Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5

Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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This is a story where the antagonists are the main characters. Either that, or it flips up the romanticized notion of revolution. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go guns ablazing into Washington DC? Wouldn’t it be fun to kill all the powerful people that dehumanize us, make us work in low wages and study in their jails called schools? Only we forget powerful people also bleed. Beautiful people suffer from rape, and famous actors develop anorexia.

If only we could change.

Our relationship with beauty is odd. Although political bands make money off hating rich people, beautiful people may have more power. That’s thanks to the Halo Effect. If we perceive a good quality in a person, it makes all other qualities look better and the bad qualities look a little worse. Throughout the anime, we see a bunch of pretty kids/teenagers do their stuff. They fall in love, they have a lot of sex and they have fun out in nature.

Compare them to the queerats. It’s not that they don’t look human. They look ugly. They’re desexualized, have rough voices and do manual work. Surely, such stupid and ugly creatures deserve their place. When hundreds of people die, we can’t help but despise them. It’s not like the people of the villages are evil. They’re perfect, stick-thin intelligent people who care for the order of society.

“but they all forget somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets” – BioShock.

The anime is, at its heart, about power imbalance. Its way of exploring this idea is by deliberately making the powerful people sympathetic and appealing. There are two reasons for this. Evil people don’t really exist. There’s a coherent theory behind the oppression of the queerats. Also that often we won’t rise up against powerful people because we love them. It’s easy to hate the rich fat dude, but what if it was a beautiful women who enslaved people or send them to the gas chambers?

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The faction you side with tells a lot about your preferences. The story is the basic old tale of the oppressed rising against their oppressors. If you’re siding with the villages, then maybe justice isn’t in your priorities. The villages are more appealing, more like how we want to be. If you side with them, you just might be a victim of the Halo Effect.

If you hate the humans and relish all the death and destruction, then you also missed another point. There’s no difference between dehumanizing people for being powerful and dehumanizing them for being ugly. The anime makes the villains appealing both to reveal how the Halo Effect can make forgive terrible things, but also how people who do terrible things have their reasons for doing so.

Underneath all these philosophies of power there’s also an emotionally engrossing sci-fi story. Shinsekai Yori is a great argument for how sci-fi can be about human relationships and drama, not just showing off about possible technologies. Sci-Fi isn’t about predicting possible technologies – how a car works isn’t a story. It’s about how our society might look like if a certain technology emerges.

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It’s about what would happen if we’d become too powerful for our own good. If I were an expert in Japanese culture, I’d say there are parallels to the atomic bomb. The Cantus is a genetic mutation that gives human beings ridiculous amounts of power, but you can replace it with any possible mutations – super-strength, super-intelligence – that will cause a power imbalance.

Every human in the villages is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Despite the peaceful exterior, danger is ever-present. It can coming from inside – one of us loses their mind and goes berserk. It can also come from above. The masters can take you away because they consider you a danger.

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We humans have a hard time building an honest society. We feed our children a lot of things they later have to unlearn – there’s no tooth fairy, the people in TV aren’t your friends and schools don’t teach you anything. The ‘growing up’ the kids do is realizing that the world isn’t peaceful and cannot be. The Cantus is part of human nature. Reality is hostile from every direction – your servants can rise up, one of you can go berserk and someone from above can erase you from reality. You learn similar lessons when you grow up – the job market is cruel and being a programmer isn’t enough, rapists can be sexy and you might get sent off to war.

Like any other organism, we’re constantly trying to remake the environment in our own image. By constructing a peaceful environment, we could ensure our survival. Utopian fiction often portrays these environments as a jungle of machinery and wires. So the main lesson we learn is that technology is evil, savages are noble and we all should be one with nature. The villages are ‘one with nature’. Technology hardly exists there yet the world is still hostile. Cantus isn’t just a genetic mutations. It’s a physical manifestation of the power we hold over each other. Organisms by nature are dangerous. No amount of sex or being one with nature or creating a class of ugly people can solve it.

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Shinsekai Yori is so good that talking about the technical side is pointless. It’s fantastic in how it explores its themes and anime like this are why I put so much effort into writing reviews in the first place. Every year a thousand works of fiction come out, and books or live-action movies may seem more mature but I doubt many come close to the lows of this anime. It’s at once simple, emotionally engrossing and explores its themes to the fullest. There isn’t a reason for anyone to skip this.

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats out of 5

Ivan Illich – Deschooling Society

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Ivan rages against the machine. He rages so much that the book might as well be considered the pioneer of Rap Metal with how angry it is. Has intellectual writing ever been so energetic, so kinetic? The medium of text isn’t very good with emotions. It is, after all, just ink on paper. It can explain an idea, but the sensory experience of taste and touch, the emotions of anger and sadness can never be summed up with words. Deschooling Society is an expressive book.

The comparison to the political ‘rap’ metal band (Zack cannot rap for shit) doesn’t end with simply raging and machines. Rage Against the Machine made impressive noise that was fun as it lacked insight. Anyone reading the band’s lyrics will only hear some frustrated dude screaming about taking the power back and how we should settle for nothing. These are great lyrics for rock shows, but they mean nothing. Illich’s situation isn’t that bad, but it’s close.

His paragraphs are often a series of attacks without much explanation or defining terms. Without defining terms, you cannot have a sensible discussion. Every word is just a collection of syllables or symbols until you attach meaning to it. If you don’t explain what you mean by ‘learning’, what are you discussing? Illich operates in the realm of the abstract. He doesn’t talk about physical objects like rocks or guns or tables, which are easier to define.

Many concepts we use everyday aren’t defined well. Schools are a perfect example of how warped our concept of ‘learning’. I agree with Illich that schools don’t cause learning, but I never understood what Illich meant when he was talking about ‘learning’. When Postman attacked the education system, he had an idea of what ‘learning’ should be. In general, ‘learning’ for Postman is finding meaning in data. That’s why he provided some narratives that schools can adopt. For him, knowing a bunch of equations isn’t learning but just gathering data.

In fact, it seems Illich’s ideas about what learning is, are close to what schools say about learning. He claims schools must provide people resources for information, but is it enough? We’re currently living in the age of information. The internet doesn’t have all the info you need, but you can use it to track down enough.

Yet are we learning? Are we being flooded with intellectuals and philosophers making breakthroughs everyday thanks to all that information available? It’s not enough for information to just be available. You can’t publish a book that contains an essay about history, an essay about psychology and some sport statistics. Connecting pieces of data is the actual process of learning. It’s what separates active organism, which observe their environment and react to it from passive ones. The octopus realizes he can push the lid off or use a stick to beat a shell. The squid doesn’t.

Then again, Illich’s gripe isn’t so much with schools themselves as with institutions. Talk about being able to connect pieces of data. Illich has some interesting things to say about institutions, especially the idea that some create the demand for their product. What he says about our reliance about institutions is especially important.

We do rely on institutions a little too much. How many of you met friends through places that are not work or school? When I talk about how harmful schools are, I often hear about how school is important because it’s where you meet friends. Yet how deep can these connections be when the main common ground is an institution? What connects people are shared experiences, common ground and chemistry. Some of it institutions can create, but it says a lot about our society when we have a hard time meeting people outside workplaces or schools.

Some institutions are necessary. I wish he’d gone in-depth about why hospitals are so wrong. Medicine is a serious subject. There should be authority figures in it, because screwing up in medicine means causing often irreversible harm. Imagine if an uncertified doctor performed a surgery. We have institutions like hospitals to make sure only the experts perform difficult and dangerous activities. Yes, they are trustworthy. Imagine a doctor screwing up a surgery so bad that the patient dies. Can the secret be kept?

Illich admits not all institutions are the same. He offers a scale which includes on one side institutions that promote activity. These institutions provide services, but the client has a lot of options and can quit or stay any time. They’re toolboxes the client can run with. Authoritarian institutions punish and force clients to stay. They give them something to consume, but the client is more passive.

That’s an interesting thing to explore that Illich doesn’t. He’s too busy ranting. If institutions aren’t all the same, then you can’t create several groups and be done with it. The military and the schools are both fucked, but for different reasons. If Illich wanted to show that authoritarian institutions are problematic by nature, he needed to go more in-depth into why they fail. He needed to present many examples and show why despite the differences their effect is overall bad.

His ideas about ‘learning webs’ are important. He may not define what he means by ‘learning’, but his ideas how to do it are useful. He offers more social, more open ways of educating and teaching. The most important idea here is the web itself. Illich proposes a computer (nowadays it’d be an app) where people can insert their subject of interest and then connect with others who share the same passion. No, the internet hasn’t provided this yet. Reddit is too impersonal. Facebook groups are messy. Illich doesn’t talk about a message board but a private chat. His program would encourage people to meet to explore their subject further, not just discuss it on the internet.

He’s a bit too ahead of his time. If he were alive today to see how message boards rise and fail, I’m sure he’d either taken the initiative or write a more detailed essay about this. As it stands, the idea is buried here. Someone should run with it. I should nag my programmer friends and hopefully it’ll spawn copycats. It’s so simple, but so brilliant. Offering an easy platform for people with the same interests to talk to each other.

The last chapter is ridiculous and a little insulting. All that praising of a primitive men reeks of the Noble Savage cliche. The problem with praising or condemning the primitive is that we don’t know exactly how they lived. We imagine them as peaceful or in harmony with nature or living perfect lives, but that’s just the Fall of Adam story without the Jewish stuff. Besides, if the primitive life was so good why did the primitive ended it? Why did they build fires, invent writing and used tools? If life was so good for them, they wouldn’t starve for change.

As a critique of schools, Deschooling Society is disappointing. It shows a bit of the economical side and has a less spiritual approach than, say, Dumbing Us Down. Illich has some insight and good ideas. His critique of the general nature of institutions is needed when discussing schools. Although Neil Postman wrote a great book, he didn’t consider deschooling. Sadly, Illich is too excited over his ideas to explain them coherently, to slow down and define his terms. There are building blocks to take from here, but this isn’t going to revolutionize your philosophy of education.

3 institutions out of 5

Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5

“Perfect Illusion” – The Downfall of Lady Gaga

When Lady Gaga first broke, I heard decent but not unique Pop. Then the The Fame Monster and Born This Way came and suddenly, she was some sort of icon for outcasts. Her fanbase was called ‘monsters’. The myth was, Pop was a genre with zero originality and weirdness dominated by conformists. Lady Gaga brought a revolution and made Pop accessible for the nerds, goth kids, ugly people and so forth. If you were ever bullied in school or didn’t fit in, Lady Gaga was here to elevate you.

I never bought that. Sure, her music videos featured a lot of weird outfits. They were also always sexual outfits. Lady Gaga confirmed nicely to the ‘sexy woman’ imagery. No matter how weird an outfit was, it always provided people something sexy to jerk off to. She didn’t look weird or dress weird. Her music was even worse. It was as generic as Pop can get. Lady Gaga has a nice, smooth voice with no real personality. She sang about sex, but so did everyone else. All her teasing and tough girl posturing are hardly any different than what Rihanna or Katy Perry did.

Lady Gaga isn’t just unconvincing because beneath lyrics of ‘be yourself’, she’s as conformist as you can get. Her image is misguided. She took desirable traits – strength, beauty, dancing – and wrote songs about them. What defines outcasts are undesirable traits – vulnerability, weirdness, perversion, anger, intellectualism. ‘Vulnerability’ is a key trait. Vulnerability is undesirable for evolutionary reasons. A vulnerable individuals is a burden on the pack, and we learn to hide our pain and weaknesses so we won’t get cast out of the tribe.

Artists who did sang for outcasts, or at least had such a fanbase were proud of this. Compare her to Marilyn Manson who also predicted his fame in Antichrist Superstar. His stomping anthem, “The Beautiful People”, is hateful, angry and a cry of distress. He sang from a position of weakness, of being ugly and undesired. His whole image is about that. His look is, on purpose, disfigured and often androgynous. While Gaga sang about the virtue of sex, Manson mocked us with “User Friendly” and “Slutgarden”. Manson also had a raspy, slightly mechanical voice so that every song he sang would sound odd. The newbie that is Melanie is another great example. Song like “Cry Baby”, “Dollhouse” and “Pity Party” take all these undesirable qualities and bring them to the surface. When Martinez makes strength anthems, she takes pride in admitting how vulnerable she is. Lady Gaga never does it. She’s everything we expect from a Pop star – in love with guys, perhaps girls, having a lot of sex and dancing at parties.

Imagine if the excellent “Government Hooker” was performed by Manson or Tove Lo, artists with a better sense of darkness than she. Songs like that hinted that perhaps there was a weirdo there waiting to come out. There is aggression flowing through that song, chopped vocals and a sense of dread that the sex isn’t all positive.

The new song is ironically titled “Pefect Illusion”. It describes Gaga perfectly. All my suspicions about her were confirmed. She got tired of posturing like a party girl, pretending that drinking and sex is new. So now she imitates Sia. Sia was already a pale imitation of Lady Gaga, singing with ultra seriousness, showing off her voice without a hint of emotion (“Chandeliar” isn’t about alcoholism but about Sia’s ‘awesome’ voice).

Lady Gaga looks back on the disco songs of heartbreak and triumph. She takes the sound and themes with none of the fun. The song barely has a melody or a chorus. The hook is a repetition of “It wasn’t love/it was a perfect illusion” and behind it only a banging drum. If this sounds minimalist, it’s not on purpose. You’re supposed to dance to that dull drum. Gaga sings with technical finesse, pointing out that she’s, in fact, not that hurt at all. Heartbreak may have been tough, but she can still try to impress the judges at American Idol.

Truth is, even if she brought actual pain to the song it wouldn’t be anything original. A little after Gaga came Lana Del Rey, who was sexier, more vulnerable and more dangerous. She was also a party girl, but she stared straight at the dark side of it too. If “Perfect Illusion” was the comedown from her image, she’ll just be running against Lana. That’s a race she can’t win, since Lana has a concept she develops and plays with. Lady Gaga has anthems of strengths and seriousness, like any other Pop star.

In the past, Lady Gaga at least tries to be weird. It was easy to see through, but there was effort. “Bad Romance” had scat singing. “Government Hooker” has already been mentioned and it’s quite excellent. She took influence from Latin music on “Americano” and other songs – “LoveGame” and “G.U.Y.” were unbashedly about sex. It wasn’t subversive, but it wanted to be and if you’re unfamiliar with Pop music it is attention grabbing. “Perfect Illusion” is a regression to “Just Dance”, a song so unimaginative that it becomes memorable because of that. Remember, that song had the lyrics of “Just dance, gonna be okay, dodododododo”. I love songs about dancing, but they need to be passionate about dancing.

To her defense, it’s better than her competition. If Lady Gaga tries to amaze me with her voice, she does a decent enough job. There is vulnerability in that song that’s startling and more naked than Sia. She doesn’t hide the weak lyrics. Hearing her bellow out “I can still feel blow” sounds like she’s dying to be over it. Although her singing is triumphant, there’s something very noisy about it too. Some said the song is about a recent break-up, which wouldn’t surprise me. It’s generic, derivative and nothing original but Gaga occasionally sound like she’s trying to heal herself with singing. Maybe that’s why it’s so original. It’s a vehicle for Lady Gaga to vent. At least she beats the horrifying Sia in her own game.

Veronica Roth – Allegiant

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You were so close, Veronica Roth! Allegiant doesn’t live up to the hidden brilliance of the beginning of the trilogy. It’s a step forward, though. Everything that was wrong with its predecessor is gone. The flaws stem from the author’s original limitations, but she’s always on the brink of doing something interesting.

The book quickly settles down after one or two shootouts. The main problem with Insurgent was how heavily it relied on action scenes. That novel barely had a plot and barely progressed the story. It could’ve easily been summed up and turned into 1-3 chapters in the beginning of this novel. This time Roth slows down and lets the characters and the world do the talking.

She’s still attached to exposition. One character primarily exists for spitting exposition and vanishes in the third quarter of the novel. Roth’s world is meaningful, though. What drives it are concepts relevant to everyday life. Even if she relies on info dumps, the information is often interesting to ponder.

The book contains a big twist that rips Roth’s world. Many will find it insulting. I find that it draws a big line between this book and the first one. Sequels shouldn’t just show what happens next. If that’s all they show then they’re useless. They should take the characters to a new direction, to try new structures and themes. The twist doesn’t turn the original themes in Divergent irrelevant. That one explored one subject, and this one explores new ones.

Roth’s new theme is interesting, but disastrously shallow. The question of genetics, nurture vs. nature is interesting. How do you explore scientific ideas in fiction? You actually don’t. Fiction is the opposite of science. It’s fictive, not real whereas science is concerned mainly with facts.

Any other dealing with scientific concepts must remember this. You never ask where a scientific fact is true or not, but how it would affect us if it were true. That’s a big, important distinction. If we find a way to mine the asteroids, how would it affect our consumption of resources? If we find we can travel faster than light or even teleport, how would it affect our perception of distances?

Roth asks this question about genetics. She asks how a society where people’s personalities are shaped by genes is like. Her society doesn’t actually answer this question, though. In fact, the scientific fact doesn’t come into play at all. If Roth wanted to ask this question, she first needed to create a world in which the ‘genetically ruined’ are truly different than the ‘genetically pure’.

Her world isn’t different than ours. It’s just racism all over again, only instead of having crackers and niggers it’s about ‘genetically pure’ and ‘genetically damaged’. The shallowness runs so deep that the differences don’t even exist. Now, I’m the first person who supports chucking away the idea of ‘race’. The idea of dividing humans into races is pseudoscientific, but every pseuodoscientific idea has some basis. People do have different colors. The ‘genetic damage’ in the book might as well not exist. Roth dismisses it as a bunch of charts and equations on a screen. This isn’t exploring an idea but denying it outright.

The whole conflict ends up as meaningless. It’s a bizarre type of meaninglessness. The villain has a system of facts and ideologies to work from, but since Roth erases these facts the poor thing ends up as delusional. He’s not senseless or understandable, but completely out of touch. He evokes more pity because Roth couldn’t give him anything to do.

She’s more successful exploring her other themes. The novel includes the 3rd time or so that everything turned out to be a lie and she addresses that. Characters don’t only react to new information, but react to the fact they’ve been told so many lies. Tobias’ point of view emphasizes this. He’s in constant doubts, never completely sure he’s doing the right thing. His confusion is refreshing, especially as a romantic lead. In the predecessors he was a bit of a mysterious bad boy and man of steel. Here, he’s the one who’s weaker emotionally. He’s the one who needs love, not the opposite. It’s nice to see male vulnerability in a romance.

Speaking of relationships, the romance doesn’t really develop but doesn’t get in the way. For a trilogy that obviously comes from the same school of Hunger Games and Twilight, it’s bizarre. There are kissing scenes and some fighting, but the romance is smoothly integrated to the story. In fact, it was actually necessary. Such an action-heavy story needs moments of tenderness. The relationship does suffer from blandness. Beyond the fact both Tris and Tobias are a warring type, there’s nothing to connect them. Still, the relationship is fairly balanced and healthy while having emotional ups and downs. It may be bland, but it’s more realistic than common dreck.

Roth is at her best when she’s addressing violence. She never took violence for granted despite relying on explosions to drive her story. The few action scenes in Allegiant leave an emotional impact. Sometimes characters do die so others will react, but it’s interesting. Tris and Tobias aren’t traditional in how they’re never completely desensitized to the violence. By the end of the novel they’re sick of it. They give up the explosive heroics for the low-key route. It’s not a complete subversion of our gore-obsessed heroic stories, but it’s something.

The main things all the good points have in common is that they’re not enough. Roth has these good ideas. She rejects some traditions and paves a way of her own, but she doesn’t progress. Her most glaring flaw is how empty her characters are. Her plot is a set of obstacles to overcome and she leaves little choices or opportunities for her characters to react. Even a linear role-playing game lets the player react differently, even if they only have one option. There’s no difference in tone or manner of speak between Tris’ chapters and Tobias’ chapters. No matter how many good ideas Roth has, her characters are so empty that it affects the final product. I can respect it from a distance, but I can’t get involved in it.

Allegiant is a good conclusion for the trilogy overall. It shifts the focus back to exploring ideas rather than explosive heroics, but Roth never goes full retard. The characters might as well not exist and the ideas are there without being developed or played with. It’s decent, more enjoyable than annoying but often it feels like a big tease.

2.5 genetically pure humans out of 5