Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Hobbit Revisited

Several weeks ago I wrote a response for J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit, in which I explained that I was most impressed not by it's silly characters or epic-style plot, but by it's beautiful, expansive, believable world. Since then I have written several blog entries regarding my interest in the fictional worlds of the different fantasy and science fiction stories I read. Throughout this school year, particularly with the help of this class, I have realized my complete obsession with world building in fiction. I was very happy to discover this love, as it made me extremely confident in my choice to major in Game Art and Design with it's focus on world and experience creation, as opposed to the focus on character and story creation in Computer Animation. Looking back, I recognize The Hobbit as being one of my first introductions to this idea of a complex fictional universe, and it is memorable simply for this reason.

The Hobbit, along with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is based in a fantastical and completely fictional world that is so thoroughly and extensively created that it feels completely believable. It is filled with different races, languages, beliefs, mythology, fantasy politics, and a complex history. It is a world created with intense care and attention to detail. With a world so deep and believable as this, a book like The Hobbit seems like only one miniscule story in the massive history of Middle Earth. An infinite number of excellent, as well as convincing, stories can be told when their creator makes their world deep enough to fit in. In fact, a series of “history books” could be just as easily produced, and would be just good as if not more interesting than the actual “stories”!

As a whole, this class has introduced me to many pieces of literature that have greatly inspired or influenced me. From The Hobbit and onward, I am glad to have been exposed to such a range of genres not only for their entertainment at the time, but for their lasting effect on me and my future work in school and in my career.

The Ray-Gun: A Love Story

To finish off my weeks of science fiction readings, I picked a story from “The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy” to read. I decided upon “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”, by James Alan Gardner, simply because it had a title that stood out to me as I flipped through the book. It ended up being an adorable feel-good story that affected me in an entirely different way than any of the science fiction stories I had read for this class before. I suddenly realized, after puzzling over this for a while, that I hadn't read anything yet that had not left me with a feeling of unease, displacement, horror, or at least confusion.

I love science fiction. This is something that I've always kind of known, but really grew to realize in the last few weeks of this class. I find it completely inspirational to read these stories of the near-future, or of our-world-but-different, or even (sometimes) of the really, really weird. But, as a whole, they all tend to leave me with an uneasy feeling once I've finished with them. Something that was mentioned in class in fact, that I found particularly interesting and took note of, was the feeling of paranoia that runs through science fiction stories as a whole. The purpose of science fiction, as I have personally come to understand it, is to force the reader to question and see things differently.

What makes “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” so interesting to me is that it actually left me feeling happy and satisfied. It actually was a love story, with a feel-good-version of science fiction layered over it. The story, basically, ended in a typical “it must be fate” way, except that “fate” was replaced by “the influence of this alien ray gun which was blasted from a space ship and crash landed here on Earth thousands of years later”. But then again, going by my previous definition of science fiction, this story was definitely a way of looking at a love story that was different than ever before.

All in all, I enjoyed this love story. It left me with a nice, satisfied feeling. And, possibly more importantly, it made me look back on the past few weeks of readings and try to figure out what, exactly, it takes for something to be considered science fiction.


To be entirely honest, “Bloodchild”, by Octavia Butler, horrified me. It managed to combine several of the things that freak me out, like worms and insects and parasites and people being cut open and then stitched back shut, into one terrifying story. However, to continue being entirely honest, I was also extremely intrigued by the metaphors it contained and the messages it expressed.

For starters, men were pregnant for the second week of readings in a row. Not only that, but their pregnancy was portrayed in a completely terrible-looking way, which really made me as a reader look at normal female pregnancy in an entirely different, but completely legitimate, way. The characters played roles from there that at times got very weird, but also extremely interesting. The narrater, Gan, and the alien T'Gatoi had a very strange relationship that set them as some kind of strange mix of mother and son, owner and property, and lovers. One description of them was given as T'Gatoi as the boyfriend or husband to Gan's pregnant girlfriend or wife, demanding to know if he is loved and if he will be taken care of as he carries T'Gatoi's children.

Relationships became an important part of this story to me, not just between characters but also regarding the alien Tlic's and the humans' coexistence. It was mentioned in the story how the humans had been mistreated in the past, but something had forced the Tlic to take better care of them, in order to put them to better use. While Gan clearly comes off as T'Gatoi's property, it is also made clear by the end that his compliance and happiness are important to her, and then he is not powerless in their relationship.

This was a weird story with some weird relationships and weird ideas. That said, it also contained some ideas that I really felt interested and even in agreement with. So, in short, the reading freaked me out quite a bit, but the discussion that followed completely captivated me.

Battlestar Galactica

Last semester, I was introduced to the newest incarnation of the TV show “Battlestar Galactica”, and have been checking it out from the library to watch whenever I get the chance since. It's slow work, and I regret that I will be going home without even having finished the first season, but at the very least I can write my first impression of it.

Battlestar Galactica”, I've noticed so far, is extremely character-driven. Despite being set in a exciting and foreign world, it is not so much the dogfights in space or the futuristic setting that takes the center stage as it is the complicated relationships between characters and their own very personal reactions to what is happening around them. The plot point of “the last human survivors” has been done before, but “Battlestar Galactica” really makes me understand and feel the emotions that should be, but usually aren't, associated with it. Even in the pilot episode, the show managed to convey the horror and shock at seeing a majority of the human race destroyed that, somehow, I have never felt watching another film or movie with the same situation.

A small piece of the show that I really am a fan of is the spaceship battles, if only for how different they are from how other science fiction films handle things like this. Rather than being filled with epic music and huge explosions, the scenes are quiet. The music is fast-paced yet minimal, and does a wonderful job of making me excited without breaking my focus from what the characters are doing or saying to one another. Once again, the characters are the whole point of this show, and I have yet to feel bored or distracted from it by even something as epic as evil robots in space.

I've written several times about how much of a fan I am of the fictional worlds of fantasy and science fiction literature. However, when a story can have such a world that serves only as a completely believable backdrop to a completely character-centered story, I feel like this world is just about perfect.

Johnny Mnemonic

For this week I read the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” by William Gibson which, luckily for me, ended up being the short story that was discussed in class that same week. Looking back, I can see that this is the point where I started to get very excited and inspired by class discussions, or at the very least when I started writing down notes of things that were mentioned in these classes.

First of all, I was extremely satisfied to finally learn what cyberpunk actually was: I'd heard the sub-genre's name before, but never actually knew what kind of story it referred to. After that, I was very quick to learn that I like this sub-genre a lot. Over the course of this year, and particularly through this class, I've learned that I am kind of obsessive over fictional worlds. I feel like the cyberpunk stories that I was introduced to did exactly this kind of world-building that I love. The stories take place in a not-so-distant future, and the many similarities they have to our real world make the things that are different seem so much more foreign and strange than if they were in an entirely different, fantastical world.

The mixture of technology with life and society are what really make these exotic worlds. Nearly every character in these stories is some form of genetically altered creature or cyborg. Biology itself is replaced by machinery. The loss of the importance of resources to that of technology is an extension of this. Wars are fought over information. Information is carried in humans with hard drives implanted in their brains. It is a fascinating and completely realistic idea of our future: in fact, I would say that it seems unlikely that humans won't be implanting computers into their bodies in the coming years.

I'll close by mentioning again how happy I am that we spent a week discussing this sub-genre of science fiction, because now I know exactly what kind of stories to look into when I am in need of a huge amount of inspiration.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Stars My Destination

Although I didn't read this novel for the week it was assigned, Cassidy managed to convince me to read it for the next week, for which I am grateful. The Stars My Destination was not only an exciting, high adventure (in space) story, but it was set in an interesting, new world that I enjoyed reading about almost more than I did the (usually horrible) actions of Gully Foyle on his quest for revenge.

The one thing that is the center of Foyle's new world is the ability to jaunte, or teleport. The entire world, in fact, is entirely believable as being our own, with only this and a few years difference. Jaunting affected the economy of Foyle's world, eventually bringing about war. Jaunting affected the interactions of peoples from around the Earth, leading to the near destruction of recognizable races as well as the explosion of diseases around the world. Jaunting affected the lives of the wealthy and the working class, the status of women, and the way people socialize. The ability of this single, small change in the world to lead to an entirely different universe from our own is amazing to read about. From this alteration, Bester creates a world that is completely immersive and believable and, still being a sucker for fictional worlds, I loved reading about it.

It was stated during the discussion in this class that this book felt like a believable, modern depiction of the future, even though it was written half a century ago. I have to agree with this: there were only a few times during this reading that I stopped and reminded myself of when the book was written. Bester created a world so foreign that it remained so even fifty years in the future, but that still manages to be recognizable as our own world.

The Stars My Destination also happened to contain a very good story with compelling characters and some completely crazy scenes. In the end, though, I found myself just as interested, if not more so, in the politics and technicalities of Bester's fictional world as the story itself.

Sci-Fi Short Stories

For this week, I chose to read two short stories: “Star Light, Star Bright”, by Alfred Bester, and “The Tenants”, by William Tenn. Both were interesting, a bit slow but with an ending that really made me go “OH!” (which probably confused my roommate at the time).

Star Light, Star Bright” introduced the characters, and then dragged me around there arguing for a while before introducing the actual plot, and then dragged me around even more before finally explaining everything in the conclusion. The concept of the genius children, in retrospect, is only mildly cool. What made the story work for me, though, was the way it lead me to the final realization of just what was going on with this wishing boy. It very successfully pulled me in, lead me around, and then made me think that I was clever for reaching the conclusion.

The Tenants” played out in a very similar way. It started off by introducing something very odd in an otherwise normal world, and then let me read for several pages, just as confused as the main character about what was going on. When he finally gained access to the room, and the two tenants left it, I was once again hit with the “oh, I get it!” feeling, immediately followed by an audible “Oh no!” when the character realized he was trapped in the room forever. Despite being short, both of these stories played my emotions exactly how they were intended to.

After listening to the discussion in class about The Stars My Destination, I wasn't entirely sure how the short stories I read fit into this topic of “the final frontier”. I did, however, see how they were a great lead-in to the genre of sci-fi. Even without robots, aliens, or even a mention of outer space, these stories still did what sci-fi should do: took a normal world and made it weird and new.


In addition to reading Anansi Boys, I also finally got the chance to watch “Coraline”. I was happy, not only that I finally got to watch this movie I had wanted to see for ages, but because it was quite good as well. I was fascinated by the art which, even though it had the inherent creepiness that all stop-motion animation, I still found absolutely beautiful. Also, I rather liked all the characters, which is always a plus.

Coraline” addressed a similar theme as Gaiman did in Anansi Boys; a mysterious, magical world existing parallel to the real one, which the main characters discover throughout the story. Like Charlie, Coraline found a magical world completely unlike the one she was familiar with. Unlike Charlie, she embraced the new world and, in fact, almost became a part of it. In fact, Coraline is about as different of a character from Charlie as she could be. Of course, in the way of a true (even modern) fairy tale, they both manage to learn a lesson by the end of their stories. Gaiman, also relied heavily on ancient mythology as a theme for his novel. “Coraline” was a much newer, more modern-feeling film. Obviously, the two stories had very different feels, but at their root they shared a common, basic theme: that of the modern fantasy.

Coraline” has been sitting near the top of my list of movies I must see for a while now, and I am very satisfied to have finally watched it. And, though I somewhat regret missing out on seeing it earlier, especially in theaters, at the same time I found it interesting to watch within the context of what had been discussed in class about the film earlier that week.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Anansi Boys

I really do regret that I did not get enough chances to finish Anansi Boys this week, because I was really starting to enjoy it. I found the idea of the novel, as well as the style of writing Neil Gaiman used to convey it, very cool. In fact, one of the only things I disliked about the novel was a majority of the characters. They each had flaws, as any character with even some depth should, but I seemed to find personal offense in every single one of these flaws and grew to hate the characters for them. While, to some extent, this is probably what Gaiman intended, I really had trouble at parts of the book, where I was forced to flip between Fat Charlie's insecurity, Spider's narcissism, and all the lesser characters' weaknesses. However, things finally started to turn around as I neared the end of the novel (which, of course, was when started running out of time to read).

When reading Anansi Boys this week, after having watched Gaiman's speech as well as discussed him in class, I found myself remembering something he had mentioned about his adult fiction, and how it was considerably lighter than his dark children's stories. I have read Gaiman's children's novel The Graveyard Book, which he described as having one of the darkest first chapters he had ever written, and I began comparing it to Anansi Boys and finding that he was completely right. Anansi Boys plays with myths as well as modern themes, and combines them in a generally lighthearted and goofy way. In this book, this could perhaps be a continued reflection of who I would consider the novel's central character, the joker Anansi and his many stories. Silly situations occurred that generally left Fat Charlie in unpleasant situations, and he faced them with a sort of dejected sarcasm that made it hard to read without at least a little humor present. Compared to The Graveyard Book, which managed to have a serious and dark feel to it while still definitely reading like a children's book, Anansi Boys seemed to be much more humorous. I'm not sure if that necessarily makes it better, but it's definitely different.

Nonetheless, I am completely into Anansi Boys now. I will try my best to finish this novel, because it is a good read, but mostly because I am right at the climax of it and want to know what happens!

His Dark Materials

I have read all of the “His Dark Materials” trilogy a couple of times, and was particularly excited to get a chance to listen to a discussion about it for this class. These books contain several things that I enjoy in my fiction, like massive alternate worlds and an excess of symbolism. My interest in Phillip Pullman's critique probably doesn't hurt, either.

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I completely ripped through these books, highlighting and underlining the hell out of them in the interest of fitting all the metaphors and ideas together. The theme of original sin was so interesting to discover, as well as the roles played in the stories of Adam and Eve as well as God and Satan. More recently, I read a statement by Pullman that the “His Dark Materials” trilogy were intended as a sort of “rewrite” of John Milton's “Paradise Lost”, with the slight difference being placing Satan as the hero and God as the villain. Of course, Pullman wrote not only about these conflicts but also about the importance of human emotions and the soul. In all, he managed to evoke a mess of emotions from me as I read.

As I started to think about it more generally, I noticed that a story like this, with the intent of educating the reader on certain morals or values, differs a lot from a book which is meant to entertain or, like The Hobbit, provide an escape for the reader. In a novel of spiritual education, I feel, there aren't characters. Instead, there are ideas which are simply represented through individuals (or events or places or objects). This difference between a “story” and an “education” is an idea that is still kind of floating around in my head, making me think about what I read.

Phillip Pullman's novels are probably among my favorites. With a wonderful collection of likable characters, a hugely creative and intriguing universe, and a clear and very interesting central idea, this is the kind of book I can read multiple times and still enjoy. In fact, I think I'm going to make a point of rereading this trilogy once I'm home for the summer.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Hobbit

This week's assigned reading was The Hobbit, which I had already enjoyed reading once before. One of the things that I found most impressive, as well as most fun to read, about this book as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy was the huge world that Tolkein created in his stories. In any form of media, be it book or film or game, I am always a sucker for a story within a believable universe.

Tolkein's Middle-Earth is such a believable world that when I read his books, I feel like I am reading one small piece of history that has taken place in the vast timeline of this world. He leads me to believe that there is much more to this world, and that I am not aware of it only because he choses not to tell it to me. In many ways, he creates this feeling by referencing events or stories that have taken place before the books, and even taking the time to explain the history of certain places or people.

As I already knew the story of The Hobbit, I chose to read some of the essays posted online by Michael L. Martinez. These were all explanations of the peoples and times of Middle-Earth. I was particularly fascinated by the timeline Martinez included in one of his last essays. The amount of information he was able to gather from Tolkein's books is very impressive; almost as impressive as the fact that Tolkein created this world to begin with!

I recently attended a presentation given by Jordan Weisman, a game designer who explained how he went about doing just this; creating fantastical yet believable worlds. Seeing this obvious connection between these huge universes that I love in fiction and what will be required of me in my future of game designing greatly excited and inspired me. And, of course, I completely understand why a good game, or any piece of fiction, needs to take place in a realistic fantasy world. Tolkein's deep stories, as well as any really believable fiction, allow for the viewer to, as Tolkein himself said, escape their own world for another, stranger, more exciting one.

This is what I, and millions of other readers, movie-goers, and gamers, love to see in our media.

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things

For this week's focus on Japanese horror, I chose to read several ghost stories fromKwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn. I found these stories very interesting as a look into old Japanese culture, if not as a very thrilling read.

The stories all read very much like old myths or folk-tales to me, which in a way is what they were. What they didn't feel much like was my somewhat modern and western idea of a ghost story; a story that ends mysteriously and leaves me frightened, or at least a bit nervous. These stories seemed considerably more like explanations of monsters or stories of demons, meant to show what they are like more than to scare readers.

Of course, this most likely had to do with the cultural gap between these ancient stories and I. After all, if I knew about the ghosts of ancient peoples and their tendency of tricking blind musicians into playing for them until they died, perhaps the story about that very event would have been more terrifying. As it was, I simply found it silly that a loophole led to his ears being pulled off.

In fact, the loophole seemed to be a plot point repeated through these stories. From the musicians ears being removed to the vengeful spirit being thwarted before it could even be created (in one of the silliest and most anticlimactic stories I've ever read), it seemed that the climax of a Japanese ghost story revolves around, or is solved by, a silly loophole in an ancient, spiritual rule.

All in all, I found these stories very interesting to read through. I enjoyed taking this look into an old culture different from my own. And they were certainly entertaining to read and occasionally made me giggle. This probably wasn't the original intent of the story, but the fact that I was entertained seems better than nothing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Interview With A Vampire

Although I have seen the movie version of Interview With A Vampire, I had not read the book before this class. I had read another of Ann Rice's novels, The Mummy, that I did not enjoy and that turned me off to reading any more of her stories. However, I did find myself enjoying what I read of Interview, despite the fact that it was packed exactly with the eroticism and beautiful men that I disliked in The Mummy. After putting some thought into this, I've come to the conclusion that all the sexuality and mega-romantic writing have become associated with the vampire genre as a whole (probably by Rice's influence, in fact), and because I was expecting it when I started reading I was able to enjoy the book.

Interview With A Vampire was not a romance, technically, even though parts of the book and even the movie definitely felt like it. It was an interesting presentation of the conflict between what is right and what is wrong. This was presented through the contrast between the mortal humans and the immortal vampires, and especially through Louis and the interviewer. Killing, for example, was obviously immoral for humans but could be argued as the morally correct choice for the vampires. The narrator Louis was constantly caught in the middle, and viewers too are uncertain whether his attachment to the moral code of his mortal self is the right or wrong choice.

Conflict was also present in the relationships between characters. Although the not-so-subtle homoeroticism of Louis and Lestat's relationship was entertaining, I found myself extremely intrigued by the connection between Louis and Claudia. Throughout the film (I admit, I didn't get far enough in the novel to see much of Claudia) they seemed to waver from close family to something more romantic. Claudia's situation, being a grown woman caught in a child's body, made this all the more interesting, and I enjoyed her interactions with Louis.

All in all, Interview With A Vampire was a relatively good read, even though I didn't finish it, and it lead to some very interesting discussions in class.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

By the time I had reached the end of the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I had already long ago gotten an understanding of the general feel of the novel. That feeling, of course, was the ridiculous and over-the-top, laugh-out-loud goofiness of Seth Grahame-Smith's additions to Jane Austen's novel. The addition of zombies, ninjas, and nonsensically epic battles are all so silly that enjoyment, for me, came almost solely from picking out Grahame-Smith's goofy additions. Once I closed the book, however, I couldn't help but think that any story from the “zombie” genre is just as silly.

My sister recently made it a point to watch as many zombie films as she could get her hands on, and when I went home for winter break I joined her to watch several of these movies as she rented them. Although often hidden behind a veil of serious plot, the fact remained that all of these films were kind of silly. Zombie stories do, after all, provide a platform for some of the goriest horror films of all time. Even a parody of this genre we watched was, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, excessively gory and packed with violence.

I don't believe that this ridiculousness is a secret of the genre, of course. I've heard very few responses to most zombie films' stories, but plenty to their violence and horror. I think that this excessive gore and ridiculous brutality is exactly what we, as viewers, look for in a film or story in the zombie genre. At least, that's what I expect from them. Of course, if we look deeper, we may recognize the unsettling idea of the inescapable doom of a zombie apocalypse or the horror of seeing loved ones turned undead and against one another as the real reason the zombie genre is so popular. The fact still remains, however, that the crazy over-the-top violent mess of a zombie film is always fun to watch.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was clearly intended to a comedic read. However, in the same way that Grahame-Smith made very little change to the overall writing of the original Pride and Prejudice, it also had very little to change from the basic recipe for zombie horror to become just silly.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


I am slightly ashamed to say that, before reading the novel, I have had next to no experience with Frankenstein; beyond having a general understanding of the "mythology" of it, I knew nothing about the story. So for the most part, I was able to be introduced to the story and form relationships with the characters without much pre-existing bias.

Most notably, I found myself constantly sympathizing with Frankenstein himself. Obviously, he is a character with his own issues that, in the end, create problems for everyone else in the story. He is young, big-headed, self-absorbed, and the reason that everything ends up going wrong in the novel. And yet I can't help but think that his flaws are the reason I was so interested by him. After all, I am, and spend time with, naive college students. I feel like the mistakes he makes are all too believable; he gets overconfident in his abilities and suddenly finds himself the father to an unwanted child. His solution, to turn away and pretend it never happened, seems entirely realistic.

Obviously, Frankenstein is not a likable character. He abandons his creation and ignores it's existence. When the monster comes to him Frankenstein reacts with anger rather than ever making an attempt to accept his mistake. His selfishness and the pride that prevents him from accepting the monster eventually lead to the death of everyone he cares for. Even as his family and friends are killed, he is not driven by guilt to tell about the monster, but instead wallows in his own misery. He is a weak character, and I loved to read about him.

Whether it was the believability of this character's flaws, or just my happiness to watch him reap the rewards of his weakness, I enjoyed reading his story. I liked to watch Frankenstein's life become increasingly horrible due to his mistakes, and when he finally died at the end of the novel, I was satisfied that it was the closest thing to a happy ending that he could achieve.