Critical Eye

Miss Congeniality (After A Word From Our Sponsor)

OK first two quick promotional items: one, Season 1 of ReMade is on sale for $4.99! Look, they made a gif and everything!


And two, on Halloween I’m going to randomly give away Season 1 of a Bookburners to ten lucky subscribers to my blog/newsletter hybrid, in a transparent effort to boost my numbers. Mmmm, marketing!

But I can’t just market at you, because this is not what friends do. So instead I’d like to talk about Miss Congeniality, which I saw this weekend for the first time since it came out in theaters.  (Yes, I saw it in a theater.)


Movie Thoughts With Andrea

Miss Congeniality is very, very much an artifact of its time. It’s trying hard to do the same things that Legally Blonde did in terms of Grrl Power and social justice, but it has the same muddled stance on it that, frankly, I remember having at the time my own self, and that’s where a lot of its humor is meant to come from. 

I mean, the core conflict is the tension over being a strong-with-the-punching and empowered woman, or living up to an arbitrary beauty ideal. The movie tries to suggest you can do both without giving up the core of who you are. And it tries to show that the society of women can be special, but it doesn’t really earn that. I’d have liked to see the pageant contestants step up into a strong-with-the-punching role as well. Hey, maybe that’s what happens in the sequel? Maybe I’ll have to watch it.

We also have brief mentions of gay and lesbian relationships! Yay, representation! But with a particularly Year 2000 sensibility: a nervous laugh, ha ha this is a thing! Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s not unlike how we see a lot of trans representation done right now in mainstream media. The same nervous laugh, the acknowledgement that this is a way that some people are, and it makes some other people very nervous. But we’re pretty far past that for gay people now, which gives me hope that we’ll get that way for trans rights as well. The window is shifting.

The one thing that surprised me on a rewatch is that the cast is fairly diverse... but there’s no mention of racism at all. Since race is the elephant in the room in the year 2017, that was a little weird and jarring. Maybe that shows we’ve come a long way, too, since there is at least a public conversation about that now?

All that said, Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens is a much more interesting riff on beauty pageant culture, since it’s more from the POV of the actual contestants, and therefore has much less “ha ha can you believe it?! BUTT GLUE!” So maybe read that one instead.

Annnnnnnnnd that’s it for right now. Getting ready to head out to Switzerland. You’ll hear from me soon! 

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Dynamic Loot in Our Time

I'm doing a playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition right now, and I keep running into The Loot Problem. On the one hand, 95% of everything I get is well beneath my level and current capabilities. This is a problem common to lots of RPGs, and even MMOs. From my mom on Facebook, which got me thinking about this:

(Apple doesn't fall far from the tree.)

But I also just finished the DA:I Descent DLC, and apparently a few levels early -- so I have the opposite problem, carting around a bunch of super great weapons and armor I won't be leveled up enough to use for some time to come.

I feel like loot drops mapped more closely to the player's current capabilities are a thing whose time has come -- and especially in a single-player game. It's not *super* hard to programmatically make it so that a boss drop or a level treasure chest always yields something %+5 better than what you came in with. A lot of games do this with the actual monsters already, right? And it would neatly solve a lot of linearity problems RPGS have, where they don't want to tell you which place you have to go next... but if you go there first, man, you're gonna get squished.

So why not make all of it dynamic? And then the player is guaranteed to get the zingy feeling of always progressing in power and capability over the course of the game.

It's a little more complex in an MMO, of course, because you don't want people grinding an easy boss to get ever-better weaponry. But if you lock the loot a boss or an area will drop to the level of the character performing the looting when it first mastered that area, then you can still guarantee the first time will be amazing, while also guaranteeing diminishing returns for the grind.

It's a thought, anyway. And I'd be surprised if it hadn't been tried already. Anybody know an example?

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Karen Memory

Let's just get this out right away: Elizabeth Bear's novel Karen Memory is a flawless jewel of a book. This has all of the qualities of something I wish I'd written: inventive, thoughtful, fun, with elegant prose and a plot that winds around itself into a perfect, self-contained knot.

It starts with the voice. First-person Karen Memery herself is a rich and fully realized person with her own distinctive cadences and color. Frankly the voice alone is so enjoyable to sink into that it almost doesn't matter what else happens in the story at all. Spending time with Karen listening in on her thoughts is that good, you guys. She feels like someone you've almost met before. Someone you might even run into today waiting tables at a truck stop in Montana.

This is a big deal to me, because a lot of books lose me at the prose level. I'm sensitive to choice of words, I suppose. And sometimes when a book doesn't have music to it, when the language doesn't flow right, it grates on me so much that I have trouble enjoying any other element of the book, even if the plotting and pacing are perfectly executed. This one, though: this is all music, and nary a sour note or an off beat.

But there's more to love here, too. Karen Memory takes place in a fictionalized Gold Rush-era a lot like Seattle. But this isn't the Old West we're used to; this is both more and less real than that. On the less-real front, we have that whole steampunk angle; this is a world that includes surgical machinery and a Mad Science Tax on your Inventor's License.

But for all that, this novel incorporates a lot of the realities of life in the west that tend to get glamoured out of the picture: the way Seattle was built up an extra level to deal with the sewage problems that came with high tide; the disproportionate number of "seamstresses" in Gold Rush towns, a euphemism everyone knew perfectly well meant prostitutes; virulent racism and its consequences, including the threat of lynchings and the law looking the other way instead of protecting people of color; sex trafficking; the true fact of a diverse and cosmopolitan city. 

That all makes Karen Memory sound relentlessly grim, but for all that underpinning of profound realism, this book is at its core fun to read. It moves slowly at first (but not too slow), letting you get your bearings in the world. Indeed, it starts out seemingly as a small-scale drama about a brothel vs. the law, or maybe vs. the religious folk. But the scope and the pace ramp up gradually and inexorably until by the end you've found yourself on a rollicking adventure full of explosions and fist fights, local and international politics, romance, and Saving the Day.

So good. So good. You should buy it. I fully expect this one to take home a bucket of awards next year, and if it doesn't, I... I might be a little angry. I'm already warming up my nominating finger, I tell you what.

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Constellation Games

I have a half-written post in my queue about Leonard Richardson's Constellation Games from years ago, when it was first unfolding as a serial. I loved it then, and became frustrated with not being able to read more of it all at once, so I stopped... and didn't pick it up again until woefully later. But I've read it now, and I am so, so glad I finished it.

You guys. You guys. This is the book I wanted Ready Player One to be. This is a book that speaks to gaming as it is now, and will likely be in the future.

For one thing, Constellation Games engages deeply with the idea of games as an interactive art form that reveals a lot about the society that it springs from, and not mere ephemeral entertainment. Along the way it delves deeply and creatively into diverse mechanics and aesthetics games might have if they were developed with different underlying psychologies and priorities. And almost as a side note, this book delivers some of the most biting criticism of the games industry and what it's like to work in it than I've seen anywhere -- even in trade publications whose entire purpose is being critical of how the industry operates. This is a book that is deeply true. Painfully true. If you've ever wondered what it's like to work in games, this is it. Ponies Brilhantes 3 or poverty. This is exactly what it's like.

I also loved this book's treatment of aliens as both more and less alien than usual. Often in science fiction, alien interactions are clothed in militaristic layers of protocol on both ends. Differences between species are for some reason danced around in the moment. But that's maybe a little unrealistic. If another species, as in Constellation Games, uses constant bonobo-like sexual activity as a social lubricant (so to speak), then surely both species would be aware of the difference, and individuals might communicate with one another regarding how to deal with it? Typically you'd see an all-or-nothing approach: either a human must accept this about an alien species and come to terms with it, or else a human must accept that an alien species cannot come to terms with some element of human behavior and must unfailingly refrain from it.

But in Constellation Games, the aliens and humans are equally aware of their alien-ness to one another, and their relationships are constantly and explicitly negotiating how to make everyone as comfortable as possible, considering those differences. "Are you OK with this?" At one point, the alien Curic makes a reference in passing to killing and chopping up a bunch of other sentient aliens to make crates out of them, and clearly thinks it's funny. It's just a detail, but that's the heart of alienness to the core: it's obviously acceptable behavior in the context of that society, but the idea is profoundly foreign and appalling in a human context. So how do you cope?

The aliens also don't have the hierarchical or militaristic social structures we're used to seeing in fiction. There really aren't chains of command or leaders, as such; the aliens who contact us are something of a communo-anarchistic society working multiple angles all at once, and trying to build consensus about where to best devote their resources and time to accomplish shared goals.

And then there's the human-AI interaction. Though the book is on the surface about first contact and about games, there is a substantial subplot dealing with human relationships with technology, with artificial intelligence and true sentience, and with a creator's responsibility toward the beings it creates. It's a very thoughtful examination of how those things can and would be treated both by our society as they emerge, and by an advanced society that has dealt with those questions for millions of years.

Constellation Games is in all a very thoughtful book full of ideas you don't see very often. Breath of fresh air, and fun to read, too, especially if you're in any sense a gamer or engaged in gaming culture. There's a lot going on under the hood of this book. You should read it.

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The Grace of Kings

A couple of years ago, I read Mono no aware, a short story by Ken Liu. And it touched me so deeply and made me cry so much that I did something I'd never done before, and haven't done since: I stalked him on Twitter solely so I could tell him how beautiful that story was. (He was very gracious about it.)

I didn't know then that Ken Liu is a much-celebrated short story writer. But he is. He's even done the unprecedented, and won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award for a single short story, The Paper Menagerie. This is all to say: when Ken Liu writes his debut novel, the world pays attention. And me, too. And this book, this book, The Grace of Kings: this is a book you want to talk about

The Grace of Kings is like A Wizard of Earthsea. This is the one thought that kept running through my head as I read, again and again and again. As in Earthsea, the language is spare, only what it needs to be and nothing more. Detail is used only as seasoning; but for the most part, the story is told in broad strokes, leaving out as much as it includes, if not more.

The Grace of Kings is stylized, like Chinese calligraphy. Scope changes fluidly from the broadly historic to the personal from scene to scene. This is not a book you can skim without missing pivotal events, because there is almost nothing in this book that is not pivotal eventually. Now you see the personal struggle of a general trying to make a difficult decision; now you see ten thousand men dying in a sentence or two because of the choice he made. 

This is mythology unfolding, full of larger-than-life figures, heroism and villainy for the ages. I appreciated this change from the very literal, gritty aesthetic you tend to see in epic fantasy these days; the feats described in The Grace of Kings aren't plausible, they're not realistic, but they are compelling, which is all that matters to a reader, really. 

The Grace of Kings isn't the book I thought it was going to be when I started. For one thing, it's not stylistically nor structurally much like Ken's short fiction. But even more -- and following there are spoilers -- I thought this book would be about the fall of an empire and an emperor. But this book moves far more quickly than that. If an insult is given in one chapter, revenge is taken in the next, time and again. Plans are enacted immediately, battles fought, weddings held. 

This makes the book astonishing and a little unbalancing for a reader expecting Tolkien-style epic fantasy where half the book is spent on endless marching through woods and mountains to get to the one place where the one important thing happens. So you're constantly revising your expectations for timelines, for pacing, for what a piece of foreshadowing means. The emperor is done for a mere quarter of the way into the book, if that; the empire itself is fallen halfway through. And then, and then, what happens after?

This isn't a book about the fall of an empire at all, it turns out. It's about a tumbling cascade of inevitable consequences. It's about the web of chance encounters, of friendships and rivalries that seem slight in the moment they form, but that ultimately guide the fate of nations.

More than anything, The Grace of Kings is an incredibly interesting book, and one I can't stop talking about or thinking about, and I keep lobbying people to buy it and read it just so we can dissect it together. In terms of structure, in particular, this is a work doing things you just don't see, and doing them very, very well. I'm looking forward to the sequel, even though I'm sure it will break my heart.

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