Monday, July 20, 2015

"Ready Player One" Succeeds in beautifully combining the future and the past.

Full disclosure: I am a child of the late 70s and early 80s. I graduated from high school in 1987, so I have a love of anything from those decades.

It's quite possible, Ready Player One by Earnest Cline was written with my generation in mind.

The story line without being to spoiler-y: It's 30 years in the future, and things aren't going well. Poverty is rampant and the corporations have for the most part assumed control. On the plus side, technology has advanced to include a virtual reality world known as OASIS. The fully immersive world was created by James Halliday who was born in 1972, so, like me, he had an absolute love of the 80s. At the beginning of the book Halliday, who is incredibly rich after inventing OASIS, dies and leaves his entire fortune to whomever can find the secret hidden within the program which consists of thousand of worlds and locations.

The quest for Halliday's "Easter Egg" creates a new found love of anything from the late 70s and early 80s especially in the realm of science fiction, role-playing games, music and video games.

There are wonderful mentions to things I held dear as a young person, like WarGames, Dungeons & Dragons and Joust, but even if you were born after the 80s, it's still an enjoyable book. Cline does a wonderful job of explaining the references so the reader doesn't feel lost. I admit there are things I didn't always get, especially some of the Japanese Television shows, but I was still able to understand it.

Nostalgia for the 80s appears to be fairly common currently. Big Trouble in Little China and Edward Scissorhands both have returned in comic book form, new movies are coming out based off National Lampoon's Vacation, Ghost Busters and Star Wars and there's even an appearance in Seth MacFarlane's Ted 2 by Sam J. Jones who played Flash Gordon in 1980.

But, just having awesome 80s references in a distopian future isn't enough to make a great novel. Earnest Cline makes Ready Player One a fantastic read through great character development and wonderful story telling. I felt like I was on the adventure with the main character as he sought clues to the puzzle. I even had dreams trying to figure out the riddles until the next time I could return to reading the book.

I highly recommend Ready Player One (in fact I handed the book over to my wife as soion as I turned the last page) and look forward to seeing your comments...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Transmissions from the Buffyverse, an introduction

Hey guys! Welcome to the Hellmouth! I'm embarking on an adventure, and dragging you along for the ride. 

I promised I would, and here I am, ankle-deep in the Buffy Universe. For those of you who missed it: I'm a Buffy virgin. Or, I was until about two weeks ago (Was it that long ago? My goodness!) when I took it upon myself to take a nosedive into watching ALL of Buffy, including the movie and give my thoughts on this piece of pop-culture geek love that had missed me by miles. The final straw was a gang-up by friend and fellow podcaster, Joshua Unruh, and my husband Kevin, who has been hinting around at this idea for awhile. They finally accomplished convincing me of something I have thus far avoided.

I do have some personal bias, I admit. I am also a bit of a contrarian. Those were two contributing factors, and the fact that myself and roomie had no TV nor the time, the primary was -- and I know this is possibly unfair, but Julie Powell, author of Julie & Julia and Cleaving is a huge fan. She talks about it frequently and passionately in her books. While I find her to be a first-rate writer, I don't particularly care for her as a person. Julie, if you're reading this, maybe we could sit down and talk about it and find some common ground. But while I adored both books, I am a bit judgy about your personal life. Like I said, perhaps a bit unfair. But as people know, I have compulsive honesty. And while the people in my life get a pass on a lot of choices they make, most of them, in fact, it's much easier to judge.
So, here I am, having waded through season one and, well -- I'm in. 
I needed something light-hearted, but with some depth and the timing couldn't be better. I have so far enjoyed the show, am already invested in many of the characters, and season one shows glimmers of Joss Whedon's narrative talent and strength. World-building is not an easy task. Supernatural world-building is the booger of the bunch, and he does it with a style all his own. From the dialogue to the exposition, which is basically the entirety of this season, his strengths are already shining. And I have trust that I am not jumping on a plane to nowhere, a la Lost, which I am still angry about. 
So, here we go -- and I am pleased to say that there is nowhere to go but up. I'll get into the technical details about said season soon, but I know already that my time will not be wasted. 

That's all I've got time for right now, but hey - we're in no rush, right? Thank you for coming with me. Maybe I'll add something fresh to the discussion, which is now almost 20 years old - WOW. I welcome feedback -- critical or otherwise. Hell, I'm just happy to have a chance to engage in this and have you along for the ride. 

In the meantime, I leave you with a question: go back. All the way back, to the days of day-glow and Doctor Martens and riddle me this: who was your first love, character-wise? 

We'll talk more, and soon. Until then -- break's over and back out into the real world. Although I don't think I'll be making any special trips to Sunnydale anytime soon. And damn, I miss Firefly. 


Monday, July 6, 2015

What Superhero Means To Me

If you're reading this post, it's likely that you've heard at least an episode or two of the Okie Geek Podcast. If that's the case, then you've probably heard me wax poetic about one superhero or another. If I'm still describing you accurately, it is entirely possible that one of my statements on superheroes rubbed you the wrong way.

The bad news is, I'm not sorry about that at all! If you disagreed, then it means we can have a discussion. And there is almost nothing I love discussing more than superheroes. I love the actual stories, the theories of them, why they work and when they don't. I love it all.

But I also come at these conversations from a very specific view of superheroes. I firmly believe it's an informed opinion, but when I say that I mean informed by objective things like history (both in- and metafictional), but also extremely subjective things like my own tastes.

At this stage of my life as author and cultural partaker and commentator, I'm way past the point of apologizing for my tastes. However, it occurred to me that it might at least illuminate my future podcast commentary on superheroes if I spelled out a few things I feel are fundamental to the concept.

Conventional Wisdom on Genre Conventions

Genres are pretty fluid things. But while an individual genre is pretty malleable, they can be knocked all out of shape if you work hard enough at it. There's a moment after you strip the wings and jet engine from your genre that it starts to resemble a car way more than an airplane.

You all followed that analogy, right? Okay, good, carry on.

Superheroes are one of my favorite genres. I learned to read on superhero comics and have done more thinking about that subject than nearly any other in my life. I have spilled more ink and more pixels about superheroes than any two other subjects. In doing so, I've developed some absolute bare minimum requirements of the genre.

I've discussed on my own blog how superheroes are almost infinitely malleable. But while you can keep adding things to a superhero story and still (probably) have a superhero story, there must be a point where subtracting elements leaves you without one. Otherwise the words don't mean anything. So what are these bare minimum elements? I'm glad you asked!

First, a caveat. Although each of these elements is important, a story doesn't have to have every single one of them to be a superhero story. Neither do all the elements have to be of equal intensity. But you do require a quorum of these elements and at least a few of them turned up to 11. Otherwise your jet is just a car.

For instance, Batman has no super powers, but he's demonstrably a superhero. The Fantastic Four don't have secret identities, but they're also still squarely in the superhero genre. Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage fight crime, but they are not superheroes.

Will there be fringe cases that could go either way? You betcha. But I think they're going to be the minority because I am aiming squarely for a baseline definition of superhero that makes sense with the history of the genre as well as pointing into the future of superhero characters.

Superheroes Must

  • Possess Super Powers - Superheroes must have powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Concussive force fired from the eyes. The proportional strength and speed of a spider. Unbreakable knives popping out of knuckles. Titanic strength, flight, freeze breath, et al. Bottom line, the superhero is super.

  • Possess A Colorful Costumed Identity... - Superheroes wear costumes. You can call them uniforms or action suits if that makes you feel better. Whatever you name it, the superhero has a unique and visually striking outfit she wears when fighting crime (we'll get to that one) that could not possibly be confused for street clothes.
  • ...Which Hides Their Civilian Identity - Only a handful of trusted associates or dedicated allies can know the true identity of our hero or heroine. Naturally, this brings with it the attendant hiding-a-double-life shenanigans.

  • Fight Crime... - Superheroes punch muggers, bank robbers, mobsters, terrorists, Nazis and whoever else is foolish enough to commit nefarious deeds in front of our hero.

  • ...Which Also Cloaks Itself In Colorful Costumed Identities - Run-of-the-mill gunsels and fourth columnists are fine for a while, but eventually a superhero needs somebody who does evil as flamboyantly as the hero does good. Superheroes simply must have supervillains.

  • Battle Internal Conflicts Literalized Externally - This is admittedly a little esoteric. It also might be easier to explain with examples. Peter Parker's internal conflict is deciding what is the greatest good. On one side of town, his loving, ailing aunt needs the pills Peter just picked up for her. On the other side of town, the Scorpion is blowing things up and robbing banks. Peter is literally faced with the dilemma of having great power, yet not knowing where the greater responsibility lies.

    Or to take another example, consider a slowly dying Superman who has always been empowered by solar energy literally facing his own mortality by fighting an evil computer in the shape of a sun. The source of his power is killing him at both the micro and macro scale. That's pretty heady stuff.

  • Be Better People Than Us So As To Inspire Us - For some reason, I feel like this statement is going to be the most controversial. But it's also the one that most defines superheroes. Superheroes are selfless. They sacrifice to protect their fellow men and women. And while they are people (albeit fictional ones) and far from perfect, they are still heroes. I'm going to quote Chris Sims of Comics Alliance at length here for a minute.
...superheroes are a fundamentally optimistic proposition. They all descend from Superman, a character who’s built around the idea that this person with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men would use them exclusively for the benefit of others.

They have to be better people, because they serve to inspire us to be better people.

Optimism. Inspiration. Selflessness. An example of how to be better. I'm down with that stuff. Somewhere along the line it became cool to be cynical. Like, hoping for the future or having compassion for your fellow man became less important than how hip you are.

To hell with that noise! I want to be inspired! I want to be inspiring! And if optimism is the new counter-culture, then Superman is the most punk rock thing in the universe! It also means all those guys who think they're too cool for superheroes the way they ought to be are really just sad sacks who want to drag down an ideal. Good luck knocking down a guy like the one pictured below. And me too, super powers or not.