Sunday, August 31, 2014

Do you believe in Magic?

So, I went back to PAX for a second day.

Sunday seemed a little less crazy than Saturday, but it was still an exhausting mess. I try to allow as little waiting-in-line into my life as possible, but it seems that cons are all about lining up. I know that there are some really popular events, but speaking as someone who has had to do more than a little crowd control in my time, it sometimes felt that the queuing was somewhat over-managed, which created a sense of  anxiety in many attendees, resulting in a bit of "queue-creep," when people line up earlier and earlier even for events that may not even fill.

I might not have minded it as much if the sessions I was lining up for had been more productive or enjoyable. The first was under-moderated and, like yesterday's session, devolved into a series of anecdotes vaguely related to the topic, late-career entry in game design. The second was supposed to be about gaming in higher ed, but was actually about higher ed for gaming; that is, it didn't focus on how to incorporate gaming into the classroom, but described a program for learning how to do game development. The last session I attended was at least actually about gamification of the classroom, but all of the panelists were from K-12. I did glean some recommendations for games that work in a classroom setting:

Um, okay.

While people are waiting to enter sessions, staff come by, engage line-standers in impromptu games, and hand out prizes; or to put it more accurately, they hand out many instances of the same prize, to wit:

I had gotten one yesterday, too... 

Yes, I'm such a good gamer at things like D20 Challenge, Win, Lose, or Banana, Cowboy-Ninja-Bear, and some kind of match game that I won eight Magic the Gathering decks: two red, two black, two green, one white, and one blue. I don't even play Magic!

I spent part of the day that I wasn't on line wandering with buddy Sahar, who had snagged a free ticket late in the game, and some of her luck rubbed off on me. We were at a vendor table with Liz Spain, who was demonstrating her steampunk find-Atlantis board game, Quest for Atlantis (part of a projected Incredible Expeditions series). After the spiel, she invited us to draw a ball from a gum-ball machine.

The prior visitor had drawn a clear ball (we could see the balls were mostly clear, with just a few blue ones) and had gotten an art print, so I told Sahar to hope for a blue one. In fact she drew one and won a USB drive with a kraken on it.

It was my turn, so I clicked the little handle around and out popped a beautiful marble. Our eyerows went up and Liz's eyes got wide, and she said that I had won a free copy of the game!

Autographed, no less!

I was pleased beyond just getting lucky for a change, because it actually looks like a really cool game. Its art design is just fantastic, the theme is awesome, and the gameplay looks creative and workable. We'll set up a playdate and I'll report on it later. Thanks, Liz!

Well, that was about it, besides a little more hunting for cool tabletop games. I'm not sure I'll go back to PAX next year, but it did make me eager for Geek Girl Con in month or so.

I wonder how long the lines will be there...

Saturday, August 30, 2014

PAX be with you

So, thanks to the good offices of buddy Karmin, today I attended PAX Prime, the Penny Arcade-sponsored game-centric expo right here in the Emerald City. Karm is going all four days of the long weekend; I just signed on for Saturday and Sunday.

I must admit, a lot of the stuff went right past me: I have never been a console gamer, so the platform wars, hardware, and all that stuff isn't even on my radar. There was a whole slug of tabletop stuff, much more my speed, but it was a slog to try to get through it and actually watch a demo. We attended one panel on player-developed narrative in gaming, which sounded promising but failed for lack of a strong moderator.

Overall, it was an exhausting day that felt like a lot of wheel-spinning, but I'll try it again tomorrow.

Here's a little video impression of today:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

5x5 Graphic Novel: Ali Baba

1. So, the actual title of this graphic novel is Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves Reloaded, written by Poulami Mukherjee and illustrated by Amit Taya, and produced by Campfire, a New Delhi publishing house whose mission statement is to entertain and educate young minds by creating unique illustrated books to recount stories of human values, to arouse curiosity in the world around us, and to inspire by tales of great deeds of unforgettable people. Yeah, I can get behind that. They have lots of other great-looking titles I am hoping to check out, based on how good this book was.

2. Mukherjee has taken the traditional story of Ali Baba and updated it totally while staying faithful to the story structure and keeping all the character beats. The story is usually set somewhere in Persia (although the tale may have originated in Cyprus), but Mukherjee places it in Mumbai with no trouble at all. Modernizing the story turns woodcutter Ali Baba into a minicab driver, magic incantation "open sesame" into a security password, and slave girl Morgiana into part-time housekeeper Marjeena. It all works, because the characters and their motivations and conflicts ring true to the original: Ali is still blandly earnest, the leader of the thieves still dangerous and revenge-obsessed, and Marjeena still the clever one who repeatedly saves the day. Mukherjee's writing gives us an action story that is both contemporary and accessible and yet which will deliver the same emotional experience as the original folktale (with the gore dial turned down just a bit).

3. Amit Tayal's art is the perfect vehicle for the story: realistic enough to capture the feel of a teeming urban environment and yet cartoonish enough to retain the sense of whimsy and wonder that comes with a fairytale, the illustrations can strongly convey action or menace when necessary. Kudos also to the letterer and especially the colorist.

4. Only one misstep from my perspective: Mukherjee and Tayal rely a bit overmuch on narrator caption boxes. Take these two panels, for instance - Ali Baba is picking up one of the thieves for the cab ride in which he will overhear the password:

It seems to me that this panel would have been much more effective had it been drawn so that we could see the bank robbery headline on Ali's newspaper - no captions would have been necessary, since we could have figured out the connection, given that we just saw the passenger hiding from a police car. It's a small nitpick, since the traditional structure of fairy tales calls for a very intrusive narrator, and the target market for the book could be considered young adult, but I think more experienced creators might have handled this balance more deftly throughout the work.

5. On of the most appealing aspects of the story was its multiculturalism. We see characters wearing Sikh turbans, Muslim skullcaps, and Arab headscarves, western dress and traditional garb. The sometimes confounding multi-faceted society of modern India is on view in very matter-of-fact way, and it is a refreshing change from the homogeneity of most American pop culture.

Pick this book up if you run across it; you'll be glad of it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Really magical

So, I just finished reading Terry Pratchett's Making Money, the further adventures of Moist von Lipwig, Ankh-Morpork's erstwhile Postmaster, as he becomes Director of the Mint. I was going to write a review, but it just boils down to this: it's a Discworld book, go read it.

However, after I read the book, I went to look up any current information on Pratchett, who in 2007 announced that he had been diagnosed with early-onset Altzheimer's. His disease is progressing, of course, but he has remained active up until quite recently. As I was reading, I stumbled across a quote from Pratchett in which he says the label magical realism is "a polite way of saying you write fantasy and is more acceptable to certain people."

Never having met a taxonomy I didn't like, I played with this idea for a bit.

Our friend the Wikipedia provides this: Magic realism or magical realism is a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment.

A source at Princeton says Magic realism or magical realism is an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements are blended into a realistic atmosphere in order to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are explained like normal occurrences that are presented in a straightforward manner which allows the "real" and the "fantastic" to be accepted in the same stream of thought.

Emory University describes magical realism thus: A literary mode rather than a distinguishable genre, magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a so-called rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality. Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society.

My literary colleague, Super Sissy, agreed in principle, although she approached it by saying that fantasy stories were set in created worlds and magical realism was set in this world. This is one way to interpret "mundane, realistic" and "normal, modern," I suppose.

The upshot of all of it is that magical realism is somehow literature while fantasy is just plain fiction, and Pratchett writes fiction.

The funny thing is, Pratchett's stories may be set in an imaginary, faux-medieval world, but it is a mundane, realistic, normal and deceptively modern one; the quotidian and the banal walk side by side with the supernatural. The Discworld stories usually do provide tweaked but authentic descriptions of humans and society and often access a deeper understanding of reality or at least punctuate the hidden meaning of mundane realities.

But Pratchett doesn't get to be in the magic realism club with Borges and Marquez because he made up Ankh-Morpork and didn't set his stories in Columbus, Ohio.

On the other hand, Ron Goulart's Please Stand By, a short story about an ad man who turns into a small grey elephant on national holidays, is certainly based on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality, but I don't think anyone would call it magical realism. (It is a pretty funny story, though.)

I guess it matters little. Most lists of fantasy sub-genres include Magical Realism as a divison on the same tier as High Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery, Ghost Story, and Weird Western, so maybe it's not so high and mighty a literary mode as all that. It just seems that some labeling seeks to impart status rather than to describe characteristics. I recall all the times that Vonnegut and Bradbury were declared by the literati to be writing fiction instead of science-fiction, because their stuff was good, so obviously it couldn't be sci-fi. (Even Bradbury was subject to this ideological hegemony at the end and railed against being called a sci-fi writer.)

Whatever. Read good books, however they are categorized, and Making Money is one of them.

I'll put revising the genre taxonomy on my do-list and let you know when I'm finished.

Friday, August 15, 2014

5x5 Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

1. I liked Guardians of the Galaxy; it was good. Sorry if that's a bit like damning with faint praise, but I think I suffered somewhat from Inflated Expectation Syndrome. (IES can occur when your friends and/or reviewers tell you how much you are going to love a movie because it is totally awesomely great: few things can live up to such overheated responses.) It was an entertaining night at the movies if you don't look too hard at the details, but that was about it.

2. It was good in the way that all Marvel Studios films have been good: The performances are competent and engaging, the special effects are slick, and the fanservice is handled deftly, without slavishness to comics continuity. The film strikes the right balance among humor, drama, and action and between cynicism and corniness, and it hits all the beats (introductions, team conflicts, major setback, bonding, overcoming extraordinary odds) that we have come to expect. (I could probably construct a minute-by-minute emotional crosswalk from GotG to Winter Soldier without much difficulty.) Hey, if a formula works, go with it.

3. In this way, Marvel Studios reminds one of the New York Yankees: you can't argue that they don't play the game well, but there seems to be little heart there, even as they churn out win after win. Marvel was Disney before Disney ever bought them.

4. That said, the cast in this movie is what makes it a lot of fun. Everyone does a great job and Chris Pratt deserves all the attention he is getting for his performance.

Also: Glenn Close?!?

And that was Amy Pond!

5. GotG also falls into a pattern that I have noticed: movies that include large flying things smashing into and destroying buildings - Winter Soldier and Star Trek: Into Darkness are in this category and a few others as well. After the development of the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb, a radiation-based monster wreaking havoc was Hollywood code for fear of nuclear armageddon; I wonder if all these crashes are somehow our working the terror of the 9/11 attacks out of our systems.

So, go see it. As my buddy Will says, it's not a superhero movie, but you'll like it anyway.


So, this happened, unasked-for, when I bought my ticket.

Le Sigh.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book review: Just the counterfactual, ma'am

So, I suppose I should read blurbs more carefully.

I was excited to get to Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow on my WARMER reading list. By the style of the title, I imagined it was a collection of short stories in the alternate history genre, all playing off the same PoD (point-of-divergence from our timeline into the counterfactual): that the titular heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne was not killed in Sarajevo, thereby altering or preventing completely the First World War. Alas, my perception or my memory had failed me: this was not the case.

The book does concern alternate history based the PoD as described, but it is neither a collection of short stories nor a poorly-titled novel. The author, Richard Lebow, holds a professorship at King's College London and emeritus professor status at Dartmouth among many other scholarly distinctions. Academia must be in his blood (his author bio claims "over 200 peer-reviewed articles") because Lebow doesn't write an alternate history as much as he discusses alternate history.

The first chapter in the book defines the whole realm of counterfactuals for us, and Lebow seems to be trying to legitimatize the genre by showing how the consideration of imagined worlds and their progress, however unverifiable, gives us lessons to apply to understanding the real world. He then goes on for a whole chapter justifying why and how he thinks that Ferdinand's survival would have prevented WW1. (Lebow is a political scientist and his extrapolations of power and policy are persuasive.) He then goes on to outline the best of all plausible outcomes and the worst of all plausible outcomes. Finally, he tells us everything again, in a summary chapter that once again chases those lessons we are supposed to have learned.

In some ways, this is a very valuable resource on how to develop a plausible counterfactual. I have tried to create a broad-strokes alternate America for a role-playing game, and I am sure Lebow would laugh at my shoehorned contrivances and lack of understanding of how the events I changed had actually come to occur. I am sure my world is not terribly plausible.

But plausibility is just one element of good alternate history, and in the end, it's not even the most important one. The best alternate histories are engaging, exciting, surprising - and fun. It is in the juxtapositions of real historical figures with imagined ones that we find that sweetness and strangeness which capture our attention. Credible historical extrapolation is fine, but just like not letting facts get in the way of a good story, totally reasonable counterfactuality should not get in the way of a good alternate history. Lebow seems to overlook this consideration totally.

Lebow does tell some brief stories in his descriptions of his alternate worlds. My favorite involves Governor Barack Obama of Hawaii facing down the federal government in the 2010s over the planned internment of Japanese-Americans. (Without world wars, international and racial tensions simmered longer). This great plot is raised and disposed of in three pages; Lebow is much more interested in examining causes and consequences than he is in creating narrative and character.

I think I'd love to take a class from Lebow: a graduate seminar in counter-factual political science or something. But he should perhaps stick to the academic journals; this book is too dry for popular consumption, even as background reading. I will take comfort in believing that somewhere there is an alternate world, exactly like ours, except that someone wrote a great novel about Archduke Franz Ferdinand surviving his assassination attempt...

Bonus editing tidbit:

That section concerning Obama includes this passage (emphasis added):
Obama [...] calls upon the administration to make public any evidence it has of a security threat posed by Japanese residents or Japanese Americans. The attorney general refuses to do this on the grounds of national security and does not respond to Obama's request that he be briefed on camera.
Now, it is clear to me that the line was supposed to end in camera - in secret or confidentially. That an editor at Palgrave McMillan could make this kind of error - not to mention the several other proofreading mistakes I found - is more than a little disheartening.