The Handmaid’s Tale Presents a Disturbing Dystopian Society

An image of a woman in a red robe and white hat, standing in front of a concrete wall stained with bits of red, probably blood--some of it dripping onto the road. The poster reads, "We will bear no more, A hulu original, The Handmaid's Tale."

Image: Hulu via IMDB

Genre: Dystopia

Synopsis: June used to have a family and a life, until an extremist government took over. They renamed her, and as one of the few remaining fertile women, assigned her to be a Handmaid–given to an elite household for the purpose of bearing children for a commander and his wife. The story proceeds to show us a vicious dystopia where certain people are dehumanized and devalued, stripped away of their freedom and individuality.

Series: One season.

I’ve Watched: The first two episodes.

Verdict: It’s disturbing, and has a power to it–though the content can make it pretty  hard to watch.  

Well, that was uncomfortable.

The material is heavy, and that ends up outweighing every other aspect of the work. I don’t know if the recent dystopia craze has diluted the punch I expect from the genre, or if The Handmaid’s Tale is taking on particularly emotional subject matter. But damn, is this a rough watch. It’s supposed to be, it has to be. But it’s still rough.

I cried three times in the first episode. At several points, I had to stop watching, because I just couldn’t. The only thing that got me through the pilot was sheer willpower–I told myself, if I finished the pilot and found that I couldn’t do it anymore, I could stop. And then I found myself some light, feel-good show to binge on for weeks afterwards, before I could bring myself to try the second episode.

I paused the second episode 30 seconds in, and had to take an hour break before I could keep going, it disturbed me so much. Most scenes are tinged with this emptiness, this sense that the horror of what’s happening is dulled by how commonplace it is–that the characters’ emotions have to recede or it’ll be too much. It’s creepy, how placid the surface tone of the show is.

In contrast, the vague sense of paranoia–that no one can be trusted–is almost a relief. The characters are literally afraid of talking about their lives before this became their reality. It’s like that life isn’t supposed to have been real, like society doesn’t want it to be anything but a dream they can never share with anyone.

And then there’s this scene in the second episode, when the commander issues June an invitation–or what he considers an invitation, though it’s really a command. She’s told to meet with him privately, which is forbidden. In his private rooms, which are forbidden to all women, including his wife. June spends the day terrified of what he might want. Of whether he’ll accuse her of something, whether he’ll want sexual favors she doesn’t want to give. Whether she’ll be in danger.

We’re following June’s perspective, so we enter the scene as unsure of his intentions as she is. Everything he says sounds vaguely threatening, and could easily be a prelude to something awful. The whole scene is slightly creepy, with an uncertainty about whether at any point it’ll cross a line. It’s only when she’s left the room that she can be sure that nothing else will happen. (I have fuzzy memories of reading the book this is based on about a decade ago, which is probably the only reason this scene wasn’t more stressful for me–because I remembered where it would go.)

I don’t know how far I’ll get with this show. I’m probably going to have to take it slow, because it can be an uncomfortable watch. But if someone wants to watch a dystopia that seems to have hit that spot where it’s both personal and horrific for plenty of people–I can’t remember the last time I came across another that’s pulled it off like this.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events has a Charismatic Charm

Genre: Adventure/comedy

Synopsis: Three siblings, the Baudelaires, suddenly find themselves orphans. They’re sent to live with a nearby relative, Count Olaf–who, it turns out, only wants their money. He puts them in poor living conditions, uses them as servants, and abuses them verbally (and once physically). The siblings are left to survive their dreary situation, foil his schemes, and fight for a happier future.

Series: One season. There will be a second season. 

I’ve Watched: The first 4 episodes.

Verdict: Fun to watch, but more because of its style than its character work.

The great strength of this show is its style of storytelling. This is a comedy, but it’s one that relies on a serious and sophisticated tone to highlight how absurd the plot is. The story is defined by the deadpan delivery, in an almost literary tone, of the over-the-top material. This gives it its unique charm, the personality that draws the viewer in.

Because the story is absolutely ridiculous (in that positive, intentional way):

  • The siblings each have improbable skills, and not just for their age. Violet is a gadgeteer who uses a home appliance to lift herself up a piece of fabric. Klaus sways a judge through some philosophical presentation. Sunny uses her teeth to whittle down a key.
  • Count Olaf appears in various, obvious disguises, but only the Baudelaire siblings recognize him. The adult figure with power over their fate keeps falling for Olaf’s ruses, and dismissing the siblings’ concerns.
  • In the background, unexplained spy-shenanigans happen with the intent of keeping the siblings safe–but conveniently fail to keep danger away from them.

For all the humor, the material is thematically serious. The siblings are the ones with the most to lose, and the ones most aware of the risks to themselves. But no one ever takes them seriously. They’re in a nightmare situation where no one will believe that their reality is real.

At times, the story is a little too bleak to be enjoyable. A good example is when the plot of an episode revolved around a child bride situation. 

While I generally liked the story, the style is what makes the experience. There isn’t much else drawing me in. The show doesn’t do deep character work, and for the most part, that wouldn’t fit into this story. Still, while all the characters are portrayed well by their actors, I feel sympathy for them more because of their circumstances than any attachment to these particular people.

The one exception is Monty, the uncle who takes the children in after they escape Olaf’s clutches. In the first four episodes, he was by far the most well-developed character. He displayed a sense of adventure and daring, but also a softer side towards his new charges. Then when dealing with his rival herpetologists, he’d confront them in this ferocious, swashbuckling manner. He was fun, and he showed off different sides of himself. In a story that had been fairly dark up till then, he brought a spark of hope. I was pretty disappointed to see him go, because he added so much to the story.

The show is mostly good, and its charm is worth experiencing. It’s not flawless, and there are still disappointing parts. But overall, I’d call the first half of the season an entertaining experience. And even as the fourth episode closes and the siblings are getting shuffled off to another unknown relative, I’m compelled to find out what happens next. To discover what quirky personality this new guardian will have. 

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Science in Mass Effect: Andromeda

I’m still not done with Mass Effect: Andromeda–I’m about halfway through the game. It might take me some time to get through it, but in the meantime, I wanted to talk about the impression I’ve had of the game so far from a biological/genetics standpoint.

At some point in the game’s production, someone with knowledge about scientific research must have been consulted. Andromeda leans away from a lot of the pitfalls I frequently see in media representation of science, and instead shows some understanding of what science is like. (Though that doesn’t mean I always agree on how a particular subject is tackled.)

There are a number of nice touches hidden throughout the game:

  • Cryostasis was used to keep colonists alive during the 600 year journey to Andromeda. In one overheard conversation, the revival team asks what to do with the people who don’t survive the process. They have this functional cryopreservation process, but not everyone survives it. It’s an acknowledgement of the unpredictability of biology, where nothing is ever 100%.
  • The angara are a different species that the colonists encounter for the first time. When scientists are presented with the angaran belief in reincarnation, and the ability of certain angara to recall memories from an ancestor, their reaction isn’t the stereotypical ‘but that can’t happen.’ Instead, more realistically, they speculate on how the angara might be able to genetically inherit ancestral memories. 
  • Another newly encountered species, the kett, are able to incorporate genes from other species–a controlled, deliberate horizontal gene transfer (with the game using the terminology).
  • The game also stretches the imagination in terms of thinking about AI. Far from the old school stories where AI is inevitably a danger to humanity, here, the main protagonist interfaces with an AI in a way that’s compared in-game to a symbiotic relationship.

Science and Religion

The one aspect I had mixed feelings about was how the conversation with your crew’s religious scientist goes down. On the plus side, the game makes the point that–despite stereotypes of scientists as exclusively atheist–some do participate in other religions. That’s totally worth saying. The minus side is that the conversation this revelation happens during forces a massive oversimplification. The character tells you that she believes in a higher power behind creation, and that science brings her closer to that higher power. You have literally only two very extreme ways to respond to that–either ‘I feel the same way’ or ‘There’s no higher power.’

I mean, really? 1) Even for people who are religious, there are a number of different beliefs they can have, and a number of different relationships those beliefs could have with science. 2) The references to a higher power might make anyone who’s religion isn’t strictly monotheistic feel excluded. 3) This also completely ignores agnosticism, by forcing a choice between believing and not believing in a God. 4) Even if someone is an atheist, they might not be comfortable stomping over someone else’s beliefs like this conversation choice forces you to.

The game didn’t have to force the conversation to a point where it only presented two possible belief options–especially when the entire point of the scene must have been to expand understanding instead of oversimplifying. I get that it’s hard, with only one character representing the demographic and a limited amount of options you can possibly give your player, to do the complexity of the topic justice. Then again, a sci-fi book I recently wrote about–The Terrans–also had a limited space in which to discuss science and spirituality. But the discussion in that book came off as far more nuanced than the one in Mass Effect: Andromeda. 

I don’t know, the scene felt clunky to me. I didn’t enjoy it. But maybe for people who aren’t aware scientists can be anything other than atheists, this’ll be a net good?

The Prologue, creating a science-like feel through its exploration

A reading from 600 years ago determined that the planet you first encounter should be habitable. Yet, when you get there, it’s a disaster. You’re shot out of the sky even trying to land, and frequent lighting strikes continue to zap all around you. You have no idea what’s going on or how it’s happening–and you’re like, okay, how do I find out?

It’s a mix of exploration of a location you don’t know, and exploration of a phenomenon you don’t understand. The latter is pretty much science, although your engagement with it has more to do with observation than experimentation. You wander around scanning strange plant and animal life, looking for your team, and in general trying to put together a theory for what’s going on.

Since I frequently use exploration as a metaphor to explain the process of scientific research, it isn’t surprising that an exploration- and mystery-heavy opening would feel science-like to me. This kind of excitement at coming across something you don’t understand, and looking for clues to try to put together educated guesses–it elicits the same feeling of discovery. Moreover, once the team puts together a plausible idea and plan of action that may or may not solve their problem, the protagonist gives this wonderful quote:

“We’re banking on science we don’t understand. What if the theory’s wrong?”

This is a great acknowledgment that the one working theory you’ve been able to put together from the scraps of information you’ve found so far might not be the right one. It’s the perfect thing to say in this scenario. Of course, plot reasons mean that the theory has to be the right one, but I like that the characters know it could easily be wrong.

Conclusion

Whatever other faults the game may have, someone involved somewhere in the process of developing this game had to have familiarity with scientific research. That’s my impression on the topic.

To close off, I’d like to leave you with a relevant blog post I found, written by a computer science professor: “The technology of Mass Effect Andromeda.”

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Miscellaneous Roundup 2

The personal intersecting with the science (AKA Work/life balance): I’ve been sick this past week, which isn’t great timing when I literally cannot miss a day of lab without risking over a month of work. So that’s been fun. For those interested, I’m knocking out a gene of interest in cell lines, isolating single cells, and growing populations from those single cells. When enough cells grow, I can store some as back ups–but I’m not at that stage yet. If any of them die out now, they’re gone forever.

Every Heart a Doorway is nominated for a Hugo: I posted last month about this novella, how much I loved it, and how it hit me on a personal level. So it’s worth mentioning that Every Heart a Doorway is on the ballot for the Hugo. It’s pretty awesome to see something that feels so outside the mainstream being acknowledged. 

Another convention has a harassment-related scandal: For those who haven’t heard, there was an uproar last week about a sci-fi convention that had a known harasser (who’s been at it for over a decade) on staff, after a guest of honor pulled out of the convention over his presence. Jim C. Hines has a write-up explaining the situation, and K Tempest Bradford’s post has some other information. The convention initially stood by the harasser, before finally removing him from their staff.

It was handled impressively badly. When their guest of honor contacted them, explaining that she’d personally had uncomfortable experiences with him and didn’t feel safe, one of them replied back saying that the rumors about this guy are overblown and she’s not being fair to herself in avoiding him. Then someone from the convention publicly posted the private emails she’d sent to them without her permission (they’ve since been deleted). Among other insensitive things. So that happened.

Critical Role:

1) The Bard’s Departure; A Psychologist’s Reaction to Episode 85 of Critical Role – I like to point out posts professionals make talking about media, and this links to a more personal piece from the perspective of someone who’s experienced the psychology in question–also an important thing to pay attention to.

2) My updated thoughts on Critical Role – With the show doing a year time-skip, this is a great time to check in.

The journey to hell arch – I loved this. The group walked into an all new setting where everyone was trying to corrupt them and get them to sell their souls. There was a bunch of information gathering, subterfuge, and deal making–not all of it to the party’s favor. The rush through the prison itself, searching for their target while not trying to get caught by the guards, was thrilling. I do love seeing those high level spells used creatively, and the cast really had fun with this one. There were several close, tense moments where everything depended on the roll of the dice. I was on the edge of my seat, probably more so than for any other action-based episode in the series.

The wind-down/conclusion before the time-skip – This was hilarious. The show is always good, but this was one of the funniest episodes I can remember. It’s highly dependent on the personalities of every character, and yet accessible to newcomers. If I’m ever in the position of finding an entry point into Critical Role for a friend, I’ll start them at the moment in this episode where Pike shows up–it provides a bit of exposition for her character, who was absent, but not too much. And the humor for the bar scene here doesn’t depend so heavily on all the moments that came before it.

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Orphan Black Season 4: Bringing the past to life

Genre: Sci-fi/thriller

Synopsis:

S1: Grifter Sarah Manning happens to meet a woman who looks exactly like her in a train station, right before the woman commits suicide. Naturally, Sarah uses the opportunity to take her identify and steal all her stuff. But while pretending to be the now-deceased Beth Childs in order to access her bank account, Sarah finds herself thrust deeper into Beth’s life than she imagined. But there’s a reason Beth killed herself. There’s a reason why the two of them look so alike. And Sarah’s walked right into a dangerous trap.

S2: Sarah now knows who she and her look-alikes are–but so does a powerful organization. The Dyad Institute runs a program studying the look-alikes, the clones, but up until Sarah stumbled into Beth’s life, she’d remained off their radar. Now that Dyad knows about her and her daughter, it’ll fight to get their hands on them.

S3: Sarah forms a tenuous compromise with the Dyad Institute, but her family is threatened by another set of clones–her brothers, given to the military while she and her sisters were given to a research institute. The male clones are suffering from a disease, and they believe Sarah and her sisters are the key to their cure. They–and their military allies–will do near anything to save themselves and each other.

S4: As several factions fight over the fate of the cloning program, Sarah and her sisters are caught in the crossfire. Following in the footsteps of Beth’s last investigation before she died, Sarah has to keep herself and her sisters alive–which means finding a cure for the disease affecting them, even as her enemies want to misuse the same information that she needs.

Series: 4 seasons. The 5th and final season is upcoming.

I’ve Watched: All of season 4.

Verdict: Fantastic.

(video)

I’ve been loving Orphan Black pretty consistently since its premiere, and this season is not an exception. That’s especially impressive, given that the plot ties into events that happened before the beginning of the series, employing flashbacks to bring us into those moments. Flashbacks comes with a lot of potential pitfalls–we already know what’s going to happen, so there’s a limit to how much the story can surprise us–but Orphan Black uses that to its advantage.

Nearly all of the first episode of the season is composed of flashbacks, and I’ve never seen another series pull that off so well. Orphan Black zeroes in on a character who dies in the beginning of the pilot, executing it in a way that’s riveting. 

Spoilers

Throughout the rest of the series, we’ve only known Beth through secondhand information, picking up bits and pieces from the people in her life and whatever evidence she’d left behind. Now, we get to witness her experiences in those last days, watch the cage slowly closing in around her. The deep personal aspect of the story drives the episode, and knowing what’s coming charges every scene with a sense of tragedy.

The most powerful moment arrives as Beth is nearly alone, confiding in a mystery character with no connections to anyone we know about. This is a window into a secret world. No one else will ever understand the full depth of everything that was weighing on her in that moment. That knowledge is lost to our protagonists. And getting to see those secret moments now, four seasons after her death, makes it clear how much of her experiences were erased from the narrative. How much she took with her to her grave, how much knowledge she had that the remaining protagonists are only now putting together.

There’s something satisfying about how the show works to make Beth matter, to make her character seem real, even though she’s been dead for the entire series. It doesn’t take her for granted. That’s most impressive for Beth, but this is something Orphan Black does for all of the sisters. Despite its fast pace, it makes time to expand on their experiences.

Sarah is always moving to where the action is, constantly driven by the danger to herself, her sisters, and her daughter. Whatever happens, she’s at the lead, taking risks and pushing forward. And yet there’s always new conflicts for her character, especially now that she’s stretched so thin. She has her foster brother, Felix, and her foster mother. She has her daughter. She has a slew of sisters–three of whom she’s personally close with, and an unknown number of acquaintances or strangers whose future she’s nonetheless responsible for.

And if that isn’t enough, the memory of Beth is always there, the sister who was responsible for all of them before her. The woman she only saw for a second in life and came to know in death. The person whose life she stole, who she’ll never be able to apologize to.

With all these new ties pulling at her, with the responsibility for so many people on her shoulders, it makes sense that the most personally challenging moments for her come when Felix finds his biological sister. Felix’s motivations are understandable, as both his foster sister and mom find more of their biological relatives. Sarah ends up focusing on the immediate, life-threatening concerns facing her sisters, and he’s always relegated to supporting their needs.

But Sarah’s character flaws shine through in the difficulty she has accepting Felix’s sister. As much as Sarah’s grown, moments like this serve as a reminder that she was a total, self-focused wreck not that long ago. This responsibility thing is new for her. 

Then there’s Cosima, who’s only getting sicker while she researches a cure for herself and her sisters. Who’s reeling from the uncertainty of whether her girlfriend is alive or dead. Orphan Black keeps both Cosima and the audience in suspense as to Delphine’s fate for a long time. I’d been spoiled already about her survival, because there were plenty of posts at the time about how a queer woman finally got to live. (A fair reason for jubilation, considering not just the 100’s recent fumble, but an entire history of fumbles.) But it surprised me how long the season took to confirm it–they didn’t have to put their audience through that. 

There’s a lot of complexity and character work in Orphan Black, something that’s remained consistent for all four seasons. It’s great. I probably won’t be able to watch season five as it comes out, but I will absolutely see it, sooner or later.

Also: I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to pull out objects you’ve been stabbed with, instead leaving that to a trained medical professional.

Favorite Quotes:

“My sister has a robot maggot in her face. You tell me what the solid plan is.”

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Sci-Fi for Capturing the Imagination with Detail-Oriented Debate

Today I want to bring up two pieces of media, a book and a movie, that do a great job with something I don’t see tackled in fiction very often–they delve into the complex details behind the big picture, and make them interesting. They form a story around those details, instead of making it all about the big picture.

Character conflict and personalities are used to engage the audience with the narrative. Meanwhile, focusing on the complexities instead of sidelining them make the stories feel like they belong in a world as complicated as our own. Both of them managed to pull me in by appealing to my sense of curiosity. So it’s fitting for me to talk about both in one post, given that they share their strengths.

The Terrans

A woman floating in a spaceship, forming a ball of energy in front of her with hands. The writing reads

Image: Ace via Jean Johnson

Genre: Sci-fi

Synopsis: Jackie is a psi–primarily a telekinetic and telepath–for the United Planets. When her civilization’s precogs start getting visions of a first contact with new aliens, Jackie’s abilities and government experience recommend her as an ambassador for the coming encounter. The mission puts her in the path of a new hostile species, and initiates contact with potential allies–the V’Dan–provided everyone can get over their cultural differences and distrust of a new civilization. The pressure is on Jackie to make sure an alliance goes smoothly, and given the gulf of understanding between them, she’s got her work cut out for her.

Series: First in a series.

POV: Third person, with Jackie serving as the primary protagonist.

Preview: Here.

This book is great for people like me–detail-oriented, and interested in hashing out complexities. The complexities in question are culture clashes, governmental checks and balances, transparency, applications of science. The story doesn’t skimp on much, when it’s relevant to the problem at hand. And it’s nice to see the details that are needed to make the entire thing work weighted appropriately.

Since one of my frustrations with the recent Mass Effect: Andromeda game is some of the oversimplifications in it, this served as a balm to that part of me which wanted every detail treated with the gravity it deserved.

The main protagonist is Jackie, a stern and dedicated professional who wants to do the right thing–and wants to be the one making sure the right thing gets done almost as badly. She genuinely believes in the ideal her government aspires to, and is frustrated by people who don’t meet her own standards for maturity. In a lot of ways, she’s shaped by the expectations of her society, while still retaining a more localized cultural identity that rounds out her character.

She’s thrown into the center of a new and complex cultural interaction, one where both sides face difficulty and frustration in getting over their preconceptions. One nice touch is that both civilizations have advanced their technology differently–which means each of them has made progress that the other hasn’t. There was this illustrative moment where one person was rescued by the other side, and yet couldn’t help but think of his rescuers’ technology as primitive.

This book mostly focuses on a handful of V’Dan interacting with Earth’s civilization–the next in the series is shaping up to tackle the opposite circumstance–so we get a lot more details about Earth’s society. The government is still in essence a representative democracy, but with more citizen engagement. We get descriptions of what safeguards are put in place to combat corruption from previous centuries (including our century.) There’s certainly an appeal to the idea that public officials must not only maintain a plurality of support, but also pass tests on basic knowledge of laws and STEM subjects.

Speaking of STEM, I like how a lot of the science is handled–contact with a subset of humans that have been separate from Earth humans for some 10,000 years is met with quarantine, and a rush to develop vaccines. There are a number of nuanced stances on science and spirituality from several characters.

There are also discussions of ethics–they’re technically focused on government and psi abilities, but my medical research background leads me to associate detailed considerations of ethics with science. I’ve never encountered the same level of discussion on ethics in any other field, (though plenty could use it).

Overall, the Terrans should appeal to people who love to think and overthink–that includes me, which is why I ended up getting really into it.

The Man from Earth

(video)

Genre: Sci-fi

Synopsis: A group of college professors gather to say goodbye to one of their colleagues–only for him to spring a surprise on them that challenges their reality. In the ensuing conflict, the truth becomes a matter of what each person is willing to believe.

Verdict: One of my favorites–a thoughtful piece focusing on character conflict and nuance over action.

The last time I talked about this movie was years ago, but after reading The Terrans, I had to bring it up again for thematic purposes. Not because the premise of the story has that much in common with the book, but because the execution does. Both focus on character conflict coming from people’s assumptions, and both engage in detail-oriented conversations which serve as the primary driver of the plot.

The Man from Earth is about a man who can’t die–meaning he’s been around since prehistory, never ageing. The story delves into the details of what that would actually mean, in a practical sense. What is he capable of remembering? How much knowledge can he accumulate? How could he fit into the world, as he is?

A group of diverse, intelligent people discuss the ramifications–and it gets heated, because each of them approaches the topic from the standpoint of what they want to believe, and what it would take to convince them. They approach it from different areas of expertise–biology, anthropology, psychology. Religion becomes a hugely contentious point, affecting at least one character on a deeply personal level.

The conversation is interesting, the picture the protagonist paints compelling–and the conflict drawn out when people’s beliefs collide is raw and powerful. I still think the ending should have been ambiguous, but the story remains deeply engaging.

I would recommend both The Terrans and The Man from Earth as examples of thoughtful, complex sci-fi that captures the imagination primarily through character conflict and detailed discussion of the practicalities behind big ideas.

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Mid-Game Impressions for Mass Effect: Andromeda

Genre: Sci-fi RPG

Synopsis: An intergalactic coalition from the Milky Way sets out to colonize a new galaxy. After 600 years travel, with the passengers cryogenic-ally preserved, you–Ryder (a customizable character)–are among the first woken up. You’re part of the team meant to explore the planets and ready them for settling.

Unfortunately, something has happened to this galaxy between when your people first analyzed them 600 years ago, and now. The worlds don’t sustain life the way they’re supposed to. Now you have to figure out what happened and how to fix it–while trying to initiate peaceful first contact with new species along the way.

Series: In the same world as the other Mass Effect games, but stands apart from them.

Verdict: Plenty of great concepts. Execution vacillates between good and mediocre.

(video)

Considering my obsession with Bioware and how many playthroughs of every Dragon Age game I’ve done, I expected to marathon Andromeda. That’s not happening. I’ll definitely finish it eventually–it’s good enough for that–but I’m not completely engrossed in it. But for now, I’ve gotten a sense of the game’s strengths and weaknesses in its beginning and middle. Spoilers follow.

Prologue:

The beginning was great. There was this deep sense of exploration as you get dumped on this a new, strange world and try to fend for yourself. The driving story behind it was immersive, the characters had these nice hints of personality that boded well for getting to know them. The side quests revealed bits and pieces of the big picture you’d fallen into, letting you slowly piece together where you stood. 

The settings are beautiful. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, but I love how the environments of every planet are distinct. They each have their own unique look and their own unique hazard conditions. It creates a different feel for every world.

Eos:

I went into the next part of the story super-excited to see where it leads. And it starts out promising. The plan that our initiative had is in tatters–we’re missing most of our ships and colonists, the worlds we wanted to live on aren’t habitable. The station we’re meeting up with doesn’t have enough resource to keep going for much longer and, to top it off, recently exiled a large amount of its population after a rebellion. This was all great set-up.

Then there’s figuring out the old technology left by an advanced civilization, technology that can regulate the atmosphere and make these planets livable. When we find out we’re not the only ones interested in this tech–and that the other guys (the kett) aren’t friendly–it sets up this great dynamic of combat archaeology.

I mean, think about how awesome that sounds: combat archaeology. 

It’s such a cool concept that I’d have used in the title of my post if it had lived up to my expectations. Unfortunately, while there were some nice aspects to it, a lack of variety made it less cool with time.

After a while of traveling around Eos doing side quests in a more open world fashion, the fun of that also peters out pretty quickly. Some games do a great job with an open world landscape, and that turns into a great strength for the game–Fallout: New Vegas comes to mind. Andromeda is not a Fallout game, and (with exceptions), much of the open world content is a bit of a weakness. 

The angara:

Next, your team makes first contact with another species called the angara. This is an indigenous species, unlike the kett, who arrived and violently disrupted the lives of the angara. Now, the angara and the kett are at war, and the angara may make useful allies for your initiative–if they have a reason to trust another new species so soon after the last one that arrived turned on them.

I’m wondering if this story line here isn’t a bit too close to the old ‘an outsider walks in and fixes everything for the indigenous people’ plot. It doesn’t actually make sense that your initiative develops a technology in another galaxy, completely independent of this one, that happens to be able to interface with the technology of a more advanced civilization here. And this tech is way more advanced, completely beyond what your people are capable of. Meanwhile, the angara have literally built their civilization around this technology, yet can’t operate it as well as you can.

There’s no way around this: I don’t like how dependent the angara are on the protagonist. The game tries a few times to create the impression that it’s mutual, that both groups need each other–but the narrative doesn’t really support that.

There are a couple of other things here that stand out as a little strange to me:

  • There are a group of angara extremely against any new alien arrivals–including you. You manage to win over one such commander literally minutes after killing his entire squad. That’s an impressive devaluation of his people’s lives. I get wanting to create an avenue for the protagonist to win over her/his detractors, to give the player a sense of accomplishment, but that’s maybe not the best way.
  • The angara are way too aware of their cultural differences with us. One companion, Jaal, explains to you that his species feels emotions strongly soon after he joins your crew–which, 1) he only knows his own experiences, so really, he should think that our people feel emotions weakly while his are normal. And 2) he shouldn’t know enough about us to pinpoint exactly where our differences come from. This feels too much like treating our culture as the default, which the angara shouldn’t do.
  • The angaran city is weirdly similar to our city, considering how our two populations have developed independently throughout literally all of history. Two random cities in the real world today will look more different. Two cities in another Bioware game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, will look more different. Mass Effect: Andromeda didn’t even give them different doors.

Kadara:

This is where the game picks back up for me.

Kadara is awesome. The vibe of the warring criminal factions creates a great backdrop, and the open world side quests are actually interesting–scanning murder scenes or suspects, determining which of two factions are lying to you, that kind of stuff. It shakes up the usual dynamic for go-somewhere-and-fight-people missions or fetch quests.

The mystery behind the Charlatan, an anonymous figure leading one of Kadara’s factions, also adds quite a bit of fun to the game. I don’t know if we ever find out who this person is, but I’d love it if we did. I suspect the bartender. (I’m probably wrong. I usually am.)

Overall:

That’s all I’ve seen of the game at the moment. I’ll wait to talk more about characters until I’ve played through the whole thing–briefly, so far, I think they’re cool conceptually but don’t engage on a deeper level.

So this game isn’t what I was hoping for from Bioware, but that’s a really high bar to clear. It’s still enjoyable, with some great ideas. That said, it’s definitely got its highs and lows.

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Miscellaneous Things of Interest, from Sci-fi to Giving Back

Mass Effect: Andromeda – This game is coming out tomorrow, and I’m super excited. Hopefully, I’ll get a playthrough done in time to post about it next week. I’ve managed to remain surprisingly unspoiled so far–all I know is, it’s set after the Mass Effect trilogy and thus detached from the action of the previous games, and it’s a Bioware style RPG in a sci-fi setting. I haven’t so much as looked at a trailer, don’t know how many companions are recruit-able, and don’t even know the plot. So the discovery process should be interesting.

NYC Teen Author Festival For anyone in or near New York, there’s a book festival happening this week. The majority of the panels will be Friday and Saturday. I unfortunately will not have time to go, because I need to celebrate three birthdays. (The cat may not care if I skip his birthday, but I’d feel guilty.)

TableTop Season 4 –  This series where Wil Wheaton plays an assortment of tabletop games with guests from geek culture is back. 4 episodes are available on Youtube with a new one being added every week.

(video)

Real World Stuff – As much as I go to sci-fi and fantasy to explore themes of human nature and world-changing events, terrible things happening in real life is depressing. It’s easy to feel helpless. The philosophy I’m leaning towards is that doing something, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing. (And it opens the door to make it easier to do a little more, but even if it doesn’t, it’s still something.)

For some people, this will involve a lot of communication or attending large events. For me, I’ll probably keep volunteering and commit to making some small donations every few months–this time around I’m choosing Doctors Without Borders. Last time it was the ACLU. (As a note, donations are more effective when they’re regular instead of one-offs. I don’t feel I can do that, which is an example of my ‘do what you can as long as it’s something’ practice.)

If anyone is in the position to volunteer, and interested in doing so, it can be rewarding. It’s made a huge impact on my perspective of the world.

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Critical Role: Changing Party Dynamics and Uber-Powerful Spells

Genre: Fantasy RPG

Synopsis: A party of adventures called Vox Machina must make their way through a changing world, facing ever more powerful enemies and their own personal demons. The story is brought to life by a cast of professional voice actors, and the ever-present chance that bad planning or bad dice rolling will end that journey forever.

Series: 89 episodes.

I’ve Watched: All of it.

Verdict: Still totally

Available: All of the episodes are uploaded to the Geek and Sundry website. The show streams live on the Geek and Sundry Twitch channel, Thursdays at 10pm EST.

(video)

With the wrap-up of a major arch, Critical Role reaches another milestone in its story–spoiler–the first time a player retires a party member and creates another character to play. I really do love how this show progresses and keeps moving forward, evidenced by the fact that I won’t stop talking about it.

In this case, the dynamic of the party, Vox Machina, is shaken up–they’re all reeling from the fact that one of their friends who has been with them for so long isn’t anymore. Meanwhile, this random dude (Taryon) shows up and manages to push all of their buttons, while just barely managing to give them a good enough reason to come along. (And it’s kinda fascinating that the actor who changed characters gets to watch Vox Machina praise one of his characters while ridiculing the other.)

Taryon’s essentially a spoiled rich kid who wants to prove himself to his father. The powerful items that he’s bought or made are what makes him capable of being part of such a high level party, but he’s–well, let’s say he’s still in the process of learning how to handle himself in dangerous situations. Plenty of comedy comes from his golem, whose purpose is to write down the story of his adventures. Especially when Taryon comes out of a situation he hadn’t handled well, but dictates it to his golem as a tale of his personal heroism.

With Taryon being both new and unwittingly abrasive, he and the rest of the party are slowly working up to a more trusting relationship. Very slowly, and not at the same pace for everyone. It’s also interesting to see touches of conflict when this close-knit group of friends warms up to the new guy at different rates. Like when your friends take to someone you’re not ready to trust yet.

And because Taryon is played by Sam Riegel, this is often used to hilarious effect:

  • One moment is when Taryon bonds with Percy over both of them being inventors, and Keyleth–Percy’s best friend–is insecure over him getting a new friend who shares this interest she doesn’t understand. Taryon and Percy play up the humor during the scene where she expresses her insecurity, by cracking jokes and laughing loudly enough for her to hear through the walls.
  • Another is how Taryon does not memorize any of their names except Percy’s. Until another member of the party, Pike, produces a truly hilarious set of flashcards for him to learn from.

I’m perfectly happy watching these relationships evolve from scratch, and finding out how Taryon–who’s really good at misunderstanding things–works his way into the tightknit group that is Vox Machina.

Furthermore, I’m super excited that Keyleth can now cast 9th level spells. The way this was introduced into the story was great, with it being played out as part of the plot in a way that completely floored the rest of the cast and the audience (certainly me). It was a strong cinematic sequence that I rewatched several times just to see how everyone reacted to it.

And I’m glad that Keyleth in particular will cast 9th level spells. This is a controversial opinion among fans, but I love watching how creative she is with spellcasting. It adds something extra to the mechanic of DnD, where she’ll try to find a way to fit the situation with her magic, and it’ll either work great or fail–which is actually really cool for a druid manipulating the elements. It means that, in the world of the story, controlling the forces of nature isn’t predictable or safe. That aspect really adds something to the narrative, and it requires both the player and the dungeon master to go with that creativity, which they do. 

While I’m speaking of Keyleth, I want to mention that the actress who plays her (Marisha Ray) is a really engaging panel speaker. I watched this video of her recent panel at Anime Milwaukee:

(video)

I’ve been to a bunch of panels and watched even more online. Solo panels depend a lot on the speakers’ personality, and whether they have interesting stories to share. Marisha’s are always really good.

As for Vox Machina, I could go on about the virtues of each character and the power of their flaws. Every member of the cast adds a lot to the story, and Critical Role is better for having each of them. But since I’m clearly going to be watching this show for the foreseeable future (every Thursday night, all year round except holidays), I’ll have plenty of time to give more in-depth thoughts for each character in future posts.

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Every Heart a Doorway: The Painful Clarity of Not Fitting Into Your World

A forest with a door in front of it, not attached to any building. The words read, "Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author."

Image: Tor via Goodreads

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy/ YA Fantasy

Synopsis: Sometimes children stumble through a hidden entrance in their world into another one, and often that world is right for them in a way their own never could be. The lucky ones stay, but others come back. They could spend their lives looking for a way back to their true home, the one they’d found once by luck, trapped somewhere they know they don’t belong.

A long time ago, Miss West was one of the children who came back. Locked out of that world, she’s created a school for teenagers like she used to be, somewhere they can be with others who understand their experiences. Who understand how badly they want to go back to a place that fits them. But with longing and desperation come dangers, and not long after new student Nancy arrives, her classmates begin turning up dead…

Series: A novella that can stand alone. There is a second in the series, which serves as a prequel for two of the characters in this one.

POV: Third person.

Preview: Here. 

This is a story about not fitting in, and not wanting to. It’s about how the world tries to put people into boxes, no matter how bad the fit. About that longing for understanding and acceptance.

It really resonated with me, feeling real in a way most stories focusing on outcasts don’t. It doesn’t glamorize being different and ignore the costs. It doesn’t sugarcoat. It doesn’t reserve weirdness for cis-gendered straight white guys. Instead, it shows a spectrum of different people with different experiences, none of whom are understood by the world around them. Many of whom still can’t figure out how to understand or accept each other, even knowing what it’s like to be on the other end.

All of the characters were deeply distinct, and brought different things to the table:

Nancy was quiet, still, and respectful, in a way that illustrated that this was absolutely who she was comfortable being. She knew how to fade into the background, and could do it deliberately or instinctively. The way her parents refused to understand and accept who she’d become is painful, and illustrates how people can do damage with the best intentions.

I related to Nancy for a number of reasons. One was not wanting to be the center of attention. Another was her asexuality. Her experience on the spectrum is different than mine, which is unsurprising given how wide the spectrum ranges, but I liked that the story included some acknowledgement on the complexity of sexual versus romantic attraction.

Jack is the mad scientist who went to a world that resembled a horror movie and apprenticed herself to another mad doctor. She’s blasé about blood and death and violence, with a penchant for saying some genuinely disturbing things in public. And yet, it’s hard to peg down her morality so easily. Is she the mad doctor who places curiosity ahead of reverence for life? Or is every disturbing thing she says or does really about acquiring the knowledge to save more lives? And if so, is it worth it? The complexity and vividness of her character is really cool, and she’s an absolute standout.

Kade is conscientious, likable, and responsible. He’s also never going to get a portal back into his world, after it threw him out for being a boy in the body of a girl when it’d wanted a girl. This school is the only home he’ll ever have, and he’s invested in protecting it. I like that despite his odd fit with the main group of protagonists (Nancy, Jack, and co. went to way more macabre worlds than he did), their differences were something that all of them generally accepted and didn’t judge each other for.

Christopher knows what it’s like to hide things to fit in, even here at a school where they were supposed to accept each other’s differences. He traveled through a world of dancing skeletons, which is a bit too creepy for most of his classmates (though still not as much as Jack’s world). Only now is he starting to find a group where he can talk about his experiences without alienating potential friends.

Sumi is always going a mile a minute, always in motion. Her mind is always racing. She wants nothing more than to go back to the world she’d made a home in, but unlike many of her classmates, accepts that she never will. Most of the things she says make a backwards kind of sense if any, as she’d traveled through a nonsense world, and she’s considered a force to be reckoned with.

Jill is Jack’s identical twin, who traveled with her to the same world, though they’re nothing alike. Where Jack apprenticed herself to a mad doctor, Jill chose to serve a vampire lord. Neither of them fully understands what drives the other, and the only thing keeping them together is how little both of them fit in with anyone else.

This was a wonderful story. Seanan McGuire was already one of my favorite authors, but of all the work I’ve read by her (and I’ve read a lot), this has to be the one that delves most deeply into conformity versus individuality. Into how hard acceptance is to find for yourself, or even sometimes to give to others.

Favorite Quotes (the abridged version, because I could put half the novella here):

Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.

Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken.

Most of them had been looking for smaller waists, cleaner complexions, and richer boyfriends, spurred on by a deeply ingrained self-loathing that had been manufactured for them before they were old enough to understand the kind of quicksand they were sinking in.

This world is unforgiving and cruel to those it judges as even the slightest bit outside the norm. If anyone should be kind, understanding, accepting, loving to their fellow outcasts, it’s you.

It was being sent to a family that wanted to love you, wanted to keep you safe and sound, but didn’t know you well enough to do anything but hurt you.

Most of you got unicorns and misty meadows. We got the Moors, and if there was a unicorn out there, it probably ate human flesh.

You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you.

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