Monday, December 19, 2016

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" now up at IGMS #54

My latest short story "Poison Maiden, Open Skies" went live a few days ago at Orson Scott Card's Intergalatic Medicine Show as part of their special Festivals on the Front holiday issue.

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" is about a group of women who were caught in a chemical explosion at the munitions factory where they worked, turning them into literally poisonous women, who constantly emit a cloud of deadly poison around them.

Together they now form Harpy Squad, a special assault team the British use against the Germans on the Western Front, but even though their abilities now make them invaluable living weapons, the women hold out hope for a cure and a return to a normal life.

The amazing art for my story is by Nicole Cardiff, and you can pretty much see what happens to the hapless souls who have the bad luck to just be standing near them.

Monday, December 12, 2016

My 2016 Award Eligibility Post

It's the last month of the year, so it's time for eligibility posts. Cat Rambo, our SFWA president, is encouraging everyone to make them, and I do have a few things that are eligible for the Nebula and Hugo awards this year.

All of them are short stories. If you'd like a review copy, please shoot me an e-mail.

In publication order, my works are:

"Confidence Game" - Galaxy's Edge, January 2016 - An ex-con man turned magician gets roped into back into his old work, by the space station authorities no less. Sleight of hand in space!

"The World That You Want" - Galaxy's Edge, July 2016
- The demon apocalypse happened and most of humanity died in the ensuing months, but Joan continues to survive because she can reconcile her existence with the that of the demons.

"The Final Gift of Zhuge Liang" - Swords v Cthulhu (anthology), 2016 - Jiang Wei is saddled with the impossible expectation of becoming the successor to Zhuge Liang, the greatest general the kingdom of Shu has ever known.

"Hunters of the Dead" - Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, September 2016
- Wild magic marks the site of an ancient war, causing the dead to rise in search of a battle that has long ended. The king has abandoned those lands, but the hunters have not.

"Poison Maiden, Open Skies" - Intergalactic Medicine Show, December 2016 - The women of Harpy Squad are literally poisonous thanks to an accident in a munitions factory. Now there is no place they can safely exist, save as weapons on the battlefield.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Anime Talk: Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak High School

My non-spoilery review of Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope's Peak Academy, both Future Arc and Despair Arc will be up at Diabolical Plots later this month with the rest of my anime reviews, so if you don't want to be spoiled, check out my thoughts over there. What this post is about is all the things I couldn't discuss due to being spoilers that came up midway through the series, or even at the finale.

Mostly, I figured this was the best way to wrap-up the Danganronpa series that I've been doing on my blog, seeing as this is the conclusion to the Hope's Peak Academy storyline. (Annoyingly, Funimation and Aksys differ in their translations, so you'll often see me revert to the game translations; i.e. "academy" instead of "high school.")

How does Danganronpa 3 serve as a capstone for the games and does it work?

Obviously, spoilers for all games and the anime from here on out!

Danganronpa 3 had three things that the series needed to address. 1) It had to deal with Makoto facing the Future Foundation's ire after having saved the Remnants of Despair in Danganronpa 2. 2) It had to deal with Monaca and her grooming to become the next Junko Enoshima. 3) Though not a plot issue, it also had to deal with the retirement of veteran voice actor Nobuyo Ōyama, who was the voice of series antagonist Monokuma, whose sadistic brand of creepy cute is what defines much of Danganronpa.

I'll tackle the last point first, in that the series deals with Ōyama's retirement by drastically cutting back on Monokuma's involvement, such that Junko Enoshima actually has nothing to do with the third killing game at all. Monokuma only shows up to make the characters believe that Junko is involved.

I don't know if this decision was made to accommodate the change in VA, but I did have difficulty adjusting to the new Monokuma (now voiced by Tarako) and the series did hurt for lack of Monokuma's involvement. The new killing game honestly felt like it was left on autopilot (and truthfully it was) since Monokuma did not show up to regularly taunt and tease the unwilling players.

Going back to the first point, the series does deliver on the promise of following the story of what happened to Makoto after he reported back. He gets thrown into another killing game, but he does report in and we see the friction between him and the various heads of the Future Foundation.

I think it's a testament to the writing that even with different translation teams, it's quite clear that Kyosuke Munakata, the vice-chairman of the Future Foundation, is the unnamed writer of an e-mail chewing out Makoto in Danganronpa 2.

As far as the second point goes, I think that series writer/director Kazutaka Kodaka was kicking himself for leaving that loose plot thread and teasing Monaca as the second coming of Junko Enoshima.

For one thing, she appeared in a side game, which means that a fair portion of the fan base never played it. (I did not until the anime came out and I wanted to get her backstory.) And for another, her existence makes it harder to plan a surprise revelation as to who the mastermind is, because the players who have played Ultra Despair Girls will be expecting her.

Danganronpa 3 has no choice but to include her if it's going to close off all the storylines, but having a villain come out of nowhere (for most viewers, since she is definitely not part of the Future Foundation) is a bad idea.

The TV series chooses to handle it by introducing an android version of Future Foundation member Miaya Gekkogahara, who was killed off camera before the series start. Fairly early on, Monaca is revealed to the audience as the controller behind Gekkogahara, and because of the early reveal, we know she can't be the mastermind. It's very rare that the audience finds out information before the protagonists, and something as critical as the mastermind's identity isn't going to come out in the first half of the series.

Eventually at the mid-point is there is a strange and mildly nonsensical side episode that is full of nothing but Ultra Despair Girls fanservice, which reveals that Monaca is not the mastermind and that she's actually done with the whole Despair crap.

It's played off as funny, with Monaca being a slacker in a trailer rather than a megalomaniac's base, and her dismissal of Nagito, who was going to train her to be Ultimate Despair, is likely to elicit a laugh from those who know what he's like.

But Monaca then exits the series and we don't know find any greater significance to her meddling. She does leave a couple clues behind for Makoto to puzzle over, but they don't really feel like they had to come from Monaca. We find out that she was an unrelated interloper, which makes her abrupt departure is unsatisfying. The game had built her up to be something, and Danganronpa 3 (prior to the trailer reveal) had done the same.

So when she finally leaves, it feels like all that time spent on her for little to no payoff was a waste.

I'm honestly not sure how it could have been handled better, but I think she should have been used for a second half reveal that could have counted for more, and it would have helped if she had participated in the game in person (like the previous masterminds). Having her depart in a side episode and relaying her clues by proxy was what really ruined her appearance.

Danganronpa 3 also had two sides to it, in order to make a whole. The Future Arc followed Makoto's story and the Despair Arc covered the lead-up to Danganronpa 1 and had the messy task of showing the backstories of the eventual Future Foundation members as well as how Junko Enoshima corrupted Class 77 (the main characters of Danganronpa 2).

While the two sides were good for building out the characters of the Future Foundation, the Despair Arc had far too much on its plate and unfortunately it needed to be a giant retcon mess in order to work.

Granted, we know Junko Enoshima can lie as it suits her, but there is no reason for her to lie at the end of Danganronpa 2 about what she did to Class 77. At that point in the story, she wants them to know the truth, because the truth is so horrible, that knowing it will bring them to the point of despair. If the survivors in Class 77 don't believe her, if they have reason to doubt, then her words won't have impact.

Junko and the assorted documents she reveals to them, tell the story of individuals who were corrupted and fell into despair. Even Izuru Kamukura, was described as simply being broken by her. It builds Junko up to be this horrifying human being, with the both the charisma and the capacity to cause hundreds of students to commit suicide in her name.

Lifting the curtain to see exactly how she did all that turns out to have been a poor decision as it comes down to brainwashing, and suddenly she's not really much of a boogeyman anymore. She's still a ruthless individual, but she's much more human and less a force of nature.

Izuru is not even that involved with her, so much as trying to decide whether he's more invested in Hope (which Junko says is boring and predictable) or Despair (which is chaos). But I will say that the Despair Arc does gift the series with the best reason for Izuru to have starting the second killing game. He says he can't decide between Hope and Despair, so he wants to see for himself which is stronger, and that provides the best reason, from his perspective, to upload the AI to the virtual world in Danganronpa 2.

Moving on to the ending, there are a few points I want to touch.

The Danganronpa series is known for its high body count, and while Danganronpa 3 is no different (seriously, so many Future Foundation members die), who dies bothers me. There are a couple of faked deaths in the series, and I'm fine with that. Juzo Sakakura surviving what had looked like a kill was freaking amazing! But what I had a problem with was plot immunity.

If this had been a conventional killing game by Monokuma, everyone would have had specific buttons pressed to make them go off the deep end, and Kyoko's forbidden action in the third killing game is making it past the fourth round if Makoto is still alive. She dies and it was the moment I'd been waiting for, because Makoto relies on her so heavily and he's closer to her than any of their other fellow survivors.

But the series seems to have trouble killing anyone who was not canonically dead at the end of their respective games. It chooses to err on the side of hope. If there was any way possible for someone to live and they came from Danganronpa 1 or 2, then they survived.

Kyoko was revived in an off-camera moment, so she could show up as a surprise to Makoto, and everyone from Danganronpa 2 has been restored from their brain dead/coma predicaments.

I was also a bit disappointed that the Danganronpa 2 cast looks perfectly healthy and in peak physical condition considering that they were supposed to have been maimed and abusing themselves while in Junko's service. The only nod to that is Fuyuhiko's eyepatch, which he sports in-game even in the virtual world.

The Danganronpa 2 cast also takes out specially trained military units which is kind of fun to watch, even though it's eye-rolling at the same time. Even though they're Ultimate students, that doesn't make them an elite combat unit.

The final bit that I wish to address is the main story itself. Danganronpa 3 is not a game related in Junko Enoshima, but rather the entire thing was engineered to produce the opposite effect. Instead of enforcing a world of despair, Kazuo Tengan wants to create a world of hope, and he intends to do it by showing Ryota Mitarai so much despair under the pretense that the Junko's followers are making a comeback, that Mitarai concludes the best thing to do is to brainwash the world into becoming a world of hope.

This is why brainwashing had to be used so much in the Despair Arc because Mitarai was the unwilling key to providing Junko the power she needed.

At the time Mitarai is finally set off, there are hardly any Future Foundation members left standing (only four remain in the killing game, including himself), so it's not surprising that he gets pushed off the deep end. He gets talked down from it by the Danganronpa 2 cast, who by rights should have been his classmates if fate hadn't intervened, and that was all right, but let's circle back to the game.

The third killing game, like the others, had another purpose besides causing despair to those immediately involved. But the execution of that purpose, was flawed. And while I might set lower expectations for Tengan than I would Junko, he does make a number of mistakes.

Tengan needs Mitarai alive at the end of the killing game in order for his plan to succeed. Mitarai gets involved on accident because he wasn't supposed to be at the meeting when everyone gets trapped and gassed unconscious. At this point, Tengan should have removed Mitarai from the game, and let it continue without him.

Sure, there would have been some comments about that, but his plan would have automatically failed if Mitarai had gotten killed, because the game is run on autopilot. Whoever is closest to a Monokuma monitor at the end of a round, gets brainwashed into killing themselves (which, by the way, was one of the ingenuous twists--that there was no secret traitor).

Even if he had built in a failsafe to avoid brainwashing Mitarai, the Monokuma-encouraged witch hunt to find the traitor results in other people dying. Mitarai is pretty non-aggressive, so he doesn't top anyone's list as a suspect, but if he had just gotten unlucky, being at the wrong place at the wrong time, he easily could have died.

And then some of the forbidden actions were just senseless. Since this was Tengan and not Junko, one would think the forbidden actions would balance the playing field. And to some degree they do. Sakakura, the former Ultimate Boxer, can't punch anyone. Munakata, being unable to open doors, is incredibly crippled.

But then other people have limitations that are downright bonkers. Kizakura can't open his left hand. Great Gozu can't be pinned for a three count (incredibly unlikely considering he's the Ultimate Wrestler). Kimura can't let anyone step on her shadow.

Bandai's would be the worst, since he can't witness acts of violence, but I assume that was given out to make him a sacrificial lamb, so everyone else would take the forbidden actions seriously.

Danganronpa 3 doesn't quite come together, but as a series capstone? It could do worse. It's clear from the ending that Hope has won. Makoto is now the principal to the newly reopened Hope's Peak Academy, with the implication that everything is going to be good again.

The Danganronpa 2 cast sails off into the sunset (almost literally since they're on a boat) taking Mitarai with them.

And even Munakata, the only Danganronpa 3 cast member aside from Mitarai to survive, has found a reason to keep going.

Watching the Future Arc felt pretty good while the mysteries were still unknown, and I did like the ending despite being fluffier than I expected. The anime may have been incredibly messy at times, but there are no questions left. And I'm okay with that.