Dream Park

Dream Park
Larry Niven and Steven Barnes

I realized the other day that there are no Larry Niven posts on Two Dudes yet. This is shocking, considering Niven’s place in my person pantheon: Ringworld was one of the very first sci-fi books I ever read (Foundation may or may not have come first) and Niven was part of my Big Three, along with Clarke and Asimov. I basically cleaned the library out of his books before the end of junior high school; to this day, I think I have read more Larry Niven than any other single author. This is not to say that I am unaware of his faults as a writer. However, to a young and very nerdy Pep, things like “characterization” paled in importance next to “giant objects and amazing concepts,” bouncy prose, awkward hanky-panky, and that whole Known Space thing. This is all a long way to introduce Dream Park, but I feel it important to set the stage.

Now we must imagine 7th grade Pep. He is very short and is adamant about his poor fashion sense. He watches Public Television and wouldn’t know a pop song if it bit him. He has been playing computer games long enough to remember cyan and magenta CGA graphics and is digging deeply into pen and paper RPG’s. He knows far more about chess openings than girls. Into young Pep’s life comes a book by his favorite author, in which people more nerdy than he dress up in costumes and act out computer aided, live action RPG’s. Young Pep almost has seizures. The only books that have a greater effect on Pep’s junior high era all have the word “Dragonlance” in the title, which should lead anyone sane to wonder how on earth Pep ended up with an attractive wife and workable social skills.

I read Dream Park for a second time recently, half afraid that it would be crap and I would ruin my happy childhood memories. I was pleasantly surprised. To be sure, Dream Park suffers from the usual Niven-ly suspects and is, perhaps not dated, but would have profited from the fantasy boom that hit later on. To put things in perspective, Dream Park was published in 1981. Dungeons & Dragons existed, but had not yet joined forces with Satan and found notoriety. People were writing and reading fantasy books, but Robert Jordan and the whole “I can’t seem to end this series and people keep buying them” trend in weighty, best-selling door stops hadn’t set in. This makes Barnes and Niven prophets of a sort, but it feels odd that all of the characters, when making references to contemporary fantasy, are stuck referring to Conan, Fafhrd, and the Grey Mouser. This is not the authors’ fault, of course, but Dream Park would have seemed more natural had it come out five or six years later.

On to the mechanics of the novel. Barnes and Niven are operating on a couple of levels simultaneously. The real world features Dream Park, the amusement park where everyone goes to play their games, and its staff. Alex Griffin, the Chief of Security, is at the center of the action. The gamers are all introduced in real life, as are the Game Masters, other helpers, and what staff members are relevant to the story. In the real world, somebody on staff got murdered and Alex is trying to find the killer. This part of the story is decent, but not awesome. I suppose it is there to add weight to the book, since merely writing about a game might seem too frivolous.

The Game is much more exciting. All of the gamers get to be their dream selves in the game, acting more or less like one would expect. (What can I say? I’ve gamed enough to know.) Alex joins them part way, as the real world begins to intrude on The Game, though he is soon caught up in the insanity. D&D-esque rules and characters are thrown into a Pacific Cargo Cult world, complete with mythical WWII aircraft, magical caches of warm Coca-Cola, cannibals, volcanoes, zombies, and all kinds of fun stuff. Young me wanted it to be full-on High Fantasy, but older me is glad they went with something original. (To the authors’ credit, everything I know about Cargo Cults, which are pretty wild, I learned from Dream Park.) When the real world mystery is solved at the end, my reaction was lukewarm. When the gamers conquered the zombies and cannibals, and flew off triumphant into the sunset, I was much more excited. In perusing other reviews, this seems to be a pretty common reaction.

On the con side, Dream Park falls victim to the same flaws that afflict most Niven books. The characters are a bit flat and move to the demands of the plot, rather than vice versa. Male-female relations can leave readers cringing. Like a lot of Hard SF, the book is about ideas and things, not people. This bothers some readers, but I tend to me more forgiving. After all, we read hard sf for the stuff. If I want characters, I’ll dig up a copy of Dickens or Steinbeck.

All in all, Dream Park gets a nod from Two Dudes. The second time through didn’t leave me quivering with excitement and wondering where to cryogenically freeze my head until Dream Park becomes a reality, but I enjoyed it. Well read SF fans will know what they are getting from a Niven creation. This isn’t my favorite Niven book of all time (that would be The Mote in God’s Eye), but it’s probably in the Top Ten.

Rating: The Confederation’s Cup. Basically just a warm up for more serious competition, there is still fun and drama to be had.

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Space Battleship Yamato

Space Battleship Yamato

Best to get the anime disclaimer out of the way first, as I press forward in my quest to experience the pillars of Japanese science fiction. Yamato is the second of the Holy Trifecta of Japanese SF Anime, the others being the original Gundam and Macross series. Yamato is the oldest of these, predating even Star Wars. Savvy anime veterans will know that Yamato blew through the US as Star Blazers back in the day. Like a lot of Japanese creations, this enjoyed life as a TV series, a movie, and a manga. And, like pretty much every Japanese export, I missed the boat as a youngster. I am addressing the movie in this review.

I have mixed feelings on whether to recommend the movie condensation of this story, or push readers to invest the time in the whole series. Here, at least, my decision was influenced mainly by the contents of the public library: Star Blazers was available as an English dub, but to get Japanese language I was restricted to the movie version. Movie it was. (Also, the time commitment required for a 40+ episode series is more than I was comfortable with. As it is, the movie is long at three hours.) I suspect that, if language and time are of no concern, the full series may provide a more emotional experience. Language may not be a problem anyway, as I think I saw Yamato on Crunchyroll somewhere.

First, a quick summary and review. Earth has been pounded into submission by the evil Gamilas. The only survivors live in underground cities that are threatened by radioactivity from the surface. A spacecraft crash lands and gives humanity a message: build a ship with the enclosed plans and travel to the planet Iscandar. The mysterious Stasha awaits there with technology that will save the Earth. The lucky humans dig up the real-life Battleship Yamato (sunk during WWII) and retrofit it with new technology, at which point it flies off into the stars to save everything.

What works about this? As a stylized space opera, this is good fun. The bad guys are nefarious, the crew of the Yamato is plucky, the fate of all humanity hangs in the balance, etc. Also, seeing a WWII-era battleship flying through interstellar space and firing its wave cannon is awesome in a crazy kind of way. There are twists and turns in the plot to keep viewers engaged. There is a kind of fake complexity and moral ambiguity that gives the impression of watching something challenging and profound, without actually being taxing in any way. I was happy at the end, when (spoiler alert) the good guys save the day.

What doesn’t work so well? Many of my complaints might be a result of seeing the movie rather than the series. The characters are a big problem for me in the movie – only one of them has any real impact (the captain), while the rest flit in and out of the story without ever distinguishing themselves. Two characters fall in love at some point, but those scenes must be on the editing floor somewhere, because I never saw it happen. I would also question some other editing decisions, as aspects of the plot that seemed important were skipped over quickly, while side stories that could have been addressed in five minutes, if at all, bogged down the main story arc. Beyond that, my complaints are rather predictable. This is, after all, a story whose target audience includes boys in upper elementary school grades. While I don’t expect total plot coherency or an absence of incredibly random problem solvers in my cartoon space operas, it would have been nice.

What really grabbed me, however, was not the story or the canonical importance of Yamato, but the relationship of the events on-screen to Japanese history. I’m uncertain if the creators were conscious of this, but Yamato is basically re-fighting the end of World War II. The parallels are far from iron-clad, but within the first 30 minutes similarities were leaping off the screen. The Gamilas reign radioactive death from the skies, launch from a forward base taken from Earth and now beyond the reach of Earth’s ships. Humanity fights bravely, but is ultimately helpless in the face of superior technology and production and reduced to suicide attacks. The battleship Yamato, originally launched (and subsequently sunk) in a hopeless attack against the invaders was Japan’s last gasp in the naval war. For those not up on Pacific War history, this would be roughly analogous to, in order, be the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Okinawa, and the end of the war in general, when the full might of US industry was bearing down on Japan.

Miraculously, the story somehow tucks this into the narrative without ever addressing more controversial (from Japan’s point of view) circumstances surrounding the war, or caving in to nationalist cliché. I don’t mean to imply that Matsumoto Reiji and the other creators are trying to rewrite history in Yamato, indeed I am uncertain if the parallels are even intentional, but I couldn’t ignore the possibilities inherent in this kind of tale. Even if it is just a reflection of the history embedded in Japanese culture at the time, the reference to the war is fascinating.

What is my final verdict then? I’m still not sure. Yamato is worth seeing as a part of the canon, as a cultural artifact, and probably as a way to relive Star Blazers if one is so inclined. It is not without faults, so I can’t give it a whole-hearted recommendation. My feelings on compilation movies vs. TV series are mixed; Macross could certainly stand to make a quarter or so of its episodes vanish, but Yamato loses a lot by cutting out so much character development. I felt more invested in Macross when it ended, even if I was gnashing my teeth every time Minmay started talking. Yamato never irritated, but never provided that final catharsis either. In the end, I will give it a rating just this side of lukewarm, with the caveat that increased time put into the TV series may generate increased emotional rewards.

Rating: The Carling Cup. Drama to be had, if one is into that sort of thing, but nothing compared to a full season of play.

Flare

Flare
Roger Zelazny and Thomas Thomas

Flare is a disaster story told in vignette. According to the story, solar flares as a phenomenon basically stopped happening at the end of last century. Humanity spread through the solar system and, because there hadn’t been any to worry about, enacted cost-cutting measures on flare protection. By the time of the book, solar flares were seen even by scientists as something akin to mammoths or the dodo – fun to study if one is into ancient history, but not really relevant or grant worthy. (Insert sinister music here.) The fools will soon learn the error of their short-sighted ways!
The novel is a chronicle of one giant solar flare, the insane damage it causes, the scientists who bravely try to warn others and fend off chaos. There is also an epic journey of Homeric proportions. The authors elected, however, to tell this story not as a traditional, character-driven narrative, but more as a collection of newspaper articles and brief glimpses into people’s lives. As such, the grand scheme of things is more or less clear, but the emotional impact is negligible. People show up, get cut off mid-story, sometimes die, sometimes succeed; but there is no continuity to it all. Someone may die, but chances are we have only seen him or her for a page or two and shrug the death off as collateral damage. The most sympathetic character isn’t even human – it’s a plasmoid that resides in the sun’s corona. The aforementioned Homeric journey is that of the plasmoid. It gets caught in the flare, tossed up thousands of miles from home, and has adventures that would make Odysseus proud. Well, they would if Odysseus could get close enough to the sun to notice a very small blob of plasma.
So as a news report, a history, or even a cautionary tale, I suppose that Flare succeeds. As a novel, I have mixed feelings. Presumably the authors chose that style for a reason, but while I consider myself warned not to underestimate The Power of the Sun, I can’t actually remember a single character’s name or the details of his or her fate. While this isn’t trash by any reckoning, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it over a large number of more interesting books I’ve read this year.
Rating: A mid-table clash in the French second league. Worth watching if it’s your favorite team or you are an insane completist. Otherwise, there’s something better on, right?

Extra Credit, July 21

Weekly Links

July 21, 2011

An interview with Malaysian writer K.S. Augustin on World SF.

SF Signal introduces their favorite future histories for Kirkus. (Part 1 is linked to inside of Part 2, the target of this link.) I would have included Brin’s Uplift as well. Possibly Cordwainer Smith and H. Beam Piper, though I haven’t read all of theirs.

A sale at Haikasoru for their second anniversary. If only I had a Kindle!

Suvudus offering a free Star Wars ebook.

Here’s another review of All You Need is Kill. Sci-fi Cool says almost exactly the same thing I do.

Finally, two links from Tor.com, which includes good articles and a lot of fluff in its weekly (or so) newsletter. First, Stefan Raets talks about being a Hugo voter.

Next, Game of Thrones Legos! I have thus far avoided George R.R. Martin’s doorstops, but who can say no to Legos?

All You Need is Kill

All You Need Is Kill
Hiroshi Sakurazawa

All You Need is Kill, one of the earlier titles released by my favorite publisher Haikasoru, is rather like what might happen if Hammer’s Slammers crashed the set of Groundhog Day. Other reviewers have disagreed on which iconic military SF comes in the first slot, but everyone agrees on the Groundhog Day part. (To be pedantic, Steakley’s Armor is probably the best fit. The Slammers drive tanks rather than one-man suits, but Starship Troopers isn’t nearly bleak or bloody enough.) Further, while Groundhog Day is a no-brainer as a comparison, All You Need is worlds away from the positive, uplifting message that Bill Murray stumbles upon. Instead, the book is heavily informed by video game conventions, as the author explains in an interesting afterword.

The first part of this review will address the usual: plot, execution, characterization, etc. The second will look more at Japan and its place in the book, since that is what interests me at least as much as the story. Anyway, onward and upward. Keiji is a new recruit and we join him in his first ever battle. He and his battle suit are quickly obliterated by the Mimics, a bizarre alien invader. I’m not spoiling anything here, as Keiji lies dying on the ground within a few paragraphs of the opening. Then, suddenly, he is alive again, preparing for his first battle. Then dying yet again. And again, and again. It is clear by about page 15 that something strange is going on; Keiji is trapped in a loop, doomed to fight this battle over and over.

Things proceed from there, as Keiji slowly learns how to survive longer in battle, meets allies and enemies, and finally learns “The Secret” that explains, more or less, what on earth is going on. We see the changes developing in Keiji as the story goes on, watching as he changes from a grumpy noob to a hard-bitten veteran who crushes all comers. Some of these are obvious, as he keeps careful track of survival time and kills through each run, and others are less so. For example, early on he comments liberally on female characters’ breast size. I took this as typical Japanese fan service and wondered why the author would waste sentences on something misogynist and pointless. Later in the book though, he pushes admiring women away, saying he needs every moment to train, even though he will in all likelihood repeat the day anyway and could probably afford to dally one time through. By the end, the women are all but invisible to Keiji, intent as he is on becoming a killing machine that will survive the battle.

As long as everything is kept mysterious, the book rolls merrily along. It falls down a bit when Sakurazawa has to explain why everything works the way it does. Clearly this is a video game, with Keiji the player struggling to learn the rules, the cheats, and the secret combinations that defeat the level boss, but it is also science fiction, so there needs to be a reason why this would happen. (One reason that Groundhog Day works so well is that nobody has to explain why Bill Murray is trapped. He just is, and when he finally gets Andi MacDowell to fall for him, he isn’t.) This explanation, and the way it justified or forced the twist at the end, didn’t work so well for me. It was alright, but didn’t illuminate and enhance what had come before, just kind of explained it.

On to part two. I would really like to read this in Japanese, not just in translation. The reason, besides the original language fetish some of us have, is that All You Need has very little Japan in it. The main character is Japanese and the book takes place somewhere on the Japanese coast, but if one changed a couple of proper nouns, it could be anywhere. This is not to say that I expect everything written in Japan to somehow involve ninja or Mt. Fuji or something, but most things I read/watch from Japan maintain a distinct cultural outlook. The relationships between the characters and the unspoken worldview underlying the stories are just different from US-UK fare. Not so here.

I wonder if the translator somehow whitewashed this when he brought it into English, or if the original is similarly free of Japanese-ness. Certainly the swear words are new, as there just aren’t that many ways to curse in Japanese. Sakurazawa reads like a disgruntled Vietnam vet, airing his frustrations through the voice of an unfortunate grunt. There are deeper questions though. The book is utterly lacking in the anti-war sentiment that underpins so much of Japanese culture. Keiji has no use for war, but it is because he hates Army life, doesn’t want to get killed, thinks his commanders are morons, and other typical reasons. Likewise the senior-junior human relations that define so much of Japanese life are utterly lacking. This may just be a function of the plot, but is interesting nonetheless. For comparison, many of the anime I have watched (Gundam, Macross, etc.) are war stories, but reflect Japan much more than All You Need.

This isn’t a long read, so I have no qualms recommending it to all and sundry. Sakurazawa’s goals are modest, exploring military sci-fi through a video game prism, and he succeeds. He’s not looking to make a grand statement or change the face of literature, so no reader should expect much beyond entertainment. If it was a bit more of an investment, time-wise or emotionally, I might scale back my rating a bit, but for a couple of hours All You Need is Kill is worthy and plenty of fun.

Rating: The Kashima Antlers. Japan’s most decorated professional team, the Antlers (besides having a strange name) are utterly clinical. Not extravagant, artistic, or dramatic, they just win in the most efficient way possible.

On a Darkling Plain

On a Darkling Plain
Richard Lee Byers

[Ed.: From time to time, we are happy to present the views of guest writers here on Two Dudes in an Attic. We welcome submissions from anyone out there with strong opinions and too much spare time, so get writing! Today, Brad examines the world of White Wolf’s The Masquerade.]

 I admit it. Much to my wife’s dismay and disgust, I love vampire novels. No, I’m not talking about Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga or its ilk, the endless crop of paranormal romances where sexy, horny vampires have their way with equally lascivious “victims.” (As any married guy will tell you, all this paranormal hanky panky really is fantasy! And written very badly too.) That said, Bram Stoker’s classic Dracula remains one of the most erotic novels I’ve ever read. The evil Count’s transformation of the virginal Lucy Westenra from the epitome of Victorian female propriety into a deadly and wanton succubus smolders just beneath the surface of main storyline: heroic but seemingly overmatched mortals struggling against overpowering and invincible evil.

And it is the latter feature of vampire novels that has always attracted me. Brian Lumley’s Necroscope novels are excellent examples. His vampires are thoroughly evil and inhuman, his plotlines ratchet almost to the breaking point the fundamental tension between good but weak humans and despicable, apparently immortal subhumans bent on humanity’s destruction.

On a Darkling Plain, one of many novels set in White Wolf Publishing’s “World of Darkness,” approaches the vampire story from a different point of view altogether. Instead of having horny vampires on the prowl for willing females, what we basically have are novels about office politics among the undead. White Wolf’s vampire mythos forms the subtext against which each of these novels is set. Briefly, it runs something like this: Cain, he of biblical infamy who slew his brother Abel and bore Yahweh’s mark as a result, was the first vampire. He in turn created vampires from among antediluvian humanity; these are referred to as Methuselahs because of their great antiquity. The Methuselahs survived the Flood, but are now in a state of torpor. Each subsequent generation saw its own vampires, as this cycle repeated itself over thousands of years. Over time, the vampires metamorphosed into various clans, each with its own powers and weaknesses. The Ventrue, for example, are skilled in business, diplomacy, and public affairs. The Toreador are artists and aesthetes; the Brujah are punks, spiked, tattooed, resistant to authority; the Nosferatu are unspeakably ugly and deformed, but have intellects far beyond the other clans; and so on. There are also the Caitiffs, those without a clan; and a shadowy group known as the Sabbat.

Yet for all these powers, vampires can be killed. Explosions, burnings, and decapitations will destroy a vampire who otherwise might live for millenia as long as he or she can feed on human blood. The Inquisition nearly destroyed the vampires as a race. For their own protection, they adopted The Masquerade. Vampires, who need humans and human blood for sustenance (they call humans “kine”, a reference to the fact that humans are vampiric food), are vastly outnumbered by these same humans and can be destroyed by human weapons. The Masquerade is designed to allow vampires to hide their true identity, keep the vampiric “Beast” at bay, and function in human society as much as possible. The aforesaid Sabbat reject the Masquerade and urge all-out war on humans; because the other clans disagree, there is constant friction between them and the Sabbat.

Notwithstanding, the ancient vampires are not entirely absent from the scene. From behind the scenes, they use the clans one against the other to facilitate their own plans and schemes. Here we have the nub of most World of Darkness novels: the political chess matches, the thrust and counter-thrust that one Methuselah employs against another in an effort to obtain some advantage in the eternal struggle for power, however slight. In these novels, there is little or no romantic interest between vampires, much less between humans and vampires. There is a great deal of time and attention focused on the minutiae of vampire life, the political struggles among members of a clan as they jockey for position within the clan’s hierarchy, and between clans as they jockey for supremacy over a particular territory. Very often, these struggles become extremely violent, and this violence involves both vampires and their human allies and hangers-on.

All of this means that particular plotlines are pretty fungible and formulaic. There really is no surprise in any World of Darkness vampire novel, though most of them are well-crafted. The writing is good; the plots are interesting; the characters, while rather two-dimensional, are still compelling—one cares what happens to the protagonist, even though he or she is a vampire and would likely feed on the reader given the chance. Nobody is going to receive a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize for writing one of these novels, but the authors shouldn’t hang their heads in shame, either. After awhile though, one tends to forget the individual novels; what remains is the more interesting but unexplored back story.

Coming to the novel under consideration, we have the following rather standard plot devices “submitted for your consideration” as the master once said. The Vampire Prince of New Orleans is afflicted with a mysterious ailment that renders him incompetent and violent against his bevy of courtiers and hangers-on. Meantime, Elliott, the Prince’s go-to guy (a member of clan Toreador who’s a passionate art aficionado now devoid of passion now that his beloved wife is dead—yes vampires in this world do marry for love!), finds himself the victim of a violent set-up as he responds to reports of an art theft within the Prince’s domains. Finally, Dan, a violent Caitiff (a clanless and therefore unprotected vampire), who’s newly initiated into the vampires’ world, tries to find his way against the hostile environment into which he’s been thrown. He finds himself drawn into battle against his will by a beautiful and seductive vampire many millenia his senior, someone whom he’s powerless to resist. (There really isn’t a sexual angle here, unlike Anne Rice’s novels which tend to revel in that sort of thing.)

There you have the rather interesting plot threads which the author weaves together into a fairly satisfying story, and into which he throws a few surprises, some of them unanticipated but most of them pretty standard. All in all, a fun way to spend a couple of evenings or a leisurely afternoon at the condo or beach. Or, to put it another way, pretty standard vampire fare without the humiliation of a guy being found with some “paranormal romance,” that’s probably more soft core pornography than vampire story anyway.

Rating: Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey whilst exulting on the pitch, in celebration of a U.S. Women’s Team victory. It was certainly pleasant, and one wishes the impromptu striptease might have continued awhile longer. But the really interesting things remained hidden from view; it didn’t appear that in the overall scheme, those things in question were all that significant anyway. A perfect metaphor for World of Darkness vampire novels, so as you read one, think of Brandi. [Ed.: I wonder how Ms. Chastain would feel about this comparison.]

P.S. I should probably mention that I wrote this review while listening to the late, lamented Ronnie James Dio and his group Heaven and Hell. Somehow, it all fit together nicely.