Kaiba

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Great works of art are not easy to review. They are not common like the cesspool of bad art. Bad art is easy to deconstruct, to show how pathetically horrible they are. “So bad it’s good” exists because these works are so bizarre, so extraordinary that they become unique. Bad art is never unique its badness. In contrast, great works of art always end up redefining what ‘good’ is, so any review of a masterpiece will never be analytical and conclusive. It always end up chasing something that we can only grasp a piece of, like a poet looking at a beautiful line he wrote and knowing he can never write a worthy poem of it.

Kaiba is one of those artworks. I say it deliberately. Judgment of it is not confined to anime. It transcends media, reaches something so deeply human and awe-inspiring that it becomes a part of you. Do not expect a rational explanation of why this anime is better than pretty much anything. If we understood completely why it’s so good, we’d have masterpiece dropping from the skies. I can try, though.

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The key to understanding Kaiba is understanding how it tells a story, specifically how it takes advantage of the personal nature of fiction. All art, including fiction, is personal. It is a product of human thought, a translation of your entire Being – your experiences, philosophy, unconscious, passions – into some kind of experience that another being can take on. Kaiba is a ridiculously expressive work. Every scene is imbued with emotion. Every object says something about what it represents. It’s so emotionally draining because of that.

Memory is the big topic, but Kaiba isn’t just about memory. In a cliched way, it’s existentialist, asking what we are. Its answer is memories, but memories are also information. The anime explores this intersection of information that defines us. Notice the symbols. When memory isn’t converted to information, it is organic and free – it is lifelike memory eggs. These are also tiny, fragile and fleeting. The memories float away and are easily lost.

The roe is us, so they use to show how tiny we are when death strikes. When a character dies, their bodies become liquid and vanish completely. The ‘self’ becomes just a bunch of yellow pieces floating way. It expresses the loss of death, how death completely erase us and we become nothing. The memory chip – a drill-like thing – can also die so easily, if it’s lost it’s gone forever. Sure, we can try to capture those roe or to protect the chip, but it’s so difficult. It’s an expression of how fragile we are.

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Yet converting ourselves into information makes us so much easier to control, and easier for us to control others. Altering other people’s memories is a sci-fi trope, but this anime is concerned with how it affects everyone, how it affects our personal lives. We see the small results of this – how erasing someone’s childhood erases who they are and they end up becoming nothing but a memory. How this power to change personal reality blurs into thinking we can change reality itself – a direct link to megalomania and tyranny.

Our memories are our personality. Once we control them, edit them, change them all lines break down. The world of Kaiba looks funny by design, but that’s because how the people experience it. People can also put their memories into a whole new body. In one episode this results in a world where bodies are manufactured like clothes. Its reality is grotesque, a mass of weird shapes that’s disorientating. Somehow we ended up creating a more chaotic reality than nature.

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Leaning towards a socioeconomic critique of society, the anime shows a world in which memories – selves – become products. So a character sells her own body with hopes that her memory will be kept. Selves are no longer precious. This society isn’t painted with strokes of black to show you how evil rich people are. Rather, to illustrate the chaos of it, we see selling your own body and putting yourself in a chip is no guarantee. You’re relinquishing control of yourself, your grip on the world.

Yet this ‘information’ is never just ‘information’. Consciousness was the result of accumalating all these pieces of data and connecting them. So we’re never really dead, and using memories this way is using people as objects. The anime is deeply concerned with living things. In a gallery of memories, the people who own these memories cry out to be released.

Everyone’s concerns are always personal. Although the characters are simple, they have motivation and a humanity. A sheriff who really wants a girl at first seems like a greedy bastard, but he’s a person. That’s his wants, and when we see this want doesn’t make him just an asshole but a good person we’re encouraged to sympathize with him. In the end, he’s a ‘human’ being – with people he loves, things he wants, and dreams lost when death comes.

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Although there are antagonists, the series always reminds us that they’re people in the most simple way. People want power, but not because they’re evil. They want it because they’re human beings, so we see the ringleader of the resistance crumbling to tears when he realizes what he’s done. He had to erase memories that painted him in a bad light, but the result was losing a friend.

This anime is in the end about treasuring people. The idea of memory is just a tool to show us how we can lose people, no matter how hard we work to keep them. We put their identity, their whole being in a chip but then that chip is lost. We sell a loved one’s body, hoping the salesman will keep the information in a chip. A friend blocks our ambition, so we erase some memories only to realize the whole person is gone. Eventually this anime reaches an important conclusion about being – we need each other, we’re social animals, power doens’t make up for it.

The castle of Warp is a lonely place. The only person he has is an all-seeing robot. He’s not happy and the only thing he can talk about are who to execute. He may be the king of memories, but these are his own memories. What good are they? In a beautiful scene Popo and the resistance at the palace, and it has a huge opening to a black void. That’s the height of power to you, a lonely high place looking out into nothing. The only thing that’s there are themselves, yet they’re craving control.

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The romance between Neiro and Kaiba isn’t a symbol for romance, but what’s really important – connection. Even during oppression, they found something of their own, a precious shared memory that’s enough. Separate yourself from the struggle for power. The privileges of the rich to put themselves in memory chips and live forever aren’t that worthwhile in the end. Every world touched by this is grotesque, people are lost yet they are still people.

You cannot talk about the art without mentioning the Neverhood, which seems like a direct inspiration for the anime. Both endings and beginning borrow from it. It opens with a man seeing an unknown, bizarre world. The ending includes a darker version of the hero and a gigantic, self-sacrificing robot. Like the Neverhood, the design is cartoonish, nonsensical and imbued with meaning and emotions. Look at the planet where the only thing that matters is the story of two old people. The planet itself is nothing but their tower. The underworld is almost colorless – but almost, since it still has some life in it. The club is colorful and weird but has a dominating shade of purple – a disorientating effect. Vanilla looks like what we expect from an asshole with the fat belly and aggressive face (Only his character later proves to be more). There is even a creature who flies by a propeller and doesn’t speak – like the sidekick from old video games. It’s as unrealistic as you get, but no scene is without emotional overtones just like life – and that makes it far closer to reality than anything else.

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Likewise the soundtrack couldn’t be better, a collection of gentle electronic sounds. It fits with the slightly childish designs, but it has the same fragility of the world. A lot of it sounds like Boards of Canada, only it takes it to less nostalgic tones. The soundtrack mostly expresses a reflective, introspective atmosphere, one of both awe and terror. Some tracks are colder and harsher that reminds us that this world is still harsh, a world where selves can be sold. Some tracks have beautiful, intimate melodies to go along with the theme of connection.

There is no other anime like Kaiba, an anime so expressive, where every shot is charged with emotion, wonder, terror and humanity. ‘Depth’ isn’t the right word. It’s not an intellectual, symbolic exercise like Paranoia Agent or a psychological exploration like Digimon Tamers yet it’s somehow better than these two. Perhaps because it takes anime to the origin of art – the expression, not explanation, of human experience. Nothing I could write would do this anime justice.

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Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas

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Is this really the person who wrote The Wasp Factory?

You can feel it’s the same mind for a while. Banks’ world is weird and unstable enough. The basics of it are simple at heart, focusing more on cool ideas rather than an abundance of details. Often, there are bits of madness that bring the world to life like the small tribe arc. The prose is worse than stiff though. It’s so invasive it literally turns a rollicking adventure with great characters into the word ‘kilometer’ placed between references to violence.

the story isn’t a dull travelogue with Banks showing off his worldbuilding skills. Banks uses the smart technique of showing bits and pieces, emphasizing the size of the world rather than just writing an encyclopedia. The structure is a simple one. Man goes on a mission, things go wrong and he has to solve the problems. Each problem is different and each setting is different. Even without character development the novel could give you a good time.

The prose is closer to the horrifying George Martin prose. Saying it’s better doesn’t say much. While Banks isn’t as offensive (and the story is overall better), it’s hard to ignore how crippling the writing is. The third-person omniscient writing is so detached. The epilogue features some dry history about the world. That section is more interesting since such writing fits when you look at things from a distance.

The story is an adventure. Why does Banks tell it like it’s a history book? It sucks out all the excitement and it’s more offensive when the story is very close to being fun.

The distance ruins any character development Banks was attempting. They never become psychological or grand-mythic, but even a little personality injects life. There’s something about Horza being a badass, Wubslin being an obsessed engineer and the drone being unpleasant to everyone. I’m not sure what it says about the novel when only a drone has unique reactions to things.

How characters react to the world around them is too generic. One is a little more apathetic. Another is more confident. There are no quirks, no special modifiers to these reactions. Unimaginative authors should at least be capable of repetitive archetypes. Banks’ characters don’t even qualify as that. If one character had a trait where they’d swear more than everyone, they’ll be more lifelike than everyone else.

Banks also has a weird obsession with exactness. The world ‘kilometer’ repeats itself often. The exact measures and structures of everything will haunt you in your sleep. Not only Banks is into writing history books, he also enjoys writing instructions manuals on how to build a ship.

Now, such manuals have no room for exciting or beautiful prose. Their purpose is to give the exact details. How exact can you be with fiction? Banks forgets something crucial. All these ships and planets aren’t actually real. Describing their exact size doesn’t make then any more so.

We don’t experience the world in measuring units. First of all, we perceive things as ‘big’ or ‘small’, as ‘long’ or ‘short’. Fiction is human thought and it should connect our thoughts. You use descriptions to make the reader understand what it feels like to witness the destruction. Some authors use a pile of details for this, but the good ones never gain their strength from being exact. Shopping list as a writing technique is about creating a variety of images.

The writing isn’t shopping-list style. It simply relies on being very exact. All it does is making you either feel confused (Because the exactness doesn’t give a proper image of what it feels like) or sucking out the life out of the prose. I’m not sure which is worse and it often happens at the same time.

The epilogue is perhaps the best part of the novel. Although it’s dry history, the prose works there. Maybe Banks is more interested in huge stories thna small adventures. After all, this series became huge. Sadly he was too scared to write a full book in this style and instead we get this dry adventure.

If you’re into shenanigans about traveling in outer space, explosions and weird cultures there’s fun to be had here. It’s buried under layers of dull prose. Nothing about is offensively bad. I never got the urge to put it down but I never got much of one to pick it up. Make of that what you will.

2 kilometers out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Xenocide

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Don’t we all want to believe in the myth of the free artist? If only we break the chains of record labels and publishing companies! A truly great author doesn’t need a pest of an editor. Their glorious minds just spill diamonds on the page. Really, this is an attractive fantasy. It means we can just write whatever the hell comes to our heads and it might be brilliant. We don’t have to actively seek criticism and feedback, since that will soil our purity.

For every brilliant album like The Fragile, you get a book like Xenocide. Actually, Dr. Dre was invovled in “Even Deeper” so maybe even that album isn’t a product of a single, untamed genius. Human beings are flawd and social animals. Without feedback or criticism, our ideas don’t improve. Becoming intelligent is no different than working out. You have to practice. You have to up the ante and you have to try new things and hear the words people different than you.

Card is clearly intelligent or else he wouldn’t be able to write the two previous novels. They were vastly different in style and were self-contained. There was an overarching story but the books weren’t separated just so it would be easier to sell them. They had a beginning and an end, different prose styles and different structures. That’s all before you get into how Card explores his ideas, how he focuses on characters and refuses to demonize everyone. These things are here too, only Card has no one to restrain him.

Lack of an editor doesn’t mean Card’s good habits can flow freely. It means he sinks to the sin of overwriting, joining the ranks of authors like King and R. R. Martin. He rambles on for most of the books, talking to himself and writing down notes. There so many passages that fit more a stream-of-consciousness narrative but this clearly isn’t one. The narrator is omniscient and the stream of thoughts don’tm provide any psychological insight. It’s a reptition of things we already know.

He’s similar to R. R. Martin not just in the rambling style, but in how the rambling holds the book back. When ramblings aren’t poetic or insightful, all they do is fill up the page and cause build-up. Build-up isn’t a good thing. There’s no reason to tease the readers with ‘something will happen!’ when it’s possible to write interesting things that are happening right now.

Only in the last 100 pages things are actually happening. Until then, people mostly speculate. Although there are many characters, the speculations aren’t patricularly varied. People mostly think about what happened, what may happen and what are the odds of something happening. It’s an author not sure how to move his story, so he writes neutral, meaningless things.

It’s tempting to write these paragraphs. Looking at how many words you wrote brings a feelings of satisfaction, of having done a work. Lying bricks in an order doesn’t automatically lead to a house. Writing a lot of sentences doesn’t automatically lead to a story or an essay or insightful philosophical musings. Card’s prose is more nimble and easy to read than other ramblers, but making it more pleasant doesn’t make it any less of a ramble.

The worst sin Card commits is lacking any purpose to his story. What’s Xenocide about, in the end? What does it add to the world of Ender? We shouldn’t judge other people too hastily. People may seem immoral to us but perhaps their value system is vastly different and we need to find a bridge. There’s no progression of ideas here from the previous novels. For all of its philosophical musings, the novel is empty. The only thing that happens is that the characters confront a virus, discover faster-than-light travel and start to rise against Starways Congress. Does that sound like a story that needs 600 pages?

The novel was apparently meant to go hand-in-hand with Children of the Mind but they were split in two. Whenever a book needs to split up because it’s too long a red flag rises. That’s a sign the story doesn’t actually end in the book itself (Here, it hardly concludes) and that the author found themselves writing a little too much.

The usual strengths are here. Although Starways Congress are the first actual antagonist in the series, Card generally refuses to paint people as wholly evil or wholly good. Characters are conflicted. People do horrible stuff and later Card makes us understand them without justifying it. The idea of ‘varlese’ is pretty brilliant – accepting that sometimes we have to kill a different species because we fail to communicate but not because they’re evil. The novel never develops these. We don’t get anything like the piggies’ radical view of death.

There’s also more techno-babble this time around. Expect a lot of ramblings in the last 100 pages about Outspace and Inspace. It’s good he doesn’t pretend this is hard science and the philotes are more of a philosophical concept than a scientific one. But Card spends more time telling us how it works and none of it is barely cool enough for Stoner Rock lyrics. Again, it’s an author whose pen are getting away from them. No editor was here to cut off the fat and leave the substance.

Normally these are the worst flaws a book can commit. Offend the reader, but at least be interesting. Boredom cannot be forgiven. Boredom merely kills the reader’s time and no one lives forever. Yet Xenocide is, overall, a bearable book. It’s not very enjoyable, but it’s never offensively boring. The rambling prose fattens the novel, but it never becomes a struggle to read. When things do happen, they’re interesting.

That’s thanks to Card’s great foundation. He always comes off as a compassionate, wise person in his novels instead of a homophobic conservative. The world is still dominated by concepts and ideas, rather than trying to predict hard science. There is still no main character, but a wide cast. Some get more focus than others, but each is given a rational basis for their actions (Although Quara is a bit dramatic). Card never demonizes anyone.

Such tiny merits manage to make the book fairly pleasant, if not great. It’s a huge step-down from Speaker for the Dead and makes me wonder if this is where the series ran out of steam. Still, Card manages to ramble and focus too much about build-up and avoid writing a horrible book. That takes some skill. There’s nothing here unless you really loved the first books, but if youd did the ride may be pleasant. Hopefully the sequel is worth it.

2.5 xenocides out of 5

Cowboy Bebop

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Since being a critic means writing tons of words, people often think of us as pretentious assholes who can’t have fun. Some critics swallow that crap and then write meaningless bullcrap instead of admitting they enjoyed a stylish, flashy story. The easiest way to recognize it is when a series is said to be about ‘existentialism’. That’s so general, but so useful. After all, that stream of philosophy is huge and you can insert anything into it.

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Since I don’t care about my image, I’m not going to claim Cowboy Bebop is about ‘existentialism’ when I can’t back it up. I have no shame in admitting I love a story that’s all about flash, action and amusing characters. That’s what Cowboy Bebop is and it’s proof that mere storytelling is an art too. There are a few touching moments and the last episodes push for something more profound, but until then there isn’t any depth. Why should it have any when “Mushroom Samba” is one of the best anime episodes ever?

Watanabe taglined the show as “a new genre unto itself” and later called it an exaggeration. That’s like the fastest runner in the world saying he’s slow. Cowboy Bebop never runs out of steam or ideas. It always has a wide-eyed sense of wonder and always excited what other stories it can tell. Many of the tropes are recognizable, but nothing is a missed chance.

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The approach is akin to a band that tries a new genre with every song. People who complain about the episodic nature miss the point. The series has a wider reach than nearly every anime out there. Pretty much every episode is a whole different genre. The characters and art style are the same, but even the color schemes change. “Mushroom Samba” and “Cowboy Funk” are experiments with Comedy and have brighter colors. “Toys in the Attic” experiments with horror and is noticeably darker.

Even pacing and side-character design changes. The aforementioned “Mushroom Samba” has far wackier character design than “Speak Like a Child”, one of the more introspective episodes. The series doesn’t simply borrow a lot from Western fiction but distills it to one show. It had mass appeal because it had a wide reach – whoever you are, there’s something to like her.

Convincing the viewer that the world in your anime exists is difficult. Calling things ‘realistic’ or ‘unrealistic’ isn’t enough, since you first have to know what reality is (or, more correctly, how people perceive reality). The solid blocks don’t define reality. Spaceships and cities on the moon aren’t automatically ‘unrealistic’. If you told people from 1000 years ago that anime will exist they’ll think you’re possessed by a devil.

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Reality and real life go deeper than this. Reality is, among things, confusing and has a lot of sides. If it didn’t we wouldn’t need to create art. The most realistic anime are the most far-reaching ones. An anime is more realistic the more it can contain different moods and different people. It doesn’t matter whether you live as a drifter or in a small community – life has all kinds of things going for it.

The show has bounty hunters in space, loud gunfights and a failed experiment that learned to fly. It’s still more realistic – and thus more alive than most anime out there. The variety in mood and texture of the events brings it to life. I couldn’t imagine a show having a fat balloon assassin feeling realistic.

The cast is also a prime example of how to have an ensemble. Spike isn’t the main character. They’re all are. Their personalities aren’t simply different but connected, there is chemistry here. Jet isn’t just a contrast to Spike’s apathy, but a more warm figure for the damaged Faye and the young Ed. Spike’s apathy and cockiness is what puts him at odds with Faye but their greed is what they share and what unites them. Ed herself is a sun in the group of depressed individuals. The characters don’t act out of convenience but on their inner drives, and each of their reactions is uniquely theirs.

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Variety itself isn’t enough, of course. You need more than the basics of having different episodes with different styles and moods. The narratives are always tightly focused. The world is full of great anime, but few deserve the award of ‘no useless shots’. Except for the plot-heavy episodes (which don’t really work anyway), every shot equals progress.

It’s worth noting that Cowboy Bebop isn’t a dialogue-heavy show. It borrowed this from the film noire genre. Unlike noire’s bad side, Bebop doesn’t rely on dark shots to let you things are dark. Rather, it doesn’t use a lot of dialogue because it doesn’t need to. The shots are informative enough, and so are never boring.

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The series’ only flaw is the grand story behind it focusing on Spike’s past. The series doesn’t exactly lose focus, but confidence. Up until then the defining trait was elegance. Everything was small, but it was enough that counted for a lot. Suddenly we have this huge backstory of broken hearts and smoking guns and overthrowing a criminal syndicate. The last two episodes, while having decent actions, end up mostly as a collection of serious dialogue and dark staring. It survives only on the show’s natural charm. This is one route that demanded a whole new way of storytelling. It’s nice of Watanabe to try but it didn’t work.

Cowboy Bebop is a great anime not because it’s philosophical, influential or borrows a lot from Western fiction. It’s brilliant because it’s a masterpiece of pure storytelling. There are no useless parts in these 23 or so episodes. Each story is different both in events, pacing and mood. People who are uncomfortable with this will make stuff up about ‘existentialism’ but it’s their loss. Regardless of who you are, there’s something to enjoy here.

4.5 trippy mushrooms out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

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Scott Card still puzzles me. Here, he’s beyond the power of editors. The writing is more dense, with more inner monologues and more pointless words. Nothing about it is terrible, but it does reek of an inexperienced author who can’t edit himself.

Authors who can’t edit themselves will let their worldview seep into the novel. If they lack critical thinking. then expect all the Good Guys to hold their opinion and all the Bad Guys to disagree with them. The novel won’t raise questions or confront the difficulty of its subject matter. At best, it will give the illusion of realism using cheap techniques like ‘surprise deaths’.

Where’s the bigotry, though? I mean, Scott Card is a homophobe and very strictly religious. This only goes to show you how bizarre and full of contradiction the human mind are. Religion and homophobia are, justifiably, close-minded dogmatic ideas. They’re about limiting our options, and won’t be held by people who try to think deeply.

Card broke the stereotype on Ender’s Game, and here he continues. In fact, if you didn’t know his background you wouldn’t guess Card holds such views.

It’s ironic I’m judging Card like this, in a review of a novel where judgment is a big theme. The religious theme of forgiveness is here, and just like in the previous novel Card doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s always looking at a subject from both sides, always willing to accept both the good and the bad involved. The best moment is the actual ‘speaking’.

Evil doesn’t exist in the real world. Everyone is convinced they’re right. We need morality and to mark some actions as wrong, but we must be wary of branding people as just ‘sick assholes’ and be done with it. It’s important to understand why they do what they do. This way we won’t go down that path, and we will be able to prevent it.

Murder is considered one of the most horrible things you can do, and Card uses it cleverly to make us question what is evil. From the viewpoint of an organism that doesn’t really die when they’re killed, there’s no such thing as murder. So when they do the same to you, can you really brand them as evil? They sure they were doing you good, bringing you to your next life.

His desire to understand people, the idea that we should see people as people through their flaws reflects in the characters. They’re all flawed humans, doing what they think is best. Some of them are crueler than others, but each has a reason for what they do. Some Card clearly disagrees with, like the religious zealotry of Quim or the Bishop. They never slide into the unlikeable. They never become wrenches in the gears of the plot that the heroes have to get rid of. Like everyone else, they have a worldview of their own that they adjust as they learn new things. Card never converts them to their side, but lets them learn like people do.

It sounds fun and deep, but it never goes as deep as it should. The biggest challenge is to take a true scumbag, a person who disregarded everyone else and make them sympathetic. Not every cruel person is a tragic case and could be redeemed. Some people do use their power for pleasure while hurting others. Some people are so extreme in their views they cannot be changes. He confronted the reality of inevitable violence in Ender’s Game, but here he’s hesitant. The novel has a bigger plot, a wider scope and states its subject matter more clearly. Yet it doesn’t match what came before for depth. Despite the simple plot, Ender’s Game did go much further.

The story itself is great though. The writing is more dense and a little more rambling. The easy flow of Ender’s Game is gone and Card has no stylistic quirks, but it’s readable. It also helps Card tends to ramble on the novel’s focus, its characters. The prose is otherwise is easy to read. Plain utilitarianism has its place, especially when everything surrounding it is good enough.

For a very famous series, its structure is vastly different than stereotypical sci-fi. Science fiction is burdened with the stigma that it’s all technobabble, silly worldbuilding and too much exposition. I even talked to some people who think sci-fi is all about new technologies.

Speaker for the Dead is a character-driven novel where gadgets take a secondary place. The best sci-fi comes up with meaningful technologies or aliens. They don’t ask how a new technology can function, but how it will affect society. The effect of technology is more central. It doesn’t bore us with how space travel works, but we constantly see how the lack of aging affects relationships. How the big computer network functions doesn’t matter. What does is that it creates a new ‘currency’, a new way to hold power without weapons. The new biology is also a symbol of such ideas. The whole ‘third life’ thing creates a situation in which killing is different, where ‘symbiosis’ is taken to the next level. Card is more concerned how such a difference in biology breeds different cultures, how they clash rather than the plain mechanics of it.

It’s also a perfect example of how a sequel should be. Books in a series should be separated for a specific reason. When we say a sequel should ‘stand on its own’, we don’t mean that it should be accessible for those who didn’t read the predecessors. ‘Stands on its own’ means the sequel is a work with its own unique qualities. It has its own style, themes and structure that separates it. A sequel shouldn’t just show us what happens next but offer something new. Speaker is different in many ways – prose, structure, characters, atmosphere – than Ender’s Game, and all that justifies its existence.

The flaws are negligible. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ender’s Game because it’s not as willing to face the darkness and it rambles more. These prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s still a great sci-fi story. It’s a story of ideas and characters, using setting, technology and aliens to raise questions instead of spitting technobabble. Whatever views Card holds, his story is multi-layered and doesn’t preach dogma but encourages understanding the unfamiliar. Hopefully, the good stuff doesn’t stop here.

4 dysfunctional families out of 5

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens

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A film that’s such an event can’t be this unremarkable. The seventh episode of Star Wars was supposed to be either a rejuvination or a complete disaster. It either proves the franchise has another lifetime in it or destroy its Death Star for good. For all the references, new faces, re-hashed concepts it’s just okay.

The most interesting about it is how it updates the series to 21st century worldviews. Aside from Kylo Ren, who’s a more flawed and humane villain the update does mostly damage. In fact, the movie doesn’t stay true to the spirit of the old films at all.

Millenium Falcon, cute droids and Cloak-and-Mask villains are props. They are not the spirit of the series. The original series was a pulp adventure. It was silly, overblown and never meant to be serious. Everything in it was insane, but it was never cruel.

When the Death Star destroyed planets, all we saw was the explosion. The camera didn’t linger on the suffering because it didn’t matter. Darkness was not important. It was only important to establish that the Empire is so evil they’ll destroy planets for the fuck of it because they’re evil.

This cartoonish approach doesn’t mean you can have emotionally effective or shocking moments. It’s because of the contrast that Vader’s cruelty was frightening. He was a heartless leader backed by an Army of Nonsense. That madness imbued characters with humanity and made Luke a generic moral hero with charisma.

It takes about half an hour until something light-hearted comes in. The opening scene has the massacre of a village which is depressing in its cruelty. It’s a scene more at home for a film about the horrors of war. The presentation doesn’t add any depth but just removes joy.

Compare Jakku to Tatooine. Tatooine was an insane planet. Everyone was weird. Jabba was menacing partly because everything around him was so bizarre. We had aliens with oversized heads playing music and walking cloaks who collected droids.

Jakku is a gloomy post-apocalyptic landscape where nothing happens. Everyone struggles to get by. Life is harsh and that’s it. There are no odd moments, moments of madness and absurdity. Rei is a scavenger who has a hard time making ends meet and the guy shells stuff to is just an unpleasant asshole.

There are enough Fallout games to draw inspiration from to make a convincing Post-Apoc landscape. There’s no reason to settle for this boring gloom. Junktown or Megaton are more lively and realistic places than Jakku.

It’s not that the film fails to capture the magic of the previous chapters. It doesn’t even try. Gone is the wide-eyed approach. Instead, it’s replaced with more serious grimdarkness. Perhaps they know their target audience, which are fanboys who take the films as serious mythologies rather than great adventures.

Rey is also more of a joke than a character. She walks around looking tough and screams at Finn to stop holding her hand. This is a not-so-subtle way to tell you it’s feminist and doesn’t put women into traditional gender roles. It just puts them in new roles, but Rey is just as one-dimensional if she were a damsel in distress.

The makers forgot. Furiosa was a boring character whose purpose was to hold a shotgun. It was Max’s shaking and paranoia that made him real and charismatic.

Finn is much better, and alongside Kylo he provides some grey morality that was missing from the original trilogy.

In most stories, the heroes struggle against a powerful villain. No matter what ideas the character holds, it boils down to who’s a better swordfighter. Kylo Ren isn’t a powerful villain. He simply desires power. He’s not just similar to Darth Vader to evoke nostalgia. He wants to be him and Vader is a shadow that looms over him and affects him.

Kylo is dangerous because of his personality. He’s not in control but impulsive. It’s actually that impulsiveness, that desire for power that makes him so weak. As an expansion of the Dark Side, it’s brilliant. He’s also aesthetically fun. His mask and voice are different enough than Vader, but similar enough to make him a worthy successor.

As for BB-8 who is going to be the mascot of the new trilogy, he’s more needed than it looks. The original droids were brilliant, but BB-8 injects a sense of fun that’s missing from the film.

In many scenes, he’s the only relic of Star Wars’ energy and silliness. He’s a great addition to the droid trio. He’s not a copycat of R2D2 even though he’s another attempt at taking an inanimate object and making him cute. He has a childish, jumpy personality that makes him different than C-3PO’s nervousness or R2D2’s heroism. R2D2 is perhaps Star Wars’ weirdest achievement, creating a vivid character out of a machine. BB-8 is a great successor, but hopefully we’ll see the two interact.

The story itself re-hashes A New Hope, sometimes too much. Some ideas are turned on their heads in an amusing way that expands upon them. They failed in replicating the Death Star’s menace. It’s transformed into a huge gun that’s a hole in a planet.

The first Death Star was menacing because it nonsenscial (why’d you go out of your day to wreck a whole planet?) but symbolizing ultimate destruction. The second was frightening because of its wrecked look, which shows how it leaves other planets. The 3rd one is bigger, but that’s it. There’s no unique features to it and we don’t even a cool shoot that makes us admire it.

Speaking of visuals, the old style isn’t back. The effects are technically better, but they visual ideas aren’t as interesting. I kept looking for some background detail that will catch my eye, a random alien or a ship. The best shots are those that show old Empire vehicles wrecked.

All the details don’t necessarily make for great visual details. Now we can film in darkness, but darkness still obscures the view. That’s the problem with working without limits. With nothing to limit you, you have no obstacles to overcome. You can throw everything in and you don’t think of ways to make it catch the eye.

It’s a good film. It’s not the disaster it should’ve been and it often points that there’s still life to this. It can move the franchise towards a more psychological and morally grey area, but it also points to a worse angle. Grimdarkness and Hollywood Feminism also have a strong presence, suffocating creativity for the sake of looking cool. It’s just a stepping stone. The sequels will tell us more whether this was a good idea.

3 Death Stars out of 5

Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Earth

foundationandearth
If Foundation’s Edge sees Asimov diving into the Thriller genre, then Foundation and Earth is the complete opposite. Here, Asimov attempts something far more psychological and philosophical. These were things he avoided in previous installments. Considering how different Edge was in terms of ideas, the new approach isn’t surprising. Like a true intellectual, Asimov challenges himself and his thinking. Too bad this challenge was too much for him.

The first Foundation novels’ strengths was in knowing in their limits. Despite the huge scope, Asimov knew he’s not good at expressing ideas or psychology in fiction. So the whole series was just some cool puzzles and adventure stories. That’s also why none of them is truly brilliant. Edge only approaches that because it has a better understanding of the Thriller genre.

Foundation and Earth is supposed to be the series’ defining statement. It’s a slower, denser novel. It’s more concerned with the philosophical implication of Gaia than solving whatever puzzle Asimov came up with. Many are bothered by the trashing of the Seldon Plan, but that’s just Asimov replacing his old ideas with what he considers to be better one.

Asimov was never good at expressing ideas using fiction. He used them to make his stories look cooler, but there never was any deep exploration. He tries to do it here, and he always stumbles. The novel tries to tackle the community vs. individuality debate, and the only answer he can come up with is ‘let’s wait until we get to Earth’. The dialogues feel literally copy-pasted. The same phrases make an appearance, over and over. I don’t think people in real life say the same thing in the exact phrase.

We also get some cool set-pieces that feel like they belong in a different novella. An adventure consists of various stages, and each is supposed to both stand on its own and contribute to the whole. In general, they’re challenges for the characters to overcome and develop.

Since Asimov doesn’t develop characters, they all feel pointless. Killer moss could make for a fun short story. Solaria and their obsession with loneliness would be fantastic in the hands of a more philosophical writer, someone like Aldous Huxley. Here, all it gives is a plot coupon to redeem later.

Even the final conclusion is disappointing. For a novel so reliant on ideas, the conclusion should’ve been more than to reveal who was behind the scenes. We get no argument for Galaxia. All we get is that there was a person behind the velvet curtain and that we shouldn’t pay any attention to it. Such a conclusion would have worked in previous novels, but here Asimov doesn’t aim for a simple adventure.

There’s even rambling prose and lots of sex, which is new to Asimov. Maybe Asimov disocvered sexuality only at around age 65, which is great for him. I heard many men can’t get it up at that age, but it doesn’t make the sex any less out of place. At least Asimov is not as misogynistic as other authors. He writes like a person who doesn’t understand people in general, rather than just women. Even if we get a male character who has a lot of sex, at least the attitude towards it is positive.

The rambling prose is harder to forgive. Asimov’s strength was in how skeletal his prose was. There was nothing under the surface, but there was zero bullshit. Here, we get a lot of technobabble, including the precise distance between things (Did Asimov bother to calculate?) and meaningless descriptions of nothing. Rambling prose doesn’t make it seem like you got buried ideas. It makes it look like you’re trying to hide a lack of them.

The only idea that works is Asimov’s defamiliarization of Earth. It doesn’t get much deeper other than pointing out how unique Earth is, but there’s fun in it. His descriptions of musical instruments is especially entertaining. Asimov’s sense of fun and wonder at the universe also didn’t vanish. Despite the rambling prose, it’s still easy to follow and read. He doesn’t create a dense labyrnith where the content gets buried. It’s the same old Asimov, only with some extra unnecessary words.

It’s a fun adventure, but Foundation and Earth is an anticlimatic closer to the series. I appreciate Asimov’s effort to try out ┬ánew things, but none of it works. It’s still worth reading if you enjoyed the other Foundation novels. Asimov was a fascinating mind, and you can see his progress throughout the novels. It’s an average adventure that rambles a little too much, but I’ll give Asimov credit for how his ideas progressed. He didn’t call himself a rationalist for nothing.

2.5 galaxies out of 5