Casca1Before I begin, let me give a special shout-out to my blogger friend and loyal reader, Pat Prescott: yes, Pat; it’s finally happened! I don’t know how many years it’s been since you first told me about this series, but I finally have gotten around to reading it. Many thanks to Pat for the suggestion, and for all his support over the years.

Also, for those of you who don’t want to wade all the way through my long-winded review, I made a short video review for your convenience. (And also just for my own amusement.)

Casca begins with military doctors in war-torn Vietnam finding an American soldier named Casey suffering what should be a mortal wound that miraculously begins to heal. As the doctor examines him, he feels himself drawn into a vivid recollection of the man’s past: a flashback to his time as a Roman soldier, Casca Rufio Longinus, a legionnaire assigned to the province of Judea.

During his time in Judea, Casca torments a prisoner about to be crucified–Jesus of Nazareth, who curses him to an eternity as a soldier of fortune, until the Last Judgment. (Note that in the above video, I mistakenly said Casca stabs him on the way to the crucifixion. I meant to say he guards him on the way, and then stabs him.)

Casca dismisses the curse as the raving of a mad prisoner, but as he fights and receives wounds and does not die, he begins to realize that it truly is his doom to live forever, always moving from one battle to the next.

He is sent into slavery for a time, where he is mentored for by a kindly Chinese man who teaches him martial arts as well as philosophy. Eventually, he makes his way into the gladiatorial arena and battles his way to freedom. Ultimately he rejoins the Legion, centuries after he originally knew it, when Rome has seen many emperors rise and fall, and the once-mighty empire verges on collapse.

The book flashes forward again to the hospital in Vietnam–Casey having gone, and the doctors shaken by the experience. In the final chapter, the action moves to Egypt, where young Israeli soldiers fight alongside a grizzled mercenary–Casey again, who recalls fighting in the same desert many centuries before.

The writing is straightforward with no frills, so the book is a quick read. The description is limited, with most heavily-described parts being those relating to battles and Roman tactics.

There is a lot of violence, naturally, and quite a bit of sex as well. Actually one of the things that bothered me about the book was the sexism–women are described exclusively in sexual terms, and rape is commonplace. The worst part is, this probably is an accurate depiction of attitudes during the time period. There was also one section during Casca’s time as a gladiator about his rivalry with a cruel Numidian (African) gladiator that was dripping with racism (and sexism, in terms of how the man is depicted preying upon women) that rivaled Lovecraft in terms of appalling the modern reader. I could have done without that.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this from a book written in the 1970s by a man who grew up in pre-Civil Rights America. All in all, Sadler had a strange life–maybe one that would have been worthy of a novel in its own right. His military career was cut short when, to quote Wikipedia, “he was severely wounded in the knee by a feces-covered punji stick“. Before writing Casca, he wrote and performed the patriotic song “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. Later on, he shot and killed a romantic rival, for which he served 28 days in jail. Years later, he himself would be shot–whether accidentally by his own hand or by a would-be killer is unclear.

Honestly, people who don’t like to learn the biographical details of authors are missing out on a lot.

Anyway, back to Casca: for me, the most memorable character in the book was the Chinese slave whom Casca meets when sailing back to Rome. He’s also a bit of a cliché–an Asian philosopher-warrior-monk who dispenses wisdom as well as being a master of martial arts–but it kinda works anyway. Unlike most of the characters, he does a bit of introspection, and seems to grasp the horror of Casca’s curse even before Casca does.

What I liked most about the book was the concept: the idea of a man condemned to live forever is an ancient one. Or, as Harlan Ellison wrote for an episode of The Outer Limits:

“Through all the legends of ancient peoples — Assyrian, Babylonian, Sumerian, Semitic — runs the saga of the Eternal Man, the one who never dies, called by various names in various times, but historically known as Gilgamesh, the man who has never tasted death … the hero who strides through the centuries …”

This idea of an immortal condemned to live through endless cycles of fruitless quests is a great one. It’s the premise for the legendary video game Planescape: Torment, as well as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. (I’ve also heard some claim that King’s protagonist Roland was influenced by the soldier-of-fortune character “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner“, from the song by Warren Zevon, which features the line “the eternal Thompson gunner”.) It’s a great premise for exploring themes like the futility of war, “man’s inhumanity to man”, etc.

Because the concept is so fruitful, the Casca series currently spans 47 books and counting, following Casca’s adventures across pretty much every war in recorded history. It surprises me the series was never made into a movie. I could see it very easily being adapted into one of those over-the-top, hacking and slashing and/or guns-blazing action films like they made in the 1980s. Or maybe that’s the problem: the teenage boys who would probably have been the perfect audience for these books in past eras are now spending their leisure time watching action movies and playing online first-person shooting games, and don’t even know about them.

 

It all started, as it so often does these days, with a tweet:

This was probably too glib on my part. I’ve just gotten sick of so many alleged real-life hauntings where people say “We think the place is haunted because there are cold drafts and when you take pictures in the dark with a flash, you see orbs.”

If you take pictures of anything in the dark with a flash, you will almost certainly see orbs. Here’s one I took during a rainstorm in my front yard:

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Orbs!

Anyway, that isn’t the important part of the story. The important part is that Mark Paxson replied to this with a comment about the Marfa lights, a phenomenon which I had never heard of. I’m not sure how, as it’s exactly the sort of weird, Coast-to-Coast AM-ish paranormal Americana that I love to read and write about.

mlWell, Mark has written about them, in a short story called, in fact, The Marfa Lights. I don’t want to spoil too much, but it’s a very well-crafted story. It has a memorable narrator and a well-paced plot advanced by gradual revelations.

I haven’t read the other short stories in the collection yet, but I can already tell you that it’s well worth picking up. Partly, this is because the first story is so good. And partly, it’s due to a piece of advice to writers that Mark gives in his brief preface. I won’t say what it is, except to say it reminded me of one of my favorite movie quotes: “There’s a whole world out there of other people’s tales, if you’d just care and listen,” from Jane Got a Gun.

To recap: I made a lame joke on Twitter, but as a result I got rewarded with a story of a weird ghostly phenomenon and a nice new book to read.  That wouldn’t have happened without social media. Mark and I would have no idea of each other’s existence without social media. (Thanks, Carrie!)

I’ve blogged about this before, but this week seemed particularly bad for social media. There were quite a few stories about it being used for lots of despicable things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Like almost any technology, it has the potential for both good and evil. I keep coming back to this timeless quote from Edward R. Murrow, speaking about television in 1958:

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

 

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This white-hot sun symbolizes the rage with which overuse of symbolism fills me. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

The other day I went to look up the quote about angel food cake from the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. In the search results, I saw a bunch of study-aid/cliffs-notes style sites addressing the question, “What does the angel food cake symbolize?”

The passage in question is this, when the sheriff is explaining to Atticus why he won’t tell the town what Boo Radley did:

I never heard tell that it’s against the law for a citizen to do his utmost to prevent a crime from being committed, which is exactly what he did, but maybe you’ll say it’s my duty to tell the town all about it and not hush it up. Know what’d happen then? All the ladies in Maycomb includin’ my wife’d be knocking on his door bringing angel food cakes.

The answer the study aids give as to what the cakes symbolize is usually something like this: “the cake symbolizes the townspeople’s compassion.”

This isn’t technically wrong, but it’s way too fancy for my taste. Saying that’s “symbolism” is really over-thinking matters. It’s no more a symbol than any other gift is.

I always hated this “what does [x] symbolize?” question, and I think that nine times out of ten, it’s just a subtle way of asking “Did you actually read the book?”

Well, in English Lit class, that’s something the teachers have to establish, so it’s hard to blame them for asking it. But I wish they could find a different way to do it, because symbolism is an actual thing in literature–but it’s not near as commonplace as English classes would lead you to believe.

True symbolism is subtle, and you have to be alert to notice it. The angel food cake in Mockingbird doesn’t “symbolize” compassion, it’s just an instance of it. Any five-year-old kid could tell you that bringing somebody a cake means you want to show your appreciation for them.

Actually, this is not a bad test for deciding whether something is literary symbolism. If a kid could immediately tell you what something “symbolizes” out of context, then it’s not really a symbol.

In Richard Armour’s hilarious satire of literary analysis, The Classics Reclassified, there’s a note on symbolism in Moby Dick (I’m paraphrasing from memory):The book is full of symbols and allegories. The whale stands for something. The sea stands for something. The reader has to stand for quite a bit, too.” I think this nicely sums up the way most readers feel about books that rely too heavily on symbolism.

Based on this, you’re probably thinking that I hate symbolism. I don’t. I’ve written stories that used symbolism. I just object to the lazy style of literary analysis where everything is a symbol, and a symbol of the most obvious things to boot.

I think we need a better term than “symbolism”. My suggestion is “reinforcement”.

In my opinion, the best use of symbolism in a story is to reinforce the core thematic elements of that story. For example: say you have a story about a guy who goes insane. You might reinforce this by having him look in a cracked mirror that distorts his reflection. It represents his figurative “cracking up” by having him (well, his reflection) literally “crack up”.

That’s just one example. You can use all sorts of things to reinforce a theme—if you write romance, have a rose bush that blooms when the lovers are together and dies when they’re apart. (Yes, I know that’s awfully hackneyed. Now you see why I don’t write romance.)

The point is, all this sort of stuff gets called “symbolism” by authors, literary critics, and academics. But that name is misleading, because it starts artists off thinking about the wrong problem—i.e. “What symbols can I create?”, instead of “How can I reinforce my theme?”

This can lead to pretentious, incoherent art where lots of stuff symbolizes other stuff, but none of it makes much sense or seems meaningful. So instead of asking “What does this symbolize”, lit critics and academics ought to be asking “How does this reinforce the theme?”

I posted about this on Twitter yesterday, but I want to make sure the word gets out to my blog-only followers, as I’m sure they will enjoy these stories as well. Phillip is currently in the middle of a 52 stories in 52 weeks challenge. That’s right; he’s writing one short story per week, for an entire year.

Phillip writes in a variety of genres and styles, and does great work in all of them, but if you asked me to concisely label his work, I’d say his “signature” style lies in sci-fi/fantasy tales, often with ironic twists or unexpected endings. There’s a very Twilight Zone-ish flavor to many of his stories, which I love.

I’ve enjoyed reading his stories from the first in the series on, and he just keeps getting better. Part of the fun of following his work is seeing him challenge himself and grow more ambitious with his writing. His latest, Drafted, is one of my personal favorites because it works on multiple levels—first as a dialogue-driven dark comedy, secondly as an exercise in military sci-fi world-building, and finally as a satire on professional sports.

Another cool thing about Phillip’s work is that for each story, he posts a follow-up detailing his process of writing, the elements that influenced the story, and notes made as he created it. This is a great educational tool for other writers.

And to top it all off, his stories are published on his blog and on Wattpad, so you can read them for free. I don’t know Phillip’s intentions, but my hope is that when this is done, he’ll publish them in book or ebook form. Regardless, his work deserves your attention. So go check out his blog, and join him on this adventure as he creates this eclectic mix of tales.

A little while back, I was describing Audrey Driscoll’s The Friendship of Mortals to someone. After I was done, she looked at me and said, “So it’s an H.P. Lovecraft slash fanfiction?”

I was about to argue the point, but then I realized she was right. It is–except that, if you describe it that way, it would lead people to expect something very different than what The Friendship of Mortals actually is. Fanfiction has a reputation for low quality among Serious Writers, and so if you describe something as such, most people will automatically assume it’s bad, or at least amateurish.

Friendship of Mortals is a very well-written, high-quality book–in fact, it’s better than many books from big publishers and well-known authors that I have read. Calling it a Lovecraft fanfic, while perhaps technically accurate, doesn’t begin to describe it.

People often assume that the ideas are the hard part of creating something. I used to assume this too. I think it was when I watched this talk by Chris Avellone that I realized it wasn’t true.

(That’s a fantastic talk, by the way. If you don’t like video games but enjoy writing, just watch this section. If you like games, watch the whole thing.)

This isn’t a new concept–hence the famous Edison quote, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration”. But it’s hard to grasp until you start making things.

In this regard, ideas are easy to come by–they are like abundant raw materials that require lots of training to know how to use. It’s easy to dream up a concept for a story, or a new invention, or a business model. The hard part is doing the nitty-gritty stuff that makes it work.

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Image via Wikipedia

[I saw this film a couple years ago, but never posted a review. I will do so now, for no particular reason. 🙂 ]

I don’t feel fully qualified to review this film, because it’s in Hebrew, which I don’t speak. So I can’t comment on the actors’ delivery of their lines, or even on the script, since I’m basing it off of English subtitles that may not reflect the full meaning.

Even more significantly, Hebrew etymology itself is an important concept in the film, and I can’t be sure to what extent I grasped the word play that goes on. At one point, the narrator alludes to the fact that the Hebrew word for childlessness is related to the word for darkness, which is related to the word for forgetting. This leads me to suspect the title has more meaning in the original. (The film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Israeli author Amos Oz, from which this passage is adapted.)

All that said, I’m going to do my best to review what I can, and let you know when I think my opinions might be colored by my ignorance of the language.

The film is told from the perspective of the young Amos Oz (Amir Tessler) and chronicles his experience growing up in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, which over the course of the film is partitioned by a U.N. Resolution and then falls into civil war.

This political element is mostly shown through glimpses and murmurs in the background, since Amos is a young child, and what he perceives first and foremost are incidents in his own family. His father Arieh (Gilad Kanana) and mother Fania (Natalie Portman, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay) are his main influences. Both are well-educated and, in their own ways, teach him about language and storytelling. His father, a scholarly and bookish man, frequently lectures him about Hebrew words and their interrelated meanings.

Fania is a more romantic type than her husband, and early sequences show her fantasies as a girl growing up in Europe. envisioning Israel as the “land of milk and honey”, to be settled by heroic pioneers. In keeping with her imaginative nature, she tells young Amos stories—some fanciful and fairytale-like, others more depressing and realistic, such as the story from her childhood of a Polish army officer who committed suicide as she watched.

Amos also overhears things he shouldn’t—such as Fania’s mother berating her, causing the younger woman to slap her own face in shame, or Fania telling another grim tale of her youth in Europe: a woman who committed suicide by locking herself in a shed and setting it on fire.

The film shows these scenes, as imagined by young Amos, and you can’t help feeling these aren’t healthy for a child to hear. At the same time, even if you didn’t realize that Oz grows up to be a writer, it becomes very clear in watching the film that this is his calling—everything in his upbringing leads him towards it.

Gradually, as the film wears on and political upheaval takes its toll, Fania begins to succumb to depression. It’s a grim decline, as we see her slowly wasting away, but the film does a good job capturing the pain and frustration seeing a loved one with a mental health disorder brings upon a family. (Even more heart-wrenching is the fact that the doctors prescribe sleeping pills and other depressants—at the time, proper treatment for such disorders was not widely available.)

Fania goes away to her sisters’ home in Tel Aviv, and there overdoses on sleeping pills. In the closing moments of the film, we see Amos as a young man, meeting with his father at a kibbutz. Finally, we see an elderly Amos writing the word “mother” in Hebrew.

The overall film is haunting and evocative, with a gorgeous soundtrack by Nicholas Britell that captures the gloomy mood of Jerusalem, which Oz at one point likens to a black widow.

I did have some issues with the cinematography. It has that washed-out gray/green palette that is way, way overused in films these days—especially those set in the past. I would have preferred to see it in the normal range of colors.

However, while this was a drawback, I did think it very successfully communicated one thing about Jerusalem: its age. Throughout the film, but especially in the shots of the winding, narrow streets that Amos and his family traverse through the city, I could practically feel the weight of all the accumulated history of this ancient place. The film conveyed the mystical power of its setting, and gave a sense of why it is so important to so many.

Again, I don’t want to comment too much on the acting, since I was reading subtitles rather than listening to the speech, but it seemed very good indeed. Tessler is the standout—he had to carry the immense burden of seeming wise beyond his years while still behaving like a normal child, rather than The Boy Who Is Destined To Become A Famous Writer. And he manages it splendidly from what I can tell.

Small moments, like the sequence in which Arieh is celebrating that all five copies of his new book have been purchased, and Amos later sees all five, still in their wrapping paper, at the house of an author Arieh knows (either a friend or relative; I couldn’t tell which), are what stick in my mind. The man simply closes the shelf lid over the books and gives Amos a look that says “we will not speak of this”, without uttering a word.

I went to this film expecting it to be a downer—I knew that it ended with Fania falling into depression and ultimately committing suicide—and for a large part of the second half, it did feel excruciatingly bleak. Watching someone sit silently in the dark, overcome with psychological torment, while her family members suffer in impotent grief, while perhaps true to life, is not a pleasant cinematic experience, and that’s how the film trends for some time. I was ready to write it off as an interesting picture that drowns in mental anguish in the second half.

And then something amazing happened.

I want to write about it, because I haven’t seen many others address it—but I also hate to spoil it. So I’ll make a deal with you: if you haven’t seen the movie, but think you might want to, stop reading now and watch it. Pay particular attention to the scenes of Fania’s stories—the drowning woman, the woman in the shed, the Polish officer. Then come back and read the rest of this. If you’ve already seen it, or just don’t care to but read this far and want to know it all, read on.

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Ocean EchoesI didn’t know what to expect from this book. Glancing at the categories and the description, it didn’t match any genre I was familiar with. I figured it would be a romance set on a scientific voyage. And it kind of is that, but there’s way more to it.

The book follows marine biologist Ellen Upton, an expert on jellyfish whose grant money is rapidly dwindling. In desperate need of a breakthrough to save her career, Ellen ventures out on a research ship into the Pacific, hoping to find something that will earn her more funding.

The majority of the novel is told from Ellen’s perspective, and in many ways, her plunge into the unknown depths of the ocean mirrors her journey into her own equally complex and mysterious psyche. I usually don’t like using such lit-crit terms, but that truly is what happens here, and what’s more, it works. It never feels like an overplayed metaphor, but rather an organic marriage of character and plot development.

Ellen has great difficulty feeling close to others, having gone through a painful break-up when her fiancé stole her research ideas for his own. Unwilling to trust others easily again, she loses herself in her work, much to the disappointment of Ryan, her loyal research assistant.

On the cruise, she meets other scientists and students, including one researcher whose skepticism of man-made climate change sparks a friendly rivalry. She and the other scientists also visit a small island populated with a tribe of welcoming natives, and a family whose patriarch has gone missing at sea. Ellen and Ryan later find him on another island that formerly housed a military installation.

The book is filled with strange vignettes that make Ellen’s experience feel more like a surreal journey into a mystical realm than a scientific expedition. From her encounter with a waiter who speaks of ghosts following her, to the magical rituals performed by the islanders, to the antics of one of the students on the expedition who has a penchant for dressing up as a gorilla, the book gradually builds a feeling of melancholy mystery woven from bizarre, dream-like incidents.

When Ellen finally makes the major discovery she has longed for, it is not a triumph, but rather a frightening experience—one that disturbs her so much she questions her own sanity. As did I, I’ll admit. I wondered if Ellen might be transforming into an “unreliable narrator” of sorts, though the book is written in the third-person.

Hurst’s prose throughout is haunting and hypnotic.  The tale unfolds at a slow pace, but the writing is filled with evocative descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase. At times, it reminded me of Steinbeck in the way it dwells upon seemingly minor things without ever becoming dull or tedious. Little details, like the apparent changing expressions of a rock face the islanders believe represents the moods of the sea, stick in the memory to create a beautifully odd atmosphere. (It reminded me of Mal, the demonic face in the trees in Patrick Prescott’s Human Sacrifices.)

Maybe it’s just because I saw the film adaptation so recently, but the book also put me in mind of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. Like VanderMeer’s nameless biologist, Ellen’s seemingly cold reserve and preference for biology over human interaction mask a wounded soul with deep emotional scars. And also like Annihilation, Ocean Echoes depicts nature as simultaneously dangerous, mysterious, and eerily beautiful; all while weaving an environmentalist warning of humanity’s potential to unwittingly cause unimaginable harm to our own planet.

Does the book have flaws? A few, yes. Some of the scientific exposition sounds a bit awkward as dialogue, and I swear that a couple times some background information about jellyfish was repeated almost verbatim. Also, the above-noted slow pace of the book may not be to every reader’s taste. If you have a strong preference for fast-paced action, it might not work for you, at least early on.

But even then, I still encourage you to give Ocean Echoes a try. It’s a weird, haunting, hypnotic mystery of a book, a love-letter to the ocean, written with respect for its dangers and fear for its fragility. When it rambles, it rambles in the way the best novels do—with love and understanding of its theme that commands the reader’s attention.

It’s very bold to write and publish a book that doesn’t easily fit into any pre-defined genre, and that goes double for an indie author. And yet some of the greatest works of fiction ever created defy categorization. So I admire Hurst tremendously for going through with it and taking the risk to write this mesmerizingly weird and thought-provoking tale. It may not always be what you expect—but then, what better reason could there be to read it?

516XMGMHmwL._AC_US218_The Prize is a fast-paced medical thriller with a compelling plot: Dr. Pam Weller has made a Nobel-worthy breakthrough in Alzheimer’s disease research, finding a drug with the potential to cure it. But a more senior researcher in the same field, the ambitious Professor Eric Prescott, will go to any lengths to steal her discovery and gain the Nobel Prize for himself.

And when I say any lengths, I absolutely do mean any—even illegal and immoral methods are on the table for Prescott in his quest to satisfy his ambition. The only thing Pam has to help her against his machinations are her own wits and the help of her boyfriend Jake, a former FBI agent.

So much of the book hinges on its plot that I don’t want to give away too much here. What I found most interesting is how it presents the field of medical research. The researchers rarely seem to think about the implications of curing Alzheimer’s in terms of what it means for humanity at large. For them—both Weller and Prescott—it is a personal challenge with personal rewards. The difference is that Weller is fundamentally an honest person, whereas Prescott is not.

The author is a medical researcher himself, and his experience clearly shows: issues that might seem trivial to the layman, like questions of which author is listed first on a research paper and the details of tenure review processes, take on extreme importance for many of the characters. He captures the nitty-gritty details of research and its associated bureaucratic logistics very well.

My only criticisms of the book are these: first, some chapters are written from the villain’s point of view as he executes his plan, which takes away the suspense. When we already know what he has done, it makes it less exciting when the good characters uncover it. (On the other hand, it was interesting to explore his motivations and see the twinges of guilt he feels as he commits his crimes.)

Second, some of the dialogue was a little awkward and contained lots of exposition. I sympathize with this—it’s very hard to write dialogue that both sounds natural and conveys the information the readers needs to have. This is especially true for a story set in a highly-specialized field like medical research, where there is lots of jargon the characters would presumably know, but that the reader may not.

But these issues didn’t seriously detract from my enjoyment of the book. The Prize is fast-paced and easy to read. If you like medical thrillers, or really thrillers in general, I recommend giving it a try. It will make you look at every press release and news report you hear about “research breakthroughs” in a new light.

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I’m not reviewing this game. I’m reviewing the reviews of it.

I haven’t played it. I probably won’t play it. I haven’t played a Far Cry game in years. You can read my thoughts on Far Cry 2 here. My sense is that not much has changed about the series since then.

For those who don’t know: Far Cry 5 is set in Montana, and the plot involves a doomsday cult of survivalist “preppers”. I don’t know much beyond that, but I gather it follows the standard Far Cry formula of a big open world for the player to run around in, getting in gunfights and blowing stuff up.

The marketing for the game has hyped the political aspects of the plot, and generated lots of controversy as a result.

The reviews I’ve read, however, have almost all complained that the game doesn’t have any real political message, saying things like “it plays it too safe” and “doesn’t want to offend people”. I get the sense a lot of people are disappointed in Ubisoft for not dialing the political commentary up to 11.

I admit, once I learned it was going to be just another open-world mayhem thing, with no major political message, I also lost interest in it. But I can’t blame Ubisoft for making that decision. If you think about it, they hardly had a choice.

Far Cry games are about people in extreme environments, fighting to survive against hordes of enemies with a vast array of deadly weapons. There is no clear morality in the world of Far Cry, save the Law of the Jungle. So if you play these games, it means you want to role-play surviving in a savage world of death and destruction.

Survivalists, doomsday preppers, and militia types are doing the same thing. They’re just acting out this fantasy, as opposed to playing a virtual simulation of it. In gaming lingo, they’re Live-Action Role-Playing, or “LARP-ing”.

So Ubisoft couldn’t go full bore political satire against survivalist/militia-types without also attacking their target audience. For those saying that Far Cry 5 should attack people who fetishize wilderness survival and military hardware: Who exactly do you think is buying this $60 simulation of over-the-top violence and destruction?

Is it possible for a game to criticize its audience? Yes, I have seen it done once: Spec Ops: The Line presented itself as a standard-issue military shooter, only to turn everything on its head and morph into a mind-bending satire of the genre that forced the player to question why they play these things at all.

But Spec Ops was not a huge money-maker, and Ubisoft is not going to alienate a huge portion of its audience for the sake of making a clever satire. The majority of audiences do not want to be satirized. They want to be entertained. It would be kind of like writing a detective novel where the detective fails to catch the killer specifically because he spends too much time reading detective novels.

“Form ever follows function” wrote the architect Louis Sullivan, and it’s a good principle for design in any medium. Because if you try to make a game whose function (satire of gun-loving survivalists) is directly opposed to its form (a simulation of gun-loving survivalism), the customers who want the form are going to be upset, and the customers who want the function probably aren’t going to buy it in the first place.

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A truly great poster! (via Wikipedia)

What a crazy idea, to make a comedy about the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. But there is something about the absurdity of the overly-bureaucratized communist mass-murder machine that lends itself to dark humor—the petty logistical concerns and office politics familiar to white-collar workers everywhere, combined with the matters of life and death that concern a government, particularly a totalitarian one.

The film definitely plays this weird juxtaposition to the hilt right from the opening scene, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) calls the manager of a concert broadcast live over the radio to demand a recording of it. When the manager learns there is no recording, he frantically tries to reassemble the orchestra to perform it again. The piano player, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) initially refuses, but ultimately gives in when bribed. After the performance is finished, she places an insulting note to the dictator inside the record sleeve.

Intercut with this are scenes of Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the head of Stalin’s secret police, dispatching his men to seize people from their homes and torture them in secret prisons. Beria holds immense power in the government, and when Stalin dies—on reading the note Maria has written—Beria is the first into his office, hastily removing important documents before other members of the Central Committee, including Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), arrive.

They are reluctant to pronounce him dead, and even the doctors hastily assembled to examine him are hesitant to give their assessment. When they finally do, the Committee proceeds with Georgy Malenkov nominally in charge, but with all of the Committee members, Khrushchev and Beria in particular, jockeying for power.

Stalin’s children, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), arrive for their father’s funeral. Vasily repeatedly launches into drunken rages, attacks guards and makes wild threats. Beria keeps Khrushchev busy dealing with these matters while he moves to consolidate his power by putting the city under the control of the secret police, increases his popularity by pausing arrests, and seizes control of the train system, preventing people from entering the city.

Beria also reveals that he has the note that Maria wrote to Stalin. She is an acquaintance of Khrushchev’s, and Beria uses this to threaten Khrushchev, implying that he will use the note to incriminate both of them should Khrushchev try to cross him.

In frustration, Khrushchev orders that trains to Moscow resume running, causing people to enter the city and be shot by Beria’s secret police. The Committee argues over whether Beria or his lower-level officers should be blamed for this.

Meanwhile, Marshal Georgy Zhukov arrives in Moscow, annoyed to find his army confined to barracks. Khrushchev secretly strikes a deal with Zhukov to help him remove Beria from power during Stalin’s funeral.  Zhukov agrees, on the condition that Khrushchev has the support of the entire Committee, which Krushchev manages to secure by bluffing that he has Malenkov’s backing.

At a Committee meeting after the funeral, Khrushchev signals Zhukov and his men to storm the room and arrest Beria. After much badgering from Khrushchev, Malenkov reluctantly signs off on the summary trial and execution of Beria.

The film ends with Khrushchev watching Maria play at a concert while Leonid Brezhnev (Gerald Lepkowski) looks ominously over his shoulder.

It’s an odd movie, with scenes of slapstick comedy (the Committee members awkwardly transporting Stalin’s body from the floor to his bed) mixed with more subtle satire, as in the sequences depicting Committee meetings, and one unforgettable scene in which Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) are speaking contemptuously of Molotov’s presumed-dead wife Polina, who was arrested as a traitor to the Party, only to change their tone mid-sentence to singing her praises as Beria appears with her in tow, having released her from prison to secure Molotov’s loyalty.

The humor throughout is very, very dark: for example, there is a running gag in the scenes in the secret police prisons where we repeatedly hear prisoners off-screen exclaiming “Long Live Comrade Stalin!” followed by a gunshot.

But in addition to the sometimes over-the-top satire, the plot is that of a very tight and coherent political thriller, as Khrushchev and Beria joust for power. I went in expecting it to paint all the Soviet elites as villains in equal measure—and they certainly all do some nasty things—but in my opinion the film pretty firmly sides with Khrushchev as the hero and Beria as the villain. The former is depicted as vulgar and a bit corrupt, but reasonably well-meaning. (He reminded me, in both looks and manner, of a Don Rickles character.) It’s impossible not to root for him over Beria, who, besides all his other crimes as head of the secret police, is a sexual predator of the most evil sort. It is altogether fitting and satisfying that the most graphically violent death in the film is Beria’s execution.

As you might expect, the film is very controversial, and was banned in Russia and former Soviet States. A member of the Russian Culture Ministry stated: “The film desecrates our historical symbols — the Soviet hymn, orders and medals, and Marshal Zhukov is portrayed as an idiot.”

I can’t speak to the hymn, the orders, or the medals, but I will say that while Zhukov is certainly a caricature (he’s played by Jason Isaacs, whose hammy acting  works much better here than in Harry Potter), for me, he was one of the most sympathetic characters in the film, after Khrushchev and Maria.

I would like to see a historian specializing in Soviet history do a thorough examination of what is and isn’t accurate in this movie. This article mentions some inaccuracies—notably, that Beria’s downfall was more protracted than the hasty arrest and execution depicted in the film. But that’s the sort of change that can be excused for the sake of the drama. I don’t know much about the Soviet Union post-World War II, but on cursory scanning of Wikipedia entries about the people and events depicted, I was surprised (and quite often disturbed) to learn how much of it was accurate.

Of course, the mark of a really good work of historical fiction is that it’s not just about the time period depicted, but that it contains observations about human nature that are relevant to the present-day. This is why, for example, the historical dramas of Shakespeare are still read and performed today.

So does The Death of Stalin contain any interesting lessons beneath the caricatures of historical enemies of Western capitalism and farcical depictions of Soviet state ceremonies? It’s hard to say. Maybe there is something about the dehumanizing effect that power has upon both those who wield it and those upon whom they exercise it. But that has been pretty well picked-over by people like George Orwell. The absurdity of bureaucrats administering lethal force? Joseph Heller covered that. So I’m not sure this picture brings anything new to the table in that regard.

Would I recommend seeing it? I don’t know. If you’re a Soviet history buff, it might be interesting to see what they got right and what they got wrong. If you like your comedy extremely black, then it might be worth a watch. But if you prefer uplifting cinema, or if you don’t like violence, or if you are offended by swearing, or–above all else– if one of your relatives worked for the Soviet Secret Police, then you should probably skip it.