Stranger Frustrations

If you’re American and you have Netflix, odds are you’ve watched Stranger Things. And I am no exception. Most people love Stranger Things and it’s not hard to see why. The pacing in Stranger Things is intense. Most episodes whirl you through a series of slowly building stakes along two or three parallel stories culminating in a blockbuster finale that puts a cherry on top of it all. And, perhaps most impressive of all, the show does this twice.

There’s a lot to like about Stranger Things. Long time readers know this means I’m about to switch gears and tell you everything I hate about the show. So let’s get down to it.

I enjoyed my time with Stranger Things. But I also didn’t enjoy it as much as many other people I know. I didn’t count down the days until it came out and I didn’t binge the entire series as soon as it was available. Part of this is because I have a life that makes demands of my time. Most of it was because I wasn’t highly invested in watching the series. The pacing of Stranger Things is one of its strongest points hands down. By whirling the audience from one new revelation to another the Duffer brothers keep their audience breathless with excitement and anticipation, never really thinking about things that have been but rather focused on things that are coming. That’s a huge accomplishment. On top of that there’s some amazingly strong character writing and acting. Every award Stranger Things won it deserved.

Problem is when I wasn’t watching Stranger Things I was thinking about things. So, while I want to praise Stranger Things some next week, I hope you’ll indulge a bit of griping this week as we discuss the details that keep Stranger Things off my list of great TV shows – at least for now. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to discuss

-SPOILERS- 

so please stop reading if, by some chance, you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet and that kind of thing bothers you.

Let’s start with blood.

You know, the stuff that lured the Demogorgon out when Jon and Nancy trapped it, that led it to the deer which brought Nancy into the Upside Down, that attracted it to Barb leading to her untimely demise. Stranger Things makes it seem like blood is very important to the Demogorgon somehow. Except that it’s not.

You remember Will Byers? Y’know, the kid who’s disappearance starts everything in Stranger Things season one? He isn’t bleeding when the Demogorgon attacks him. More than that, season two establishes that Demogogons in general will follow food that has no blood in it at all, like Three Musketeers candy bars or bologna. In fact, none of the Mind Flayer’s influenced entities seem to react to blood in any special way in season two.

So why the random blood imagery? The only reason I can think of is to make the viewer uncomfortable, as seeing injured people is want to do. It’s blatant emotional manipulation. Now manipulating audience emotions is the job of a writer but if you get caught doing it that’s generally bad. Worse, it makes the monster inconsistent, almost as if the Duffers are writing the monsters in whatever way they thought would be creepiest, rather than as actual menaces to the cast with their own inscrutable goals.

Season two has another case of this when Bob Newby dies. Monsters that had been vigilantly patrolling the halls, ignoring dozens of dead bodies, suddenly stop hunting active targets to devour his body after killing him. Gotta let those main characters escape, right? This makes even less sense when, a few episodes earlier, we see that the Mind Flayer can make Demodogs ignore easily available prey in favor of its own priorities when they leave the kids in the junkyard alone. Again, these inconsistencies make the emotional manipulation at work clear and make it harder to stay immersed. We watch Bob get eaten because he was a kind, caring, upstanding person and we’re supposed to be sad and angry at his death. Watching his body desecrated pushes us in that direction.

The biggest question of all is why the solution to the Mind Flayer in season two was so… simple. The original Demogorgon pulled open holes between the upside down and Hawkins on a semi regular basis. But, even with a huge presence in Hawkins and far more intelligence and power at its disposal than the Demogorgon, the Mind Flayer only ever relies on one gate to maintain its hold. Why didn’t it open at least one other gate and secure its power base that way? It managed to widen the primary door easily enough.

There are other, minor, moments of frustrating decision making on the part of the writers. In season one the only reason for Nancy to crawl under a tree into the upside down after a something that ran off with the body of a deer while she knows there’s something in town abducting people is so the story can ratchet up the tension. If Will was so sensitive to heat that Joyce had to keep the front door open why wasn’t the Mind Flayer purged from him over the summer? It routinely gets into the 90s outside. If that’s not hot enough how hot does it have to be? The human body can only take so much. Or did it just survive so we could have a second season? Again, it’s just so much disappointing and transparent audience manipulation.

Look, none of these things a dealbreakers. They don’t make Stranger Things a bad TV show. But they do kind of chip away at immersion and disappoint people who like consistency in their fiction. Stranger Things is good TV, and if you get hyped for the inevitable season three then by all means watch it. But that’s not to say the Duffers couldn’t do better on some fronts and I hope they will. But even if they don’t I’ll still check it out just because they are so good at what they do. Drop back next week and we’ll unpack that a bit more too.

Another Kingdom – Murder in the Arcane

Every writer wants to write about writers. It’s a weird obsession we have. Stephen King has made a career of it (not entirely but a large part of it). As an author of thrillers Andrew Klavan has steered away from this cliché, at least in those books of his I have read, as most writers are not the athletic, rush towards danger, survive and thrive types. But, as a clever, scheming, determined author Klavan found a work around and, honestly, it’s a pretty simple one. Many thrillers just throw normal people into a situation where they have no idea what’s going on and are in mortal danger then let things unfold from there. Klavan uses the same formula in his new story Another Kingdom, except he’s replaced the normal person with an aspiring Hollywood writer.

Another Kingdom is an interesting experience, taking the form of an audiobook in podcast form, read by actor Michael J. Knowles with some decent sound design to add atmosphere. Knowles has a decent vocal range and the good judgement not to try and force himself too far out of his comfort zone to read the voices of some characters. His emotional range is a bit of a question mark as the story hasn’t pushed him in very many directions yet. He does do dazed and confused quite well, but he’s also an actor so there’s that.

There are three big mysteries in Another Kingdom. First, why does Austin Lively keep going from L.A. to a mysterious fantasy world? Second, who murdered the woman found dead at his feet on Austin’s first trip to said fantasy world? Third, why did Austin read a book by the title “Another Kingdom” that mentioned said fantasy world a few months before his trips there began?

We don’t get any of the answers to these questions quickly, which is to the story’s credit. Austin keeps flipping from our world to the other at least once a chapter so the answers to all questions are pursued at a similar rate, which is fast enough to satisfy but not so fast as to give us answers too easily. In short, waiting to find out what’s going on with Austin is pleasantly frustrating, which is what any good thriller author should want.

There are a number of scenes that caused me to raise eyebrows scattered throughout the tale so far, in particular a video call with Austin’s younger sister which doesn’t seem like it will be directly relevant to the story beyond generally expanding our understanding of Austin himself. These kinds of scenes are common in storytelling but rare in thrillers, which try to keep a very brisk pacing to keep audiences hooked. This has the unfortunate side effect of making every scene of this type look like it could be a hidden flag for something important later on. Such scenes can be distracting for some in the audience, myself included, as we try and place them in the grander scheme of things. Still, Klavan manages to make everything else interesting enough that our interest isn’t always drawn to a single out-of-place moment. And it is a problem more for authors than general audiences.

The best part of Another Kingdom is the sense of purpose everything has infused in it. Austin’s world weighs on him in a way that drives him always to the next thing, as if some greater destiny is calling him from point to point until he discovers the truth behind it all. Not a shy truth, reluctant to be known, but a truth that is calling to him, laying out every step, every clue in the hope he’ll discover it. Lending weight to that sense of destiny is Klavan’s excellent portrayal of the strange, emotionally taxing life of the average aspiring Hollywood artist giving a creditable, tangible, real point of reference amidst all the fantastic elements of Austin’s predicament.

Another Kingdom is not a fantasy story for everyone. It doesn’t have much in the way of magic or even well explored mechanics to it (at least so far). No time passes in one world when Austin is in the other, a strange take on the world crossing conceit, especially as Austin has vague memories of what he did in the other world before his first visit. This is such a point of confusion for him that I’m sure it will be addressed later, but this kind of obfuscation will undoubtedly frustrate some scifi fantasy connoisseurs. Likewise, the murder mystery premise, quite well trod in any number of genres, will probably be a turn off to some readers as well. But if that kind of thing does pique your interest and you don’t mind some harsh language and mild violence Another Kingdom might be a story for you.

West of Loathing: Absurdism in the Weird West

When I was in college there was this game called Kingdom of Loathing that many of my friends and acquaintances played. It was a simple game filled with stick figures and a love for puns and absurdist humor. Kingdom of Loathing still exists but I’ve long since moved on. The game’s biggest strength was it’s writing and sense of the absurd – and the fact that you could try and beat it while under ridiculous restrictions, like teleporting at random all the time. Problem was, once you’d experienced all the humor a few times the charm rubbed off and only the silly challenge plays were left. It wasn’t my cup of tea.

When I heard that the same writing and development team was putting together a single player game full of their stock in trade humor called West of Loathing I got a little excited. And when it finally came out I ignored my usual policy of waiting for a sale and bought it at full price, just so I could see if it was everything I’d hoped for.

The game’s graphics menu has a colorblind option. The art consists entirely of black and white stickfigures. Toggling back and forth between colorblind and normal does nothing. And with that I knew we were off to a good start. The “Best Font” option sets all text in the game to the Ariel font and comes with a request that you please, please don’t use it. Yes, Loathing is here in full force.

West of Loathing does not have a story per se. The only goal is to go from the east side of the map to the west – just like people in the Old West, you’re looking to Go West. There will be goblins and aliens and practitioners of Southerwestern Bean Magic Cooking – the Nex-Mex. But for the most part, except for a single sequence at the very end of the game, you’re left to wander wherever you want to go and see what you want to see and however much or little of it you see you’ll still be able to finish the game. There’s even a “ending cutscene” that sums up your adventures and then leaves you to go wander some more if you want.

And in spite of being an RPG the game has very basic combat. Your character and one of three “pardner” NPCs square off against hostiles and flail at each other a bit, balancing equipment and stats in pretty straightforward ways. It’s straightfowardness is actually kind of dull. But it is fair and is typically pretty easy so at least you won’t get caught up in a dull combat encounter and not be able to get past it.

Where the game really shines is in the problem solving. West of Loathing is stuffed full of weird puzzles and strange characters you can choose to outwit, rather than outfight. Whether you’re wandering through a graveyard, decoding messages on tombstones, trying to work out a grim Nex-Mex formula from the snatches of dialog overheard from cultists while hiding in a wardrobe or just swindling a stupid goblin out of his own pants with your Hornswogglin’ skill, every situation West of Loathing has a creative bent to it that will let you do things more graphically impressive but less ambitious games never attempt. What other game will let you fight bandits, trick them, or release a giant spider to eat them?

The other great point of West of Loathing is the writing. While there’s no story in the game there are stories. The first thing you learn about the world is that The Cows Came Home. A few years back all those cows humanity ate opened portals from hell and wreaked a horrible revenge upon the ranches of the west. It was horrific and hilarious at the same time, I’m sure. You find hints as to what happened scattered all throughout the world as you travel and each one is a delight to poke through. You can also choose to do weird stuff like dig through every spitoon you find for treasure. It’s disgusting and the game makes sure to shame you for it every time in lengthy and increasingly creative ways until, finally, at the end, you break its will and and it gives up on you. But my favorite part of the game is Ghostwood, where you have to help the town of Breadwood secure a logging permit. It must be experienced to be believed.

West of Loathing is crafted with care. From the Shaggy Dog Cave, which is exactly what you think, to the El Vibratto, which is not, Asymmetric Software has paid careful attention to making the weirdest, funniest, most tongue in cheek Western post apocalyptic stick figure game you have ever played. If you’re looking for a light hearted laugh while you romp through a world that never existed – but maybe should have – West of Loathing is for you.

The Orville is not Star Trek But It Really Wants To Be

Star Trek: Discovery was one of the best attempts to insult an entire fanbase in a single go I’ve ever seen. Many disappointed Trekkies turned to The Orville, on Fox, to see if it was any good. Intrigued, I went as well, less to find a replacement for Star Trek and more as a curious scifi connoisseur. The results were…. mixed.

Seth Macfarlane thinks he’s funny. I don’t. Seth Macfarlane loves Star Trek. So do I. Seth Macfarlane is best known for producing “humor” for Fox, and got to make The Orville in no small part because he’s brought the network a lot of money in the past. That he would be expected to blend the two together is no surprise. Whether it works and can keep working is another question entirely.

The Orville‘s biggest strength is Seth Macfarlane’s love for the genre and his desire to tribute it. It’s biggest weakness is Macfarlane’s extremely questionable sense of humor.

Let me start by praising the show. The Orville looks far more like Roddenberry’s vision of the future than anything we’ve seen on CBS. It’s bright, it’s positive, it’s ambitious and cooperative. It tackles social questions in quirky ways that sometimes hit and sometimes miss. There are also some pretty big differences from Star Trek. The most glaring is the way The Orville relies heavily on Macfarlane’s sense of humor to fill running time.

It’s hard to come up with a good way to look at The Orville, as it’s not Star Trek but so closely mimics the Star Trek format that it’s hard to draw a meaningful distinction. The Trek formula, as noted last week, is much about the Crew confronting Problems in Space and Solving them. The crew is very much a unit, although Captain Mercer (Seth Macfarlane) and Commander Grayson (Adrianne Palicki) play a slightly larger role than the others. The Orville itself hasn’t developed much of a personality yet, although it hasn’t been blown to shreds yet and it does have the advantage of being a very pretty vehicle with a distinctive silhouette and we get to see a lot of shots of it doing interesting things in the pilot episode and the opening credits.

Also, kudos to The Orville showrunners for seeing the importance of the opening credits for setting the tone of the show. Unlike the Discovery opening, which makes the show seem like it’s about equipment schematics, The Orville opens with the beauty and wonder of space and shows the ship taking us on a romp through it. Exactly what we want to see.

The acting is pretty good. This is my first time seeing Macfarlane live on camera and I find him to be a pretty charismatic guy. The whole cast does well with their parts but major props go to Peter Macon as Lt. Cmdr. Bortus, who has mastered the Worf effect of emoting constantly in spite of speaking very little and being locked behind serious prosthetics. The casting goes one step further with Halston Sage, who plays Lt. Alara Kitan. Kitan is an alien from a high gravity world and she is shorter and more compact than the other crew, which is the kind of build suggested by our modern understanding of gravity and human/humanoid physiology. There’s real chemistry among the crew as well, especially between Macfarlane and his costars.

However, while Macfarlane as an actor brings some of the strongest chops The Orville has, he’s the show’s greatest weakness as well. His sense of “humor” revolves around setting up incredibly awkward situations and expecting us to laugh at them, as in the sequence where Mercer and Grayson – a divorced couple – get stuck talking to Mercer’s parents on the bridge of their ship in “Command Performance”. Or the awkward elevator sequence in “If the Stars Should Appear”. Then there’s the reliance on non-sequitors for humor, which generally whiffs as in the Elvis’ Last Words bit in “Command Performance” and a general reliance on crude humor which is going to be very subjective. Humor, of course, is subjective over all but this show is going to be more subjective than most. For me, only about 15-20% of the humor lands and the rest is eyerolling at best or interrupts my immersion in the show at worst.

It’s too bad because The Orville does do one thing perfectly and that, surprisingly enough, is engaging with the cultural issues of the day in a thoughtful manner. “About a Girl” tackles a wide swath of issues from transgenderism and parenting to gender roles in ways that are not always well thought out but clearly come from a position of respect and compassion and never offers us easy answers or pat moralizing. “Command Performance” is a well thought out, show length gag at the expense of reality TV and its effects on our culture and privacy. “If the Stars Should Appear” questions where we will put the balance between systems that have kept us alive and well and the omnipresent need to change and grow. Of them all, “If the Stars Should Appear” is the most pat and tropey but still manages to make overtures to both sides of its discussion, a feature missing from most media looking at the modern culture wars.

Most of all, The Orville is optimistic. Where many shows today are postmoderm pessimism fests The Orville is bright and energetic, chasing that future it’s sure we can find if we just pull together and put our best foot forward. There’s a place for everyone there, from the self-satisfied and superior robot Isaac to the taciturn and antisocial Bortus, and everyone in between. I’m not sure how much more of The Orville I’ll watch but I praise Macfarlane for putting the show together. In spite of its flaws it’s exactly what we need more of – a show that tries to keep an open mind while looking for the brightest future it can find.

Voltron: The Legendary Five Man Band

A month or so ago I wrote about how five man groups are pretty much the gold standard for good storytelling, presenting good options for different character dynamics without bringing too many characters for the audience to track to the table.

There’s a great example of this character dynamic in the Netflix series Voltron: Legendary Defender. The basic premise of this shown is that five ancient and powerful alien war robots fall into the hands of human pilots, who must then wield them as separate entities and in the combined super robot known as Voltron. These five pilots are, of course, the core five man band of the show. The cast starts out by with a central cast that fits basic archetypes – Shiro, the soldier, Keith, the loner, Lance, the goofball, Hunk, the anxious, and Pidge, the nerd. These archetypes quickly flesh out as the character’s various motivations keep them moving at odds with one another.

The clearest example of this is Pidge, a girl who is passing herself as a boy in an effort to track down her father and brother, who went missing on a deep space mission. She’s hiding her identity because she’s already drawn too much bad attention from the authorities prying into classified files but, when she meets Shiro, who disappeared on the same mission and reappears under equally mysterious circumstances, she has to decide how much she trusts him and the three others whisked away on the wild ride they’re undertaking. It’s a particularly cryptic balancing act to watch as we’re not aware Pidge is a girl at first.

Character dynamics are at the heart of Voltron, from the clashing personalities of Keith and Lance to the uncertain relationship between Allura, the alien princess who’s father built Voltron, and her human paladins. But these aren’t the only important character dynamics. In fact, arguably the most important character dynamic exists between Shiro, the tyrannical Emperor Zarkon, and the Black Lion, the war machine both men wielded in battle at one time. Zarkon seeks to reclaim the lion with single-minded zeal while Shiro is driven by conscience and a clear desire not to let down his current team like he fears he did his last. (Shiro has a touch of the amnesia.)

It’s not just the heroes who have good character dynamics. There are interesting faces and motives among the villains as well, including factions and traitors, double agents who give the two sides multiple points of contact and an interesting glimpse into how the two sides are similar and different. It’s this kind of character writing that makes the show so very compelling and, with the third season introducing a five man band on the villain’s side, we can only expect these dynamics to go deeper.

Last week I went on about how I’ve found Marvel’s Netflix lineup to be incredibly lackluster. Serviceable but not compelling. Oddly enough, Voltron, with a total running time comparable to the length of Daredevil alone, has managed to build more compelling villains and, as a direct result, more compelling heroes than the entire Marvel Netflix line.

Voltron doesn’t just have strong heroes with deep flaws, who bond with each other in interesting and meaningful ways. It has surprisingly deep villains in a struggle that makes it clear one side has a moral edge over the other without letting the villains become caricatures or jokes. While Zarkon can come off as a bit of a tantrum thrower his deep connection to the Black Lion and a fuller understanding of his history, as revealed in season three, actually makes his single mindedness a little clearer. If I have one worry about the future of the show it’s how the story seems to be casting Zarkon as a victim of crystallized evil, rather than a man who turned to evil of his own volition, seeking goals he thought were good. There’s elements of both in his story right now.

C.S. Lewis’ most lasting works of fiction were the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of books that meant for children that people of all ages love reading over and over. Sometimes stories meant for children make the strongest impressions and one thing is sure – Voltron: Legendary Defender may be aimed at children but it’s making a really strong impression right now. Worth checking out if you have the time.

The Ampersand

We’re going to talk about China Meiville’s Railsea and it’s going to include spoilers. You’ve been warned.

That said, we’re not actually going to talk about the plot of Railsea but the worldbuilding. Knowing this doesn’t change the story itself in any way. But, in many respects, the best part of Railsea is… well, the railsea. Everything in this strange, topsy-turvy world runs on rails and the book is full of strange little touches that help you remember that this is not the world you know.

What’s nice is that the story never goes out of its way to shove those moments into your face. They’re subtle and pointed, always clearly intended to illustrate some aspect of Meiville’s world that is different from ours. Well, most of the worldbuilding is that way. There was one aspect of it that shows up on the first page, digs its claws into you and won’t stop annoying you for at least fifty more pages. The phenomenon is thus: the prose never uses a comma in lists but rather stringing them together with a series of ands. Except the letters “a”, “n” and “d” are never written in that order anywhere in the text of the book. Every instance of the word “and” is replaced with The Ampersand. You can even begin sentences with &, removing the need for capital letters.

To make a confession: I hated this tendency at first. The prose was cluttered with unnecessary conjunctions and the ampersand jumped out at me whenever it was used, never quite enough to break the flow of the story but enough to grab at the back of the mind. It was wrong but I was enjoying the rest of the book enough to struggle through. Eventually, the ampersands faded into the background. Then I reached Railsea chapter 33 and read these words:

“The lines of the railsea go everywhere but from one place straight to another. It is always switchback, junction, coils around & over our own train-trails.

What word better could there be to symbolize the railsea that connects and separates all lands, than ‘&’ itself? Where else does the railsea take us but to this place & that one & that one & that one, & so on? & what better embodies, in the sweep of the pen, the recurved motion of trains, than ‘&’?”

Mind. Blown.

Most of us think of worldbuilding in terms of what happened in the history of the world, or what they eat, or how they dress, or what kind of governments there are, what kind of buildings they build, what kind of rituals they have for births, marriages and deaths. That kind of stuff is well and good. It’s an important part of cultures and traditions to understand these things. The same is true for ecology, environment and larger scale parts of the picture. But what Meiville did with The Ampersand was go a level deeper.

He asked the very simple question, “If the world is fundamentally like this, what kind of changes might happen to the very ways people think? The way they talk? The way they write?”

Then, instead of a long Martin-esque exposition about traditions and rituals, he just shows us the people of that world acting like they would and lets us get used to it, no matter how odd it first strikes us. In time the curtain is pulled back for us but when it is we’ve already grown so used to the strangeness that the explanation is just icing on the cake.

This kind of worldbuilding is great but have care. Without the other worldbuilding, the careful assembly of ideas into a coherent culture and environment, you can’t come up with something like The Ampersand. What makes The Ampersand so striking is that Meiville did all that work and then went a level further. He came up with an idea that fit his world so perfectly then went back and hid all his tracks, weaving it into the fabric of his tale page by page until he found the right time to share it. This is not a technique to try and use at the start of worldbuilding but at the end. But if you do use it that way and you’re very patient it can make for a great culmination to the work.