The Joy of WisCon

This weekend I had the absolute pleasure of attending WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention in Madison, WI. Last year was my first WisCon, and I knew very early into the con that I’d be coming back. WisCon has a strong academic thread as well as a clear social justice orientation, in addition to being a SF/F writing convention. Plus, Madison is a great city, the hotel is in the middle of a great cluster of restaurants downtown, and I have local friends to visit.

This year I had even more fun than the first time. I’ve been to a number of conventions over the years, and it always takes me a few hours to rev up, but once I get going, I’m in full extrovert geek mode, happy to meet new people and wax geeky.

I had the chance to participate in programming this year, thanks to the quick work of the convention committee and the generosity of the Exotic Worlds group: Bradley P. Beaulieu, Holly McDowell, Derek Silver, and LaShawn M. Wanak. I read from chapter two of Geekomancy, and was very happy that the time I spent on preparation paid off.

Since I’ve been performing nearly my whole life, between choir, dance, and various RPGs (tabletop and LARP), I do my best to make sure that my public readings are performances, with notable value added. If I just read what is written, I wouldn’t be adding anything new. But since I have that experience, and love a crowd, I try to use those skills and inclinations as a benefit. Word on the street is that there are far fewer book tours these days in U.S. publishing, where only a small handful of authors for each publisher are supported with funds for in-person tours across the country. By developing my reading performance skills now, I can try to make a reputation as an entertaining reader…and if that leads to

The reading went very well, I think, since I was happy with it and I got good feedback over the weekend from folks that were there.

This was also my first convention after selling Geekomancy and sequel, so it was all fresh and new to be a bona fide author, with a novel coming very very soon. I had a great time talking about Geekomancy but tried not to toot my horn too often or too loudly. No one wants to listen to the writer that turns every conversation into an extended commercial for their books. I love the conversations that pipe up at conventions, from craft to life, tips to tales of publishing mishaps small and large. Conventions are where I go to bask in the awesome of the SF/F community, who are some of my favorite people in the world.

Even as I was leaving, I started yearning for the next WisCon. Each convention has its own flavor, its own feel, and it can change from year to year (especially conventions that change locations each year, like the World Fantasy Convention). But WisCon was and will likely remain one of my absolute favorites.

Reality is Broken (review/essay/gushing)

I think my life has just been changed by a book again. The last book that blew my mind this much was Henry JenkinsConvergence Culture.  I’m not counting novels right now, because fiction and non-fiction blow my mind in such different ways.  This kind of mind-blowing is the one that is potentially career-changing (I want a career as a writer, but other careers along the way might be useful to pay the bills).  More organized thoughts may come later, but right now I want to share my enthusiasm and talk briefly about some exciting things.

The author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World is Jane McGonigal, whom you might know from her TED Talk:

Reality is Broken is a continuation of the thread of logic that McGonigal puts forward in the TED talk and in support of her biggest dream: she wants to see a game designer win the Nobel Prize for Peace by 2032.

The book is a concerted effort to take a reader through many of the corners of game design and to show off each area’s lessons, and presents a paradigm which enables every person on earth to participate in saving the planet and the human race: Games.  Gamers, she says, are humanity’s secret weapon in our struggle to survive, thrive, and protect our planet.

Disclaimer: I’m a life-long gamer.  Some of my earliest memories are playing computer games on my dad’s lap, as we pushed our Commodore Amiga to its limits with games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Land of the Rising Sun, and more.  I started playing D&D when I was eight, Magic: the Gathering when I was 11, and so on.  I was too young to be a part of the first video-gamer generation, but I am totally a representative of the 2nd-gen gamer.  From what I can tell, this book is written in no small part to people like me, lifelong gamers, as an inspiration and challenge to go out in the world and turn our gaming experience to achieve Epic Social Win.  And for this gamer, the inspiration has certainly been successful.

It’s actually somewhat difficult for me to talk about this book, for several reasons.  For one, it’s got a crapton of material and ideas contained within.  McGonigal puts forward fourteen ‘fixes’ for reality based on various ways that gaming is superior to reality in letting us be more optimistic, more connected, more engaged and so on.

Here’s Fix#1, from p.22:

“Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles

Compared with games, reality is too easy.  Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use”

The idea here is that adding an unnecessary obstacle to a chore or job lets you take it from a chore, a burden, and turn it into a game with a challenge.  I have dirty dishes, and they should be cleaned.  I hate washing dishes, unless I add something to the task.  If I challenge myself to do the dishes while dancing to my favorite music, or to do the dishes using the least water possible, filling a bowl and cleaning everything out of that one bowl of soapy water, or something in that mode, I take control of the task again — I’m doing dishes, because they have to be done, but I’m doing more than just the dishes — I’m playing a game and the result of that game is both 1) clean dishes and 2) A happier Mike (having played a game, set myself a voluntary obstacle and met it).

McGonigal talks a lot about positive psychology/happiness psychology, looking at the ways that we think we can achieve happiness vs. the ways that current science thinks we actually achieve happiness.  Unsurprisingly (since she mentions it), games, especially social games that involve touch, are great for happiness.  I found this section one of the most illuminating, since it covered an area not of my expertise (My formal psychology experience begins and ends with Psych 101, a class on brain chemistry).

As a game designer, McGonigal seems to approach her world in terms of problems, and ways to make games to solve them.  When she was recovering from a concussion in 2009 and unsatisfied with her rate of recovery, she designed a game called SuperBetter to help her take control of her own recovery and restore a sense of power.  The game asks the recovering person to conceive of themselves as a superhero, their disease or injury as the supervillain, and to recruit allies to round out your team, identify power-ups which can help in recovery (taking a walk, doing things you love that aren’t effected by the injury/disease, etc) and making a superhero to-do list of things that will let you feel good about yourself, set goals to aspire to (gather enough energy to go out and do X).

SuperBetter let her ‘gamify’ the recovery process, taking control and empowering herself by applying an interpretive framework that cast herself as the heroine, possessed of the motive and means to get better.

There are countless games, designed for various objectives, but they teach us many lessons.  These lessons, McGonigal argues, equip us to tackle the world’s largest problems — we can take big big issues like peak oil and gamify them, applying a framework that will inspire, challenge, and enable people to be creative, innovative, and collaborate to find solutions together (the peak oil example comes from the game World Without Oil).

Not just any old game will save the world.  But everyday games can still do things like let us feel powerful and accomplished.  They can give us a way to stay in touch with friends or family, give an icebreaker for meeting new people, and countless other things.

Games, McGonigal argues, are a central facet of humanity, and one of our greatest tools.  Now we just need to take all of the time and energy we’ve put into games, evaluate and acknowledge what it’s taught us, and put those skills to use on social issues, political issues, environmental issues, and more.

If this sounds like your bag, read the book, then consider signing up with gameful.org, a social-network/collaboration tool for game designers working to make ‘gameful‘ games.

5 Things I Learned From Clarion West

Clarion West co-administrator Leslie Howle challenged Clarion and Clarion West alums to share 5 things they learned from their time at the Clarion workshop. As part of my efforts to transition this blog into a more general “Mike talks about stuff” blog, I’m putting my entry here.

Clarion and Clarion West are intensive writing workshops primarily focused on science fiction and fantasy writing. Students eat, drink, breathe and sleep writing for six weeks, critiquing peers’ stories, writing their own new shorts, learning from industry veteran writers and editors, and participating in a supportive community of other writers, professionals, and professional fans.

I attended the workshop in 2007, following a friend’s fantastic experience at the workshop in 2004. Among my classmates were mathematicians, historians, fashion bloggers, science teachers, lawyers, bakers, truckers, and more. I wrote five stories at the workshop, two of which have now been published. And here, in five short examples, is what I learned, one lesson for each story I wrote.

1) What you try hardest to do well, may be the thing you fail at the most. Don’t worry, it will also be the thing you learn most from.

My first week, I wrote a story called “In His Image.” The premise is that in the near-future, a social movement creates a technology which allows people to become pure hermaphrodites — possessing both sets of genitals and being functionally both male and female. The main character, Maria, a widow and mother of one, discovers that her only son, the last living reminder of her dead husband, wishes to join this group, caught up in their idealism that if everyone undergoes this procedure, it will end all gender and sex-based discrimination. Maria struggles with trying to convince her son not to pursue the procedure, then shows her confused reactions when her son goes through with the procedure and returns half a stranger.

I challenged myself to tell the story from a more difficult perspective — the mother’s, rather than the son’s, as well as making the mother a devout Christian who interpreted things through her religious paradigm. I wanted to tackle gender issues, and familial issues, using the SFinal technology partially to investigate familial reactions to transsexuals who pursue Hormone Replacement Therapy and Sexual Reassignment Surgery.

The result was a colossal failure. I managed to deeply offend several classmates, and had gone over-the-top in my efforts such that the issues I was so intently trying to get right were all spectacular flops. But from the story and the feedback, I learned that when you push yourself on something, failing can be tremendously instructive, and help you do better the next time. I saw the ways that in my effort to spotlight an issue, I’d been too overt, too clumsy, and in failure saw the ways I could go back and do it better. A first draft is a place where you should allow yourself to fail, almost expect to fail.

2) Fun is a very powerful aesthetic, and buys you a lot of trust from an audience.

My second week, I dove into writing a New Weird Superhero short story “Shield & Crocus,” which would become my novel, keeping the original title. The original short story was a piece far too large for its britches. I tried to introduce and develop a novel’s worth of material, but along with that doomed effort, I provided colorful characters, action, and enough Bombasticity that the absolute most common comment of the story was “fun.” We tell stories to challenge, to provoke, to educate, but we cannot forget the entertainment aesthetic. Fun is not the only way to be entertained — being lead to think deeply and contemplate serious issues is a form of successful entertainment, but as Donald O’Conner said,

Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
Just slip on a banana peel
The world’s at your feet

After all of the deconstruction of the excessive world detail or plotting issues, I was left with the confidence that this setting was fun. It was fun for me to write, and had proven that it was fun for readers, even readers who were not particularly fans of superheroes, the New Weird, or action-adventure stories. Therefore, when I left Clarion West, that sense of fun compelled me to take Shield & Crocus and give it a full life as a novel.

3) Get into a scene, do what you have to do, then get out.

Just as in conversation, I am sometimes prone to verbosity in writing. In week 3 of Clarion West, I tried to focus on scene structure. I wanted to pay attention to the beginnings and endings of scenes. I wanted to make my scenes as sharp as possible, cut out all the flab. In “Kachikachi Yama,” which later sold to Escape Pod, I pushed myself to write short scenes that were as efficient as possible, getting through setup to the meat of the scene, then getting out with momentum pushing forward to the next scene. By making most of the scenes closer to bite-sized, I gave myself permission to not have to do all the setup possible for the scene. Instead, I tried to be a narrative guerrilla — performing hit-and-run attacks with my story, keeping things punchy, so that the very structure of the story conveyed information about my heroine — that she was efficient, sharp, and did not deign to dally.

I was also very happy with what I pulled off in my main character (Usagiko)’s voice, but one lesson per week is the name of the game, so we move on to…

4) For a truly strong relationship-based story, you have to pay specific attention to every single relationship in the story — one-on-one relationships, but also group relationships and relationships in context.

A number of RPGs these days, especially “indie” RPGs, have been using the idea of Relationship Maps. In doing a relationship map, you can visually organize the dynamics between a set of characters in one or more groups. During week 4, I wrote a story called “Three Loves for Horue,” a character-focused drama where in addition to other things, I challenged myself again to write a story without external violent conflict, just internal conflict and interpersonal social conflict.

The main character, Horue, is part of a society where triadic marriage is the norm. For the people of Aehen, a normal marriage is a Husband (male), a Wife (female), and a Mediator (either). Horue is a mediator. When an invading force siezed Aehen, they forced its people into dyadic marriages, just Husbands and Wives. The Mediators were pulled out of their marriages and paired off with one another. And two years later, the invaders leave, stretched too thin to maintain an occupying force in Aehen. Most people go back to their triadic marriages, as could Horue — except that in the two years of occupation, he’d fallen in love with the female mediator assigned as his new life. So Horue finds himself torn between three loves. In the story, I had to establish and develop a great deal of relationships. I had to show Horue’s relationship with each of his spouses (Husband, Wife, and Mediator-Wife), as well as those spouses’ relationships with one another. In order to get to the ending I wanted, I had to show changes in eight dynamics (Horue-Husband, Horue-Wife, Horue-MediatorWife, Husband-Wife, Husband-MediatorWife, Wife-MediatorWife, as well as Wife-Husband-MediatorWife and Horue-Husband-Wife-MediatorWife).

Applying that way of thinking, that I had to show the change in eight distinct but inter-reliant relationships, cast light on the complicated social fabric that underlies every story. Even in stories where the central conflicts were not merely interpersonal, the Relationship Map was as crucial to good storytelling as anything else. If only one or two relationship in any story’s Relationship Map has changed by the end of the story, that story might need another look, or some more focus on character relationships.

5) When Re-decorating the house of a genre, don’t do it like a guest trying to be unobtrusive. Do it like a new owner claiming your own space.

In week 5 of the workshop, I was excited and terrified to write my last story of the workshop, a story that would be critiqued by Science Fiction Legend Samuel R. Delaney. All of the CW07 instructors were awesome, but Chip Delaney is a living legend.

Therefore, I wanted to bust out all the stops. The story I wrote for the last week was “Dancing at the Edge of the Black,” which would eventually become “Last Tango in Gamma Sector,” which appeared in Crossed Genres. I applied my love of Argentine Tango to the genre of Space Opera, and in feedback, I was urged to go all-out in that re-decoration of the house of Space Opera. And so, in re-writes and revison, I made the story as Tango-riffic as I could, from clothing to food to textures and colors. And in doing more and more to re-work the execution of the story as a Tango Space Opera, the story become more distinct, more notably mine, not a Battlestar Galactica ripoff with bad math and a touch of tango.

So there you go: 5 things I learned from Clarion West. The workshop was and remains the single most important game-changer in my writing career thus far, in craft lessons learned as well as connections made with fellow writers who continue to inspire and challenge me, colleagues who are also becoming life-long friends.

So here’s the commercial part — If you’re an aspiring SF/F writer looking for a way to kick-start your career, develop your skills, and make incredible connections, consider applying to Clarion or Clarion West this year.

A Geek’s Insider View of the Publishing Industry Pt. 2 — Indies

This NPR piece was thought-provoking, mostly in the ‘I have lots to say about this’ fashion: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/14/132026420/end-of-days-for-bookstores-not-if-they-can-help-it

When you say ‘bookstore,’ the exact image evoked will be different for almost everyone, but there’s a lot in common. The shape of that image has changed over the years, and these days, independent bookstores are right in the middle of a lot of pressures and changes in the publishing industry.

I love independent bookstores for a lot of reasons, including the fact that they’re my professional lifeblood. Chain stores offer a lot of perks, but with size comes timidity and uniformity of stock and a grand lack of agility. A local big box store is constrained in a lot of ways by their corporate higher-ups, with imposed practices, obsession with metrics, and more.

But indies, as quintessential small businesses, have an incredible degree of flexibility and are in prime position to adapt quickly to change in the industry, but they are also walking a razor’s edge. The ‘imminent doom of the independent bookstore’ is a meme that’s been around for quite a while now, and has been in the national consciousness since at least 1998 with You’ve Got Mail, featuring Meg Ryan as a friendly local independent bookseller and Tom Hanks as the heir to a big chain that threatens her business’ very existence. And in fact, many independent bookstores have closed due to pressures from the chains, and more recently from loss of sales to Amazon.com and eBooks.

But the NPR story above mentions that the changing landscape of publishing may in fact be a great opportunity for indie bookstores. They trot out the encouraging example of Greenlight Books in Brooklyn (which I went to last year and is fantastic), a newer indie bookstore that is thriving. The owners found a location that was under-served and has proven supportive.

Here’s the thing. Not everywhere is Brooklyn. Highly urban centers are great places to have independent bookstores. Most of my territory doesn’t fall under that definition. When you’re a bookseller in the heartland, the circumstances are very different. There’s a lot of places where there isn’t a bookstore around for 50 or more miles — and when gas prices are re-approaching record highs, I can understand why someone might not want to spend a 1/4 tank of gas to go to a bookstore when they could browse and buy online.

Fortunately, indies have responses for this, too. IndieBound allows indie bookstores to band together and offer internet sales through a consolidated web presence. And just this month, Google eBooks went live, with a number of partnerships with indie bookstores (http://www.indiebound.org/google-ebooks) — there are differing opinions on what exactly this will do for indies, with some seeing Google being likely to want to circumvent the retailer and sell directly themselves (http://www.bnet.com/blog/publishing-style/why-google-ebooks-could-hurt-independent-booksellers-instead-of-helping/1058)

One of the things I’ll be looking at this coming season is asking my customers who are partnered with Google eBooks what it’s meant to their business.

All of that aside: Here’s what indies mean to me. Indies are community centers, they are cultural commons, they are cultural gatekeepers.

For many people, the local independent bookstore is a Thirdplace (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_place), where they meet with peers and neighbors and build community. The increasing prominence of coffeshop/cafes built into/alongside bookstores helps this impulse in a big way. Come for the coffee, stay for the books. Many indies work closely with their local school districts as business and educational partners, which is good business, when the grants are still flowing, at least. Indie booksellers, in order to survive, must be brilliant handsellers. Since they can’t compete with chain stores in breadth and depth of stock, they have to adapt to the customer and sell to their aesthetic more actively.

But Mike, what’s handselling? (just go with me)

Say you walk into a bookstore where I’m working (I have in fact done handselling at accounts when visiting for a sales call. Once a bookseller, always a bookseller), and you’re looking for a new science fiction novel.

First, I ask “what have you been reading lately?” And you say, for example “I’ve been on a M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock kick, but I’m looking for something new.”

So I go through my brain, think about what I know about Harrison and Moorcock, their style, content, and role in various literary communities such as the New Wave and what they’ve been doing lately. Then, walking over to the SF section if I haven’t already, I think about what I have in stock, because it’s far easier to sell a book I have on hand than to get someone to order it from my online store or special order to pick up later or get shipped to their home. So while I have them in the store, I try to find the right one-to-three books that will pique your interest.

So I go to my shelf and I pick out China Mieville’s The Scar, asking “Have you tried anything by Mieville?” and then mention how Harrison heralded Mieville as a Bright New Hope for fantasy, and maybe talk up the New Weird if you seem interested in chatting, or just talk about the book if you’re not. I put the book in your hand, which then puts the onus on you to put it down.

And if you seem amenable, maybe I grab something by Steph Swainston or K.J. Bishop to add on, building on the New Weird theme, or maybe I go back to a J.G. Ballard to sell you more work by New Wave SF authors. It’s an ongoing process, and every bit of information you give me refines my approach. If I misfire on something, don’t grab your interest, I probe for more information, not satisfied until I’ve given you at least one book that should float your boat. And sometimes, if you’re the kind of customer who all booksellers love, you’ll keep asking for more, and we’ll spend maybe half an hour building you a leaning tower of awesome.

That’s handselling. Sell to the customer and their tastes, not just pushing the same new Hardcover Besteller down everyone’s throats because ‘if it sells, it must be good!’ Many of the bestsellers get that way because they’re good, but there are far too many books out there to read all of them, so you might as well read books that you will enjoy, that will challenge you when you want a challenge, will comfort you when you need to be reassured, will take you away to another world when you want to take a break from this one.

The indie bookseller, at their best, is a literary guide and advisor, helping you find the right book for the right mood — they’re a matchmaker for an audience of serial bibliovores.

Amazon.com can’t do that for you anywhere near as well as a good bookseller can. I’ve used Amazon’s systems for years now, as well as the systems of the other chain online retailers. And it’s my firm belief that we’re nowhere even remotely close to the time when a computer algorithm can handsell and recommend as well as a living-breathing bookseller.

And if the Google eBooks turns out to be a credit to the bookseller, then they can handsell you books right out of the online catalog if there aren’t any in stock, or if you have a preference for eReaders.

The big problem with eReaders as far as indies go is that they steal away stores’ most prolific buyers. If we apply the 80/20 rule to bookstore customers, where 20% of customers make up 80% of your business, then what happens if half of those 20% of your customers buy eReaders? It’s logical for them, because they’re buying maybe 5 or more books a month, and shelf space is becoming a premium, or they travel a lot for work, etc. That steady business that the indie had been depending on then vanishes. But if that customer knows they can continue to benefit from the expertise of the bookseller, get the recommendations as eBooks and support the store which has been a part of their lives for years, it could be a great match.

The story of the indie bookstore is far from over, but the upcoming chapters are going to be very interesting, and pretty much no one knows how they’re going to unfold — not the chains, not the publishers, not the book reps, and not even the booksellers themselves. It’s a thrilling and terrifying time to be in publishing, which means we all have lots to talk about.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Narrow Demographic

This is going to get deep into Spoilers, friends.  See the movie, then read this post.  If you’ve generally agreed with my reviews, than just go see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and come back to read this post after.

The film adaptation of Bryan O’Malley’s geek-tastic Scott Pilgrim comic series hit the big screens last week…to unimpressive monetary results, bringing in just over $10 million, 5th place behind 1) The Expendables 2) Eat, Pray, Love 3) The Other Guys and 4) Inception.

Its rating is in the high 80%s, higher than all of the movies which beat it monetarily (except Inception).  It has tons of geek appeal.  So why did it “bomb”?

Here’s the thing — it’s very particular geek appeal.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is for people who (preferably) share several or more of the following traits:

  1. Played a lot of video games as a kid
  2. But they have to be games of the NES to SNES era with MIDI music
  3. And should include a lot of 2-d fighting games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, as well as Legend of Zelda.
  4. Have been in a band.
  5. Follow their town/city’s underground music scene.
  6. Enjoy hyper-kinetic narratives.
  7. Understand what a Bob-Omb is.
  8. Know what a 1UP does.
  9. Watched Seinfeld.
  10. Have had several painful breakups and carry around romantic baggage.
  11. Enjoy expressionistic and highly stylized storytelling.

Moreso than possibly any movie in recent memory, the very celluloid upon which the Scott Pilgrim movie is filmed is comprised of Geekdom.  Geekiness was like oxygen.  The film is densely coded with visual and auditory references to geek culture, from comics to video games, but also to sitcoms and with commentary on the romantic comedy genre.  It starts with a chiptune version of the Universal theme as the screen shows a slowly turning old-school video game graphics rendering of the Universal globe.  The opening credit sequence is rife with visual allusions to video games and comics.

If these references go over your head, Scott Pilgrim may not be for you.  It’s easy to position as a representative narrative for Generation Y (or Generation X, depending on who you ask), which also leads into another point that some have raised. Why, though, do some reviewers find it necessary to rag on the target demographic of a film that they (the reviewer) ostensibly didn’t understand or enjoy?

See, for example, this NPR story, which links to a number of the negative review (more of the film’s target audience than the film itself): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129150813

Did you read that story?  Ok.

So what we have here is a movie that is really most effective for a narrow demographic, and somehow that makes it a bad movie.  Do reviewers pan a romantic comedy when it doesn’t try to appeal to people outside the ‘chick flick’ audience?  Or rag on an action movie when it fails to transcend its genre and compete for an Best Picture Oscar?

What about Scott Pilgrim is it that attracted such rancor in reviews?  Is it the same thing that lead to the film’s mediocre box office performance?  i09.com’s Cyriaque Lamar gives several reasons in this article: http://io9.com/5613417/scott-pilgrim-vs-the-lamentable-weekend-gross-++-what-happened

But I don’t know if I think those reasons quite add up.

Some may call Scott Pilgrim’s “failure” a referendum on geek culture, heralding the end of the Age of the Geek.  I’m more inclined to point at the fact that the film uses a great deal of medium and genre emulation in its cinematography, as the film at turns replicates comic books, video games, the fighter genre of games, sitcoms and the indie drama/comedy. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World leaps nimbly between those styles and referents, and for a viewer conversant with the Recommended Reading/Viewing/Playing, it works.  I’ve never laughed so continually or so un-selfconsciously at a film in quite a long time.

This wasn’t a film where geek culture was being re-packaged for the majority, like the X-Men films or Iron Man or Spider-Man films.  In these cases, a character and/or story well-known in the geek community is re-told and re-purposed for a general audience, adapting it to be more understandable, with a smoothed-out backstory less laden with decades of continuity.  While Scott Pilgrim was adapted and streamlined for the screen, it was still (for me) very much a geeky movie for geeks, and never apologized for it.

It’s also important to discuss the Hipster aspect of the film.  Pilgrim of the movie is less actively a geek than he is in the comics, and instead comes off as in no small part a slacker hipster kid — he has little life ambition, plays in a band, but isn’t any good at it, and only shows agency and energy when it comes to Ramona and then his fight scenes.  There are a number of places where Hipster culture and Geek culture overlap, which I find amusing since for me, at their hearts, Geekiness and Hipsterness are antithetical.

In my evaluation, Geekdom is at its core a culture of geniune enthusiasm.  You “geek out” about something when your enthusiasm shows to a degree which may be seen as excessive to some.

By contrast, Hipsterness for me is about irony — it’s about taking an attitude/position towards something.  Hipsters associate with cultural materials or behaviors, but they do so to comment on them in a kind of Bertold Brecht way — Hipsters drink PBR because of its blue-collar associations, made ironic by the fact that most Hipsters come from decidely white-collar backgrounds — Hipsters listen to music and then take a ‘been there done that’ attitude to it.

Not being engaged in Hipster culture, my ideas about it are nowhere as developed as my thoughts on geek culture — but it’s worth the time to talk a bit about Hipsters for Scott Pilgrim, due to the associations on the part of both the film and the source comic (which delves deeply into the Toronto scenester world).

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World combines Romantic Comedy, Battle of the Bands, Fighting Game and Coming-of-Age tropes and tale-types, positing a world where young men and women have troubled romantic and personal histories as they fumble around trying to learn how to be themselves, but despite that complication, the world can be made simple by the application of the video game logic — Scott Pilgrim can bring his video game experience to bear and literalize the metaphor of “dealing with baggage from your S.O.’s exes” by fighting them in sequence.  Scott Pilgrim literalizes several more metaphors of romance/baggage, from the ex who can still “Get into your head” (the chip) to being your own worst enemy (Nega-Scott!).

Some have discussed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a musical, but instead of singing, the characters fight — they still have soundtracks that convey the emotions of the scene, but express themselves and resolve conflicts via juggles and 64-hit combos and leveling up rather than in singing.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World will likely even out or turn a profit, given the chance that it will develop a strong record of DVD sales and home-release viewing.

If you read this blog, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is probably for you.  I enjoyed the hell out of it, and plan to see it at least once more in theatres, delving deeper into the thickly-laid references.

Inception

This post will be in two parts — the first part will be a spoiler-free review, the second an essay of in-depth thoughts and reactions based on a complete, spoiler-laden perspective on the film.  Be warned.

Previews and trailers for Christopher Nolan’s Inception have been atmospheric, vague, and beautiful.  Marketing copy and later trailers give a vague sketch of the plot outline:  DiCaprio is the leader of a group of corporate espionage experts who are tasked to implant an idea inside someone’s dreams.

From the preview materials, the formula seemed to be as such:

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind + The Matrix + Dark City.  Which had me well-sold right there.  The actual result is a science fiction heist movie and psychological thriller, which is even better.  I’m a fan of Nolan’s work, especially Memento, The Prestige, and his Batman films.

DiCaprio plays Cobb, a world-class extractor (a thief who goes into people’s dreams and steals their secrets), is part of a crew of dream thieves that include Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, showing good action hero chops), Nash (Lukas Haas) and then later Ariadne (Ellen Page), Eames (Tom Hardy), and Yusef (Dileep Rao), assembling a dream-team (pun-tastic!) to pull off an Inception.  Where extraction involves taking information from a dream, Inception is the process of putting an idea into someone’s dream in such a way that the subject thinks the notion is their own — the idea becomes a meme, replicating itself in their subconscious and then filtering back into their conscious thoughts — Inception, while difficult, can make a change substantial enough that it re-defines a person’s life.  High stakes?  Check.

The film is visually brilliant (the coolest thing for me was the spinning room, which I hear tell was a practical effect with a full rotating set — major awesome), with shifting and crumbling dreamscapes, unrelenting and powerful music from Hans Zimmer, and nuanced performances from the impressive cast.

This is the kind of movie that you need to see unspoiled, then go outside the theatre with your friends and discuss for two hours.  And I love those kinds of movies.  Inception is my vote for best movie of 2010 (so far).

And now, the spoiler-tastic bits:

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Glee as Fantasy

I posit that Glee is a fantasy television series, in that it can be fruitfully evaluated using a focus on its non-mimetic narrative style to both comment on the traditions of the musical genre (especially the Hollywood Musical) but also in discussing “Music as Magic” and the way that said magic can be transformative, liberating, and revelatory.

From the ubiquitous piano player — “He’s always just around” to the fact that in Glee, seemingly everyone can instantly learn arrangements and choreagraphy and the elaborate fantasy sequences which bleed in and out of the diegesis, we have what could be described by some as Slipstream, some as Urban Fantasy, and possibly even Magical Realism (though less so on that one, given what I see as a lack of a definitive tie to the fairly culturally-specific tradition of Magical Realism).

Why does this matter?

1) If Glee is a fantasy series, then the places/times when it diverts from realism can be seen not as a violation of believability inspiring a rolling of the eyes, but a demonstration of the times when life is not enough and extra-normal storytelling is required. This brings back my beloved Etienne Decroux quote:

“One must have something to say. Art is first of all a complaint. One who is happy with things as they are has no business being on the stage.” — Etienne Decroux

And to paraphrase my former professor John Schmor, Musicals are a complaint that life should be more marvelous — why don’t we just burst into song when mere speech can no longer contain our emotional intensity?

2) It allows Glee to be more easily analyzed in the context of other SF/F musicals such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Once More With Feeling,” Fringe’s “Brown Betty” and so on.

3) It allows the use of the scholarship regarding the metaphors of the Fantastic to be applied t the series. It also enables scholars to bring to bear Samuel R. Delany’s notion of SF/F as a literature that allows for the “literalization of the metaphor” — music is soul-healing, music is empowering, music enables people to express themselves in ways they had previously/traditionally not been able.

These are merely preliminary thoughts. Look for more in time, as I believe this approach is the one which allows me to most effectively analyze the series.

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution

This is one of the two kinds of reality tv that I like. The first kind is where competent people excel at doing awesome things, shows like Project Runway, So You Think You Can Dance, etc.

The other is shows where activism and social change are made accessible and exciting.

In Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution (ABC, Fridays at 10/9 Central), Celebrity British Chef Jamie Oliver (The Naked Chef, Cook With Jaime, etc.) comes to Huntington, West Virginia to begin a revolution in public school food (presumably, he’d like to reform all eating in the USA, but the show focuses on schools). The choice of Huntington is prompted by a CDC report listing Huntington as the unhealthiest town in the country, with the highest instances of obesity-related illness and death.

Three episodes have debuted so far, garnering strong ratings (The Friday at 10PM slot isn’t a great slot, so it’s perhaps not as hard to win).

There is a bit of inflated drama, but overall, the series is a depiction of a sincere pursuit by Oliver, who has already revolutionized the British public school food system.

One of the clips used to promote the show comes from a segment where Oliver is trying to hype up excitement for his test-run doing meals in an elementary school. He goes into a 1st grade class and asks them to identify vegetables such as a tomato, a cucumber, and a potato. The students were unable to identify any vegetables correctly when prompted. This is how separated from real food many children are, and how separated they are from the process of cooking and food-making.

Oliver begins with a test week in an elementary school, competing with dietary regulations that call french fries a vegetable and require 2 servings of bread/grain per meal, but only one serving each of veggies and fruit. Oliver struggles with the dietary requirements, a combative head cook at the school, as well as a obstinately skeptical local DJ.

Oliver opens “Jaime’s Kitchen” as his base of operations to host demonstrations, teach families/kids how to cook simple, healthy meals. As the series goes on, he’s worked with a particular family, recruited a group of high-school students to be his spokespeople in school and help him raise money for a county-wide training to help their school cooks be able to prepare Oliver’s healthy fresh meals on time and budget.

This series is a frank and powerful look at Oliver’s diet/cooking activism in a place that most desperately needs some kind of revolution/reform. Oliver’s sincerity is clear at all times, as he sets himself for an incredibly tough uphill battle (if he’d picked a less challenging setting, it’d doubtlessly not make as good television — they do have to get ratings to survive, after all).

The easiest way to understand this series is to go ahead and watch it. It lacks the artificial drama and competitive greedy backstabbing of The Biggest Loser and is far more grounded in reality than a show like Dance Your Ass Off. It focuses on fresh, real food, rather than artificial/additive-laden and greasy food, showing that it can be beautiful, delicious, and isn’t too difficult or expensive to prepare. Real food may take longer and cost more than box microwave dinners or highly-processed crap, but it’s an investment that’s worth making for nearly everyone. It’s easier for me to say this as a privileged middle-class guy, but the fact remains that real food in reasonable portions is demonstrably better for your health, and in a nation where diabetes is prevalent and weight-related diseases and deaths are scarily high, it’s hard to argue on any basis other than money.

A note for the Fat Studies community: Weight by itself is not vilified in Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution. The show focuses on instances where poor eating habits and weight have lead to demonstrably negative health effects. A Teenager likely to develop diabetes before they turn twenty. A highschooler with liver spots that may cap her life expectancy in the early twenties. A girl who lost her father and uncle to weight-related illnesses. Being fat is not the problem — eating unhealthily in a way that creates weight-related illnesses and death is the problem.

I’ve quickly become very passionate about this show. I watched the first two episodes with my girlfriend, who is a big foodie and cook. I come at it from a developing love of diverse food and cooking, but also as someone who had weight issues as a teenager due to a sedentary lifestyle and a terrible diet (not helped in any way by the public school food system). We ate decently at home, but I was given the freedom to make unhealthy eating choices (massive soda consumption, junk food, etc.) and only later developed a real awareness for how bad those foods were for me, as well as learning the skills of and appreciation for cooking for myself with fresh, real food. I’m still learning those things. When I’m at home from a selling season, living alone, it’s harder to work up the motivation to cook real meals for one. To that end, I bought the companion cookbook, Jaime’s Food Revolution, and will be trying to host friends/join friends for family-style meals of real, healthsome food.

Knowing that certain foods are bad for you, on an intellectual level, is one thing. But it takes an accessible and realistic alternative and the means to transition your habits to make a real, lasting change in your life. Oliver’s show is trying to show that process with one school, leading to a school district, with Oliver’s ambition being to revolutionize school food and general eating habits in the USA, a much larger task than his already-impressive feat in his homeland.

All of the episodes are available on hulu, and there’s information and recipes on the website here: http://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/jamies-food-revolution

I hope you give the show a shot, and even if you don’t like the show, I think it’s sentiment and agenda are commendable.

Viva La Wavolucion

I’ve found my way onto Google Wave and am very excited about its potential as a communication/collaboration tool, especially for geeky things.  And by this I’m mostly talking about Role-Playing Games.

Not much of this blog’s content ends up being about RPGs, despite the fact that my M.A. thesis was on tabletop RPGs and I’ve been playing/following RPGs since I was in fourth grade.

Like any new communication technology, one of the first things that people have done with Google Wave, aside from making porn (I can only guess, based upon the general adage) is to see if you can use to it game.  Because when your early adopter set is pretty much geeks, one of the things they’re likely to do when exploring a new technology is get it to roll dice so we can play exciting games of make-believe with our friends.  It’s what we do.

There have been a number of different exploratory attempts along these lines, and I’ll try to create a short round-up here before moving into actual discussion/analysis:

Futurismic

Ars Technica

Game Playwright

The emerging thought is that while Google Wave is in its infancy, its official utility/intended utility is very much up in the air.  The Futurismic post’s title is a paraphrase of Neuromancer, stating “the geek finds its own uses for things.” Much like how Wired commented on how Twitter’s ‘real use’ was decided by its users, Google Wave is being investigated for its various potentials, and Geek communities are pursuing explorations and trails of the technology as a strong next step/sideways development for roleplaying games as collaborative storytelling.

The idea put forward by the Game Playwrights is one of the most interesting, and the one I’ll ruminate upon further.  Using a Google Wave as a persistent artifact of play changes the textual status that of RPGs.  A tabletop RPG doesn’t leave an artifact of play, nor does a LARP.  Each of those could be recorded, by video or audio, but would not represent a polished or total account of the story, instead showing a very fractured account.  But if Google Wave games (or Waveltop, as some are calling them) move towards the ‘script of play’ model that Will Hindmarch of Game Playwrights is suggesting, we may see a move towards RPGs leaving behind readable texts, and this is for me, a very interesting move.

There is certainly already discussion of games past in the RPG community.  From ‘let me tell you about my character’ to game stories like The Gazebo or group-specific stories about how one player is deep in character, using a special voice and cadence, embodying his motions, and saying with a sweeping motion, “Allow me to introduce my cousin”, gesturing to the player of the ‘cousin’ who is in fact…asleep on the couch.  But even the actual play reports lauded in the Forge community among others are less direct than the ‘Wave as script of play’ idea.

If Wave players are using this script of play as their primary narrative reference but are also constructing it in a way that reads like a story/script, this, for me, would make it infinitely easier for players to read about and engage with one another’s stories in a way more consistent with films, television, novels, etc.

Different versions of one module could be combined and sold alongside a module (Buy Keep on the Borderlands, complete with game scripts by the Penny Arcade/PvP teams as well as three other star teams), and moreover, there would be room for groups to emerge as stars/paragons of RPG writing/play moreso than already exists (the stars such as they are tend to be specific game designers, known as designers more than being known as players)  We may even see a re-figuration of the RPG novel.  Could it be that once developed, people would pay to read the polished game texts of well-reputed RPG groups published as e-books/pdfs?  It’s a very different way of monetizing the efforts of role-players, like but rather unlike the efforts of the gaming group who decided their superhero game was taking too much time away from writing and decided to do the Wild Cards anthology novels.

And of course, this need not be monetized, nor is it inevitably going to become monetized.  However, in these early explorations, it’s not hard to see the varied ways that this technology could serve as a breakthrough tool for roleplayers to engage with one another.  It is of course notable that the role-playing done via Google Wave is a notable offshoot of tabletop play, since it will not convey any degree of embodied performance, instead relying on writing as performance,  At least until someone pushes the technology even further and weaves together audio play to cohesive uninterrupted narratives.  (There are a number of podcasts/records of play that take the raw audio of a RPG session and distribute it, but again as said before and restated, the main appeal of Google Wave is the ease with which it allows a seamless narrative text which is both a part of play and a readable artifact that results from play.

I’m hoping to take part in some of this exploration myself, and will comment on that as I can.

Glee = Win

FOX’s new offering Glee debuted a pilot episode earlier in the year and made it available online throughout the summer, and responded to initial positive responses with a very strong and pervasive advertising campaign which continues even now.

It’s impressive to think that a weekly musical television show could get this positive a response, but there are a lot of reasons to love the show.

1) If you are a musical theatre fan, the chance to see it on network primetime is inspiring and delightful.

2) If you aren’t a musical theatre fan, the show offers constant laughs with compelling laughs.

3) Jane Lynch portrays the shows main antagonist, the coach of the national-attention-winning cheerleading team (aka the Cheerios).  Lynch is given reign to cut loose and portray a vicious competitive scheming selfish heel of a character — and she revels in it.  Lynch’s Coach Sylvester is one of the strongest parts of the show.

4) The way that the musical numbers are integrated into the show are mostly diegetic, given the focus on a glee club, but there are some breakout fantasy numbers, such as “Bust Your Windows” when diva-licious Mercedes is rejected by the fashion-forward Kurt, or head Cheerio Quinn’s crazy-go-nuts anthem railing against her treatment by her boyfriend and others in general

5) The showrunners and writers keep on finding new ways of eliciting laughter and delight from the audience.   Last week, we had Jane Lynch in a zoot suit, “I Could Have Danced All Night” sung in a dress shop by the adorable Jayma Mays while dancing, and the glorious Slushee War.

6) The show’s musical selection ranges from classic rock “Don’t Stop Believing” to contemporary hip-hop “Gold Digger” and a strong but not overwhelming sampling of musical theatre numbers such as “Maybe This Time” and “Tonight.”  Upcoming numbers include “Defying Gravity” from Wicked (not the TV show by the same name — that’s another blog post).

7) Characters originally introduced in an antagonistic role are frequently fleshed out into sympathetic characters, including head cheerio Quinn, coach Tanaka, football bully “Puck”, Will’s wife Terri, and even the dread Sue Sylvester has her pensive moments.  Few characters are universally good or universally villainous — our protagonists are flawed, lie and cheat for understandable if misguided reasons, and generally act like high schoolers — even the adults.

8) Despite this ambiguity, it’s very hard not to root for the Glee kids, and most see the dissolution of Will’s marriage as an inevitable precursor to the more-inevitable union of charming Glee coach Will and adorably OCD guidance counselor Emma.

It’s Both Good and Popular!  Amazing!

There are more reasons to love the show, and Glee’s popularity is written nearly everywhere — critical praise abounds, it consistently trends in the top 10 topics on Twitter the nights of its episode airings, and most importantly, it’s ratings are consistently strong, consistently earning a 4.X rating and 7 share and a 3.X/9 among the coveted 18-49 demographic.  The show was the first new show of the season to (publically) receive an order for the back 9 episodes — and the first DVD set (collecting episodes 1-13) has already been solicited).  Another important facet of the show’s success is that the musical numbers from the show are made available on iTunes and consistently reach best-seller levels in that market.  The show is another example of Most Repeatable Programming (ala Steven Johnson), where small moments/reaction shots may be missed without multiple viewings, and it’s easy to see why people would watch and re-watch (including Hulu) given the selfless-smile-inducing musical numbers.

If Glee is able to maintain its current balance of drama and humor, delightful musical numbers and ridiculous antics, it’s likely to survive for several years.  In times of economic and social instability (recession, massive conflict over health care reform, gay rights, etc.), a happy, inspiring show is an easy pick for success.

After all, as the dearly departed Irene Adler, long-time coach of the McKinley Glee Club (inc. during Schuester’s time) saif,

Glee, by its very definition, is about opening yourself up to joy.”