Monday, March 06, 2006

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I just finished Never Let Me Go in the car on the way back from lunch. The grey Burnaby day outside was blustery, blowing trash around just like in the dreary closing scene of the novel, supposedly somewhere in the fields outside of Norfolk.I was moved by this book, never quite to real tears, though the sentiment was there; but part of that might just have been my hangover.

Never Let Me Go was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, and I'd heard a few good things about it, so last weekend while I was stranded at the Brentwood mall I picked up a copy. The novel is an elegaic look at the lives of three students of a special boarding school in England. It focuses on their adolescence and young adulthood. There's a subtle love triangle, and a lot of attention to the nuances of gestures, intonation, and other minute details of conversations. By honing in on this emotional minutae, Ishiguro keeps the real emotional punch of the novel always at a discreet arm's length. Because these children are not ordinary. They are clones, though the word is never specifically used, created to act as organ donors later in life. Eventually, they will each 'donate' enough organs that they 'complete' having sacrificed themselves to better the lives of a world that cloisters them away so it can pretend they don't exist.

The novel seldom directly spells out all of the above, choosing instead to perform a patient, carefully controlled reveal on the lives of Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, the novel's protagonist. In practice this plays out like a cross between The Remains of the Day and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Ishiguro's novel is almost Victorian in it's sublimation of emotion and big picture details. It frequently reads like a drama of manners. It's no accident, in fact, that Kathy's school project is on "Victorian literature" - Ishiguro is likely the master of the modern form of this genre.

I thought several times about Lynn while reading this book, never quite sure why. It wasn’t until I finally asked her about it that she reminded me she'd read and posted a review of it on her fine site: On the Nightstand here - in rereading her comments on the book, I find that I didn't necessarily agree with her rather cold assesment: "But it didn't grab me the way I thought it would. I wanted someone in this book to get angry at the situation, or at the hand that life had dealt them, and no one did. Which kinda implies that if you can't get excited about it, why should I?" I guess I was moved by the story, and impressed by it's use of subtlety and lack of emotional outburst. In some ways, it was these character's lack of awareness of the tragedy of their situation that made it all the sadder.

I'd be remiss if I didn't also point out that behind the stage prop of clones and organ harvesting, this was basically a tale of love deferred. It could apply to any of us. Though the end of our lives aren't scheduled for termination in accordance with the needs of a public hungry for our innards, we are all on the same clock that Ruth, Tommy and Kathy are. Your life will tick away, you will watch the people you care about get sick and die before you can ever say to them everything you wanted to say, and eventually, you too will die either alone or leaving someone else alone. Don't ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for you.


Chris Crawford on Game Design by Chris Crawford

Chris Crawford's book isn't very good.

I try to balance out my appetites for fiction with the occasional how-to book on something dealing with my profession. Software design and Project Management books tend to be okay. Game Design books tend to suck. This one is an example of the latter camp.

Weighing in at around 500 pages and published by the king of this type of book, New Riders Press, this is another book designed to be sold to wannabe game designers, and people like myself who are always wondering if the old timers really have some secret knowledge the rest of us don’t. Crawford is a self-proclaimed Old Fart, having gotten his start in the late seventies, then spending time at Atari thereafter. He claims to have started the modern GDC (though I've heard the same claim from a few other old timers.) He has not shipped a product in almost fifteen years, and has very few commercial successes. This may not discount his ideas on Game Design, but as the industry has changed, it's no longer clear that the same rules or pattern apply; at least if they do, it's not in so direct a fashion. To be more explicit, just because Eastern Front 1941, published in 1981 may have been a "breakthrough", does not mean that there are many lessons to be learned from it now, twenty-five years later.

Crawford comes across as an arrogant grand-dame of computer gaming, tossing around broad generalities and flavoring them with inaccuricies. For example, "Wizardry, a straight copy of Moria was… since it's impossible to play Moria you'll now have to play Wizardry." Now, I realize this is a fine point of geekish nitpicking, but Crawford is just plain wrong on several points here. First, Wizardry is not a copy of Moria, the two are quite different. Second, Wizardry was quite noteable for other reasons, and thirdly, it's quite possible to play Moria now. I have a copy on my laptop.

There are plenty of these types of ridiculous generalities thrown about in the book: "There's no mystery why social reasoning is so weak in computer games: most game designers are socially incompetent geeks." Hmmm… Well, aside from playing to a silly stereotype, Crawford is sidestepping the more interesting problem here (how to I take something that is at heart an isolating experience due to the nature of the hardware and turn it into a social experience?), and ignoring mountains of great work done in this area by everyone from academic MUD designers to the superb work being done by the thousands of people now building MMORPGs.

Finally, the mechanics of writing are just plain weak here. The style is lecturing and cantankerous, sentences periodically lack a subject, and so on. The basic writer's toolkit that one expects people to bring to the table is missing here, or was ignored in favor of pithy "truths" and weak analysis. (For example, the extended mediation on "drugs" and video games, concluding with the advice to not own stock in a video game company once people realize how similarly to "drugs" they affect brain activity. WTF?) Also irritating is the "Random Sour Observations" chapter, just because Crawford uses it as another chance for self-aggrandizing put-downs of the work of various projects and designs. While he may be correct to skewer some of these old, dead mistakes, an analysis of some of the more interesting experimental successes of the recent past might have been more useful.

Anyway, I'm sorry that I spent time on this book, and I hope that would be game designers out there pass on this one in favor of something more useful.


Count Zero by William Gibson

They set a slamhound on Turner’s trail in Delhi… begins CZ. From there the tale is off and it’s just the sort of dark dystopian futurism that I admire in William Gibson. No, it doesn’t have the linguistic sizzle of Neuromancer, and by the time it was published, only a few years later, there were already a huge crowd of fast-follower cyberpunk writers.

I’ve read this one before, but it seemed to fit perfectly in the world of dark corporate zaibatsu and elite machine-gun samaurai that I’m thinking about these days. So I read it again.

Still cool. If this kind of action sci-fi is your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. But, if weird Haitian Voodoo AI turns you off you should probably stay away.

Ah-ha! Catching up!

It occurs to me that since this blog is really only updated when there's nothing else going on that it's sort of a chronicle of the lulls in my life. But, since it's focus is solely on my one sided little ramblings on the books I read, I guess that's okay.

It's a rainy spring night in Burnaby. I'm in the basement thinking about the government with Dylan and Mouse.

Golden Days by Carolyn See

Golden Days was recommended (and loaned) to me by someone whose taste in most things I admire quite a bit. Typically, her appreciation for books is no exception. Throughout my life there’s no doubt that this person has given me more influential books than has almost anyone else. So I approached Golden Days with a lot of excitement.

A hundred pages in, a little puzzled, I was still excited, hoping that the goodness would start anytime soon. But, alas, no. This book didn’t deliver what I expected it to ever, and, in fact, never delivered anything I even thought was very good.

Golden Days is the story of a young to middle-aged mother of two living in the California Hills. In the tumultuous months before nuclear annihilation she goes about her life, getting involved in romances, self-help cults, investment groups, and all the other hallmarks of late seventies era Californian upper-class WASP entertainment.

Then again. I wasn’t ever there. So I might have it all wrong. I give her credit for being true to time and place. I believe this is what it was like there and then. But for whatever reason, it didn’t work for me as sci-fi and didn’t work for me as social drama. The feminism [am I still allowed to use the word?] seems archaic in our post post post everything world. (For example, the nuclear missiles as male dominated cock fantasty thing has already been beaten to death by 2006. Already even a rock & roll cliché by 1985.)

And maybe that’s my biggest complaint. It’s an apocalypse where everything pretty much just continues as normal. I think. Hints of distant war, then a vague description of it’s aftermath through the same consumerist, middle-aged sunglasses. I understand Updike does the same thing in Towards the End of Time? Anyone?

A few months ago I might have had some details more clearly. And again, maybe it’s just a chronicle of a city I’ve never much liked in a time period too flaky to be retro, with no real payoff at the end.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Feast for Crows by George RR Martin

This one should be easy. If you're already hooked on Martin's depraved and long winded fantasy epic then you've already bought and read this book, despite only being able to purchase it in hardback for a staggering $35 Canadian. If you aren't already into the adventures of this troubled kingdom, then you're probably not interested in this one.

A Feast for Crows is half of a book according to Martin's website. Apparently, there's a point at which it's simply too unprofitable to publish too big a tome. Cost of goods and services gets out of control, and even pulp fantasy readers won't tackle a book that's bigger than Tolkien's (non)trilogy by itself.

Given this, that the story is only half tols by the time you reach the end, I suppose A Feast for Crows isn't too terribly unsatisfying. Does it feature the characters you've come to love (and hate) in the past? Yes, but only peripherally. Is it filled with the cool mystic action sequences that tantalized you in his previous three books? No, not really. Is it filled with despicable people, sadistic misogyny, and lots of dull court intrigue? Yep.

So did I like this book? No. Not really. I thought it was weak; trading on the same currency Martin had already established with readers, without any of the freshness of his previous works. Will I buy the next one when it comes out? Yes. Of course. I'm a sucker like that. Hell, at least I finally threw in the towel on Robert Jordan's dairy farm.

Ooh. I'm embarassed that this one will be at the top of the index in the right frame. Oh well. Guess I'll have to find something better that starts with A. Perhaps there's Aardvark Adventure out there somewhere...


Sacagawea's Nickname by Larry McMurtry

Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West is the most recent book of essays published by McMurtry, released in 2001 by the New York Review of books. In it, LMM reminds the reader that he is absolutely still keen in his wit, still thirsty to delve, discuss and debate, and still focused on the high plains, swollen rivers, and the deep canyons of the American West.

Indeed, much of the spirit of Sacagawea's Nickname is derived from a sort of metatextual discussion in which McMurtry engages with the reader to determine where the real American West is. He concludes as have scholars before him, that the real West is that of the imagination, existing somewhere between the dusty frontier towns of Oklahoma, the problem of erosion, and the mythic high-adventure West of John Wayne, Tombstone, and Louis L'amour.

McMurtry starts this short and lively discussion by examining a recent version of The New Encyclopedia of the American West, which he finds to be a pandering, lacking attempt at broad coverage of the west. In addition to an entry for "chili" about which McMurtry quips: "In this increasingly secular age, what to put in chili-- or what to exclude-- provokes the nearest thing to religious argument to be heard in the modern West, while the great chili cookout held annually in Terlingua, Texas, is a loose equivalent of the Council of Nicea, in which many heresies are defined and many schismatics cast out." McMurtry believes that good writers and historians of the American West are given short shrift in the Encyclopedia. This belief gives the book its central purpose, as LMM sets out to discuss, berate, and honor a staggering number of historians who have treated his native land as their subjects.

Across these twelve essays, largely unrelated, save for their shared concern with the theme described above, LMM displays a breadth and depth of knowledge on the topic that would do any emeritus professor proud. He is, as already described in my coverage of Roads, a fearsome collector of anecdotes, names, places, and book titles. At least in these works, LMM comes across as the kind of self-taught scholar that should give us all cause to despair. How on earth can we work for a living, lead lives filled with romance, friends, children, and all the rest, and still master such a body of knowledge as he has demonstrated? I do not know the way, but will keep trying to get there.

Despite tipping the scales at only one hundred and seventy two pages, Sacagawea's Nickname is loaded with information, sly commentary, and LMM's usual dry humor for both comedy of situations and for wordplay.

I'd love to write more, but Mouse the Impatient is threatening to unplug me, and in any case, I've got a few thousand more books to read before I'll be a worthy judge of a book like this. Back to the stacks.