"Arrakis teaches us the way of the knife. cutting something off that is
- Dune, Frank Herbert
July 1st, 2007
The secondCity Supplement from Dream Machine Productions is being released today:
The Dream Machine is also going to have a very special release to celebrate July 4th. Stay tuned.
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July 2nd, 2007
Yesterday I was able to announce the release ofCity Supplement 2: Aerie, today I'm happy to be able to turn my attention towards my other major project of the moment: John and Abigail. We've finished designing our promotional poster:
Go ahead and click on the poster to see a full-size version.
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July 3rd, 2007
More news aboutJohn and Abigail: We've cast the acclaimed Sarah Martin as Abigail.
You can also take a peek at the full Cast page. We'll be posting full biographies of both cast and crew in the near future.
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July 4th, 2007
Two years ago today I launched this site. The choice of date was not accidental. I am, at heart, a true patriot -- the type of patriot who prizes the virtues of his nation while not forgetting that the reality does not always live up to the ideal. A couple of days later, on the 8th, I talked about the nascent origins of that patriotism. And, since practically no one was reading the site back then, I'm going to reproduce those thoughts here:
These thoughts are particularly notable at this juncture because, without those experiences, I would most likely never have come to write John and Abigail, which is now set to premiere in less than a month. (It opens August 3rd.)
Dream Machine Productions is, therefore, quite proud to announce that today -- July 4th, 2007 -- we are releasing the John & Abigail Script Book. I'll allow the back cover blurb of the book to speak for itself:
I hope you'll all take the time to check it out. Or, failing that, make time to stop by the Bryant Lake Bowl Theater at the beginning of the August.
Now, for those of you following the site for the roleplaying, reviews, and general geekdom: More of that coming with the next update.
Happy Fourth of July!
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July 8th, 2007
I have been suffering from a really miserable case of the flu ever since the evening of the 4th. I drove down to Rochester to spend the holiday with my father, and by the time I got there the back of my throat was a raging inferno of pain. I probably should have been smart about it and headed straight to bed, but I decided to tough it out and went to see the fireworks. (Which were fabulous, as is Rochester's wont. Apparently the same gentlemen, Jim Freeman, has been doing them for 58 years. And he does a marvelous job of it, understanding that there is more to an effective fireworks show than simply churning out explosive as fast as you can.)
The penalty for my extravagance was, unfortunately, spending most of Thursday in a near-delirium. I'm finally feeling better today, but I'm still not at 100%.
Despite that, I've got some more news from Dream Machine Productions: Due to Lulu's recent expansion into art prints, we can offer aposter map for City Supplement 2: Aerie. It's available in both a keyed and non-keyed format.
At a deluxe size, with dimensions of 36" x 24", this map is the perfect companion piece for using the city of Aerie in your campaign, with individual buildings and streets easily distinguishable.
It is our expectation that all future city supplements will be accompanied by poster-size maps. Unfortunately, a poster-size map will not be released for City Supplement 1: Dweredell, as the map for Dweredell was not executed at a resolution to make that possible.
And, as some people have asked me about this: This does not mean that the supplements themselves will not include maps.
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July 11th, 2007
HARRY POTTER MOVIES
This evening I'll be heading out with a pack of my friends to watch the fifth Harry Potter movie: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. As a certifiable geek, I have the feeling that I should be more excited about this, but that's just not happening. For stuff that actually excites me, I'm a midnight-showing type of geek, willing to stay up into the wee hours of the morning to see the next highly-anticipated visual feast of speculative fiction. But I wouldn't even be seeing Order of the Phoenix on opening day if it wasn't for one of my friends putting together the plans.
And the problem here isn't Harry Potter. I'm already planning for an afternoon siesta on July 20th and am in the middle of re-reading the entire series in anticipation of picking up Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows at a midnight release party and then devouring it before collapsing into bed late on Saturday.
The problem are the Harry Potter movies, which I have not, as a general rule, truly enjoyed. And nothing about Order of the Phoenix has raised my expectations in the slightest. Like Goblet of Fire, they are attempting to cram a rather lengthy novel into a relatively short running time. And they have hired an essentially completely unknown director whose career consists of six feature films directed over the course of nearly two decades and a handful of BBC mini-series. I'm not going to judge David Yates sight-unseen, but his resume is hardly something designed to get the blood pumping. (On the other hand, if he knocks this film out of the park then I will be anticipating Half-Blood Prince, since he's already been contracted to direct that one.)
(And, actually, I need to slightly revise this statement: Having just checked IMDB for David Yates' credits, I finally noticed that the author of the screenplay has changed for this film. Although IMDB claims that Steve Kloves, who adapted the first four books, will be returning for the next two, this particular film is credited to Michael Goldenberg. Goldenberg has a very short list of credits, but they include the 2003 Peter Pan and Contact, both of which were really great adaptations. So now I have at least some small glimmer of hope for this film.)
But why have I not enjoyed the previous Harry Potter films? Although their flaws have been varied, not one of these films has truly raised itself above the level of mediocrity.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: Where Chris Columbus succeeded with this film was in his absolutely pitch-perfect ability to capture individual scenes, settings, and characters. The film was not only visually gorgeous, but showed such fidelity to the books that any fan could instantly pick out and appreciate their favorite scenes. The casting not only assembled an admirable cadre of child stars, but packed the film full of the most extraordinary talents imaginable while still finding the absolute perfect fits for essentially every character. The film may not always match the images my own imagination conjures forth while reading the book (such a task, of course, being impossible), but there is not a single moment where it is untrue to the book.
The problem, unfortunately, is that while the film captures every individual scenes with near-perfection, the individual scenes don't necessarily tie together with the same careful, precise plotting which is one of Rowling's primary strength as an author. As a book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a truly masterful mystery story. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are surrounded by numerous enigmas, which they attempt to unravel with the true curiosity of children through a haze of clues, red herrings, and deductions both false and true. In the end, all of these enigmas resolve themselves into a single, masterful solution.
As a movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a collection of favorite scenes, featuring characters who stumble from one favorite scene to the next with little in the way of the connecting tissue which constitutes the actual plot. As such, it ends up being something of a visual Cliff Notes.
Now, all of that being said, I like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. I love the books, and watching such beautiful visual renditions of some of my favorite scenes is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours -- much like looking through a book of Alan Lee Lord of the Rings paintings. But there is a fundamental failure here insofar as the film should be a film in its own right, not merely a visual Best Of list.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: My opinion of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is essentially identical to my opinion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Chris Columbus brings the same strengths and weaknesses to the table for this film as he did for the first.
In some ways, though, watching Chamber of Secrets is more frustrating for me because, in this case, they came so agonizingly close to restoring those ligaments of the plot which were missing. To take one isolated example, the film actually shows Hagrid holding a dead rooster. Later there is a completely bungled piece of editing in which an insert shot focuses on the rooster-hating properties of basilisks, but then has Harry repeat the same piece of information he had mentioned less than a minute before. An extra thirty seconds of film (which was almost certainly shot) could have fundamentally restored that most important property of mystery stories: The weaving together of multiple clues to reach a singular conclusion.
Chamber of Secrets also has another key bungle: When Harry first hears the murderous voice of the basilisk in the film, the first thing he does is press his ear up against the wall to hear it more clearly. In the book, the realization that Harry is not hearing a disembodied voice, but rather a voice traveling through the walls, is one of the key insights which allows Hermione to solve the mystery. By ham-handedly revealing this piece of information almost instantaneously, the film not only disrupts its own narrative structure, but removes some of the mystery surrounding the voice.
On the other hand, the film does make one significant alteration which fixes what I consider to be a bungling by Rowling herself.
When I first read the books, Chamber of Secrets was probably my least favorite of the series. This was in large part due to what I considered the entirely unsatisfactory nature of the book's conclusion, which goes something like this:
--Harry, bitten by the basilisk in its death throes, is dying from its poison.
TOM RIDDLE: Ha, ha! You're dying Harry! I shall stand hear and gloat! Even your phoenix is crying for you!
--The phoenix's tears heal Harry's wound.
TOM RIDDLE: Oh yeah, phoenix tears heal wounds. I've suddenly gone from being a cunning villain to being an ignorant prat. Well, allow me to monologue some more about how doomed you are, Harry Potter! You are doomed! Doomed! Doom-- Hey, what are you doing?
--Harry stabs the diary. Tom Riddle dies.
There is a game called Before I Kill Your, Mister Bond... which makes fun of the propensity for Bond villains to monologue about their evil plans just long enough for James Bond to escape and destroy them. If you've seen the first Austin Powers movie, you'll see the same joke.
Now, villainous monologuing can certainly work if its handled properly. Rowling herself does a masterful job of it when Voldemort returns in Goblet of Fire: Voldemort not only needs to destroy Harry, he needs his followers to see him destroy and ridicule Harry. He's trying to eliminate any doubt that Harry was ever a true threat to him, and re-establish the fear and awe which are the foundations of his power. The plan, of course, backfires when Harry survives. But the result is a strongly-motivated and powerful scene.
The problem in Chamber of Secrets is that Tom Riddle never stops monologuing. His first session of monologuing, which actually takes place before the basilisk fight, makes sense: He's revealing his true nature to Harry, but he's doing it because he wants to understand how Harry was responsible for Voldemort's destruction (so that he can avoid repeating the same mistakes). Once he's got that information, he immediately unleashes the basilisk to kill Harry. (Which, if we assume Tom Riddle does not yet know the killing-curse, is probably the quickest and most expedient way of killing Harry.)
But after the basilisk fight, Tom Riddle returns to his villainous monologuing not once, but twice.
VILLAIN: Before I kill you, Mr. Bond, allow me to explain my entire nefarious scheme for conquering--
--James Bond escapes and destroys half of the villain's base before being recaptured.
VILLAIN: Now that I have recaptured you, Mr. Bond, allow me to explain my entire nefarious scheme for conquering--
--James Bond escapes again and destroys the other half of the villain's base.
The problem is that it makes Tom Riddle look like a complete schmuck. And, since he forgets a basic property of phoenix tears, it makes him look like a stupid and completely ineffectual schmuck.
Long story short (too late), it makes for an entirely unsatisfactory conclusion to the book. (Particularly with the deus ex machina of Fawkes, the Sorting Hat, and Gryffindor's sword.) And, in combination with the relative ease with which Voldemort was dispatched in the first book, did much to reduce Riddle's status as a Dark Lord. (He came across as the type of "Dark Lord" that actual Dark Lords like to make fun of.) It's to Rowling's credit that she has thoroughly managed to rehabilitate him over the course of the subsequent books.
Which brings me, ultimately, back to the film which does a brilliant job of fixing this sequence. In the film we get:
--Harry, bitten by the basilisk in its death throes, is dying from its poison.
TOM RIDDLE: Ha, ha! You're dying Harry! I shall stand hear and gloat!
--As a final, valiant act, Harry stabs the diary and Tom Riddle dies.
--Ginny wakes up and Harry, in a heart-touching moment, tries to get her to leave him so that she doesn't watch him die.
--The phoenix flies to Harry and her tears heal Harry's wound.
Brilliant. Tom Riddle gloating over a helpless and dying Harry is perfectly in keeping with his character. Simply failing to anticipate Harry using the basilisk fang as a weapon against the diary is a very different and much more acceptable type of error compared to Riddle literally providing the exposition of his own stupidity when it comes to the healing properties of phoenix tears. And, on top of that, you get a truly brilliant, albeit brief, scene between Harry and Ginny.
So, on the strength of that correction, I think I shall say that I prefer Chamber of Secrets to Sorcerer's Stone, although it's a close thing.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: The third Harry Potter film was, of course, a departure from the previous two, featuring the talents of Alfonso Cuarón (more lately of Children of Men fame). This is, in my opinion, the strongest of the Harry Potter films to date because, in short, it is the only film which actually succeeds as a film. Most notably it features a plot with not only a true beginning, middle, and end, but with the complications and rich texturing which make a plot something more than simply "A happens and then B happens and then C happens".
On the other hand, Prisoner of Azkaban fails to evoke the same visual beauty and fidelity of the first two films. Instead of capturing the heart of Rowling's work, Cuarón brought his own sensibilities to the tale. This is not necessarily the worst thing for a director to do when adapting a book to the screen, but in an ideal world I would prefer to see Columbus' ability to capture the spirit of Rowling's work paired with Azkaban's willingness to restructure the plot in order to make the story truly work on the big screen.
I'm also faced with minor frustrations in Prisoner of Azkaban, much like I was in Chamber of Secrets, in places where I can see that spending an extra 30 seconds could have much improved the structure of the film. The thing that stands out most clearly in my mind is the failure to explain the meaning of "Moony, Padfoot, Prongs, and Wormtail". Less than 30 seconds of dialogue explaining that could have tied together the Marauder's Map, revealed important elements of the backstory (not only for this film, but for later films), and explained the significance of Harry's patronus.
On the balance, I enjoy Prisoner of Azkaban, though. As I said, it's probably my favorite of the films to date. So why do I still describe it as, ultimately, a mediocrity? Well, simply compare it to Cuarón's Children of Men or The Fellowship of the Rings. It's an enjoyable film, but if it wasn't a Harry Potter film we would scarcely remember it at three years distance.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: This film is a complete disaster.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is actually one of my motivations for writing out this lengthy essay. I saw the film once in the theater and was completely turned off by its complete, utter, and unmitigated failure: It failed as an adaptation. It failed as a film. It failed as entertainment. It just... failed.
Nonetheless, driven by my completist collectorism, I ended up picking up a cheap used copy at Blockbuster a couple of months ago. Last night, in anticipation of Order of the Phoenix, I decided to rewatch it. I only got halfway through it before shutting off the DVD player, and I had only endured that long because there was some intellectual curiosity to be satisfied in picking apart the film's many failings. It's been a long time since I was subjected to such utter drek.
Even more than the first two films, Goblet of Fire assumes that you have already read the books. The film is essentially gobbledygook to anyone who doesn't already know what's going on.
For example, early in the film the director pans across a large field and ends on a lingering glory short of a moldy old boot while the music crescendos in a cascade of awe. The shot is completely meaningless unless you've read the book and already know that the boot is a portkey (and, even then, the awe in which this particular portkey is held is bizarrely inexplicable). A little later, after building up to the Quidditch World Cup, the film inexplicably skips the entire match in a jarring jump-cut.
These are just two small examples, but the entire film is done in essentially the same manner: The director shouts, "REMEMBER THIS BIT? DO YOU? DO YOU?! DO YOU?!?!" And then jump-cuts to the next bit.
Nor can one simply enjoy the film as an eclectic collection of the Best Bits From the Book because the film is filled with endless and pointless alterations. Now, I'm not a purist about such things. As the rest of this essay suggests, I actually want a film to make changes to the material it's adapting so that it can become an effective film in its own right. (As another example, I thought Jackson's handling of Arwen in The Fellowship of the Ring was a masterful example of how to handle an insightful, yet faithful, adaptation.)
But if you're going to change something, there had better be a reason for changing it. In other words, the change should make for a better film than if you hadn't made the change. If it doesn't, why are you making the change?
Perhaps the most inexplicable change in Goblet of Fire is the constant rewriting of the dialogue. Rowling's dialogue is repeatedly replaced with trite, banal, cliche-ridden filler. And even when Rowling's words are preserved, they are often shuffled in a seemingly random fashion until they've been rendered into utter nonsense.
For example, there's a point where Professor Moody says to Neville that "Professor Sprout tells me your quite good at Herbology". In the book, Moody is saying this specifically to reassure Neville after has been shaken by seeing the cruciatus curse in class. In the movie, however, this line of dialogue is nonsensically and jarringly moved to a much earlier point in the conversation, before the curse has even been performed. As a result, it serves no purpose at all -- its just Moody saying something completely at random.
And the film's failure as an adaptation only scratches the surface here. The director, Mike Newell, is a complete hack in this film. (Which I found surprising, given how much I enjoyed his work on Donnie Brasco.) The camera spins and twirls and rushes about with wild abandon, but it never seems to find a compelling visual frame. And every so often, Newell will pan quite randomly off the main action in order to show us a secondary character sitting or standing nearby... doing absolutely nothing and, frequently, barely reacting to what's happening. Newell particularly likes to end scenes this way, which only contributes to the herky-jerky feeling of the film, with scene after scene ending on an awkward and inexplicable visual note.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: So, when it comes to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, my hopes are not high. None of the films have truly excelled, and Goblet of Fire -- with which Order of the Phoenix has the most in common (long book to short film, unproven director, and so forth) -- was a complete train wreck.
But, ultimately, I've got my fingers crossed. Because, like I say, if I enjoy Order of the Phoenix there's a strong chance that Half-Blood Prince will be good, as well. On the other hand, if Order of the Phoenix is a disaster, there's little chance that I'll see Half-Blood Prince at all.
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July 12th, 2007
ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
After spending yesterday tearing apart the numerous shortcomings of the first four Harry Potter movies, I simply have this to say about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
This is the Harry Potter movie I've been waiting for.
It's the first Harry Potter film to truly work as a film. David Yates and Michael Goldenberg are to be congratulated on truly adapting the book to the screen -- not just offering a visual rendition of favorite scenes, but identifying the core elements of the book's plot and finding a way to capture those elements and that plot in a visual medium. Scenes are re-purposed and multi-purposed; characters are conflated; sequences of events are shuffled; long scenes from the book are transformed into a single, potent visual image that tells you everything you need to know (a picture really can be worth a thousand words) -- but what they ultimately accomplish is not only the most powerful and effective film to date, but also the most faithful of the films to date (insofar as it captures more than just the visuals of the book, it also captures the plot and themes of the book).
I was also impressed by the extent to which Yates and Goldenberg were able to repair some of the damage done to the continuity of the franchise by the third and fourth films. The third and, particularly, the fourth films had so thoroughly dropped the ball in establishing certain points of factual and character continuity (and even the second film's abject failure to establish Ginny as a notable character can be counted as such as a failure) that maters had reached a critical point where essential foundation material had not been laid for later films. Yates and Goldenberg managed to repair a lot of the damage done, allowing Yates to not only succeed with this film, but to lay the groundwork for a more powerful and effective sixth film.
Having seen Goldenberg's success here, I consider it very unfortunate that Steve Kloves (who adapted the first four films) will be returning for the sixth film. But, on the other hand, Yates is also scheduled for a return with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, so -- for the first time in a long time -- I'll actually be looking forward to a new Harry Potter movies.
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July 15th, 2007
Dream Machine Productions rolls out its second major product line today withMini-Adventure 1: The Complex of Zombies.
This release also gives me a chance to reveal a new layout for adventure modules. I've long felt that adventure modules in the roleplaying industry have been struggling under a legacy of inefficient and ineffective layouts. The information in adventure modules is simply not presented in a fashion which makes it easy to reference or use during gameplay. Attempts to remedy this in recent years by various companies and creators have more often resulted in either (a) artificial one-size-fits-all organizational schemes which actually make the information for many encounters more opaque and difficult to process as the author tries to cram it into the preset categories; or (b) elaborate Rube Goldberg devices that don't seem to actually accomplish anything.
What you'll find in The Complex of Zombies is not a radical departure. It's not something that's going to leap off the page at you and slap you in the face with its brilliance. It's not going to require you to completely relearn how to process and use the adventure.
It is better thought of as a tidying. Or perhaps a tweaking.
Here are the major things I've tried to accomplish:
1. Each encounter is given a clear-cut possession to a slice of page space. They are positioned on the page in a way which makes it easy to quickly and easily find any given encounter key when you need to. This is accomplished by, in general, giving each encounter its own column: This means that encounter numbers can be clearly found at the top of each page, and each encounter is clearly delineated from each other. (There are two exceptions: Particularly shot encounter keys may end up being listed two to a column. Longer encounter keys may require more than a single column.)
2. The information in each encounter key is sub-divided into a number of smaller, bite-size chunks that can be quickly processed at a glance. (For example, you don't need to dig through an entire paragraph of text to discover -- buried somewhere near its center -- that there is relevant information to be gained from a Spot check in this area.) These bite-size chunks of data are described with clear titles in bold-face, which makes it easy for the DM to quickly process all the important elements of an encounter at a single glance and then pull out the information they need as they need it.
3. The presentation of certain types of information -- particularly skill checks -- are standardized, making it easier to find that information on the page and use that information while running the adventure. (But such standardization takes place at a fairly low-level of information, where such standardization makes the most sense. At the macro-level, the description of the encounter is structured and ordered in the way which makes the most sense for that particular encounter.)
4. Boxed text for every keyed encounter area. More importantly, this boxed text is properly implemented, which means that it: (a) Makes a consistent assumption of the illumination available to the PCs (and clearly states what this standard is). (b) Never assumes that the PCs are entering an area from a particular direction or at a particular time. (c) Never assumes that the PCs will take certain actions or attempt to make decisions for the PCs. (Not everyone will use boxed text verbatim, but properly executed boxed text is valuable nonetheless because it clearly delineates between "what the PCs will immediately know (and should know) about an encounter area" (the boxed text) and "what the PCs may discover about or do in an encounter area" (everything else in the encounter description.)
As I say, none of these things are radical departures by any stretch of the imagination. But I think that you'll find that these subtle changes, when taken together, result in an adventure module which is clearer in its presentation, cleaner in its preparation, and easier in its running than anything you've seen before. You can take a peek at it by following the link and looking at the Lulu preview.
That beautiful cover art is the work of Bernard Bittler. Bittler is an accomplished artist who has taken an active role in developing video, board, and roleplaying games, including RuneQuest, Chill, Fable, and Iron Storm (among others). A gallery of his work can be found here. He lives in Paris, France.
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July 23rd, 2007
HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS
I've been gone for a bit because I quite intentionally sealed myself into a near-complete media cocoon last week in order to avoid spoilers forHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Once it became clear that what appeared to be a legitimate copy of the book had leaked, it seemed I was left with only three options:
1. Risk being spoiled.
2. Track down one of the leaked copies and read it. I'd feel no guilt about this, since I had already paid full cover price for my pre-order at a local bookstore. But there were two problems with this approach: First, there was no guarantee this was actually a legitimate copy. Second, I really wanted the experience of curling up with the tome, just as I had done with every previous volume in the series. Not only was it a matter of sentimentality and nostalgia and comfort, but also the magical ineffability of simultaneously sitting down with millions of other people around the world and beginning to read a common story...
3. I could stop perusing the web, watching television, reading the newspaper, and -- in all other ways -- seal myself off from all the likely avenues of spoilerage. I still came very close to still having it spoiled, as a friend of mine (infamous for her ability to spoil something even after you've asked her specifically not to) began babbling away at the release party about what she'd read in the New York Times review of the book. But fortunately I bludgeoned her unconscious in time and hid her behind the bookstore's dumpster.
(I, personally, don't care that the New York Times "prematurely" reviewed the book. If you don't want to be spoiled by the contents of a review, then don't read the review. If you've got such poor impulse control that you can't resist seeking out and reading spoilers even if you don't truly want the consequences of having read them, then that's your problem and not the Times. And if you're just concerned because somebody out there is being spoiled when you feel that they shouldn't be... well, you've simply got too much time on your hands.)
So what did I think of it?
I thought it was excellent. It is one of the best, if not the single best, novel in the entire series -- joining the third, fifth, and sixth books in the ever-shifting kaleidoscopic brawl in my mind for that distinction. It is tightly plotted, tautly paced, and utterly satisfying.
It's also clear that Rowling -- who was already a mighty fine writer indeed when she wrote the first book -- continues to improve with every passing year. While it unlikely that the lightning-scar of Harry Potter shall strike twice in the same spot (or at all, for that matter), I'm eagerly anticipating Rowling's next project. I am completely fascinated by the prospect of what she might attempt next.
At some point in the next few days I shall probably post a spoilerrific reaction to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, giving me a chance to expound on many things I found admirable in the book. I doubt it will be able to expound on everything I found admirable in it, because the book is far too complex, layered, and rewarding for any single essay to completely explore its many excellencies. But I'll give it my best shot.
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July 24th, 2007
I'm still working on my forthcoming spoilerrific reaction to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but in the process I've discovered an egregious oversight. Several What I'm Reading reactions were, for whatever reason, never posted to the website. This obviously needs to be rectified, starting today with:
WHAT I'M READING 48:
ACROSS REALTIME by Vernor Vinge
The Across Realtime universe consists of two novels and a short story. In internal chronological order, these are:
- “The Ungoverned”
More recently, Tor has re-released The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime as separate volumes, while collecting “The Ungoverned” in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge.
I have already dealt briefly with “The Ungoverned” in my reaction to Vernor Vinge’s short fiction. This reaction will deal with both The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime.
THE PEACE WAR
In reading The Peace War I knew I was reading a flawed work, but I had some difficulty in putting my finger on exactly what the problem was.
Part of it is the character dramas don’t seem to be quite brought to life. It’s hard to describe the effect, but it’s almost as if they’re presented in an expository fashion. The characters don’t seem to so much live their thoughts and emotions as think about their thoughts and emotions. (This is a problem shared with Vinge’s earlier novel, The Witling, where the problem was far more pronounced.)
Part of it is a certain clumsiness in the plotting. Again, you can see where the pieces are supposed to hook up… but sometimes they don’t quite make the connection, and at others they’re obviously being forced, leaving a jig-saw puzzle with ragged edges.
The premise of The Peace War is fairly straight-forward: Late in the 20th century, a lone genius working at a military contractor creates the “bobble” – a silvery, perfectly reflective bubble which seals off its contents completely from the outside world. Rather than share this technology with the world, the military contractor instead triggers World War III and then uses their revolutionary technology to end the war and take over the remnants of the world that’s left behind.
The bulk of the novel takes place several decades later: The military contractor has become the Peace Authority and rules over a broken, suppressed planet. The lone genius, completely disenchanted with the way his work was manipulated, had disappeared into the Californian wilderness. Rebellion is fomenting. And there may be more to the bobbles than meets the eye…
One of the things I love about Vinge is his ability to create plausible villains: It would have been easy to write the Peace Authority as a two-dimensional villain; an organization full of malevolent, cackling tyrants. But Vinge crafts a reality more compelling than that: the founders of the Peace Authority honestly believed that the arms race could only lead to mankind’s destruction. They also believed that technological progress inevitably fed into that arms race. So they took their new technology and used it to take control. And then used their control to suppress technological innovation.
Nor does Vinge allow the Peace Authority to become monolithic: The individuals in both its leadership and its membership are varied in their outlooks, their motivations, and their goals.
The other major strength of The Peace War is, once again, Vinge’s willingness and ability to rigorously and thoroughly extrapolate speculative technology. The basic properties of his bobbles are simple and straight-forward. But Vinge isn’t satisfied with just rubbing a piece of fur against a rod of amber and getting an electric spark. He takes that spark and works out power plants and electric lights, and hints at the possibilities of even more esoteric and unexpected applications.
This type of speculative thinking is exactly what gives rise to the incredibly fascinating milieu of Marooned in Realtime…
MAROONED IN REALTIME
I tend to cut to the chase on stuff like this, so let me do it again:
Marooned in Realtime is a melancholic masterpiece. I think the only reason it’s not given more attention is because of its connection to the other, notably inferior works which make up the Across Realtime future history.
To imagine the setting, fast forward a hundred million years: At some point in the 22nd century, mankind disappeared from the face of the planet. Only a few lingering survivors remain: Those who were trapped timelessly inside of bobbles while the rest of the human race disappeared. Clueless and lost in time, these straggling remnants now attempt to gather their remaining technology and numbers across countless eons in a final desperate effort to re-establish civilization.
Then there’s murder.
It’s a vicious, ugly, and nearly unimaginable killing. Marooned in Realtime is driven by its mystery – a mystery thoroughly alien; a murder completely impossible in the modern world.
But there’s more to Marooned in Realtime than a murder mystery. What captures your imagination and seizes your mind’s eye is the sheer, daring scope of Vinge’s vision: This is a tale which expands to fill a million years. It’s a story of post-apocalypse and colonization and super-tech and Singularity. It’s about a humanity stretched to the limits of the human condition. It is a work of melancholy and it is a work of hope. And Vinge plays masterfully upon it all.
It’s difficult for me to really quantify the masterful achievement I consider Marooned in Realtime to be. There’s no convenient hook on which to hang a statement of, “This is a great book because of X.” It’s rather an emotional depth and a grandeur of vision.
I strongly recommend this book.
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July 26th, 2007
The production schedule onJohn & Abigail has shifted into hyperdrive this past week. We open a week from tomorrow and we're all throwing ourselves into trying to reach that finish line. (Preferably in one piece.) Who are we? Well, you can check out the Cast and Crew pages for the show. Full biographies have been added to both of those pages as of... well, right now.
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July 27th, 2007
WHAT I'M READING #49:
A FIRE UPON THE DEEP by Vernor Vinge
The first time I read A Fire Upon the Deep it expanded my mind: I was still a teeny-bopper and the concepts and ideas that Vinge was casually playing with were literally two or three steps beyond anything I had encountered before. For an intellectual junky like myself, the book was like a shot of adrenaline straight to the hippocampus.
In the years since then I’ve read more Vinge; I’ve read Iain Banks; I’ve dabbled with Reynolds; I’ve laid in some more background with Bester's masterpieces and Brin’s Uplift…
So this time I was able to really savor what Vinge was offering here.
First, let me say this:
A Fire Upon the Deep is cool.
I mean, there’s just no other word for it. Even after fourteen years, with hundreds of other works drawing inspiration from it, A Fire Upon the Deep remains a truly awesome work. If your sensawunda isn’t being kicked into overdrive on nearly every other page, then I name you a jaded and tragically cynical soul.
Second, let me say this:
A Fire Upon the Deep is a testament to Vinge’s growing skill as a writer.
Let me give you an example: Early in the book, Vinge dumps a character into his story as a clueless newbie to the realities of his universe. This clueless fellow allows Vinge to seamlessly integrate the basic exposition of his setting into a series of “as you NEED to know Bob” speeches. He invests these expository lumps with higher meaning because of the immediate and touching impact their revelations have on the character’s emotions and sense of self. That’s pretty good: Smooth handling of exposition in an active and character-focused manner is one of the trickier elements of the science fiction writer’s craft. But what makes Vinge incessantly clever is that he then seamlessly transforms the character’s role within the narrative into a completely different form as soon as his original purpose has been used up.
These types of subtle, sophisticated storytelling techniques can be found throughout the entire book. A Fire Upon the Deep is a mammoth novel, but there’s not a wasted character or scene. Vinge demonstrates authoritatively that he has achieved a mastery of his craft, allowing his work to reach a whole new plateau.
Finally, let me say this:
Finally, let me say this:
A Fire Upon the Deep is a complex work.
Its plot stretches across multiple milieus and involves several distinct casts of characters. Its thematic mesh is expressed in varied and active ways. It’s an immensely satisfying work, while still leaving the reader yearning to see deeper into its hidden depths.
Another example: One of the most prevalent themes in Vinge’s work is the way in which technology impacts the life of the individual. He carries that theme further by looking at the way in which the changing lives of individuals reshape society, and then he loops it back around on itself to show how the reshaping of society also impacts the life of the individual.
In A Fire Upon the Deep, Vinge plays with this theme on multiple levels: He shows high technology thrust haphazardly upon a primitive society. He mirrors that theme by showing a transcendant technology thrust forcefully upon a society of high technology. Simultaneously, on the individual level, he is showing a primitive shaped by technology a thousand years ahead of our own thrust into a society of even higher technology. And then he mirrors that by showing the children of high technology thrust into the extremely primitive. Around the edges he shows societies yearning for ever greater technological glories, contrasted by entities raised to the level of godhood by their technology mucking about in the playgrounds of technological children.
And in conclusion let me say this:
It is nearly impossible to satisfactorily summarize the many and varied achievements of A Fire Upon the Deep. I have not even begun to discuss, for example, Vinge’s masterful creation of a half dozen or so alien species utterly inhuman in their countenance, utterly plausible in their nature, and utterly fascinating in their execution. And even that scarcely makes a meaningful touch on the tip of the iceberg.
Vinge’s accomplishments are so varied, in fact, that the worst criticism I have ever read of A Fire Upon the Deep is this: “I liked most of it, but there was this one part/setting/character that did nothing for me.” Vinge keeps so many balls in the air that it’s almost inevitable that some people will find a ball they didn’t like. But for the lucky multitude, the balls are all beautiful creations in their own right, and the juggling act only adds to their magnificence.
There are few artistic creations which truly earn the right to be called a masterpiece. A Fire Upon the Deep is one of them.
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July 28th, 2007
WHAT I'M READING #50:
A DEEPNESS IN THE SKY by Vernor Vinge
In myprevious reaction I described A Fire Upon the Deep as a masterpiece. This is undoubtedly true. If Vernor Vinge had never written another book, A Fire Upon the Deep would have stood as a monumental accomplishment, firmly cementing Vinge’s reputation as one of the best science fiction authors to ever practice the craft.
So it was even more impressive when A Deepness in the Sky, Vinge’s next book, was even better.
I first read A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky back in 1999, shortly after A Deepness in the Sky was first published. Reading those two novels for the first time – back-to-back and in such close succession – was a one-two punch which I could only compare to reading, in my much younger days, Asimov’s I, Robot and Foundation Trilogy back-to-back. Or Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama and Childhood's End. It would go unmatched until several years later when I was awed by reading Bester’s The Stars My Destination and The Demolished Man for the first time.
Despite the fact that I’d read them before, I still found it hard to accept, as I finished A Fire Upon the Deep, that A Deepness in the Sky was truly as superior as I remembered it to be. But as I picked up the second book, which takes place during an earlier epoch of the Zones universe and serves as a very light prequel of sorts, I discovered to my delight that my memories were not false: Vinge actually managed to ascend even higher on the pinnacle of excellence.
On reflecting on these twin masterpieces, it’s interesting to note that both of them – and Marooned in Realtime immediately before them – feature truly original plots. Looking at Vinge’s earlier works you can find a cornucopia of originality, but the plots are structurally quite familiar: Tatja Grimm's World is fundamentally a coming of age story. The Witling is fundamentally a great escape story serving as a vehicle for a Campbellian “let’s extrapolate a nifty idea” story. And so forth.
But while you can certainly draw parallels between other stories and various elements of A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky (the former is hardly the only story to feature “rescue the kids” and “defeat the evil menace”), there are deep structural elements in both stories which are only possible because the unique elements of Vinge’s universe. In A Deepness in the Sky, for example, Pham’s lifelong dream and the faux-Singularity offered to him in the form of the Focused can be crudely compared to an Empire based on slavery, but the fundamental differences make a mockery of the premise.
(All those who find personal joy in stripping out every relevant and meaningful distinction within a story so that you can cram it into half a phrase and then claim that there are only thirty plots or seven plots or one plot in the world can calm down: I know you exist. Your obsession with dogmatizing a mildly interesting intellectual game that can occasionally serve as a useful tool is noted. I pity you in general. Let’s leave it at that.)
Moving beyond the freshness of the plot, I am also struck profoundly by the depth of the plot. Vinge creates an utterly unique setting, populates it with dozens of vividly drawn characters (both human and evocatively alien), and then paints his story on a canvas spread across half a dozen centuries – casting his net far into the past and cascading into the future. And perhaps the most remarkable achievement of it all is that Vinge manages to handle the incredibly complex edifice he has erected with such adroit skill that the reader is never left at a loss.
Once again, the familiar Vingean strengths can be found peppered throughout the story: Villains drawn with vivid and believable detail. Myriad casts of deeply drawn characters brought together through chance and fate to form a tale of epic proportions. Complete and detailed realizations of not only entire societies, but entire societies going through massive upheaval and change.
In fact, re-reading A Deepness in the Sky after reading Vinge’s other works was an interesting experience because I had seen Vinge’s earlier experiments with some of the themes and elements which can be found here: A deeper appreciation of the Singularity served to add greater resonance to the work. The society going through a technological revolution was touched on earlier in Tatja Grimm's World, but is handled in a completely unique fashion here. And so forth.
I find this reaction has become something of a rambling discourse, and not an entirely satisfying one at that. So I will draw it to a close with these words: If you have not read A Deepness in the Sky, then you have almost certainly missed out on the finest science fiction novel of the past decade.
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July 30th, 2007
I'm a bit bummed at the moment.
I recently discovered the BBC seriesHustle. The show is about a group of professional con-men and every episode features a con in the style The Sting. As soon as I heard the concept, I knew this was a show I had to check out. And as soon as I saw the first episode I was completely hooked.
The show truly delivers on its promise: Every episode is a tightly-scripted and carefully-constructed piece that delivers the special magic of the long con. It really does feel as if you're watching an episodic version of Ocean's Eleven.
Adrian Lester, who plays the role of the mastermind and leader for the group, exudes the confidence, slickness, and sex appeal of a Brad Pitt or a Robert Redford. Robert Vaughn, who plays the wizened master, has the quiet mastery of a Paul Newman or George Clooney. The cons themselves are clever, elaborate, and masterfully executed. The entire show reeks of glamour and cleverness and sophistication.
But what really makes the show click is that the writers and directors clearly understand that, when you're making a movie (or television series) about a long con, the first thing you must do is con the audience. The creators of Hustle are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of you, and it's a real joy to try to keep one step ahead of them.
So why am I bummed?
I've just hit the fourth season of the series, and it all seems to be falling apart. Adrian Lester, for whatever reason, left the show. This has left the show without it's strong center -- it's become Ocean's Eleven without Danny Ocean. At the same time, the writing seems to have become sloppy, bloated, and ham-fisted. The cleverness and slickness is gone. Some of this may be intentional since, without Adrian Lester's character, the team itself lacks that cleverness and slickness. But the result is simply not as satisfying.
And perhaps the creative team has simply used up its ideas. There are only so many ways in which the basic components of a con can be spun, after all, before you're really just spinning your wheels. I was certainly seeing some weaknesses appearing even towards the end of the third season.
For example, one of the clever storytelling conceits the show employed in its very first episode was the freeze-frame: While the con is running, the action will suddenly enter a freeze frame -- except for the grifters themselves, who will take the opportunity to turn to the camera and begin explaining the nature of the con. This was slick and clever and very well done. It has led to a general friendliness with the fourth wall in the series, in which the audience is drawn into the grifters' inner circle through knowing looks, glances, double-takes, and the like.
But as the series has gone on, this use of the fourth wall has begun to be, in my opinion, abused. This unfortunate trend culminates late in the third season when the entire cast suddenly breaks into a full-fledged Bollywood musical number. They were, at the time, executing a con in which they attempted to convince a mark to invest in a Bollywood film (so there was some semblance of a connection). But, whatever the excuse may have been, the reality is that not only the con, but the characters and the dramatic reality of the sequence were all put on hold for a self-indulgent and utterly unnecessary extravagance.
So, in any case, I'm bummed because I have a strong feeling that this show has jumped the shark on me.
If it has, though, I'm going to keep my eye on the silver lining: I got eighteen really exceptional episodes of television in the show's first three seasons (of six episodes each). And if that's all I get, that's more than most series can ever boast of.
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