Monday, June 19, 2017

So I Saw Wonder Woman This Weekend

I wasn't sure I would when the movie was first announced. I didn't grow up with Wonder Woman in either live action TV or animated form. The live action was before my time, and the Justice League animated show was on cable, which my family didn't have.

I mostly thought of Wonder Woman as one of those silly superheroes running around with a flag for a costume. She wasn't the only one, but she was certainly among the most prominent. I didn't know anything about her personality or why people liked her so much other than she was the most prominent female superhero who wasn't the distaff counterpart of a preexisting male one. Though I suppose that in itself made her worthwhile.

One thing sold me on seeing the movie, and it's not what would do it for people. Because I am a World War I nut.

When I saw the first trailer with Wonder Woman stepping out into No Man's Land, I knew I had to see this movie. I love the complexity of the first world war, and how it's not a simple good guys vs. bad guys, which made it an interesting setting for a superhero movie. And there are precious few stories featuring women combatants in World War I. That it was a woman charging out there into No Man's Land meant a lot to me.

So it's a little funny now hearing from so many people that it's the best part.

I'm glad people love it, but I didn't expect that something that sold me before the movie even came out is now considered one of the best parts, because it's not something that uniquely had to be done by Wonder Woman. It's just something that spoke to me.

I've long wanted a good World War I movie (pref PG-13 because I can't take live action violence when it has a lot of gore/blood). That it turned out be a superhero movie hasn't bothered me in the slightest.

It turns out that Diana's optimism and faith in humanity works perfectly for a war with no true villain as she believes that the Germans will stop fighting if Ares is slain. Though she is not entirely correct in her initial view of human morality, she comes to understand that the morality of an individual is left to that individual. Humanity as a whole isn't monolithically good or bad.

Though Wonder Woman isn't a perfect movie, it doesn't need to be. It's one of the best superhero movies I've seen and none of the others were perfect either.

And that charge into No Man's Land is going to stick with me for a long time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Favorite Fictional Commanders

I haven't written one myself, largely because I haven't gotten to the point where I'm comfortable juggling an ensemble cast, but in honor of Attack on Titan's Erwin Smith and his valor in the most recent episode, I figured I'd run through a few of my favorite fictional commanders.

They're not leaders of countries necessarily, but likely leaders of soldiers. These are the people that if I was a kid again, I'd say "I want to be like them when I grow up!"

Interestingly, I could not come up with any commanders from novels, so the ones below are all from animation or games. I'm not sure why that is, but I suspect it might be because a lot of military fantasy and science fiction is pretty gritty, and I tend to not idealize those commanders as much, though there is certainly one gritty commander on this list!

Optimus Prime (Transformers)

He is my ur-example largely because of the age at which I was introduced to him as voiced by Peter Cullen (and seriously, bringing Peter Cullen back was the best thing the Michael Bay movies ever did).

Optimus Prime cares about the soldiers beneath him, but is willing to make unpopular decisions if it's the right thing to do. I liked that he was always level-headed, never irrational, and most importantly, he could admit when he was wrong. You got the feeling you could trust him, even if he was a giant robot from another planet.

I don't think that I ever viewed him as a father or big brother figure, even in universe, but he was cool character to look up to and my favorite out of all the 80s Transformers. I even had his toy.

Commander Hawkins (Voltron)

Most people are not going to remember Commander Hawkins because he was in the "other" Voltron, the Vehicle Team. It probably didn't hurt that he was also voiced by Peter Cullen, who didn't change his voice much between Prime and Hawkins.

Hawkins was an usual character for me to latch on to as a kid, because he wasn't one of the Voltron pilots. He stayed on the command ship and gave orders, so he would be the guy the team would argue against when they wanted to follow their hearts rather than his instructions.

But even if they didn't like what he had to say, you got the impression that Hawkins was fair, and he actually pranked his disobedient team leaders once after a mission that only succeeded because they didn't listen to him. They were willing to take any punishment he was willing to give them, and the punishment they thought was coming, was actually more of a reward.

Robin (Dark Wizard)

If Hawkins is obscure, then Robin is downright forgotten. Dark Wizard was an old fantasy strategy game for the Sega CD, and Robin was one of four playable army leaders. I loved her for being a kickass female knight in functional armor.

Back then, and even now, it's hard to find games with female protagonists, and here's Robin who serves as knight on horseback with better melee stats than magic ones. This lady was all about leading her army into battle to retake the continent from the titular Dark Wizard.

If she picked up a love interest along the way and agreed to marry in him in the ending, why not. It's a bonus. He asked her to marry him if he won the duel at their victory banquet. She kicked his ass and basically said something like "WTF, did you think I wouldn't like you if you couldn't beat me? I like you anyway, let's get married." Teenage me loved this. (Actual dialogue was much cheesier, but that was the take home message.)

Xander (Fire Emblem Fates)

Depending on which version of the game the player is playing, Xander might never take on a real command role, but along the Birthright storyline, Xander is very much a commander and unfortunately he becomes the enemy one.

I played Conquest first where I totally fell in love with Xander for being my favorite type of knight character, who is stuck between his principals and his duty. As the eldest of the Nohrian royal siblings, he is heir to the throne of Nohr and shoulders the burden of a temperamental, maniacal father as well as the future of his nation. Though not blood-related to the player's avatar, he is adamant that they are a welcome part of his family.

The worst part of starting down the Birthright storyline was turning away from Xander and fighting against him, because I knew that I would have to kill him eventually. When the battle finally happens, Nohr is practically finished and he actually has lower stats than a boss should at that level, because he doesn't actually have the heart to kill the player.

Erwin Smith (Attack on Titan)

Last, but certainly not least, is Commander Erwin Smith from Attack on Titan, who inspired this post. I won't mention anything exclusive from the manga, but Erwin hits all the right respect buttons. He's saddled with the unenviable job of leading the least popular branch of the military into gut-wrenching odds, and yet he throws himself completely into his work.

Nothing gets in Erwin's way. If the best chance to capture an enemy spy involves endangering civilians, he will take it. He might not be happy about it, but if you want a person willing to do anything to ensure the survival of humanity, Erwin's a good pick for the job and his soldiers know that. Erwin can ask the impossible of them and they'll do their best to deliver.

And particularly in the anime, when Erwin bellows for his soldiers to "Dedicate your hearts!" you want to follow the guy into battle, even though you know there's going to be a body count. The opening song for the second season is taken specifically from his words.

Shinzou o sasageyo!

Monday, June 5, 2017

Attack on Titan: Mining Story Bits from the Future

I watched the latest Attack on Titan episode (Episode 35: Children if you're avoiding spoilers), which had some really surprising material that I didn't expect they would include. I know a certain amount of changes are made in adaptations, and Attack on Titan has been no different. Though it follows the manga closely in most respects, the series has had to pad on occasion to make sure that the TV run time is fulfilled.

In most cases, one chapter is equivalent to one episode, but sometimes it does not directly translate because one chapter might be very action heavy or it might be very plot heavy. A plot heavy chapter tends to fill an episode. An action one does not, because while two-page spreads are impressive in manga form, they are generally only a few seconds of animation. The series also had to contend with the fact that it needs this particular story arc to last exactly 12 episodes to comprise Season 2. No one wants to start the next story arc and abruptly end when it's just getting started.

As I watched Season 2 I could see the new bits and bobs tucked in. What had been a bubble of dialogue talking about a past event became a full blown flashback in one episode, and that was fine. Season 1 had similarly added anime-only scenes to fill out the run time and the added scenes have been pretty seamless.

Last week's Episode 34 signaled a bit of change though. It added some stuff that's from two story arcs ahead in the manga, but that was mostly okay, because even though the information was first revealed later in the story, the anime presented it as a flashback in one character's mind. It didn't change anyone else's perception of the past event. It does change the audience's perception, but in a small, abbreviated way. In the manga the scene is a fairly extended flashback, but in the anime it's a few seconds to make it clear that someone's death was not the accident it had appeared to be.

I was surprised to see it, but because it changed very little and showed what was going on in the mind of the character who was remembering, I felt that the payoff for using it was warranted.

Episode 35 does something strange though. And this is where the manga spoilers come in. They'll be discussed past this point.

Ymir gets an extended flashback in the middle of Episode 35. A really extended flashback. Episode 35 animates Chapter 47 of the manga. This flashback gives us her history from Chapter 89 of the manga, which is after the reader's awareness of the world has been expanded.

The reason I found her flashback strange is that it gives us our first glimpse of the world outside the walls. We knew that people existed outside of them because that's where Reiner, Bertholdt, and Annie came from, and we'd seen flashbacks of Annie's childhood, but we had no reason to think it was much different from the world inside the walls.

But the flashback raises a lot of questions the anime is not set up to answer. By the time we get Ymir's history in the manga, we already know about the truth of the outside world. We know that humanity flourishes out there and that the people of the walls are essentially backwater hicks that have been left alone for the past hundred years while being surrounded by their own people, who have been transformed into human-eating titans.

Because of this, learning that Ymir was a figurehead of a cult that worshiped her as the original Ymir reborn, was very easy to swallow. We already know who the original Ymir is and the significance she had to the Eldian people. We already know about the treatment of the Eldians as a minority ethnic group in the country of Marley.

The anime doesn't explain the significant of Ymir's name, but does show the cult, Ymir's capture by Marleyan authorities, and even her being taken to the seawall around Paradis. It stops short of showing the injection that transforms her into a titan, but it's clear that she and the others were transformed as punishment for their religious gathering, which opens up a whole can of worms that the anime is not going to address without getting to the truth that's hiding in Eren's basement, which isn't going to happen for another two story arcs after the current one ends.

My problem with including this, aside from the fact none of it will be addressed for another 20 episodes or more, is that we see far too much. While the cultists and Ymir are dressed shabbily and can pass for the same tech as inside the walls, the Marleyans are very distinct in their uniforms. The flashback shows that there are people outside the walls with the power to turn others into titans, and these people are more modern than the ones inside the walls.

And they're organized. We're not talking about small scattered villages as implied when Reiner and Bertholdt talk about returning to their "hometown." Those uniforms are things the soldiers of a nation wear.

When the series finally gets to the basement I don't think it's going to be a surprise for anime-only viewers that humanity is thriving outside the walls because they'll already be able extrapolate that from the Ymir flashback.

While the flashback does give some payoff by providing insight into Ymir's personality that wasn't there before, it does so at the cost of one of the series biggest reveals, and I don't think that's worth it. The worst part is that it feels they pulled the material in for run time, since there are only a few chapters left in the current story arc and the remainder are action-heavy so they need all the filler they can get.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mini-Reading Binge

I don't normally read nearly as many books as I'd like. A part of me wonders if it's just that I've gotten more critical as I've become a writer, or it's just that it's harder for me to sit down since there are so many ways to spend my time.

But, I did finish three books so far this month, which is unusual for me, and I'm in the middle of two others (one is an anthology, so it's very easy to pause in the middle for another novel).

I particularly like the two novels I finished. One is The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, which hits all my southern Chinese buttons. I might have told the author over Twitter that reading the dialogue with its older style of romanizing Chinese words made me think of my grandmother and great aunt, because my family never learned to use pinyin. It just wasn't a thing with the Hoisan who came over to the US early in the 20th century, and given the book's late 1800s setting (though in Malaysia), it makes sense.

There's a lot to like about The Ghost Bride. Though the details sometime feel a little much for someone who grew up with similar traditions, they should be enough to bring non-Chinese up to speed, and I really liked the details about Malaysia, which I'm largely unfamiliar with.

The other novel I finished is Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, which is set in 1919 Boston, just before Prohibition. It starts a little slow, though I was pretty hooked by the second half. I liked the diverse cast, and the author doesn't let the reader forget that main character Ava is a second class citizen in her own city by virtue of the color of her skin. I also liked the addition of Gabriel, a Russian immigrant who Americanized his name because though he is white by our modern day standards, he would not have been back then.

I'm a complete sucker for something involving magic and period gangsters, but I have to admit I was surprised this ended up being a YA book. I didn't pick this up in the store so I don't know where they shelve it and unlike most contemporary YA it's not written in first person, so I was a bit thrown off when my brain had to age everyone down by about ten years.

The third book I finished is the second Spice and Wolf short story volume, Volume 11 in the series overall. Usually the stories are told from Lawrence's point of view, more rarely Holo's, but Volume 11 has a real gem in the novella "The Black Wolf's Cradle," which is a prequel telling the origin of Eve Bolan. If you've watched the second season of the anime, you may remember Eve as the backstabbing merchant in the second half.

"The Black Wolf's Cradle" gives us an early version of Eve, when she has recently become a young widow of a destitute noble family. It's painful watching her fumble her way through her first transactions, because she needs a trade in order to earn money, but she is so trusting that even when things begin to look promising for her, we're waiting for the sword to fall. When it does, we see how she becomes the person that we know in the main series. This is easily the best of Isuna Hasekura's shorts in this series, and better than a few of the novels.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Writing “Between Earth and Exile”

When I was fifteen, I rented an animated movie that for the first time made me wonder "What would I do?" if I was in that situation, and not in a good way. Vengeance of the Space Pirate was the censored and dubbed version of the 1981 anime movie Arcadia of My Youth, and it was not a heroic adventure. Though I hadn't realized it at the time, about half of the most objectionable scenes (usually of people getting shot/killed, or scenes of dead people) were removed or shortened, but the dialogue was left surprisingly intact.

For the first time I experienced a story where the good guys didn't save the world. The movie starts out with humanity having been subjugated by an alien race, and that doesn't change by the end. Harlock, the lead character, finds his own freedom, but he's not a freedom fighter. He doesn't try to save or inspire a people who have essentially given up.

At the end of the movie he is declared an enemy of Earth and told to leave the planet. He agrees to do so, but before he goes, he asks if anyone would go with him, knowing that they could never return.

I had never been challenged with a future this bleak in anything I’d seen or read up until this point, and as I watched Harlock leave with the people who would follow him, I couldn’t help wondering, "Would I have the guts to go? Could I have left my family? Could I leave knowing that my life on Earth would amount to nothing, but only hardship and exile would lie with Harlock?"

"Between Earth and Exile" is about a young woman who made the choice to follow her captain into exile, but after six years of fighting and scrabbling to get by, proposes a way to return to Earth and rescue her family.

This story spent years on the drawing board and went through a number of titles, from "Exile's Sorrow" to "Adolescence in Exile" to the final "Between Earth and Exile" which I think is the strongest. It was originally a much shorter story, the second half as it currently exists was not in the original draft, and I wasn't happy with the ending. I changed it twice before the final version. Alexa was always intended to lose in order to draw a parallel between her and Captain Mercer, but the circumstances of the loss changed over time.

The first ending had her in one of the Bloodborne's shuttles (the frigate didn't even exist) with three other people rather than a crew. They flew all the way to Earth to rendezvous with the transport and Alexa actually used her piloting skills during the skirmish against some Alcaltan fighters to try to save her family. But Alcaltan reinforcements arrived, including a cruiser, so our space pirates were forced to pull back back from a battle they wouldn't be able to survive.

I didn't like this ending because Alexa speny a lot of it an emotional wreck and in denial. She had to be convinced to withdraw rather than making the call on her own. This was also the only ending where Mercer offered to let her know what happened to her family after they were apprehended. Alexa refused, because if she doesn't hear they're dead she still has hope. Mercer's line "I would not have wasted the schematics on a fool’s errand" existed even back then, but because of the way things played out, it came off like he was chewing her out rather than expressing support for her initiative.

It didn't help that the fight scene was pretty limp and not well thought out. I knew I didn't want Alexa to go by herself, but there was no clear chain of command and fighting came down to "Everybody do stuff!"

The second draft is really where the story took shape. This introduced the death of Kellen, gravity technology, and the capture of the frigate that would be used what was now the second half of the story. Substituting in the frigate battle over the one with the shuttle almost doubled the length of the story, but it was worth it.

Now the battle took place in the outer edges of the solar system and used larger ships instead of smaller fighter craft. There was a chain of command and everyone on board (or at least on the bridge) had a clear role.

But… but… there was a problem when they turned around to withdraw. They were heavily damaged, being chased by a lone corvette, as they are in the final version, and I needed some way to save them. And at the time I thought, well, if I want Alexa to really feel like she isn't cut out for leadership, the worst thing would be to have Mercer show up and save her. Because then it would look like he never had confidence in her at all.

I admit I'm a little sad that I had to take out the Space Battleship Yamato-inspired Implosion Cannon, but having the Bloodborne show up to pull the frigate's butt out of the fire and annihilate the corvette didn't feel very satisfying. Even though I wanted Alexa to feel less competent than she actually is, I also wanted her to escape on her own.

Still, I sat on that ending for two years before I landed on the missile pod orbiting around Varuna idea, which is a tactic I cribbed from Arpeggio of Blue Steel, a futuristic submarine series. I had to make some changes due to being in space rather than underwater, but I liked the idea of a separate launch platform that an enemy would not expect, and this allows Alexa to make her final attack and save her crew while they're on their last legs.

There were other nips and tucks along the way. Alexa's engineer, Caleb, had a larger role at one point as her surrogate big brother, but most of the changes were along the lines of her interactions with Mercer, who I had to write a fine line around. Since the story is told in first person, we see him through Alexa's hero-worshipping eyes, so bringing out his humanity and the fact he is fallible as well, was harder. If I ever write another story set in this universe I'll probably choose a different POV character.

Between Earth and Exile can be read on Kindle in the April 2017 issue of Deep Magic.

Music listened to while writing: Soundtracks from Arcadia of My Youth and Skies of Arcadia (the latter not related) and "Ichiban no Takaramono (Yui version)" sung by LiSA. "Ichiban no Takaramono" (Most Precious Treasure) was not an entirely appropriate choice, because the lyrics don’t match the situation of the story, but the vocalist does such a great job of portraying the pain expressed in the lyrics that I couldn’t help but think of Alexa.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Fantastic Stories' People of Color Anthology is Out

I received a little tip that the Fantastic Stories of the Imagination People of Color Flash Anthology is now out!

You can pick it up at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It's available both as an ebook and in paperback.

This project was successfully Kickstarted back in December/early January and contains my flash story "The White Snake" in its first anthology appearance.

"The White Snake" is a take on the old Chinese story about a snake who falls in love with a human, but this time it is in modern day and the human does not care for Chinese myth at all.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Psycho-Pass 2 vs. Mandatory Happiness

I watched the second season of the Psycho-Pass anime last week and while it had its moments, it didn't hit the height of the first series, and I was trying to figure out why. Though Gen Urobuchi was no longer the writer in the second season, I had enjoyed the Mandatory Happiness visual novel, which was not written by him either, so I knew it was possible for someone else to write an engaging, fulfilling story in the Psycho-Pass setting who is not Urobuchi.

The funny thing is that Mandatory Happiness and Psycho-Pass 2 actually do a lot of the same things, and I don't think it's because I'm aware of the same tricks that I enjoyed Psycho-Pass 2 less. I think they were just better done, and I'm not sure if that's because the visual novel came later or that the writers (of which there were several) were just more conscious of the implications.

Spoilers for both the anime series and the visual novel follow!

The key ground that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness want to avoid is having the same type of villain as the original Psycho-Pass. Makishima was unusual because his Crime Coefficient reading was always incredibly low, even in the middle of committing a criminal act. This created complications because the Dominator weapon used by the police only unlocks when a target is psychologically deemed criminal enough (even if latently so) to be enforced. How do you take down a criminal when the system you rely doesn't recognize him as such?

After the original series, the existence of criminally asymptomatic people is no longer a surprise, so both the spin-off and the sequel can't entertain the audience by introducing yet another character with the same ability to foil the Sybil System. But the series is always about the flaws in Sybil, so each new villain needs to have a way to challenge it.

Mandatory Happiness chooses to handle this with an AI. When a genuinely sentient AI goes rogue and behaves according to its own definition of happiness it is unsurprising that Sybil is unable to get a psychological read on it. This allows for the same drama where an inspector or enforcer character is pointing their Dominator weapon at Alpha's android body and is unable to fire. Somehow, the protagonists need to take out Alpha before any additional people are hurt or killed, but Sybil is not set up to protect people from this kind of situation. It's fascinating stuff.

Psycho-Pass 2 similarly offers a villain that cannot be read at all by Sybil. I suppose that's the natural next step up from Makishima, going from a villain who is incorrectly read to one who isn't read at all, but the reason for that doesn't make much sense. Kamui is essentially Frankenstein's monster. For some reason that is never explained, he is the subject of an experiment where the broken body of a young plane crash survivor was repaired using parts of 184 of his deceased classmates. Kamui is now regarded as a "collective" of all 185 people and that is the reason he cannot be read by Sibyl.

This breaks so much science that my brain hurts. Even allowing for the fact that somehow all 185 children were biologically compatible for transplant purposes, why would someone even do this? We know who did it, but not why, and without a why, there's no reason for Kamui's existence except for the express purpose of being a collective that cannot be identified by Sybil.

And even then, Kamui makes it clear that after his operation Sybil recognized him for a while before he faded off the grid. He originally had only one mind and what he currently experiences could possible be a case of dissociative identity disorder and not truly a collective hive mind. After all, it's unlikely that he got 184 bits of brain matter from his classmates.

The original Psycho-Pass and Mandatory Happiness test the Sybil System in unexpected, but realistic ways. It is unsurprising that there are people who cannot be correctly read, because in the real world there are always outliers. Similarly, the rise of AI is something likely to happen in our future, and dealing with a criminally negligent AI is a fascinating topic.

But a Frankenstein collective human being challenging the judgment of the Sybil System isn't that compelling or very likely. It feels like the only reason Kamui exists the way he does, is to hold up a mirror to Sybil, since we know that Sybil is a hive mind composed of criminally asymptomatic people. In order to be able to judge Kamui, Sybil would need to be able to judge itself.

Psycho-Pass 2 wants to pose the question of the omnipotence paradox to Sybil, which I disagree with on account of the fact that Sybil is known to be a flawed system, at least by those who know it best. That is the reason Sybil keeps taking in any criminally asymptomatic people it finds, because it seeks to improve itself. It is understandable that Kamui, being an outsider to the system, would ask this question, but it doesn't do anything for the audience, who is already informed of Sibyl's true state. (And oddly enough, Kamui doesn't seem to bat an eye when he learns that Sibyl isn't just a computer system, but a computer system augmented by human brains.)

That Kamui and Sybil eventually identify a few criminally asymptomatic brains in the collective is not surprising, because over time Sybil's processing has been refined. It is unexpected that some of the early brains that could not be properly read at the time of their integration would become readable later on. Kamui doesn't feel that Sybil passes the test, but Sybil was never in a position where it could, because the system is built on constantly improving itself, which it does when it throws out the criminally read brains.

The other thing that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness do is disguise a person's Criminal Coefficient through drug use. And I suspect that Mandatory Happiness, having come later, took some lessons from the execution in Psycho-Pass 2.

Psycho-Pass 2 has followers of Kamui who cannot be read by the Dominators, but it does not appear to be their natural state as they cannot maintain their low Criminal Coefficients without drug use. This is not too much different from the helmets used to disguise Criminal Coefficients in the first series, but has the added advantage in that the user does not need to be disguised. However, Psycho-Pass 2 doesn't dwell much on the existence of these drugs, which is a little odd since one would think the police would take a high amount of interest in figuring out what is enabling these people.

Mandatory Happiness similarly has a drug workaround, but we see the work that goes into creating this drug cocktail and how it's synthesized through commercially available products so anyone can get a hold of it if they know what they're doing. There are also side effects with heavy users eventually succumbing to Eustress Syndrome (which was introduced in a passing reference in Psycho-Pass 2). The Division 1 team puts a priority on figuring out how the drugs work, and it makes their existence more believable than being a handy plot device.

I think that's why Psycho-Pass 2 didn't work as well for me as the original and the spin-off visual novel. It's not that there isn't room to tell new stories in the Psycho-Pass universe so much as it doesn't feel like it was well thought out. There other parts of Psycho-Pass 2 that didn't make sense to me, but comparing the similarities in execution between that and Mandatory Happiness make it clearer where Psycho-Pass 2 came up short.