Monday, November 12, 2018

Comfortable Dystopians and Their Comfortable Friends: An Update

A small follow-up to my January 2018 entry on Margaret Atwood: Steven Galloway, the author and (ex-) professor whom Atwood defended in the Globe and Mail, has sued the woman who accused him of sexual assault and about two dozen other people (at least some of them students or people of limited means) who supported the accuser’s claims in writing. Galloway was partially exonerated* by a 2016 legal investigation, and paid 200,000 dollars by his former employer. His current suit alleges that his accuser and critics are inflicting expensive and legally actionable damage on his reputation. Galloway’s critics argue that he is using the court filing to silence people without the financial means to contest the suit.

Perhaps. If so, Galloway has reckoned without the power of Internet-based crowdfunding. A Gofundme campaign has raised (as of this writing) over $US 67,000 to pay the defendants’ legal fees. Some of my readers may believe Mr. Galloway has been hard done by; for the rest, I offer a link to the campaign website.

* The investigator, Hon. Mary Ellen Boyd, determined that Galloway was guilty of harassment and an inappropriate relationship with a student. Others have accused him of bullying behavior and slapping a student.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Geek TV

When the HBO series Game of Thrones premiered in 2011, no-one predicted (AFAIK) its immense and enduring popularity. I figured the show would last about three seasons, make a little money, and fade out, remembered by sci-fi fans and cosplayers but not the general viewership. Instead it has become more popular than The Sopranos, bringing HBO twenty-five million viewers per episode and a billion dollars per season. According to The AV Club (h/t my brother Patrick, a fellow scifi fan), HBO, Hulu, Amazon, Netflix, Apple TV, and every other network with capital the spare has decided to fling their money at any new science fiction or fantasy series they can find. Geek TV is now the leading edge of the American media sector, with 43 new SF/fantasy series in planning or production.

My excitement about this news is tempered by my experience of many, many disappointing adaptations of genre classics, like Syfy’s amateurish Earthsea, Amazon’s boring Man in the High Castle, the bastardized film version of I, Robot, the dreary BBC Gormenghast miniseries (granted, I didn’t like the originals there), the bloodless and over-budgeted Golden Compass movie of 2007, the abominable Kindred: The Embraced series in the 1990s, and, further back, David Lynch’s hot-mess film adaptation of Dune. It is very easy to imagine the producers of any or all of these programs screwing up the transition from page to screen.  

In some cases I don’t suppose it matters much. I doubt, for instance, that The Wheel of Time or Snow Crash will ever make it to television, the former because of its unwieldy source material (2,782 characters? Yeesh), the latter because cyberpunk has become nonfiction. In other cases the original source material isn’t (IMHO) as good as the fans and critics say. Good Omens, whose TV version sounds like a done deal, is based on a middling-fair novel by two underperforming authors: Terry Pratchett never wrote a good collaborative story and Neil Gaiman was still at the start of his career. The Sirens of Titan was an amusing romp but far from Vonnegut’s best novel. The Foundation Trilogy and Ringworld have become classics, where “classic” is defined as “a book people frequently talk about but seldom read.” I agree with the AV Club writers that Asimov’s Foundation and Empire has the elements of a good story, but the rest of the series is heavy on didactic speech-making and shallow world-building. One might make a similar observation about Ringworld: the 1980 sequel, Ringworld Engineers, actually tells a better story than its predecessor, one with a greater variety of settings and alien races and an actual, y’know, plot. If the TV versions of these novels (Ringworld Engineers excepted) prove mediocre, that won’t necessarily make them worse than the original books.

All that said, I do hope the adaptation of Iain Banks’s Culture novels is done well. If the director and writers manage to incorporate the author's dry sense of humor and his love of anachronistic or steampunk-ish elements - clifftop castles, brass locomotives, cruel nobles, rusting bridges and iron warships - they could probably turn Consider Phlebas into at least as good a show as the BBC adaptation of Iain Banks's The Crow Road (1996). Read a little Douglas Adams, watch a few old episodes of Dr. Who, and I think the rest follows.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Battlezone's Virtual Reality

Asked to explain his inspiration for "cyberspace," the virtual-reality datasphere in which the characters of his early fiction spent much of their time, William Gibson explained that he'd gotten the idea from watching video gamers. In the arcades of the early 1980s, young people by the millions stood mesmerized by the new digital realities unfolding before them, immersed more fully in those worlds that the real one. Some early videogames encouraged this immersive experience by offering a first-person perspective (as in early auto-racing games, for instance), or using external focusing hardware, like periscopes, to block out more of the dull external world.

Some did both. One of the most successful early "virtual reality"  games, Battlezone (1980), used a periscope, a first-person perspective, and a three-dimensional manifold to give players a more focused and immersive experience than any preceding title. Battlezone's 'world" didn't offer much complexity or detail - just enough to maintain one's focus and interest. Players drove a laser-shooting tank through a flat, faintly unearthly landscape, with a moon hanging low in the sky above distant mountains. They dodged polyhedral boulders and destroyed enemy tanks, missiles, and the occasional flying saucer hovering briefly near the horizon. Controls were simple: just a firing button and two joysticks, one to control the player's tank and one its turret. The two independent modes of movement allowed one to move in one direction while looking and shooting in another, surveying and scooting about the landscape like an infantryman. The graphics seem primitive by modern standards, but the blocky, monochromatic, wire-frame images of Battlezone were state-of-the-art computer animation in 1980. Indeed, John Carpenter and the designers of Escape from New York assumed they would remain so until at least 1997.

BZ never acquired the cachet of more popular titles like Space Invaders and Pac-Man, but it did produce a spin-off simulator for the U.S. Army, and many later versions of the original game with updated graphics. I suspect, given William Gibson's original observation about videogames and cyberspace, that it provided some inspiration for cyberpunk stories like Gibson and Michael Swanwick's "Dogfight" and Walter Jon Williams's "Panzerboy." I am also fairly certain fond memories of Battlezone inspired Stu Maschwitz to make "Tank," a short retro-SF film pitting fighter pilots against a seemingly-indestructible supertank. Watching "Tank," I was reminded why early video and computer games left such a mark on American geeks of a certain age (middle-aged, now): their (necessarily) high level of abstraction forced gamers to fill in sensory gaps with their own imaginations, which made it likelier for offerings like Battlezone or Zork to inspire us to create our own works.* Modern electronic games are better and smarter in many ways than their predecessors, but the enormous amount of expertise and money they require makes them less amenable to the kind of imaginative "tinkering" that Maschwitz does.

* My brother and our friend Andrew spent a good deal of time in the '80s crafting text-only computer games, some of them quite ambitious

Monday, July 30, 2018

Watch It All Decay

I remember the 1970s as an odd, dispiriting time. (Better to have grown up during that decade in America, rather than in contemporary Cambodia or Uganda, but I digress.) The cultural zeitgeist was one of entropy, decadence, and decline. The president was a depressing nobody, tolerated mainly for the contrast he provided to the villainy of his predecessors. Public places all seemed dirty or sticky or too dangerous for children. Adults were angry or drunk all the time. Books were cheap and disposable, television mostly awful, especially children's shows. 

The aura of decay extended to science fiction, ostensibly a genre of hope, and to its real-life manifestation, the American space program. Consider: during my formative years as a reader and media consumer, roughly ages 5 through 10, not a single American traveled into space. The last Moon landing took place when I was a toddler, and I was also too young to remember Skylab or Apollo-Soyuz. By the late 1970s I had come to suspect that even the nascent Shuttle program was a sham. (My father or mother, or perhaps a teacher, had told me that the Enterprise was just a test model that had to be carried on a 747.* I extrapolated from this my belief that the Shuttle program was an expensive fake.) I was genuinely shocked when the Columbia first went into orbit in April 1981, having firmly believed that there would be no more manned American space flights in my lifetime. 

I suspect I wasn't the only person to think this, which perhaps is what makes late '70s films about the space program such significant artifacts. Manned space flight, they suggested, was as obsolete as 40-cent gasoline. Capricorn One (1977), which I saw on my eighth birthday, postulated a faked Mars landing, staged in order to save both NASA's budget and the lives of astronauts who otherwise would have died from botched engineering. Meteor (1979), a B-movie with a cast of has-beens, saw an American deep-space mission destroyed by the eponymous death rock. Facing a world-killing collision of the meteor with Earth, the Americans and Soviets then had to join forces to destroy the oncoming threat with their secret nuclear space platforms. The implication was that space was primarily a place of destruction, suitable mainly for military installations - a point perhaps not lost on future president Ronald Reagan. Salvage (1979), a TV movie that Christopher Mills's blog recently brought to my attention, saw a privately-built rocket travel to the Moon to recover, for sale back on Earth, the remains of one of the Apollo landers. The pride of the American nation had now become just another way for some plucky junkmen to make a buck.

Collectively, such films characterized the United States as a land of failure, shoddiness, ass-covering, greed, and nostalgia. This surely made them successful with adults and critics, but did nothing to inspire children. Give George Lucas this much credit: Star Wars very much cut against the grain of American popular culture and of science fiction during the decade of its release.

(Images above are from and Rotten Tomatoes, respectively.)

* Actually, I think I had a toy space shuttle mounted on the back of a 747 when I was 8 or 9. It reinforced my perception of fakery.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Future Is Not What You Think: H.M. Hoover

I am pleased to report the republication (in e-book format) of the young adult sci-fi novels of Helen M. Hoover.  Nearly all of her books had been out of print for 30 or 40 years, and if I am typical of my generation they left a lasting impression on thousands of readers.

Hoover was by no means a perfect writer. Plot was not her strong suit, or more precisely she didn't seem that interested in it. Her stories moved forward at a rather languid pace, even when the characters were in the midst of a rescue operation or a war. This gave her time to describe settings, which she did quite well - misty marshes at dawn, dense forests, decaying mansions, smoky wooden lodges - along with the vividly imagined animals (creeping molluscs, wild pigs, bewildered alien birds) that inhabited them. Her characters also tended toward flatness and disposability, though she usually included a few exceptions, like the cunning and brutal Major in Children of Morrow and the world-weary grandfather in The Shepherd Moon. This particular flaw she shared with most SF writers. Like them, Hoover primarily wanted her books to explore ideas, ideas that would challenge readers' expectations and leave them unsettled.

Her earliest novels, Children of Morrow and Treasures of Morrow (1973/1976), featured a conflict between two post-apocalyptic societies, one ("the Base") superstitious and patriarchal, the other (the Morrow community, "Lifespan") high-tech, egalitarian, and psychically sensitive. Children presented readers with a straightforward rescue mission and a clear set of heroes and villains, but its sequel blurred the line between the two somewhat, as a follow-up Morrow expedition to the Base trashes the impoverished inhabitants' sacred shrine and threatens their survival. Hoover more clearly challenged the "technological/sensitive/good versus primitive/brutish/bad" dichotomy in her later novels. The Delikon (1977), which takes place after a successful alien invasion of Earth, describes the humans' subsequent overthrow of their alien masters from the standpoint a Delikon, a genetically modified alien who is trying to teach human children the ethics of her people. Hoover makes clear that neither side has a monopoly of virtue or villainy; the Delikon value beauty and harmony but have imposed their will by force, the humans are grubby philistines but are also seeking genuine freedom. Another Heaven, Another Earth (1981) inverts the central tropes of Hoover's early novels even more thoroughly. The inhabitants of the lost colony of Xilin are tall, graceful, fond of natural beauty and fulfilling work; their high-tech rescuers from Earth are overbearing and aesthetically crude, interested primarily in profit and glory.* The Shepherd Moon (1984) brings together two societies that are both fundamentally flawed, predicated on artificial scarcity, abuse of children, and indifference to suffering - and tells their story through an antagonist who liked the status quo and a protagonist who has no idea how to change it. Like the best young-adult writers, Hoover is unafraid to pose questions and conundrums that make the most sanguine adults uncomfortable.

*  The novel does make it clear, however, that the Elf-like colonists' lives are unsustainable: the alien environment is slowly poisoning them, shortening their lives and curtailing their fertility.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Games That Don't Suck: Clank!

While the archetypal fantasy plot is probably the quest, the archetypal fantasy gaming plot is almost certainly the dungeon crawl, a search for treasure and magic in an underground ruin, populated by monstrous beasts and humanoids. I’ve written elsewhere about the Cold War and sci-fi influence on this old and important stereotype. One of the earliest fantasy board games, Dungeon (which your humble narrator first played forty years ago), essentially sent players onto a dungeon map to defeat monsters and take their stuff. Dungeonquest, Talisman Dungeon, and One Deck Dungeon rang their individual changes on this theme, as did the byzantine and lavishly (over)produced Descent.

If I feel in the mood for some dungeon-crawling, as an old D&Der sometimes does, my go-to game is now likely to be Clank!, a new offering from Renegade. The 2016 title has a familiar premise: players descend into a warren of caves and chambers beneath an old castle, fight monsters, steal various forms of loot, and escape. The game board depicts treasure rooms, secret rooms (with various secret prizes), crystal caves (which stop forward movement), and an underground market (because why the hell not) where adventurers can buy keys and backpacks and other goodies. Connecting hallways turn the dungeon into more of a maze, with extra-long corridors, guarded corridors, locked corridors, and one-way corridors to navigate, unlock, or foil.

The game mechanic that makes this title elegant, strategic, and rather unusual is deck-building, the same playing feature at the core of Dominion. Players start Clank! with a weak deck representing their resources and actions: skill points to buy new cards, swords to fight guards and monsters, and boots to move from room to room. On each turn, each player draws five cards from his/her deck, plays them in any order, and then discards their played hand and any newly-bought cards. Before the game begins, players lay out five cards from the game’s master deck, representing monsters they can fight (for gold, usually), new skills or equipment they can buy with skill points, and gems and other treasure that build their victory point total. Purchased or defeated cards are replenished after each player’s turn.

The game’s clumsy title refers to another aspect of play that makes it much more of a treasure hunt and survival match than a hack-and-slay festival: an invulnerable central enemy. Within Clank!’s dungeon resides a powerful dragon whom the players must evade, even as they steal her treasures and (sometimes) her dragon eggs. Whenever the players make noise – and there are many action cards that generate noise (or “Clank”), they must put one or more cubes of their own color into a box on the game board. Certain cards contain a “dragon attacks” icon; when a player reveals one, everyone places their cubes in an opaque bag and draws out a number of cubes equal to the current “threat level.” Each drawn cube of a player’s color inflicts one wound on that player; ten wounds put them out of the game. Play starts with some black dummy cubes already in the bag, representing missed attacks. As the game progresses and the players collect treasures, the dummies are exhausted and the threat level (number of cubes drawn) increases, making each dragon attack likelier to injure someone. In addition, once a player leaves the dungeon, automatic dragon attacks occur on each of those player’s subsequent turns until the other players escape or are knocked out. Clank! thus includes a press-your-luck feature, a nice mechanic to have handy if a player is behind on victory points and wants to take a risk on a knock-out victory.

Clank! currently retails for $50-60, not including two supplements (which I haven't tried) and the over-elaborate (IMHO) sci-fi version Clank In Space. As with Dominion or Pandemic, the sticker price may seem a little high, but one will get more game play and far more entertainment out of it than a less expensive and more generic title.