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

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Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia

The new Star Wars¬†film has a woman with a gun shooting people and committing other acts of violence. She also has various other skills. This has been described as feminist by some, in contrast to Princess Leia. If people want more characters (or worse, people) like Rey, then I’m afraid feminism still has a lot to accomplish.

If you praise Rey for her skills and ‘strength’, you’re probably uncomfortable with a female character being a human. This new obsession with resilience, with a power fantasy also leaked itself into discussions around Mad Max. I don’t know which is worse. A power fantasy about violence, or a fantasy about being weak and defined by how a man feels about you.

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Your average Fallout protagonist

Rey has no unique line of dialogue, no reactions that are specific to her that define her personality. Han Solo is a sarcastic, gritty smuggler. Chewbacca is his partner who growls and says whatever is on his mind. Finn is a moral hero who’s too afraid to be a hero. Kylo Ren is an angry teenager dying for a little bit of power. BB-8 is a childish, more energetic version of R2-D2.

What makes Rey unique?

People praised Rey for being strong, for being skilled and ‘surviving on her own’. If you played a Fallout game, you know that’s not much of an achievement. A character survives on a wasteland because the author wrote it so. A character can fix a spaceship because the author put skill points into that area.

Characters are not defined by skills. They are defined by their personalities, their desires and needs and flaws and inner conflicts. These are the qualities that drive stories. If skills were enough, then my Amazon in Diablo II would have been one of the best female characters ever.

The skills of the Amazon don’t move the story of Diablo. Why the Amazon would go chasing after Diablo could be an obsession with morality, or revenge, or desire for glory. Each of these traits would lead to a drastically different story with different themes.

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From one fantasy to the next, we still struggle to draw women as human beings

A hero concerned more with glory would interact differently with characters. They would boast and they would only take missions that will grant them fame. A hero that seeks revenge will have tunnel vision, won’t bother about anything but killing Diablo. In all of these stories the Amazon still has the skills. She can still throw javelins, yet they’re so different.

Princess Leia is more of a human than Rey. She might be a damsel in distress, but that’s her initial role. It’s not her personality. Throughout the film we learn who she is by how she speaks. She’s confident in her position of power. She’s so used to it she speaks to everyone in a bossy way. As soon as she’s rescued she takes command of the gang. Notice how, before they reach Leia they’re a bunch of weird buffons.

Rey doesn’t affect her surroundings like this. I often forgot she even existed. I cannot remember a scene that her personality contributed anything to. There is a bit of ‘tough girl’ persona going on, but it’s not well-developed. Rey screams here and there for Finn to stop holding her hand. Instead of sounding strong, she sounds like a grumpy tsundere. It’s shocking she also didn’t call him ‘baka’.

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Looks feminine, relies on a guy and still has more personality

The tough girl persona can work, of course. Furiosa was a cliche, but the creators (kind of) knew what makes the cliche work. Everything in her appearance pointed to a hero so rugged they have no existence outside of posing with shotguns. She has a distinct look that fits her archetype. Rey’s archetype is more vague. She’s tough, but not in a unique manner. Furiosa was tough in an 80’s action way. She’s inspired by Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone – the desexualized human who exists to kill people because it’s fun. Of course, they did tack the whole redemption thing but I already addressed Fury Road‘s failure at feminism.

It’s weird how Western cinema still struggles with female characters. You don’t have to explore anime too much to find diverse casts. Just look to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Attack on Titan. Even shows that rely on sexiness and fanservice, like Freezing, still have a cast that’s as diverse as their design. What’s better is that all of these characters can be developed without hiding their femininity. The characters of Freezing don’t need a tough exterior to fight the Novas.

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Leia isn’t satisfied with just getting rescued – she reacts.

The request for more women who ‘kick ass’ (basically, are violent) is odd. The obsession with power also makes me question whether these people even understand how fiction works. Fiction isn’t a fantasy to escape from reality to. Fiction, like any other art form, brings us closer to reality. It’s supposed to connect to it in some way. It can be anything from exploring pure visual beauty or themes of life and death. A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.

I wonder how long it will take until this trend will die. Trends come and go, anyway. We now have an obsession with toughness and grimdarkness. We used to have an obsession with escapist brightness. Someday we’ll look at it all and laugh at how stupid we are.

Further reading: Keely’s series of posts on Strong Female Characters

Cassandra Clare – City of Bones

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Other reviewers listed the stories that this novel borrows from. Characters are, apparently, plucked from someone else’s movie or book, given a different name and a slightly different attire. I’m not familiar with the Big Things of teen fiction. I’ve never watched Buffy and never immersed myself in Harry Potter. This still felt so derivative.

This is another book that came out of fan fiction. You’d expect it to have more verve, more energy. Copy your favorite story, but at least show the passion you have for it. If the novel had the rabid energy fans express over Harry Potter or Star Wars then the unoriginal story wouldn’t matter so much. It’d at least have excitement.

City of Bones feels tired all the way. It’s written by an amateur author who has little experience with what stories can be. It never imagines stories can do other thing than just become more convoluted. We all had this phase when we thought that plot twists was proof the writer was clever, but I thought we’d outgrown it. Surely, even the overrated Nolan proved thrillers have more than just “Surprise!”.

Clary does nothing. Calling her a ‘weak female protagonist’ would at least means she has some sort of role. A female whose role is only to help the main male character at least does something, active in some way. Clary is an observer. She stands around and things happen.

It’s amazing how many events rain down the characters and how little of them are instigated by them. It’s not the examination of “life is out of control” idea. The events have nothing to do with the characters and Clare doesn’t examine their reactions. She introduces a conflict, the characters solve it because of brute force and then they wait until something else happens.

If Clary helped solving the cases, it’d add some intensity. She tends to sit back and look at everyone do their thing, Shadowhunters shadowhuntin’.

There’s something tempting about such protagonists. They’re easy to write and they give the reader (or more important, the author) a hole to insert themselves in. This way, you can watch the story happen through someone’s eyes.

This character is never actually a part of the story though. The camera is never a part of the film’s plot. Some stories deliberately create such characters, but this ‘observer’ nature is addressed in the story and a part of the personality. Clary’s personality is never meant to be a shy observer.

Perhaps she’s meant to be some sort of sassy heroine. She sometimes slap people or gets mad at them, but that’s not enough for a character. A character’s personality is established by multiple incidents that can be connected. More importantly, how the character reacts needs to be connected to the personality. Even if all your characters are cruel, they each need to do it in their own way (something Future Diary does well, for example). Clary just gets angry.

The other characters don’t have much going for them. The other female is supposed to be much prettier (although Clary gets the red head), there’s a gay dude who could have been interesting and the Nice Guy/Brooding Assole dualism. Is daddy issues a new thing in this type of fiction?

You know these characters are different because the characters themselves say it. Somehow, they see things that Clare didn’t write or left off. Everyone talks in the same way. Everyone makes the same sarcastic jokes. I know sarcasm seemed like the newest thing when you’re at your teens but isn’t it a little old? So the books are set at a time when sarcasm is still new. There’s no way everyone is witty.

Her world borrows every fantasy staple. She adds nothing we haven’t seen before and none of the staples she uses are interesting. Vampires still suck blood and have pale skin. Werewolves learn to control their shape-shifting, mostly because one of the good characters is a werewolf and that would be inconvenient. Warlocks are more interesting. They’re hedonistic party animals who dress like they’re in a rave. Here’s a way to modernize a fantasy staple. Too bad that the warlock only appears for one scene and his role is (like everyone else’s) to give us more exposition.

It always happens with such books. The side-characters end up being more interesting because they’re more conflicting. Even Alec, who gets little page-time is a more interesting idea. He’s a gay who’s into a straight dude. That’s a worthwhile situation to write about, but that would require focusing on psychology and character interaction. Such a story couldn’t rely on events just happening.

Using Biblical names and fantasy staples doesn’t make your fiction fantastical. The world here is so familiar, so ordinary and I’m not even well-versed in fantasy. I also watched High School DXD while reading this and the whole devils ‘n’ angels things kept getting mixed up. The difference between the two is that Clare has no purpose for what she does. DXD knows it’s just an overblown ecchi show.

We also get an evil character who wants to purify the world and kills what he considers bad. As Fallout 3 displayed, this idea is still worthwhile. It can be used to explore racism and bigotry by giving the bigot some reasonable basis for his beliefs. Clare had a potential here because the creatures the bad guy wants to kill are a bit in the morally grey area.

Instead of showing the issue from different perspectives, we just have the bad guy laugh maniacally and dream of strength. Then again, halfway through the book or so it’s revealed the series is named after a series of plot coupons.

Clare’s writing isn’t too dense, but it’s also not smooth enough. There are a lot of similes, many of which are pointless. Clare doesn’t overdo descriptions. She lingers on the odd details, the type that stick out to the eye. Her description of a party room is great, pointing out all the colors and odd shapes.

Her way of writing is devoid of personality. The smilies are random, exists mainly because Clare can’t think of describing something without a simile. At first, the huge variety of them is fun. After about fifty of them it gets tiring. It’s a sign Clare has no interesting way of looking at things or of writing about them.

The novel relies mainly on things happening. Werewolves arrive, parties are getting rocked, someone turns into a rat, swords clash and blood pours. This can be exciting even if your characters have no reason to exist but enact these events. Clare’s writing isn’t exciting. It doesn’t drag the scenes down but doesn’t add energy to them because she has no interesting phrases. The event themselves can’t stand on their own. It’s mostly blood pouring and swords clashing.

There’s some fun to be had in this novel, but I expected more. Even as just a Young Adult adventure about hot brooding guys, paranormal beings and saving the world this could’ve been more fun. Clare writes like she’s just trying to please herself. I hope she’s passionate about generic werewolves and passive heroines because it sucks to write about things that bore you. Still, if only a little passion leaked to the page it’d elevate the story. The only remarkable thing about this is the controversy surrounding it.

2 cities out of 5 bones

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

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Foundation is another novel where two styles clash. Unlike others, though, Asimov manages to make them merge. It’s especially impressive because these are two styles which shouldn’t work together. Asimov is a much better writer than people give him credit. He may not understand human beings, but few authors are so bullshit-free. Despite not even trying to create characters, there’s nothing that hides what works.

You can dub it ‘Space Opera’ all you want, but if you read a Robot book then you’ll settle into the format just fine. Asimov’s style consists of creating a puzzle and have the characters solve it. This is a pure intellectual exercise. There is no emotional weight there. There’s not even Saw’s cheap, either solve it die cliche. It’s as humane as a Rubik’s Cube.

The puzzles have pieces that sound profound, sure. Asimov just doesn’t try to explain why they’re profound. Among the pieces Asimov plays with include whole civilizations. There are video games that also deal with whole civilizations. Chess seems to tell the story of one kingdom conquering another. If you were an individual in those kingdoms or civilizations, you would care. Yet how much do players care about a single soldier in Warcraft III?

That’s Asimov’s weakness. He puts different names on the pieces, but they’re just pieces to play around with. Since there is no real character depth, not even one-note characters it’s hard to get to the bottom of Asimov’s ideas. Asimov has a lot to say about big things, like history and religion. Such a profilic author should have a lot to say, but the novel isn’t a good form for him to deliver his ideas.

They show you Asimov is smart and knows a lot, but that’s it. His treatment of religion is especially interesting. He confronts the claim that a lot of people believe scientists like they believe religious figures. A scientific theory, after all, is supposed to predict results. Doesn’t that sound close to being a prophet? The idea of a man seeing into the future, and then guiding humans how to cope with it is found in the Tanakh.

What is he trying to say by showing this common ground between religion and science? Science works, but the only people who are aware it’s science and not superstition are the scientists. Should scientists be a majority rather than a minority to prevent this? He doesn’t say. The Foundation survives because it’s a minority and keeps important knowledge to itself. It is the future of humanity. There doesn’t seem to be much criticism of it in the novel.

The novel doesn’t fail, again, thanks to Asimov’s bullshit-free writing. For a man who’s known to be important in ‘hard Sci-Fi’, he’s a great storyteller. He lays his interesting puzzles and finds interesting solutions to them. Even if they are shallow, Asimov’s puzzles are unique enough. Even when it’s clear there’s no depth and he’s just writing ‘civilization’ on a game piece, the illusion its important is entertaining enough, in and of itself. He doesn’t put anything else there but the bare bones, and so he lives to the promise of any good pulpy novel. It does weaken a little in the end, where Asimov gets more ambitious and the stories get bigger. They also get less coherent.

Foundation isn’t much of a great novel in terms of depth, but it’s a very entertaining story. It’s odd how the attempts at being profound neither elevate nor ruin the novel, which they often tend to do. It’s not the brilliant classic people say it is, but good, bullshit-free storytellers are rare. Asimov deserves some fame just because of that.