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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: The Book of Atrus

September 25th, 2016 | Myst in Retrospect

While Myst: The Book of Atrus may not stand as a classic of speculative fiction, in the context of the series it performs exceptionally well. As the title suggests, the book is the story of Atrus, building upon from what little we learned of him in Myst while simultaneously setting the stage for the next game, Riven. Video games aren’t the ideal medium for detailed storytelling, so novelizations like this one were critical to the expansion of the game’s universe.

The Book of Atrus opens with characters we’ve never seen before, Gehn and Anna. Gehn’s wife (here unnamed) has just died in childbirth and he’s distraught. He spurns his newborn son, storms in the direction of a volcano, and disappears. It’s a good opening: cryptic, yet still intriguing enough to get the reader’s attention. It efficiently introduces Gehn and his callous, dispassionate manner, traits which will be critically important later.

The Cleft (as seen in Uru)

Following the prologue, the narrative skips forward a few years. Atrus, the newborn from before, is now a young boy. He’s depicted as a precocious and intelligent child, spending his time conducting scientific experiments and exploring the desert surrounding his home. Anna, the reader learns, is his grandmother, who has seen to his care since the departure of his father. Anna is one of the most richly-developed characters of the series, but one who doesn’t appear in any of the games, so the novels are the single greatest source of information about her. Much of Atrus’s personality was inherited from her, particularly his sense of ethics and thirst for knowledge. The first few chapters are primarily concerned with the lives of Atrus and Anna, an idyllic chapter in Atrus’s life. These first few chapters tend to drag (they are, after all, practically devoid of plot), but they’re necessary to establish the life that Atrus will spend the rest of the book pining for.

Atrus and Anna’s home is the Cleft, a large crevasse at the foot of a volcano. In the novels, it’s located somewhere in the Middle East, though when it appeared in the games it was relocated to New Mexico. The Cleft carries a lot of metaphorical significance, and typically means different things to different characters. To Atrus it represents a happy life which he’s been forced against his will to abandon. To Gehn, the Cleft represents a dead end, a meaningless life which he’s worked hard to escape. In the context of the Myst epic overall, yhe Cleft subtly echoes the form and function of the Fissure (previously seen in the Myst opening), particularly in a scene early in the book in which the flooded Cleft reflects the starry sky. In many cases the Cleft also represents humility, a theme which will recur throughout the series.

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Myst in Retrospect Re-Run: Myst

September 18th, 2016 | Myst in Retrospect

Hello everyone! I’ve finally started re-editing these reviews and will be posting the revised editions here, hopefully at a rate of one per week. Once the full run has been re-posted, the print edition will be available shortly later. Enjoy!

The Fortress, Mechanical Age

Myst is unique, a bizarre amalgamation of concepts that is unmatched even by its own sequels. It is by turns grim or whimsical. It requires logical thought but is set in a nonsensical universe. Its narrative is sophisticated on some levels and underdeveloped in others. Some seemingly ordinary things have great narrative significance, some especially strange things do not. It is, above all, a strange and unique experience.

Described in the simplest possible terms, Myst is a game about exploration. You have arrived in a strange place. What do you do? Naturally, you begin to look around. The game is your camera, your window. The cursor is your hand. The music is your intuition. The game involves no role-playing: rather, it turns your computer into a gateway through which you can enter another universe.
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Movie Time: The Force Awakens

January 22nd, 2016 | Review

The movie is pretty good. I don’t want to drone on and on about it, but I do want to record a few of my thoughts for public consumption.

The Light Side

Spiritual Successor

The Force Awakens is the Star Wars followup that the prequels should have been. It has the same humor and likable characters as the original films, and at least aspires to the same degree of creative exuberance. It brings the adventurous spirit back into the series, and the sense of a once-proud civilization fallen into ruin. In short, it was above all else a Star Wars film, and a good one.

Humanization of Bad Guys

Star Wars has never been reknowned for a nuanced depiction of good and evil, but The Force Awakens does make some significant strides in that direction. To make the main character a defecting Stormtrooper was a stroke of genius, and the characterization of Kylo Ren was just ambiguous enough to allow me to think maybe he would reform. Sure, our arch-villains are still guilty of crimes that would make Hitler wince, but it was nice to see some genuine personalities among the bad guys.

Elderly Romance

A small thing, but noteworthy: I can’t think of any other movie, any other movie, that depicted a genuine romantic relationship between two characters who are effectively senior citizens. This is a major blind spot in our cinematic tradition, I think, and the degree of respect, of non-remarkableness, with which it was handled here, is worthy of commendation.

Gender Balance

Thank you for making Star Wars less of a men-only club. Not only by the addition of Rey as a main character, but by the use of so many women in minor supporting roles. In the old canon, “royalty” appeared to be the only job opening for women… now we see that girls can operate the ultra-doom mega-death-ray weapon, too!

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Media Summation: 2015

January 8th, 2016 | Review

Last year’s everything-gets-a-summary model took too long to produce (and half the summaries therein were crap anyway) so this year I’m taking a different tack. Only the best and the worst entries will be summarized, and a complete list, without comment, will follow. Someday I’ll figure out the ideal format!

Best Fiction of 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I try to avoid giving the “best” title to acknowledged classics, but I didn’t read a whole lot of good fiction this year, so it was no contest. Nabokov’s narrative of an unhappy pedophile remains as disturbing and engaging as ever. Also well worth a look is his afterword, which was included in the edition I read.

Runners-up!

  • Rabbit, Run. by John Updike. Similar to Lolita in status as a classic and its dislikable protagonist, Rabbit, Run is likewise a very interesting piece of fiction.
  • Honorable Mentions: We Were the Mulvaneys, Joyce Carol Oates. Mannequin Girl, Ellen Litman.

And the Worst Fiction of 2015…

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Despite the degree of hype that’s accumulated around this book, I found little merit in it. The characters are shallow, the plot revolves around extremely implausible coincidences, and it lacks any memorable qualities. It might seem good if you’ve never read anything better, but there are a thousand books I’d recommend instead.

Unlucky runners-up!

  • We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler. Despite the accolades he receives, Handler’s prose tends to leave me clammy and his plot in this book seems to be conflicted about whether it’s absurd or realistic.
  • From a Buick 8 by Stephen King. I wanted to try a King novel and this one sounded interesting. Here’s the entire book: There’s a creepy Buick. Sometimes it eats people. Sometimes aliens come out of it and then die. Repeat scenario for 400 pages.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. (Spoilers) It’s engaging and even memorable, but its subject of an evil, conniving woman who frames her husband for murder plays too much into the misogynist’s playbook for me.

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What’s Going On Around Here?

November 29th, 2015 | Changelog, Et Cetera

Greetings to anyone who may be reading this! Things have been a bit quiet around here lately. This is not due to any inactivity on my part, rather the opposite. To summarize, here is what you can expect in this space in the coming months:

  • A book about classical music. A lot of my time lately has been consumed by this project. The book is an introduction to the field of classical music, along with lots of listening suggestions and weird anecdotes from the history of the field. This edition is written for adults, but a version for kids will follow.
  • More Non-Seen. It\’s been missing lately, I know, and I apologize. It will return soon.
  • Revised edition of Myst book. I\’ve been promising this forever but I do intend to see it through to completion. If you want it, please post a note of encouragement.
  • More reviews. As you may have noticed, I posted a review of the film White God today. I intend to post more, including the annual Media Summation.

Also of note: How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck has been retitled to Fixing Fiction. Check it out here. You can get it on Amazon for $2.99, or free if you have Kindle Unlimited. I may post more excerpts from it here if anyone is interested.

And, finally, if you sign up for the newsletter, you\’ll get any new content delivered straight to your inbox. How convenient! If enough people join, I might even be persuaded to start providing some exclusive stuff on there.

Movie Time: White God

November 29th, 2015 | Review

WhiteGodTitle

A few years ago I was attacked by a large dog while walking home one night. Its owner assured me that it wouldn’t bother me, but when I tried to walk past it I suddenly found myself pushed to the ground while the thing bore down on my hand with its teeth. This was the dead of winter, and I was able to slip my hand out of my glove and escape. The incident was a vindication of a lifelong distrust of dogs, particularly large dogs.

White God is a film about large dogs, and it might just be the best film I’ve seen this year.

Our setting is Budapest; our protagonists are a young girl named Lili and a mixed-breed dog named Hagen. As the story begins, Lili moves in with her father, who takes an instant dislike to Hagen, and eventually abandons him by the side of the road. It’s a quiet and understated opening, giving few hints about the horror that will eventually unfold.

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Comics Time: Friends With Boys

September 7th, 2015 | Comics, Review

You know who can write a coming-of-age story better than John Green? Faith Erin Hicks, that’s who. And she can draw, too. Friends With Boys may not have any cancer patients or shallow philosophizing, but it does have plenty of character drama, attractive manga-style artwork, clever plotting, and impeccable comic layouts. If that’s not enough, there’s also a ghost.

fwb_03

The story centers around Maggie McKay, a girl who is starting high school after a childhood of homeschooling. According to the author biography, Hicks herself was homeschooled until high school as well, and (also like Maggie) has three brothers. As such, Hicks is clearly using her own life experiences as material, but rather than taking the easy route and writing a memoir (as far too many other cartoonists have done), she has instead synthesized a fictional scenario using her own childhood as a basis. Well played.

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I Am Not John Green’s Target Demographic

August 2nd, 2015 | Fiction, Review, Writing

Thanks, characters, for the summation

The premise of John Green’s megahit young-adult novel The Fault in Our Stars is a simple one: a love story about two teenage cancer patients. This is a good and relatively original premise. I approve. To make it work will be difficult, though. To write about the life of a teenager, and the tumultuous nature of teenage love, is difficult enough without adding cancer to the mix. To make this premise work, Green must confront the unavoidable fact that sick people feel very, very bad most of the time. It’s not conducive to romance.

The easiest solution to this problem is to sweep the experience of sickness under the rug, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Green does. Sickness is window dressing in this story. The primary function of cancer in this story is to grant travel via the Make-a-Wish Foundation and to incapacitate characters when required by the plot. When the plot needs the characters to not be sick, they are conveniently not sick until the plot needs them to be sick again. It’s a depressingly shallow understanding of the experience of illness, and Green sells his characters short by not making better use of the storytelling opportunities afforded here.

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Stereotyping: The Young and Old (Fiction Skills Series)

July 4th, 2015 | Errors of Content, Fiction, How to Write Fiction That Doesn't Suck, Tutorial, Writing

This post is excerpted from my book How to Write Fiction That Doesn\’t Suck. To learn even more useful fiction-writing skills, get your copy today!

Do you know how teenagers are talking nowadays? Well, me neither, so that’s why if I write a teenage character I’m not going to try to indicate their age by giving them silly dialect I remember from my own teenage years. That means no “wicked,” no “far out,” and definitely no “grody.” Even if you do spend time around teenagers and have a good grasp of their dialect, it’s still a perilous idea to give it to your characters, as it’s bound to date your work, possibly before it even sees publication. This stuff changes fast, and there’s no need to burden your story with it if you don’t have to.

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Webcomics Time: Der-Shing Helmer!

June 28th, 2015 | Circuit Reader, Comics, Review

Have you read any comics by Der-Shing Helmer? No? Shame on you! As artist-writers go, Ms. Helmer is up there with the best of them, and frankly, she’s more than the webcomics scene deserves. She took a hiatus that lasted a couple years, but now she’s back and better than ever–and producing two comics simultaneously, no less!

helmer01

I suppose I’m biased, given that Helmer works in one of my personal favorite genres–long-form speculative-fiction adventures–but her writing stands up beautifully regardless of one’s preferred subject matter. Her worlds are original and very completely realized, a tough thing to pull off. Her characters are complex and unique. Her writing can be a talky at times, but not so badly that it distracts from the experience. These are stories one will remember and think about.

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