SPQR by Mary Beard

spqrRome. Oft cited as the foundation of western society, and thus a topic of perennial interest. From direct rhetorical links between Cicero and modern speakers (Barrack Obama for example), to the not-exactly tenuous link between gladiators and American football, to our conceptions of liberty and democracy. We return to them again and again in all kinds of fiction.

Beard picks apart the empire’s mythical beginnings, rising and falling Republic, and dictatorial ascension. Romulus and Remus were certainly made up, but what about the old Roman kings? How did the Senate start? In chronological order, SPQR attempts to answer these questions and plenty more.

Given our current political and social times, there’s Roman arguments that feel particularly relevant. One quote from a Roman orator declaiming all the non-Romans suddenly flooding the city easily matches the hateful rhetoric that xenophobic leaders the world round are currently spewing. I bookmarked this quote but then lost the book on an airplane which is the only reason I don’t type it out here. The question of who should be Roman and should not was a question that went on and on for hundreds of years, never truly resolved. 

Beard cautions against drawing too many similarities. She cites the prevalence of slavery at the time or their horrendously inaccurate view on medicine. I’d barely agree with Beard even there, as we still have such institutionalized levels of power, if not quite to the point of ownership.

Another point that Beard nails home is that we spend so much time pondering the personalities of Rome’s emperors, their sadism, excess, philosophy, bloody deaths. Yet, how much did that actually affect the regular people of the empire? Maybe not much at all. The problem is we know so much less about the non-wealthy of ancient times — they had less so they left much less behind. As a result, even with Beard’s digging we still don’t know much about them, other than some fascinating tidbits about bar culture apartment setup.

I enjoyed the book. It put things into a linear perspective I did not yet have, with all my knowledge of ancient Rome being a hodgepodge of history books and popular fiction. But I have to admit, at the same time, I’m just not sure why this book is so celebrated and great. It was a fairly straightforward account with some fascinating points. That’s it! I’m glad I read it but far from blown away.

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Dreamland by Sam Quinones

dreamlandHeroin like pizza and pills like candy.

This fascinating piece of long-form journalism details the simultaneous rise of heroin-dealing entrepreneurs from Mexico’s west coast and the gross spread of misinformation and corporate greed that led to doctors massively over prescribing oxycontin in the United States.

The scale of this problem, heroin/pill addiction, can’t be overstated. Largely white areas of the country have astounding levels of addiction and overdose death, well beyond deaths caused by car accidents. It can be easy to avoid if you live in a large city, but out in the suburbs and rural regions, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone addicted to heroin. I traveled to Michigan for work last month and there were commercials and billboards everywhere about treatment. Unlike a bunch of other drugs, a heroin addict needs their fix everyday, or they risk crippling withdrawal symptoms. This combined with the cheap potency of the drug make overdose a constant reality.

Quinones outlines two major triggers for this:

  1. Until some time in the 80s, prescribing opiates, the fruit of the poppy seed (along with heroin) was anathema. Doctors and other medical professionals were concerned with the very real risks of addiction. Slowly, as ‘patient-centric’ care became more of a focus and pain-management became an important aspect of medicine, this stance was relaxed, particularly for those with terminal illnesses (where addiction is less of an issue anyway, for obvious reasons).

The problem arose when a confluence of factors led to the completely baseless notion that somehow opiates were actually not addictive. Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin jumped on an oft-misinterpreted editorial claiming only 1% of patients have a risk for addiction from opiates and marshalled their enormous sales and marketing engine to drill that number into the heads of all the doctors they showered with gifts. (This was before the laws of the early 2000s put a stop to the worst marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.)

Somewhat predictable result: Unprecedented numbers of people are suddenly addicted to painkillers.

2. Heroin, like all hard drugs, used to have the perception of something you’d need to brave a dangerous ghetto to acquire. Maybe you’ll get shot. Dealers from the small village of Xalisco changed this business completely. By cheaply farming poppy in their native mountains, they carried it over the border and sold it from their cars, using customer-friendly marketing techniques not unfamilar to US corporations: an easily accessible phone number that triggered door-to-door service (Uber for heroin), manned by savvy and eager young men who would offer discounts or drill down on those who seemed ready to quit.

Put these two together and now you’ve got patients addicted to oxycontin who easily make the switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to buy than oxy (or no one will prescribe it to them anymore).

It’s a ghastly business.

While a stunning tale, the book does have its problems. Namely, it’s extremely repetitive. Quinones repeats the same point many, many times. Sometimes in very similar language. I understand he spent five years of his life on this and wants to insert everything he learned but many chapters are retreads of another. Still, it was a startling and detailed read that I’d highly recommend.

The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) by N. K. Jemisin

fifthseasonThis book took me all over the place. I couldn’t decide if I hated it or admired it or was utterly bored or wanted to read the next book in the series right now.

In a volatile, volcanic world, civilization is destroyed every so often by cataclysmic geological events (Seasons). Thrust into this world are three different characters vying with the various conflicts that mark living on an unstable planet with specific prejudices against them in particular. The characters are linked, though initially it is a mystery just how. I guessed the reason about halfway through the novel: it’s a pretty cool twist! The plot is based around these three, and my enjoyment of the novel varied so greatly between them, that I will go through them one by one.

Damaya is a child taken from her family for developing superpowers. In this world, some people are born as orogenes, which means they have devastating seismic abilities to literally move mountains or burst volcanoes. Naturally they’re feared and persecuted, and when children are found (and not killed in ignorance), they’re taken off to a wizard boarding school called the Fulcrum.

The reason I couldn’t wait to be done these chapters is simple: I’ve had it with magic schools.

They’ve suffused popular fantasy novels and media for too long. I feel like there’s a generation of creators who are around my age or usually a little older who grew up with the same media I did. Before Harry Potter, we had The Wheel of Time, with its Aes Sedai and magic reduced to science that can be learned in a classroom, greatly influencing all of epic fantasy. Even the rise of immersive, narrative video games have left their mark. I’m thinking Bioware games like Mass Effect/Dragon Age for sure. Not only does The Fifth Season’s magic users and subsequent prejudice have much in common with Dragon Age mages, tonally it is similar. Perhaps because Bioware was in turn greatly influenced by Joss Whedon. Maybe this is all an oversimplification but pop-Sci-fi/fantasy media of all stripes are feeling tightly entwined.

Another reason magic schools and I don’t mesh is that a) I went to a commuter college and b) I always hated school. Harkening back to college life is a key nostalgia element for the many people I know that speak of their college experience with such fondness (and certainly it would have been cooler if they were learning magic). If not nostalgia, I imagine there is still some appeal for those that actually enjoy classroom learning. 

The next point-of-view character is You, a woman named Essun. It’s written in the second person, following the account of a woman who found her small son murdered at the hands of her husband. This plot immediately grabbed my interest — distinct narrative point of view, jarringly awful event — and then promptly lost it. For starters, it’s glacially slow and Essun seems to barely cover any ground compared to the other two. Certainly the husband plot isn’t resolved.

Jemisin’s narrative style is something I’m going to call blogversation because I as far as I know there is no useful term for it (yet). What I mean is that the narrator is present and speaking directly to the reader in accessible, conversational language that reminds me of blogs. Many sentences start with “Well,” and end with “, actually” or “, anyway”. It means you can end up with prose that looks like this:

“Wow.

Really. That’s what you’re thinking. You’ve got nothing better. Wow.”

It’s not awful exactly, but I’m not a big fan. I feel like it puts a layer between me and the characters because the modern author writing in such modern language makes me start thinking about N. K. Jemisin writing that to me and not the actual character. This happens throughout the entire book but it’s especially bad with Essun. There’s a point very early where she ends up killing a whole bunch of people and the following chapter begins with:

“You’re so tired. Takes a lot out of you, killing so many people.”

There’s a sort of flippancy in that sentence that just kills it for me. If you can speak like that about killing people, how much does killing people actually matter?

Another major gripe I have with the You of Essun’s chapters is that, despite the intent of being so personally linked to this character, she spends near zero time contemplating what I figure nearly anyone would if they found their husband killed their child. Namely: how could he do that? We know nothing about husband Jija by the end of this book.

This brings me to Syenite. A college-age student/prisoner of the Fulcrum, Syenite is sent on a routine mission to help a coastal town, but the whole operation is just a front to be forced to have sex with and be impregnated by a senior orogene. 1 + 1 orogene = 1 more orogene for society to collectively control. 

I like this. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a good ‘ole back-and-forth, twist-and-turn adventure story. It still has some of the prose and thematic problems of the other two characters, but I forgave them easily because I was invested in the story. Even the secondary characters are superior to the other arcs.

I feel like the part of the novel I actually enjoyed is just a footnote at the end of this review here, but as they say, it’s easier to point out what you don’t like than what you do. Also, while Syenite is only one of three characters, it feels like her chapters are about half the book. So it’s at least as much good as bad or lukewarm.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

betweentheworldandmeA few days before the racial violence of the past week — the senseless murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille and the retaliatory madness in Dallas — my wife and I decided to choose an audiobook to listen to on our Oregon road trip. We chose Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehsisi Coates open letter slash memoir about racial violence & white supremecy in America. It turned out to be a grim precursor indeed: Killer evidence that Coates’ morose belief that nothing will change, that plunder is an addiction, contains truth.  

The genesis of this book: Ta-Nehsisi Coates finds his teenage son crying in his room over the absence of punishment for Freddie Gray’s murder. This leads him (Coates) to relate the story of his black life, from the violent streets of Baltimore through reaching his own personal mecca of Howard University and his own disillusioning, rending collision with police-racism-brutality when one of his friends is
set up and murdered by cops. The danger of being black in a wealthy neighborhood.

Along the way we’re treated to Coates cogent reflections on the systems of race and oppression in America. The history of America is a history of a oppression of the black body. They are one and the same. Nor does it survive purely as history but a damning present and almost certain future. The infliction of fear and control continues. Coates is criticized at-large, and surely across many goodreads reviews about not being hopeful enough. Too pessimistic, too solution averse. I try to fit myself amid this history. Surely even the systemic racism of today pales in comparison to the generations born into shackles across the tenure of American slavery, or the crashing fall of Reconstruction and institution of Jim Crowe thereafter? But a weak form of progress, with a majorly long way to go, assuming the destination is actually reachable. I can’t fault Coates stance. Clearly American racism is unlikely to quote end (or anything close) in his lifetime, and there’s not a whole lot of reason to feel sure it will conclude in his son’s lifetime either. Coates’ has a good writeup in response to this ‘hope criticism’ here.

Between the World and Me is a less a story of specific injustices (unlike Tim Wise’s White Like Me, which we also started on the drive), but a general investigation of human systems and constructs. For instance, his notion that “white” is not a race but a totally fabricated classification that allows tribal unity in the ruling class is not so much stated outright but unfolded over time and through various means. Or one of my favorite points comes after Coates’ delves into his teenage African nationalism spent idolizing African cultures, and subsequent falling out from that mindset. After initially embracing the search for the answer to Saul Bellow’s question:

Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?

Coates then comes to a sort of awakening with his response that:

Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.

It’s a powerful response that sticks with me, and speaks to a possible and neglected human unity that all the “all lives matter” reactionary racist bullshit can’t even approach.

I used to listen to audiobooks all the time when I had to actually drive to work. Now I only listen to them during vacations or holidays or other rare times spending a whole lot of time in a car. As such, I can be more discerning and I only listen to books narrated by the author. Even if they don’t have a great voice, they understand better than anyone the rhythm and cadence of their prose and it makes for a much better listen. Coates spent some time reading (bad) poetry aloud or working spoken word nights in his youth, so his narration has a particular speakerish quality to it. His repetition of words and phrases “My body”, “the black body”, “plunder”, “the people who think they are white” etc added to the fact that’s a memoirish essay made for a more compelling experience than I figure the text would. 

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

msgv

Beleaguered, weary, wounded and battleworn, I ride my chopper to one final deployment. Not another sortie to South Africa or Afghanistan, to sneak into a soviet installation or assassinate an arms dealer, but to write this blog post. A task I am finding difficult. Usually before writing I already have a lead or structure, an idea to elaborate on. I already have the post about the book I’m reading half-written in my head. Yet, I don’t seem to have much to say about Metal Gear Solid V, a game I enjoyed immensely.

Just why is this game so good?

Take this episode for example: Early in the game, I was tasked with rescuing a hostage. I snuck into a Soviet-occupied Afghan village, slithered up on a soldier to interrogate him and retrieve the prisoner’s location, and was nearly there, without being seen, when a guard spotted me at the door. Alarms sounded as I rushed into the hostage’s room. The prisoner is screaming, bullets are plinking glass bottles above the bar I’m hiding behind. I’m surrounded.

I radio my chopper for air support. I hold out behind the bar while I wait for it to fly in. The Soviet guards freak out and start screaming and returning fire as my chopper strafes them. The pure chaos allows me to sneak out, prisoner thrown over my shoulders. A few hundred meters from the village, I radio my chopper to come pick me up. I watch as it flies away from the battle, slightly smoking, to touch down in front me. I toss the hostage inside and hop in myself, taking potshots at the enemy soldiers, not really expecting to hit anything. Mission complete.

Everything feels so organic. There’s a thrill in non-scripted happenstance. A point is reached where gameplay is so well-designed, well-thought out, and polished that it becomes narrative. MGSV has a plot of its own, and it’s pretty interesting, delving into the imperialism of language and western tyranny in the Middle-East and Africa, as well as exploring some video gamey themes like player agency.

But this is secondary to the story that is built simply by playing the game. Like that time I blocked a road with a truck, and while the tank rolling down that route honked its horn and yelled at the truck to move,  I snuck up behind it and planted C4 on its bumper, only to creep away and detonate it from a safe distance. Or when I sicced my pet wolf, D-Dog, equipped with a taser, on a full squad of armed men and how he somehow stunned them all. Or the simple thrill and follow up relief of being spotted by a guard and reflexively shooting him precisely in the face with a tranquilizer dart, in the brief window between him noticing me and alerting his buddies of my presence.

You know that feeling you have, watching a good thriller, when the protagonist is hiding from some villain or creepy monster and your heart is racing because the scene is tense and well-shot? That is the feeling MGSV evokes, except you’re the protagonist and you are the one who got yourself in this situation, not the screenwriter or cameraman or director.

It is excellent.

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loiteringLoneliness.

Love.

While the essays in this collection masquerade as other topics, they all return to loneliness and love in the end. Seeking the latter while immersed in the former.

D’Ambrosio survived a tragic family life: one brother lost to suicide, another brother schizophrenic and a failed suicide, a tyrannical father unable to take responsibility. Naturally, this informs nearly every aspect of his writing, whether it be about hopping trains, the emergent culture of his hometown Seattle, an analysis of Catcher in the Rye, or pondering society’s binary judgement of a middle school teacher accused of seducing a student.

Poignant and smart and occasionally both heartbreaking and funny, but frankly exhausting. It was an endless emotional pummelling of D’Ambrosio’s life and constant searching, searching, searching. He’s camping on the coastline ostensibly writing about the conflict between the native Makah people and their traditional whaling versus the local environmentalists demonizing them, but actually it’s musings about his penis and life as a lost boy isolated on the Pacific coast. I wanted to know about the whales! About the Makah!

I’ve mentioned before that all modern essays that take the personal + topical approach are inextricably tied back to the work of Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. Their emotional vulnerability was essential to their appeal, but they remained keen, insightful observers of the world around them. When David Foster Wallace writes, at the start of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again:

I have filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.

Not only is it a funny intro, it’s a model for the essay. We get both DFW’s deep sense of outsiderness and bafflement that a luxury cruise is supposed to be fun but this is a wonderful juxtaposition to what is actually happening on the cruise, and an overall satire/critique on vacation in general. The problem with Loitering, as well-written as it is, is that it’s so heavily skewed to the ‘Just Me’. This is not necessarily some endemic flaw, but key to how I engage with books. I love a good essay collection, but am generally lukewarm to all but the best memoir.

D’Ambrosio is a stellar writer — he has the poet’s eyes for language, his vocabulary is prodigious but the little known words he uses are intriguing to ponder and learn the meaning of. I learned some variations on words I already knew. ‘Parsonal’, which I’m not sure is truly a word, connotes all the attributes of a ‘parson’, but is somehow a far prettier word. And his life is interesting. He tells it well. I was just looking for him to tell some other things well too.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

tombraider

So. Tomb Raider. Check out the baffling news that the Writer’s Guild Awards gave it an outstanding achievement in video game writing. Not only that, it beat out The Witcher!

Now I thoroughly enjoyed this game but narrative is nowhere near the reason why. Let’s recap the plot: Lara Croft, following the legacy of her father, stumbles across some clues that the secret to immortality is somehow hidden in a lost Byzantine city located in Siberia. Why is Lara seeking this? To, uh, better humanity or something. Naturally and predictably, like hundreds of action heroes before her, she comes to learn that maybe humans shouldn’t live forever. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Opposed to Lara is a group called ‘Trinity’, a bunch of militant malcontents who have been seeking this divine source for millennia. They’ve been foiled repeatedly by a prophet and his followers, the architects of the aforementioned hidden city. This is not the only similarity RotTR will have with Assassin’s Creed.

The story is fun like a Godzilla movie is fun. I don’t mean the early Godzilla movies that legitimately were trying to grapple with the unthinkable destruction of the atom bomb, but all the later ones that were primarily about a man in a dragon/t-rex suit kicking down buildings. Tomb Raider’s ultimate set piece is a three way fight between immortal Byzantine warriors, black ops soldiers, and a cadre of Russian elves with trebuchets in the middle of a city buried under a glacier.

Shit explodes. And you run and jump through it. Thrilling? Yes. Outstanding writing? No.

I’m trying to think of specific line-by-line examples and very little of it is memorable enough to stick. It’s just a lot of Lara urgently exclaiming she needs to do this or that right now now now. Or the villain delivering soliloquies of how he needs to find the divine source to ‘please God’, which is banal and creatively timid, because the the game doesn’t even try to engage with which God or where his conviction comes from. Lara’s character arc, the titular ‘Rise’, is delivered in terms of gameplay, not narrative. From shivering cold in the wilderness and killing enemies one at a time, to casually wiping out full-on military squads single-handedly, to becoming the predator, and finally ascending to goddess-hood and slinging blue flame like a wizard. This game has better writing than The Witcher?? 

The gameplay and especially atmosphere does not cohere to a believable plot either. Lara can swim under frozen icy water and hop out and shake the water out of her hair and she’s good to go. Despite taking place in Siberia, with supposedly multi-national villains, and including a group of natives who have been living in isolation in the wilderness for a thousand years, every single character speaks american english. Except for Lara, whose dialect is british.

Play this game for the gorgeous vistas, the tight gameplay, and the explosions. Not the outstanding writing.

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.

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.