Pokémon Sun and Moon and the Japanese Circus

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, you know what Pokémon is. You probably also know that there are new games coming out called Sun and Moon. (Pokémon S&M, oh my!) Last week a trailer was released in Japan, and in the west we got to see some gameplay footage. In both places, we got to meet the three starters.

For those who don’t know, the starter Pokémon are a big deal. At the start of every game, you get presented with three Pokémon; a grass type, a fire type, and a water type. You can only choose one, and that critter becomes your first Pokémon; your partner throughout the game. For Sun & Moon, the grass type starter is Rowlet, a little owl with a bowtie, the fire type is Litten, a black cat with red markings, and the water type is Poplio, a happy little sea lion.

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Left to right: Rowlet, Litten, and Poplio

After processing all that information, I began to wonder if there was some sort of theme among these starter Pokémon. In X and Y, the final evolutions can be seen as an RPG team (a fighter, a mage, and a rouge), and the final evolutions of the starters in Diamond and Pearl are based on legends (Torterra is a World Turtle, Infernape is the Monkey King, and Empoleon is Poseidon). Of course, spotting such a theme at this stage would be hard, since the final forms of these starters has not been revealed.

It was when I tried to imagine what Litten could possibly evolve into that it came to me. You see, the marks on Litten’s face and its colouration suggest to me that it could become a big tiger-like Pokémon. A fire tiger? Tigers in the circus jump through rings of fire, and Polio obviously fits a circus theme too. I’m not quite sure how Rowlet fits in, but he could evolve into something that resembles an acrobat, or a magician, or a ringmaster. I think it’s safe to say that the finale evolutions of the Sun & Moon starters will have a circus feel to them.

As you can imagine, I felt pretty good figuring that out myself. Of course, a quick Google search showed that I was about three days behind the rest of the internet, and people were already talking about the circus connection. However, so far I am not seeing any discussion about the parallels between the circus, Pokémon games, and the themes of the Japanese Sun & Moon trailer. So let’s start talking about 19th Century circus troupes and the Tokugawa Shogunate. Yes, I’m digging that deep for something new and relevant to say about the this announcement.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan was subjected to an isolationist policy and trade with foreigners was strictly controlled. In 1636, an edict enforcing sakoku (literally, country closed) was handed down, stipulating that no-one could enter or leave the country, the punishment for breaking this law was death. It remained illegal to leave Japan until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. During this time there was still trading with Dutch, Korean, and Chinese merchants, but only at designated ports. The majority of Japanese people during this time would never have any contact with foreigners, and vice versa.

Four years after the Meiji Restoration, Richard Risley brought a U.S circus troupe to Yokohama, and the Japanese loved the show, which was mostly equestrian acts. Risley also got a chance to see local performers and was impressed with what he saw. He sought permission to bring a troupe of Japanese contortionists, conjurers, acrobats and other performers to tour the U.S. and Europe, thus creating the The Japanese Imperial Artistes’ Company. More Japanese circus troupes would later travel overseas, and more Western circuses would tour Japan. The Meiji Emperor once visited a circus performing at Tokyo and was so impressed he gave the ringmaster $5000 worth of gold.

So… what is the point I’m trying to make here? Well, apart from the merchants and the statesmen, the first Japanese people to travel overseas were circus performers. In the 19th century, the only place the average Westerner would see a Japanese person would be at the circus. Likewise, the circus was the first exposure a lot of Japanese people had to Westerners. The circus was an early channel for cross-cultural interactions between Japan and the West. Different cultures were bonding over something fun and frivolous.

Does this seem familiar to anyone? Let’s have a look at the Japanese trailer with this context in mind. (Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2r0_F-_ClcQ) In the trailer, a young boy moves to Hawaii, and has trouble making friends. Not that the other kids are mean, it’s just hard to make friends in a new place where everyone speaks a different language. The new Pokémon games help the boy connect with his classmates, as all the kids are drawn together by playing the games. Pokémon transcends language barriers and national borders. It’s a way to play with people from different cultures, who you may never be able to play with in any other setting.

See what I’m getting at here?

It’ll be interesting to see how this circus theme – this coming out from isolation, travelling the world, meeting people from different cultures, sharing skills and experiences, and bonding over a fun event – is applied in the rest of the game.

Yes, the rest of the game. In Ruby and Sapphire, the starters represented different habitats, and the environment was front and centre in the games. In Diamond and Pearl, the starters had that legend theme, and the games were very big on expanding the Pokémon mythology. In Black and White, the starters had a theme of different cultures, and these games were set in an expy of New York, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. The villain team also had an inability to see any views other than their own as valid; their views were not about race or culture, but the lesson of being able to accept difference still fits with this theme. In X and Y, the starters represent different roles players in an RPG may take on. In these games, you travel and fight against the baddies alongside a group of friends at many points in the story, and all your friends are constantly trying to figure out what role they want to play in the world.

So, what can we expect from a circus theme? Will the focus on cross-cultural bonding play a big story role? How will that focus on meeting people from across the world impact the wireless battling and trading features? Will the locations and travelling play a bigger role than usual? What will the villain team’s motivation be?

I am super excited about these games. I can’t wait to find out the answers to these questions alongside my brand new Pokémon partner; which will be Litten, of course.

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Review – Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

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Neal Stephenson

Published May 19 2015

Score: 8/10

 

Seveneves. Palindromes are awesome. So is this novel. In Seveneves, the world is ending. Not some vague time in the future, but in two years. And no, there will be no lucky survivors; the atmosphere is going to burn up, the oceans will evaporate and the surface of the planet will be sterilized. And guess what? Everyone knows it’s going to happen; no grand conspiracies… the fact that the moon has exploded and the Earth is doomed cannot be kept secret.

Yes that’s right, the moon blows up. This book gets you straight into the action in the very first sentence. “The moon blew up with no warning and for no apparent reason” is the first line of Seveneves, and damn, what a hook. From there we are drawn into a race against time to remodel the International Space Station into a ‘Cloud Ark’ to save a fraction of the human race. Meeting the characters who work to save the human race, and watching them turn a space station into a place where humanity can live for five thousand years is a lot of fun. Stephenson has done a lot of research into how this could be done, and it really shows.

Maybe it shows too much in some places. Remember that old “Show, don’t tell” advise? Well, Stephenson threw that right out the window. Early on, we meet Dinah, a robotics expert on the ISS, who works for an asteroid mining company. There is also an asteroid attached to the ISS now, and reading through pages and pages of backstory about where Dinah grew up and how the asteroid got captured, I begun to ask just what I had got myself into. There are so many huge info dumps in this book, and normally that is a big no-no for me. But, I stuck with it, and found that I quite enjoyed a lot of the info dumps about the technology and orbital mechanics needed to understand how the cloud ark works. Most of them; some were just way too long and detailed, and I would have preferred not having characters be introduced this way. Also, me liking the info dumps only applies to the first two thirds of the book. As for the rest, well I’ll come back to that later.

For now, let’s make it clear that whilst I found this book to be an eight, a quick browse through Goodreads or Amazon will reveal that some reviewers disagreed totally with me. There are reviews ranging from five stars to one star; you either love this book or you hate it. Or, you love the first two thirds and hate the last part. A lot of this has to do with those big info dumps, and also that the technical details seem to come at the expense of the characters. Also, the info that Stephenson dumps on us isn’t always that clear, or at least wasn’t to a layman like me. A lot of it did go over my head.

I’ve been dancing around that last third of the book, and now I better get to it. Put simply, I didn’t like the third part of this book. I suppose I could look at it as getting two books in one, but I would have rather just had a detailed epilogue to the first book to be honest. It was interesting seeing the world humanity had created in the remains of the moon, but it didn’t really feel convincing. Not from a technical standpoint; there were info dumps everywhere for that. Way too many of them, and while some parts were still interesting (their ‘guns’ were awesome, and hearing about what happened to the characters from the first part of the book was always welcome) most of the technology porn went right over my head. Partly because I just don’t care about every intimate step of a ship docking to a space station.

The worst part about these later info dumps however, was that they were a lot more intrusive here than in the first parts of the book. Conversations get put on hold to explain things, and the action is too slowly paced for this to be overlooked.

The story of the third part of Seveneves is pretty much this: Something strange is happening. One character decides to get together a group of people to do something. He doesn’t tell them what that mission is though, until after pages and pages of travelling to their destination. Once the purpose of the mission is revealed, then things start to get interesting… but by then, we’re 85% of the way through the book. The story ends just as it’s getting interesting, and the ending isn’t satisfactory. All in all, I’m disappointed with that last third of the book.

Despite those problems, Seveneves is still an amazing story. I found the book hard to put down, and the ideas it raised were very interesting. There were a lot of epic plotlines, such as Tekla’s rescue and the Ymir expedition, and the premise is something that I’m still thinking about even after finishing the book. If you like your Science Fiction hard, then you’ll love Seveneves.

 

~Lauren

Review – Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

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(and the rest of the Imperial Radch trilogy)

Ann Leckie

Published Oct 6 2015 

Score: 9.5/10

 

The conclusion of Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy. As the final book in the trilogy, I doubt it stands alone. Hard to tell since I’ve read all three, but I just cannot imagine being able to just jump into the story at this point. All the history and backstory of the main character Breq and the universe of the Radch took a pretty large chunk of the first book to set up, and is pretty important to understanding anything that is going on in Mercy. Mercy follows on pretty much straight after Ancillary Sword, and without understanding the politics or characters introduced in the previous book, I’m not sure Ancillary Mercy will make much sense.

This isn’t a bad thing per se. Leckie has created a very expansive, lived in universe with well thought out histories and customs. The Radch universe feels beautifully real and is certainly not your standard space opera. It’s quite reasonable that a quick catch up at the start of each book would be insufficient for bringing a new reader up to speed.  However, it’s inability to stand alone is something I’ll take into consideration when comparing it to the other Hugo nominees. For this review, I’ll also be reviewing the rest of the series, since there are many things to talk about that are common across all three books.

The first thing to point out is that the Radchaai don’t really care about gender, and so only have one set of pronouns; represented here as using feminine pronouns for everyone. This combined with minimal physical description of characters mean that you never learn the gender of most characters; Which surprisingly, is not as confusing as it sounds. I found it interesting seeing what gender I ended up seeing various characters as, and interestingly, I saw many as androgynous. I’ve heard people say using only feminine pronouns is gimmicky, but I disagree. It was interesting and really made me think about how I view gender and sexuality. I would love to compare thoughts on the characters with other people. Though I will admit, the lack of description and the really foreign names can make it hard to keep track of some of the minor characters. Especially when a lot are introduced at once.

The other thing that really differentiates this series from well, pretty much everything else is the main character Breq; formerly known as Justice of Toren. Justice of Toren was a massive spaceship in the Radch military, used to go conquering other worlds. Connected to the ship were hundreds of ancillaries – aka corpse soldiers – humans who have had their minds erased and are hooked up to the ship’s AI. Justice of Toren can see with and control all these human bodies at once, though I should stop praising that aspect of the story now since it’s more to do with the first book in the series.

The first two books tell how through the treachery of Anaander Mianaai – the ruler of the Radch Empire, who is a single consciousness spread across thousands of cloned bodies – Justice of Toren became a single ancillary named Breq. Breq then spent 19 years on a revenge mission which has led her to the planet Athoek as a Fleet Captain with one ship at her disposal. Throughout it all, we are reminded that Breq isn’t really human, though she does value some of the same things we do. Throughout the series, the narration conveys Breq’s nature as an AI with a somewhat detached narrative voice. In Ancillary Mercy, Breq seems to really come to terms with her own nature and the relationships between her and the humans and AIs around her really shine.

I found the worldbuilding even better than the characterisation. There are no planets of hats here. Every world we visit has a range of cultures and peoples that feel very real. The religions, the languages, the traditions of this universe are portrayed very well, but without many big info dumps. We see what we need to see from this very diverse far future, and it is glorious.

So, between the complex range of cultures, lack of masculine pronouns, and a viewpoint characters that is able to see many things and take many actions at once, you may be imagining this series as a convoluted mess of wild ideas. But it’s not. Leckie is an amazingly talented writer, and has describes this strange space empire and this spaceship that can now pass as human clearly. The mind twisting concepts are packaged into a story that is fun, hard to put down, and very well written. The start of Ancillary Justice can be a bit confusing at first… but I’m really supposed to be talking about Ancillary Mercy, and if you’ve made it to that book, you should have no trouble following the story.

Okay, time to get to the awesome things in Ancillary Mercy that aren’t in the other two books. First two that come to mind are Station and Translator Zeiat. The AI of Athoek Station was in Ancillary Sword, but here it really begins to shine, as Breq begins to influence its decisions. The role Station plays in the climax is gold. As for Translator Zeiat… okay, some more background. There is an alien race called the Presgar that are so alien, we cannot understand them. So that they can deal with us, the Presgar have created these translators to bridge the gap. The translators seem human, but every action Zeiat does reminds us that she is not human. Some of Zeiat’s behaviour is quite unnerving, but mostly, it’s hilarious. Or both at the same time. Through the sheer craziness of Zeiat, and her attempts to understand aspects of humanity, we get some sense of just how incomprehensible the Presgar are.

Being a bit more general, Ancillary Mercy follows straight on from Ancillary Sword, and wraps up the series nicely. We have the long awaited encounter at the end with Big Bad Anaander Mianaai. In some ways, it can be seen as an anti-climax. The confrontation set up in Ancillary Justice plays out across the galaxy, and Breq is just on Athoek trying to protect those closest to her. If you’re expecting Breq to be a major player in the wider conflict, you may be disappointed by the ending. I wasn’t though; Breq’s story on Athoek is riveting enough to make this a satisfying conclusion, her not being a major player in the wider scheme of things is realistic, and whilst the story wraps up nicely, there is still enough unexplored that it’s possible for more stories in the future.

As usual, there were a few little nitpick complaints I had. Mostly that the lieutenants in the Radch military seem very immature. But then again, traditionally most of the rank and file soldiers of the Radch had been ancillaries, so the concept of a mighty conquering army with immature ‘baby lieutenants’ isn’t too implausible.

The Imperial Radch series is a fun, unique series that you will not want to put down. Thinking about it now, I want to re-read the series again, even though I finished Ancillary Mercy just a couple of months ago. Ancillary Mercy is the perfect conclusion to a truly awesome series.

 

~Lauren    

Review – The Chaplain’s War by Brad R. Torgersen

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Brad R. Torgersen

Published Oct. 7 2014

Rating: 5.5/10

 

My last review before I start to look at Hugo nominees, and no, I didn’t not intend to review Torgersen’s book while talking about the Hugos, it just took longer to read than I envisioned. You may notice that I changed my rating system from five stars to a score out of ten. This is because I wanted to give this book a halfway score – not bad by any means, but not that great either – and 2.5 stars looked unfairly low. I’ll stick with this rating system going forward, because it allows a greater variety in rating.

Okay, fair disclosure, I am an atheist. I don’t think that impacted on my ability to enjoy this book, since it wasn’t overly preachy or anything, but I figured it was worth noting that if you are religious and/or spiritual, you might get more out of this book than I did.

So I suppose the next question is, if I’m an atheist who doesn’t like preachy things, why did I read a book called The Chaplain’s War? I read it because Brad Torgersen is an amazing author, who has published some beautiful novellas in Analog. Life Flight made me bawl my eyes out (in the sad/beautiful way, not in the way Chuck Tingle did.)

Parts of Chaplain’s War appeared in Analog, as The Chaplain’s Assistant and The Chaplain’s Legacy. I didn’t enjoy these stories as much as Torgersen’s other novellas, but they were interesting enough to convince me to buy this book. It was a tough call; on one hand, a really talented writer who I wanted to see more work from. On the other, it’s a story with a chaplain’s assistant as the hero and atheist cyborg bug aliens as the villains. There are so many ways that premise could devolve into something utterly idiotic. Fortunately, it didn’t. There were a few problems with the treatment of spirituality, but overall it was done subtle and sensitively enough not to ruin the book for me.

First and foremost, The Chaplain’s War is military SF about humans fighting aliens. One thing that quickly becomes clear is that humans are completely outmatched and will lose this war. A military victory is not possible for humanity, and here is where Harrison Barlow, the Chaplain’s Assistant comes in.

Harrison Barlow is trapped on Purgatory; a planet that humans tried -and failed – to invade. Now human prisoners of war are trapped in a small barren valley by a forcefield. Barlow has built a non-denominational chapel, and one day a mantis alien known as the professor comes to visit him. It seems that the mantes are completely without religion, and the professor wants to learn about it to make sure his people aren’t missing out. Here Barlow finds a chance for humanity. First as a way to buy time while the professor studies the many religions of Earth, and then as a way to try to convince the mantes that humans have value and deserve to live.

It is an interesting take on interstellar war stories, that asks a lot of tough questions and asks them well. Barlow is also a likeable character, and shows us the importance and bravery of support personnel in the armed forces. His journey is fun in a classic military SF way, but his position makes the journey feel fresh.

This was an interesting book, that asks questions about the importance of spirituality in bad times, over-reliance of technology, and the effectiveness of violence. Harrison Barlow is an everyman in way over his head, but determined to do what he can to bring about peace. Fun stuff. So, why only a five point five?

Well, there are problems. First, the characters in this book do some great stuff. Everything from facing down their own guilt to laying down their lives. Despite this, there is a heavy implication that divine intervention factors into the outcome, and in the end it is not human or mantes actions that get the credit for the outcome. I suppose I should have expected that, but it relies on what I view as a rather toxic worldview: that everything bad we do is all our fault, but if we do something good, that’s God. What a recipe for self-hatred and distrust. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that just ruined the ending for me.

Though to be fair, the ending was really ruined when Torgersen threw in the most tacked on and unbelievable romance ever. Seriously, it comes completely out of no-where. The attempts to show the relationship are very poor.

My favourite parts were actually the parts that flashed back to Barlow’s basic training. Torgersen, being a Warrant Officer in the US Army Reserve, knows exactly how life in the military works, and that knowledge shows. It’s also nice seeing Barlow evolve into this chaplain’s assistant role not by being religious, but by going out of his way to help his fellow recruits. However, even these sections have problems.

Firstly, they don’t really add much to the plot. Apart from one twist meeting with an old antagonist, which didn’t really need to happen. There are also too many of these flashbacks, and I found myself getting bored with them once I saw how Barlow became a chaplain’s assistant. I think the book might have been stronger if there were less flashbacks.

Another serious problem was that even though the book is set about 190 years into the future, it doesn’t seem very futury. We don’t see soldiers training in VR (though it is referred to), we don’t hear about the POWs on Purgatory suffering withdrawal or struggling without their technology. This is a problem because reliance on technology is a big theme in the book. It is even implied to be the reason why the Mantes can’t feel any sort of spirituality or make a connection with god.

Hey, at least the Mantes weren’t upset with God because something bad happened to them, or ignoring God because they just wanted to sin.

There are a number of other little gripes I could bring up, but I don’t think they are that important. In short, The Chaplain’s War was a fun military SF book, and if you are religious you may get a lot out of it. However, it didn’t really do that much for me, and I believe Torgersen can do much better.

 

~Lauren