eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckley
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin

I rarely read murder-mystery or thriller-type novels, especially not those without supernatural elements to them.  Stories with lots of non-supernaturally-motivated murders rarely appeal to me.  So Eating Bull was a bit of an adventure–not the sort of book I would normally read.

“Eating Bull” is the cruel nickname given to the novel’s protagonist, Jeremy–an overweight teenager who becomes the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against fast-food companies in Ohio.  He is supported by his good-hearted but overworked mother, Connie and his nurse, Sue–a determined woman with a strong sense of social justice.

Arrayed against Jeremy, Connie and Sue are school bullies, unsympathetic co-workers, and even Jeremy’s own grandfather–an agoraphobic Army veteran. Sue faces the additional difficulty of her loving but extremely protective husband, who dislikes her risking her own safety by courting the wrath of public opinion.

In addition to all of this, a serial killer calling himself “Darwin” commits a series of grisly murders–all of them targeting overweight people, whom he deems “sheep”.

I won’t go through the plot in too much detail and risk ruining the appeal of watching it unfold. I will say that all these elements are combined very well–each chapter is told from the perspective of either Jeremy, Sue or Darwin., and all of them balance out and keep an extremely gripping pace.  For the final fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put the book down, and the ending is very emotionally satisfying.

Jeremy is very sympathetic and likeable, and Sue is an admirable portrayal of a heroic woman who nonetheless has a flaw–she tends to value her concern for Justice over the more immediate concerns for herself or her loved ones.  This is well-done, because such a character could have easily become cloyingly saintly, and Rubin does a good job of making her seem heroic and also still human.

The Darwin chapters are naturally quite disturbing, and a good example of why I don’t normally read this genre.  Not that they are badly-written–rather, that they are so well-written as to make me feel slightly sick just reading them.  The portrayal of the killer’s mental state is quite sharply-drawn–among other things, it’s one of the best depictions of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that I have ever read.

These chapters are definitely heavy on gore, and that was a little tough for me–which is kind of funny, given that my own books have a fair amount of carnage in them.  The parts with violence against women were especially hard to take. But again, these are my own tastes, and I suspect fans of thrillers will be used to this sort of thing.

All in all, I came away extremely impressed by Eating Bull. In spite of the violence, I enjoyed the characters and the pacing. And Rubin also has a real talent for clever descriptions and almost Chandleresque turns of phrase. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall it stacks up well against the few modern thrillers I’ve read. (Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in particular.)

I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the book, since thrillers are normally not my cup of tea.  It was something I pondered for a while as I was reading Eating Bull: “Why am I enjoying this so much? It’s not like me.”

And then it hit me: there’s another side to the book, apart from the engaging plot.

Eating Bull‘s main theme is the problem of obesity–Jeremy is obese, Sue wants to cure the societal causes of obesity, and Darwin wants to exterminate obese people. All the minor characters, in some way or other, comment on Jeremy’s condition–some positively, some negatively–but it’s the central theme of the book.

Now, some would just use that as a cheap “hook” or gimmick to tie everything together.  But Eating Bull goes to some lengths to explore the causes of obesity.

For example, there are several scenes where Connie gets some fast-food for Jeremy to eat after she returns from work.  She knows this isn’t optimal, and is apologetic to Jeremy’s caregivers when asked about it, but explains that it’s cheaper and faster to get bad food–and as a single mother working two jobs, this is no small consideration.

There are many other examples of this throughout the book, all aimed at showing the various factors that contribute to obesity. At times, it raises some serious issues regarding how food is marketed, reminding me of the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation.

In some ways, Eating Bull is really what they used to call a “problem novel”–a novel meant to illustrate and draw attention to some societal problem. These were especially popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels are examples of the genre, as is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

It’s very difficult to write a social problem novel that doesn’t come across as preachy and heavy-handed–the author has to balance all the mundane facts (and sometimes even figures) needed to make the social point with a compelling dramatic narrative that is interesting to read. (In The Jungle, Sinclair seems to simply give up towards the end, leading to entire chapters that are just lectures and Q&A sessions on Marxist theory.)

For the most part, Eating Bull avoids this pitfall, keeping the action going at a brisk pace while exploring the larger social theme through minor incidents and at well-chosen intervals.  When some detailed sociological point needs to be made, Rubin wisely has it said by Sue, for whom it seems logical and in-character.

This social aspect was really what set Eating Bull apart for me–it was something more than just an interesting page-turner.  Whereas most thrillers are normally easy to forget once you have learned How It All Works Out, this one gives you a bit more to think about.

One word of warning: if you enjoy eating chips or similar snacks while reading, well… you probably won’t while reading this one.  You may decide to opt for a salad instead, but then of course it’s harder to eat a salad while reading. And that’s to say nothing of the Darwin chapters, after which you may not want to eat anything at all…

Still, it’s a good book.  Check it out.

250px-planescape-torment-box[Last week Beamdog released an enhanced edition of Planescape: Torment for modern desktops and tablets. In honor of this occasion (and hopefully to drive more people to play it) I decided to post a full-length review of the game, which I’ve somehow never done despite going on about my love for it all these years. Be warned: some spoilers ahead!]

What always strikes me first about Planescape: Torment every time I start a new game is how weird it is.  Your character –called “the Nameless One”–wakes up in a mortuary, apparently as an amnesiac zombie, and is greeted by a floating skull who proceeds to read a message written on the Nameless One’s back.

And that’s just the opening few minutes of what’s at least a 20- to 30-hour game.  It doesn’t get less weird after that.  You meet a whole host of bizarre characters: a chaste succubus, a living suit of armor, a man who is eternally on fire, a living cube with crossbows… the list goes on.  And that doesn’t even address the weird setting–an indescribable world of twisting labyrinths and cities that shift both in physical space and across different planes of reality.

All in all, it’s a strange and disturbing universe that the Nameless One must traverse in order to complete his quest.

And yet, for all the outré creatures and situations you encounter, it always remains possible to relate, even if it’s only in some twisted way, to the humanity of the characters. That is the first piece of genius that points to the heart of Torment’s brilliance: though it is surreal, it is also real on an emotional level–more real, in fact, than many other games that strive for super-realistic graphics and gameplay.

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Gameplay screenshot via Planescape.com

There is a heart to Torment‘s characters, and a logic to its locales and events, because they are all connected by a unifying theme: their relationship to the Nameless One, and how his actions impact all of this is the thread that weaves all these fantastical elements together into a coherent whole.

The fundamental feature of all video games is interactivity.  What differentiates games from other art forms is that the intended audience is meant to actively engage with the game.  It is not merely a passive experience, but one in which the audience is meant to take some action which in turn advances them towards a goal.

In games with narrative–what we might call “dramatic games”–the player’s actions are supposed to advance the story.  By performing an action, the player sees what happens next.  In more sophisticated games, the player has some choice of what actions to perform, and these affect the course of the larger story.

The full potential of this storytelling style is seldom realized in most dramatic games. Generally, most stick with the tried-and-true formula of the player advancing a straightforward narrative by performing a set of actions. But in Torment, the concept of interactivity is wedded to the story of the game itself.

One of the central themes in Torment is the idea of “consensus reality”–the idea that by agreeing to believe in something, it becomes effectively “real”. This is also tied to the game’s famous recurring line: “What can change the Nature of a Man?” (In some endings, the Nameless One can argue that “whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can.”)

With its relativistic approach to “reality” (that is, the reality of the game world) Torment acknowledges a little-noted but integral truth of gaming: that the game-reality is subject to the manipulations of the player.  In other words, since the player is interacting with the rest of a pre-programmed world, it is ultimately their “reality”, to shape as they see fit.

This is technically true of any game. When you play anything, from Pong to Minecraft to Fallout 4, you are interacting with a virtual world and manipulating it according to your desires.  The difference is that Torment is implicitly aware of this, and it makes the player character’s relationship to the world mimic that of the player themselves.

It is this subtle, critical point that makes Torment an all-time classic that’s still being played nearly 20 years since its release.

Nearly everything that happens in the story, and every character who appears in the game, either has previously been or currently is affected by the Nameless One’s actions. The entire game-world is (or can become) a reflection of the Nameless One’s character, either in his current life or in previous ones.

The architect Louis Sullivan famously wrote that “form ever follows function.” He meant this not merely as an architectural philosophy, but as a wide-ranging principle of design.

I’d argue that good design in narrative isn’t so much a matter of form “following” function, but simply form and function being in harmony.  In drama, you might decide the “form” (the medium/genre in which you will tell your story) before the “function” (the content/theme of your story), but they had better work well together.  That’s why it’s tough to write an action movie that glorifies pacifism, for example.

In Torment, form and function complement one another perfectly: the gameplay involves the player making decisions that alter the world, and the story is about how the Nameless One’s decisions alter the world.

Of course, Torment’s story and dialogue are brilliant on their own merits, and even in another form (it was adapted into a book, after all), the writing hits all the right notes: witty, moving, disturbing, clever and deeply philosophical.

But what makes the lines so powerful, and the intensely introspective storyline so memorable, is the fact that the player is able to make the game their own through their choices.  The player and the player character effectively merge, in a way that transcends (I used that word deliberately) the usual emotional distance between player and avatar.

It’s a difficult in any game to get players to really connect with the characters or the setting.  They intellectually know it’s all just pixels drawn by a bunch of zeroes and ones. And besides, how much can in-game choices “matter”, if you can just reload and try again if it doesn’t work out?

What’s truly amazing is that Torment should theoretically be less accessible than the average game. The strange setting and characters, forbiddingly odd even by fantasy standards, adds another barrier to the player’s ability to relate to it.

And then there’s the fact that the player character’s “death” means even less than in typical games.  He’s immortal; so it doesn’t matter if he gets killed in a fight; he just wakes up again afterwards.  In theory, this should make every conflict less emotionally-charged than it otherwise would be.

The designers stacked the deck against themselves, and then overcame the odds to deliver one of the most emotionally compelling games of all time. And so Torment‘s weirdness is not a flaw, but a strength–it adds to its unique flavor.

Throughout this review, I’ve said relatively little about the specifics of the game itself. That’s because the game defies description–and I think that’s because it’s like a mosaic: I can’t explain why it’s beautiful by showing just one tile–you have to see the interconnected nature of the whole thing to understand it. The best I can do is describe the sense I got from looking at it.

If you like dramatic, narrative-driven video games and you like to think, give Planescape: Torment a try.  You’ll never forget it.

You may have guessed I was building up to something bigger with all the poetry readings I’ve been posting lately.  I also thought I’d try doing a recording of my novella, The Start of the Majestic World.  Here is Chapter 1 of Part 1.  If people like it, I may do more:

Let me know what you think!  And, by the way, you can get the whole book on Kindle here.

ghost poster1. Plot Summary

Ghost in the Shell is set “in the near future” according to the opening title card, in a world in which people are cybernetically enhanced. It opens with a young woman named Mira Killian (Scarlett Johansson) waking up inside of a life-like mechanical body.  The doctor who performed the operation tells her that she is the survivor of a terrorist attack, and that her body was destroyed but her brain was saved–the first such instance of an entirely mechanical body.

The Hanka Robotics company that funded this miraculous operation then puts Killian to use as anti-terrorist agent in a group called “Section 9”. The Hanka CEO makes it clear that Killian, as the first fully mechanical shell housing a human brain, is a powerful weapon.

The film flashes forward a year to Killian, who is now a Major in Section 9, carrying out counter-terrorism operations.  After a gun battle with some hacked robots, Major Killian examines and attempts to hack the remains of one of the robots, the Major gets clues as to the location of the hacker, but also exposes herself to counter-hacks.

Eventually, the Major and her team track down the hacker, but when she finally finds him, he captures her and explains she is not really the first purely mechanical body created by the Hanka corporation.  He was a failed attempt they made prior to the Major.  He explains that they wiped her memories and gave her false ones. (Throughout the opening act, the Major has experienced odd hallucinations or “glitches” as her brain remembers fragments of her real past, including a burning pagoda-like structure. The hacker has a similar image tattooed on his chest.)

The Major finds the doctor who performed the operation who admits that the hacker’s story is true, and that in truth, there were 98 other test subjects who failed before the successful operation on the Major.

Now that she knows the truth, the Hanka corporation decides the Major is a threat, and the CEO orders the doctor to destroy her.  Instead, she gives her the address of her real home and helps her escape, before being killed by the CEO.

The Major goes to the address and finds a woman who she realizes is her mother, and who tells her how her daughter ran away a year before and was reported by the government to have committed suicide after being captured.

She contacts the other members of Section 9, which causes the Hanka CEO to attempt to assassinate all of them, but they manage to defeat his soldiers. The Major then meets the hacker at the ruins of the pagoda-like structure from their visions–it was their hideaway, where they both lived before being captured.

Hanka deploys a massive “Spider Tank” robot to destroy them.  The hacker is killed, but the Major destroys the Spider Tank and the Section 9 leader shoots and kills the Hanka CEO after the Major tells him to do so.

In the closing scenes, she meets with her mother and then continues going on missions for Section 9.

2. Analysis

That all probably sounds pretty confusing if you haven’t seen the film.  In fact, even having seen it, it sounded a little confusing to me just writing it.  But it all pretty much worked for me while I was watching the movie.

I went to see it because I like cyber-punk dystopian stories that deal with trans-humanism.  This is due to my fondness for the Deus Ex series of video games, which are set in futuristic dystopias and deal with augmented humans and the theme of humanity merging with machines. I saw a few bits and pieces about Ghost in the Shell and thought it looked kind of like that.

And I actually underestimated its resemblance to Deus Ex. For me, it was practically like watching Deus Ex: The Movie. The city in which most of it takes place looked like the cities in Deus Ex, right down to the intermingling of super-futuristic technology with trash-filled alleys and nightclubs. The fighting factions of hackers, mega-corporations and governments was straight out of that series as well.

The Major’s friend Batou reminded me strongly of Gunther from the original game, and the opening credits sequence looked like the start of Human Revolution. Even the guns looked like something J.C. Denton or Adam Jensen might wield.

More than that, even the structure of the plot was similar:

  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist works for counter-terrorism organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist finds out s/he is being lied to by said organization.
  • Augmented human/cyborg protagonist starts to have sympathy for the people s/he was originally fighting.

And to be clear, this didn’t bother me a bit.  I’m not saying they just stole all the ideas from Deus Ex. In fact, the Japanese graphic novel on which it is based (which I have not read) was written in the early ’90s, before Deus Ex. So I don’t know which is influencing which.  And frankly,  it doesn’t matter to me.  The fact is, it’s a good concept, so it pretty much works. All these things are common tropes of the cyberpunk genre.

Now, that isn’t to say that there weren’t some rough spots. There definitely were, including a major (no pun intended) one that I’ll get to later.  But I want to make clear that if you enjoy dystopian cyberpunk science fiction, you’re probably going to enjoy this.

At times, it felt like the greatest video game adaptation in history, even though it isn’t one.  There was tactical, squad-based combat, there were exciting gun battle scenes, and there was even a boss battle–in fact, the “Spider Tank” almost seemed like a brilliant parody of a typical video game boss fight.

The action sequences were pretty well-done, and most importantly, didn’t drag on too long.  In fact, except for one element (again, I’ll get to that later) they were surprisingly good.  The only one I really disliked was a scene in a nightclub where the Major is handcuffed to a stripper pole by some thugs who then hit her with some sort of electric prod.

First of all, it seemed like a bit of salaciously sexualized violence needlessly tossed in to titillate immature people. Second, it made no sense whatsoever why the Major would be susceptible to torture–why would anybody build a counter-terrorism cyborg that could feel pain?

Of course, the Major escaped–it wasn’t really clear why she waited–and satisfyingly beat up the thugs, albeit in a rather silly pole-dance-fight sequence. (It’s not as bad as that sounds–but still, not the film’s high point.)

One of my favorite scenes was the one in which the Major hacks into a broken mechanical geisha. I won’t try to describe it, but the visual metaphor they used for the hacking–and subsequent counter-hack–was very cleverly done. It was a good way of dramatizing the process.

Now, there are a lot of nitpicks one could make about the technology in the movie.  How can they have these super-sophisticated robots but still be using cartridge-based firearms? Moreover, how come the robots and augmented humans can still be destroyed by bullets?  There’s really no good answer, but this is where the concept of “suspension of disbelief” comes into play–if the story is good enough, the audience will accept it.

Except–and here’s that flaw I’ve been alluding to–there was one thing that totally ruined the immersion for me.

At the start of the first big action sequence, the Major is covertly monitoring a meeting that gets attacked by hacked robots.  She is standing atop a skyscraper in a black coat, which looks pretty cool.  When the attack starts, she leaps into action and… throws off her black coat to reveal the “outfit”–if you can call it that–pictured in the poster above.

Except the poster makes it look way better than it does in the movie.  Here’s a still from the movie:

ridiculous
via IMDb

This looks absolutely ridiculous.

For some reason, when particularly intense fights happen, the Major takes off her clothes and fights in what I guess you could call her “underwear”.  This allows her to periodically turn invisible, which is a useful tactic.

However, what is not a useful tactic is running around in what appears to be a bright-white naked human body. It’s hard to get any more conspicuous than that.

Images of Scarlett Johansson in this costume have been used heavily in the film’s promotional materials.  I guess this is just the marketing people trying to follow the age-old adage that “sex sells”, and figuring that this will appeal to teenage boys. (Although I was once a teenage boy, and I don’t think I would have thought this was hot even then.)

The effect is absurd and stupid.  The special effects are generally good, but on this, they really fall down.  The impression you get is that the bad guys are being attacked by a naked mannequin with a realistic-looking head superimposed on top of it. It’s slightly creepy but mostly just laughable.  It reminded me of the game Mass Effect 3, when the A.I. that pilots the ship takes over a robotic body that looks like–of all things!–a slender human female.

I would be inclined to complain that this is a rather cheap, crass and sexist ploy to get attention, except that it’s so silly-looking it’s kind of hard to imagine anybody thinks it’s sexy.  (And if they do, I can’t imagine what their reaction to walking into a clothing store with mannequins must be.)

This is even worse because most of the time, the Major wears perfectly respectable, everyday cyberpunk-heroine outfits that look just fine.

cool
via IMDb

(Side note: I have no idea what’s up with all the knives in this movie.  People would have knives and never used them.  The utility of a knife as a weapon in a world populated by cybernetically-augmented humans and pure machines seems limited.)

I don’t generally pay much attention to costumes in movies, and I feel slightly sexist myself for even discussing this.  (The natural feminist counter-argument would be that a strong, independent anti-terrorism cyborg has every right to wear what she deems best.)  I’m just saying it looked so bizarre that the scenes where it happened became unintentionally comical.

But what bothered me most about the suit is the fact that I could see people getting the wrong impression about this movie from how much it’s used in the marketing.  I was afraid the movie might be nothing but a flimsy excuse to give callow teenagers something to gawk at between shoot-’em-up scenes, and for the most part, it’s not that.  Apart from this relatively small (albeit really stupid) element, it’s actually a surprisingly thoughtful film, as these things go.

With that, enough about costumes.  Back to plotting and character–things that really matter.

Juliette Binoche is really good as the doctor who saves the Major and gives her the new body.  Hers was probably the most complex character–she is driven by a passion for science, and a genuine desire to help, but makes a Faustian bargain with the less-than-noble Hanka corporation to do so.

Her death scene, however, was poorly-handled.  It was clear enough when she helps the Major escape that she would be killed unless the Major saved her.  That she simply left her there made her seem a little cold.  Also, there is a logic problem in that the doctor is shot through a window looking into the room where the Major was held in captivity–you would expect that to be bulletproof glass.

There are no great feats of acting in this movie, but it’s not really the sort of movie that allows for or needs it.  All the actors delivered very solid, competent performances.  And the characters, while mostly stock figures of the genre, are reasonably well-written and consistent.  The script has only one memorable line and no masterful plot twists, but it is well-paced and workmanlike, with no serious flaws.

I would have ended the movie about two minutes earlier than it actually ends.  The last two scenes–of the Major reuniting with her mother and then going on a mission for Section 9–raise more questions at the worst time.  Who is the Major fighting now?  Is she still working for the government that collaborated with Hanka to kidnap her in the first place?  It seemed strange, and made the film a little less satisfying than it could have been.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by Ghost in the Shell.  It is not a great film, but after the modern science-fiction films I have seen–Prometheus, The Force Awakens–even basic storytelling competence was really a treat.  If you like cyberpunk or science-fiction in general, I recommend it.

Now if only Section 9 would issue the Major a less-ridiculous stealth uniform…