Category: Ramblings

Dec 17 2017

Musings on The Last Jedi

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. You have been warned.

It’s with some amusement that I go back and look at my posts on Episode VII from two years ago. Some points I was pretty well on the money and others were completely off base. For my own amusement if nothing else, let’s look at how some of my predictions turned out.

The biggest one is perhaps Rey’s parentage. Assuming Kylo Ren was telling the truth (which may not be the case), Rey has no connection to anyone in the cast. The way I had it figured, there was a bout an 85% chance she was Luke’s daughter, a 10% chance she was Han and Leia’s, and a 5% chance she was the kid of literally anyone else in all the Galaxy. Guess you should bet on the long odds. I have a feeling if George was still at the helm, he couldn’t have resisted giving her an obvious connection to main characters, so in a way I kinda applaud the aversion. And, hey, by not making them blood relatives, Reylo is now a slightly less creepy ship. (Oh, it’s still plenty problematic, but I’ll admit that Episode VIII is tilting my shipping goggles in that direction.) Speaking of Reylo, I loved the bond that formed between Rey and Ben. Yes, it was all part of Snoke’s manipulation, playing on their mutual weaknesses, but dang was it effective. (Didn’t work out so well for Snoke either.) I almost was hoping for Rey to pull a Clarice Starling (book version) just because it would’ve been interesting to see her as something of a moderating influence on the newly crowned Supreme Leader. If Ren wasn’t so obsessed with destroying his past, he could’ve spared the remnants of the Resistance as a “wedding present” and forced Leia to the negotiating table. I don’t think she’d go for it, but most of the systems would opt for a political solution over outright war and if the First Order starting being savvy with its sticks and carrots, the Resistance would hardly have a leg to stand on.

I’m sure just about everyone was as surprised as Snoke was when he bought it. This wildly changes the landscape for Episode IX. Yes, Ren is now Supreme Leader, but at least the main fleet (who knows how many others the First Order has) has been decimated by Admiral Holdo’s hyperspace trick, and Ren himself is an unhinged psychopath who pretty much no one respects. He’s pretty well unstoppable and uncontestable within his proximity, but he’s not the kind of person who can hold the Galaxy in a firm grip. He’s got no head for strategy or politics and is too short-tempered to permit any savvy voices of dissent. Hux isn’t much better, but he’s more suited to the role of military dictator than Ren. It’d be interesting if Ren finds himself faced with widespread mutiny. There are limits to his Force powers and with his incomplete training and poor control, he’s bitten off a lot more than he can chew. (As a side note, the fact that both he and Rey are now masterless with incomplete training opens up some interesting possibilities for finding their own way.)

Two years ago I mused about Ren’s possible redemption arc. Even though I didn’t think it was likely, when he killed Snoke and teamed up with Rey to mope up the Praetorians, I thought there might be a chance, but now I really can’t imagine any going back unless the aforementioned mutiny puts Ren on the run and adorable Rey just can’t seem to give up on him. Her love will save him, people. (Probably only in the metaphysical sense, but there’s bound to be fanfic writers out there that go whole hog.)

Speaking of shipping, Finn/Rey is dead, long live Finn/Rose? I will admit I saw a bit of a spark when Poe introduced himself to Rey. (I know there are OT3 dreamers out there still. Maybe you could add Rose for an OT4 or even Ren for a very dysfunctional OT5. I need to stop. ^o^ ) I like to joke about shipping, but I’ve stated before that things remaining platonic is completely okay with me. (Or Episode IX could turn into a Ranma 1/2 space opera.)

Let’s address one of the elephants in the room. With the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher, what are they going to do with Leia? When the bridge of the Raddus was hit, I thought that was going to be used as a tidy way to write Leia out of the story, but I was proven wrong. You then get all this buildup for her character that’s going to lead nowhere. Now, even if they have to kill off the character offscreen, there’s at least some groundwork for passing the torch. You can see Leia’s been grooming Poe for a higher level of leadership. (By the way, I really love the almost maternal relationship she has with him.) If Admiral Holdo–obviously another pupil of Leia’s–had lived, she could’ve also helped bridge chasm that’s going to be left by Leia’s absence. It would be interesting if Leia just simply dies of natural causes, the stresses she’s been going through (to say nothing of having been spaced) and so on, sort of as a reminder that even in this fantastical universe, the most mundane things can end a hero’s story. We’ll see.

It seems I may have overestimated the strength of the New Republic. I figured there would still be some decentralized power that could reform the government, but it seems like the loss of the Hosnian System pretty well did them in. There are unspecified allies of the Resistance in the Outer Rim, but none that were willing to throw what they had at the First Order on Crait. Now basically the Millennium Falcon is the Resistance. Do they even have the resources to pull any real firepower together? Of course, as I noted above, the First Order may not be in that great of shape either. I don’t know what their total strength is, but unless Ren can somehow hold things together, they may not be as great of a threat anymore. I’d really like to see a rival Imperial remnant emerge to mix things up. Before I considered an old-school remnant becoming allies of convenience with the Resistance, but now I don’t even now if such an alliance would even be necessary. More information is needed.

It was nice seeing Phasma back and given the opportunity to show her stuff, but it feels like a waste that she was (apparently) killed off with relative ease (though it did get a handy pre-mortem one-liner from Finn). I will say that if she somehow survives to Episode IX, that’d be hilarious. Ultimately, I think she’s going to be like Boba Fett, a character that inspires the imagination but doesn’t actually amount to much onscreen.

We’ll probably see Luke return as a Force Ghost, but what about Snoke? We’ve never heard of a Dark Side user becoming a Force Ghost, but this would be a fine time to start. However, I feel that becoming a Force Ghost comes from harmonizing yourself with the Force and I see the Dark Side users more as clashing with the Force and drawing their power from that conflict. Snoke did seem more mindful of the Force’s balance than any Sith Lord we’ve seen, but it could well be that he was simply to hubristic and doesn’t have a backup plan. But could you imagine if he was able to project his spirit into Ren for extra torment? That could be interesting.

Hey, let’s take a look at poor Rey and the Mary Sue accusations. I’d suggested before that her training would present the opportunity to show more of her flaws and round her out more as a character. Turns out I was right. We get to see her clumsy and reckless (and quite in the mold of her reluctant master), more than a little foolhardy and rather easy to manipulate. And these aren’t bad things. She still has a lot going for her, but those flaws give her character depth and they give her somewhere to go. I like how she was more emotionally vulnerable this time around and how that gelled with Ren’s own emotional instability. The fact that she so heedlessly veers into the Dark Side adds another layer of interest. (I love Luke’s absolute horror at how easily she plunged into the darkness, but to her credit, she comes back just as easily and perhaps this is what will lead her to a balance with the Force that will allow her to surpass the Jedi and the Sith.) Also, giving her a total garbage heritage deconstructs the illusion of perfection further. In total, Rey is a prodigy, sure, but she’s not a Sue and I think Episode VIII does a good job of driving that point home.

Where do we go from here? Apparently there’s been wrangling behind the scenes that have put JJ Abrams back in the director’s chair for Episode IX. Will he be quite as bold as Rian Johnson has been with Episode VIII? I doubt it, but you never know. A lot of how the story plays out will depend on what resources the First Order has at its disposal, how well Ren can hold on to the reins of power, and the allies the Resistance can pull together. We’re bound to have a final confrontation between Rey and Ren, but will the Knights of Ren finally make an appearance? (Honestly, I thought the Praetorians were the Knights of Ren, but now that I know that’s not true, I could see them as being the ones who help reinforce Ren’s control.) Poe looks like he’ll be the new head of the Resistance once Leia is gone, but might we see another hero from the days of the Rebellion, a certain Lando Calrissian? Following the Han Solo movie, it might be a savvy choice. (Also, we’re running low on the list of original cast members.) Once again we have an initial May release date pushed back to December, so I guess we’ll see what happens in two years. Until then.

Jan 27 2017

Ten Years of Palidor Media: A Reflection

It really is hard to believe that it’s been ten years already. It was January of 2007. I was about a quarter of the way into my two-year odyssey in Japan. I only taught something like two or three lessons a day, so that meant a lot of time sitting at my computer in the office. I’m not sure what really triggered my decision to start a website, but it seemed like a way to get my work out there and I figured a release schedule would put a little pressure on me to keep moving forward. It had been eight years since I last did any web design, so I had to refresh my memory on HTML and CSS and spent at least two or three weeks before launch testing code and getting it where I wanted it to be.

Back then, the site served as a platform for not only myself but also my good friend and fellow author Steff Johnson (now Meade). The idea was for Palidor Media to become a community of creative types, but I’m not all that talented at networking and the contacts I do make tend to slip through my fingers. Steff and I parted ways after a few years and later collaborators like Angel DeRiso and Kazuya Mori grew distant (though not entirely out of touch). Shoot, even junior mascot Olivia Bean is a closet-bound recluse these days. That isn’t to say I’m not still open to the idea of Palidor Media as a creative community, but for now it mostly seems to be a one-man show.

I’ve made some attempts to expand the site’s offerings, with the short-lived Mascot Monday series of cat videos on Youtube, an aborted Knight of Gladius animation project, social media integration, and the ever expanding review section of the site. I joked that if I couldn’t make it with cat videos on the Internet, I can’t make it anywhere. Ha ha. Well, guess what. -_-; The mascot is a star in my eyes, at least. Admittedly, I wasn’t that invested in a gimmick like Mascot Monday and honestly, cat videos are a rather saturated field. One thing that’s surprised me is how time-intensive the reviews have become. They were never intended to be more than a little diversion to increase the available content but sometimes they seem like more work than the actual stories that are supposed to be the site’s bread and butter.

While some of my grander plans haven’t quite come to pass, I’ve serialized twelve complete novels (with two more currently in progress) and fifteen short stories with plenty more on the horizon. It’s true that I don’t have the audience I’d like (Ukrainian spambots don’t count) and I’m not actually making anything off my writing, and while these were originally the parameters I set on whether or not to keep the site going after ten years, I’ve moved beyond that. Even if I haven’t really found my audience, the site is almost worth it as an online reference for my work, more easily navigable than my stacks and stacks of Word documents, and the schedule doesn’t hurt when it comes to keeping me on task, something I’d be even worse about without it.

My life has had plenty of ups and downs since I founded the site, but it’s proven to be something of an anchor for me, a source stability. Working toward the weekly updates, trying to make daily progress to report on the blog, these are things that add structure to my life and I’m nothing if not someone who likes structure. Even though I’m inclined to be stuck in my ways, there’s no telling what the future will hold and it will be interesting to see where I and this site will be in another ten years. Keep your eyes peeled and stay tuned.

Oct 30 2016

WIP Update – 28-29 Oct 16

I did about half quota on Chapter 10 of TBP one day and a scant few lines on Chapter 11 the next. Fortunately, I have an evening wide open to focus on making up for lost time.

In other news, in case anyone was wondering, I succeeded in unlocking SR Ranko in GBF. I usually don’t put that much time, effort or resources into the Kosenjou because I’m not all that interested in trying to get the Jutenshu at present, but I wanted to grind the Ranko summon up to Level 100 as quickly as I could. SR Ranko is interesting in that her third ability doesn’t unlock until Level 65. (Normally the unlock happens at Level 35 for SR charas.) I’m not a big fan of the internal monologue that translates her usual dialog. Her character is more interesting without it. (Although it does make it sound like she’s possessed the original body, which is thematically appropriate, I guess.) Oh, and just a bit of random advice to all you out there, if you find yourself transported to a fantasy world, you may not want to go around declaring yourself the Demon Queen Brunnhilde. You may find yourself the target of jobber adventurers looking to carve a name for themselves out of your hide.

Well, one more day of TBP and I’ll be back on CeleKing1. Stay tuned.

Oct 19 2016

A View into the Pit of Madness

This may not interest you at all, but for the sake of posterity, I’m going to detail what I’ve been obsessing over the past several days. The latest event in Granblue Fantasy is a collaboration with The Idolmaster Cinderella Girls. The last collab I tangled with was the Tales of Asteria event back in June. That didn’t work out for me because I wasn’t able to link accounts. I was expecting the same deal here. I prefer to play GBF as a Chome App on my laptop rather than on my phone for a variety of reasons. Cinderella Girls has a Chrome App too, but you can’t link accounts via the PC version. Well, here’s my genius at work. I loaded both games in my phone via their web apps (as opposed to installing the apps as my old Galaxy S2 can’t handle it) and succeeded in linking the accounts. Then I was able to play the PC version of both and still reap the benefits.

My main goal was just to get the characters that were collab rewards, but then I learned of another character who was previously a summon with some steep requirements for acquisition. That character is Ranko Kanzaki and the requirements are as follows:

1. Acquire all seven collab characters. Two are new and two were introduced in the rerun event from March. Here are their requirements:
a. Miria – attain 1000 trust points
b. Anastasia – clear the first panel mission in Cinderella Girls
c. Rin – attain 1000 trust points
d. Mio – reach Level 20 in Cinderella Girls
e. Uzuki – beat the event story chapters
f. Airi – reach Level 39 in Cinderella Girls
g. Sachiko – treasure exchange (one of the materials appearing only during a rare encounter)
2. Acquire the Brunnhilde summon.
3. Cast Brunnhilde 666 times in order to collect four copies of the Ranko Kanzaki summon. (The titles of each stage being a necessary component, so simply doing the treasure exchange to three-star a Ranko summon won’t cut it.) Raise the Ranko summon to Level 100.
4. Defeat Tiamat, Leviathan, Colossus, Yggdrasil, Chevalier, and Celeste with the Ranko summon (which means eyeballing an approximate 20K HP window for the deathblow).
5. Get a title for raising Rin and Anastasia to Level 50.
6. Get a title for raising Miria, Airi and Mio to Level 60.
7. Get a title for raising Miria, Sachiko and Uzuki to Level 70.
8. Get a title for the above three titles.
9. Clear the two new Fate Episodes that open up.
10. Fulfill the treasure requirements to four-star the Ranko summon.
11. Receive SR Ranko.

Getting to Level 39 in Cinderella Girls wasn’t that hard. I managed it in two sittings as there’s currently zero stamina cost up through Ikebukuro and half cost through Fukui. (You get XP by doing jobs in various cities.) Sachiko was the biggest pain to get because of the Purple Jewels that drop with the Jewel Mimic rare encounter. Happily, I’d already three-starred the Ranko summon, so that was one less thing, but leveling her was another story. I thought using her against the six main summons would be more of a pain than it was, particularly with the limited number of spawns per day, but I managed it without too much trouble. Leveling the girls appeared more daunting as it takes 227,550 XP to reach 70. Grinding the event monsters on Extreme nets about 2K XP with the Halloween event’s 50% bonus. Because I wanted to three-star Brunnhilde, I was going to be doing a lot of grinding anyway, so this was manageable, but recall my complaint about acquiring Sachiko, the last chara I got and one who needs to hit 70. I didn’t notice that I had to get the Ranko summon to 100 (which is difficult as summons are much more difficult to grind despite the lower XP requirement, about 72K to reach 100), and that was when I realized that only the acquisition of the seven girls has to be done before the event is over. Ha ha ha. Here I was all panicking and trying to crunch numbers to optimize my time and meet the milestones when there’s not any need for me to rush at all at this point. I’d still like to unlock SR Ranko before the week’s out, but if I have to wait while I’m leveling her summon version, that’s fine.

Now, you might find it silly to expend so much time energy and brainpower on a silly little mobile game and you’d be right, but we all need a vice or two to remind us that we’re human and gaming addiction is mine. This hardly excuses me falling short of any progress goals, but thankfully, I can’t play at work, so guess what I do during my breaks. By the by, don’t be surprised if reviews of the Cinderella Girls anime show up in the not so distant future. ^_^;

Mar 06 2016

On the Real-World Implications of the Subtext of Zootopia

There are Zootopia spoilers ahoy, so be forewarned.

In my review, I commented that I had issues with the movie’s subtext. Against my better judgment, I’m going to hash it out here. I frequently make the point that I want to avoid politics on the site. Not because I lack confidence in my convictions or that I’m ashamed of my beliefs but rather that the purpose of the site is entertainment and I don’t want any extraneous issues to take away from that. However, this blog is a space where I get some thoughts out of my head and some of those thoughts may be used as fodder for a healthy discussion. To sidestep the real-world side of things a bit, I’m going to be avoiding specific labels. It’s a flimsy defense, but I’ll at least hold up that fig leaf.

Issues of racism, prejudice, discrimination, and fear form one of the central themes of Zootopia, which is pretty heavy stuff for a Disney animated feature. Our modern-day programming is pretty simple. Racism bad. Prejudice bad. Discrimination bad. Fear bad. Labels of “racist”, “bigot” and such are to be feared as much as “heretic” in ages past. These labels can be used as a hammer to pummel people into submission. It’s called social engineering for a reason, after all. Now, I’m not talking about coarse caricatures like the Klan or the Westboro bunch here. I’m talking about ordinary folks who don’t toe the line to the satisfaction of the opinion-setters. There was a time when I was eager to be seen as righteous in the eyes of such people, to the point of great (virtual) self-flagellation to prove my bonafides. A little mugging by reality broke me of that and you might toss some of those nasty and fearful labels my way if I aired my unvarnished opinions, but I’m past the point of being moved by them. If I must be a heretic, then let me burn.

Let’s lay down some basics so I’m not misunderstood. Racism–genuine racism, that is (since the term gets thrown around rather freely these days)–has little justification. I say little because there may actually be some degree of a genetic factor at work, but I consider it to be largely negligible. I believe socialization is the main driving force of undesirable group behavior. There are trends and averages in cultures and I’m not a relativist who thinks it all okay whatever people do. Does this count as prejudice? Yes. My guiding principle to keep myself in check is that whatever I think about any given group based on my observations, I’ll give any individual their fair shake to show their measure. I might be a little more standoffish around some than others, but I do my bit to remain civil. That’s what tolerance is all about. Tolerance isn’t acceptance, though, and a lot of times that gets confused. To touch on the last leg of the tripod, illegal discrimination is just that, illegal. That’s discrimination of action. Mental discrimination isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. It’s how we distinguish and separate one thing from another. For now, at least, we remain free within the confines of our own skulls, but when we act on our thoughts, that’s when we can get ourselves into trouble.

Rather than light a match and drop it on dry tinder by bringing in real-world examples, let’s focus on the scenario presented in the movie. We have predators and prey who have theoretically evolved past their natural instincts and live in unsteady harmony. Judy’s parents are portrayed as well-meaning bigots for being afraid of foxes and Judy herself is presented as something of one herself for trying to show off her nondiscriminatory bonafides to Nick during their first encounter. (People with long enough memories will catch the “articulate” bit.) Nevermind foxes’ traditional predation on rabbits. The past doesn’t matter. Until it does. Going into the second act, we learn that the spate of missing mammals are all predators who have gone feral (or “savage” as they say). Judy gets cornered in a press conference after the big bust which this causes a falling out between her and Nick and kicks off a larger spike of tensions in the city. Here’s the thing, though. We’re meant to think she’s wrong somehow. She’s meant to think she’s wrong. In fact, she’s so guilt-racked that she quits the force and goes back home until things turn around for the third act. However, she’s not wrong. Not at all. The outbreak did only affect predators. It did have a biological component. It did cause them to revert to their “primitive, savage ways”. Would more diplomatic language have helped manage public reactions? Sure. But that was the whole point. She was set up to trigger a panic. Judy was a first-hand witness, having nearly been killed by a feral herself. She heard the doctor’s assessment, is smart enough to put it all together, honest and unfiltered enough to tell it straight, and naive enough to not realize the larger implications of her revelations. I get where Nick’s coming from, but he’s not really being fair to her. It’s a shame that the tearful apology comes entirely from her end, but it all ties into the message the film is pushing, which I find naive and dangerous when applied to the real world.

Here’s the situation. We’ve got one population that has a history of violence against another. Things have been stable for years, but all that’s going out the window. There’s no apparent pattern. Any predator could go feral and the vast majority of the prey species are completely defenseless. Traditional defense behaviors like herd movement and such have been abandoned, as mentioned in the expository school play at the beginning of the movie. We start to see attacks and it’s only a matter of time before fatalities start piling up. Yeah, we feel bad seeing lovable butterball Clawhauser getting rotated from front desk to Records just because he’s a pred, but as we don’t know what triggers the feral reversion yet, even he could pose a threat (though less likely in the police station where all the prey species in uniform [sans Judy] are the burly sort who can take care of themselves). The people don’t know the source of the reversions and to simply pretend everything’s fine would be madness. However, we have pop star Gazelle holding her peace rally and spilling out platitudes. She tells us they can’t give in to fear, but she doesn’t give us any alternative besides “celebrating our differences”. The thing about fear is that it’s a survival mechanism. When fear is irrational, it does more harm than good, but when it has justification, you ignore the warning at your peril. It’s one thing to risk your own neck for your ideals but risking the lives of others for the sake of your ideals is reprehensible.

The movie gives us an easy solution to the situation. We discover that the feral reversions are chemically induced, part of a bid by Bellweather to assert prey dominance and rule by fear, a treatment is quickly developed and it’s a happy ending for one and all. But what would happen if it wasn’t that simple? What would the solution be then? The only way to ensure the safety of prey species would be separation, but you sure wouldn’t see that show up. Would there be increased surveillance? More extensive intelligence gathering to try to interdict reversions before they become a problem? Or would we see business as usual, the casualties from attacks seen as a necessary sacrifice to preserve “who we are”? Would concerned prey be browbeaten into signing on for the suicide pact? Well, obviously the filmmakers couldn’t explore these possibilities. They don’t even do it in fare for adults. Heck, you don’t even get an honest discussion in the real world.

You might think I’m on to something and you might think I’m some kind of monster, but at very least, I hope you can see why I found the handling of themes to be problematic. There’s no way a major motion picture coming out of Hollywood would tell it to you any differently. That’s just how it is. I just worry about instilling kids with ideals that sound pretty on paper but could get them killed. I know there have already been heaps of corpses sacrificed on the altar of political correctness, the Moloch of our era. I guess if someone would rather die than bear the modern brand of heresy, that’s their business, but I take issue with everyone else getting dragged along for the ride. There are no easy solutions and whatever course is taken, there will be ugly results. That, sadly, is the world and humanity. Funny that movie about a fluffy bunny would get me to stew so much on the subject, but there you go. Whatever issues I take with Zootopia‘s message, I’ll give them credit for making me think. I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Dec 24 2015

The Problem of the Mary Sue

In my extended commentary about Episode VII, I said I’d bring up the charge of Rey being a Mary Sue in a later post. This is that post. There will be some light spoilers, but nothing you can’t conclude from the trailers. Without further ado, let’s begin.

I’ll grant that Rey is a little too perfect. She’s not flawless, but she comes pretty dang close. Her only real “offense” is initially rejecting the call to adventure. I postulated in the previous post that they had to make her so good at just about everything to both sell her to an audience (actually or merely imagined to be) skeptical of a female lead. That only addresses one extreme. On the other end, if you have a female lead show weakness, it could open up charges of sexism. Personally, I thought it would’ve been funny in one scene where Rey’s struggling to move a floor grate for the Falcon if she had to get Finn to move it for her. Better yet, if she asked in a somewhat tsundere manner to protect her pride. That of course didn’t happen and if it had, Tumblr would’ve been alight with complaints. Basically, Rey’s characterization plays it safe to shield her from the ire from both sides of the fence. She suffers a little in depth as an individual for it, but I still like her all the same. PC wrangling is a sad but true fact of life.

Compare Rey with Finn. Finn certainly has his virtues but he’s also deeply flawed. While he can be brave, he’s reasonably scared of the First Order and tries to run from it until his back is up against the wall and he finds his true priorities (primarily Rey). He’s by no means an imbecile, but his knowledge is limited, as you’d expect from a rank-and-file Stormtrooper. Though he was apparently in the top percent of his batch of trainees, he had the indignity of being assigned to sanitation at Starkiller Base. None of this demeans him as a person. A lot of it’s played for comedy but I certainly never thought less of him as a character. You don’t get anything like that with Rey and I believe fear is a large component of that. Even Luke, her closest analog in the Original Trilogy (and likely her father), had plenty of weaknesses, being prone to whining, shooting from the hip, and fumbling his way through training until he matured both as a person and as a budding Jedi. Again, these didn’t make him any less of a person. These flaws gave him something to overcome on his journey. There’s still a chance as Rey begins her formal training that she’ll actually have to struggle more and there’s potential for her character on that note. Similarly, her anger at Kylo Ren can provide a dangerous lure to the Dark Side for her to struggle with, much as Luke had to do before her.

Now, let’s take a step back and look at what a Mary Sue actually is. I’m a stickler for precision in language. People who pretend that terms can’t be precisely defined are obfuscating. There are other sources that can more accurately and comprehensively define what a Mary Sue is, but I’ll be using my own approach that should capture the essence sufficiently. A Mary Sue is “perfect” and I use air quotes because the definition of perfection is often rather bent. “Ideal” is perhaps a better description and that ideal depends on the author, which will likely be at odds with a significant portion of the audience. The Mary Sue serves the purpose of wish fulfillment, by the author, for the audience or both. This is why the Mary Sue is often an author insert character. The Mary Sue receives frequent validation and any opposition is crafted as strawmen (even if the strawmen actually have a point). Related to this validation is the romantic factor. Expect multiple love interests to trip over themselves to win the Mary Sue’s affection. This will be particularly galling if these love interests are actually comparatively well-written and appealing characters throwing their lives away on the reprehensible Sue.

Perhaps the most notorious Mary Sue in recent history is Bella Swann of Twilight fame (“infamy” would be more apt). She’s presented as this special little snowflake from the start, so special in fact that her blood draws the vampires like no other. She is pursued by both the vampire Edward and the werewolf Jacob, who are at her heels the whole time no matter how much she manipulates them and otherwise treats them like crap. Naturally, any opposition to her constant demonstration of what a terrible human being she is never amounts to anything. She certainly doesn’t learn a thing from it. She serves as an avatar for bored housewives and clueless preteens to live out their fantasies. Taking this into consideration, how does Rey stack up as a Mary Sue? Well, she’s a mechanical genius, a competent martial artist, a promising pilot, and she’s got a strong connection to the Force that allows her to tap into significant powers without any real training. This all starts to sound rather Sueish, but mechanical proficiency comes with being a scavenger, the martial arts proficiency a necessity for surviving alone in the harsh world, and the piloting is part of a practical skillset. If I’m right about her lineage, she stands to have a Force potential that could rival Yoda. It’s entirely possible that if she’s indeed Luke’s daughter, she received some rudimentary training before she was deposited on Jakku, but even without factoring in that, it’s been established that the Force can exert a measure of control over people (something I mentioned in the previous post) and given how much Snoke’s plot is warping the Force, whatever sapience it has would have an interest in taking a firmer hand guiding Rey to operate as its agent against Kylo Ren. All these considerations diminish the Sue factor. Also, she isn’t constantly being praised by everyone around her. There’s mutual congratulations exchanges between her and Finn when they escape Jakku and Han gives her acknowledgment (though entirely justified by her performance), but this isn’t the same as the constant ego rubbing you see with a typical Mary Sue. Also, as of yet, there’s not much of a romantic factor. Rey and Finn have a thing, yes, but it could just as easily remain platonic as it could go romantic. Now, if you had Finn, Poe, Kylo Ren, Chewie, Threepio, and Admiral Akbar all forming a clumsy harem for her, then we might be getting into serious Sue territory. Love triangles, even love decadohedrons, don’t necessarily make a Sue, but when it’s not particularly justified and serves the purpose of wish fulfillment, then there’s a problem.

If you want a Sue from the Star Wars universe, look no further than Starkiller of The Force Unleashed, a ridiculous Marty Stu who snatches away Vader’s lightsaber as a toddler, can bring down Star Destroyers, and somehow becomes an inspiration for the Rebel Alliance all while having all the personality of a bowl of rice gruel. And let’s not forget the tacked-on love interest too. Ugh… Seriously, if anyone still feels like complaining about Rey, look back at that rubbish and realize it isn’t so bad.

I may do another post at a later date regarding the challenge of writing a flawed female character that doesn’t undermine the character or come across as sexist. In the meantime, hopefully I’ve made something resembling a case to refute the accusation of Rey as a Mary Sue. Until next time. Stay tuned.

Dec 22 2015

Musings on The Force Awakens

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Don’t read ahead unless you’ve already seen the movie.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of buzz going on in the wake of Episode VII and in an effort to get some of it out of my head, I’m committing it to the page. I can’t guarantee that there’s going to be that much order to this, though, but I’ll try to keep it a step or two above pure stream of consciousness.

First, let’s start with my predictions before I saw the movie. I figured that Rey was Han and Leia’s daughter and then half-jokingly made the leap that Kylo Ren was Luke’s son so we could have a “No, I am your cousin” moment. Well, seems like I got it flipped. It hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it seems pretty clear that Rey is Luke’s daughter. Han certainly seemed to recognize who she was (and may even have been the one to leave her on Jakku on Luke’s behalf) and there’s the chain of succession with Luke/Anakin’s lightsaber. Some people hope that it isn’t that obvious, but it’s tidier for storytelling purposes and feels consistent with the series’ mythos. I mean, it’s still possible that she’s another of Han and Leia’s children, which would provide a closer connection to Kylo Ren and align more with Jacen and Jaina from the old EU, but I don’t think Han and Leia would’ve played keepaway with her if that was the case. Also, as undisciplined as Kylo Ren is, I think he would’ve been able to intuit she was his sister if that was the case.

Some people don’t like how Kylo Ren is tantrum throwing deranged fanboy, but I absolutely love it. Character flaws–when executed well–make strong characters. In fact, in many ways, Ren strikes me as more of what Anakin was supposed to be in the Prequel Trilogy. As one commentator had said, it was a canny move for the filmmakers to make their copy Vader a deliberate copy. It’s part of the larger sense of self-awareness that makes you buy a lot of the elements some people count as flaws.

Speaking of which, a common complain is that this is just a rehash of Episode IV. I honestly don’t mind in the slightest. Episode IV is an archetypal story and using that as a framework for kicking off the Sequel Trilogy isn’t a bad thing. This is, after all, Star Wars for a new generation and the parallelism works for me. In particular, people think Starkiller Base was a little too much of same old. same old. I didn’t mind because Starkiller Base is just a continuation of Imperial policy. If the original Death Star was a one and done, I might’ve had more of an objection, but as the Death Star II was a scaled-up model, Starkiller Base represents the next stage in the program of imposing the Tarkin Doctrine as a means of rule. (So, ironically, for me, the fact that this is effectively the third Death Star makes it more acceptable than less.) I’ve heard some people say that it would’ve been better if Starkiller Base remained a persistent threat throughout the ST and I can agree with that, but we got what we got. Now, if we see Starkiller Base II in Episode IX, then I’ll join the chorus. ^_^;

On the subject of the subsequent films, I’m hoping that Episode VIII features Rey and Kylo Ren’s training in parallel, but I have a feeling that we’ll see Rey’s training and Ren will be kept under wraps until their next confrontation. (It would be a little too much of ESB redux for her to have her lose the next match, but that would help set things up for a final confrontation in Episode IX.) Presumably the B plot will have a newly awakened Finn joined Poe on some mission, possibly have them on the run when the First Order strikes at Resistance HQ (but this too would be a little too much of ESB redux). Maybe it does say something of the parallelisms that I’m essentially recreating the OT in my predictions for Episodes VIII and IX.

A lot of people saw Han’s death being telegraphed, but I didn’t realize he was done for until Ren refused to let go of his lightsaber after offering it to Han. I knew either he or Chewie (or both) was likely to bite it when they went in to set the explosives. Actually, until Chewie showed up in the Falcon to pick up Rey and Finn, I thought he killed himself when he hit the detonator. Anyway, going back to that moment, part of me actually wondered if Ren would go with Han. It could’ve set up an interesting plot in Episode VIII where he’s trying to overcome his addiction to the Dark Side and atone for his many crimes while being pursued by the First Order. Having him as the token evil teammate could’ve been interesting. At this point, I have a hard time seeing a redemption arc working for him (unless he decides to be just like Grandpa and chuck Snoke into a hole), but we’ll see. However, when I thought about it, parricide is only one of his many crimes. Just because Han is the character we care about shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Ren’s a multiple murderer. Han’s death shouldn’t objectively be any heavier than any of the others who died at Ren’s hand (or his order), so my initial willingness to see him cross back over when that carrot was dangled there isn’t justified, at least not in a larger sense. It’ll be interesting to see how his struggle continues over the next two films.

Some people have been calling Rey a Mary Sue. I disagree, but I’ll get into the details in another post. I will agree that she’s a little too good at what she does, but there are more elements to making a Sue than hypercompetence. Force sensitivity allows you to handwave a lot and her background justifies her mechanical proficiency and core competency at piloting. Her detractors complain about her becoming an instant Jedi, but she really doesn’t. She’s got a lot of raw potential and she’s receptive to the Force’s guidance. This was established in Episode IV, after all, that the Force can exert an influence over people. If Rey’s been selected as the Force’s agent for balance, then it stands to reason that it’s going to guide her more overtly. Also, it’s worth noting that her lightsaber combat isn’t that of a seasoned duelist. She already has a fair bit of martial arts ability and adapts as well as she can against a wounded and mentally unstable Kylo Ren. Going back to how she seems a little too perfect, I have a feeling that the filmmakers were afraid of putting too many flaws in her character. As I noted before, character flaws make for interesting characters but only if it’s well-executed. It’s a shame, but having a female lead is seen as a dicey prospect and it’s a bit of a tightrope act. Consider Sidney Poitier’s character from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The filmmakers knew that they were going to be catching flak for featuring an interracial couple, so they had to make Poitier’s character about as perfect as he could possibly be to leave you with almost nothing to object to besides the race factor. From a storytelling point of view, a more flawed character is more interesting, but when you’re walking into a potential minefield, you don’t want to take chances. I mean, a female lead in a science fantasy shouldn’t be objectionable, but some people are dumb about that sort of thing. Whatever my personal biases, speaking for myself, so long as the character is compelling, that’s all I need. I enjoy Rey’s character, but the fact that her only really noticeable flaw is her temporary refusal of the call does somewhat hamper her depth. However, I’m willing to see where she goes in the next couple movies but even if it’s more of the same, I certainly wouldn’t mind.

I’ve also heard people muttering about confusion regarding the political situation in the galaxy (with a nontrivial subset not minding at all as the larger situation is secondary to the characters). I’m not the only one who was able to connect the dots to form a reasonable picture of where things stand. Following the Empire’s defeat, the First Order arose as the predominate Imperial remnant. It’s entirely possible that there are other remnant factions with their own territories. (After all, with the dissolution of the Imperial Senate, power was concentrated under the regional governors, which is a natural succession in the event of the Empire’s collapse.) The New Republic seems to have set itself up in the Core Worlds. I was one of the people who thought it was Coruscant that was targeted by Starkiller Base, but upon further research and subsequent viewings, I realize it’s the Hosnian System where the new Senate is based. Basically, the New Republic and the First Order seem to have reached some sort of nonaggression pact to head off open warfare (possibly used as a pretext for the First Order to sink more resources into Starkiller Base’s completion), but the Republic covertly sponsors the Resistance, which in turn is used as a casus belli by the First Order. It’s little surprise that veterans of the Rebel Alliance like Leia and Admiral Akbar would devote their experience to the Resistance rather than mire themselves in the bureaucracy of Republic politics. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Leia started out as a senator in the New Republic, only to cross over to the Resistance after Ben went evil.) It would seem that the Republic Fleet was concentrated in the Hosnian System, possibly as a condition of the nonaggression pact with the First Order. There are certainly other military forces of the Republic, but space assets may be largely limited to orbital guard. This greatly limits the support the Resistance will have in the next movie (but if there’s a deal with the devil with some rival Imperial remnant faction, that could be interesting). While the First Order’s been significantly hobbled by the loss of Starkiller Base, I imagine they have considerable space assets and may have secretly been building more warships during the nonaggression phase. The Republic certainly isn’t dead. I imagine they’re going to be in a similar situation as the Empire at the end of Episode VI. Regional governors are going to act with relative autonomy while a provisional government is formed to try to pull things back together. (We may even see the Republic taken over by a military junta that turns on the Resistance, leaving our heroes hemmed in on both sides.) I can be counted as one of the people who’s glad to see the politics take a back seat, but I can understand people who wish the situation was a little more clear-cut.

I think we’ll close with some speculation on Luke’s motivations. On the surface, it seems like a cowardly move to just go into hiding when things go wrong (though on that note, it would be in keeping with the fine Jedi tradition). My defense of Luke’s actions (which may not be the case) goes like this: Because Snoke and Kylo Ren are obsessed with hunting down Luke, the First Order is devoting tons of resources to the hunt, resources that could be otherwise be used to expand their territory and oppress a wider range of the galactic population. Yes, they still commit atrocities along the way, but it’s less entrenched and systematic. For one person, that’s not a bad bit of work. More than he could do from the cockpit of an X-Wing or swinging around a lightsaber, I imagine. Also, if the whole first Jedi Temple thing is real, perhaps Luke’s going back to the source in an attempt to find a way to overcome the challenge of the Dark Side. Obviously something went dramatically wrong in his attempt to restore the Jedi Order. Regarding Rey, if she is indeed his daughter, I only jokingly lay out Luke’s thought process at this: “Well, I grew up on a desert planet and I turned out alright. Maybe it’ll work out the same way for my kid.” More seriously, though, keeping Rey with him would’ve had a more concentrated Force presence to seek out and I imagine Luke figured he was a bigger target and keeping her away was the best choice for her safety. Lor San Tekka (Max von Sydow’s character) may well have been on Jakku with all those Resistance fighters as her secret guardians, waiting for the day when either she matured enough for her powers to be cultivated or to draw the First Order’s attention. It’s even possible that it was intended for her to live out her life without ever getting involved, but this seems unlikely given Luke’s prescience (limited though it may be).

Well, that’s enough for now, I think. It’ll be interesting to see how things shape up for Episode VIII. I just looked an saw that it’s being written and directed by Rian Johnson of Looper fame. That’s promising. One of the things I was worried about is whether or not the writing can continue at the same level, but I think we should be okay. We’ll see. Stay tuned.

Dec 07 2015

A Suikoden Story

I was first introduced to the Suikoden series with Suikoden II when it came out in the States in 1999. I enjoyed it quite a bit and it was only by a chance encounter at a Toys R’ Us that I got my hands on the first game. I learned about the transfer bonus for saves, so once I played through the first game, I did another playthrough of the second. And that was where I left the series until I came back from the Army.

Some readers may not be familiar with G4. It was a video games-based cable channel that eventually lost its way, modeling itself as a sort of Spike Jr. before finally folding and being replaced by the Esquire Channel. Well, when I first came back from the Army, the channel was at its purest, a quirky little niche channel. One of its shows was called Cinematech, which would should of game intros and such, sometimes of fairly obscure titles. It was on this show that I saw the animated intro to Suikoden III. I was hooked. The only problem was that I didn’t have a PS2. This was in 2003. Somewhere between late 2005 and early 2006, I first started to import Japanese games, in particular a number of PS2 games, Suiko3 among them. However, those games would sit untouched until I bought a Japanese PS2 before returning to the States from Japan in 2008. (I was toying with the idea of getting a PS3, but due to backwards compatibility being taken out of later models, I decided to just get a PS2 instead.) Well, one of the first things I intended to do with my new PS2 was play Suiko3, but then it asked for a save game from Suikogaiden, Vol.2. Not wanting to miss out on the save game bonus, I went back to Suikogaiden, Vol. 1. (I imported the two Suikogaiden games around the same time as Suiko3, if I recall correctly.) Well, it asked me for a Suikoden II save. Wanting the full effect, I waited rather than just start things up there. Then comes 2011, when I managed to find both Suikoden and Suikoden II at a Book Off while in Japan. I didn’t actually start playing the Japanese version of the first game until 2012, though. I beat it and started on Suiko2, but didn’t get very far. It wasn’t until late 2014, when a venture of mine foundered that I resumed the playthrough, then went through the two visual novels and finally started Suiko3. I only got a few chapters in before straying from the game once more and only this year as I was coming to a bit of a dead end with Fire Emblem if did I pick things up once more and play through to the end. So, yes, a 12-year journey all for a single game, all because of the strength of the intro movie.

I’d actually intended to end my Suikoden story with Suiko3, as I’d heard mixed things about the fourth and fifth games, but once I beat Suiko3, I decided to keep going and play the series to its conclusion. So be on the lookout next year for reviews of IV and V. Stay tuned.

Nov 11 2014

On Values Dissonance

For those of you who have ventured down the rabbit hole that is TVTropes, I’m sure you can appreciate the sort of conceptual shorthand they provide whilst simultaneously ruining and improving your life. Today we’re going to talk about values dissonance. To explain in briefly to the uninitiated, values dissonance is where the values of you the consumer of media clash with those of the characters, author, etc. This is often due to a difference in time period, culture, etc. For instance, the average modern reader probably isn’t going to be completely on board with the values of characters from a Regency Period novel. The inverse is values resonance. Where values dissonance highlights the differences that divide us, values resonance can reveal surprising common ground.

As an author and a pseudo-philologist, the subject of values dissonance fascinates me. Perhaps I just use my novels as a means of sublimation, but it’s the excuse I give for my interest in taking in the ideas and viewpoints of other people. I love taking it in, internalizing it, trying to become a person I’m not. If I’m doing it right, it means that I can make characters that are further removed from myself.

Therein lies a tricky point. Because stories and characters come out of the author, they bear the mark of their source. The most transparent have nearly one-to-one correspondence, but the truly talented storyteller can create degrees of separation. This is certainly what I strive to do, but I couldn’t say how well I succeed. It becomes a problem when you want to create a character largely removed from yourself. The thing is that a lot of people think what’s on the page (or screen) is a direct reflection of the source. This is not always the case, though. Oftentimes, the attempt to create the Other only results in strawmen, but sometimes the Other can be crafted so convincingly that it’s hard to imagine they’re removed from the source. This can lead to misblaming in the case of deliberate values dissonance.

The cowardly solution is to lay it on thick with the disclaimers or to abandon a convincing, fleshed-out character for a safe strawman that only the thickest would confuse for self-representation. Alternatively, you can have your little author avatar thoroughly dismantle the offending character or see that karmic retribution is swiftly and duly meted out. If you’ve got a little more steel in your nerves, you can opt for things to play out more naturalistically. The focus of values dissonance may not ever get refuted in any meaningful way if it doesn’t serve the interests of the story. You may catch some flak for it, but your work will probably have more integrity.

Let’s take an example from my own work. As you know, I don’t like to dwell on my own views, political, religious or what have you. It’s not that I lack any conviction or am ashamed of my beliefs, but I don’t like to create unnecessary conflict or distract from my work, which should be the focus. I can tell you now that no one character is a carbon copy of myself. In fact, because I’ve been working with most of my characters for so long, many of them retain artifacts from earlier stages of my development. They may represent former aspects of my beliefs but not me as I am now. Anyway, on to the specific example, let’s look at Chapter 1 of Tico3. The drunken racial and political diatribe by Lydia and Sean with the bartender Khoi was actually a lot of fun for me to write because I was going out of both my comfort zone and myself. Things like race and politics are touchy subjects, maybe not so much in some countries out there, but here in the US, get ready for a scrap if you get into it in mixed company. (Even in an audience with largely the same views, it can get unpleasantly heated.) Cutting loose like I did was really cathartic. Lydia is mostly an equal opportunity misanthrope, but despite (or perhaps because of) her own Chinese ancestry, she’s rather strongly anti-Chinese, but as a general gadfly, she’ll latch on to any angle of abuse if she can. Sean, on the other hand, doesn’t have much actual antipathy for anyone, but he’s a bit of a troll and hates political correctness (which is still very much in force in the Union era). They don’t think as I think or speak as I speak and are likely to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but that’s all part of the reason I love them so much.

In conclusion, values dissonance may make you uncomfortable, but can be interesting. If you’re the sort of person who likes to venture beyond your own boundaries, it can actually be a way of broadening your horizons. Maybe you’ll use it to hone your ability to launch a counterattack and maybe you’ll use it to build a little empathy. Or you could just shut yourself off. It’d be a bit of a waste, but life is too short to raise your blood pressure too much.

Nov 04 2014

Jodorowsky’s Dune

I’ve mentioned before that I consider Frank Herbert one of my Three Pillars and that the Dune series has had a profound impact on me and my writing. I’ve also discussed how I studied adaptation of the written word in grad school. One of the main themes of the course was stories that are “unadaptable”, that is, ill-suited for the screen for one reason or another. Working out the how and why a particular story could be considered unadaptable was a decent chunk of our in-class discussions. Anyway, I bring all this up because if ever there was a story that was unadaptable, Dune is it. If you’ve seen the David Lynch version (or its Alan Smithee variant), you know that it was a mess. There are some good points to it, but it misses the mark by a wide margin. I thought the mini series made by the Sci-Fi Channel was better as an adaptation, but still came up short. I honestly don’t think the gap can be overcome, though I could potentially see it working in animation. Working better, at any rate, in the right hands, of course. A 13- or even 26-ep series would probably do the trick. All that aside, I want to talk about the first attempt to bring Dune to the silver screen as chronicled in the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which I watched last week.

Alejandro Jodorowsky is something of an experimental filmmaker and at a friend’s recommendation, he decided to make the leap from arthouse indie flicks to a a big-budget magnum opus with Dune. I highly recommend the documentary, so I’m not going to hash out everything that it covers. What I am going to say is how intrigued I was at Jodorowsky’s concept, the years of work he sunk into it and the grand assemblage of talent he was pulling together. Salvador Dali as the Padishah Emperor, Orson Welles as Baron Harkonnen… That’s just scratching the surface. Each step of the story seems more impossible than the last and the amazing thing is how far Jodorowsky actually got. It was an impossible vision and the final result was inevitable. Still, it’s amazing to see and the aftermath isn’t nearly as dire as you might think.

My all too brief treatment doesn’t come anywhere close to doing the material justice, but in conclusion, check out Jodorowsky’s Dune. It’s a real trip. In more ways than one. ^_^