2016 Reading and Writing Wrap-Up

My 2016 Reading and Writing Wrap-Up

Well 2016 is finished, but I’m going to buck the trend and not bag it out. Yes, some crappy things happened; Trump and Brexit the first two big things that come to mind, and a whole lot of celebrity deaths. But I think the cries of ‘worst year ever’ are un-called for. Lots of good things have happened, like just the other week we got an Ebola vaccine. Besides, it would be hard for 2016 to be any worse than say, 1942.

And for me personally, 2016 has been a great year. My partner and I bought our first home, I’ve enjoyed my first ever continuous year of regular work, I started this blog, and have read a lot of good books. In this post, I’m going to do a recap on some of the things I’ve read.

First things first, remember how earlier this year I said I’d do a book bingo? Well, here are the results of that:

Noun in the Title: The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

 

Features My Dream Career: A Bestseller: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – J. K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany Book I have previously not finished:

 

Author Under 25:
Retelling of a Folk or Fairy Tale: Set Within the Entertainment Industry: Redshirts – John Scalzi Debut Novel: All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders Features a Conspiracy: A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin Being Adapted into a Movie: The Brave Little Toaster – Thomas M. Disch
Features Strong Familial Relations: The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin Has Sleuthing and Crime-Solving: Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal Features Royalty: Uprooted – Naomi Novik Stars on the Cover: Transpecial – Jennifer R. Povey Comic Book, or Graphic Novel:
FREE SQUARE Features Unlikely Friendship: Transpecial – Jennifer R. Povey FREE SQUARE Has Asian or African Protagonist: Binti – Nnedi Okarafor Third Book in a Series: Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
Published in the Month of my Birth: All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders Has Alternating Perspectives: Seveneves: A Novel – Neal Stephenson Over 500 Pages Long: Seveneves: A Novel – Neal Stephenson Set Outside Earth: C. Chase Harwood – Bastion Station Book Translated from Another Language:
ebook or Audio book: The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin

 

Number in the Title: Beacon 23 – Hugh Howey Features Political Espionage: Hunt for FOXP5 – Wallace Kaufman & David Deamer A Book That a Friend Loved: A Book Owned for More Than a Year: Lord Prestimion – Robert Silverburg
Features Mental Illness or Disability: Beacon 23 – Hugh Howey FREE SQUARE Features Murder or Assassination: A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin Short Story or Novella: Binti – Nnedi Okarafor Had Angels or Fairies:

 

As you can see, I didn’t complete the card. But I got two Bingos. I only did so well because the challenge creator didn’t unveil two mystery challenges, so they became free squares. For this year, I’m going to make my own card.

I also did the Goodreads Book Challenge. I joined Goodreads in May and selected 30 as my target when I was prompted to do so. I never gave it much thought until recently, so most of the books on the list were entered at the end of the year based on memory. The dates given for them were pretty much made up, because I just could not remember. I just made my target, reading 32 books. By books I mean Novels and Novellas, but not magazine issues, so the ten issues of Analog didn’t count. This year I’m going to change that and include fiction magazines, because they do take a while to read and often include some really great stories. For this year, I have pledged to read 50 books. If you’re on Goodreads, feel free to follow my progress here

To see what I read this year, click here

I’m not going to list all the books here, since most of them I’ve reviewed, but I will list all the novels I read that were published in 2016:

All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders

The Many Selves of Katherine North – Emma Geen

The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

Bastion Station – C. Chase Harwood

Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

The Hunt for FOXP5 – Wallace Kaufman and David Deamer

 

Seven new novels. Plus a new script; Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany and J.K. Rowling. As stated, I also read most of this year’s issues of Analog Science Fiction and Fact (nearly done with November now) and have also read an issue of Asimov’s and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I have also read two other novellas published this year: Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold, and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. Now that the year is done, I’ll probably find myself rushing to read more Novellas and short fiction before my Hugo nominations for this year are due. If anyone has read any really amazing works of science fiction or fantasy published this year, then don’t hesitate to give me some recommendations.

I’m a bit better prepared for reading new books this year. So far, I have eight 2017 novels and two novellas on my to-read list. Their release dates are in my journal and this time, I’m going to try to get them read as soon as I can. Last year there were so many books I wanted to read but then missed or forgot about. I’ll make a post in a few days about the books I’m looking forward to this year in a few days.

So enough about my reading for now. Let’s talk about my writing. I haven’t really been saying much about what I’m working on lately. Part of the reason is because I’ve been working on this novel for about three years and this year, I hit the reset button on it for the second time. This second reset changed everything about the story, and it’s always felt weird talking about a story that might change again at any time. But now I’ve got over 70,000 words of this new version of the novel done, and I am certain this is how the story is going to go. The novel I’m working on is called Beyond the Fence and I am so near the end. Well, the end of the first draft. Of the first book. I now know enough about what I’m doing with this story, that I’ll make a post about it within the next few days.

Beyond the Fence isn’t the only project I’ve been working on. I have a novella that is almost ready to be shared with the world, but I’m trying to get an extra pair of eyes to go over it before I unleash it on the public. I also have dozens of ideas for short stories, but with the way Beyond the Fence is taking up my time, it’ll be a while before they get written.

I also wrote a novel in 2015, which is finished, but not quite ready to share yet. I’m currently combing through it and fixing some grammar issues. The title has changed from Jerry’s Story, to Unresolved, and now back to Jerry’s Story. At the moment though, I’m thinking of making the title Memoir of a Man out of Time and credit Jeremiah James Vaughn (the story’s protagonist and narrator) as the author. I’ll make a more detailed post about this book later.

My partner has also been working on a science fiction themed table-top RPG called Orion’s End, and I’ve been helping with the world-building. This is an extremely fun project that’ll continue to keep me busy this year.

So, that’s what I did last year. I read a lot of books, did a lot of writing, and have really enjoyed my first year of blogging. This year, I’m going to try to diversify my blog. I’ll still post regular reviews, but I hope to also write more about my writing, and now that I have Goodreads figured out, I may join some groups and complete some reading challenges. I have big plans for this blog in 2017, and I hope you all stick around.

~Lauren

 

 

Advertisements

My Favourite Modes of Interstellar Travel

I apologise for the lack of reviews, and for the lack of content in general. I’ve been reading a lot of shorter fiction lately, and if I stopped to write a review after every story I wouldn’t have any time to read. I’ve also been working on a novel, which has been taking up most of my attention. I’ll probably talk more about that later in the month. I’ve also failed miserably at raising my tadpole, but the less said about that the better. 😦

 

For now, let’s just sit back and talk about the trope that makes a lot of our favourite science fiction possible. Yes, I am talking about that impossible piece of technology that is used in all the space operas, and that gets a pass in harder science stories despite rarely being explained.

I’m talking about faster than light travel.

Faster than light travel, and the interplanetary community that would form as a result. Think Space Opera of the grandest scale. Luke Skywalker flying from Hoth to Dagobah with little preparation and only R2D2 as crew. At the moment, that’s pure fantasy. In fact, it is quite possible that FTL travel is impossible, and I’ll make that assumption for the rest of the article. However, this dream is more about the interstellar civilization than actually travelling really fast. If we don’t destroy ourselves, settlements outside the solar system could be possible.

The Kepler telescope has identified thousands of exoplants, a handful of which could be capable of supporting life. One of these planets is Kepler-452b, which has been dubbed ‘Earth 2.0’ and ‘Earth’s bigger, older cousin’. Kepler-452b is so far the most Earthlike planet we’ve found, but unfortunately it is 1,400 light years away.

In August 2016, NASA found a planet orbiting our closest stellar neighbour, Proxima Centauri. The discovery of this planet – dubbed Proxima Centauri b – has caused a lot of excitement, since it is in the habitable zone of its star and there is speculation it could be an ocean planet. However, it’s too early to get our hopes on this planet yet. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, and P.C b orbits it every 11 days. Such planets are usually tidally locked, presenting the same face to their sun all the time. We just don’t know if life could thrive on such planets. There are also worries that the planet might not have a strong enough magnetic field to prevent its atmosphere from being blown away. There are a number of other problems, but also a lot of uncertainty. Hey, maybe it is a cosy ocean world we can settle on. Don’t get sad if it isn’t though; the fact that there are planets nearby, and very Earthlike planets out there is encouraging. Though even if we find a new Earth, we still have to get there.

This is where organisations like 100 Year Starship come in. 100YSS is dedicated to making Human Interstellar travel a reality within the next 100 years. They partner with a range of researchers and groups to tackle the problems of such travel, everything from propulsion systems to maintaining bone density in low gravity. Elon Musk has also announced a plan to colonise Mars, and NASA has recently been given the task of getting Humans on the red planet.

It seems that we’re on our way to reaching the stars. But it’s going to take a long time until we’ve spread across the galaxy, and without being able to travel faster than light, visiting other planets in our interstellar civilisation won’t be feasible. For the small minority of people that do leave their home planet, it’ll be a one-way trip. Depending on the method of travel, it may even take up most of the passenger’s life.

Common ways people travel between the stars in science fiction without FTL travel include on slow generation ships (As in Universe by Robert Heinlein or Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson), on ships travelling fast enough to be effected by time dilation (Tau Zero by Poul Anderson, The Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card), through some sort of gates/wormholes (the Honor Harrington series by David Weber), and in suspended animation (2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, Lost in Space). All three options are theoretically possible, and are being researched. They also make really good stories; I bet you can think of many more examples of each technology apart from the ones I listed.

But standard use of these technologies doesn’t appeal to me. I want to be able to casually go and visit another planet like they do on Star Trek; none of these technologies make interstellar travel convenient enough for me. A generation ship? That’s out for pretty self-explanatory reasons. Time Dilation? Well yes, I could visit many planets that way, but if time goes by faster for those I leave behind, that would hardly make such a trip an everyday thing. Very few people would travel this way, since by the time they returned home everyone they ever knew or loved would be dead. Wormholes would also be impractical, since we’d only be able to travel where the wormholes are. So, probably a pretty long ride on a spaceship to the gate. And suspended animation? Would have the same problems as time dilation in terms of everyone outside the ship ageing, but also it seems like a pretty extreme and risky medical procedure. There just isn’t any way travelling on a space ship in suspended animation could be a common-place, casual way to travel.

Or is it?lockstep2

Let’s talk about Lockstep, by Karl Schroeder. I read this novel as it was serialised in Analog, and each month I eagerly awaited the next instalment. The story is about Toby McGonigal, a seventeen-year-old settler in the Kuiper Belt who goes out in a ship with suspended animation beds and gets lost in space for 14,000 years.

He wakes up to a galactic civilization that has found a way to make travel over great distances possible and relatively simple using suspended animation technology. In this setting, if you jump on a spaceship and go to sleep for the thirty years or so it takes to get to the next planet, then your friends and family will still be there when you get back. How? Because in this empire, everyone goes into a state of suspended animation at the same time.

So here’s how it works. Everyone wakes up from suspended animation at the same time. You go about living your lives like normal for the next month, and then at the end of the month everyone goes back under for thirty years. Then wake up again, feeling like it has just been overnight, and repeat. This has numerous benefits to the population of this empire, since most planets in the story are small and have limited resources. While the population sleeps, robots can manage the world, replenishing the food and energy resources the Humans will need for their next waking month.

The other advantage, and the one most interesting to us, is that when different planets co-ordinate their sleep cycles, travel between them takes just a couple of months for everyone involved. If you want to go to another planet, then at the end of the month you just hop on a ship, and go to sleep. Everyone at home and at your destination will be asleep while you are. Let’s say it takes twenty years to get to your destination; then once you get there you remain in suspended animation orbiting the planet until everyone else wakes up. It’ll feel to you – and everyone else – like an overnight trip. Then you do what you came to do, and at the end of the month you get back on your ship and go home (or go on to another planet). A forty-year journey, and to everyone involved it seems like you have been gone only a month.

There are a few complications with this system. The first is getting everyone to agree on the same sleep schedule. In Lockstep, not every planet is on the same schedule. And even on the same planet, you may have communities with different schedules. Depending on how long you sleep for, you could travel the galaxy but never get a chance to meet your neighbours. There’s also the matter that this empire is ruled by a tyrant… but if we were to ever implement the Lockstep system in real life, hopefully we could do better.

So, by using suspended animation and a Lockstep system, we could get an interconnected Interstellar civilisation where the average person could travel between the stars. If we can agree on a sleep schedule. And if the technology is actually possible.

There have been some reports of humans experiencing a state similar to hibernation, such as that of Anna Bagenholm. There have also been promising results in experiments done at the University of Pittsburgh, where in 2000 they were able to put pigs in suspended animation and revive them by draining the blood and replacing it with a low temperature solution. Apparently, they were ‘mostly free’ of brain damage. In 2014 surgeons received permission to begin trialling this procedure on humans with fatal gunshot or knife wounds. A year later, I haven’t been able to find any information of how that’s going. Even if the trial succeeds, we must keep in mind that the technique is only designed to keep patients suspended for a few hours while their wounds are treated. Keeping a person under for years at a time is still a long way off. Still more likely to happen than FTL travel, but not for a long time.

So, Schroeder’s Lockstep system is one possible way for us to have a civilization capable of hosting real life space operas. But you know what? I’m pretty lazy sometimes. Like, really lazy. Can you imagine all the arrangements that would be needed for an interstellar trip with this technology? You’d need to buy a ticket, arrange a months’ worth of accommodation on the destination planet, which should be totally fun given how long it’ll take information to get there and back. Probably be insurance stuff to sign as well. Surely there has to be an even easier way to travel in an interconnected interstellar civilization?

What about teleporters? Well, I think before we even consider the technology there, we need to figure out how we feel about the teletransportation paradox. I don’t really want to talk about that here at the moment.

So let’s go back and look at wormholes again shall we?

I’m not going to go too in-depth on what a wormhole is, partly because physics isn’t my strong suit, and partly because I’m going to assume most people reading this have encountered wormholes in fiction before. Also, I’ve been rambling on for pretty long already. Let’s just say that general relativity equations have valid solutions that allow wormholes – some of which could be traversable – but that the existence of space-time wormholes has not been proven.

We have however been able to create a different type of wormhole. In 2015, scientists created a ‘wormhole’ that made a magnetic field transmit from one point in space to another, without being detected en route. This technology has interesting implications for making invisibility a possibility, but doesn’t help us explore the galaxy. At the moment we have no idea how to create a traversable wormhole, or even if such an undertaking would be possible.

In fiction though, it’s a different story.padoras-star

In Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton, two college students in a rundown lab manage to create a wormhole, which they then use to gatecrash the historic first Mars landing. From there, we get an eight book series about an interstellar commonwealth connected by wormholes. Unlike most series, these wormhole gates aren’t put in space, and spaceships are few and far between. Instead, wormholes are on the surface of the various planets, and the most common way to travel through them is via train. In this setting, you go to a train station, get on, then after going through a tunnel you’re on a new planet. Simple. People in the Commonwealth often commute between planets. The other week I took a train to Sydney; That took almost two hours. If I lived near an interplanetary train station in the Commonwealth, I could catch a train and end up on another world in less time than it currently takes me to get to my closest big city.

This is my favourite method of interstellar travel. Imagine being able to travel to so many strange and new planets so easily. It’s also a method of travel that would be relatively cheap, easy, safe, and widespread enough for everyone to make use of. It helps that Hamilton created a huge variety of amazing worlds for his characters to catch the train to. Hopefully we’ll find just as many wonderful worlds once we get to exploring the universe. If we don’t, then there are other advantages of having wormhole trains. Hamilton’s books have an express loop train that thanks to the wormhole tunnels can travel to a number of major cities on Earth every ten minutes. Imagine how much easier that would make your next holiday?

As much as I want to be able to take a train to another planet, I do understand that at the moment it’s almost as unobtainable as a Millennium Falcon. But damn, that would be one hell of a way to open up the galaxy.

I suppose there is one other question that needs to be asked. When railroads and telegraphs first appeared, they effectively made the world smaller. One popular term at the time was ‘the annihilation of space and time’.  Don’t believe me? Next time you order something online from overseas, think about how long it would take for it to arrive if you had been living before the industrial revolution. Unless you walk everywhere, the world is much more accessible, and for practical purposes smaller than it was for most of history. So I have one question to leave you with today. If we do gain the ability to casually travel between the stars, would that make the universe smaller?

Could our universe ever be considered small?

What a Time to be a Potter Fan

What a Time to be a Potter Fan14002449_10154587281983816_991037888_o

Includes Review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Like a lot of kids in the late nineties, my parents got me the Harry Potter books to encourage me to read. Mission successful I say; I love reading now, and J.k Rowling has been a big influence on my writing. Of course this wasn’t the only series I was reading at the time, nor the only series that shaped my reading tastes (thanks Animorphs), but it has been one of the biggest influences in my life. And I’m not the only one that has been inspired by the world of Harry Potter. Let’s look at some stats shall we?

It took Rowling six years to write Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The manuscript was turned down by twelve different publishers, and when Bloomsbury did publish the book, the initial run was only 500 books. It’s amazing to think that there was a time when Harry Potter was such a small brand. I mean, obviously it had to have been, but with hindsight the lack of interest is hard to fathom. It is hard for me to imagine Harry Potter as just being another somewhat popular children’s book, rather than the juggernaut it has become.

And a juggernaut it is. The franchise has sold over 450 million books, making it the best-selling book series of all time. The entire Potter franchise is worth an estimated 15 billion dollars, and has been translated into 73 different languages. There is even a tribute at King’s Cross Station.

Whilst the books are intended for children, myself and a lot of other adults also like them. Is this just because of nostalgia? Or do people want to read kids’ books and play Pokémon rather than grow up? I think it’s worth talking about that last assumption, because it assumes that there is a problem with adults and children sharing the same interests. Whilst there are certainly books and shows designed exclusively for either children or adults (such as Playschool and Pulp Fiction), in most things there is overlap. Besides, whilst the first two Potter books definitely felt like whimsical children stories, the series matures with its characters and there is a lot there for an adult to like.

Rant aside, I think the point is made very clear that Pottermania isn’t going anywhere. It’s also hard for me to say much about the series that you haven’t heard before, since nearly everyone has read the books or at least seen the movies. What more can be said about one of the greatest franchises of all time? Well, fortunately there is a lot of new Potter related material out now for us to discuss. Let’s start with Cursed Child.

13987259_10154587300548816_57287240_oReview: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

By Jack Thorne (script).  J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany (story)

Score: N/A

I’m not going to give this script a rating, because that would be unfair. A play after all is more than just its script, and having not seen the play I don’t think I’ve really got the proper Cursed Child experience, so I’ll refrain from making a decisive judgement.

I will say though that I liked the script. I’m not as crazy over it as I am about the novels, and there are flaws, but it’s okay. Cursed Child didn’t have the same vibe to it as the other books in the series. The magic and the world-building and even a lot of the themes from the main series are put aside for a character driven drama. It also doesn’t seem to have as much depth. Ron is almost a joke character, and a lot of parts in the plot are a bit simple. I can see why some people are disappointed in Cursed Child as a continuation of the Harry Potter story. Though, I should point out that this story isn’t focusing on the same things Harry had to go through. The main draw of the play is the strained relationship between Harry and his son Albus. Albus isn’t popular, isn’t anything like his father, and resents his father for being Harry Potter and the expectations that placed on Albus. Seems like a believable reason for a teenager to have a chip on their shoulder.

The highlight of the book for me though was Scorpius Malfoy. Apparently the actor who plays him is also getting a lot of praise; shame I can’t see the play. Not only is Scorpius the anti-Draco, but his backstory and personality are interesting and well executed. Like Albus, he is unpopular, partly due to rumours about his parentage, partly because he is a big nerd.

One criticism that Cursed Child drew is that it feels like Harry Potter Fanfiction. I got that vibe at times, but in Cursed Child’s defence there is a lot of fanfiction out there. Fanfiction.net has accumulated over 747,000 entries for Harry Potter fanfics, many of which continue the story. I think most plot points revolving around Albus and Scorpius would have been done in fanfiction at least once before.  Also, there seems to be a deliberate attempt at fanservice at times – not the sexy type – most of which I enjoyed. However, the big reveal at the end uses a Harry Potter fanfic plot element that I find extremely unrealistic. More so because for it to be plausible, it’d need to be foreshadowed pretty explicitly in the main books. I don’t like this particular element in fanfiction, and I certainly don’t like it in cannon.

In short, I did like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Though as I said, it has flaws. It’s also hard to continue on a story that ended so well in Deathly Hallows. Still, it’s a fun little story, that takes an interesting look at the future for our beloved characters. I’d totally go see it if I could. Just don’t come into this story expecting an in-depth saga like in the books.  

Magical Beasts Everywhere!

fantastic beasts

 

Of course, Cursed Child is not the only new addition to the Wizarding World. On November 18, the new movie Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them will be released. This movie is looking awesome. Don’t believe me? Here, watch some trailers.

Trailer #1

Comic-Con Trailer

Fantastic Beasts is loosely based on a spin-off book by Rowling of the same name. Fantastic Beast the book however is presented as a copy of Harry’s own school textbook. The book is a simple bestiary however, not a tale of Newt Scamander’s adventures in New York.

The movie Fantastic Beasts is set in 1926 New York, so no mention of Harry Potter or Voldemort here. Instead we see how the Wizarding World operates in a different time and place. I for one am excited to see this world explored more in-depth. As well as the fantastic worldbuilding this movie promises to bring, it also appears we’ll get the amazing costumes and special effects we’ve come to expect from a Harry Potter movie.

One of the main characters in the movie is a muggle (or No-Maj as they are known in America), a development that I am really looking forward to. Whilst the main books have a great anti-discrimination message, I felt that the point was slightly undermined by how horrible most of the muggles in the story were. The only re-occurring muggle characters we see are the Dursley’s, who I find I hate even more as an adult than I did as a kid. Hermione’s parents are rarely seen in the series. Therefore, the implication of the trailers that Newt has a muggle friend/sidekick is a big plus for me. To make this even more interesting, information Rowling released on Pottermore reveals that at the time the movie is set, legislation called Rappaport’s Law was in place. Rappaport’s Law made it illegal for wizards and witches to interact with muggles more than needed to perform daily activities. The penalties for befriending or marrying muggles were harsh.

Pottermore Has Stuff Too

Now might be a good time to mention Pottermore. Rowling has written four pieces on the history of magic in North America, which are interesting, though somewhat brief. The reliance on Native American clichés and the claim that some real witches were killed during the Salem Witch Trials are a bit problematic, but overall the pieces give an interesting context for Fantastic Beasts. If you haven’t read them yet, you can read them here.

Pottermore has another new gem. The history of Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the American magical school, was put up recently. (read it here) As well as providing more context for Fantastic Beasts, this story is also interesting in its own right. I feel it builds onto the Wizarding World we know from the main books, and the characters mentioned here were quite interesting.

 

And now I am out of space, and struggling to find something to say about this amazing world that hasn’t been said a million times before. I’ll just end this with one more bit of good news. It turns out that Fantastic Beasts is the first movie in a new trilogy. We can rest assured that while Harry Potter’s story may be over, his world isn’t going away anytime soon.

~ Lauren

 

 

 

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.

sunandmoonstarters
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.

On a Lovecraft Binge

On a Lovecraft Binge

H._P._Lovecraft,_June_1934
H.P. Lovecraft

I wasn’t quite sure what I felt like reading next, so I opened my Kindle and went browsing through my copy of The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft. I read Rats in the Wall, Shadow Out of Time, and Shadow Over Innsmouth one after the other. Since Lovecraft is a horror writer, I wasn’t really planning on reviewing any of his work. However I found Shadow Out Of Time to be a very interesting piece of SF, and figured if I was going to review it I may as well talk about the other stories I read, and by extension about Lovecraft.

Okay, before I get into any discussion on the quality of Lovecraft’s work. I should probably start with the most obvious negative in his stories. Lovecraft was a racist, and he included a lot of racist descriptions and themes in his stories. The cultist in The Call of Cthulhu, the depiction of the African-American boxer Buck Robinson in Herbert West – Reanimator, and the name of the black cat in Rats in the Wall all come to mind straight away.

Many stories also paint native peoples as superstitious savages – though, this is more bearable to modern audiences since in the context of the stories the ‘superstitious savages’ are usually right, such as in the case of Shadow out of Time.

And don’t get me started on his personal letters, or a poem written in 1912 called On the Creation of Niggers. Oh yeah, his Jewish wife also divorced him after getting sick of his anti-Semitic rants. I can understand the desire to play down Lovecraft’s views. After all, no-one wants to admit that a raging racist is one of their idols. However, the problem with dead historical figures is that we have to take them as they were; their flaws as well as their talent.

So, is Lovecraft’s racism going to be a barrier to enjoying his work? Well, that depends on who you are and how much such things effect you. Being white, I have the privilege to just shrug it off; it isn’t directed at me. Also, Lovecraft is dead and his works are in the public domain, so it’s not like buying his books is supporting racism.

It also depends on the story itself. Some have very mild themes that can simply be read as part of the characterisation (most stories are set in the 20s and 30s). There are also stories that have no racist elements at all, such as at the Mountains of Madness. Then there are stories like The Horror at Red Hook that are irredeemably racist. If you can divorce the stories from Lovecraft’s views but wish to read his work without coming across anything too offensive, I suggest reading some reviews of individual stories beforehand.

If you are willing to divorce the stories from the author, you are in for a treat. Lovecraft was a genius and a master worldbuilder. His works have also had a massive influence on today’s culture. After all, you’ve heard of Cthulhu before.

250px-Eternal_Darkness_boxMy first encounter with Lovecraft’s influence was around 2002, when I brought the game Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for my Gamecube. Eternal Darkness is a horror action-adventure game by Silicon Knights, and its main draw cards are a story spanning 2000 years and 12 playable characters, as well as a sanity meter mechanic. I loved the story this game told of ancient elder gods and monsters, and the conspiracy around them. I have fond memories of inviting my friend for a sleepover after school and we’d play this game all night. Reading Rats in the Wall reminded me so much of this game. Hard to say why without revelling spoilers, but it was amazing seeing where one of my favourite games got its inspiration.

CthulhuFluxx

There are many other video games out there based on Lovecraft’s work and the Cthulhu Mythos, such as Alone in the Dark. Other games ranging from Scibblenauts to Call of Duty III: Black Ops also feature reference to the Mythos. There is also a role playing game called Call of Cthulhu and many popular board games such as Chez Geek, Gloom, Munchkin and Fluxx all have Cthulhu themed expansions. Dungeon and Dragons also released a chapter featuring Cthulhu in the 80s. Cthulhu references have also popped up in South Park, and in a few Metallica songs. There is even a Lovecraft Ezine (https://lovecraftzine.com/magazine/ ). No matter what your feelings are on the man, his work has had a massive impact on pop culture.

If you value characterization and dialog in stories, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There is hardly any dialog throughout Lovecraft’s entire body of work, and so far every story I’ve read has been written as a confessional with very little to differentiate each narrator.

63-1
At the Mountains of Madness was serialised in Astounding Stories, starting in the Feb 1936 issue.

If however you value crazy ideas and eloquent description, then you will be very pleased with Lovecraft. At the Mountains of Madness was my first Lovecraft story, and I loved the history of this ancient Antarctic city and its alien inhabitants. I also loved the description of the Great Race and their city in Shadow Out of Time. Lovecraft excelled in cosmic horror; this idea that we were insignificant and couldn’t even comprehend the beings in this universe who held the real power. These horror stories are not about the blood or the gore, but about the unknown and unknowable. Our reality is just a thin layer over a deeper, richer reality that we not only cannot comprehend, but we will go crazy if we try.

All in all, really fun stuff. And quite scary too. In fact, many people credit Lovecraft with paving the way for all modern writers of horror.

I still think Koji Suzuki’s Ring and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary are the scariest books I’ve read (Yes, I know about The Shining.) Whilst nothing Lovecraft wrote scares me as much or in the same way as those books, there is something quite unnerving about the suggestion of human helplessness, and Lovecraft’s writing really sells the idea. He is great at creating atmosphere and building tension; especially in Shadow Over Innsmouth. These aren’t your standard campfire ghost stories; but they are creepy, entertaining, and beautifully written.

So, would I recommend people go out and start reading more Lovecraft? Well, I do, but considering how his views creep into so many of his stories, I do so with caution. In the end though, whether others should find something too offensive or not isn’t really something I can make a call on. What I can say is that the Cthulhu Mythos are pretty awesome, and if cosmic horror sounds interesting to you, go check out this messed up universe of Lovecraft’s; whether it be his actual stories, or some of the many other stories and games inspired by them.

But be careful about delving too deep; you may find things that mankind was not meant to know.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!