A little late on this post. I clearly spent too much time this weekend playing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and not enough time on this week’s post or on my game prep. I spend a lot of time thinking about my game prep, but when sit down to actually do it, I just end up with more questions, more things on the to-do list. I’m starting to think it’s a similar issue to self-criticism and art making. Nothing is ever good enough. But it’s also kind of worse because I’ve never really made art much with other people in mind, but my games are completely for the purposes of social activity with other people (the players, my friends). So there’s more pressure to make the game interesting and entertaining than there is when I made a comic and didn’t have much concerns if anyone liked it or not (mostly not it turned out). I’ve also never figured out the best way to go about game prep, to organize notes, maps, and ideas, to make everything available in a way that I can find it when I need it during the game itself (rather than later realizing I forgot something important because it was written somewhere I didn’t look at the right moment). So here are some quick thoughts on current reading and viewing. As usual I’m also in process on a few things, like the new Savage Sword of Conan omnibus, Gene Wolfe’s The Shadow of the Torturer, and Mobile Suit Gundam: Origin.
Season of Storms by Andrzej Sapkowski (Gollancz, 2019)
This is the last book of the Witcher series, but one that oddly straddles the series’ format and timeline. While it is the last book written, it takes place somewhere before the 5 novel sequence that made up the previous volumes and somewhere in between the various short stories that make up the first two volumes. It is also almost a hybrid of those two groups in that it is formatted and chronological organized like a novel, but reads much like short stories held together more by their sequential events than any overarching plot or theme. In a way it is a picaresque and much like some kind of D&D campaign. Geralt (the eponymous Witcher) arrives at a time and then events happen and he gets hired for jobs, travels around, finds and loses treasure, and fights monsters (and men). It is almost resolutely negative, this is not a case where the hero really triumphs and many situations are left worse than they were before. Like many of the Witcher narratives, there is the contrast between this single monster hunter outcast trying to earn his living and maybe do some good and the large systems that control the society and the world around him, guilds and kingdoms and empires and even nature. In the end the lone hero is as much trampled as triumphant. A worthwhile read as a coda to the rest of the series, and in no ways unexpected or a surprise in relation to the preceding books.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Thunderbolt v.1-10 by Yasuo Ohtagaki, et al. (Viz, 2016-2019)
A currently ongoing manga series in the Gundam universe. This one starts out as a localized part of the war between two sets of forces, but then shifts to post war, where three sets of forces continue to fight. Like the other Gundam I’ve read/seen this is a manga filled with giant robots battling each other both for the purposes of selling giant robot merchandise and as an anti-war message, an interesting juxtaposition. This one does a better job humanizing all the sides of the fighting than the anime I watched the other month, the story spends more time with different characters, gaining sympathy for them, while also showing how, in general, the leaders are pretty shitty. There’s a certain anti-authoritarian streak to these stories, though it never seems to play out in the story to much effect. It’s like the reader can see how shitty all the leaders are, but the characters don’t (or at least not enough). Even in this story as some of the protagonists apparently desert their side to join a religious cult because of how their leaders have acted, the cult itself is still ruled by a single powerful leader. We’ll see how that plays out as the story continues (In Japan, this is up to 13 volumes I think, and 10 is the most recent out in English). This is also the first Gundam I’m reading that brings in the “New Types”, some kind of psychic humans. I’m not familiar with the lore, but I do remember seeing the glossy issues of New Type magazine when I was younger that had these bright cell animation covers and Japanese text that seemed to possess some otherworldly comics secrets but really was just about selling more stuff.
In the antiwar theme, this one showcases soldiers who lost limbs in the fighting, refugees left without homes (both in space and on Earth), and a plot that shows even when the war ends it doesn’t really end. The “good guy” protagonist (at least I think he’s supposed to be read that way to start with) in this series is perhaps the most annoying of the characters, and the story has a number of interesting female character that keep getting sidelined to the detriment of the story. And then of course we have the male protagonists who keep wanting to save said female characters. I’m hoping those narrative threads don’t end up resolved in any traditional manner.
The art in this series is pretty slick, though I still have issues at times telling what the hell is going on in some of the combat scenes, but I also do tend to find them the least interesting parts of the story, especially if the characters involved in the combat are not fleshed out enough. When the two main protagonists fight it’s interesting and dramatic, when the protagonists fights some random dude just introduced to the story (or not introduced at all) it’s mostly just going through the motions.
I noticed in the latter volumes that the credits started including individuals in the studio working on the manga rather than just the named manga-ka. I don’t feel like that’s something I see much in manga. All those nameless assistants that are subsumed under the idea that one person is pumping out volumes and volumes of manga on a steady basis.
Star Trek Discovery Season 2 (CBS All Access, 2019)
This latest Star Trek series just ended its second season on a… well… note that felt off. I’ve enjoyed both seasons of this show, but I think it’s got a few problems. Not a problem are the special effects or, especially, the actors. Lots of actors doing really good work in this show, and the visual design of everything is impressive. On the downside I think this show takes too much from the recent (and terrible) Star Trek movies rather than the better of the tv series, especially too much focus on action and (especially in the last ep) long space battles. Just because the tech is there to make cool looking space battles doesn’t mean we need to see a lot of space battles. The overreliance on special effects is a bane to many a narrative.
One aspect that is not handled as well in relation to the older series is the season long big story arc. Partially (I suspect) because of the shorter episode number than the older series (13 instead of 22 or 24), the big story arc ends up taking up the majority of the attention. Older series tended up work on multiple storylines each episode, often an a, b, and c story. So the “a” story would be the primary plot of the episode (usually in standalone episodes, but in my favorite Deep Space 9 it was often part of a big story arc), the “b” story would be some related story about one or two of the characters, and then the “c” story would just be some background thing going on for one of the other characters often completely unrelated to the larger stories going on. This allowed the big stories to breath a bit and develop over time, but also allowed you to get to know the various characters (and Star Trek always has a lot of characters).
Discovery has tended towards episode plots which are almost always part of the big story arc with an occasional b plot about one of the characters. This makes for a series that is very focused on the big events and the larger storyline, but one where even by season 2 I still didn’t know the names of some of the secondary characters who had been appearing in pretty much every episode. The worst of it was in this second season where the writers finally gave us some background on one of the secondary characters only to have them get killed off by the end of the episode. That felt like a cheap trick and a failure of long term planning (we could have gotten more info on that character across more episodes and it would have made their death feel more emotional). This series makes a show of having a diverse cast, but then mostly ignores them.
The second season also shows the writers seeming to get really wrapped up in the issue of the Star Trek universe continuity. Even in the first season, they tied the show to existing characters and then spend a long time teasing that out and then explaining away the metafictional mystery of how these unexpected changes to the continuity were part of the continuity. It was like, some kind of awful superhero crossover, and yes, they relied on the two tired tricks far too heavily: alternate realities and time travel.
Tying the protagonist of this series, Michael Burnham, to Spock from the original series felt more like continuity porn and creating something for the fans to talk and complain about than for any reason that was required in the plot. Her storyline and background would have worked just as well outside the context of the existing characters, and probably could have been more interesting by not being tied those characters and previous representations and fan expectations. Personally, I just don’t care about that stuff, I don’t care how the Enterprise in Discovery related to the Enterprise from the original tv series, just give me a show that’s worth watching on its own. There’s a certain necessity of connection because it IS a Star Trek series set in the universe of the other series (and not like those awful movies set in some kind of alternate… timeline? universe?), but the main arc of season two was a little too much.
One interesting thing they did this season, was create a few “Short Treks” in the lead up to the new episodes. They were brief little vignettes that stood on their own, though one of them had a mysterious relation to the timeline of the show. As the actual season progressed 2 of the vignettes were tied into the episodes, and it became clearer how the third, mysterious one theoretically fit in with the ever important time travel in the season.
That all came off sounding more negative than I really felt about the series, I think. Probably, it was my dissatisfaction with that season final which ended up coloring my impression of the whole. Though I do really miss all those b and c plotlines that always made Star Trek so much more interesting.