Monday, August 31, 2015

Gone But Unforgettable

Wes Craven is one of the reasons I always wanted to be a writer. Not that I watched 'Nightmare on Elm Street' as a nine-year old and came away wanting to make horror movies; I don't even think I saw the movies until they showed up in greatly-diminished form on UHF television a few years later. But as a nine-year old, I did know one thing; every kid on the playground was talking about Freddy Krueger.

How could they not? He was, and is, a potent and iconic symbol in popular culture. He was a brilliant distillation of a host of fears both modern and ancient--he tapped into the zeigeist of the time and the panic over child abductions and repressed traumas, but he also expressed the most ancient and terrible fears about the strange world of dreams that we enter unwillingly for eight hours every night. Everyone has a nightmare. Everyone was once a child afraid of a sinister stranger, or an adult frightened for their child. Freddy Krueger manifested those fears so perfectly that he was made immortal in almost the first instant of his appearance on camera.

Which isn't to reduce Wes Craven to Freddy Krueger; he had a long and brilliant career with plenty of famous gems and plenty of underappreciated classics that will bear re-examination. (I'm a particular fan of 'The Wishmaster', myself; it's a fairly classic tale, the person who awakens a genie and learns first-hand to be careful what they wish for, but it's elegantly and stylishly told.) But Freddy Krueger is a genuine contribution to humanity's common myth, a folklore figure whose tales will be told and retold down through the ages. A thousand years from now, whether as interactive hologram or direct mental projection or (depending on how pessimistic you want to be) people telling stories in front of the fire erected to keep out the lizardwolves, they will tell stories about the man with knives for fingers who will get you in your sleep. (Which is a good way to keep everyone awake and watching for lizardwolves, really.)

And Wes Craven, while he may not always be remembered as Freddy Krueger's creator, will always be remembered because of Freddy Krueger. With his imagination, he has purchased a form of immortality, a legacy that will live on long after we have forgotten our presidents and kings and long after the richest man's money has trickled away into the hands of his descendants. Wes Craven is dead, but Wes Craven will also live forever. That's the kind of thing that deep down, all writers aspire to. I can't say I'm any different.

Godspeed, Mister Craven. You cannot be forgotten.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Chicks Dig Gaming

(Full disclosure: I consider Lars Pearson to be a good friend, and I look forward to his too-infrequent visits to the Twin Cities. I did not receive a free copy of 'Chicks Dig Gaming', but I almost certainly would have if I asked, and I have received free copies of other Mad Norwegian works both as compensation for minor copy-editing favors and just because Lars is a really nice person who likes to do good things for people. I don't think this biased this review, but the nature of bias is that you don't see it. So you can take all this in the understanding that the person writing the review likes the publisher and respects what he's trying to do.)

At this point, it seems pretty clear to me that the story of fandom in the 21st century is the story of marginalized groups in fandom to gain representation. I use "marginalized" here specifically, and not "minority", because it's increasingly obvious that these groups were never a minority at all--they were made to feel that they were alone in a sea of cis-het-white-able-bodied men, but the more they tell their stories, the more we can see that they were there all along. They were simply made to feel invisible.

'Chicks Dig Gaming', then, is one of many efforts to remedy that; it's a book of essays by women, about women's perspective on gaming. (It joins a number of other, similar books of essays by the same publisher on comics, Doctor Who, and the works of Joss Whedon.) The stories include a variety of voices from women of different races, religions, and social classes on a wide variety of topics. Many of them are simply the story of how they came to discover the world of gaming, and how they came to carve out a space for themselves within it, but there are also a number of brilliant flights of fancy (Cat Valente uses Super Mario Brothers as a metaphor for the Buddhist wheel of rebirth), scathingly clever pieces of social criticism (Lynnea Glasser writes "How to Write Games for Boys", an explanation of how to "blue up" makeover and shopping games for the underrepresented gender) and spotlights on various aspects of game design (one highlight is Filamena Young's chronicles of designing an RPG for her six-year old). There's a lot of variety here...

But honestly, the more I think about it, the more value I found in the essays that were variations on a theme of "How I Came to Gaming". They weren't the ones that made me laugh the hardest or challenged me the most (and I could go on about a lot of the essays in this book as particular highlights, from Mags L. Halliday's excellent piece on the 'damsel in distress' trope in the Professor Layton puzzle series to Jen J. Dixon's worthy attempt to explain what someone could possibly find of value in the brutal and unforgiving world of EVE)...but they were in some ways the most important essays in the book. They were the ones that said, "I have a story too. My story, the story of my life and my fandom, is real and undeniable and worth telling. Please sit and listen."

That's why these essay books mean so much. They give voices to the people who have not traditionally had them. They tell people like me, an (all together now) cis-het-white-able-bodied man, that it's okay to sit down and listen to other people's stories sometimes. I am the audience here, not the creator, and that's an okay thing to be.

And another thing that's great about them, the thing that's probably cost me the most money the past few days, is that they not only give voices to these people, they give exposure to them as creators. I bought Lucy A. Snyder's 'Spellbent' based on her essay "The Grace and Dice and Glossy Cardstock", and I bought 'The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy' based on Sam Maggs' "Go for the Eyes, Gamer Girls, Go for the Eyes!" The essay "Looking for Group", by G. Willow Wilson, directed me to her novel 'Alif the Unseen' as well as being entertaining in its own right, and I've not even started picking out the podcasts and blogs and YouTube channels that all the different author bios mention. This book is a huge signal boost to people who deserve more visibility, because they're talented and smart and funny and deserve to be an equal part of fandom.

'Chicks Dig Gaming' is the best of all worlds--a funny, touching, smart, moving book of essays that also helps provide a voice for people who have spent too long and worked too hard trying to prove that they deserve one. I unreservedly recommend it.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Rejected 'Walking Dead' Spin-Offs

The first episode of 'Fear the Walking Dead', the new spin-off series that prequelizes 'The Walking Dead', premiered last night on AMC. I caught a bit of it--it wasn't bad, a bit light on both fear and walking dead but it's the first episode--but what I found interesting was just how long it took Robert Kirkman and AMC to figure out what they wanted to do for a spin-off. It turns out they bounced around a lot of ideas before finally settling on the opening days of the zombie apocalypse. To wit:

1. Love the Walking Dead. This reportedly centered on a group of people who put cuddly mittens and hoods with pictures of cute animals on them over their zombified friends so they couldn't scratch or bite, and proceeded to hang out with them and have adorable adventures. It was vetoed as "too creepy, even for us."

2. Ignore the Walking Dead. This series would have focused on a group of people in a well-stocked, reinforced house in a secluded location who just decided to stay indoors until the whole thing blew over. Most of the mid-season arc revolved around a Monopoly game that causes a lot of arguments, interspersed with shots of zombies looking forlornly through the window.

3. Envy the Walking Dead. This spin-off would have centered on a group of goth teens who think that being a zombie would be "so romantic", and deliberately make efforts to get bitten. But in a wacky comedy mix-up, it turns out that the patchouli oil they're wearing is the zombie repellent that the government is desperately looking for! Apparently they scratched it because it created continuity problems with the original series, where Merle wore it constantly.

4, Loathe the Walking Dead. The story of a germophobic and his constant quest for Purell set against the backdrop of the zombie apocalypse, this spin-off was canceled when the product placement deal fell through.

5. Accept the Walking Dead. This "fast-forward" spin-off would have taken place after civilization had been rebuilt and everyone had gone through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief and come to terms with the fact that they just have to shoot their loved ones in the head minutes after they die, as a natural part of the healing process. Turned out to be a little "low-key" compared to fan expectations.

6. Desire the Walking Dead. Never even made it past the announcement of the title at the pitch meeting.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

How To Integrate the Fantastic Four Into the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Not that it'll ever happen, of course. Fox is fully committed to continuing to make 'Fantastic Four' movies, and will remain so right up until the day they sign on the dotted line with Marvel Studios.

Look, I was rooting for Josh Trank. Won't deny it. I liked the idea of a different take on the FF, still do, even if he didn't stick the landing. But my point all along wasn't that this was going to be an awesome version of the FF and we should all embrace it, it was that it was okay to try something different even if it failed because the worst-case scenario was that they'd just reboot the property again. Because either Fox makes a new FF movie, or the rights revert to Marvel and they make a new FF movie. There ain't no third option here.

I'm assuming that we're going to see a Marvel Studios version, though, because Fox is getting to the same point Sony did with Spider-Man; they know they're not getting all the bang for their buck that they deserve and they can't seem to find anyone who can do the property right, but they also know that just letting Marvel have it for free is a chump move. They'll do a deal, and Marvel will be happy to agree because they want all their properties back under their roof and they don't have a ton of leverage--for all that Fox is probably going to lose money on this incarnation of the property, they can still make these cheaply enough to be profitable as a general rule if they want to just crank them out to satisfy their contractual obligations. So Marvel will lease back what they can't buy outright, same as with Spidey.

Which means we're going to see a new take on the FF set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What should it look like? Well, I'm hardly the first person to say this, but I think that the Fantastic Four really work best when considered as part of the era they were created in. They are steeped in a heady Silver Age brew of unbridled faith in science's abilities to transform society for the better, complete and total optimism regarding the future for the world in general and America in particular, and yes, jingoistic Cold War patriotism. So they should do what they did with Captain America--set the first movie in the year it was created.

So we're looking at the FF as Kennedy-era heroes. Not "super heroes", because this is the MCU and they really didn't have "super heroes" until Tony Stark held his press conference, but celebrities--Reed Richards, nicknamed by the media as "Mister Fantastic", and his amazing friends that journalists are already calling "The Fantastic Four". Known and lauded for their amazing achievement in reaching the moon with an experimental spacecraft of their own design and leapfrogging the Commies in the Space Race. Their "costumes" would be more like uniforms, jumpsuits that they wear when testing Reed's latest exotic inventions. They'd be famous, people would even know that they had superpowers...but one key element of their exciting story would be kept secret from the world at large.

Namely, supervillains. (After all, you don't really get superheroes until you get bad guys. Before that, they're just "cool dudes with powers".) My idea is that they work secretly for SHIELD, and its Director Peggy Carter. (Because Hayley Atwell is da bomb.) They deal with geopolitical threats too dangerous to even allow the wider world to know about, such as the mad dictator Doctor Doom, the subterranean tyrant known as the Mole Man, and Kang, the deadly foe from the future who threatens to enslave the human race, and who by all the evidence is destined to succeed. In fact, I'd make Kang the villain of the first MCU FF movie--not only does it get away from the whole, "Oh God, not Doctor Doom again!" factor, it also sets up the important factor in getting the FF involved with all the other superheroes...by the end, Reed Richards has time travel.

Not precise time travel, or otherwise you've just wrecked the storytelling engine--it's impossible to get closer than the right decade. But the first movie would end with Reed, Sue, Ben and Johnny realizing that the future is literally right there waiting for them. And that, they have to see. They time-jump fifty years into the future, ready to see all the wonders that exist in that brave new world...and pop out in the middle of the next Avengers movie, ideally right in the middle of the most dramatic fight scene ever where Earth's Mightiest Heroes are outmatched and desperate.

And what then? Well, allow me to quote one of the wisest sages of our era, a true Renaissance man with a deep appreciation for fine sculpture and fine food alike: "It's clobberin' time!"

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Vision for Mars

I was reading this article on the Mars One project the other day (warning: the article is worksafe, but the title may not be something you want to have front and center when your boss walks in) and thinking about the key point therein: We do not have the technology to sustain human life on Mars, because things break and spare parts are somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 million miles away. According to the article, we will not truly be able to set up a colony on Mars until we can make it self-sustaining...that is to say, until everything the Martian colonists need can be found on Mars itself.

And it got me thinking. We are, in some ways, already deep in the post-human era of humankind. We are still somewhat limited in the ways we can modify ourselves (although growing less limited by the day) but we are already to the point where we can make surrogate bodies that are able to better withstand inhospitable environments and that technology is improving with vast leaps on a daily basis. Mars One talks about sending people to Mars to set up a colony, but why bother when we can make shiny metal people who do whatever we tell them and don't need to breathe?

My vision is this: We begin sending robots to Mars. Not just one or two, like Spirit and Opportunity, and not just to explore. We design a robot or a team of robots that can find out if there are natural resources on Mars that humans could use to create a self-sustaining colony--water, mineral resources, fuel, et cetera--and then, and this is the cool bit, we send robots that are miniature factories. They would be able to build the colony...and this is the really cool bit...and they would also be able to machine parts to build more robots and repair/replace parts from broken robots. Basically, I'm talking von Neumann machines, but with an end goal of building a self-sustaining, habitable environment suitable for humans. I know it sounds like science fiction, but so does building a self-propelled camera to go take a look at Pluto and that happened last month.

And once we have that, well...then we can start the big step. We can live on Mars, and I feel sure that someday we will. But the smart way to do it is send our shiny metal children ahead of us to prepare the way.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Review: Rifftrax - Shorts Assemble!

I recently got another Rifftrax DVD for my birthday, this one titled "Shorts Assemble!" There are no superhero shorts on here, which is a shame because it's not like they don't have "Rescueman" and at least two "Safety Woman" shorts to choose from, but it's not like "Order in the Shorts" had a lot to do with educational films about the law, either. This one is a pretty good collection--as always with these educational films, a big part of the fun isn't even the riffing so much as it is the chance to immerse yourself in the utter insanity of a world where everyone has a monomaniacal obsession with whatever topic is under discussion, and the frequent ability to warp reality on a whim. Let's break it down short by short and you can decide whether it's worth your hard-earned scratch, okay?

Corky the Crow: This is basically about a group of kids who decide to trap crop-devouring birds and then train them, presumably to attack their enemies. It's got a weird framing sequence where a teacher discusses the events of the short, which she's presumably projecting with her mind. It's kind of creepy weird, and the riffers have plenty to work with.

Live and Learn: Small children "reenact" dangerous and possibly fatal play activities in ways that really seem like they're being endangered all over again. Gasoline, rooftops, scissors and twenty-foot cliffs are involved, as well as copious amounts of bandages. I cannot stress enough how creepy this thing is. The riffers barely need to anything, as you will be shocked into horrified laughter simply due to the callous indifference to children's safety on display in, ironically enough, a children's safety short.

Maintaining Classroom Discipline: I feel like I'd seen this one before, but my roommate may have bought the streaming/download version and shown it to me. Basically, it's about a teacher who shrieks unrelentingly about how terrible his class is until they openly hate and disdain his attempts to instill knowledge into them, then the narrator magically rewinds time to show how much easier everyone's life would have been if he hadn't been such a jackass. Amusing if only because the actor playing the teacher really gets into his kid-hating role.

Nutrition - The All-American Meal: Basically just a solid ten minutes or so of people explaining how terrible Americans are for liking fast food, coupled with stream-of-consciousness still photography of people, food, and people eating food. After a while, the sheer absurdity of the random images of people all over the world and throughout history interacting with edible things in some way will give you the giggles even if the riffers gave up and stopped talking altogether, but thankfully they don't and there are some excellent jokes.

Perc! Pop! Sprinkle!: It's an exercise video for kids, designed by someone who's clearly skipped breakfast and is absolutely obsessed with things like coffeemakers and toasters. Their deranged attempts at coming up with toaster-themed exercises are absolutely hilarious, although the poor kids who had to do this garbage probably didn't think so. A genuine classic.

Safety With Animals: Another film that has a deeply ironic, highly dubious relationship with its own title, this one shows various kids teasing animals until they get attacked, while the narrator explains what they're doing wrong and how it's likely to result in an incident with a headline involving the word "maul". Half the fun in these is listening to the reactions of the riffers that aren't even so much jokes as clear and righteous indignation over the obvious and callous indifference to the fate of these poor kids.

Story-Telling - Can You Tell It In Order?: Clown. Scary clown. Scary elderly clown in a void of pitch darkness, telling stories about small children getting undressed and going to bed. I kind of blacked out after that from sheer, incoherent terror, but I'm given to believe it just goes on like that with the clown occasionally pausing to make sure you're remembering the horrific events in the right order. NOT for coulrophobics, but truly something to behold for everyone else.

The Clean Club: The highlight of the disc. A trio of creepy Claymation germs hang out in a small child's hair follicle and perform a spoken word song about how lucky they are to be hanging out on a dirty child, as opposed to all the other children whose household objects came to life and forced them to exercise basic hygiene. Just as they think they're safe, though, the items in the kid's bathroom demand compliance to the rituals of cleanliness, and they're ruthlessly murdered by talking soap and shampoo. As strange as this sounds, it does not fully convey the experience of "The Clean Club". This is the platonic ideal of absolute crazy educational shorts.

The Toymaker: A toymaker makes two puppets that look different from each other, then has them engage in vicious race-baiting for several minutes before allowing them to realize that they're nothing but animated extensions of his own personality, and that it's foolish for them to fight. Looks like nothing so much as an insane person bickering with his hands. Great fun.

What Makes Things Float?: Probably the closest thing this disc has to a dud, primarily because there's really not a whole lot of "sizzle" to explaining why a sponge floats and a lead weight sinks even without devoting what feels like hours to the topic. When most of the jokes are variants on, "This is boring and you're explaining it to us like we're morons," you can tell you're not in for the best time. Still, there are some good jokes in among the variants on the theme, and it's not totally skippable.

On the whole, I'd have to recommend this one pretty highly. There's a lot of cheerfully deranged material that lends itself to riffing, and at least one short I'd put on my all-time best list. No superheroes, but this one will definitely save you from a few hours of boredom.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Public Service Announcement About...THE PLAGUE!

Seriously, do not worry about the plague.

This has been in the news lately, because apparently reporters have the attention span of goldfish and if something happens with less frequency than, say, once a year it becomes an entirely new event that must be breathlessly reported on each time it happens. (And if something happens twice in a year, it's a "trend".) But yes, someone picked up a case of bubonic plague, because that is a real disease that still exists and can be communicated to humans.

But this is not a thing to worry about. I mean, obviously it is if you have it, because it's a serious disease that can be fatal if not treated, but we are not due for a bubonic plague pandemic. Obama does not need to have a plan for the bubonic plague. Because we already have a plan for the bubonic plague, and it's "don't go play with wild rodents". It's worked very well for a long period of time, and I suspect it will continue to work for generations to come.

The reason that you will, occasionally, hear about people getting the plague is because about 150 years ago (give or take), the bubonic plague crossed from Eurasia to the Americas (probably through rats coming into San Franciso, where there was a significant outbreak among the Chinese immigrant population at the time) and got into the wild rodent population. Plague is transmitted via flea bite, and rodents tend to be social animals, so when one of them gets it, they all do. This isn't a big deal if you're a rat or a prairie dog, because it's much less deadly to rodents than it is to humans, but humans that come into close contact with sick rodents can be infected as the fleas jump from the dying animal to the healthy human.

A thousand years ago, this was a pretty big deal, because sanitation and hygiene and proper food storage were all things that hadn't been invented yet. Rats? All over the damn place. Sick and dying rats? You could find them in the gutters, the wells, the barns, the outhouses, your kitchen...and where there were dead rats, there were hungry and desperate fleas to carry the plague to the nearest warm body. And antibiotics? Not even a glimmer in anyone's eye. Hell, they didn't even know how the plague was being transmitted. Being swarmed by a cloud of fleas after handling a dead rat and dying of bubonic plague were just a couple of weird coincidences to medieval peasants.

But these days, all of that is very different. Rodent populations in the American Southwest are too widely scattered, and contact with humans is too infrequent, for the plague to spread far or happen often. Even when the occasional rat or mouse gets close to a human, we have an arsenal of traps, poisons, and other means to keep it from becoming a breeding colony that could infect large numbers of people. The disease is contracted so rarely, and is taken so seriously by medical officials when it happens, that there's almost no chance of an antibiotic-resistant strain popping up. And direct human-to-human transmission of the disease is incredibly rare even by the standards of the six to seven cases a year that crop up; it needs the rats and the fleas to spread to human beings, and modern civilization has taken a lot of care to make sure that we don't see either one very often.

So basically, avoid playing with wild rodents, especially ones that are sick, dying or already dead, and you should be fine. If you find a dead rat, take appropriate precautions when handling its corpse and you should be fine. If you feel sick after handling a dead rat with your bare hands (and why did you do that? Did you not read anything else in this blog post?) then go see a doctor, and you should be fine. If you read an article about the plague and start panicking, re-read this post, possibly while drinking a glass of red wine, and you should be fine. If you're fine already, you should continue to be fine.

This has been a public service announcement about...THE PLAGUE!