This is a good example of video game analysis done right. Scott’s description of the different levels of Deus Ex‘s story reminds me of (you guessed it) Gayden Wren’s style of analysis. You know how I love that.
As I’ve mentioned before, Deus Ex is one of my favorite games, and its atmosphere–which the game’s creator Warren Spector called “millennial weirdness”–was one of the major influences on my novella. I recommend watching this review for anyone who doesn’t play games to see what I mean.
Coincidentally, Spector tweeted this today (The embed tweet code isn’t working; sorry):
“When is a game going to win a Pulitzer Prize? Are we ready and deserving of such an honor? Can we at least TRY to be worthy of that? Please.”
Before watching Scott’s video, I probably wouldn’t have said Deus Ex deserved it, but having seen it, I realized that as a piece of “entertainment pseudo-journalism”, I decided it was.
As I touched on in this post, I approach drama criticism differently than many people do. I tend to criticize specific things like “I liked the performance, but not the writing”, rather than just say “I didn’t like that character”, for example.
I just realized the other day why I do this: it’s because I started in drama criticism by analyzing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, thanks to Gayden Wren.
For those who don’t know, there are only 14 Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. And Gilbert and Sullivan have been dead for over a century, so it’s not like there are any new ones coming out.
So, whereas fans of, say, Star Wars can always be looking forward to the next installment, G & S fans pretty much have to content ourselves with re-evaluating the existing body of work. This means watching performances, listening to recordings, and then critiquing and analyzing them.
Very quickly, a young G&S fan gets to know the core libretto and music pretty well. Then they have to start comparing different performances and actors. For example, I greatly prefer Martyn Green’s Ko-Ko in The Mikado to John Reed’s. Green always seemed spontaneous, (which must be really hard with material one has performed a thousand times)…
…whereas Reed seemed robotic. (In his defense, Reed did seem like a better singer.)
My point is, when you get used to seeing or hearing different performances of the same lines, scenes, etc., you learn to separate acting from writing from directing from set design and so on. Being a G&S fan isn’t the only way to do this–I imagine Shakespeare aficionados are the same way.
But most people don’t evaluate works of drama that way. They just make a gut reaction judgment on whether they liked it or not.
My initial reaction was that the reason for this was that Gilbert’s works are inaccessible to modern readers because he was sometimes a bit of chauvinist, and most publishers aren’t keen to push the works of another straight, white, male Victorian writer. Modern readers are looking for more diversity.
I was about to say this, but then I realized it wasn’t true–and my own literary interests showed why. (You can see my whole exchange with Mr. Crowther here.)
Specifically, I thought of H.P. Lovecraft, the early 1900s horror writer, whose influence on modern horror seems to be ever-increasing. His ideas creep into films like Alien and The Thing, his famous monster Cthulhu is the shorthand for Ultimate Evil in some parts of the internet, and there is an entire genre of horror named after him. Only yesterday I wrote a review of a horror novel clearly influenced by him.
And Lovecraft is way, way less accessible to the modern reader than Gilbert. Gilbert, as I said, was a bit of a chauvinist. Lovecraft openly sympathized with the Nazis. His letters, while in other respects brilliant and insightful, show a man prone to almost genocidal racial screeds, and his books often contain appalling racist diatribes and descriptions.
Everyone who reads and enjoys Lovecraft’s work ultimately has to grapple with this undercurrent of White Supremacist venom that runs through it. (For the record, here’s where I did it.)
So, if a racist Nazi sympathizer can have such an influence over modern writers, why can’t a lovable old Victorian dramatist have the same?
The answer is that Gilbert’s main claim to fame are the comic operas he wrote with Arthur Sullivan, and comic opera is out of fashion. In fact, not only is comic opera out of fashion, but the form of musical theater that evolved when it fell out of fashion is also out fashion.
Gilbert’s other famous work, the Bab Ballads, are witty, short poems in a style that is, once again, out of fashion.
Thinking about the Lovecraft v. Gilbert issue was what really brought home to me how out of fashion metered, rhyming poetry is. Because Lovecraft also wrote poetry, and yet, for all his influence, his poems don’t seem to get reprinted nearly as much as his short stories and novellas.
I have a collection that purports to be “The Best of H.P. Lovecraft” in front of me. It contains mediocre tales like “Pickman’s Model” and “In The Vault” , but not his great poem “Nemesis”. If Lovecraft had only written horror poetry, probably he would not have one-tenth the influence he does.
So, why did poetry fall out of fashion? I have no clue. It’s easy to memorize (that’s part of the point) and tends to be shorter than the sprawling novels that students in schools get assigned. And yet, poetry–or at least, rhyming and metrical poetry that adheres to rhyme schemes and other rules, is distinctly out of fashion.
[Plot spoilers abound–but the power of this book is not in its plot, but rather in its atmosphere, so I don’t think it is ruined even if you know what happens. But, fair warning…]
Annihilation is about a team of scientists–a biologist, a surveyor, a psychologist and an anthropologist–sent to explore a mysterious region called “Area X”. This place was created by some unexplained disaster called “the Event” many years in the past, and the 11 previous teams sent there have either disappeared or, more disturbingly, returned as mere shells of their former selves.
The biologist narrates the story, beginning with the team’s entrance into Area X. The main features of the landscape are a lighthouse on the coast and a structure which most of the team calls a “tunnel”, but which the biologist refers to as a “tower”.
Almost immediately, they begin to encounter strange phenomena–eerie moaning sounds at dusk, and then, a strange and disturbing line of writing created seemingly in plant-life on the wall of the tower/tunnel.
Before long, the team begins to distrust one another. The biologists sees the psychologist hypnotize the others, while remaining impervious to it herself. The anthropologist is killed in the tower, by what the biologist believes to be a creature writing on the interior of the tower.
It soon becomes apparent that the biologist is not a reliable narrator, as she gradually reveals important details like the fact that her husband was part of the 11th expedition–one of those who returned as a mere shell, before dying of cancer months after returning home.
No one and nothing is entirely reliable in Area X, and this is part of what gives the tale its unnerving atmosphere. VanderMeer skillfully creates a mood of gnawing dread by introducing this uncertainty. Other writers would do well to mimic his method of creating fear through implication and speculation rather than through blood and gore.
Eventually, when it appears the psychologist has betrayed them, the biologist makes her way towards the lighthouse on the coast, leaving the surveyor behind at their camp after arguing with her. At the lighthouse, she finds a strange picture of the lighthouse keeper from before “the Event” and, even more significantly, a huge pile of journals from previous expeditions–far more than the 11 that “officially” were supposed to have taken place.
Finally, she finds her husband’s journal, but does not read it. She exits the lighthouse and finds the psychologist lying wounded outside. She has been attacked by the same creature–which the biologist now calls “the Crawler” assumed to be responsible for writing on the wall of the tower.
After a brief exchange, the psychologist dies and the biologist makes her way back to the camp. Along the way, she encounters the creature responsible for the eerie moaning noise, though she escapes and never actually sees it. After that, she is shot by the surveyor, but is able to withstand it, apparently due to some infection or other mutation resulting from her time in the tower.
She shoots the surveyor, and then returns to camp to make final preparations to explore the tunnel and find the Crawler. She reads through the journals she collected from the lighthouse, concluding with her husband’s. His account describes he and his fellow team members seeing their doppelgangers entering the Tower–suggesting that these doppelgangers are the entities that returned from Area X to the outside world. Most significantly, his journal is largely addressed to the biologist; and is meant to express his feelings for her.
To me, this was the most extraordinary part of the entire book. While she has at times discussed her relationship with her husband, and how its deterioration ultimately led him to volunteer to go to Area X, her tone has always been cold and detached. When she reads the journal and realizes that her husband made the journey largely as part of a desire to connect with her, and regrets that she never tried to connect with him in the same way, her tone changes–real emotion comes through.
It’s a surprisingly romantic and touching passage–only a few paragraphs, but very moving. Like Victor LaValle in his excellent Ballad of Black Tom, VanderMeer has succeeded in imbuing his tale of Lovecraftian cosmic horror with real human emotion–no mean feat, given that the genre’s creator premised it on the insignificance of humanity.
After reading the journals, the biologist enters the Tower and finds the Crawler–a suitably mind-warping encounter with the indescribable, in the best Lovecraftian tradition. At the center of the unimaginable, incomprehensible thing, she sees the face of the lighthouse keeper from the photograph, providing some hint at the creature’s origin.
After this last encounter, the biologist decides to follow her husband’s last recorded plan which was to go to an island off the shore. The book ends on an ambiguous and yet strangely bittersweet note.
I have said that the core of Annihilation is not its plot, but rather its atmosphere. Reading what I have outlined here does not give you the sense of it. VanderMeer writes the sort of story I love: an undefined time and place, with the tension residing in the eerie setting and the horror being the horror of doubting one’s own sanity. He has written the book that At The Mountains of Madness wanted to be.
There are some flaws–early on, I felt it was bogged down too much by description. (Though I have frequently been found guilty of too little description.) He uses the expression “far distant” too much, and occasionally the biologist’s detached, scientific tone would be jarred by the use of a word like “scary”, which seemed too simplistic to me.
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.
…then Annihilation serves as the very model of a weird tale.
Surreality is a “hardboiled” murder mystery with a modern twist: much of the mystery takes place in the eponymous virtual online world.
Suspended Columbus Police Detective Keenan is tasked with investigating the virtual murder of Franklin Haines, one of the creators of the online game “Surreality” at the opening of his new virtual casino. You might think virtual murder isn’t such a big deal, except it also entails the loss of millions of real dollars.
Keenan, suspended for shooting and killing a murderer in an alley months before, is assigned to create an avatar in the world of “Surreality” and investigate the case. As he does so, he meets a variety of strange characters, including one expert hacker whose avatar in the virtual world is a penguin. He also encounters virtual thieves, thugs, prostitutes and other staples of noir detective fiction; all of whom practice their unsavory professions freely in the “pretend” online world.
But soon, the effects of the game world begin to spill over into reality; occasionally in lethal fashion. As Keenan moves back and forth between investigating virtual crimes and real ones that are bound up with it, he also begins to deal with his own demons.
I won’t spoil the whole mystery by summarizing the plot. It is complex and twisting, but not confusingly so. It is very much in the hardboiled detective story tradition, and competently done. I was able to figure out who the perpetrator was going to be a little before it was revealed, but it was an effective story even so.
While the dialogue is very snappy and never boring, even when explaining highly technical matters, the characters (especially Keenan’s friend and fellow officer Caliente) do tend to engage in snarky banter even in the most intense situations. I did not like that. In my opinion, professional police tend to be very terse and clipped when speaking while in action-they want to waste as little time as possible.
A related issue is that at times the mood of the story shifts too abruptly. It goes from witty wisecracks to investigating a homicide scene back to wisecracks again. The “serious” moments sometimes did not last long enough to work. My recommendation would be to have the story begin with the light mood, and steadily grow darker. The characters can start off bantering, and then become more intense to show that things are getting serious. (The neo-noir mystery film Chinatown follows this model.)
In spite of these issues, Surreality is a very strong, well-paced book. By mixing 1930s mystery tropes with a high-tech cyber setting, it creates a delightful atmosphere that reminded me of the “familiar-yet-alien” vibe of books like The King in Yellow or the game Deus Ex, which I love. There were many times when I would read something and think “I wish I’d written that!”
It also did not hurt that the book is set in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and much of the “real world” action takes place in areas I have often been to myself. Author Ben Trube is a graduate of the Ohio State University, as am I, and some of the scenes are set on OSU’s sprawling campus. Having seen much of it firsthand, I can say that Mr. Trube has a knack for describing buildings and scenery that I wish I possessed.
But even if you have never been to Ohio, you will enjoy this book if you like crime thrillers, or cleverly constructed plots in general. I highly recommend it.
Philip Eil, writing in Salon, has a good article on “the genius and repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft”. It’s an issue that I think every Lovecraftian author has had to face at some point: how can we reconcile admiration of the “cosmic horror” genre that Lovecraft did so much to pioneer with his horrifying racial views?
It’s the old dilemma of separating art from the artist; similar to having to come to grips with the fact that Richard Wagner could on the one hand be enough of a genius to write “Ride of the Valkyries”, and on the other be an anti-Semitic bigot. There are too many examples to count of cases where somebody is an absolute genius in their field, but a wretched person otherwise.
But there’s another, even more troubling question in the case of Lovecraft: what if the reason for his racism was also the reason for his talent for writing horror?
Racism, after all, is inherently based on fear of “The Other”. Lovecraft was afraid of any and all non-WASPs, and it was probably that same xenophobia that made him able to concoct weird and terrifying creatures like Cthulhu.
Before anybody decides to quote me out of context: no, I’m not saying you have to be a racist to write horror. I’m just saying Lovecraft’s racial fears and his horror often seem inseparable. “The Horror at Red Hook” is, technically speaking, a good horror story, but it also turns into one of Lovecraft’s most appalling racial screeds.
S.T. Joshi, the prominent Lovecraft biographer, is quoted in the Salon article as saying “There are perhaps only five stories in Lovecraft’s entire corpus of 65 original tales (‘The Street’ ‘Arthur Jermyn,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ ‘He,’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’) that have racism as their central core.”
Well, let’s not forget that in Lovecraft’s best-known story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, the evil cultists are invariably swarthy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic “good” characters. I don’t know how you define the “central core”, but racism is certainly present in huge swaths of “Cthulhu”.
However, while Lovecraft’s general fear of everything that wasn’t born and raised white and in Providence may have sparked him to be a horror writer, I do think his best stories (“The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Music of Erich Zann”) are the ones that don’t have racism. (“Haunter” has a little bit of condescension towards Italians, though they are ultimately proven right in their superstitious views.)
Whenever Lovecraft’s racial views crop up in his stories, it has the effect of bringing the reader “back to Earth”–sometimes literally, since it puts the focus on the transient prejudices of a 20th-century writer, rather than on the timeless, cosmic sense of alien fear Lovecraft sought to evoke.
So while it may be that Lovecraft’s xenophobic mindset put him on the road to writing horror, I take comfort in the fact that his most effective stories were the ones that he didn’t corrode with his racism, and stuck to exploring universal human fears of unimaginable and unearthly monsters.
Upon the verdant fields, the summer sun shines bright and warm.
And from behind the hill, the sound of cheerful chatter rises.
Yet, ‘neath the tranquil mask, there hides a heart all black and filthy
Pumping out the wretched blood that this facade disguises.
Upon these lovely fields, the very souls are sacrificed
To those damned Gods who dwell in other horrid spheres.
Behind the people’s laughter is a growl, inhuman and unholy,
Of something in the shadows that grows hungry as it hears
The poor unthinking wretches who frolic in its thrall.
Beneath the chiming bells, the passer-by may see its soul:
The ossified remains of carnivores and monsters
A-dragged up from some old and stinking wormy hole.
The pretty city brims with personalities so witty,
Who, recalling naught of times gone past,
Celebrate the future, knowing it can never come,
And optimism is the only thing to last.
But off the shore there lies the glinting lizard eyes
Awaiting as the predator the fateful opportunity.
For howsoever far civilizations come
There remain those lacking in remorse or pity.
Guided by the cosmic laws, by no ideas or cause,
There loom the claws of obsolescence.
From somewhere across the bay seems to come
A fearful, frightful wail of demoniac essence.
But neither God nor Devil could long becalm the revel,
But perhaps they did not want or need to.
For all these things must end, howe’er that end must come;
It cometh no matter what the revelers do.
In spite of their political biases, newsmagazines
Often have some excellent photographs.
I once saw a picture of the seaside that
Might have been an impressionist painting.
The truth of course is much more ugly.
Even the sea lies.
“All forks in the road are as knives in the flesh”,
Said the Commander to his men.
The Enemy approaches, binding us with blood,
Yet I know my loyalty must be to my love.
But faced with the choice of my love or
my hunger, which to choose?
And so I am a courier, a runner,
And I’m back in the ancient tomb,
And the ruin’d palace, and the museum,
And the casino, and the farmlands,
And my choice is the same as it ever was;
Between power and love. Yet!—
Perhaps it is no choice at all. I may
Have both, or neither. Such is the
Nature of things that choices appear
As if they were not. And I still see
Her hair, and her eyes and her body
And her shoes.
The clock is digital, so there is no ticking,
Only the sound of the battery.
I shudder as I gaze into the simmering
Void that mocks my existence,
And I fear death, not because I wish to live,
But because I cannot lose my thoughts of her.
I steady myself. The minds of Gods and Goddesses
Dead or Never Living seem to reach me.
Left or Right or otherwise
Make the move.