A Brief Note On The Morality of Star Wars

storm trooper

No reviews this week, what with the holidays and being only partway through a 900 page Victorian epic.

I did see the new Star Wars. I found it a nicely produced Disney movie, if not the second coming of the Blockbuster Flick as some hoped. But anyway this is not a review, but as the title says, A Brief Note on the Morality of the New Star Wars.

Let’s recap: Storm Troopers.

In the original trilogy, they were just faceless mooks/cannon fodder for our heroes to kill. In the ill-conceived prequels, it turns out they were all just clones of one specific guy, which made them OK to kill, despite all the sci-fi film and literature on the subject that alerts us that Clones Have Feelings Too. The new series smartly abandons that point and storm troopers are back to being individuals. They’re children taken from their parents at a young age and trained to kill, but without a Queen of Dragons to come free them like the same exact plot point in Game of Thrones.

In fact, the male lead, Finn, begins as a storm trooper. After his first battle where he’s tasked to kill innocents and one of his buddy troopers dies messily, he decides he’s had enough and gets the hell out. He then spends the rest of the movie, along with the rest of our heroes, constantly shooting storm troopers while showing no remorse. The movie gives me this backstory about these boys/girls ripped from the family bosom, given a number as a name, and forced to kill. Then they get blasted and no one ever mentions it again! What the heck.

So yeah, that’s how I became uncomfortable every time someone took a blaster to another white masked trooper.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity

unity

The thing about playing these games a year or more after they’ve come out is I know the critical and fan reception beforehand. Thus I knew this was the most maligned Creed game yet, and everyone seemed to hate it so much that, as a form of apology, Ubisoft gave away its only downloadable expansion for free.

Was it all that bad?

Well, the first thing I noticed was the ghastly decision to give the people of revolutionary France english accents. I found I could switch the language to french (with english subtitles) in the options menu and never looked back. Indeed, it was quite educational. I now understand the lyrics to that Talking Heads song:

Psycho killerrr
Qu’est-ce que c-est?
Qu’est-ce que c-est?

Anyway. Other than the language mishap, the game seemed pretty good. After two games on the high seas and the North American frontier, it was nice to be back in a real city again. Paris is beautiful and fun to run around and parkour in. There’s gameplay improvements that seemed to improve the run and climb gameplay of the series. At first.

Naturally, it didn’t last.

To start with, for some baffling reason, a game set during the iconic French Revolution barely engages with the revolution at all. You spend a few minutes hanging out with a young Napoleon and then at the end of the game, they throw you a bone and reveal Robespierre was a pawn of the villainous Templar. The Marquis De Sade is the historical figure you spend the most time with (OK, that’s kind of funny). Danton is shunted to some lame co-op side missions and everyone else may as well not exist, along with the major events they partook in. This is the same damn game that two installments ago had me holding the reins of Paul Revere’s horse, while he sat on its rump performing the Midnight Ride! Moreover, the game plays it even more safe and blandly, by refusing to even touch the political and moral murk of the revolution. The enemies are merely labeled ‘extremists’, and the templar’s goals are unbelievably vague (Do stuff! Kill the king! Now, kill Robespierre!).

The story is instead a linear revenge narrative, that aside from hitting one or two good beats, is predictable and largely boring. This game earned Ubisoft a lot of heat when they gave some lame explanation of why there’s no women assassins in multiplayer. I’ll raise you that complaint and take it to single player — the protagonist is Arno Dorian, this guy who bumbles around trying to avenge his lover’s Dad. Elise, the lover in question, drives most of the plot. Her arc — raised as a templar from birth and forced to ally with the assassins by necessity — is more interesting and relevant than Arno’s non-story/non-arc. It’s bizarre. To top it all off, by the end of the game, you’ve realized the plot is a sidestory to the greater AC storyline. It’s completely self contained and if you never played it, you wouldn’t miss a thing.

Worse, the combat and stealth is horrendous. I’m not sure I’ve seen its like in high budget games ever before. In the old games, you could just sit there holding the block button and counter every attack any enemy launched with ease as they attacked one by one. Granted, that’s not the best system. Unity kills it though. Now you attack enemies that constantly block until an attack gets through and you kill a guy and during the ‘you’re killing a guy, wow!’ animation, other enemies can attack you. It’s bullshit! If another guy is gonna stab me, I’m not gonna do this fancy spin-flip-kill moves like Arno is doing, I’m gonna stab him and turn around! The end result is that I just stocked up on smoke grenades and spent every fight in the game dropping a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 coughing enemies, drop a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 more.

And the stealth! Listen, there’s 2 ways to do stealth correctly.

  1. The enemies are stupid and go ‘wait, huh? Is someone there?’ when you’re executing their buddy 5 feet away (Old AC games worked like this, as did old Metal Gear Solid games)
  2. The enemies are much smarter and behave more like real people, but the player has the tools to handle this and the enemies are not too plentiful to make stealth impossible (Splinter Cell / New Metal Gear Solid games)

Unity fails on both fronts! Enemies appear en masse. Go to a dinner party and there’s as many guards as guests. And get anywhere near them and the whole building is alerted. Is it outside in a courtyard? Congrats, now you’re going to have a dozen snipers shooting you up for 75% of your health a pop.

By the way, the controls suck too.

To sum this all up: I had one assassination mission where I had to kill a dude sitting in a room with honestly like 20 guards surrounding him. I peppered the room with smoke grenades, ready to dash in and kill him and dash out before anyone noticed. Instead, the mere sound of the grenades triggered an alert and one guard knew where I was, so as Arno ran up to complete the assassination job, instead of killing the guy right in front of him, he leapt through the air backwards at the one alert guard. Totally ruining what would have been a fun, emergent gameplay opportunity.

But, whatever. What can I say? I still played through the whole game and got most of the collectibles. I still had fun. Is all I really need a virtual historic city to run around in to be satisfied, even when the gameplay is such shit? Maybe. At least for one game. I hear the next one is better and I hope so. I’d rather not see the series tank and fade away.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

radiance!Here’s a book I liked but am mildly disappointed because it has all the elements of something I should love.

  • A twisting, unique narrative: the story moves not merely back and forth in time, but also into the actual screenplays and in-film narrative of its cast of directors and set people. A fictional filmography essential to the plot (like Infinite Jest!)
  • Good writing: Rare among SFF writers, Valente gives a damn about prose/style/craft and the sentence to sentence work of Radiance is quite good.
  • A fun sci fi premise: Radiance jumps around an alternate history of the early 20th century, where space travel rapidly exceeded the pace of our world’s and all the planets of the solar system turned out to be habitable.

A woman is missing. Severin Unck, the most skilled documentarian of her time and daughter to Percival Unck, a renowned pulp genre director. After shooting a series of films across the solar system — from hunger strikes on one of Mars’ moons to the final cruise of Neptune’s city-boats before the planet goes behind the sun — Severin sets off to Venus. Venus is unique among the planets because it is home to the callowhales — enormous, country sized beasts (or maybe plants, who knows?) — from which humans harvest ‘callowmilk’. Callowmilk is basically oil ramped up to a hundred. It’s an essential ingredient in everything from fuel to heroine. A village full of callowmilk divers recently disappeared — well the people disappeared, the village was smashed to bits — and Severin and her crew set out to film it.

And then she disappeared too.

We never see Severin’s point of view. Just that of the people around her, or segments from her films. There’s a point early in the novel where a character is watching one of Severin’s documentaries and observing how everything is staged. Her hair, clothes, the lighting, tone of voice, pauses, the dialogue itself — everything is framed completely by the director despite its aim of authenticity and gritty realness. It’s effective. And true. Most documentaries have an angle, manipulate their facts just the right way, and lie by omission. Doesn’t it gall to discover all this when reading about it later on the internet after being impressed upon, had your passions risen by a particularly good documentary?

This chapter lays a pall over the rest of the novel. You know you can’t trust anything Severin says. You know you can trust her dad even less, and large swathes of the book aren’t actually happening in your run-of-the-mill narrative sense, but are excerpts from a new film written by Dad to honor Severin.

The book only sort of wants us to buy into this criticism though. It’s actually married quite closely to these characters and their fates. From the overly saccharine excerpts of Severin’s childhood (she’s just so precocious) to the brooding fate of the child Severin found on Venus shortly before her disappearance. What I mean is that the gorgeous styling is not the point of the book, the story is still the point of the book and I just don’t trust these characters or feel invested in their twice fictionalized fates.

Furthermore, and I’m still mulling this notion over because I’m aware it sounds half-formed and contradictory, I started to rotate this ‘is she lying?’ lens from Severin to Catherynne M. Valente, the author herself! I understand this sounds ridiculous. It’s a work of fiction, of course the author is ‘lying’, she’s making it all up and we all know this. But I mean more in the tonal manipulation the narrative warned us Severin is employing. I started to notice the commonalities between author and heroine. From the blurb calling this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery”, which is some mystical in-group nonsense to the almost too-self aware look at me look at me retellings of old advertisements and gossip rags. Some indefinable sense that this is less a novel and more like a too-personal performance of which I wasn’t supposed to be able to see the strings. But I did, and felt mildly embarrassed for everyone involved. Like the child Severin wasn’t Severin but instead it was Valente writing Severin without knowing she was writing herself. This was followed up in the acknowledgements where Valente reveals she’s the daughter of a filmmaker and the phrasing Severin uses with her lover “I love you right in the face”, she deploys to her lover. So the question is, is Valente playing me like Severin is playing her audience?? Don’t all good authors? Should I let her play me?

With a more absorbing tale and dramatis personae, I think the answer would have been a resounding yes, willingly or not. I wasn’t sold. I gush enough about Infinite Jest on this blog but to compare to a similar conceit, even though I know David Foster Wallace was making it up, I still believed James Incandenza made those movies. I could find them, somewhere. Complete. By contrast, Severin’s films were a mere author-brain construct.

So it’s ultimately a beautifully stylistic romp, that lacks character depth and some sort of immersive spice. The first part makes it worth reading, one hundred percent. But it also left me wanting something more.

Starcraft II

starcraft2

I don’t want to be one of those guys in their 30s (or 40s or 50s or whatever) who complains, through rose-tinted glasses, that modern corporations or re-tellings of old media are ruining their childhood. The fact is: I haven’t played the original Starcraft since I was 15, max. I can’t possibly remember how good the narrative was because I viewed it through an entirely different lens.

But.

I’m still going to tell you that the Starcraft II is terrible by comparison. It’s that bad. It didn’t ruin my childhood or anything hyperbolic, but the original did inform my vision of sci-fi, surely more than Star Wars or Star Trek or Robert Heinlein or anything. Even when it was ostensibly ripping off Starship Troopers, it felt more like a story that was actually about humans and bugs in space, and not a political manifesto pleading the return of the Roman notion of citizenry, as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers book revealed itself to be.

Recap: Starcraft was about some miserable humans (terrans) launched into space, who literally reformed The New Confederacy and shortly found themselves tangling with two different alien species, the parasitic, seemingly mindless zerg, and the psychic, rigidly class based protoss. You alternate between the factions — a magistrate helping launch a terran rebellion and toppling the confederacy (only to find the new boss is just as bad as the old boss), as a lieutenant to the biblical verse spewing hivemind of the zerg (not so mindless as you thought), and as some middle manager in the incredibly bureaucratic protoss class structure, running a coup to kick out the assholes and uniting the fractious protoss clans to do the right thing and smash their biggest spaceship into the zerg overmind.

The expansion followed this up introducing the UED — humans from Earth who were maybe even more frightening villains than the zerg. It also characterized Sarah Kerrigan. Betrayed by the new terran government, Kerrigan was left to die amidst a zerg invasion. The zerg Overmind decided to spare her life and instead mutate her into some kind of human/zerg hybrid (the whole schtick of the zerg is they conquer worlds and mutate their favorite lifeforms into their swarm). In the absence of the Overmind (since you smashed your ship into it already), Kerrigan solidifies her power over the zerg and becomes its new ruler. She then proceeds to slaughter all your friends from the opposing factions on her way to smashing the humans from earth, the new terran dominion, and the united protoss. Yes, the planet eating, sentient bug race wins Starcraft. It’s bleak. But kind of funny.

Starcraft II then ignores all that and opens up several years later like nothing happened. Kerrigan just fucked off for 20 years I guess. She shows up again in the first (terran) campaign as a villain, but I guess one of the main terran characters, Jim Raynor, last seen in the Starcraft campaign vowing to see Kerrigan dead no matter the cost, now just wants to save her and spends the human campaign trying to do so. Remember, this is the same mutant-alien-woman who has murdered millions of innocents by this point. Jimmy succeeds in saving Kerrigan, by turning her back into a human by the end of the campaign, using a mysterious alien artifact that does shit like that.

… and then the zerg campaign starts (actually it started 2 years later, because Blizzard decided to release each campaign as a separate game), and Kerrigan’s human transformation lasts about five minutes before she re-zergifies and you control the zerg on the dumbest retcon plot thread of all time. Turns out the zerg weren’t always voracious life-subsuming monsters, but actually way back on their primal homeworld, they were noble beasts who were just scampering around and have a grand old time before a Dark God (yes) showed up and corrupted them. So Kerrigan needs to Eat, Pray, Love and find her inner self and become true Primal Zerg, and lose the influence of the Dark God, who is actually the reason she was such a bad person in the last game, yeah, whatever.

Which brings us to 2015, and the protoss campaign, where you control the most milquetoast, bland group of heroes yet, led by Saturday morning cartoon hero, Artanis, who just wants to clasp his hand over his heart and tell you how much we need to cooperate and be noble with eachother, guys. Anyway, the Dark God guy, Amon, who initially corrupted the zerg now just corrupted the protoss! So, as Artanis, you need to collect the uncorrupted protoss, and through the power of Friendship, unite them all and take down Amon. Which you do, but it turns out you can’t just go around killing gods or whatever because now there’s some nonsense about An Infinite Cycle, and someone needs to ascend to take Amon’s place. And who is it other than the Queen of Blades and mass murderer turned hero, Kerrigan, who sprouts wings and turns into an angel or some shit and Blizzard, you have so much money, why don’t you just hire some writers?

OK, but how about the gamplay? It was fun I guess. It feels like the real time strategy genre is more-or-less dead right now, so it was a good change of pace. There was too many “kill 5 void crystals/devices/generators/technobabble” levels, and I still had to endure the horrendous story of course. I tried to play some multiplayer games, and it’s funny how much difference five years make. In 2010, it felt like a quant diversion to play a gameplay style perfected in the 90s. Nowadays, it feels positively archaic. I didn’t last long. Gameplay mechanics designed just to make sure you can click X amount of times per second do not have a place in games anymore. For example: to maximize zerg efficiency, you have to make sure your all your queen units inject your hatchery (unit producing) buildings or else you have less larvae to create new zerg with. It’s just an artificial barrier to being good at the game. No thanks. Not 15 anymore.

The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

corpseexhibitonThis book is grotesque to point of being difficult to read. It’s disturbing. The tone fits the theme it explores — unending war, which visited Iraq on and off for the past thirtyish years.

The title story is literally the title. A man is talking to You, explaining his organization, how it murders people and artfully displays their corpses. He’s a stickler for creative sobriquets and matching artwork. Butchering a man and throwing his severed body parts in the street just doesn’t cut it. Get creative. This is art.The prose doesn’t shy from tight description of the kills and presentation. It’s black humor on top of black horror. It imagines a world so upset by war, that a corpse exhibition is completely reasonable. This is only the beginning.

What follows is a murder, rape, absence of hope, with occasional humor. It reminds me of Roberto Bolano’s horrific depiction of crime in Juarez in 2666. But unlike Bolano’s goal of desensitizing us to violence, Blasim is continuously shocking, each new abuse like a stab to the gut. The characters behave otherwise. When one protagonist decries his job of cleaning up oil spills, he lists the things he has to clean up from explosions and leaves ‘body parts’ for the end, almost as an afterthought. He’s used to it.

The violence is rarely blamed on invasions or dictators. It permeates the world the characters live in, is part of the air and dirt. No one questions it: it just is. It exists as a sort of mania that drives people to madness, convinces them they are feeling phantom pain.

Magic realism plays heavily in several of the stories. A man running for his life falls into a hole and finds himself unstuck in time, accompanied by a flesh eating jinn. In the closest things to a hopeful story, some unrelated people discover they share the ability to make knives disappear.  

A tough read.