Two Strings and a Clockwork Orange

Kubo and the Two Strings is a wonderfully written and animated movie that I found profoundly disturbing. I want to talk about what I loved about it but I also want to talk about what bothered me and in order to do the second part I’m going to have to get into major spoilers. Like, discussing how Kubo finally defeated his villain and what the fallout of that was. You’ve been warned.

Let me start with the basics. Kubo is a kid missing his dad and his mom isn’t always there, mentally speaking. He can also control paper by playing music on his shamisen (a Japanese instrument vaguely like a banjo) and he’s missing an eye that his grandfather, the Moon King, stole from him when he was a baby. Naturally, the plot kicks off when Kubo’s grandfather discovers where his grandson has been hiding all these years.

Kubo leaves his mother and, with the help of Monkey, a guardian statue turned real, and Beetle, an anthropomorphic beetle who claims to know Kubo’s father somehow and lost his memories to the Moon King, the boy must collect the three pieces of a legendary suit of armor and defeat his grandfather.

When Kubo is slow and meandering it’s still pretty good. When the story moves then it’s great. I particularly liked the character moments between Monkey, Beetle and Kubo. The three aren’t together long before it becomes clear that these are the parents Kubo never had – quite literally as the Monkey contains the fragment of his mother’s soul that was lacking in her for so long and the Beetle is Kubo’s father, transformed and rendered amnesiac by the Moon King’s power. The bristly but unified way Kubo’s parents act before they realize this fact makes their odd couple romance plainly obvious to the audience while not shoving in our face. I also appreciate the fact that, even when they don’t know who the other is, there’s never any competition between the two or any attempt on the screenwriter’s part to make one look better than the other.

Beetle is focused on goals, finishing Kubo’s quest and making him strong and independent. Monkey focuses on keeping him safe and provided for. It’s a pleasing dynamic and conflict in it comes very naturally and is resolved in equally satisfying ways. More movie families should be written like this one.

The Moon King was an interesting but underdeveloped character. His sense of personal perfection was an understandable driving force and I liked the symbolism of his taking Kubo’s eyes to represent his trying to blind him to the value of others. His winding up with the eye he took from Kubo replacing one of his blind eyes was a nice touch.

My one gripe with the writing is how obvious they made it that the momentos from Kubo’s parents – a lock of hair from his mother and his father’s bowstring – would form new strings for the shamisen after Kubo broke the old ones. I think it would have bothered me less if he hadn’t broken his instruments strings until after he had both momentos or if the old strings hadn’t broken at all and replacing them had been a necessary part of his working his final magic. Or, y’know, if that little plot element hadn’t been spoiled in the title of the movie.

So yeah, the movie was written great and animated in a fun and distinct way which I found beautiful and expressive but can’t really explain well in writing. (I know, I know, I got one job…) All that said, why did the movie disturb me?

Because it’s a kids film and it portrays A Clockwork Orange as a recipe for utopian paradise. Let me explain.

In addition to giving his grandfather his left eye, Kubo also brainwashes the Moon King. After Kubo works his final magic the Moon King has no memories, just like Kubo’s father in beetle form. So Kubo tell the Moon King he is a man of compassion and kindness. The movie has established Kubo as a great storyteller and entertainer and Kubo turns his abilities to convincing the Moon King he’s never been anything but a kind old grandfather in a small village and said village joins in the scam. This leads directly to the film’s “happy ending”.

“The stories we tell ourselves” is a running theme through Kubo and, as a storyteller myself, I kind of understand what they’re saying. Seeing our life as a story is a tool to help us make some sense of it. We could look at it that way and draw some solace from that fact, I have no problem with that notion so long as we keep in mind that we’re not the entirety of the story but a part of a much larger story unfolding all around us. That philosophical rabbit hole is not where we’re going today.

What bothers me about the ending of Kubo and the Two Strings is that Kubo stole his grandfather’s story by force, just as the Moon King stole from Kubo’s father and mother. Worse, Kubo replaced the Moon King’s identity with a lie. Sure, the story glosses that over with a happy ending but Kubo’s solution is nothing of the kind. Lies always get found out and, no matter how well intentioned they might be, the destroy trust between the liar and the victim. If the Moon King was an implacable and dangerous foe before being violated in such a way what will he be after the deception comes to light? Kubo didn’t tell a story to help someone know themselves, he told them a story to hide the truth from them and in doing so he let down the author’s first duty, to his audience.

Worse, the Moon King’s entire purpose in the story was undermined. Instead of being confronted with his shortcomings by Kubo’s stronger character the Moon King was just swept under a rug, he was never given the chance to overcome the villain he was nor did his villainy destroy him. He’s never confronted by how his lack of compassion would destroy him and he’s poorer for it, as are we the audience.

Ultimately, while Kubo and the Two Strings does a great job showing us it’s characters and their struggles the only thing I can take away from the tale is this: Kubo’s flawed human compassion was no better than the Moon King’s lack of compassion. What was needed was a story of perfect compassion.

Reading List, Part Five

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: First in a trilogy

Out of the Silent Planet is the beginning of Lewis’ greatest series of novels. While Narnia may be his best known franchise those who’s exposure to his fiction ends there are truly missing out. (His greatest single novel is undoubtedly Til We Have Faces, which is a topic for another time.) Oddly enough this story started as a sort of dare between Lewis and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien where Lewis was to write a spacefaring story and Tolkien a time traveling one. Sadly, Tolkien’s story doesn’t exist in it’s entirety. But Out of the Silent Planet does and it’s pretty good.

Dr. Elwin Ransom, a character loosely based on Tolkien, is a student of languages who attempts to help a person he sees being abducted but winds up an abductee himself. A few drugs later he finds himself in a spaceship headed towards Mars. Once on planet Ransom escapes his captors and makes contact with the locals, setting in motion a long trip to meet the guardian of the planet and a deeper understanding of the solar system.

While Out of the Silent Planet is not the most exciting or gripping book on it’s own it does serve as the foundation for the trilogy. Perelandra, the sequel is arguably the best and well worth struggling through the slower parts of Silent Planet. After all, where else can you read about Not-Quite-Tolkien fighting hand to hand with the devil incarnate? That Hideous Strength combines the high concepts of the first two books with a sense of foreboding and suspense that you won’t get anywhere else in Lewis’ writing. All three books are well worth the read.

Lost Triumph, by Tom Carhart

Genre(s): Military History, Nonfiction

The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg is a mystery to many. The almost invincible Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent a division under the command of Major General George Pickett into the teeth of Major General George Meade’s Union positions. After a short, desperate contest Pickett’s men fell back, broken and bleeding. Many people believe that the Confederacy was defeated that day and the furthest point the charge reached is often called the high watermark of the Confederacy. The mystery of the day is simple.

Why would a general of Lee’s quality send his men into what almost everyone agreed was certain defeat?

There’s no answer on record, of course. But in this book Carhart suggests what he may have been attempting. Lost Triumph is divided into two basic sections. The first explores Lee, his command philosophy and his relations with his generals. Lee was Commandant at the West Point Military Academy for a time before the Civil War and his curriculum and later real life victories all point to certain strategies he believed most effective and Carhart sketches how Pickett’s attack might have been part of a greater scheme to break the back of the Union army.

The second half of the book is a gripping account of the other things occurring at Gettysburg just before and during Pickett’s Charge. It tells the story of Major General J.E.B. Stuart, leader of the Invincibles, the Confederacy’s most famous cavalry division, and how they tried to round the Union flank. And it tells how they, and possibly all of Lee’s plans, were undone by a combination of superior weaponry, dedicated fighting and gallant leadership.

Lee’s trust in Stuart was legendary and Stuart’s trust in his own men was equally strong. The Army of Northern Virginia thought them capable of anything, hence the nickname Invincibles. It would make sense that the second half of Lee’s plan, if any grander plan existed, would fall to Stuart’s cavalry. Ironically, that unfounded confidence would lead to their defeat by a brigade of the Union cavalry that Confederate horsemen thought so little of.

A brigade led by Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer.

Court of the Air, by Stephen Hunt

Genre(s): Fantasy, Steam Punk

Sequels: Five novels and a few short stories

The Kingdom of Jackals, the Republic with a King, is one of the preeminent nations in its world. They have the Royal Aerostatic Navy, one of the world’s only working democracies and a culture stretching back centuries. For all that, it’s not a great place for the likes of Molly Templar, a young girl who keeps finding the people around her dead. Someone’s out to get her and even with the help of an internationally recognized archaeologist, a thinking machine and a retired smuggler she may not make it to see another day.

Oliver Brooks had it pretty easy until his uncle was murdered and someone tried to pin the death on him. Now he’s on the run with an agent of Jackal’s most secret police force – the Court of the Air, who look down from above the clouds and will judge all they see, even those beyond the law.

Problem is, something’s rotten in the good Kingdom of Jackals and even the Court is blind to it. Only Molly has the key to saving the nation but the poor girl just wants to write books. If she and Oliver can’t rally their friends, figure out the secrets of the Court and set things right disaster looms as enough power to lock the world in a new Ice Age lays just beyond the grasp of a madman.

Hunt’s stories are crazy trips with just about every idea he can get his hands on thrown into the stew. Steam powered robots walk side by side with political commentary and the threat of a pantheon of gods that worship other gods. While none of the commentary is particularly deep and the characters are sometimes a little flat there’s enough pulpy nonsense here to make for a riproaring good time.

Cobra, by Timothy Zahn

Genre(s): Science Fiction

Sequels: A good ten so far, with more coming

Yes, I love just about everything this guy writes.

Cobra is the story of Johnny Moreau, who joins an elite supersoldier unit called the COBRAs, gaining nearly unbreakable bones, motorized joints and a computer that runs it all and gives him a near-inhuman reaction speed and precision of movement. It’s also not your average war story.

In the typical book of this type we’d follow the protagonist through training and onto the field until he’d won a few significant victories and we were left waiting for the sequel.

Johnny’s war ends in victory by the end of the first act.

The problem is, the computer that controls Cobra’s combat reflexes cannot be reprogrammed (by design, to make them impossible to subvert that way) and can’t be removed without basically crippling them. Cobras are the lethal killing machines the people needed but they can’t stop being those machines after the war is over. Thus the Dominion of Man is left with a conundrum – what to do with these people no one quite trusts with their safety but who still deserve to be treated as heroes?

While not a groundbreaking book, Cobra offers an interesting take on the cost of war and how the future is unlikely to change it. Not everything has an easy solution and Cobra doesn’t offer those either. But it does show that, difficult though it may be, those solutions are worth looking for.

Dave Barry in Cyberspace, by Dave Barry

Genre(s): Humor, Satire, Nonfiction

Pulitzer Prize winning satirist Dave Barry once wrote a book about computers. This was in 1996, back when the DOS prompt was still a thing. I know you kids don’t know what that is, but suffice it to say we didn’t just poke pictures on a screen and have computers do what we want. We had to work to waste time on our computers.

In this book Barry goes on a romp through all the different ways we’ve complicated our lives using technology and it’s well worth the price of admission. Beginning from the destruction of the 1890 census – the first such census to use computing technology as part of the tabulation of data – Barry shows how the computer has not been our friend. It’s just another wild creature that humanity needs to beat into submission, one face slamming into the keyboard at a time.

Whether you’re looking for an amusing history of computers two decades ago or just want to relive the halcyon days of BAD COMMAND OR FILENAME then this is a book that you’ll love.

Silence of the Lions

In the decade since Rei Kiriyama’s family died in a car crash he’s made very little progress. Orphaned at the age of seven, and already emotionally subdued to begin with, Rei has become a master introvert. His only real gift is for shogi, a Japanese board game halfway between chess and checkers. Fortunately, Rei is very good at shogi and makes a living as a professional shogi player in between attending classes at school and living alone. It might seem like a great way to live but for Rei it’s a necessity. Life with the family that adopted him wasn’t easy. His adoptive siblings resented him and he felt awful about it. His adoptive father was a shogi pro, after all, and Rei was the only one of his children skilled enough to follow in his footsteps. There are many things plaguing Rei as it turns out. Plenty of reasons to become more sullen and withdrawn.

Naturally, the world keeps throwing funny, cheerful and energetic people in his path.

For me, it was this conflict, the clash between Rei’s normal disposition and that of the people around him, that really kept me involved in March Comes In Like a Lion. Yes, there’s good character conflict in the story, Rei’s shogi matches have solid stakes for both him and his opponents and there’s a lot of good humor and serious situations. But far and away the best part of the show is in how it sets up great contrasts between the conflicting moods Rei grapples with.

At it’s heart, March Comes In Like a Lion is a study in how an emotionally wounded introvert faces the world and how the people around him help him to do that. The broad strokes of the conflict are character versus the world and the show brings these points to bear by showing us the two sides in strikingly different terms.

The first minute of March Comes In Like a Lion, opening credits aside, are a series of stark monochrome images showing Rei’s silhouette, images of running water and roiling clouds, and a truly beautiful sequence of Rei standing under a bridge as gusting winds batter him. A mocking female voice over reminds Rei of how he is alone and lost until her words are lost in the sound of howling wind. The title card tells us this is Chapter One, Rei Kiriyama.

Rei wakes up and goes through his morning routine in total silence, then walks to the Shogi Hall, upbeat yet wistful music playing in the background. He greets his opponent, a man who appears to know him well, and then proceeds to best him in a game of shogi. The man compliments Rei on his growth as a shogi player, mentions that, “Ayumu and Kyoko miss you,” and departs.

The first words we hear Rei say accuse his opponent of lying, although we are the only ones that can hear it and we’re not sure if Rei thinks part or all of the other man’s statement is a lie.

As he’s headed home Rei gets a text message inviting him somewhere for dinner. He’s about to refuse when he gets another message asking him to pick up ingridient’s for the meal on his way. Just like that the chessmaster is checkmated. Abruptly the story turns from a gripping look at a grieving young man to a fish out of water comedy as Rei goes to visit a small family – a grandfather and three granddaughters. While it’s not slapstick it is funny and irreverent, going so far as to give the pet cats their own internal monologues. Rei can barely squeeze a word in edgewise but, quiet nature aside, is barely recognizable as the character we saw in the first half of the show. He’s unsure, unsteady and bemused the whole time. The contrast is striking, and encapsulates the appeal of the show quite well.

What’s so impressive about March Comes In Like a Lion is how it manages to have it’s main character say so little while expressing so much. Rei’s posture, expression, even the way he moves around the world tells us a great deal about his moods and how he is thinking. That level of expression extends to every character in the show but, as Rei talks so little, the strength of the animation comes through that much more. March Comes In Like a Lion is a masterclass in emotional storytelling and in no small part due to how little it’s protagonist says. Check it out if you get the chance.

The Reading List, Act Four

See previous reading lists here, there and everywhere!

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Doomed by Cartoon by John Adler

Genres: Nonfiction, Political History

The election was tense. A controversial candidate was running for office, backed by the corrupt New York political machine and partisan journalists, only to find the way blocked by a ragtag conglomeration of other partisan writers. The final thorn in the side was a constant barrage of stinging pictures aimed to highlight the ridiculous, corrupt nature of the Democratic party. In the end, they were swept from power.

It was 1871 and Thomas Nast, father of the American Cartoon, had won his greatest victory.

After three years of campaigning “Boss” William Tweed and the Tammany Hall political machine that had bilked New York for millions of dollars was driven from public office. Doomed by Cartoon is a history of how it happened and includes every cartoon Nast drew against Tweed and his conspirators. As much a record of the formation of modern political cartooning – Nast is credited with inventing or popularizing both the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey – this book analyzes each of Nast’s cartoons, their themes and what context led him to draw them. It’s a fascinating look at an era of politics that, lets face it, we still live in.

It’s also a study in ironies both delicious and tragic. A must for anyone who loves politics.

Irredeemable by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Ten in total

Comic writing legend Mark Waid wrote this tour de force to explore the question of what happens when the man the whole world counts on goes bad. This series isn’t tied to either DC or Marvel’s comic universes, although it takes strong cues from the lore of DC. It focuses entirely on the central conceit and never shies away from the idea that sometimes people who have legitimately earned our love and respect can be come reprehensible villains. The question we must answer is, are they irredeemable?

Not to spoil anything – it’s never a plot point in much debate – but the Plutonian, who was the Superman of his world in both power and moral character, doesn’t go bad because of mind control or coercion. He just makes a choice to stop being a protector and start being a destroyer. Worse, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy with why he did it.

But the Plutonian’s swath of destruction takes a horrific toll and the people who used to support him are faced with hard questions. How far do you go in fighting a friend? When is he no longer the person you knew? Is there a point where mercy for a criminal is the greatest crime? And how do you take the measure of a man who is both the world’s greatest hero and it most despicable villain?

Incorruptible by Mark Waid

Genres: Comic Book, Superheroes

Volumes: Seven in total

The companion to Mark Waid’s Irredeemable, Incorruptible gives us Max Damage, perpetual anarchist. Few people on earth hated the Plutonian as much as Max. To Max, he was the symbol of everything keeping the little guy down – morality, social acclaim and order. Unfortunately for Max, he was there the day the Plutonian went mad.

If the Plutonian was the world’s greatest pillar of order his fall from grace was the world’s greatest moment of chaos. Max saw that and it doesn’t look like he enjoyed it as much as an apparent hardcore anarchist should. After a month off the scene Max comes back, burns all his illegally obtained cash, turns his gang in to the police and sets himself up as the new protector of his home city of Coalville.

People are naturally skeptical. For a long time he was a vicious and self serving man. Worse, Max’s superpower makes him stronger and tougher in proportion to how long he’s been awake. While the nature of his unique metabolism spares him the physical fatigue of staying awake his mind still goes loopy – and who wants a superhero suffering chronic sleep deprivation?

Still, Max is sure he can handle it. He was one of the world’s supreme supervillains for years. All it takes to be a hero is to do all the villainous things in reverse.

…right?

Pegasus Bridge by Stephen E. Ambrose

Genres: Nonfiction, Military History

Bridges are probably the most important structure in warfare. Without them it is difficult, if not impossible, to get all the things an army needs where they need to go. In medieval times a bridge could be held for hours or even days by a handful of people with the right armor, enough supplies and strong nerves. In modern war they can be taken by the same. Only a few people have done both in the same day. If you’ve ever read about Operation Market/Garden (a recommend book on the subject is A Bridge Too Far, mentioned in one of my other reading list posts) you know how badly it can go when an airborne division paradrops into enemy territory to do just that.

But you probably haven’t heard the story that proved that, as badly as Market/Garden went, what they were trying to do was more than plausible. It happened successfully just months before.

Operation Overlord was the turning point of the battle for Fortress Europe, the beginning of the fall of the Nazi war machine. The first stage of the journey was called Operation Deadstick, a simple operation by the British 6th Parachute Division. All they had to do was precision land their gliders full of gear near a river, rush across a bridge rigged to explode before anyone blew it up, kick the Nazis off and not let them drive their tanks up and get the bridge back.

And the Sixth did just that.

Pegasus Bridge is the story of how they did it and how the people in England and Normandy helped. It’s the story of courage under fire. And it’s an explanation of why a bridge came to be named for a flying horse – the same flying horse the soldiers who took the bridge wore.

Angelmass by Timothy Zahn

Genres: Science Fiction

Sequels: It stands alone

Premise: A handful of worlds in the galaxy lie clustered around a microscopic black hole from which emanate unique particles called angels. These worlds work together to harvest these particles and distribute them to as many people as they can, particularly leaders in politics, military and law. Why? Because angels make people nearby good.

Nothing sinister to see there.

Okay, there’s probably something sinister there. To the point that the government outside has sent in a military ship to seize the black hole, known as Angelmass, and deal with the local government. Meanwhile, a physicist has gone in to study the angels and try and figure out how they work and a down on her luck drifter takes a job with an angel harvesting crew in the hopes she can pick up an angel and make a quick buck. By the time the dust settles, nothing that people thought they knew will hold true.

Angelmass is a fun, fast tale about free will, morality and the ways people get in touch with their better angels. While hardly a home to Zahn’s most inventive ideas or his twistiest plots, it is a great introduction to the work of one of SciFi’s most prolific and zany authors.

Can’t Get No Satisfaction

Saitama doesn’t enjoy life.

He used to. Three years ago he set out to become a part time hero, saving people to get an adrenaline rush that would let him shake off boring everyday life and really live, if you know what I mean. Problem is, after three years Saitama has become so good at fighting evil he always defeats it in a single punch. It just isn’t satisfying anymore.

Then he bumps into the cyborg Genos while swatting a mosquito (long story) and suddenly finds himself with an aspiring apprentice. Like most people suddenly faced with unexpected responsibilities, he tries to walk away. The problem with people (or cyborgs) is that they can follow along with you.

One Punch Man is the story of Saitama’s search for fulfillment. After three years of winning difficult fights against every stripe of evil you’d think he’d have made some progress on that front, but nope. He’s still living in a small, rundown apartment by himself in a mostly abandoned part of town. He joins a hero team and chases fame but satisfaction eludes him. The fights still aren’t challenging and most of the other heroes are jerks. Saitama gets that being a hero means fighting to protect people but he doesn’t seem to grasp why that’s important, just that it is.

The heart of the story, the moment when Saitama starts to see a glimpse of what’s wrong, comes with the appearance of the Sea King. It’s a neat bit of symmetry, we first got a full understanding of why Saitama was so frustrated in his brief  encounter with the Earth King, now the Sea King offers us the solution to the problem, but I digress. The Sea King could serve as a master class in how to build up a villain, as most of his story arc is dedicated to his ascendancy, but the part that’s important to us comes at the very end of his story.

The Sea King has defeated heroes of every type and level of power and is about to wipe out a shelter full of bystanders when he’s brought up short by Mumen Rider. Basically an over glorified bike cop, Mumen Rider is technically Saitama’s superior, although the only category Mumen might outclass him in is book smarts. The chances that he could defeat the Sea King are nonexistent. Mumen fights anyways, throwing everything he’s got at the Sea King. In turn, the Sea King brushes him off like a gnat.

As Mumen falls to the ground Saitama catches him and lays him out gently.

Of course, with Saitama on the scene the fight is essentially over. The Sea King is defeated between animation frames with a punch so hard that it blows rain clouds away and the day is saved. The twist comes after the villain is dead.

Remember that Mumen Rider is considered to be a better hero than Saitama, although the only aspect Mumen is ahead of Saitama in is book smarts. In all other categories Saitama is, by the rules of the story, the most powerful being in existence by a wide margin. As a result, Saitama’s easily defeating the Sea King makes Mumen Rider – and all the other, much more powerful heroes who confronted the Sea King – look pathetic. So Saitama throws himself under the bus, saying that the Sea King seemed incredibly weak after fighting all the other heroes in rapid succession in order to salvage the reputation of his fellow heroes.

Later, Saitama gets his first piece of fan mail, thanking him for saving the anonymous sender’s life. With it comes a couple of other letters, calling him a fraud for stealing glory from other heroes who did all the work for him. Later, Saitama stumbles across Mumen at a food stall and we learn that Mumen Rider was the source of Saitama’s one piece of positive mail. The two heroes, one the best of the weakest the other the best in the world, pause to share a moment of camaraderie and for the first time in a while Saitama finds something he’s been missing – a sense of satisfaction.

Many young people set out to do something for their own satisfaction but the fact is, most humans find satisfaction not when they’re focused on themselves but when they’re focused on others. Fiction rarely tackles the challenge of showing how that particular aspect of a coming of age comes about. But under the over-the-top action, slapstick humor and biting satire One Punch Man tackles that question with surprising gusto. While the evolution is by no means complete it is an interesting story to watch.

The Burden of Being Normal

Let me wax philosophical about one of the greatest heroes I’ve seen recently. His name is Reigen Arataka and he is a master of the salt.

No, he’s not the main character of Mob Psycho 100. But he is it’s heart. The titular character, Mob, is a taciturn, antisocial kind of person who is hard to relate to. That’s kind of his schtick. But Reigen is his mentor, his source of morals, his emotional core. He frames Mob’s understanding of normal people and, as such, tends to serve as the audience’s point of view into Mob’s mind as much as he’s Mob’s view into other people.

Which is initially terrifying, since Reigen is an atrocious con man. Mob is a legitimate psychic with telekinetic powers, the ability to see spirits and who knows what other kinds of absurd abilities and, as an elementary student, he comes to Reigen’s entirely fraudulent psychic medium business in the hopes of finding some help in understanding his powers and abilities. What he gets instead is a very simple principle to live by – psychic abilities are talents just like athletic ability and academic skill. It’s an interesting point of view, especially given who it comes from.

Reigen fits an anime mold I like to call “The Omnicompetent”, a person who has literally every skill a given situation calls for other than the skills the rest of the cast bring to the table. He gives perfect massages, photoshops brilliantly and out cons conmen in between helping Mob keep his powers under control by diffusing the emotional time bombs that cause them to run rampant. There’s very little that can keep Reigen from getting what he wants besides his own rotten personality.

Reigen is not a great role model for Mob. He is a con man, after all, and no amount of good life advice changes the fact that he’s using Mob as ludicrously underpaid exorcist for the occasional client with a real supernatural problem. Reigen lacks honesty and purpose, beyond being life coach for a middle schooler of apocalyptic power, and that’s why he hasn’t moved beyond being a simple con man and actually made something of himself.

Reigen is normal. In spite of all his unbelievable number of professional level skills, he is normal. Changing, becoming someone truly exceptional, would require hard work, sacrifice and other hardships that he can’t bring himself to make. At least, not on behalf of himself. Mob is a very different story.

When the two first meet Reigen tells his newly minted pupil that his powers are just like the ability to study, to sing or to run fast. They are a talent, and they can be nice to have, but they don’t make him special. Psychic powers will let him do some things, but they aren’t a panacea.

Mob takes this lesson to heart and sets out to achieve his goals by developing whatever set of skills will take him that way, rather than bulling his way through with psychic powers. He wants to be charismatic and get a girl to like him so he joins a bodybuilding club and starts trying to understand how people work in spite of his own insular nature.

This dynamic is written large when, at the show’s climax, Reigen winds up as Mob’s surrogate against a group of super powerful espers who seek to rule the world (of course!) and be worshipped for how special their powers make them.

“Normal” versus “special” might very well be the central conflict in Mob Psycho 100. It might strike you as odd, then, that the protagonists, who are one in a million deviations from the norm, are making the case for normal. But as Reigen weilds Mob’s powers, strolling effortlessly through dozens of building wrecking attacks, and lecturing us on how anyone who is so arrogant as to think they’re special and entitled to anything hasn’t lived in the real world we can’t help but find his argument compelling. After all, he’s many times more powerful than they are and still a commoner.

Reigen has a very simple message, and in our day and age it’s a useful one, too. If you think you’re special you haven’t lived yet. If you fail it falls to you to improve. That’s the burden of being normal. And it’s what makes the dedicated commoners who work to change, little by little, truly special.

For a story with a nuanced message – but absurd action – Mob Psycho is worth a look.

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems

I don’t make much of a secret about my Timothy Zahn fanboy status. I’ve written approving reviews of several of his novel series and stand alone books. Today we look at something different but still decidedly Zahn. Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of short stories and one novella.

In spite of the title, Pawn’s Gambit is not unified by a theme of strategy to the stories. They are, by and large, just fun stories that touch on the idea of point of view. The title story, Pawn’s Gambit, is something of the exception as it is exactly what you’d expect from the title, especially as written by this author. The narrative revolves around a man kidnapped by aliens as part of an experiment to work out how humans think by watching them play strategy games against alien players. It sounds like the perfect job to me but it actually carries a fairly sinister hidden purpose and, in the end, only one player gets to go home.

But as I said Pawn’s Gambit is actually the odd story out in the collection. The centerpiece of the novel, Cascade Point, is a Hugo winning novella that revolves around a space captain who works with a faster-than-light drive that lets him see into alternate timelines and has to grapple with seeing the possible outcomes of his decisions on a day to day basis. The question of what could have been is a more literal one for him that it is for most people and it turns out glimpsing the answers can be worse than not knowing.

Stories like The Price of Survival and Hitmen – See Murderers revolve around what we know, when, and how it distorts our decision making process. Reality may be objective but our ability to grasp it is pretty limited. Likewise, stories like Protocol caution us about our limited understanding of others and The Giftie Gie Us reminds us that even our understanding of ourselves can be limited.

Whether the protagonist is a telepath who thinks to find the truth about human nature but is foiled by his own id or a wizard who’s magic carries a terrible price that paradoxically drives him to use it all the more, Zahn’s stories are simple, effective and engaging. What’s more, unlike much science fiction, they don’t speak to the intricacies of culture, science or progress but rather delve deep into human nature and the limits we will undoubtedly face no matter how advanced we think we’ve become. And that makes Pawn’s Gambit more than worth your while.