The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

heartgoeslastThere’s an uber-recession in the near future that devastates the US, especially the northeast. Everyone loses their jobs, their houses. Crime abounds. Night-time comes to resemble something between A Clockwork Orange and The Walking Dead. Only the very rich manage to flourish, more or less buying everyone else. But there’s a light amidst the darkness. Some well-funded entrepreneur has created Consilience. A dual-role town where residents spend half their time in vanilla, safe, picketed 1950s houses and then every month swap to becoming inmates in Positron Prison. The reason this is a stunning economic boon and the cure to all ills is murky and the narrative never gives a sufficient surface explanation and instantly we know there is something sinister behind the scenes.

But naturally, early 30s married couple Charmaine and Stan, living in their car, barely keeping ahead of the mob, and in desperate need of regular showers sign right up to become residents/inmates, because anything beats transience and fear.

The first half of this book is a bland and unconvincing relationship drama with dull, pitiful characters. The second half is a sci fi caper replete with a squad of gay Elvises and real-life sexbots. The whole thing is kind of weird and I’m not sure I’d recommend it.

The thing you gotta know about The Heart Goes Last is that it is about sex. But, at least in my opinion, it’s not really the sex and lust and whatnot people experience in the real world but more like some tempestuous primordial force that sweeps inside like a malevolent shade and jerks you about, the puppet to its master.

Early in the novel, Stan finds a letter under his fridge. You see, the conceit of Consilience is that when one couple is spending time in the prison, their house isn’t empty — it’s occupied by the couple that is in prison when the first group is in the house. So anyway, Stan finds a lustful note from the Alternate woman to the Alternate man. ‘I starve for you.’ Punctuated by the imprint of a purple lipstick kiss.

This is all it takes for Stan. Soon he’s concocting elaborate fantasies about this woman, Jasmine. He creates a whole backstory for her and her love life with her husband, Max. It consumes him completely and he begins ignoring Charmaine. He plans on hiding in the house when it’s his turn to go to the prison and basically leaping out and forcing himself on a surely willing Jasmine.The obsession takes a leap to the nonsensical when he finds release at his prison job. What’s he do? Tend the chickens. Yeah. Stan violates chickens to sate his overwhelming, all consuming sexual madness. Triggered by a single note.

But, wait, hold a second. Turns out, Charmaine has been engaging in an affair with Max, the Alternate man. She wrote the note with the purple lipstick. There’s a flashback to how this affair began. She was about to leave her house for Positron Prison when Max saunters in. He says about 3 words and then he’s kissing her. 3 seconds later and her skirts being pushed up. And she loves it. She instantly checks out on Stan and is stealing time with Max (this guy she slept with after knowing for all of 30 seconds) any second she can get, regardless of any danger this poses.

It’s baffling. The characters of this novel are knowing slaves to their super powered hormones and have no expectation of maintaining control. They’re also just petty, unlikeable people. You can’t get behind them even when they’re put up against even scummier people and they’re not quite bad enough to be trainwreck interesting. Atwood is a great writer so I wasn’t exactly bored, but I was close.

That ‘close’ nearly morphed into ‘certain bordeom’ when stuff happened that had me almost ready to put down the book — and this review will get a little spoilery here because I’m going to discuss events in the middle. It’s revealed Charmaine has been acting as an executioner of Positron malcontents who couldn’t fit in the system and thus must be removed. She’s been doing this from day one. A series of events occurs where it turns out Stan is the one on the table ready for her needle. And I’m thinking Wow, if Charmaine knowingly murders her husband, then Atwood has lost me… how could I even read about this character I didn’t like in the first place? And then of course, Charmaine does it. Kills her husband. Or thinks she does. Instead of losing me, it actually proves my previous paragraph true. The characters suddenly do become trainwreck interesting.

It also helps that the plot kicks into overdrive and rockets ahead, a true antagonist is revealed, the sci-fi becomes relevant instead of window dressing and we spend less time pondering the characters’ mystifying love life. It belatedly attains page-turner status.

The sex never quites meshes though. By the end, the message seems to be that the ideal sexual partner for a straight man (Stan) is a woman fully under his control who has sex whenever he wants and the ideal sexual partner for a straight woman (Charmaine) is someone who removes all difficult choice from her life and tells her what to do so she never has to take initiative or responsibility beyond what bed sheets to buy. It’s perplexing.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD

peace walker

I am an A rank Metal Gear Solid player. I’m generally unseen, armed with a tranquilizer and some kung fu moves. But sometimes I do get spotted. Or I run out of tranquilizer darts and, regretfully, I have to bust out my machine gun. Sorry bud, out of ammo. Hence why I am not an S rank player, who would never be seen, even while dismantling a helicopter, who’d rather die or restart than lethally end some unsuspecting grunt.

Anyway, I was almost not a Metal Gear Solid player anymore at all, as I completely forgot about the series for years. You see, there are two major plotlines in the MGS universe, which is especially convoluted and dense. The first, which includes games 1, 2, and 4 are about Solid Snake, who is a clone of a man born some time in the first half of the 20th century. They’re thematically anti-war stealth games with an emphasis on sci-fi near future tech, mercenaries and private military organizations, and endless monologues/cutscene sequences. These ones are OK —  I mean, there’s psychic boss who knew your every move in the first one, who could only be defeated by plugging your control in the second player port. That’s creative. And they were freakin’ weird… partially due to the singular vision of their director — Hideo Kojima. Video games rarely are subject to a single all-encompassing mind like films or novels often are.

It’s the second major plot line that really grabbed me. MGS3, Peace Walker, and now 5 are about that man Snake was cloned from, Big Boss, who also happens to be the villain of the old 8 bit NES Metal Gear games. Indeed the story of Big Boss is that of US soldier who is betrayed by his own government and later turns to terrorism for various ideological reasons (sound familiar?). The plot of 3 specifically: Weird shit is happening in the Cold War Russian jungle, including a mad astronaut with a flamethrower and a man who throws grenades made of bees. I loved it. Many years later, it still remains vivid in memory. The sucker punch ending succeeded in its goal of making me hopeless and ineffectually angry at the US government.

And then Konami greenlit a sequel! …on the PSP, Sony’s handheld system that I never had a reason to own. I completely forgot about it. For years. It wasn’t until the prologue of part 5 became free on Xbox live last month that I remembered, and also found out that the PSP game, Peace Walker had been released on last gen consoles at some point. Which brings us to this review!

Peace Walker is a smaller scale game compared to its predecessors, to match its initial smaller medium. Basically: In the 70’s, Costa Rica’s commitment to peace led them to abolish their military. This was amidst America and Russia being kingmaker assholes all around Latin America. Following the events of MGS3 (complete disillusionment with the US government) Big Boss split and created his own for-hire military group: Militeries Sans Frontieres. MSF agrees to hire themselves out to some shadowy Costa Rican fellas to investigate the sudden CIA presence in Costa Rica. Boss rapidly discovers that not only is the US stashing nukes nearby, but actually giant robots carrying nukes. Yikes.

The CIA villain, a man by the dubious name of ‘Hot Coldman’ has determined that the Cold War strategy of nuclear deterrence simply will not work. The reason? Humans are weak and no single human would have the will to destroy the entire planet, even if a nuke was heading in their direction*. His solution? Build a giant robot that will launch the retaliatory nukes instead. This is the eponymous Peace Walker and most of the narrative of the game involves chasing it down and eventually blowing it up.

It’s fine. The fact of the matter is that giant robots! nukes! just does not have much thematic weight. Moreover, Kojima continuously draws our attention to great anti-war, anti-deterrence films and novels, going so far as to name a character ‘Strangelove’, but his narrative not only cannot compare, it’s also like 40 years too late. MGS used the Cold War to illustrate problems that still persist to this day. Peace Walker is more like: Man, the CIA/KGB really did suck in the 70s, didn’t they? Good thing they they didn’t have giant robots, huh?

The gameplay itself is bite size. Each level is a few small areas tied together and generally completed in 2-8 minutes. The AI is really terrible — you have to be standing on their toes to be seen, but it works out since the levels are so short it’s more like trying to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible and not so much a ‘true’ stealth experience, which the demo of MGS5 showcases instead. It’s the perfect pacing for a handheld game, like it was designed to be. It’s still fun enough as a console game. In between levels, you can actually build up MSF — assign people to R&D to create new weapons, put them in the mess hall to feed everyone else, gather intel, send squads out on missions. It’s a little simplistic since in the intervening years so many RPGs have embraced this concept, but it’s a good setup for the more robust version promised in MGS5.

The biggest gameplay complaints I have are thus: The series is known for its creative and exhilarating boss fights but the ones here are pretty lame. There’s three different vehicles that show up repeatedly — a tank, a helicopter, an APC — that play out exactly the same. Kill/tranq a group soldiers and shoot up the vehicle until its captain pops out. There’s fights with giant robots too, but other than maybe the fortress on treads that you literally have to ascend to defeat, they’re not very good and sitting there holding down the machine gun trigger doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the game. Indeed, repetitiveness is major issue. The game boasts a ton of extra missions (ExOps) that go beyond the main story but they’re like constant variations of 3-4 core concepts.

I was rereading this review, ready to post, and oh my gosh, how could I forget one of the most stand out features of this game? The Fulton Recovery System. So, to recruit soldiers for MSF, Boss and co. have an inventive idea: Knock them out and tie a balloon to their ass. Literally. You recruit soldiers by knocking them unconscious and then tying a mini-hot air balloon to them; They’re whisked into the sky for an unseen helicopter to take them back to base, to either initiate them in Boss’s private army or stick them in the brig until they capitulate and do the same. Yeah. Weird game.

*I found this idea pretty nonsensical. OK, most humans would not press the button for mutually assured destruction, but all of them? No way. Someone would. It was gratifying towards the end of the game when it turns out Coldman is wrong, and men will press the damn button. But it also kind of undermined the whole plot, so ehh.

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

nakedsingularityI just finished this novel a few minutes ago. Damn. It’s been awhile since I read a book so completely absorbing.

Casi is a young, all-star defense attorney in New York City. The plot, insofar as there is one, is Casi’s detachment with the system and seduction by the perfect crime, which he plans with some characters who begin to trigger suspicions of a very Fight Club-type twist. But the plot is totally secondary to the thematic weight of this dense novel. It’s a book of musings, of internal investigation of self. Primarily, this is a book of conversations. People talking to each other. The author talking to the reader. Casi talking to judge and jury.

They’re not the types of conversations that real people have, but the kind of big picture what-is-life type discussions that use vocabulary that even the most over-educated real people don’t regularly use. Characters jabber back and forth in 1-5 word phrases, in almost slapstick comedy fashion of mispronounced words and misunderstandings, and then launch into a several page soliloquy on the meaning of life, law, justice, existence, life after death, the universe. I’m not positive what makes this work, but I’d hazard it takes a specific kind of immensely witty & intelligent writer who understands deeply the way human conversations function and flow.  

A Naked Singularity owes an extremely heavy debt to David Foster Wallace. Most remarkably is not just how unbelievably in love with Infinite Jest this book is, but how often De La Pava succeeds at what DFW succeeded at. Many writers have tried and almost all have failed. It’s actually uncanny how similar they seem at times. There’s a sequence where Casi overhears two men having a conversation at a diner about how shitty they are to women that is the exact set-up as the stories in Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wallace isn’t the only major influence, Delillo is as well. And it wouldn’t be a good law-room novel if it did not hearken to Kafka’s The Trial.

Indeed, A Naked Singularity is at its best when it’s in the courtroom or its environs (prisons, law offices, etc). There’s a real moral force behind Casi as he tries to represent people society has collectively discarded. A plot line later on delves into the baffling cruelty of the death penalty and it pierces, both Casi and the reader. When the book is focusing on family or media absorption (there’s a cadre of roommates obsessed with Television and philosophizing on entertainment), it’s not quite as good. In fact, I think De La Pava cheats a little bit here: The novel ostensibly takes place in modern day but the technology isn’t quite right — everyone is obsessed with Television and news stations and the internet, etc doesn’t quite exist. Events that would surely occur online or tasks people would fulfill with smartphones (which no one has) just… don’t. Even though the internet is occasionally mentioned. This was written in 2012, (not 1996 like Infinite Jest!). So yeah, De La Pava’s notes on television are cogent and interesting but it’s trodden ground and I wonder why he didn’t take on the same kind of issues with modern tech. 

De La Pava also deploys employs another DFW staple (or I guess to go further back, a Miguel De Cervantes staple): characters telling stories to each other that become as engrossing as the main narrative itself. One of Casi’s clients opts to become a criminal informant and launches into a thirty page long story of how he came into the drug trade. It’s completely absorbing — I experienced an almost physical jolt when he finished the tale and the book returned to the main narrative thread. Similarly, boxing is to A Naked Singularity as tennis is to Infinite Jest. At several points in the book, Casi purposely abandons his conscious thoughts and relates the story of boxer Wilfred Benitez, in scintillating detail. It’s a thread that runs the entire length of this lengthy book and it’s completely absorbing, like just about everything else written here.

The Conversation (1974)

conversation

— discovered on netflix, this very 70’s Francis Ford Coppola film.

At its root is Harry Caul, a bugger, a ‘surveillance man’ freelancing his time and expertise selling tapped conversations to interested buyers, typically the US government. In our modern NSA-monitored culture, it seems a bit outmoded that the government would need any help from the common man, but anyway. The movie opens with an overlay of a couple wandering around Union Square (the film takes place in San Francisco, which looks mostly the same as now except 40 years newer). Harry has deployed some fancy-ass super mics to monitor the man and the woman’s conversation from several stories up. A cameraman peers outside a window, armed with a contraption that has no small resemblance to a gun — his first person perspective puts the couple in sniper sights and we’re meant to think they will be shot.

The point of this whole exercise? Like I said, sell the proceeding tapes + pictures to the client with the bills. But wait, it turns out that in Harry’s past, he a made similar sale that led to the twisted retaliatory murder of the people he mic’d up. He’s got a sneaking suspicion that this could happen once again, with these lovers right here in Union Square. But he’s just doing his job, right? Not his responsibility. He didn’t kill anybody.

OK, sounds like a pretty cut-and-dry moral responsibility tale. Culpability. Money. Greed/guilt. And is it? Well, sort of; it starts that way. It becomes something different by virtue of several qualities The Conversation possesses.

The movie is shot in cold, empty stretches. Muted colors, haunting orchestral music, open yet constraining spaces (Harry’s office is a cavernous warehouse that feels dim and prison-like). In other words: a visual snapshot of December in SF. Cold enough to cut to the bone, feel constantly damp and difficult to ever get warm. But it’s not like arctic NYC cold, right?

Alternatively the cold palette and atmosphere is mirror to the isolation of the film’s loner protagonist. Gene Hackman’s Harry, (who looks a lot like my grandfather and the more distance that passes between me and this movie, the more in my recollection Harry resembles Roger and not Gene) is the best damn surveillance man in the business, but incapable of opening up to other human beings or forming real attachments. He is single and middle aged, his relationships a shambles. His obsession is with his true love, his work, which he guards with a pouty childlike aggression.

And indeed his work — surveillance — is the weird hook of this film. Its peak moment occurs partway through at a ‘bugger convention’. 70’s bad haircuts clustered around the newest tech for people to spy on one another. Or to con people into believing they could spy on one another. Machinery buzzes and reels spin. It’s sinister. The film asks you to believe there’s gobs of people out there just totally entranced in the latest surveillance tech. And in each room, the most celebrated and well known bugger of them all: Harry Caul. Fans gush over him and competitors with inferiority complexes beg him to enter business with them. Harry builds his own tech, and disdains all on the floor at the show, which begs the question of why he’s there in the first place. Of course the answer is a few lines back in my most celebrated man sentence, something that Harry’s false modesty would never let him acknowledge.

The Conversation is a textbook example of why the notion that technology should not play a prominent role in film or novels, because it might date them, is so wrong. It doesn’t matter that the tech is dated — the constant shots of film reels while Harry floats through space examing his moral axis are eerie regardless of the fact we haven’t used cassette tapes in 25 years. They become ghostly and ethereal, artifacts out of time, not behind it. Moreover, the privacy concerns and wanton exploitation that lurk both below and above the movie’s surface are cogent and still relevant.

Lastly, but probably not most importantly, a twist at the end reveals Harry was totally wrong — the lovers were not truly in danger. Something entirely different was afoot. The film discards its original moral center and becomes the degeneration of an isolated loner. There’s horror movie beats, a toilet overflowing with blood; final shots nothing but a portrayal of over-observed paranoia as Harry literally rips up his apartment’s floorboards in search of a bug.

Hearthstone: Everyone, get in here!

hearthstone

While I’ve maintained a lifelong absorption with video games, books, and film, there’s other aspects of nerdom that I have totally overlooked or clearly do not have interest in. Hobbies such as comic books, anime, fantasy football. I read Watchmen, I watched Akira, I gave a half-hearted attempt at finishing a  fantasy season. They were mildly entertaining but just did not astonish me like a perfectly crafted sentence, enclose me like a perfectly framed wide shot, or crease my brow like a challenging but perfectly designed platformer.

This brings me to another hobbyist pillar: collectible card games.

When I was in grade school, Magic: The Gathering became popular and I begged anyone in my family to buy me a starter deck. My uncle eventually caved. What followed: A textbook example of the eager kid whose life depends on getting a new toy, only to abandon it shortly afterward. I lost interest in about five minutes. Keeping track of cards, having to buy new ones to stay competitive, the ponderously slow pace — nothing to a kid addicted to fast-paced NES/SNES platformers, a kid who could polish off Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels in three or four days tops.

And initially, my impression of Hearthstone was the same as that of Magic. A year-plus ago, I tried it only because I like all of Blizzard’s other games. It was fun for a little while and predictably I got bored. Card games weren’t my thing; least of all games that required you to fork out cash for merely the chance to get useful new cards. At least it was digital. I put it down.

Later, Blizzard added single player ‘adventures’ where you had to fight AI battles of card versions of World of Warcraft bosses. It was pretty fun. I did the daily quests in the normal game to acquire minuscule amounts of gold and buy the adventures without using real money (things like: win 2 games with rogue, cast 20 spells, destroy 40 minions). The game held my interest slightly longer this time.

And then something crucial to my investment in Hearthstone happened: It became available on mobile phones.

Now I could play Hearthstone between lifts at the gym. Waiting for people to attend meetings at work. On the bus. Waiting in line. In a house with a mouse, in a boat or with a goat, I would play it here and there, I would play it anywhere. Ahem.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t totally engaged as I would be with other games. I can’t play those other games on the run (and most mobile titles are either repetitive timewasters or so involved you can’t really play them while mobile).

Just by completing quests regularly from my in-between-life-no-attention-span-twitter-generation-playing, I suddenly started accruing enough in-game currency to purchase card packs (or win them in a build-a-random-deck mode called Arena) that I could actually build decent decks. Suddenly, something clicked. Arcane Hearthstone lingo made sense. Tempo and mana curve and lethal and board control and value (I still don’t know what SMORC means). I began to be able to interpret what makes a deck good. I climbed the ranks and actually saw interesting play styles and cards. According to Blizzard’s in-game math, I’m a top 9th percentile player. /smug

guldanBut anyway, what is Hearthstone? It’s actually quite simple. You pick a class, one
of the nine original World of Warcraft classes — Paladin, Warrior, Mage, etcetera. Indeed, the whole narrative conceit of 

Hearthstone
is that our World of Warcraft characters are all sitting around a table in a tavern playing a card game whenever we’re not adventuring as them.

You build a deck of thirty cards. Every turn you draw a card. Each card has a mana cost it takes to play (you accrue +1 mana every turn in order to play those cards). The cards are either spells or minions. Spells perform various functions like slinging a fireball to do direct damage or freezing a minion or hero so they cannot attack. Minions each have attack and health values and can attack the turn after they are placed. The whole point is to kill the opposing hero (they each start with 30 health) before they kill you, or before one of you runs out of cards.

mogortheogre

Cards are generally well explained and follow observable trends. Ogres attack the wrong enemy 50% of the time. Mage minions do various things when the mage casting spells. Goblins blow things up. There’s a few shorthand terms like deathrattle and battlecry and windfury, but they become clear with a minimal amount of playtime. Heathstone perfectly encapsulates Blizzard’s strategy of tackling a popular genre and making it more widely accessible.