I'm not a particularly voracious reader of fiction. Most of my reading is in the form of books and magazines about science or history. But I do try to squeeze in a novel here and there -- usually something from the canon of classics. I never write about them on this blog because I doubt I have anything of value to say about them. Besides, being predominantly a video game writer means that I lack the vocabulary for expressing critical opinions of non-interactive media. I struggle to get by with the reviews of movies and TV shows that I write.

However, I read a rather unique novel over the summer that I do feel I can discuss. In large part, my willingness to talk about this particular novel comes from the fact that this particular novel actually has an interactive element to it that makes some of my video game criticism lingua more applicable. The novel in question is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, published by Pantheon Books in 2000.

I was introduced to this book by a YouTube video from Noah Caldwell-Gervais about the 2019 Blair Witch game on the XBox. Towards the end of the video, he talks about the conclusion of the Blair Witch game, which involves surreal, looping hallways. He goes on to talk about the recent fad of looping hallways, which has been seen in games ranging from Blair Witch to Layers of Fear to P.T.. He then talks about a novel which may have served as an inspiration for these games, and which attempts to simulate the feeling of being lost in a corridor (and the ensuing madness that it brings on) through the structure and organization of the text itself. This piqued my interest, and I promptly hopped onto Amazon and ordered a copy of the book. I was going to have a lot of downtime during the stay-at-home lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and needed something to help kill the time.

I was inspired to read House of Leaves after watching Noah Caldwell-Gervais' critique of Blair Witch.

Indeed, I ended up enjoying House of Leaves, which has become a sort of paradigm shift for me in terms of how the written word can engage the reader. For me, House of Leaves is a watershed work of literature, in much the same way that Demon's Souls was a watershed video game. House of Leaves is my first encounter with true "ergodic text" (unless you want to count the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books I read as a child) and has redefined (for me) how a textual work (such as a book) can go about engaging its audience, and how it can tell a story in a more interactive manner than other peers in the respective media.

It's impossible to discuss this book and its merits without going into spoiler territory. As such, there will be some minor or moderate spoilers in this review. I'll try to keep them as light as possible, but consider yourself warned.

Lost in the pages

House of Leaves employs several framing devices to tell multiple narratives simultaneously. At the center is a documentary movie, called The Navidson Record about a family (named the Navidsons) exploring a supernatural house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and which regularly changes its interior size and geometry in increasingly impossible ways. This movie is being reviewed and researched by a third party named Zampanò, who is writing a book about the documentary in the hopes of determining if the documentary depicts a real supernatural phenomena, or if it is the work of Hollywood trickery. Zampanò dies while working on this book, and his research is recovered by a third party named Johnny Truant, who attempts to piece together Zampanò's research and finish his work. Both Zampanò and Johnny become increasingly obsessed with The Navidson Record, and eventually go mad.

To further obfuscate the work, the introduction establishes that the original version of the work was a series of scattered pages, photographs, video clips, and audio recordings that were passed around on paper, VHS, and cassette tapes before being posted piecemeal to internet message boards in the mid-to-late 90's. The scattered documents were eventually collected by a book publisher and edited together into a single published work, which is implied to be the novel that you are holding in your hand.

Danielewski employs multiple framing devices to tell between 2 and 4 concurrent narratives.

Zampanò transcribed the events of the film into text, along with his own interpretations and commentary. Then Johnny reviewed Zampanò's notes, and added his own interpretations and commentary on top Zampanò's commentaries, while also maintaining a journal of his daily life (and decline in sanity).

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Having dislocated my shoulder a few weeks ago, I haven't been doing much video gaming. I can do some PC gaming on my laptop using my trackball mouse and wireless keyboard (and plan on having a new Civilization VI strategy published real soon), and I also finally started playing Breath of the Wild on the Switch, since the Switch controller is much more comfortable to use with my arm in a sling. I haven't touched the PS4 since the dislocation. I've also been watching a lot more TV and movies.

One such television show has been Netflix's new The Witcher TV series, based on the novels that inspired the video game series of the same name. The Witcher III is a fantastic game that I've come to adore due to its exceptionally well-written and thoughtful quests. But I never played the first two games in the series, nor read the books. So I was looking forward to the TV show hopefully filling me in on more of the backstory and history of these characters and this world.

I just wish that I was having an easier time following along with what the heck is going on in this show, as its plotting and structure seems to be rather muddled.

I'm not even talking about the large, big-picture structure of the show. I followed along just fine with the show jumping back and forth between Ciri's escape from the Nilfgardian invasion of Cintra, and the travels of Geralt that happened in the 15 or so years leading up that invasion. It took me a few episodes to wrap my head around it, but I'm fine with it.

No, what's confusing me is the minute-to-minute plotting and character motivations. There have been numerous times during these eight episodes that I just kind of threw my hands up and asked aloud "what is going on here?". Why are these characters doing what they are doing? And why do so many conversations feel like they are made up of non sequiturs? There's going to be some light spoilers here, so if you haven't watched the show yet, you can maybe skip the next two or three paragraphs.

I found myself very confused as to why certain things were happening.

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George R.R. Martin has yet to finish writing the book series.

Let HBO's Game of Thrones series stand as a testament to why companies should not adapt works for television or movies until after that work is actually complete. Game of Thrones was a huge hit when it premiered, and its early seasons are among the best television in recent memory. However, the last two or three seasons have been ... less good. The writing has become more spotty, characters are behaving more impulsively, the pacing has been rushed, and the whole thing just seems to be less well thought-out.

This could be due, in large part, to the fact that after the fifth or sixth season of the show, showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have advanced beyond the source material. George R. R. Martin has yet to finish writing the final two books in the series -- a process which may still take years! HBO didn't want to wait, and they continued on with the show despite the lack of established source material from which to pull. They've done so with the consent and advice of Martin, who supposedly provided Benioff and Weiss with an overview of what he wanted to write in those final two books, but the end result has been sub-par.

I've written previously about the show's fifth season, which is the last season of the series that I would consider to be "good". That season was criticized for being "slow and boring" by some, and also for using shock value (such as the rape of Sansa by Ramsey Bolton) as a gimmick to keep people interested. However, I thought that the fifth season was tightly unified by its consistent themes of futility and self-destruction, as each of the major players slowly succumbed to their most fundamental impulses and took actions that ended up undercutting their own goals.

Season five had a consistent theme of self-destructive leaders.

Seasons seven and eight, however, have been much less defensible.

Season seven cut the episode count from the usual ten down to only seven, which resulted in the season as a whole feeling rushed and under-developed. Characters began to act more rashly, with little attention paid to building up to those actions. They travel great distances in what seems like no time at all. Plot threads would be left dangling, or would be set up and never paid off.

The Unsullied were left at Casterly Rock with no supplies,
only to show up a few episodes later no worse for wear.

For example, mid-way through the season, the Unsullied Army travels to Casterly Rock to fight the Lannister army, only to find that the Lannisters have abandoned the castle, destroyed the grain reserves, and salted the land. The episode makes a big deal of the fact that the Unsullied are now stuck there with no provisions and no hope of receiving reinforcements or supplies. Then we don't see or hear from them for, like, two episodes, before they suddenly show up again at Dragonstrone no worse for the wear.

Season eight seems to have doubled down on most of these problems. The season has been reduced further to only six episodes, and events are happening with even less build-up or set-up. Scenes are being added for shock value without any rhyme or reason. Characters are behaving out of character, or suddenly having changes of heart at the flip of a switch. Characters who used to be clever are acting like bafoons.

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After reading through my complaints regarding the shrinking scale of the Star Wars film universe, a colleague of mine asked me to preview a novel that he was writing. He also grew up as a Trekker, and he sorely misses the optimistic science fiction that Star Trek represents, as well as the attention to technical and scientific accuracy that is sadly lacking in much of today's science fiction. Popular "science fiction" of today frequently focuses on special effect spectacle to the exclusion of cerebral or thoughtful stories and concepts, but there are still plenty of indie writers and film makers who try to offer more substance over pomp.

In his debut novel, Without Gravity, author David Pax explores an optimistic distant future in which humanity has spread across the stars, living in harmony with our technology and the worlds that we inhabit. It's not a vision of the future without conflict, however. Planet-bound humans are drawn into periodic conflict with a divergent culture of human "Spacers" who spend their entire lives within the confines of their zero-gravity space ships, making them virtually aliens to the rest of humanity.

When the Spacers launch a surprise attack on the mineral-rich frontier world of Tirimba, the citizens must take shelter within the cavernous mines and prevent the Spacers from acquiring the valuable resources that would allow them to build new ships and threaten the heart of human civilization. The Spacers aren't the only threat, as the citizens of Tirimba must also deal with one colleague who's selfish greed puts the entire war effort at risk.

Pax's vision of the future may be exotic, but it's also very grounded. The conflict is one of resources and logistics, as Pax pays diligent respect to the vast scale and distances of intergalactic conflict, and puts strict limits on the capabilities of the warships and technologies. Tirimba is remote, and is only a small piece of a larger conflict that happens mostly beyond the awareness and comprehension of the civilian refugees who remain stranded on the planet. This remoteness creates drama and maintains mystery and intrigue regarding the conflict. The story, after all, focuses on the civilians, and the personal cost that they pay, rather than on the military.

The novel itself is fairly short and a relatively light and easy read. Despite his engineering background and attempts to describe and develop the technologies and society that he has imagined, Pax doesn't drag the novel's pace down with unnecessary techno-babble. You don't need an engineering degree to follow along or understand.

Pax also writes short stories and maintains a blog. He's a friend and colleague of mine, and we share many common interests and perspectives. If you enjoy reading my ramblings, then I invite you to visit his site as well, and to support him and other indie authors who are trying to keep the spirit of science fiction alive.

If you do decide to purchase Without Gravity, use the promo code MEGABEARSFAN at checkout to receive a discount.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

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