chaos. So, naturally, Detective Zhu has to kill him. Which turns out to be pretty difficult. Given the satanic rights and all.

In a very pleasing way, Becker and Rea’s book reminded me of some of the great late eighties and early nineties horror comics, as if Jaime Delano’s run on Hellblazer took place in the pages of Taboo. Their story is relatively stripped down and relentlessly paced. There are few reveals, few buildups. Just weirdness and violence for 140 pages. Granted, there was nothing terribly original about the story—see the late eighties/early nineties reference above. But it was a thoroughly enjoyable read. On the train, or the bus.

Jon Rea’s art contributed significantly to the British horror comic feel ofthe book, evoking Dave McKean (the found art quality to Rea’s pages) and Bill Sienkiewicz (chaotic, shakily penciled figures), which actually worked really well, giving the book a general creepy, sometimes unsettling, tone. Rea’s work is very impressive from a design perspective. However, his paneling was less than precise from a narrative standpoint, particularly in the violent scenes—of which there were plenty. 

Becker and Rea wisely chose to emphasize eeriness and mood over blood and gore. The subject matter could have served as an excuse for unnecessary gore. (Of course, Pickman murders children, so no-gore was a foregone conclusion. But he could have murdered adults.) The supernatural aspect of the story was handled subtly. That is, it wasn’t over-explained, just some demons and such. The cop story was ironically clichéd, but then again cop stories are ironically clichéd about half the time. An excuse for the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Pickman. And the killing.

So I read it twice. As should you.

The Math

Objective Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for making public transportation less terrible.

Penalties -1 for not knowing who got shot

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Monday, September 23, 2013

Celebrating Banned Books Week

Here at Nerds of a Feather, we're especially big nerds about reading. For most of the contributors, I think it is fair to say that the printed word and the deeply personal effects certain books have had on our lives have shaped who we are and what we are now doing with those lives. But it is also a sad fact that if a book has something important to say that challenges the status quo — especially when it comes to race, sexuality, gender relations, or if it deigns to use "bad" words — somebody somewhere has tried to ban it.

And they have too often succeeded.

I wanted to write a post to call attention to Banned Books Week ( which is going on right now. Book banning is, sadly, not a thing of the past, however. There are still those who crusade against writers and against people's right to read certain writers. Me, I say read everything you can and make up your own mind. Here is my tribute to some of the books that have landed on the chopping block of people who are trying to keep impressionable children from reading things that will make them better critical thinkers and less malleable by those who would prefer that with "banners flying and with drums beating we'll be marching backward, backward through the glorious ages." (Inherit the Wind)

Leave in the Comments section below anything you'd like to say about controversial or banned books that have influenced you.

The Great American Novel
Whatever your personal nominee for "The Great American Novel" might be, you would find many allies if you chose To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, or The Grapes of Wrath. All of them are essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the United States and its struggles in the 20th century. The Grapes of Wrath was the earliest profound experience I ever had with a book. I probably read it for the first time when I was 12, and the world was immediately and forever changed for me.

Advocates for Conscience
Two of the books that most influenced me and made me feel through their staggering emotional impact the real power of what writing can do were also pulled from schools because of concerns that teens might read in print words that they say out loud daily — Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five. That World War II is popularly regarded as the last "noble" war is partially because people like Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed how ignoble human beings murdering each other en masse really looks up close, wrote books like these in that war's aftermath. Their lessons have permeated the culture ever since, changing how we perceive the very essence of wars. As the saying goes, nobody wins a war.

Advocates for Racial Harmony
The lesson of books like Richard Wright's Native Son and Ralph Ellison's inimitable Invisible Man are that there are unnecessary societal barriers placed between people of different races that are detrimental to all of us. It's an ugly problem with ugly ramifications, but writers who call attention to it have routinely been shouted down by people who would rather make denials and claim that these problems have been left in the past, and often they couch their objections to these works in terms of explicit language or mentions of sexuality.

Advocates for the Possible
Notable sci-fi writers like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and the above-mentioned Kurt Vonnegut have come under attack repeatedly, again usually for language. The greatest irony probably belongs to the repeated challenges to Bradbury's anti-book banning novel Fahrenheit 451, which has been allowed in some classrooms only in a bowdlerized version.

And Finally, Advocates for Innocence
Maurice Sendak had a way of communicating the primal relationship to reality that most children have that has not been matched. But one time he drew a penis on a little boy (little boys do have penises, much to the chagrin, I'm sure, of people who got In the Night Kitchen banned), and he had the audacity to write a book where an angry little boy didn't know how to deal with his feelings and dreamt of running away to someplace where he could be in charge (Where the Wild Things Are). I proudly read my children books by Maurice Sendak, and it gives me endless pleasure to imagine them one day doing the same for their children.
And finally, a picture of an adorable kid wearing an
"I Read Banned Books" shirt.

Microreview [book]: The Ruins by Scott Smith

Smith, Scott. The Ruins [Vintage, 2008]

The Meat 

Horror fiction isn’t usually my thing, but lately it’s piqued by interest. And so it is that I’ve read three horror novels over the past two months—Joyland and The Dead Zone [review forthcoming] by Stephen King and The Ruins by Scott Smith. Though King is the undisputed grandmaster of the horror genre, these particular selections weren’t very horror-y. Rather, they were stories about growing into adulthood with some supernatural/paranormal elements thrown in, and which were generally more creepy and thought-provoking that terrifying.

The Ruins isn’t like that at all. It’s dyed-in-the-wool horror, serious freakout shit that threatens to melt your brain and infect your dreams. It’s also very conventional horror, structurally speaking: four teens/young adults go on an exotic journey for an indulgent vacation, full of sex, drinking and so forth, only to discover they are at the mercy of a malevolent force seeking their death. It’s the kind of thing you know from basically every horror film you’ve seen, and the kind of thing satirized in the genre’s periodic meta-comedies, like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods. The Ruins is that. It’s a good version of that, but it is still that.

The premise is basically this: Jeff, Eric, Amy and Stacey are vacationing in Cancun, Mexico. There they meet the stoic German Matthias and a bunch of loud Greeks no one can understand. Despite cultural barriers, or perhaps because of them, they are fast friends. Unfortunately, Matthias’ brother has gone off into the Yucatan jungle to meet some hot archeologist and excavate the ruins of an abandoned mine (some some undisclosed previous era). They set off, with one of the incomprehensible Greeks, into the jungle to find the missing German. They encounter some unfriendly Mayans, who try to warn them off their quest. They don’t listen, because they are stupid, arrogant teens/young adults who violate the first rule of fiction written by white people that features indigenous people interacting with white protagonists on a quest: listen to the wise keepers of hidden knowledge! They do not, and that puts them on a hill with the eponymous ruins and a very strange, curious form of vegetation.

The first 50 pages from here are fairly tedious, and mostly because the perspective characters—Jeff, Eric, Amy and Stacey, are all really uninteresting. Jeff is slightly interesting, as he’s the only competent one, but Eric, Amy and Stacey are just whiny and helpless. (Maybe that’s realistic? Doesn’t make for good fiction, though. And two out of two girls are helpless? GOD HELP ME.) Of the non-perspective characters, Matthias is actually pretty cool and Pablo (the incomprehensible Greek) is just a disaster, both as a character and as a stereotype.

Thankfully, The Ruins picks up from there. From the moment when the true nature of the horror reveals itself, the book is basically impossible to put down. Smith does an excellent job balancing the growing fear with dwindling hopes, and the speculative nature of the horror itself is much more interesting than your average ghost, vampire, werewolf or zombie.

All that said, don’t take the criticisms to mean this is a bad book. It’s actually a book that does certain things really well and other things not well. I think I get what Smith was after here—a horror book that plays with a limited number of variables in the conventional formula. Those moments are clearly the best bits; there should have been more of them. Still, this is a quality read for an airplane or holiday.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for quality speculative horror; +1 for palpable tension.

Penalties: -1 for terrible characters; -1 for lazy gender and ethnic stereotyping.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but has some serious issues."

Why a 6 isn't terrible

Friday, September 20, 2013

Microreview [historical/crime fiction]: When Johnny Came Marching Home

When Johnny Came Marching Home
William Heffernan
Akashi Books

The Meat

I'll admit it: Everything I know about the Civil War, I learned from watching Ken Burns's PBS series. But I have watched it a few times.

William Heffernan's When Johnny Came Marching Home is marketed as a "historical mystery." It's a bit better on the historical end than the mystery. The narrative jumps around in time, following three friends their home in Jerusalem's Landing, to the battlefields of the Civil War, and back to Vermont -- well, two of the buddies, at least. (I'm not spoiling anything. It's on the back cover jacket.) One of them, Jubal, is now (1865) the town's deputy sherriff, the other one, Johnny, a psycho and, by the beginning of Chapter One, a corpse. The prime suspect is a piece-of-shit war buddy of Johnny, but not of Jubal, named Bobby Suggs . That's pretty much all you need to know.

When Johnny Came Marching Home was deeply disappointing. That's because the first 275 pages of the book were thoroughly enjoyable, while the last 45 were predictable and trite. This was a complete letdown. I'm all for an anticlimactic ending, but this one just didn't sit well.

Heffernan's at his best during the war part of the narrative. I have never been much of a fan of historical fiction, but the genre works because of the perspective it brings to events, one rarely encountered in most historical scholarship. Through his use of unadorned language, Heffernan captures the casual violence of warfare, especially by having his protagonists on a reconnaissance unit, away from most of the carnage of that war. The boys end up in the thick of a few battles, but much of the story takes place in the countryside and in the camps -- which, as Heffernan describes, had plenty of carnage of their own.

The murder story was less interesting, serving only as a narrative tool allowing the author to explore the scars of war soldiers returned home with. Jubal and Johnny are both wounded men, the former having lost his arm in the war, the latter his conscience. Their efforts to restart a normal life are marred by memories of the war, particularly Johnny's role in their third friend Abel's death.

Though admirable for his attention to historical detail, Heffernan did little to develop the characters, who for the most part remain types: Abel the naive kid, Johnny the budding thug, and Jubal the everyman narrator. A fourth friend, Josiah the African-American, is pretty much just that. I'm usually not too big on character development, but a book of this scope seemed to call for it.

Again, the shallow characters didn't bother me until the book's last chapters. But the ending was simply disappointing, none of the payoff that Heffernan promised throughout the book. I can see why he chose to simply let the book end in such way. After all, life isn't that complicated, stories rarely end with a twist. On the other hand, I wanted this book to end well so this review would be easier to write.

The Math

Objective Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for historical detail (including dialect)

Penalties: -2 for letting me down at the end

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Interview: Justin De Witt of Fireside Games

While at Gen Con I had the joy of playing Dead Panic and speaking with the creator of the game and owner of Fireside Games, Justin De Witt. Justin, despite being on a cross country tour, he was kind enough to "sit down" and answer some questions for us.

Thanks for taking time to “speak” with us today. As I had mentioned prior to this Dead Panic was one of my highlights from Gen Con so thanks for bringing copies to Indianapolis. I can’t wait to get my hands on it again.

You’re welcome! We were excited to finally be able to show off Dead Panic at Gen Con and the response was crazy good.

Did you every think that you would spend your career heading a board game company and designing games? How did you get into this field?

A few years out of college I knew I was going to start my own business, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. I was tired of working for other people and seeing them make business decisions that I didn’t agree with but had no control over. Anne-Marie, my wife and co-owner of Fireside Games, and I had discussed a lot of options, and when I got back into game design we realized this was the project that we wanted to build our business on.

As for game design, that’s something I’ve done since I was a kid. I was constantly making my own games based on whatever I was interested in at the time. That eventually led to me into various RPGs and Battletech, but then I got distracted by video games, as did the rest of the world. I went to college for Graphic Design and Illustration and ended up working in the multimedia and video game world for about a decade. Around 2000 I was introduced to Settlers of Catan and a few card games that were instrumental in reigniting my love of board games. It was so refreshing to go back to the physicality of games that my brain just took off with it. After that I was designing games again and thinking about them non-stop. After a few years of this, we had a prototype for Castle Panic that was working really well and friends would ask me to bring it whenever we got together.

Anne-Marie and I started talking about how we should move forward with the game, and it was about that time that I got a job as a Production Artist at Steve Jackson Games. It was a great gig and I learned a ton about the industry, but it was pretty apparent that Castle Panic didn’t really fit their brand and rather than sell the game, I started looking into starting a publishing company myself. I ended up working at one last e-learning company and saving as much of my salary as I could and then, when that company went out of business, we decided to start Fireside Games. Everyone told me I was crazy, but thanks to everything I had learned over the years and a lot of really good help from a lot of really good people, we got Castle Panic published and into distribution in 2009. Our first print run sold out in 10 weeks and we were off and running.

What games did you play as a child that had an impact on you and have inspired elements in your games? What are some of those elements?

I played all the classics like Monopoly, Scrabble, Parcheesi, but the ones that stuck with me were things like Stratego with those awesome pieces and the whole “hidden information” element. I was always drawn to the games that had unusual pieces or components. I loved the pop-o-matic bubble in Trouble and the sliding windows in Family Feud. I also played a lot of card games with my parents and I think that was where I fell in love with the social nature of gaming.

Do you have a current favorite game that you are currently playing? What is it and why?

Well, right now, we’re on a huge promotional tour, so I haven’t had a chance to play anything but our games! When I do get down time, though, I try to keep up with new releases and stay current. As for a favorite, I’d have to say I always go back to Tsuro because it’s beautiful, and it’s so easy to teach to new people. Plus it plays so fast you know you can get a couple of games in back-to-back.

If you were stranded on a dessert island with your family and only had one game with you, what would you want that game to be?

Not Pente, that’s for sure! That’s the game that Anne-Marie constantly beats me at. ;) Probably something cooperative like Pandemic. There’s no need to have fights when you’re stuck on an island.

If you were stranded on a dessert island alone and only had one game with you, what would you want that game to be?

Maybe Arkham Horror. It’s still a challenge to play alone. Plus it’s got enough components that if things got desperate, I could use it to build a really good signal fire.

I appreciate that you speak about the importance of play on your website, it is a topic I have researched in my field of sport management and often feel that it is overlooked. Why do you feel that play is so important to us and how does Fireside Games contribute to that?

I feel that “play” has gotten a bad reputation over the years. Especially in our society, down-time is often viewed as wasted time and that’s unfortunate. We are creatures based on the idea of playing. Whether it’s simply spending time with our friends or participating in an organized activity, it’s how we bond, grow, and relax. Good play has an almost medical effect that can reduce stress and sooth our nerves. It can build new friendships or solidify existing ones. We’re big fans of play, and we chose to focus on games to best deliver that to everyone. Games are highly social, portable, and don’t require a lot of time to get a lot of enjoyment.

I read that you have designed games with your wife. What is the process like designing with her and how does it differ from designing on your own?

Anne-Marie and I have actually worked together on all our games to some degree. I tend to come up with a concept for a game and will work on that by myself until I’ve got the mechanics and basic rules figured out before I show it to her. I might even have a rough but playable version and somewhere around here is where Anne-Marie comes in as the first step in the screening process. She has several superpowers, one of which is to make sure our games stay streamlined and not overly complex. When it came to her game Bears! she had the entire concept and rules worked out before she showed that one to me. I contributed a few ideas, some of which were worth keeping, and she finalized the game after a few playtests. We always bounce design ideas off of each other and are constantly thinking about everything from how a certain component should be created to the advertising and marketing of a game. It’s a very collaborative partnership.

What was the first game you ever designed and what would you change now given your experience in this field? Was it ever published?

The first game I ever designed was probably the Star Trek space combat game that I came up with as a kid. I won’t go into that, but the first game I created after my return to design was a card game built around the idea of giant-robot combat. It had a very strong anime feel, and it’s never been published. Looking back at it, it’s actually not all that bad, but like all early designs it’s a bit unfocused and has some cards that are overpowered. I’d like to go back and clean up a few elements and really nail down the balance. I think there’s a great game hiding in there, and at some point it might even become a Fireside release. You never know.

I would like to shift the focus over to Dead Panic if you don’t mind. I was concerned that Dead Panic was going to simply be Castle Panic with a new coat of paint. I am happy to report that it is a vastly different game. How did the idea of Dead Panic come about and how long was the development process?

Yes, that’s probably going to be the biggest PR fight we’re going to have with Dead Panic! When Castle Panic first came out, one of the most common requests we got was “make one with zombies!” and I flat out said “No.” I wasn’t interested in repainting the game for several reasons. First off, that wasn’t going to do anything but water down the property. As a brand new company and an unknown designer, the last thing we needed was to be seen as a one-trick pony. Second, it wasn’t interesting to me as a gamer, and that’s my golden yardstick. If I don’t want to play it, why would anyone else? The irony is that one of the first concepts I came up with when working on the game that would become Castle Panic was a zombie version, and that had always been in the back of my mind as something to work on. Over time I had developed notes and ideas for a zombie version I would be happy with and that came into play in early 2012.

In late 2011, we had just about finished development on a new game when we received word that another, larger publisher was about to release a very similarly themed game. We debated on whether to try and fight for space in the crowded game market and decided to move forward on Dead Panic instead. The reason we went forward with a zombie-themed game when there are already quite a few, was because we knew there was nothing quite like ours out there. There were many key things that needed to change to make the game play the way we wanted. I really wanted the game to have a cinematic feel, and I wanted to base the game on the idea of defending a cabin as an homage to all the great horror movies that I grew up with. I also wanted our zombies to have some different abilities as well as our characters to each be unique. The other big thing I wanted to include was the idea that you could turn into a zombie and switch sides to play as one of the undead. I started serious work on the game in February, going over old notes and updating details that would make the game different enough that both new players and existing fans would enjoy it. Things came to a sudden halt in late March when Anne-Marie was hospitalized and diagnosed with cancer. It was a surprising and shocking diagnosis, and we immediately switched our priorities to getting her healthy again. She had excellent treatment and within a few months her tumor was gone. She’s always been a heck of a fighter, and her prognosis is very good. She is feeling great and her checkups have all been perfect. Once we settled into the new normal, we got back into game design and making up for lost time. We created many versions and playtested dozens of variations before nailing down all the elements we wanted. I contacted Victor Corbella in late 2012 and was able to recruit him to our side to create the fantastic kind of artwork we were looking for. In December, Anne-Marie became a full-time employee of Fireside Games and as we made the switch to being completely self-employed, we also began planning for our West by Southwest promotional tour. We hit the road in February of 2013, and I finalized the graphic design of the game while we were on our tour. The game went to the printer in June and the response has been pretty amazing.

What were some of the issues that had to be fixed during play testing?

The biggest issue in a cooperative game is always working out the balance. Balancing out the characters meant experimenting with lots of different abilities, actions, starting weapons, etc. We tweaked the zombies a lot to get them to feel the way they do. Hands down the hardest thing to fix though was zombie movement. I knew we needed our zombies in Dead Panic to be smarter than our monsters in Castle Panic. This meant they would need to actively hunt down the players, but that came with a cascade effect of complexity in managing the game, one of my pet peeves. We tried pre-programmed movement, dice generated movement, path following, and other ideas to get the zombie A.I. to work right. We finally created a clean “if-then” type of logic based on what a zombie can see that determines where they move to that works really well. It’s one of those mechanics that seems more complex than it is, but once you’re playing, it makes perfect sense and flows really nicely. Another challenge was getting the idea of the Monster Effects into this game. In Castle Panic you draw tokens that can be monsters or effects, and the effects are really the engine that moves the bad guys and upsets plans. We found that wasn’t working as well in this game, so we experimented with several different ways to provide a greater variety of effects. I wanted to hit the players with a deck of event cards that would give a huge amount of variety and replay, but triggering the draw of those cards through zombie tokens was problematic. Eventually I decided to flip the problem on its head and have the players always draw an event card and let the card determine the amount of zombies drawn. That was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the game. We also found that in order to speed up the game, we had to completely change the order of play. In this game the zombies only act after all the players have taken their actions, rather than after each separate player. We also went around and around with the endgame. I wanted the zombies to be never-ending, which meant we needed a new way to end the game. I loved the idea of the players getting rescued. Having the win condition be partly out of their control was really cinematic and added to the sense of the players really just holding out for as long as they could. We had to try a lot of different solutions with the rescuers as well. At one point they were the Army and came in with guns blazing, taking out zombies and helping the players survive. That was too powerful, so they became a group of hunters with a few guns that did what they could, but that didn’t work either. For a while the van was just a “zombie-magnet” that drew zombies towards it. Eventually, we settled into the idea of the van just showing up and the players having to reach it to really interact with it.

What was your motivation to go away from the truly cooperative gameplay of Castle Panic and allow individuals to put themselves ahead of the group if they choose?

I knew we needed to make the game personal. You had to feel like you were in jeopardy and not just in a distant, abstracted way. If the game simply felt like losing another tower, it would never be scary. Once we brought the players into the game, it not only changed the way you fight zombies, but how you save yourself in the end. I knew that was going to lead to some interesting gameplay and while we could have left the victory condition based on all players having to survive, that’s just not how a good zombie movie plays out. The best part about this is that it means the game is as cooperative as the players want it to be. They can work together as a group all the way until they reach the van, but they don’t have too. I think this game makes a good screening process for your friends. It’s like a litmus test to determine if you want them as part of your zombie apocalypse survival plan or not!

Since I only got to play the game once I didn’t get a chance to see a human get turned into a zombie. How does gameplay change for an individual who is turned? Do you have any stories from play testing that speak to the joys of being a zombie?

Once you die, you flip over your character board and choose 2 of the abilities printed there. This means every zombie character can be customized and play slightly differently. When your character reanimates, they get their own triangle zombie token version of themselves to move around. On the Move Zombies phase you can move your token up to 2 spaces and when you fight a human player, you roll both dice just like they do with the highest result winning. Zombies might get a bonus to their rolls, or a reroll, or even the ability to direct the movement of another zombie, depending on what abilities they chose. Being a zombie is an absolute hoot. People really love switching sides and chasing down their tasty friends. It takes some “brains” to play as a good zombie too. (Sorry.) I’ve seen a fresh zombie character rush into combat with a huge grin on their face only to get cut down because they forgot that their buddy still had the chainsaw. I’ve also seen sneaky zombies run away from the group to guard the last radio piece, ensuring the humans have a tough fight on their hands.

Can you speak of specific moments from Gen Con that surprised you or made you particularly happy as you saw people playing your games?

Some of my favorite moments would happen when I would be running a demo of one game and a tremendous shout would come from the other table as a group of players got their last player in the game. I also loved it when a 3-player game came down to one player reaching the van leaving two disappointed zombies just outside the doors. Probably the best moment though was when a group of players got up from a demo laughing and shouting about how much fun the game was and one said “I like this way better than Castle Panic!” He then turned to me with a horrified look on his face and started to apologize, but I told him it wasn’t necessary. Trust me, your love for the game doesn’t hurt my feelings at all!

How was the creation process different in the making of Dead Panic than previous games?

This was the first time we had reworked an existing game rather than create a new one from scratch. This meant that while we had a frame to build on, it was actually more challenging to make sure that we had a new and unique enough game to validate its own place in a gamer’s collection, while not alienating our core fanbase. It was definitely a unique experience.

Looking ahead. Do you have any ideas for future expansions of Dead Panic? Where do you think the game could go in the future?

Definitely. If we get the response we’re expecting, it will probably one of my very next design tasks. I’ve got quite a few ideas I’d like to try out that I think are cool, but I’m hoping to get some input from our fans as to what they want to see added to the game.

Any hints on the next big game from Fireside Games?

We’re always working on new games, but we’ve got an announcement coming up for a future release that’s going to blow some people’s minds. My lips are sealed for now!

Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything you would like to add?

We wanted to thank all of our fans for their support as we continue on this crazy adventure. You’re the reason we get to do the greatest job in the world, and we love you for it!

Thursday Morning Superhero

I am not sure how to open this week's post.  There was a really impressive group of comics this week, but one stood above the rest.  The simple idea of a superhero gaining power by being drunk or on drugs has such a wealth of opportunity I am stunned nobody has come up with the concept.  Buzzkill has me excited on so many levels I just want to jump into this week's books.

Pick of the Week:
Buzzkill #1 - The concept is so simple it's brilliant and Mark Waid's quote on the cover is classic.  "God, I wish I'd thought of this."  Rueben, the name he gives his AA group, is an alcoholic superhero.  When he drinks and does drugs he gets superpowers and he is seeking to clean up his act.  In the AA group he recounts some stories on how he found out what powers he has and the moment that caused him to seek help.  I guess when you seemingly destroy a town and have no memory of it because you were so drunk you blacked out it might take a toll on you.  To say the least, the superheroes are not too pleased about his treatment, but the villains are celebrating the demise of a formidable foe.  It is currently billed as a four-issue miniseries, I am hopeful that staying power to be an ongoing title.  Can't recommend this one enough.

The Rest:
Sixth Gun #34 - Becky's journey in the dream world continues as she unknowingly assists Gord, Kirby, and Asher's attempt to save her by wielding the gun in Hume's twisted world.  Drake is able to communicate to Becky and send her hopefully in the right direction as she seeks to leave the dream world and awaken.  She is confronted with a world that she did not expect to see that may leave her not wanting to wake up.  Another great issue from Cullen Bunn.

Daredevil #31 - I think Mark Waid enjoys tormenting poor Matt Murdock.  After all that Matt has been through lately, the final panel in this issue is infuriating and I love it.  The D.A. is in trouble after he seemingly released the names, faces, and addresses of a jury of 12 that rendered a not guilty verdict in an obvious nod to the George Zimmerman case.  Chaos ensues as Daredevil believes the Jester is behind it, but needs help calming a riot.  Hank Pym lends a hand as an army of tiny ants, in a beautiful series of panels, seed the clouds to bring down a downpour.  The pacing is quick and the hook at the end of the book is quite nice.  I am still really enjoying Waid's Daredevil and will continue to purchase it.

Infinity #3 - Things begin to look positive as the fate of the universe lays in the hands of the Avengers battling the builders and the crew left on earth stopping the mad Titan Thanos.  Some hacking comes in handy and turns the builders weapons on themselves and Blackbolt spoils Thanos' trip to earth.  This series continues to be good, but not sure if I will stick with it.  I am intrigued, but nothing is jumping out at me that tells me this series is special.  I am guessing I will be on board for the next issue as I love me some Thanos.

Zero #1 - This debut issue from Image Comics had my eyes peeled to the book.  A former soldier is recounting his life stories to a child and the first story involves a secret mission to extract technology from a biomodified Palestinian terrorist.  Zero stumbles into a brutal brawl between the Palestinian and an Israeli soldier that has also utilizing this technology.  The fight between the two doped up soldiers is horrifying and Zero is willing to add to the body count in the process of completing his mission.  I couldn't read this title quick enough and am excited about the next issue.  Fast paced, fun, brutal, and very intriguing.  Image is quickly becoming my favorite publisher.

What I should have read:
The Dark Knight #23.3 featuring Clayface - As a Batman and John Layman fan I came very close to picking this issue up, but passed on it to save some cash.  From what I have read, if you are a fan of Clayface then you should pick up this issue.  Might be one I try to scoop on sale.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Microreview [book/movie combo]: I Am Number Four

The Meat

   Oh lordie, where to begin. I guess I'll wade through the mediocre muddle of the story-line first, before I reveal the perplexing paradox (awesome alliteration so far, no?) whereby the book and movie each manage to fail in very different, in fact medium-specific ways.

   So, the plot, as it was no doubt intended to be understood: yet another superhero story...but with a twist! This one's unique (supporters might rant) because it's about aliens, and plus there's a mystical charm on the nine Loric (the good aliens) superhero survivors of the bad aliens' attack, whereby they can only be killed in order of their number. Once they grow up and come into their various powers, the reader/viewer can have no doubt they'll easily defeat the bad aliens, which brings us to the first of, sadly, many colossal flaws to the story: since the superhero survivors are evidently being scripted into a 'triumphing against impossible odds' kind of story—or in other words, they're going to be friggin' amazing once they get all their powers, since even halfway to full potency they're pretty tough—how on earth did an entire planet of these heroes get trounced by the bad aliens in the first place? I mean, there were millions of them, right? And it's not like the bad aliens attacked with nukes or something—they attacked with really big 'beasts'. I don't know about you, but how many superheroes with powers like telekinesis and weather control (i.e. lightning and stuff, not unlike Storm from the X-Men) would it really take to handle one giant beast?

   And what is up with the totally half-hearted environmental theme, anyway? Ages ago, apparently the planet Lorien was too heavily exploited by its inhabitants for its resources, which destroyed the balance of nature, so they 'evolved' and morphed into two distinct classes, the planet-guarding Garde (that's the superheroes; I wonder where that word came from) and Everyone Else (each Garde gets a totally mundane person as, essentially, a chaperone/teacher).  First off, how much would it suck to get born into the crappy underclass of Ordinary Schmuck? But no, the narrative insists that everything on Lorien was idyllic and wonderful, no conflict at all! Yeah, right. If the Garde had any scrap of human nature in them, they'd immediately set themselves up as overlords of everyone else, ruling as little feudal lords over their individual domains, and anyone without powers would be a mere serf.

   Here fanboys (and/or fangirls?) of the series will probably leap to the attack, insisting that I just don't understand how awesome the Loric are, that they live in perfect harmony, they're not tainted by human selfishness, etc., and perhaps that's true, but if so, they'd be so utterly unlike human beings that meaningful interaction would be impossible, and yet the entire story is (another Massive Problem) about Number Four, a.k.a. 'John Smith', struggling to find a place for himself in small-town America—in high school, of course—and soon falling in love (with an ex-cheerleader, ex-girlfriend of the primary human antagonist and, inevitably, football quarterback Mark). And the ways John reacts to jealousy, etc. are all too human. In other words, the author of this series claims these aliens are way wiser and cooler than humans but the actual portrayal of said aliens presents them as exactly the same as humans except for the powers that come at or after puberty.  Sound familiar?  Sure did to me: it's like pretty much every other superhero story ever. An ordinary boy—it's almost always a boy—hits puberty and gets extraordinary powers (cigar-smokers like Freud might well claim all this stuff about superheroes is a mere metaphor for the awakening of male sexual potency), so suddenly the tables are turned on his social tormentors and he finds a niche for himself in the scholastic jungle of high school, and also falls in requited love with a girl who loves him even after she learns the truth. There are two main themes at work here: Revenge of the Nerd (Spiderman beats up the bully, Harry Potter hexes Dudley, etc.) and Impossible Love (superhuman man meets human woman and their love will last for all time!, i.e. Edward and Bella, etc.). Both of these plot-tracks are, needless to say, exceedingly well furrowed, with dozens of high-profile stories utilizing each. I wish the author of the I Am Number Four series had taken Robert Frost's message to heart: wouldn't it be nice if one of these days we get a superhero story that takes the road less traveled by?

   Some might object that there are original elements to the story, like the protective charm ensuring they can only be killed in order, or the nature of Loric society (see above). And this is the Paradox: all the original ideas, up to and including the good vs. bad aliens thing, and especially the 'kill us in order' mumbo-jumbo, make no sense and are almost irrelevant to the main drama, which is about a very human(-esque) boy's transition into adulthood via social acceptance (he stands up to a bully and makes a friend) and success in romance (he gets the girl). It's as though the author just wanted to do another version of this Monomythic tale, but felt pressure to make it 'original' so tacked on some nonsense about aliens and charms and whatever.

   You've probably guessed by now that I didn't exactly warm to the story. It wasn't badly written per se—if anything, it was above average stylistically—it was simply a bad story. What's fascinating to me, though, is how the movie adaptation paradoxically failed (or so I strongly felt as I watched it) for different reasons. The movie dispensed with a lot of the less plausible aspects of the story (non-Garde Loric are basically totally defenseless in the book, but in the movie they're 'warriors' and even have weird glowing scimitars) and telescoped things down, making what I felt were significant improvements in the story-line and in pacing (for example, a key character suffers a rather major mishap earlier, which serves as the impetus for others to continue the fight). Yet I liked the movie no better than the book. How is this possible?
"I'm a nerd, I swear!  My hair's artfully out of place and everything!"
   Well, my instant and visceral dislike of the blonde, cleft-chinned square-jawed hulk, a veritable ubermensch, selected to play the role of John didn't help. What were the producers thinking? Superhero movies are supposed to be cathartic for the ordinary viewers, offering the hope that you, too, ordinary boy, might someday discover you have extraordinary powers, a premise that's pretty much out the window if the 'ordinary' boy looks like a golden god. It calls the Girl's intentions into question: it is no longer clear that the Girl has the emotional depth to fall in love with him because of his pure nerd heart, since he's exactly the kind of man-boy eye-candy a shallow cheerleader type might well shack up with too! Worse yet, everyone in the movie is gorgeous (even Sam, the token nerd) and many are blonde—the Love Interest (whose name I have already forgotten, like much of this forgettable tale), and Number Six as well. Did the movie-makers somehow jump to the conclusion that the target audience for a movie of this type is comprised entirely of blindingly attractive high school jocks and cheerleaders? If
Don't worry, Timmy boy--I'd be looking glum if I'd agreed to appear in this movie too!
   So while the book paradoxically failed because of the very twists and unique elements that set it apart from the tried-and-true superhero story, the movie improved on that bad original story to focus on the core drama of the awakening superhero and his romance, yet paradoxically failed anyway because they made everything and everyone too pretty, too blonde, too boring. If you desperately want to watch a movie about high school students who acquire superpowers, watch Chronicle—it's waaay better, both as a movie and as a story (and as an added bonus, the main character isn't pretty at all, but rather looks like a bona fide—even kind of creepy—nerd!).

The Math

Baseline assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for leaving open the possibility in the reader's mind that John Smith and the other characters might just be nondescript rather than supermodels

Penalties: -1 for the ridiculous protective magic (whence the tagline "Three are dead—I Am Number Four," but should have been "Superhero Beats up Jock, Meets Ordinary Girl—Mad Chemistry"), -1 for all the other stupid alien stuff

Nerd coefficient: 4/10 (This book is Number Four. I wanted to give it and the movie a 3, but how could I, given the title?)

Baseline assessment: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for simplifying the alien stuff and downplaying the magical protection, etc. to focus on the human drama

Penalties: -1 for having everyone be so friggin' beautiful and un-nerdlike

Nerd coefficient: 4/10 (Same score, radically different reasons)

[These scores aren't so hot, but they're probably not as low as you think: see here for more info]

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Islands in an Archipelago

If you consider yourself a "fan" of science and fantasy fiction, or are a professional in the SFF publishing industry, then by you have probably read--or at least heard of--the recent hubbub surrounding Renay's essay in Strange Horizons. The gist of the essay, if I understand it correctly, is the notion that the barriers separating fans from authors are crumbling, that this is a direct result of the commodification of fan writing (my word, not Renay's), and that more is lost than gained from this development. For the record, it's an interesting and thought-provoking article. I do not understand why tit would make you angry, upset or--god forbid--entice you to send an angry email full of sexual violence triggers, as someone apparently has done.

That said, let me say, straight out, that I do not agree with Renay. I read it as a "back to Eden" argument based on (what I consider to be) the faulty premise that this commodification is something new, that it is necessarily "bad" and that, even if it were, that there is some state of antediluvian paradise to return to. I don't see a fundamental problem with author/blogger interactions, and welcome them on this site.

That said, let me also say, straight out, that I completely agree with Renay. Like Justin Langdon, I read it not as a call for authors to stay out of critical online discussions of their work, but to strongly consider, before engaging, whether the type of engagement they are considering is in anyone's best interests--including their own. If authors want to respond, they can do so on their own blogs or elsewhere--at their own peril, of course.

"Wait, hold on--didn't you just say you DIDN'T AGREE?! How can both of those things be true?"

I did, indeed. If you're confused, let me explain: I've just spent the last two months in Indonesia, which as you might should know is not only the fourth largest country in the world, but a massive archipelago of islands that share a lot of culture, but are also all distinct in numerous ways. Because interactions across islands were limited by geography until fairly recently, languages, foods, customary laws, marriage rituals and even conceptions of time vary considerably more than you typically find in countries where regions form a contiguous landmass.

So I thought of Indonesia and it struck me: every blog is an island in the archipelago of criticism. We share a lot--and in the age of the internets, we share increasingly more. But we all have our own customs and "cultures." This is fine. This is good, even. Diversity is healthy. We can embrace this and be better for it.

With regards this site, let me be upfront (and this time I'm serious) and say that I, and we, welcome author interaction. Here, on twitter, elsewhere. I'll take the small percentage of negative interactions as the price for the much larger percentage of interesting interactions. That's me, that's us, that's our culture and this is our island. Tourists welcome.

With regards other sites and other ways of doing things, let me also be upfront (serious again) and say that this does not bother me in the slightest. I get why bloggers would want their islands to be "safe spaces" for fans to discuss work critically without imperious authorial intervention, and why bloggers would respond harshly to this kind of thing. I understand why Ana from The Book Smugglers was irked by Ben Aaronovitch's entry into discussion of her review of his books. That blog has a specific culture, and he blundered into it like old colonial wearing a pith hat riding a rickshaw.

"Wait, hold on--ARRRG, you're doing it again! You're not taking a clear position!!"

That's right, I'm not. Because I don't live on that island; I just visit. Looking at that interaction, sure, I would have done things differently. If I were Ben, I would have reframed that comment as "this is what I intended," rather than "this is the correct interpretation." If I were Ana, I probably would have said the same thing but in less strident tone. But hey--you know what? That's not my island! I don't have--or want--the right to impose my cultural assumptions on anyone else. I can, however, decide whether I want to visit that island again...and you know what? I do.

I like the fact that there are other reviewers out there doing things differently. Aidan Moher, Liz Bourke, Ian Sales, Jonathan McCalmont, Justin Langdon, Ria from Bibliotropic, Stefan Raets and all the rest--I don't go to these people to read the same old shit I'm slingin'. I visit their islands because their unique perspectives and approaches help me think more critically about the genre. Trust me, it's more fun that way.

I guess that leaves me to wonder: does this make me a fan blogger or an industry blogger? I don't know...I'm just trying to keep these beaches clean and make sure there's something worth visiting for. grilled seafood.

Great, now I'm hungry...

Microreview [book]: Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Shaman [Orbit, 2013]

The Meat

Kim Stanley Robinson is primarily famous for his Mars Trilogy, as well as the highly-regarded (and Nebula-nominated) space opera 2312. He's also written a few other books, several of which are in essence conversations with, or science fictional mediations on, history. Shaman is sort of that, though when I say "science" I mean anthropology rather than the usual physics, engineering and so forth.

This is a book about "cavemen," homo sapiens sapiens of the upper paleolithic period, animistic hunter-gatherers from Africa who coexisted for a time with the slower but stronger homo sapiens neaderthalensis. Though the book follows Loon, a shaman's apprentice, the first half of the book is decidedly anthropological in tone, with Loon's adventures mostly a device through which to explore the world he inhabits. We are introduced to the Wolf Pack, their semi-sedentary lifestyle and their customs. It's fascinating, but can be slow-going in the way classic ethnographies of hunter-gatherer societies often are ("here's a lengthy catalogue of all the marriage rituals; now here's a lengthy catalogue of of all the folk dances," etc.).

There's also a goofiness to Robinson's attempt to establish a prehistoric lingo, the same issue a lot of cyberpunk has with futureslang. Like, "for a knapper he chose a big long chunk of chert." Huh? Is this an attempt to avoid modern terms? If so, then why does Loon say "mamma mia" multiple times? And "pizzle" is just a terrible stand-in for the male genatalia, unless you are Snoop Dogg circa 2003.

That isn't to say the first half is bad. Actually there's tons I like about it, especially Loon's interactions with the Neanderthals he comes into contact with. There's a sadness there, the knowledge that these other humans--who aren't dumb as much as clever in a different way--won't make it. And it's a sadness that the homo sapiens sapiens are at least partially aware of.

That said, the book really takes off about halfway through. Loon's wife Elga, a runaway from another tribe, gets stolen back and Loon goes after her. I'm wary of saying more, for fear of spoiling my favorite part of the book for you, but there's some deep political shit in there, alongside a thrilling story. Without ruining things, let me just tell you to pay attention to Robinson's view of what drives exploitation, and suggest that it's the opposite of what fellow SF giant (and friend) Iain M. Banks proposes in his Culture novels. Something to chew on, at least.

Shaman also deals, in great detail, with the mechanics and meanings of cave painting. Much of this is speculative, but these scenes are grounded in real history--as the book progresses, it becomes clear that Loon and Thorn are painting the exact scenes and motifs found in the Chauvet Cave, featured in Werner Herzog's brilliant documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Though the faults I've outlined are, at times, distracting, Shaman is on balance a pretty extraordinary read. I'd recommend without hesitation for anyone looking for something different, as well as for those who have, like me, often wondered what life might have been like for prehistoric humans. I haven't read a caveperson book since Clan of the Cave Bear, and I'm pretty certain that one sucks in comparison to Shaman. So if you are looking for something different, and a book that will stick with you long after you put it down, then Shaman could be a great fit for you.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for taking the concept of "hard social science fiction" seriously; +1 for being a pretty fascinating and unique reading experience; +1 for making the prehistoric come alive.

Penalties: -1 for pizzle; -1 for other lingo-related issues; -1 for pacing issues early on.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

See why an 8 is a pretty awesome score.

Monday, September 16, 2013

AiIP: The Further Adverntures of an Indie Publisher

This is a post I have been sitting on for a while- or, at least, the idea of it. But here's the thing:

I really, really dislike Amazon.

Aimed directly at your wallet.
There, I said it. I'm not even one of those big bad corporation is big and bad type of people. I get it- they want to make money, and they are good at it. Hell, I want to make money (feel free to help that cause along). Really what I dislike (besides the fact that Amazon feels like the digital equivalent of Wal-Mart) is that Amazon's way allows for no middle ground. It is take-no-prisoners market domination.

Again, I get it. If somehow I had to choose between dominating the sci-fi market and not, I'd take the former, and so would anyone else. But despite the waxing of self-published poster boy Hugh Howey, Amazon is not really that cool, nor good for literature. Amazon is good for selling books. Amazon is the new face of publishing (which, incidentally, is not dying- just changing).

And that's as it may be. I don't like it, but I sure can't change it. The Amazon's and Wal-Mart's will always exist (heck, that's a central theme to my own writing), but how beholden to them are we? To few authors explore other options, such as Kobo, or even print, and every time someone uses the term 'Kindle Best Seller', I cringe.

The fact is that Amazon is industry standard, and as long as bored housewives keep reading 50 Shades of Grey on Kindle, they'll keep getting away with tax evasions, employee abuses and late payments (cough cough).

So the million dollar question is, can one succeed separate from Amazon? Can an indie author live in the shadow of the giant, and garner the support of the alternate e-readers and indie bookstores?

I'm going to find out.

As of as soon as Amazon updates (one day to a month or so-ish), I'm not selling there anymore. If you want to read my book digitally, head over to Kobo. Over the next couple weeks, I'll be doing a lot of legwork to establish partnerships with brick-and-mortar bookstores. If you have one in your area, please send me their info (deanfortythree at gmail), and hopefully I can get physical copies in your area.

So here's to the new chapter in this adventure.

-D.E.S. Richard

Friday, September 13, 2013

Road Rash

the classic returns!

In blog form, anyway. I spent countless hours on this beautiful motorcycle racing game with combat mechanics built in. I first played it on the 3DO, a system barely anyone remembers any more. The gist of the game is that you were in a motorcycle road race with, I believe, twelve or fourteen other computer riders. You could use a variety of weapons including clubs, crowbars, nunchuks, and cattle prods to knock them out of your way in an attempt to finish third or better. Failure to do so meant you had to repeat the race and could not proceed to the next level.

The version on the 3DO had one of the best soundtracks to any video game...ever! It's actually where a friend and I discovered Monster Magnet. It also contained Paw, Soundgarden, Swervedriver, and Therapy?, all of which made for a much more intense driving experience.


With the popularity of the game, six sequels were spawned over time. The next one that hooked me was on the original PlayStation. As you can see above, the graphics got considerably better on the newer machine, but the 3DO version and its soundtrack will always hold a special place in my heart. That said, I was just as addicted to the PS1 version as I was to the 3DO. I spent hours and hours knocking opponents with names like 'Skid' off their bikes with a chain.

Unfortunately, there hasn't been an original Road Rash game made since the Game Boy Advance put out a port in 2003. Come on, EA! This game is one of the best ever! Get off your duff and make a new one for the next-gen consoles we're all about to buy. Who doesn't want to see another Road Rash? Violence, illegal street racing, more violence. What's not to love? 

this is the end

No, seriously, I'm done writing. There isn't a lot to this game beyond the thrill-a-minute action and the flawless mechanics. They kind of tried to add a story in the later versions where you level up your bike and deal with specific NPCs in order to do so. I'm sure something like that will be required by today's sophisticated gamer. However, as long as you get the racing and the combat right, the rest is just gravy. Hope you enjoyed this little stroll down memory lane. Maybe some new games will come out soon that I can review (sigh!). 

the math

Objective Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for the best soundtrack this side of a Tarantino flick

Penalties: -1 for being maddeningly hard to level up on occasion. Remember back when you just couldn't beat a level, no matter how hard you tried? Well, this was made back then. 

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10 Standout in its category.