Saturday, May 30, 2009
Since this isn't exactly a diary blog (that's what Live Journal is for, and I've yet to make one of those), I'm not inclined to make a daily post about whatever the hell I'm thinking, unless what I'm thinking happens to be particularly interesting. And it helps when I've read a cool new book or seen a cool new movie, because then I can talk about it, but if I haven't then I've got a whole lot of nothing to say. On top of that, I have a beast of a paper due in about a week and a half, so perhaps my time is not best served at the present by thinking of ways to fill up a blog.
In any event, these considerations have led me to think of switching to a twice-a-week update policy. Wouldn't that be neat? I just have to be extra sure to produce content regularly to make it work, but it's probably a change that will come sooner or later.
I've also toyed with the idea of putting advertisements on this site. Granted, everybody hates ads, and I'd just as soon not look at them on one page of this blasted internet. However, most of the artists on the internet whose work I read contains some advertising content. Not only that, but Blogger likes to conspicuously remind me that I could be making money out of all this. At present, I really don't care enough to install this "Ad-sense" function to my page, but I can't guarantee I won't give in one day.
In other news, I tried an interesting experiment the other day. I'd written a couple of things that were mildly dark to depressing, and I worried that perhaps I was getting gloomy. So I decided to just write something silly, and somehow, it turned into four pages of romantic comedy. I'm not quite sure how to feel about that. I can't exactly claim that it's especially funny, but oddly enough, I like it. One day, it will appear on this site.
Monday, May 25, 2009
The buzzing was gone. I'd heard it the entire time I was flying, but it had suddenly come to a halt in the field. Was it a tractor beam? Like I'd been towed, by some interplanetary tug boat? Again, I paced the floor, pondering the incredible possibilities.
I found my jacket on the floor and put it on. Cautiously I crept toward the front door. I stared through the peephole for a while (silly, I know), until finally I gathered my courage. In one giant leap for mankind, I went outside.
The scenery was lightly forested with what looked like seasonal, broad-leaf trees; the leaves were autumn orange, and some of these lay scattered at the base of the tree trunks. However, neither the trees nor the blue-green grass underfoot looked like anything I'd seen on Earth. I plucked a blade and tasted it, and it seemed to be a real grass, though it was much sweeter than I expected. At least I won't starve, I thought.
I approached the pillar. It was perfectly cylindrical and towered above me, looking as though it really did stretch all the way to the sky. As I got close, I guessed that it must be about three meters in diameter. I admired its smooth, polished surface, gleaming silver-white in the sun, but wondered how so tall and thin an object could stand without toppling; there was a breeze to contend with, after all. I stopped short of touching it, unsure as I was of its function or purpose. Once more, I had a mystery.
In the distance, I heard the gentle sound of running water. I thought that I might find some animal life, and maybe store some water for my survival. After one last walk around the monolith, I set out in search of the stream.
Walking past my apartment, I made a note of its condition. To all appearances, it had been neatly separated from the rest of the building, so that it now resembled a modestly sized L-shaped house. The exterior walls appeared normally, but the walls which had been in the interior of the building now revealed their pipes, wiring, and insulation. The water and ga pipes ended abruptly, leading to nowhere. Once again I had to stop and wonder. I knew (at least, I thought I knew) that I had traveled millions of miles through space in this thing, but a wooden apartment with exposed pipes is obviously not a space-worthy vessel. And to think that the process of separation, which must have horrified witnesses on the street, hadn't even woken me up!
But these questions could not detain me, as I suddenly heard a new noise. It was the sound of whirring gears,perhaps as loud as a sports car rushing past on the street.Greatly startled, I looked about for the source of the noise. At last it struck me: the monolith was sinking into the ground!
I could now make out the top of it that silver spike, as well as the tiny black hole it had left behind. So, the sky was not a sky after all. It was a ceiling, perhaps painted to look like a sky. It seemed I was still in the ship's interior.
After no more than perhaps a minute, the top of the pillar was nearly even with the ground. It was then that I first saw my hosts. Atop the elevator (what else could the structure be?) stood three men. At first, I could not see their features, because the light of the sun (how could an artificial sky have such an authentic-looking sun?) shone from behind them; but I could see that they were very tall.
The elevator came to rest at ground level. In spite of my awe, I found myself slowly retreating toward the front door of my apartment. I must have known I could not hide from them, but I could hardly stand to see the three approach me.
They were tall. The man who stood in the center looked perhaps eight feet high, and the two who flanked him were shorter only by a foot or so. I say they were men, but they were clearly not human beings. Their skin was chalky white, and their hair was pale yellow. They had large heads, similar in width to a humans, but roughly square and stretched almost twice as far from chin to crown. Their hands were similarly proportioned, with four long, refined fingers each. The shorter ones wore light-green robes of a silk-like fabric, and each carried a sort of metallic briefcase. The tall one wore a grey robe of much rougher material, and his hands were empty.
I could not think of a single thing to say to them, and frankly it was a miracle that I could still stand on two feet. But the tall one spoke first, in clear, unaccented English.
"Greetings, human from Earth. Welcome to Elysia. We trust that your transportation was comfortable."
"You speak English?" I asked, amazed at what I was hearing, barely able to get my words out quickly enough.
"No. We have circumvented the language barrier to our mutual communication with the aid of a translation device. You will hear my words in English, and I will hear your words in the language of my people."
"Oh, well, I guess that makes sense."
"Human from Earth," he continued, "please walk with me, while my assistants restore functionality to your home's plumbing systems."
"Uh, yeah. That sounds like a good idea." It couldn't be like this, I thought. Why would these people be so accommodating? But no sooner had I replied than he was walking, and impulsively I followed.
After five minutes or so, we came upon the little stream that I had heard. It was clear enough to see through to the bottom, and it was actually quite deep, perhaps deep enough for swimming. I was disappointed to find no evidence of animals; I could not even hear any insects. As we followed a small path parallel to the bank, I stopped. The tall man kept walking for three or four paces, then came to a stop as well. I saw him turn and gaze upon the water; perhaps he also found it unsettling to hear no insects.
At last he faced me and said "I have fashioned this habitat for you to use while you remain on Elysia. Do you find it comfortable?"
"Yes," I replied, uncertainly, "but where is 'Elysia?' Where am I?"
"Elysia is the name of my research vessel. You are aboard it, and currently, Elysia is in orbit around the planet you call Mars."
"How long will I be here?"
"You will remain on Elysia for ten days, as we return to my planet. There you will disembark for further study."
I did not like the sound of that. The tall man's face changed slightly; it looked like a smile. "Depending on the progress of our research, you may be returned to Earth within a year's time."
The tall man began to walk again, and I followed. Soon we had returned to my apartment (or was it a house now?). I saw that the previously exposed pipes were now connected to the ground. "Now," explained the tall man, "water will flow in and out of your domicile, just as it was designed." The speed with which this project had been completed was astounding; it could not have taken more than ten minutes. The tall man's assistants were again standing at the spot where the silver pillar had sunk into the ground. I was led back to my front door, where my host again turned to face me.
"The sky has been designed to reflect the passage fo time in your native region of your planet. I will come to visit you daily for the next ten days. Please let me know if your habitat may be improved in any way. Now, farewell."
With that, he left to join his assistants. The same whirring of gears began, and the three swiftly ascended up to the heavens.
The "sun" was setting now. Accordingly, it was getting colder. I stood at my door for a while, awestruck and fearful, contemplating the elevator. Finally, I resigned myself to my strange voyage. I went inside to prepare my dinner. Once more, water flowed freely from my sink.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
I originally intended to wait until the English dub came out before watching this new show, titled Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, but when I learned of its easy availability on Hulu, I could not restrain myself. I thought the original English cast was excellent, and I hope everyone takes up their respective roles again, but of course the soul of the show was not in the dub. Having seen the first five (subtitled) episodes thus far, I thought I might write down some of my impressions (spoilers will be minor).
The show's basic premise is the same as before; the setting is a world, parallel to our own, where alchemy and the transmutation of elements is the dominant form of science, capable of producing dramatic changes in physical objects. Child prodigy Edward Elric (The "Fullmetal Alchemist") and his younger brother Alphonse are on a quest to discover the Philosopher's Stone, an alchemical artifact that can boost the power of their transmutations. They need it to restore their bodies to their original states: Edward's right arm and left leg are advanced mechanical prosthetics, while Alphonse has no body at all, his soul bonded to a hulking suit of armor. This is all the result of a failed attempt at a dangerous experiment; the brothers attempted to use alchemy to raise their mother from the dead. Partly as atonement, and partly to aid in the search for the stone, Edward has enlisted in the State Military as a certified alchemist, despite his young age (he receives his certification at the age of twelve; the bulk of the story takes place three years later).
The show surprised me in a number of ways from the beginning. Oddly, for a show that's supposed to follow the source material closely, the premiere episode is entirely invented. It's essentially a character introduction piece; we meet not only the Elric Brothers, but also various supporting characters (members of the State Military). The episode is heavily action-oriented, featuring a new villain (who finds himself dead before the credits roll) whose methods and motivation foreshadow one of the series' most important plot lines.
Like the first animated series (and again, unlike the original comic), this initial exposition is followed by an account of the death of the brothers' mother, and their tragic effort to restore her to life. Episode two might be called the Elrics' origin story, recounting the accident, Edward's recovery from the painful prosthetic surgery, and his certification as a State Alchemist. All of these events are depicted much the same way as in the comic, just much earlier on.
After this, the series changes gears, following the plot of the comic extremely faithfully. Excising two non-essential early chapters that did little to advance the plot, the show seems to be marching forward on an almost one-to-one basis with the comic. If that's indeed the case, then we've got a series with almost a hundred episodes on our hands (probably more).
While they're both quite entertaining, I found episodes one and two of Brotherhood to fit awkwardly in the show's narrative structure. The events of episode three, where Ed and Al depose a religious charlatan who deceives his followers with alchemy disguised as "miracles," are the first events of both the comic and the first animated series. The original story included the dramatic revelation of Edward's mechanical arm, as well as the brothers' troubled past. It's a very powerful scene, and it's preserved in Brotherhood. However, its emotional impact is greatly diluted by the first two episodes; even if Brotherhood is the viewer's first experience with the story, they will already know all about the arm and its origin. Starting the new series off with the same story as the other two might have seemed boring or predictable to the production team, but if you ask me, it would have made more sense in the larger scheme.
That said, episodes three, four, and five are fantastic adaptations. Brotherhood will likely dispense with the filler that plagued the first series' initial run; story wise, it's covered more plot in five episodes than the first series did in ten. There might be filler episodes in the future, but I think it would be a mistake to add them, given the wealth of material already available.
One thing that I think has improved from the first series is the visuals. The character designs have been simplified slightly, and seem to resemble the original comic book drawings more, although the resemblance to the first series is still very strong. What really impressed me, however, were the backgrounds, which oftentimes look almost like chalk drawings. Still, they manage to project a sense of realism.
I'm quite excited about the new series, but I have a strong sentimental attachment to the old one, and I'm a little concerned that it may be forgotten once Brotherhood has established itself. The comic book was always the superior version of the story (and I highly recommend it, even as companion reading with Brotherhood), balancing a dramatic story and memorable characters with exhilarating action and a (somewhat corny) sense of humor. But the first Fullmetal Alchemist adaptation was special too, subtly altering the original material and placing it (or perhaps transmuting it?) into a new context. The first Fullmetal series ran for 51 episodes, and while some of the changes made in the first half seemed arbitrary and pointless, they culminated in a significant alternative perspective by the series' end.
All three incarnations of Fullmetal Alchemist have a high degree of intelligence and heart. Brotherhood is an excellent adaptation, but it's a little disappointing to think that it won't be charting a new course, like its predecessor. However, there's still a great story to be told, and I can't wait to hear it again.
Friday, May 22, 2009
I wish I could say it was very intellectually productive, but we didn't really talk about anything we hadn't talked about before, and we covered a lot of the same ground twice. Still, I think we hit on something rather important: namely, the lack of any real ethics lessons in elementary education.
From our own experience, learning about ethics at that age mainly consisted in getting scolded when we did something wrong. I think teachers (and administrators) hesitate about dealing with ethics in anything other than a disciplinary setting, and of course, that teaches kids more about fearing authority than it does about the real intricacies of right and wrong. I'm not one to bemoan the ethical degeneracy of any particular generation, but I think society could always benefit from better, more considerate behavior, and that just doesn't seem like a priority today.
Is public school the place to learn about ethics and morals? I certainly think so. The way I see it, teaching kids why they should obey the law, respect their peers, and value productivity is at least as important as cooking up half-truths about the first Thanksgiving, or pretending that Christopher Columbus was some sort of hero. What is the cause of the economic recession, if not the abandonment of such basic values in the face of reckless greed?
Of course, it runs the risk of inviting the wrath of both ardent secularists and religious nut jobs to talk about an ethics curriculum. But the ancient Greeks had one, and they certainly weren't wrong about everything.
It wasn't all so heavy, though. We had lunch at a fantastic new burger joint (hooray for new businesses!) with sort of a 50's diner feel. We managed to work our way on campus and check out the state of our old stomping grounds at the dorms. We even put our names on the sign up sheet at the college radio station for a lark. And to top it all off, we went over to another friend's house and watched Time Bandits, possibly the greatest film about time-traveling, larcenous dwarves/angels(?) of the 1980s. Really, it's quite fantastic.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I recently came across this wonderful, wonderful piece of media, thanks to Mr. Aaron Diaz of Dresden Kodak fame (he's pretty amazing too, when he updates his comics on a regular schedule). Assuming my Spanish has not failed me altogether, "Labuat" is a musical collaboration by a collection of Spanish-language artists, including the lovely Virginia Maestro, and two fellows called The Pinker Tones.
What really amazes me about these guys, however, is that they've produced what is ultimately a music video game; not in the sense of a video game about music, which we have bajillions of anyway, but a music video that is also a game.
What we have here is a scrolling screen with a line of ink being drawn across it; the direction of the line is controlled by the user, who can move it up or down, side to side, and draw all kinds of shapes (I tried writing my name; it didn't come out so well). Meanwhile the music plays, and the game gives us all sorts of impressionistic effects, images leaping from the ink at lyrically opportune moments, and the volume of ink even varies with the mood of the song.
The effect of all this was that, as my ink trail danced across the screen, I almost felt like I was somehow producing the music myself; although my control of the events was actually quite limited, I felt thoroughly involved in it. What's more, my mistakes didn't matter; I had the ability to take risks, repeat successful maneuvers and quickly forget ones that didn't work out. It was creativity for creativity's sake, instantly disposable but endlessly repeatable, relentlessly moving forward and always ready for another go.
So go watch it, listen to it, play it, however you want to think about it. If you're not a musician, you'll feel like one for about three minutes. If you are a musician, you'll experience music visually and tactually in a highly original way.
By the way, here's a direct link to Labuat's website. If you dig the music, check it out!
Monday, May 18, 2009
When I awoke, the music was still Tchaikovsky's. I could not have been asleep more than about a half an hour.
But as I opened my eyes, I knew instantly that something had happened. The room was far too dark for mid-afternoon. Twisting on my side, I blinked and surveyed the room.
Out my window, I saw stars; bright, blazing stars, tracking across a dark sky at a slow, but impossibly speedy pace. For several minutes I stared. I might have been too sleepy, or perhaps it was more than I could comprehend at the time. As far as I could tell, the sun had simply vanished, and the distant stars were plummeting.
I was afraid, but even more so confused. A glance at the clock told me that, indeed, I had only been unconscious for thirty minutes. It was only five o'clock, far too early for stars or the night sky. Grasping for an explanation, I thought it might be an eclipse, but I knew it couldn't be true. The motion of the stars was unnatural. At last my curiosity would tolerate my ignorance no longer; I jumped up from the couch and made for the door.
Although the handle was unlocked, the door would not budge, and over the music I could discern an electric buzz from outside. My panic growing, I dashed to the window, desperate to know what was causing it all.
The familiar scenery; the building next to mine, the evergreen tree, all of these were gone. Up, down, left and right, I saw what could only be the depths of outer space. All those stars, unobscured by the hazy atmosphere of Earth, burned more fiercely than I could have imagined. For a brief moment, I heard the music waver, and saw my desk lamp dim. But it was only a moment, and they continued to function as they had. I stood transfixed.
The otherworldly hum grew much louder, just as the music grew quiet. It was time for the Dance of the Sugar Plumb Fairy. The stars were moving faster across my field of vision, and I soon realized that my apartment must have been rotating. The sudden appearance of the Earth, and then the moon, both receding slowly into starry oblivion, showed my hypothesis to be true. I watched my planet transit along my window plane. Truth be told, I had forgotten my fear. Perhaps I thought I was dreaming.
And then a blinding light, stronger than all the ferocious stars, pierced the glass and sent me reeling. I screamed, thoroughly frightened once more, I staggered around the corner, and hid in the hallway closet. Breathless and sweating, I I squeezed myself into a corner and shrank. I prayed for forgiveness as earnestly as I could, feeling like a sinner who'd seen the face of God.
For several minutes I cowered, until my senses recovered. I had seen the Earth and the Moon pass by; clearly, the face I'd seen must have been the suns. I stood up, shaking, and stepped out once more. Satisfied that I was no longer facing the sun, I rushed to the window and shut the blinds.
I could have fainted then, I was so overwhelmed. Slumped on the couch, I stared at my television. Though I knew I still had power, I assumed that I could not receive broadcasts from out in space. But how could I be sure? I was floating in infinity, but I still had electrical power. I still had gravity. My apartment had yet to experience explosive decompression. There was no reason for any of this to be true, just as there was no reason for me to be in space at all.
I switched on the TV. Met wit only static, I smiled at the first thing to make any sense. But once again I was scared. For more than ten minutes I'd floated impossibly. My cell phone had no reception (of course, I thought). I couldn't stop it, I didn't know where I was bound. For all I could tell, I'd magically been plucked from my home world and tossed into nothingness.
I didn't want to despair, but soon I was pacing back and forth, rubbing my face. I felt like I was burning up, but I found to my display that, along with my cable and my phone, my water was gone too. When I thought that I could survive only a few days, how could I help but despair?
The Nutcracker Suite had ended, and I shut off the machine. I didn't want to hear any more music.
When I was calm enough, I opened the window blinds once more. The stars moved more slowly now. I thought that I might have come to a rest, but I could hardly hope for a rescue. In less than an hour I'd been sent further from Earth than any man in history. I still had no idea how.
But in fact, my little spaceship was still turning. As improbable as it seemed, I saw an enormous vessel come in view, and at last it seemed to make sense. Somehow, I'd been abducted by aliens. Yes, that made sense. As I drew closer, there was nothing to do but laugh hysterically.
The vessel was like an elliptical saucer. At what I took to be its rear were two pods; engines, perhaps? The saucer tapered into a rounded point at the opposite end. Its exterior was a dusty grey, only barely reflective. Apart from that, it had no other features than a multitude of tiny windows.
Inside, I knew I'd been taken by aliens, and that I was at their mercy. As I drew closer and closer, I speculated as to their motives. I still could not understand. Guessing did no good, and I could not stop the inevitable, so once again I closed the blinds. I realized that I would likely have to represent the human race in some fashion, so I had better compose myself so as to play the role with some level of dignity.
Shortly, I became aware of a pale light shining through the blinds. Cautiously I peeked out of the window again. To my shock, I beheld a grassy field, sparsely dotted with trees, under a sunny blue sky. The balcony which led to my old stairs was now effectively a front porch. And perhaps fifty feet ahead of me, stood a gleaming silver pillar.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Now if you'll excuse me, it's my understanding that there is infinite coffee for students at Gary's on Sundays. "Infinite blank for students" is a formula I can really get behind.
* Due to the imminent deleting of the Game Informer Forums, you can't find it there anymore. But now, you can find it right here!
I'm stepping back a couple of generations from my last two reviews, back to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (the greatest home video game console in history).
Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars
Is there anything Mario hasn't done? If there is, it's surely only a matter of time before one of Nintendo's idea men writes it down on the big board. The famous plumber has now starred in about six games which could be called "role playing games," a genre which seems to be about as far from his home turf as you can credibly get. One wonders how much of the fun the player experiences is solely due to the main character's presence, but each of these games has been a generally solid genre exercise.
Super Mario RPG, the first of these games, has a fantastic pedigree. Produced by Shigeru Miyamoto and developed by Squaresoft, you couldn't ask for a more capable team. It's a hybrid operation, so there's a fair bit of platforming to go along with the turn based battles and the NPC interaction. It's an impressive combination, but the platforming is clearly the weak link in the gameplay. Mercifully, only a few stages offer a significant level of difficulty in this regard. The problem is that the player is given an (almost) three dimensional playing field, but can only move in eight directions. Precise jumping of the kind found in Super Mario 64 is simply out of the question.
The battles resemble those of the Final Fantasy series, but are strictly turn-based. Mario and various allies punch, jump, and use magic against various enemies. In addition, most actions require player participation to achieve their full potential. For example, a tap of the "A" button at the proper time will turn a regular attack into a critical hit, or allow the player to dodge the brunt of an attack. Other button patterns affect the performance of special moves. This feature reflects Miyamoto's traditional emphasis on player control, and gives you a reason to pay attention to the battle. Unlike Final Fantasy, it's not a practical solution to fight most battles by holding down the action button.
As RPGs go, it's not especially difficult. I only had real trouble on a single boss fight,which took me a grand total of three attempts to beat. The game does not seem to be out to get you most of the time. In fact, defeating enemies at certain times will grant you special bonuses for the battle's duration; sometimes the character's health points will be restored, or the character will be granted an extra turn (and sometimes two or three!). Healing items are almost too plentiful; I had a giant surplus of them for most of the game. Progress is linear, with only a few elements of backtracking, as well as some secrets to be discovered in towns and houses. It's a mass-market RPG for the younger crowd, and not necessarily for dedicated fans of the genre.
The story, as far as the plot goes, is not impressive. It's definitely a step up from Mario's usual "save the princess" formula, but by RPG standards it's thoroughly cliched. It shines more brightly at idiosyncratic moments, particularly with the introduction of the minor villain Boomer, a kinetic ball of insanity with a tenuous grasp on reality. The dialogue between Boomer and his minions is hilariously bizarre, a trait that would be repeated in subsequent Mario RPGs. The game's main villain, Smithy, is not especially important. He does not even show his face until the final battle, where he proceeds with some stereotypical banter about showing the world his "true form." It's kind of a shame, as his design (a malevolent royal blacksmith?) is pretty interesting.
Graphically, it's a technological marvel, outdoing most of Square's other work on the Super Nintendo. Characters and backgrounds are depicted in a quasi-3D style, vaguely reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country, but with an isometric perspective. The backgrounds in particular lend themselves to the sort of "playground" look that typically characterises the Mushroom Kingdom. Enemy monsters are rendered with the same level of animation as the main characters, for a more consistent look than most Super Nintendo RPGs. Many of the spell and attack animations are reminiscent of their Final Fantasy counterparts.
Like most Mario game soundtracks, this one leans heavily on nostalgic use of various classic melodies. However, there are some original tracks as well, composed by Squaresoft's own Yoko Shimomura, that blend in well with the others, while retaining a distinct RPG flavor. The battle theme, for instance, uses a melody that isn't terribly different from a classic Mario song, but with an insistent beat that resembles other Squaresoft battle themes. The boss battle themes tend to resemble the themes from minor bosses of Square RPGs.
Super Mario RPG is fun, and easier to get a grasp of than many games of its ilk; it wasn't my first RPG, but I'm sure it was many people's. It's simplicity may annoy those with a more refined palate, but as far as I'm concerned, there's no shame in simple pleasures.B
Saturday, May 16, 2009
One might think of the setting as Middle Earth in miniature, except that it's not really high fantasy; more of a mystery with a few fantastical elements like spirits, dwarves (or some sort of mountain-folk), and a monotheistic god of my invention. What I really want to get across with this story is the sense of wonder as a people rediscover their cultural and spiritual roots, via a return to the abandoned city of their ancestors. It should be pretty groovy.
So when will this story be ready for public munching? Not soon; I don't want to interrupt the progress of On the Second Floor, which will begin this Monday and continue with a new installment every week for twelve weeks. I intend to follow up that story with another poetry interlude, so the earliest that Mountain could get going would be in fourteen weeks.
However, On the Second Floor now stands at two thirds written, with the remaining four chapters already plotted. This gives me plenty of time to develop the concept further, into something quite different from anything I've attempted thus far. I'm looking forward to it.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Forty-three years ago, Star Trek introduced us to a new vision of the distant future, where freedom, tolerance, and democracy had triumphed over injustice; where all the nations of humanity could unite as one people, and furthermore, unite with all the (admittedly hypothetical) free peoples of the galaxy. The future of Star Trek is of a peaceful, socially enlightened Earth, and a universe alive with possibility and adventure. But we've heard all of that before. Star Trek didn't get as far as it did on rosy optimism, or even social commentary.
What classic Trek had, and what this movie revives so splendidly, was an iconic cast, and the most enduring, iconic space ship in American fiction, the U.S.S. Enterprise. The show always insisted that the vessel and its crew were both exceptional and exemplary, and the vivid characterization of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise's regulars reinforced this point time and again. The best thing about the new film is that it is not merely the saga of Captain Kirk; it is really about the formation of a legendary team. J.J. Abrams and his team have given Star Trek back its dynamism by going back to the very beginning, giving it even more youth and vitality than it started with.
Granted, this movie has its flaws. Despite the infinitely better production values, traces of the thick layer of cheese which coated the original series can still be seen. Chekov's accent has grown from mild to nearly incomprehensible. Scotty is played almost solely for comic relief. Kirk actually seduces a green woman. The imposing web of time travel and techno-babble will surely turn off some viewers who aren't accustomed to the franchise's flashy approach to science fiction (or science fiction in general).
However, at its heart Star Trek is a character drama, revolving around space travel's ultimate odd couple, James Kirk (Chris Pine) and Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto). We see them both as troubled children; Kirk, the fatherless delinquent, and Spock, the victim of bullying as a result of his mixed ancestry. Spock grows up to embrace the Vulcan philosophy of logic and achieves the esteem of his teachers, while Kirk nearly wastes his potential, only to come roaring into Starfleet like a comet of pure talent. In spite of their differences, what drives them is the same; a desire to find their place in the world, and to excel doing it.
That personal dimension goes along way in explaining the film's appeal. But let's not forget the inportance of the visuals, a critical element in the science ficition genre. Star Trek is colorful; the Enterprise bridge is appropriately bright and shiny, while the interior of the enemy Romulans' ship is dark and creepy. The movie is full of lights, shining naturalistically into the camera for a nice touch of realism (and only occasional blindness in the viewer). And of course, the special effects in outer space are a furious barage of phasers, fires, and stars zooming past at warp speed. It's a cavalcade of motion, possibly the fastest Star Trek yet filmed. This movie is a lot of things, and one of them is a genuine blockbuster; it aims to please the crowd. This should not detract, however, from its more serious nature.
So why is it one of the most important films of the year? The new Star Trek is more than an addition to the franchise; it's a new interpretation, one that has broken through the forty years of canon and history and lodged itself squarely in the mainstream. Unlike the Star Wars prequels, it hasn't sheathed itself in an impenetrable cocoon of continuity; it comes with few "nerd" strings attached. It's getting rave reviews, and is on track to make more money than any other film in the series. Not only is Star Trek being exposed to a whole new generation, but its audience has the potential to be even greater than the previous generation's.
In today's political environment, we face fearful challenges; global warming, terrorism, and the collapse of the world economy, just to name a few. Star Trek offers us a vision of hope, that not only will we overcome our present troubles, but that we will be strong enough to persevere no matter what the universe throws at us. Just as the original television series has come to stand for the ideals of the 1960s, so will the new film franchise come to represent our time, the first decade of a brand new century. One day, our own society may come to resemble the world of Star Trek. We will colonize planets, discover miraculous technologies, and find new life scattered throughout the galaxy. Even today, we live in a world that resembles Star Trek far more than it did four decades ago. Suddenly, the 23rd century doesn't seem so far off.
I have to admit, I found the movie's final scene very stirring. When Leonard Nimoy recited the show's famous monologue, culminating with the phrase, "to boldly go where no one has gone before," my spine tingled with excitement. The spirit of Star Trek is extraordinarily powerful, and it is alive and well today. I believe that we now have an opportunity to make that spirit our own.
Monday, May 11, 2009
I've had a passing interest in poetry for a while, but my previous attempts to write poems have been, in my own estimation, laughable. That said, when I began the project that was to become The Wave Function Junction, I was determined that poetry would be a part of it. And so I began a concerted effort at creating something of which I could be less than thoroughly ashamed. If these aren't profound, at least they're not too bad, I think.
Well, these ones are pretty bad. They're some of my first serious attempts, and so of course I fell all over myself writing them. The writing was not pretty. I'm sure I got better over time, but since these ones are barely good enough to qualify, I'm still going to share them. Meanwhile, you can keep looking forward to when I post the "good ones."
The first one, "Debt," is not exactly a poem, but it's odd prose, so I'm including it here.
Of all of these, I think "Apologies to John" is my favorite. This particular John is John Entwistle, and the apology is for envy; if I had a time machine, the first thing I would do with it would be to go back in time and steal his idea for the song called "905." There is however a second cause for apology; when I first wrote the poem, I had assumed it was written by Pete Townshend, and titled it "Apologies to Pete." Fortunately, I caught myself before I released such an abomination to the world, but I humbly beg the Ox's forgiveness.
Anyway, let's get this over with.
In days of peace my eyes are closed, but I see through my transparant lids. And I walk half-asleep, I see my future in the shade of a dream, and I am afraid. But sometimes I walk beside someone, and then my heart is at peace.
When the days are not so peaceful, I fret. I know it doesn't help, but I can't help it. I close my eyes and I can't see a thing, so I open them and mourn the past. Sometimes I wish tomorrow would start today, and my heart would be at peace.
Every day I check my bank account to see if I am overdrawn, like I once was, and soon will be again. The really sad thing is that life won't tell me how much I owe. Of course, I have my own estimation, but I'm not very good at math. So much for that.
A piece on the piano plays, soft and unassuming,
It means so much to me
A little louder now,
Now soft once more,
Sorrow speaks to me
It means so much to me,
And to a precious few who've heard it
It speaks without words;
As I strive for significance,
I realize in time
My words are not significant,
But my words are mine
The mystery that is me,
A truth I almost see
I am most surely not,
But it would explain a lot
When I take a pen in hand,
I gather all my thoughts,
But they scatter in the sand
Like easy rhymes I bought
Bought them at a corner store,
Set them on my page,
Took the credit, took the glory,
But everything I do has been done before.
I drove my car from the high street
And the rain fell down like snow,
It was well past four
The air was cold with moisture
And the dampened streetlights glowed,
It began to pour
Safe in bed I thought of others,
And then I went to sleep.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
So instead I made this blog post, knowing that, even if my readership were to consist of only one person (and I don't know how to count you, so I sort of have to assume it does), that person would be Mom.
Happy Mother's Day, Mom! Everything is fine here. The apartment is not quite as dirty as the last time you visited. Also, I got all the light bulbs fixed, so it's less of a spooky cave now. I'll see you again in a couple of weeks. Don't rent out my room. Also, here's a kitty I found here:
Now, for the rest of you hypothetical readers; my first batch of poetry will be up tomorrow. They're not very good, but most poetry isn't. Enjoy!
Monday, May 4, 2009
My cellmate said nothing; he just seized the pistol and the key from the dead jailer and walked quickly over to the desk. The woman followed him, and I followed her, hoping to keep some distance between myself and the gun-toting maniac. He forced open the drawers, and pulled out another pair of pistols. He handed one to her; she hesitated for a moment, and then accepted it. He turned to offer one to me. I looked at his shoulder. He'd been hit by one of Sgt Copeland's bullets, and blood oozed from his wound.
"No!" I shouted, and stumbled back toward the cell. I couldn't hold back my tears now. "No, we can't go! They'll kill us!"
"They'll kill us if we stay," he said, approaching me, slowly. The woman watched the door warily. "We have to move," she said, almost in a whisper.
"You idiot!" I screamed, "you knew damn well we'd never get out of here alive! This is stupid! This is suicide!"
"Live free or die," he said, pressing the pistol flat against my chest. I took it.
A pair of soldiers then came through the door. No sooner had their faces been visible but our mad liberator had lodged two bullets in their brains. We ran.
It did not take long before my prophecy began to come true. Another pair of soldiers stepped out from behind a corner and fired at us. I ducked, but our man returned fire, killing both of them in no fewer than four shots. Immediately, he fell to the floor himself, shot through the heart. We left him there to bleed.
In my imagination, the entire U.S. army was hot on our heels, but there could not have been many troops in that place. We moved frantically, but we moved unhindered, through the oil-splotched maze, until at last my companion ducked into a closet, marked 1777. I followed her in.
The closet was empty but for ourselves and some cardboard boxes. Tired and breathing heavily, we sat on those boxes, our fingers clutching our ill-gotten guns, our eyes fixed desperately on the door in the insufficient light of a worn-down bulb. We tried to be quiet, but our hearts could have woken the dead.
Over time, who knows how long, the serenity of my inertia came over me. I was hidden, I was armed, I was not alone. Aside from my need for food (and who's to say what those boxes contained?) and some other awkward practicalities, I might have hidden in that closet for a long, long time. And why not, when escape meant death and surrender meant worse? How could I possibly make that choice?
At last she spoke: "what do we do now?"
I placed my left hand on my cheek, letting my gun dangle limply from my right. "I don't know," I said, struggling to keep my composure, afraid that I should look afraid. But why, when she had already seen my fear?
I looked over, to see her face. She was not looking at me, or the door, or the floor; she didn't seem to be looking at anything at all. In the poor light of the little room she looked small, and she trembled, ever so slightly. I forgot myself and did not consider whether it was rude to stare, but I watched as her hair seemed to melt into the shadows. All that remained was the side of her face, and her cheeks, flushed red with danger, were now returning to their natural shade of pale.
I said, "if you want, we could surrender."
"No," she said, as her voice at last betrayed the true extent of her fear. She turned to me, "no, we couldn't." Softly, I agreed.
So we sat, and we thought. "We can't take the stairs," I said at length, "they'll be guarded."
"Yeah," she said, and I could tell that she had already considered it. So I thought some more, and recalled the machines that had drowned out the sound of the crowd as I was led to this place.
"Do you remember if there was a service elevator?"
She looked up suddenly, as if trying to recall. "Yes," she said, "I saw it when they took my blindfold off. I don't think it was guarded." Her eyes took on a look of wildness, vaguely like that of the man who'd led us out of that dismal cell. I wondered to what lengths she might go, but there was no question now that her mind was made up. I told her that I would accompany her.
We rose, cautiously. Before I opened the door, I told her my name. Choking back a tiny lump, I asked for hers, and she told me her name was Elaine.
We worked our way slowly through the labyrinth, holding our pistols nervously and stopping frequently at the sound of boots echoing through the halls. Our own feet, clad only in socks, made a softer sound, but we knew full well that any noise at all might do us in. We didn't know which way to go; we had no spool of thread, no bread crumbs to guide us; but we moved forward.
We came to a small foyer that I recognized as the place where my blindfold had been removed. Aside from the stairs, there were three prominent exits from this room. There were a number of fairly stout pillars, and we moved carefully one to the next. A pair of soldiers came from one hall and left through another; we stood as still behind our hiding spots as we could manage.
We found the elevator at the back of the room, just to the left of the base of the staircase. I stood watch, glancing furtively at each of the room's exits in turn, while Elaine called the lift. I could see that we were on the fifth basement floor; remarkably, there were two floors still below us. Perhaps, I thought, I was not in so deep as it seemed. The elevator rose to meet us, and we climbed aboard, setting course for the ground floor.
The lift rose slowly, far too slowly, and I shook to think how easy it had been. Surely they would discover us, stop us short of our goal. But the elevator rose, and did not stop. Elaine turned to me, and I saw the fatal spark in her eyes. She said to me, "if they're waiting for us, we shoot. If not, we leave the guns here and walk out, slowly." I didn't want to shoot anybody, but I nodded to her. We finally reached the top.
The door slid open, with no one there to greet us. I cast a sidelong glance to Elaine, and she returned it; we quietly placed our guns on the floor and walked out of the elevator.
I could see the public areas of the airport, where the travelers milled about impatiently, at the end of a long hall. Sunlight poured in through the windows at our sides. In the distance, I could see only a frail ribbon of tape to separate us from our freedom. Elaine increased her pace slightly, and I matched it. We could see the beginnings of the security line as it branched from the undifferentiated mass of men and women that now flooded the terminal. The yellow tape warned, "caution."
There were voices behind us, and the heavy sound of running boots. We'd been found out, of course.
"Run!!" she shouted, and we ran, as though our legs were not our own, all previous limits disregarded and discarded in desperate flight. We were guilty, obviously guilty, of all that we were accused and more; that would be clear to anyone who saw us. But the people gave no notice as we ran, jumped, and dove into their midst.
It would be impossible to say how long I remained submerged within the mob. I crawled and creeped among bodies and baggage; rose to my feet for precious air, and sank once more for fear of being spotted. I saw the exit, but only dimly, as my head swam from the stench of sweat and a thousand perfumes. The PA system let out a few squealing, obnoxious blurts from time to time. I tripped over a roller-suitcase. Babies screamed in my face, seeking from me the attention their parents withheld.
I tried to reach the exit, but it's more accurate to say I was washed ashore there. I stumbled hastily out of the clutches of the crowd, to dry my body under the brightly shining sun. Still I went unnoticed; even the cops paid me no mind. I bent over to catch my breath.
As the furious roar of the blood in my head subsided, I heard the bustle of the crowd behind me, and ahead of me, the crashing of the ocean's waves. Above my head, I heard the benign squawking of the gulls, as they circled in search of their food, the waste products of the earthbound creatures beneath. I stood there, shoeless and unnoticed.
Our liberator (would I ever know his name?) was dead. So were five American soldiers. Elaine was nowhere to be seen. I was free. I was alone. Had I been foolish? I stepped out to the curb, and looked for a taxi, but stopped, recalling that the soldiers had taken my wallet.
As I pondered the difficulty of completing my escape without my missing property, I slowly became aware that I was no longer being ignored. Paranoia gripped the edge of my mind, and I cautiously turned myself to find my observer.
To the southwest, the glare of the sunset turned all the forms and shapes to shadows in my eyes. But I shielded my eyes with my hand like a visor, and I saw the one who watched me. A single man, motionless amongst the the teeming masses, stood perhaps twenty yards away from me. I could not see his expression clearly, but his steely, blue eyes were perfectly visible, and through them I understood his purpose clearly.
We stared at each other for a moment's eternity, until at last I turned and fled for my life. The sun's fire was at my back, and ahead of me lay only ambiguous twilight. If I'd trained for this race for my entire life, I could not have run any faster than my legs carried me then. It could not have taken him more than fifteen seconds to catch me.
He seized me by the arms and wrestled me violently to the ground, and at last I began to attract the attention of some onlookers. With my arms subdued I tried to kick him off, but to no avail.
"Easy son," he said, "this is the end of the line."
I kicked and struggled some more, but still I made no progress. The crowd had gathered around us, but by now security had arrived, and the officers were forming a perimeter to keep the innocent people away. I didn't know why they didn't arrest me right away.
"Let me go!" I shouted, staring into my captors eyes, and suddenly I understood. The man who had foiled my plans for freedom was none other than Steve Kilroy, that admirable man and war hero. Why was he there, at a time like that?
Kilroy remained firm. "We've all got to answer for the things we've done. This is your time!"
"I haven't done anything!"
"Then why are you running?"
I shut my eyes and clenched my fists, praying for some small, final escape, but none was forthcoming, and my shallow breaths grew deeper. I felt suddenly that I was no longer constrained, and I opened my eyes. Captain Kilroy now stood over me, offering his hand to help me up. I took it.
The security officers kept their distance; they knew who was in charge. The interested crowd had mostly been dispersed. Cars in the street passed by, looking for a space on the curb to stop. Once again, we were invisible. Kilroy's presence was dominating, and though he was not much taller than me, I felt utterly small and powerless. The sun was setting; time was running out.
I tried to explain things to him, but where to begin, how could I? I'd consorted with terrorists, and I was as good a terrorist myself. My mouth was dry and I had no words, but at last he broke the silence.
"You have nothing to fear from me."
From him? From them? What difference did it make? I looked around, at the men who guarded against my escape, who kept their distance, waiting for the celebrated captain's orders. He was silent now, and for a long time I was too. He was remarkably patient.
"Please," I said, "help me."
Sunday, May 3, 2009
I've got some college-type work in the library tomorrow, but the second half of A Young Man's Tribulation will still be posted by tomorrow evening.
*Actually, you can't anymore, because everything there got deleted. So you can find it right here instead.
Yet another of these; this one shouldn't be so long as the first one.
May Hero-ness Be With You!
Viewtiful Joe is a game with very few pretensions, beyond being an enthusiastic parody/homage to comic books, action movies, and things that go boom on a screen. The colors are garish, the characters are one-dimensional, the plot is nonsensical; the game makes no apology for these things, and needs none. This is a game of nearly constant motion and action, a tribute to the most maligned pop arts with a healthy sense of humor and fun.
2D brawlers and platformers were long out of fashion in 2003, but then, Viewtiful Joe is unabashedly retro. There's a largely familiar, predictable system of levels, stages, checkpoint, bosses and minibosses. Most of the scenarios are copies of film or video game cliches, from creepy castles to space stations, from sinking subs to runaway trains. There's a Metroid-esque escape scene, and the plot is the most venerable of all video game tropes: "save the princess." If the question is style versus substance, then Viewtiful Joe's answer is emphatically style, but even the minimal substance is built on sturdy foundations. Some cliches, however, it might have done without. Level Six is a boss-battle recap, perhaps the most noxious of all game conventions. The fact that the level ends with a significantly more difficult new boss doesn't make it any better.
Joe (the hero) has a number of super powers, but the game is well aware of the first rule of super heroics; a hero's most important power is his ability to look cool while fighting guys in spandex. Joe's powers are designed with this in mind; he can slow down time for Matrix-style bullet dodges, speed up and make multiple images of himself, or zoom in for a dramatic close-up (and magnify the power of his punches and kicks).
Of all of these, the most useful and visually appealing is slowing down, which allows the player to defeat enemies in combinations and rack up big points. However, all the powers are useful in combat, and most of the game's puzzle solving elements require their use. For example, Joe can light torches by punching them at high speed, or increase the size of an explosion with slow. The use of these powers is the real meat of the game, at their best producing spectacular imagery and flowing together with the kind of acrobatic grace the game strives so hard to evoke. Unfortunately, you can't leave them on forever; a gauge decreases while a power is in use, until they run out, and you must do without them for a few seconds.
As in most platformers, the stages are strewn with collectible items, some of them useful (VFX reels increase the duration for which you can use your powers), some of them not so much (coins do.....nothing). Points are critical, as they allow you to purchase new moves and extra lives, adding even more incentive to use (and abuse) Joe's fabulous powers. Sometimes it's hard to tell why you scored lower on any given stage than you expected, but the game really does seem to consider the aesthetics of your attacks to be paramount.
Viewtiful Joe is often praised for its visuals, which have the look of a pulp comic come to life. When Joe's powers run out, the screen temporarily takes on the grainy, scratchy look of old film. Heroes and villains alike strike dashing poses during cinematics, and stylistic effects like motion lines leap out at every opportunity. Flat colors and thick black lines dominate the palette, for a distinctly adolescent look. It's bold and campy and beautiful.
Likewise, the sound is strongly evocative of the material. The voice acting is cheesy, but deliberately so, and Joe sounds like a nerd whose wildest dreams have come true as he cheerfully puts out one-liners and praises his own impeccable style. The game also includes a music video for a song called "Viewtiful World" after the credits, which seems superfluous. The rest of the soundtrack is appropriate, but mainly forgettable.
It must be said that this game is absurdly hard. There are two modes, "Kids" and "Adults." Kids is guaranteed to kick your ass at least once. Adults is simply not for those with anger issues. I just beat Kids mode in about two and a half hours, dying more times in the last two levels than I care to admit, but ultimately muscling my way to the final boss. Indeed, the game becomes significantly less "viewtiful" in the end, as enemies become obnoxiously numerous. I'll admit it, I suck, but getting knocked around is still less fun than opening a beautiful can of whoop ass. I suppose it's relative.
If you choose to play through a second time, the game starts you off with all the upgrades you acquired on the way. Whether you choose to proceed right away ultimately depends on your tolerance for punishment, but you'll probably feel the urge to return to Movieland after a while.A
Saturday, May 2, 2009
That said, if you are reading, and you're liking, and you have a keyboard, and fingers, I'd love to hear your comments.
This week was productive, from a writing standpoint. I put the finishing touches on A Young Man's Tribulation, and the second half of that story will be on the site by Monday afternoon. In addition, I wrote a few poems, as well as a new chapter in my "novella," titled On the Second Floor. OSF shares some themes in common with YMT, but on the whole the tone is broader, as befits a longer work. It's a space opera with a twist, one that I think will resonate with a lot of people.
There are twelve planned chapters, and as of yesterday six have been written to my satisfaction. Unfortunately, it's been somewhat slow going in completing this story. The first chapter is the oldest work in my binder from my current writing experiment (dating back to December, 2008). There are a few older works in the binder, but they all go back a while, before the Wave Function Junction was conceived in my mind. I think we can expect to see On the Second Floor's first chapter on this page by May 18th, after the completion of A Young Man's Tribulation and a poetry interlude. By then I will have completed a few more chapters if my current work ethic holds up.
Fortunately, I have succeeded in establishing a healthy back log of material, more than two months worth if I pace it right. This will allow me to go through comparatively fallow periods and still keep a steady flow on this site.