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Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 2 (“The Year of the Rat”)

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, folks!

To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.

For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).

This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.

Read more…

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Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

January 30, 2017 1 comment

inferno-coverEvery now and again I decide to venture out of my bubble and read something that’s not exactly typical of my usual literary fare. In the past, Dan Brown had been able to tell a relatively entertaining tale (if not reliably researched or well-written), so I took up Inferno with the hope that Brown would live up to his mediocre writer / good storyteller reputation.

I can tell you that he did not. Inferno, despite being a decent page-turner, didn’t really leave me wanting to read more about Robert Langdon. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through I just wished it would end. Unlike his previous books (with maybe the exception of The Lost Symbol)Inferno feels like it drags on forever, with serious disruptions in the pacing of the plot throughout with endless description of setting that, in some areas, seem completely extraneous. Indeed, it is obvious that this was a book conceived from the ground up as a movie.

Let’s start from the beginning: Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, wakes up in a Florence hospital with a bullet wound and amnesia. Soon, he is being chased by an assassin, and helped by the beautiful Sienna Brooks to figure out how he got there and where he was going. Pretty standard Dan Brown fare, honestly. The assassin works for a mysterious group called the Consortium, headed by a man only known as the Provost, who are trying to keep Langdon from accomplishing his goals aboard the good ship Mendacium, which essentially means falsehood or illusion (sigh…obvious symbolism is obvious). Yes, he did simply call the antagonists “the Consortium” and “the Provost,” in a fit of what I can only describe as a habitual lack of originality. Just to knock it up a notch to pathological, the Provost, in several instances, steeples his hands when he talks as bad guys are wont to do.

Before I tear into this book, I want to talk about something from TV Tropes. An official entry exists for the term “Dan Browned,” and TV Tropes describes it thus: “Have you ever picked up a work by a creator who claims (or strongly implies) that his writing is based on thorough and careful research, only to discover what you are actually holding is a steaming pile of lazy assumptions or outright lies?” You can find a page on the website here dedicated to Dan Brown’s loose history with fact. So anything that Brown asserts as true in the book should be taken with a grain of salt as a general rule.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but it should be noted that for as much grief as I’m about to give this book, I think that Brown still somehow manages to create a book that, for the most part, is a page-turner that manages to keep your interest. Further, he peppers his novels with these little insights and discoveries that let you feel like you’re in on them.

First off, I think Brown’s writing is getting worse. Or, at least, from what little I remember of my readings of the other three Langdon novels, it seems to be getting worse. Maybe lazier is a better word. On the first page, Brown sets up a pattern that will be repeated ad nauseam: he overuses ellipses and uses esoteric words like dolant and chthonic. This takes me out of the action and makes me aware of the act of reading, and I think it makes the book poorer. Later, he’ll start other annoying writing eccentricities: the overuse of italics to express inner monologue, the overuse of dashes to add information (which creates jarring, awkward sentences), and perhaps most annoying of all the overuse of the interrobang (!? or ?!, Brown uses them interchangeably), making the dialogue come off as a college freshman’s creative writing project you just have to read, man.

Here, I’ll ding myself for the overuse of the word “overuse” just to maintain consistency.

Unfortunately, the problems with Brown’s writing don’t end there. Apart from the problems already listed, a lot of it is clumsy and awkward. Take, for instance, this horrid image: “…a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BWM motorcycle…” Unstraddled? I searched high and low for other references of the existence of that word and the only things I could find after strenuous google searches were other people discussing Brown’s use of this word. Look, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare-level creativity here, and I don’t think Dan Brown is anywhere near justified in using a “word” like unstraddled when the English language is replete with good words to describe the action he intended. Now excuse me while I get off my high horse, dismount my stool, hop down the stairs, and go for a walk.

Brown’s work also suffers from the “show, don’t tell” problem. Often he uses insipid words like “surreal” and “unique” where detail would not only enhance the flavor of the text, but offer more memorable descriptions of the events, locations, and character attitudes. Another instance of the “show, don’t tell” problem is exemplified by the following sentence: “Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.” Okay, Dan Brown, I’ll just take your word for it. There’s no need for me to have the ability to judge that on my own as a reader with a brain. That can judge things. You know, like I’m judging you right now. I have a suggestion. It’s simple, clever, and droll. Write better.

Another issue I have with his writing style is that he breaks everything up into small, easily-digestible chapters, as if he’s spoon-feeding the reader. Sure, this may contribute to his ability to turn mediocre novels with terrible writing into page-turners, but after a while it gets about as irritating as the muscle fatigue I experienced rolling my eyes. Chapter eight is one page, front and back! One page! For the sake of all that is good and just in the world, stop that man from splitting a book that could be trimmed by about one hundred pages into 104 chapters and an epilogue.

As I skim my notes I become aware of another damned pattern: repetition. At one point I wrote, “Yes, we know the Consortium does shady things. Yes, we know they fulfill tasks.” And perhaps that repetition was contagious: “we know, already,” “this is such a goddam repetitive novel. We already know,” “This is getting tiresome,” “and now we get Vayentha telling us what we already know,” and finally “Chapter 64 is pretty much a rehash [spoilers removed]…We know what’s on the video! Come on.” The repetition is actually present throughout the entire novel and, had I wrote notes on all of it, I would never be able to finish this review.

Worse than that, however, is that this idiosyncrasy of Brown’s writing spares not his characters. He constantly refers to one character by what he’s wearing and his damn skin rash (“the man with the rash”), when his name would suffice. Nobody is going to forget that man’s damn rash or his nerd glasses or his ugly paisley tie. A violent twitch developed in my eye from how often Brown called the Provost some variation of a “deeply tanned man.” I am the deeply annoyed man.

Brown seems to abuse his characters more severely than George R.R. Martin. Langdon’s relationship with women in the book should be held up for ridicule by teachers of creative writing. Two of the most powerful and intelligent women in the book, Sienna Brooks, his young, blonde companion, and Elizabeth Sinskey, the director of the World Health Organization, describe Langdon as handsome several times. Perhaps the most egregious example of Langdon’s supernatural powers of attraction over woman is the following: “She knew it was probably just adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor.” Uh-huh. Strangely, I am not surprised. Brown’s stories always follow the same pattern. Langdon teams up with some attractive, professional woman, and we learn later–big surprise–that she’s got a troubled past, holds Langdon as an object of desire (and is held as an object of desire in the narrative), and holds secret knowledge.

And Langdon himself doesn’t come out from under Brown’s overbearing weirdness unscathed. Even as he struggles to figure out what the hell he’s doing in Florence, he whines about losing his damned Mickey Mouse watch. Langdon even comes off as a pompous hipster when Brown writes, “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.” Danny boy, buddy, don’t character assassinate the man responsible for that fat bank account. You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re…going to give Langdon a weird relationship with penises in statuary, aren’t you? Langdon’s going to focus on it and even note how he cringes at a “penile grip” in a famous statue. *Sigh*

The predictable twist ending doesn’t really pay off in any significant way, and I even had to backtrack to make sure that my impressions of the events were colored only by my own assumptions. In that, Brown was actually kind of clever because he sort of pulled off a trick to impart Langdon’s amnesia onto you, the reader. But, like I said, it doesn’t pay off because it feels cheap and doesn’t really seem to hang together well. Eh, don’t listen to me about that. I’m still deeply annoyed about that goddamned deep tan.

All in all, I give Inferno 2 out of 5 stars. Despite the many issues the novel has, it does manage to eek out a passable plot that manipulates you into turning the page.

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 1 (Introduction)

January 11, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Of course, I say that every time I come back from a long hiatus. I am a terribly inconsistent blogger–I admit this freely. Somehow this blog keeps calling me back, year after year, no matter how long I let it languish. I think I like to delude myself into believing that I have an audience for my ramblings.

Anyway, I wanted to start off 2017 by reviewing a book that my fiance got me for Christmas. Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, features short stories by some of Chinese science fiction’s most preeminent authors. In his introduction, Liu attempts to explain to an English-speaking audience the complex, bold tapestry that is Chinese science fiction, inveighing us not to see the themes and narratives merely through a “Chinese” lense, but a human lens.

While there are some pretty serious cultural schisms that can make the stories somewhat hard to access for an average American reader (me), the stories are nonetheless masterfully written (translated) and serve as an adequate introduction to a vein of science fiction that hasn’t been availble to Western readers in the past.

Since Invisible Planets is split into short stories told by a handful of the most well-known Chinese authors, I plan on splitting my review into several parts, one for each of the short stories. While I cannot come close to anything approaching a knowledgable review of the book, I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can interest other Western readers and bibliophiles.

I started reading this book already a fan of Ken Liu’s skill for translation. I had previously read his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Liu’s understanding of the conundrum of trying to define literature is one that I share; indeed, when attempting to define how Chinese science fiction is different from English science fiction, Liu concedes “that the question is ill defined…and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” The genre is broad and diverse, even within languages.

So what is Chinese science fiction? I suppose that depends on the reader. Liu purposefully selects authors who have a broad range of approaches to science fiction, from their writing styles to the tropes that they employ. Liu grants us a huge boon in this strategy as it allows the reader to try to piece together a view of Chinese science fiction for themselves instead of relying on an easy answer Liu may give. Keeping in mind, of course, that as an Anglophone your idea is either woefully incomplete, wrong, or likely both. But in trying to understand a well-known and loved genre in Western literature taken up by another culture I believe it is best to try to learn what it is for yourself, without the bias of having a simple answer spoonfed to you.

Liu states that “The fiction produced in China reflects the complexity of the environment.” I believe that this is true of fiction produced in any culture or society, be it one comprised of many, many facets like China; or one as diverse and well-worn as America. In any case, the stories in Invisible Planets are best taken as individual pixels in a larger picture–be careful that you don’t read too much into them, but at the same time be mindful about their place in the grand scope of not only Chinese literature, but human literature. Because these stories are indeed human, even if they seem, to a Western reader, a little alien.

This exposure is one sure way to help bridge the gap between East and West. Exchanging not only ideas, but perspectives, is how we tear down the walls between us. Liu is ever mindful of the bias we Westerners may bring to these stories, and they’re mostly things we bring with us without conscious awareness. It’s probably impossible to completely divorce your perspective from the culture in which it was fostered, and that becomes apparent when you feel like you can’t quite grasp everything the story is doing–like you can’t see the whole picture that’s being painted for you. It’s easy to fill the gaps in your understanding with your own biased views–and to a large extent, I believe, this is not wrong so long as it doesn’t overtake or replace the perspective of the author.

The limiting factor in all of this is, however, the quality of the translation. Liu has proven himself capable by his admirable and skillful English adaption of Cixin Liu’s works; even so, there is always something lost–some flavor of meaning that doesn’t quite make the jump from language to langauge. I suspect that this is especially pronounced in Asian languages like Chinese, which are not based on letters put together to make words like English. The logic of the language is different, and thus when the stories are made to be told in a completely different language with a vey different logic, some of the perspective is lost.

But the effort to translate, and to read, and to try to grapple with a new perspective is worth these small losses. And the journey is an extremely rewarding one. The first review will be on Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,”  and the stories will proceed from there based on the order in which they appear in Invisible Planets.

So, dear reader, grab a cup of Earl Grey and curl up with a warm blanket. We’re going to get a small window into a literary world that rarely gets translated to English.

Video Games: The Illigitimate Literature

January 3, 2013 Leave a comment

I don’t often publish reviews of video games, books, movies, or music simply because I don’t have the time to fully enjoy them in a timely manner. If I finish a book a year a few years after it was released I kind of feel as if it’s old news, and because of that I focus my energies not on writing a review but on starting another project. I’ve been replaying a number of video games lately, such as Bioshock and Fallout: New Vegas, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I probably won’t be writing reviews on any of them as I had initially intended.

Instead, I’ve decided to focus my efforts on finding a place for video games in the literary canon. Not all games can live up to the ideal of literature; indeed, like most forms of media 95% of what is produced is utter crap. The idea is to cut through the chaff and find the games that do. I don’t really have a large video game library, and I don’t have the time nor the money to invest in independent games, so I can only pursue a very select few games. Most of them will be in the science fiction genre, of course, given my affinity for speculative fiction.

That being said, I have already started with Bioshock by taking extensive notes on the two games and writing down some preliminary thoughts. I have also gotten my hands on several books for source materials on the philosophies of both games, including several works by Ayn Rand (who I am not a fan of but the bulk of the games center around her writings). I intend to treat the subject seriously and offer a reasoned analysis and, hopefully, a good argument that will ensure that video games can be taken seriously, much like movies and literature.

There will be those that disagree that video games should be considered art, or that they have provocative and meaningful insights into the world, philosophy, politics, or human nature. After all, what does Super Mario teach us about plumbers and what does the latest installment of Call of Duty teach us about war? Not much, honestly, and I can honestly say that, while entertaining, those games aren’t meant to be thought-provoking.

I will do my best to offer deeper insights into how video games explore age-old questions, and why the media of video games deserves serious consideration. They offer a more interactive experience, even though, like most mediums, they have severe limitations. Bioshock is limited by the fact that a studio has to offer an immersive and entertaining video game experience or they won’t make money on the game. Those limitations will be addressed and diffused.

Perhaps a mind more focused on artistic and literary analysis  than my own (in light of my career endeavors) can invent a way to analyze video games specifically with more cogent and meaningful theory. My own writings will cobble together theory of analysis from different media, including movies, graphic narratives, and novels. I have my own interests when it comes to analyzing works, and I’ve found that the idea of familial bonds seems to stand out to me in a lot of science fiction works (including Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Battlestar Galactica).

I spent a great deal of time at the University of Michigan arguing about the legitimacy of science fiction as a literary genre. I now hold that view of graphic narratives and video games. I hope that my upcoming arguments are persuasive and, at least, not too flawed.

The Mass Effect Universe and Literary Allusion Part 1

April 4, 2012 2 comments

Well, I’ve been extremely busy lately. I haven’t exactly had time to write anything on Battlstar Galactica yet, nor have I been able to compile my extensive notes and musings on Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. They’ll come…eventually.

I decided I wanted to write a short post that will probably lay the groundwork for a much larger discussion on the literary allusion in the Mass Effect series of games. All three of them are a rich source of references to other works, borrowing their ideas and reframing them in a new context.

The particular literary allusion I’d like to talk about now happens in Mass Effect 3, just after you assault the Cerberus headquarters. If you venture into the cockpit and talk to EDI after the mission, before Earth, Shepard will ask if she has any questions. After she answers no, he asks if she has any lingering issues about “An imperfect designer who can be seen as a warped father figure…” My first response was to smile at this line, but then I realized that they were making a reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

It’s not unusual for science-fiction to reference this work. In many ways it can be seen as one of the forerunners of modern science-fiction. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot makes numerous references to the work in the form of robots and Dr. Susan Calvin. The central idea is that you have an imperfect creator (Victor Frankenstein) who creates some sort of being (the Daemon) that has a bond that developmentally starts to resemble a parent and a child. My experience with reading robot-oriented science-fiction usually falls under the auspices of Isaac Asimov, who I consider to be the person who took Karel Capek’s original idea in Rossum’s Universal Robots and made it into the real science of robotics through the sheer force of his prose. For the most part, his robot short stories can be, in many ways, connected to the Frankenstein story. I’ll probably expand on this idea later, when I have more time and have further developed these ideas.

So it isn’t without precedent that artificial life, like robots and androids, has been used to make allusions to Frankenstein, which is itself a new take on the ancient Prometheus myth. EDI denies that there are any lingering issues and it really doesn’t seem to affect her. This is what’s new. In Asimov’s stories, and in Frankenstein, the created beings had a number of issues stemming from the idea of an imperfect creator being seen as a warped parental figure. I think that the reason it’s different in Mass Effect 3 is because, as the story progresses, a distinction between the Reaper’s version of artificial life and the artificial life of the Geth and EDI begins to develop. The Reaper on Rannoch, the Quarian homeworld, uses the war between the Quarians and the Geth (creator versus the created–witness the Frankenstein themes) as an example of why artificial life and organic life can never coexist. However, if you take the paragon path and find a way to end the war with both species intact, this assertion is proven to be incorrect.

The Geth aren’t the robots of Asimov, or really any other science-fiction writer, for that matter. They exist primarily as programs that can download into mobile platforms and take physical bodies, but they exist mainly as digital information. This is an important difference that really underscores the flawed logic of the Reapers, but it also contradicts many of the game’s own ideas. The Prothean VI Vendetta states, on Thessia, that the patterns of civilizations, artificial life, and harvesting by the Reapers is an ongoing pattern, and that there are forces outside of their control which bind everyone, including the Reapers, to this pattern (shades of Battlestar Galactica’s “it has happened before, and it will happen again”).  The idea of a cyclical pattern of existence isn’t unusual for science-fiction that deals with events on a massive scale. It’s also not new for some science-fiction stories to upend this idea with unforeseen variables that change the dynamics of pattern. The Geth, I think, represent an unforeseen variable in this pattern. The war that they fight with the Quarians is one of self-defense. They are not homicidal killing machines, and even Legion says that one of the things they respect the most is for species to have the right to self-determinate.

And this is where EDI comes in. EDI is a hybrid human VI with Reaper code. She is a fully autonomous artificial life form with self-awareness. She doesn’t have any lingering issues about the Illusive Man as a warped father figure because she breaks the mold of created beings. If she is to be the analogue of the Daemon, she is his antithesis. She may be somewhat ostracized because of her nature as an artificial intelligence in some ways, but she makes decisions on how she develops not based on the injustices she suffers or the attitude of her creator (the Illusive Man saw her as a tool and, most likely, an abomination because of his adamant disgust of the Reapers), but based on her self-actualization and the bonds she makes with the crew of the Normandy and, in particular, Joker.

Mass Effect 3 makes the allusions to Frankenstein while, simultaneously, breaking the relationship characteristic to Frankenstein and Asimov’s robot stories between creator and created. I’m reminded of the end of Battlestar Galactica, in which the Caprica angel says to the Balter angel that complex systems, such as the one run between the humans and the Cylons, can produce unpredictable variables and aberrant results. When it comes down to it, no matter how much control the Reapers tried to impose, they’re working in a system on a galactic scale. They couldn’t possibly predict or account for the number of random variables that could, in the end, lead to a completely different outcome and disrupt the pattern. Mass Effect 3 demonstrates this by showing the stark differences between the artificial life of the Reapers and that of the Geth and EDI.

I hope to talk, eventually, about how the pattern is forever disrupted with the destruction of the Mass Relays and how that ties in with Sovereign’s discussion with Shepard in Mass Effect. I think that would be a rich avenue of discovery.

Mass Effect 3 and Artistic Integrity

March 31, 2012 3 comments

Let’s face it: the conclusion of the Mass Effect trilogy has been highly controversial. I’ve been mostly silent in this debate, largely because I see validity in both sides. On one had, the ending was philosophically brilliant and rounded out some of the higher concepts that were introduced throughout the series in a spectacular way, leaving the end open to various interpretations. On the other hand, in terms of epic science-fiction space opera, the conclusion was a vast disappointment. There is really no resolution for the characters, and there are many jarring plot-holes that, frankly, leave a sour taste in one’s mouth.

Do you really believe that your squad mates somehow made it from Earth to the Normandy in the middle of a massive land and space war only to flee the Sol System in the end? It really makes no sense, given what we know of the characters and their dedication and loyalty to Commander Shepard (they went on a suicide mission with him through the Omega 4 Rely, so it seems highly unlikely they’d flee in the end).

This is not the point of this article. I want to discuss something I’ve seen thrown around by BioWare and some fans that are opposed to rewriting or changing the endings in any significant way: artistic integrity.

I’ve argued for years about the artistic integrity of video games, and Mass Effect is certainly a form of art. It’s controversial, unique, and explores age-old questions and ideas in a beautiful and thought-provoking way (well, between shoot-outs and massive space battles–but even the best literature has conflict on a massive scale). In some ways it is downright dangerous because it challenges the players to acknowledge the legitimacy of artificial life as a true form of life, which skews and perhaps destroys what we currently define as life. In many science-fiction stories, such as Asimov’s I, Robot, robots are a way to explore humanity, especially if those robots share our values to some extent. The Geth share our values in that they value life, their continued existence, and their right to self-determinate. We see ourselves reflected in the Geth consensus. This can provoke some uncomfortable realizations, which is a hallmark of great art.

What I think people forget about art is that art is, simply, not infallible. It isn’t unassailable, and part of the reason art exists is to inspire criticism. Good authors and painters and musicians want people to criticize their work because the artist is just as much a member of the audience as the critics. The best works of art push people to understanding without actually blatantly stating some fact of the universe, so that when a piece of art is critiqued, the artist learns just as much as the audience.

The question with Mass Effect 3 is this: would changing the ending result in voiding all of the artistic integrity of the game? The answer, quite simply, is no. In fact, it would strengthen the artistic merit of the game. If video games are to be considered art the people who play them and the people who design them have to admit that video games aren’t like other forms of art. They aren’t like movies. They aren’t like literature. They aren’t like paintings. You’re obviously not going to critique Macbeth the same way you’d critique the Mona Lisa, so why wouldn’t you create and apply different critical theories for video games?

I think that video games offer a deeper sense of the connection between artist and audience. The player becomes a part of the action, and in games like Mass Effect, they actually make choices that impact the progression of the story. The player actually gets to mold the story according to his preferences. This offers an almost unprecedented level of control for the audience, which means that, invariably, the artist has to forfeit some of his power. Mass Effect has different endings and outcomes based on a plethora of decisions that the player makes, which doesn’t follow the normal pattern of narration. It creates interaction. The artist, then, is allowing the player to shape the art in a way that movies, books, and paintings simply cannot.

Art is dynamic. It changes as time passes, and even interpretations of older works change. It goes without saying that we don’t interpret Beowulf the same way that the original Anglo-Saxon storytellers interpreted it. But art is also dynamic in that part of what makes it art in the first place is that an audience criticizes it. An audience, in a very real way, shapes art. Mass Effect 3 has had its share of critics, and rightly so. Allowing a democratic process, such as feedback and audience input, actually reinforces the notion that Mass Effect 3 is art because it actually does expose something about the culture surrounding video games.

Gamers are passionate, and they’re smart. The main reason that video games are starting to develop artistic integrity in the mainstream doesn’t just come down to talented writers and designers. The gamers themselves demand immersive, thoughtful, and smart games. They want compelling stories with intriguing characters. Mass Effect has always delivered these things. It’s been innovative, engaging, and thoughtful. More than that, though, is that the different choices and variables allowed the player to create a story that was wholly his own. It’s not very likely that any two Mass Effect playthroughs are exactly the same, because each player crafts the story to fit their preferences. In a way, each player can claim Mass Effect as their own.

If that’s the case, doesn’t the audience actually have real artistic input? Part of the way the game functions is that players determine the final outcome of their game. They get to design the facial features of the character, name him, and make Shepard’s decisions. They’re allowed to take part in the artistic process.

In essence, this means that the players themselves had a legitimate stake in the artistic process. If they weren’t satisfied by the conclusions it isn’t necessarily because they felt entitled to getting what they wanted, but because the game revealed something about it’s artistic nature. The artists that designed Mass Effect 3 don’t hold all of the artistic power.

And that is what is most relevant in this discussion, and why video games have an uphill battle in terms of being accepted as art. Video games create art that is a shared process, and the Mass Effect series was especially innovative of this particular aspect. The logical conclusion is that the players should have as much control over the outcome of the games as the writers and developers do themselves. If the gamers are upset about specific aspects of the endings, and they provide feedback to the studio as to what their grievances are, it is the height of hypocracy for that studio to hide behind an argument like “artistic integrity” when the art of the game itself hinges on the gamers participating in the process.

So it really boils down to this: the artistic integrity of Mass Effect 3 actually rests on the participation of the gamers. My argument is that if BioWare tries to brush off the valid feedback and criticism of the gamers by claiming artistic integrity, it actually destroys the artistic merits of the game to a very large degree (especially in an age of video games with DLC, or downloadable content, which actually changes the game by adding characters and missions and other such things that fundamentally change the story and narrative).

Changing the ending to provide the conclusion that a relatively large population of the fans would consider fitting would not reduce the merits of the art, but actually add to it. One of the chief complaints I’ve read from people that don’t want the ending changed is that if BioWare did acquiesce to the change then it means the ending they liked would not be the real ending. The flaw in this argument is that Mass Effect really has no certain ending. One of the most interesting aspects of the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2 is that it could be the death of Shepard and, essentially, the end of the story. That is actually a valid ending to the whole story, which completely voids the need for Mass Effect 3 at all. If a player decides that they liked the original ending, they don’t have to download the new one. It really is as simple as that. And this is the kind of art that Mass Effect embodies.

In the end, if video game developers, and even journalists, want video games to be taken serious as an art form, they must make room for criticism. If they rush to defend a video game from legitimate criticism with arguments like “artistic integrity” as a reason to not entertain notions that Mass Effect 3’s ending should be changed, or that it was flawed in the first place, they’re undermining some of the great strides video games have made in the last decade toward becoming art. If we want to actually make the case that video games are art, we have to start to turn a real critical eye toward them. They have to stand the process of being picked apart and analyzed. The greatest works of art are great because they withstand criticism and constantly create topics for discussion and interpretation. Mass Effect 3 has done this, whether by intention or not. It has sparked passion on all sides, and it has been critically analyzed and picked apart. There is ample evidence to support many different theories about the true nature of the endings of the games, and many theories are clever and well-reasoned. Mass Effect 3 is living up to its legacy. The very criticism and dissection of the game, leading in some cases to plausible and convincing theories about the true events and meaning, cements its status as art.

Onward, Intrepid Fool!

March 13, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that nothing describes humanity better than the stories we tell. This fueled my interest and passion for studying English Language and Literature for five years and now it compels me to continue to expand upon what I learned as a student. The reasons I chose to focus the latter half of my scholastic efforts on analyzing science-fiction literature can actually be reduced to three categories:

  1. I have had a lifelong passion for speculative fiction. Simple enough.
  2. Science-fiction is made of about 95% rubbish, but the 5% that is good is some of the best literature that has ever been produced.
  3. Science-fiction is woefully underrepresented in literature studies classes and, consequently, lacks a kind of academic legitimacy that I feel is unjust. My aim is to change this (and I was introduced to the expansive and rich literary value of fantasy and science-fiction by Eric S. Rabkin).

With this post I am embarking on a project that will most likely take a few years to complete. The first couple of posts will probably be discussions of Battlestar Galactica, and a review of Mass Effect 3 (which will hopefully lay the groundwork for later discussion). I  have also created a searchable category called “Battlestar Galactica” which can be used to access any of the posts that I write. I have also created and post, and will update it as needed, with links to all of the episodic articles, which itself is linked to the “Sci-Fi Analysis” page located at the top of the blog.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to post my first piece. I’ll try to cover every episode with a mini-analysis of that episode and more in-depth analysis as the series progresses, taking many things into consideration. One of the things I most look forward to is a discussion on how the music not only evolves as the series progresses, but how it eventually comes to inform the viewers of the evolution of the characters and circumstances.

I’m also planning on working with several books and a few other television series as well, which will probably be updated along with the Battlestar Galactica posts. I’m not sure if there will be any regularity. I assume that there will be some coordination with Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek: Voyager because of a major theme that I want to explore that is present in both and, indeed, inform each other.

The first book I’ll write about will be Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I won’t do the entire book all at once, but I’ll break it down into chapters and then probably write something of the work as a whole.

As for the Mass Effect series, I am excited to talk about something that the first reaper, Sovereign, said to Commander Shepard on the planet Virmire: “Your civilization is based on the technology of the mass relays. Our technology. By using it, your society develops along the paths we desire. We impose order on the chaos of organic evolution. You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it,” and Legion’s description of the nature of the reapers after the suicide mission in Mass Effect 2.

I’d like write a post about the nature of the conflict between Shepard and the Reapers (see a connection with the names, alone?). Shepard represents organic life, which is, to be frank, aberrant, chaotic, unpredictable, and subject to change. Sovereign, and the reapers in general, represent a static, predictable, and controlled form of life. That is actually a weakness because it means that it can never change or evolve (which makes my favorite conclusion to Mass Effect 3 so damn good–I don’t want to give away the ending). There are a lot of ideas at play in this series, and I would like to fully explore them. Of particular interest is the nature of the forced harvesting of organic lifeforms to create the reapers (and thus destroy future iterations of organic life) versus the synthesis of organic and synthetic to create the polar opposite and herald life. There are clear parallels with Mass Effect and Battlestar Galactica when it comes to destruction versus synthesis and repeating cycles of destruction, but this can be saved for another time.

For right now, I’d just like to say that I hope you enjoy the pieces that I write on these subjects.