Further Troubleshooting: Last Days of Loneliness

Turkey Day approaches.  I’ll be spending a bunch of time with family around then, and for the week after.  This means that I’m unlikely to post much in the next two weeks, though I’ll see if I can scare up a few more interesting posts for you.  This Wednesday will be largely occupied with travel.

Today’s post is going to be a lot like last Wednesday’s, so spoilers abound.  This time I’ll be working through how exactly Amanda ends up deciding to break the town’s covenant with its deity-figure.  Oglaf illustrates the concept quite admirably here (surprisingly SFW, though the rest of the site isn’t).  Enjoy!

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Last Days of Loneliness: Writing the Middle is Terrible

My apologies for the much delayed post, I’ve had a moderately busy day: my visit to the optometrist took a bit longer than I’d anticipated, and I’ve started writing this far later than I’d originally planned.  Today’s topic is all about how frustrating I find writing the middle of Last Days of Loneliness.

If you followed that link (or remember the other earlier posts), you should have a pretty good idea of the shape of the story that I’m writing.  Like those posts, this one is going to be full of spoilers… so if you really want to shield yourself you should probably just stop reading.  If you want to read my thoughts as I try to solve the trouble that I’ve run into while trying to make the middle of the book live up to the promise of the premise, you know what to do.

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The God Engines, by John Scalzi

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My apologies for the brevity of this post, I’m writing with an odd tremor in my left hand and that’s throwing me off.  Anyway…

If you’ve read my previous reviews of Scalzi‘s work, you’re already familiar with how much I love it.  There’s something about his style that I find captivating, perhaps unreasonably so.

The God Engines is no exception to my love for Scalzi’s writing.  It features space travel powered by faith and subjugated gods, and eschews many of the “upbeat” qualities (for lack of a better word) that I’ve come to recognize in Scalzi’s other pieces.  It’s short, sweet, and ultimately horrifying, and I would happily recommend it to anyone who would like to read about holy war in space.  Having just written that, yes, the setting does feel a little like Warhammer 40k, but not quite in the same grandiose grim-dark fashion for which 40k is pilloried.  I don’t want to say any more that might accidentally spoil sections of the story for the especially perceptive, I’ve already had to rewrite this bit several times to cull possible references to spoiler material.

Also, well done Scalzi for writing an entirely genderless character.  I’m not sure I understand how they fit into the larger scheme of things that you devised for this setting, but they felt wonderfully human in a way that some might have ignored.  And while I loved the appropriate ending of the story, I was sad that it meant that I wouldn’t get to learn more about the world that encompassed all these wonderful and terrible things.  I suppose that means you hit the perfect length for the piece.

I really liked the fact that no character felt like they were entirely “good.”  Some were certainly more sympathetic than others, but mostly people seemed very human: they wanted, they feared, and they cared (or didn’t) in ways that pulled me into the piece.  It never felt like we went very deep with any of them, perhaps due to space restrictions, but I got enough of a sense of them to feel connected before the end of the book.

Would I recommend this book?  Yes, definitely.  It’s short, it’s an easy read (I went through it in one sitting), and it’s a lovely look at a frightening concept.  It’s a quick piece of horror writing done well.

p.s. Oh, and here’s Scalzi’s favorite negative review of The God Engines.  It’s pretty good.

Behind the scenes of the new campaign…

Monday’s post gave a taste of the game that I’m preparing, but didn’t go into any details about what would follow.  That was intentional.  If there’s any chance that I’ll run this game for you, I strongly suggest that you don’t read what comes after the break.  If you want to see some of what I’ve come up with, and maybe a bit of how I came up with it, read on.

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A new campaign in the works…

This post is only going to include non-spoiler material, appropriate for the opening of the game.

You (the players) are the King’s officials, expected to enforce his decisions, act in his interest, and carry out his wishes in the wider Kingdom.  Mostly drawn from the wealthy and noble classes, the King’s officers are expected to outfit themselves out of their own pocket and see to their own expenses.  There are always a few exceptions to the norm of “wealth and privilege,” since an individual’s skills and qualifications for this particular job are far more important than their bloodline, but exceptions are likely to have an interesting story for how they became one of the King’s officers without the usual entrée.  In many ways, you might think of the King’s officers as Musketeers with a little less in the way of Alexandre Dumas.

The game is set in the Kingdom of Duval, and begins with the players being sent from the capitol city of Duval to the backwater county of Mont Mondal.  Count Xavier of Mont Mondal was recently imprisoned for treason against the throne, when he broke his oath of fealty.  He was executed along with many of his closest companions, and the executions have created quite a disturbance at court.  One of his companions, the wizard Castanedra, fled back to Mont Mondal on the same night that Xavier was taken prisoner: you and your compatriots have been tasked with capturing her and returning with her in your custody.  You have also been instructed to raise the county’s levies and send them to the capitol, to join with King Mander’s other forces already mustering for war against the Kingdom of Meius to the east.

While thoughts of war on the nearby eastern border weigh heavy in everyone’s mind, how are you and your companions going to run this powerful wizard to ground and bring her back to Duval?

Other things that people from the Kingdom of Duval would know:

-Meius and Duval share a border that runs through an agriculturally rich valley.  North and south of the valley the terrain becomes increasingly hilly and mountainous, leaving only one clear passage between the two kingdoms.  While the kingdoms have a long history of trade with each other they’ve recently suffered through a series of trade disputes and feuds, and there are now frequent border raids which have further angered each side.

-Count Xavier (that’s pronounced “Sh-avier,” more or less) had a meteoric rise to match his catastrophic fall.  He was ennobled and granted County Mont Mondal a little more than ten years ago, and he and his companions were widely recognized as having done a great deal to make Mont Mondal actually livable for Duvalians.  Xavier and his companions drove out a large clutch of magical aberrations which had claimed the land as their own, and then kept the local bandits in check.  While his breaking of his vow of fealty clearly put him in the wrong, some people have even gone so far as to say that they wish the king hadn’t had Xavier and his companions executed for their treason.  Not that they’re likely to have said as much to the king.  The king, after all, is known to have a bit of a temper.

-The city of Duval is slowly being surrounded by the many thousands of soldiers who have answered their liege-lords’ calls.  The various levies have been joined by a few mercenary companies looking for work, and their spirits are high as they prepare to fight against Meius.  The king’s armies only wait for a few more levies (like those of Mont Mondal) to join them before marching against Meius in the east.

Fury should be called Trauma

Brad-Pitt-Fury-Tank-Like a clown car, but with less comedy and more violent death.

War movies, in my mind, must tread a very fine line in order for me to consider them good.  I prefer for them to leave out bombast and propaganda, and I dislike seeing filmmakers pretty up what I regard as a fundamentally brutal and painful exercise in destroying human life.  To quote Robert E. Lee, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”  I don’t feel comfortable with anything that purports to show real life also showing war as a ‘good’ thing.  At the very least, it should be problematic and leave you feeling conflicted.  The problem, of course, is that if the film doesn’t also tell an engaging story few will go and see it.

I also recognize that I have very different expectations and desires for what I’ll call “action movies,” and I’m somehow more ok with an action film showing combat and war in a more glamorous or unrealistic light.  The recent A-Team movie, for example, totally ignores many of the realities of war and combat (and physics), and I was ok with that.  Some old WWII movies (like Where Eagles Dare) fall into the same category, though they seem to do a far worse job of overtly signaling their lack of contact with reality.

When I saw it, I wasn’t entirely sure where Fury stood with regards to this distinction between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and that left me uncertain of how I should feel.  As you might guess by the title of this post, much of the movie delivers an intensely traumatic view of the war… no, that’s not quite it: the movie follows a group of men who have been as traumatized by the war as seems possible, without having them break.  Even that may be pushing it, since the men certainly seem broken when you look at them more closely.  They’re just still able to do their job, which is killing others before others can kill them.  This, in my mind, is part of what makes it such a good war movie.  But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Fury does have an odd change in tone at one point.  It’s almost as though it consciously tries to straddle the divide between ‘war’ and ‘action,’ and suffers for it.  This doesn’t make it a bad movie, but like I said above, it does leave me less certain of how I should feel.  I’ll give you more about this (and some other non-spoilery things) after the break.

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Whoops! There’s been a delay.

Sorry friends, I’ll have a post for you some time tomorrow.  Or maybe Friday.  I’m visiting with my mother and step-father, and my time has been pretty well filled.  When I do return, it will be with a review of Fury.  Have fun in the meantime.

Gravity Falls: X-Files for kids, Comedy for adults

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I just spent much of Saturday evening blazing my way through Gravity Falls, Alex Hirsch‘s absolutely wonderful cartoon series.  Gravity Falls was first described to me as “like The X-files but with kids in rural Oregon,” which does a decent job of introducing it.  That also puts it dangerously (tantalizingly?) close to Twin Peaks territory, but fails to convey just how damn funny the show is; I was chortling the whole way through, and would happily watch many of the episodes again (a rare experience for me with most TV shows). There’re still many more episodes for me to watch, and I honestly can’t wait.  I might take a break from writing this just to watch the next one.

So yeah, Gravity Falls is what would happen if you mashed Twin Peaks and the X-Files together in a hilarious and intelligent kids show.  It chronicles the summer adventures of Dipper and Mabel, a pair of twins who’ve gone to spend the summer with their great-uncle (Grunkle) Stan.  They live with him in his house / Mystery Shack tourist attraction, and have the dubious pleasure of working for him while they try to enjoy their summer in the bizarre town and its even stranger environs.

They must face boredom:

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Beasts:

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And popcorn-machine math:

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What’s not to like?  And yes, I did just watch another episode.  Honestly, if you’re at all interested in smart animated comedies, you should give Gravity Falls a look.  It’s definitely a kids’ show, but like the best kids’ programming it uses that as a vehicle to go deeper than you’d expect, instead of holding back.  Despite the innately fantastical nature of the show, it still feels like a very real depiction of the emotional lives of its protagonists, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of social pressure for impressionable youngsters.  Now, if you’ll pardon me, I really want to watch another episode.